Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Round-Up

Laura again, folks. Enjoy! —E

Way back last week I threw down a gauntlet and asked for all of your entries to Amishtakes, an Amish vampire fiction contest—and did you ever deliver. After painstakingly parsing textual nuances and quantifying the salability of your submissions on the organ black market, I have chosen a winner.

Sean Ferrell’s novel beings, “Jebediah, Lord of the Night, spying the townsfolk walking toward him with grim determination set above their mustacheless beards and below their bonnets, hissed, ‘To my wagon, and away!’”

So congratulations, Sean—you are clearly a handsome devil and must charm the pants off of all of the ladies and/or gentlemen, depending on your preference. And serious props to all participants—choosing a winner may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and I wholeheartedly encourage you late joiners to read through all of the entries. Fully letting the wide response go to my head, there’s a Hitler romance contest in the last paragraph (the word "contest" is in bold, if you don't feel like reading all the way through. I'll understand).

If you click on nothing else (but I hope you clicked on many things), check out Lifehacker’s bookworm guide to everything, and the 10 days in Google Books game, which is supposed to convince you that copyrights schmopyrights, Google Books is fun!

As we all remember, last week Amazon got all that flack for removing books from Kindles. This week, they just can’t win. Again. There’s an Amazon phishing fraud running around, their North America media sales are flat, and they’re being sued in Germany for selling books that deny the Holocaust. To top it all off, Nicholson Baker slams the Kindle 2 in his New Yorker review (and it turns out some people like their Kindles because they are “creeped out” by library books. What if a child with sticky fingers touched a book? What if poor people got their poor germs all over things I want to read? For those of you in search of a margin muse without actually using the same books as other people, someone created a feature that lets multiple people write in the e-margins of a book, so you can get that sticky fingers, poor people feel without leaving your protective antibacterial bubble).

Given all this, it’s a good thing Amazon has no e-competition for e-books. Except for that whole Barnes & Nobles e-book software thing. And the B&N partnering with PlasticLogic (a company in the process of putting out an e-reader, and partnered with AT&T’s 3G network) thing. And the free wifi in all Barnes & Nobles stores thing. And the B&N reader topping Amazon in the Apple App Store thing. But other than that, seriously, no competition.

Sony is planning on launching a reader with wifi, and Apple is once again going to blow our minds by coming out with a tablet-type-computer in September that can be used as an e-reader, and that is basically a giant iPod Touch. You go, Apple, continually churning out really similar products with slight tweaks that we all keep buying. Seriously—how do they do this? I know I should be scornful but it just all looks so sleek...

Never one to be left behind, Borders is cornering the e-book market by…expanding its in-store teen section? With graphic novels and manga? Way to keep up with the times. I’m oddly comforted by the Borders ban on employee blogging—it proves that the corporate office has at least heard of the internet.

In this new teen section at Borders you’ll probably find racy novels written by high school teachers for their students, to encourage them to read (“reading” is what the kids are calling it these days. Just FYI), as well as the new teen version of The Secret. I think the secret might be keeping sexy novels you wrote for your students off the internet. Talk to your Harry Potter rabbi about how this makes you feel, and he’ll set you right with some choice bon mots about Dumbledore and self respect.

This week in children’s books has been rough, especially for The Giving Tree, as it apparently enforces bad morals. And be careful of those racist children’s classics. That’s right. All of them. Racist. Despite it all, kids want to be read more stories at bedtime, those cute ragamuffins.

I’m not going to link to the new clips for the new Twilight movie, because, well, I just don’t care. But I will link to this featurette about Where the Wild Things Are, and bounce around excitedly.

I’m not alone in the Twilight burnout—Jeff Cohen hates the current iteration of the vampire, saying the chaste yet sexy, bloodless vampire is like the hooker with a heart of gold: a fantasy. Ok, well, any kind of vampire is a fantasy, but I get his point. I’m a little torn, though, because without Twilight we would not get this joy of joys:
Can you resist the allure of Edward’s myriad charms—his ochre eyes and tousled hair, the cadence of his speech, his chiseled alabaster skin, and his gratuitous charm?

Yes, my friends, it’s a Twilight SAT prep book! You can use it to help you understand these Twilight tattoos. And never worry, tattooed literary elitists—there’s a venue for your twee hipster e e cummings tattoos as well (or you can cover them up by dressing like a foppish Oscar Wilde).

Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis is being turned into a movie, and will probably be very post-modern. Just like the review a DeLillo character wrote about a David Foster Wallace novel (…which no one noticed). Top off this post-modern moment by reading about the oh-so-meta novels within novels and best novels about novelists.

As I close, I would like to share with you some of my likes and dislikes. So likes: Aldous Huxley on beach reads, and Ben & Jerry’s library flavors. Dislikes: Hitler. But if you’re a fan, or if you just have a spare ₤20,000 lying around, you can own a signed copy of Mein Kampf, inscribed:
Herrn Johann Georg Maurer. In memory of our time together in prison in Landsberg. Cordially dedicated by Adolf Hitler. Christmas 1925.

Maurer and Hitler: a great love story, or the greatest love story? So the contest: write the best first lines of a Hitler romance novel, which you should leave in the comments. Please aim for charmingly hilarious, not emotionally scarring, for my sake. The winner will be featured next time, here on “Who is this Laura person and why can’t she focus on book sales?”

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Return of Serialization?

In a Tupac-style move, author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s new collection of short stories, Look at the Birdie, will be published by Random House this October. Ahead of the scheduled publication date (10/20/09), the big house will be releasing some of the short stories individually. No word yet on electronic format or pricing.

I think this is brilliant.

Although I recently decried the short story collection as a salable medium, that was largely assuming print sales, and, insofar as I accounted for e-book sales, I assumed the e-book would be sold as a whole (e.g. fourteen short stories, indivisible, for $9.99).

I've been championing the sale of e-short stories as individual units for awhile now, and I really hope this movement catches on. I've oft been on a short (hour-long or so) plane/train/car ride and wished for a short story or two to help pass the time; if I had a Kindle, I would buy individual short stories (say, at $0.99 a piece) in a heartbeat.

I also think the idea could be extended to full e-books, resurrecting the idea of novel serialization (à la 19th century literature). Imagine—you could be a twenty-first century Charles Dickens, serializing your novels on Amazon and getting paid relative to how many installments you produce. (Sorry—that was exceedingly optimistic compared to my usual tone, but I think e-books have tremendous untapped potential. I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year!)

Therefore, my predictions for the World of Tomorrow:

• Over the next decade, overall book sales will be driven more and more by e-book sales, which (at first) won't really cannibalize print book sales. My feeling is, at least until the end of the decade, they'll be two separate markets. I think this will change as the price of e-reader technology falls precipitously and color screen technology becomes available (remember what happened with television?).

• The release of e-short stories and the advent of e-serialization will be a crucial step forward in this process. I'd have to crunch the numbers on it, but I think $0.99 per short story and $1.99 per book chapter/installment would be decent price points (not accounting for inflation).

• Now that I'm thinking of it, poetry could also see a major resurgence in the e-book format. See? All my tried-and-true publishing advice, which holds so well for print books, goes out the window with e-books.

• Piracy will, unfortunately, become more of an issue as the e-book market continues to grow. However, I'm not convinced the book industry will suffer to the same degree as the music industry.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Power to the People: Cover Art

So in an earlier post and its follow-up, I discussed the topic of cover art and its (potentially disastrous) effect(s) on book sales. Over at PubRants, Kristin has written a post on the agent/author cover review process and Brenda Novak's recent experience with cover art gone bad.

Now, while an agent is certainly not your personal genie (remember Disney's Aladdin? "Poof! What do you need? Poof! What do you need? Poof! What do you need?!"), remember that once you have representation, your agent's job is to do everything in his/her power to sell your book and make it a success. So, as I've said before and I'll say again, if you review your book's cover art and are displeased:

Breathe. The following steps will be of no use to you if you don't continue to do so.

Tell your agent as soon as possible. (Preferably during business hours.) He or she will be able to discern whether your concern is 1.) appropriate and 2.) something that can be addressed/fixed by the publishing house, and will then do everything he/she can to communicate the problem to the editor/publisher and get it fixed.

If, as in Brenda's case, your agent is temporarily unreachable, write an e-mail to your editor. Please calm yourself down before you do this. Don't send an e-mail or make a phone call in anger or panic. This is never a good idea.

Look on the bright side. Best case scenario: the publisher eats the cost of a cover adjustment and all is well. Worst case scenario: nothing changes and your sales may suffer as a result, but it's very unlikely your career will be tanked. Most likely, some in-between scenario will occur, and you're likely to emerge from it relatively unscathed. And if your book is coming out in hardcover, remember—there's always the paperback.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In Defense of Agents

Caveat: I don't intend to beat up on writers in this post. I love you, writers, and I mean that. Without you I would have nothing to read and nothing to help sell, and therefore no fun and no job, respectively. And I am, as I've mentioned, a writer myself, so I'd also have nothing to do. So here's to you, writers, for continuing to write in the face of adversity, the daunting work necessary for publication, and potentially disastrous BookScan numbers. Cheers.

That said, there's one very important thing I'd like you to consider when querying agents. Jessica Faust has written a very thoughtful and diplomatic post on the subject, and I think it's something that should be said directly (if it hasn't been already): you are not necessarily an agent's first priority.

Please understand that I don't mean to be rude when I say this. Please also understand that I don't mean this in the sense that you are not necessarily the best potential client to query a given agent (this may be true), or that said agent has other obligations, i.e. a family, that probably come before you (this may be true as well). What I'm saying is that in addition to you, one of thousands of potential clients, any given agent has several existing clients who need his or her help with all the things I blog about: co-op, discussing misleading BookScan numbers with publishers, understanding the terms of their contracts, and so on. I imagine most agents are absolutely exhausted by the work they put in soothing, cajoling, and haggling with editors, clients, and publishers, and frankly, I'm impressed that some of them have as much time for potential clients as they do. Again, this is no slight to you; you are not unimportant. You just aren't as important to the agent as the agent is to you. At least, not yet.

There are ways to improve your odds, however. In addition to paying attention to the basics, making sure you're ready to query, following the guidelines and writing a kick-ass book, you could take a chance on a younger agent with fewer/no existing clients, or try querying in the summer, when the industry is running a little slower. If you read agent blogs (which you should), try to avoid querying when you know an agent will be on vacation, possibly somewhere without reliable Internet access.

At the end of the day, the publishing industry is just that: an industry, and it depends on sales. Does it depend on sales to the exclusion of all else? No. But agents, publishing houses, and book stores all have to turn a profit in order to remain in business, and unless that changes, the majority of attention will always have to be paid to the individuals publishing now, and not those who may be involved at some undetermined point in the future.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday Mailbag: Comp Titles

I asked, and you answered. You all had great ideas for what I can blog about, and I'm happy to report I've written posts on (most) of them and have thrown them in the hopper to post as the week unfolds. This is because I'll be on vacation this week (today through Friday). Don't panic, now—unlike some people who leave their blogs with (admittedly very competent) sitters while they volunteer their time to help others, I'll be around all week, answering questions and making sure the blog behaves. Do you smell that? That's commitment.

Now, one of the questions that came up last week pertained to comp titles. What are they, how do they work, and how much control do you have over them?

A comp title—short for "comparative title," sometimes just called a "comp"—is a title used as a predictive tool to help ballpark expected sales on a new title. Publishing houses invariably try to pick their own titles as comp titles, since they generally solicit POS (point-of-sale, i.e. through the register) data from their accounts that are more accurate than BookScan's. If the title is by an author who's previously published with the house, the author's previous title is often used; if not, a title similar in format, publishing season, and content is used. Houses also want to pick comps that are relatively recent, as it's unlikely POS data will be available for a book that was published in, say, 1989 (or even as recently as 2000).

Some definitions:

Format: There are several, but the three most relevant to adult (i.e. non-children's) book sales are hardcover (also called hardback or cloth), trade paperback (also called quality paperback), and mass market (sometimes just called paperback). The title being sold and the comp title will always match in format, since different formats behave very differently when it comes to sales numbers. This is chiefly because their price points are so different: hardcovers are in the $20 - $40 range, trade paperbacks are in the $10 - $15 range, and mass markets are usually in the $4 - $8 range.

Season: The publishing season is the time of year when the book comes out. At my house, there are three: spring, summer, and fall. A title will always match its comp title in season, especially for blockbuster authors like Danielle Steel who publish two or three book per year. The ramp-up to the holiday season in the fall makes for a very different sales climate than in the spring, so using a fall book as a comp to a spring title is apples to oranges, even if they're the same genre and by the same author.

Content: Here I really mean "genre," but "content" is more all-encompassing, I think. If your title is literary fiction, it will be comped to literary fiction; if it's a non-fiction book about mortgage-backed securities, it will be comped to a title dealing with as similar a topic as possible.

Who picks the comps?

Oftentimes it's the title manager, although it's occasionally the individual sales rep. Title managers do exactly what you'd imagine they do: manage a list of titles. Among their many duties is selecting comp titles for upcoming releases, using the following criteria (of most to least importance, in my opinion):

1. Author, if the author has published extensively; if not, then
2. Genre
3. Format (tie)
3. Season (tie)
5. How recent the comp title is

Occasionally (though not often) the sales rep will disagree with the title manager's opinion and select another title as a comp, either as a supplement to the chosen comp or as a replacement. This could be due to the comp being a special, limited-edition run of a title (in which case the rep will list sales data for the standard edition in addition to the data for the limited-edition) or its being too old to produce reliable sales data (in which case the rep will replace the comp with a newer one).

How much impact do the comp title's sales data have on my title?

A decent amount; the buyer to whom the rep is selling will see the comp sales data and use them as a rough metric for his or her initial buy. The sales kits I prepare list the initial buy, first twelve weeks' sales, life-to-date sales, and market share (listed as a percentage and compared to the account's main competitor) for the comp title at the account being sold to. An example of what a buyer might see:

Title: Ezekiel Black: Curse of the Manpire
ISBN: 9780123456789
Author: Constantine J. Delgado
Genre: Paranormal Amish Bromance
On-sale: 2/9/2010

Comp title: Ezekiel Black: Amish Brometheus
ISBN: 9780987654321
Author: Constantine J. Delgado
Genre: Paranormal Amish Bromance
On-sale: 2/24/2009

Initial buy: 2,200
12-week sales: 1,044
LTD: 1,745
Market share: YOU—12.6%; COMPETITOR A—17.9%

Now, Amish Brometheus currently has 79.3% sell-through (great!) but had lower sell-through (around 50%) in early sales. Due to the current economic climate, maybe the buyer only wants to take 1,800 copies of Curse of the Manpire. The rep tells the buyer, however, that Competitor A clearly outsold them on Brometheus and has taken a strong position on Curse of the Manpire; the buyer will have to up his buy in order to remain competetive. He's not convinced. The rep then lists marketing and publicity, including a six-city author tour, a spot on Good Morning America, and mentions that the author has a very widely-read blog with a loyal fan base. The buyer reconsiders and, after much haggling, decides to up his buy to 2,500, but no more. The rep, knowing that Competitor A took 4,000 copies, may continue to ply at the buyer even after the initial order has been set and entered in all the computers, up to a few weeks before on-sale. He may secure, if he's lucky, some endcaps or in-section face-outs for a couple of weeks after on-sale, say for $1,000 total (i.e. co-op).

Try as he might, though, the rep won't be able to significantly increase buy unless sales blow up, in which case this will be mentioned to the buyer the following year when it's time to sell Ezekiel Black: Darkest Before Brawn.

In a nutshell: comp sales data weigh in heavily on an account buyer's decision on an initial buy. You want the best comp available.

How do I get the best comp available?

Well, as I've said, this is largely up to the title manager and sales rep, and to be honest, they do a pretty bang-up job of it. However, if you're particularly worried, you can always ask your agent to check and find out what title(s) your book is being comped to (if you've published a book in the same genre before, chances are it's your own). If you're so inclined, you can check the BookScan numbers for a thumbnail sketch of sales (or check your royalty statements/ask your agent & editor if the comp is one of your books). Most of the time, you'll find the comp is appropriate.

Read that again, though: appropriate. Not "mega awesome." Appropriate. Potentially even worse than having a weak comp for an otherwise good book, which is likely to disappear off the shelves and incur reorders regardless, an overly strong comp (Boy Wizard and the Perilous Journey, for instance) can induce too large a buy on the account's end, meaning massive returns. Your sell-through suffers as your return rates soar, and this will be reported to both the publisher and the accounts. Pushing for an inappropriate, though seemingly excellent, comp is pretty much shooting yourself in the foot.

Good news: it's unlikely the house will really listen to your request for a different comp anyway, so the odds of you shooting yourself in the foot are next to nothing.

Bad news: in the extremely unlikely event the house has picked a disastrous comp, there's not a whole lot you can do about that, either. But I do encourage you to ask your agent to check into it if you're worried about it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

This Just In!

PMN? On a Saturday? Quel fromage!

If you're into free books (and I know you are), head on over to the Barnes & Noble e-book store to download their free reader and select six free books!

(Yes, these books are available from Project Gutenberg, so they're technically already free, but let's not split hairs here.)

Have a great weekend!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Free-For-All

This one's short and sweet: what do you you want to see me blog about? Co-op? Sales kits? Comp titles? What I'm currently reading? All of the above?

I've already heard requests for posts on international sales and on the relationship between accounts and small/self-pubbed authors, and those posts are in the works. To the rest of you: comment away!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Back to the Drawing Board

I realize that in my attempt to be straightforward about the nature of book publishing, I occasionally often come across as a prophet of doom on this blog. Knowing this, I do try to be upbeat as much as possible, offering explanations and advice on how to address some of the major stumbling blocks you as writers may encounter in your journey to publication.

This post, however, is different. I am about to actively try to dissuade you from writing a few different kinds of books because they have historically sold poorly, will continue to sell poorly, and if your book falls into one of these categories it is going to sell poorly, regardless of how awesome you think it is. Without further ado and in no particular order:

#1: Poetry. Full disclosure: I am, among many things, a poet. When I'm not at work helping to sell books or at home writing this blog, I'm writing poetry. I also write fiction, but (in my opinion) it's not very good—at least, not as good as my poetry—so I write poems more often than I write stories.

Something I know and that you need to know: poetry does not sell. Period. If you aren't Homer or Billy Collins, you haven't got a shot at decent sales, much less a deal with a major trade publisher. Earning your MFA at Iowa or winning a Pulitzer helps, but by no means guarantees you anything. I write poetry because I like doing it and I want to be recognized for my ability (i.e. through publication, often unpaid, in literary journals). I do not write it in the hopes of ever making enough money to pay my water bill, let alone to serve as a primary source of income.

#2: Short story collections. Same as poetry: people simply don't buy them. Sure, there are exceptions like Flannery O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut, but these writers are one in a million (or fewer). Again, earning your MFA at Iowa or Columbia helps, but not really. The vast, vast, vast majority of MFA candidates graduate without a book deal anywhere in sight. If you're working on a short story collection, cut it out. Write a novel instead.

#3: Christian fiction. I may get flak for this, but I'm being honest: it doesn't sell. While there are some notable exceptions, the vast majority of Christian novels simply don't move—largely because they cater to a niche audience of unusually devout Christians. (Back in late April, PW reported that next year's Christian Book Expo has been canceled, largely due to lack of attendance at the last one.)

#4: Children's/family cook books. I don't even know why people write these, but they do. Be warned: nobody can sell these, not even Rachael Ray. Remember Yum-O? Disastrous. Check the BookScan numbers, if you're so inclined.

#5: Any book catering to a vanishingly small niche audience. If you are writing a nonfiction book about the history of English doorknobs or a piece of literary fiction that requires the reader be intimately familiar with medieval Breton lays, cut it out. (That is, if you're holding out any hopes of actually selling it.) This includes most academic texts. Maybe you'll have a couple hundred copies published by a university press if you're big news in academic circles, but that's about it.

Now, I realize most of you write mainstream fiction (e.g. non-abstruse literary fiction, chick lit, mysteries, thrillers, romances, science fiction, and so on). Bravo! This sells. I just want to be sure that anyone who has any funny ideas about making a cool million with their interrelated short story collection is swiftly disabused of that notion. Not that I enjoy crushing dreams; it's just that those kinds of thoughts aren't realistic.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mid-Week Round-Up

Hi all—

Once again, I have a bunch of sales meetings to attend, so Laura will be treating you to another round-up today.

I had a very smarmy introduction planned that involved the Pied Piper, Rat-catcher’s day, and a mountain in which to hide small children, but then I found out that they’ve started casting for the HBO mini-series of A Game of Thrones (Middlesex is also becoming an HBO series, but teen hermaphrodites are less exciting to me than swords). So let’s have a moment of silence for the loss of my dignity—I read this in the office and may have squee-ed a bit loudly—and move on to other, clearly less exciting publishing news. Also, there’s a contest in paragraph three. The prize is kudos (verbal, not the granola bar) and recognition from me. Wait, no, don’t stop reading…aw…

First, though, vindication. Remember way back to last week, when I said zombies aren’t the new vampires? I was right totally right—it turns out Christian vampires are the new vampires. Sin, I stake thee through the heart! Also moving up in the world of religious literature is Amish fiction, ever controversial for its pro-bonnet, anti-nails stance.

My challenge to you all: leave the first line of an Amish vampire novel in the comments. My favorite will be featured in my next post. Extra points for including zombies, of any religious or cultural stripe.

Speaking of the undead: have you had enough Twilight to choke a horse? No? Well, just you wait—the Twilight graphic novel is coming to town. But don’t worry, the world has balance, and a posthumous George Carlin memoir is also forthcoming, in which he wrote the seven words you can’t say from beyond the grave.

For some reason all of the big publishing debacles this week were e-book related. One started with a wee article on Slate about e-book pricing. Eric did a great job of summing this up here, but don’t miss opinions from Dominique Raccah, Peter Rubie, and the handsome and charming Nathan Bransford (hey, we all know where most of you followers came from).

In European ebook news, the Kindle is about to come out in the UK. As in, it’s not already out there. How do you live, United Kingdom? How do you LIVE? I choose to believe the UK is taking a stand against Big Brother, sneaking into incredibly expensive e-readers and stealing purchased books. The disappearance of 1984 and Animal Farm is, to some, just like Kristallnacht. Less violent, less racially motivated, less government sanctioned, but other than that, gosh darn it, just the same.

This is a great opportunity for all of us jealous, cranky, non-Kindle owners to be smug—at least our regular books won’t be stolen by Amazon (unless, as some suggest, Amazon is creating a crowbar division to break in and get the real deal from the rest of us). Kindle owners can stick it to the man by downloading non-Amazon books to their Kindles, and all of us who are afraid of monopolies can go to the Google books webinar so they can explain their sneaky ways. Perhaps it’s stuff like this that make some believe publishing can’t survive as-is, or that makes Barnes & Nobles convinced they can compete online with Amazon.

In other England news, authors who want to speak in schools now need to pay for background checks. Some authors are angry, because they think they deserve unquestioned trust and access to children. With direct access denied, child molesting authors need to stick with offering candy from vans and the Internet. Regular non-pedophile authors also use the internet to interact with readers, and the eternal question lingers: Myspace or Facebook?

Academic publishing houses are finally jumping on the e-book bandwagon, with Harvard University Press selling 1,000 titles to Scribd, and NYU, Rutgers, Temple, and Penn looking into a collective scholarly e-book publishing plan. Cambridge University press isn’t going online per se, but is starting a new print-on-demand project. But don’t digitize everything just yet—students aren’t feeling e-textbooks. Don’t tell the Governator.

Troublingly, Ridley Scott tells us that science fiction is dead. With the recent passing of Phyllis Gotleib, Canadian sci-fi legend, and the death of Batman, I’m sorely tempted to believe him, but then articles like this one about Jack Vance, the genre-bending Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and this great discussion of international science fiction bring me back to reality: sci-fi is alive and kicking.

Harry Potter, though, is done for real (says JK Rowling for the millionth time, but what does she know?). This is too bad, as HP just got the Vatican seal of approval. Clearly they are stamping everyone with that seal, though, because Oscar Wilde is a-okay now too.

Although not officially Vatican sanctioned (yet), the literary heavyweight who is Shaq’s mom will be penning a memoir. Hopefully her lesser known, rapping genie son Kazaam will get a mention. Apparently a lot of musicians have been writing novels as well, because it’s not like it’s hard or anything. Right? Guys?

The incredible ease of writing is not evident in the new documentary Bad Writing (with David Sedaris!) or in the reasoning behind Anti-Plagiarism Day. And apparently even good writers suck, because although the Beat movement was influential, people are calling to remove, from the canon, Kerouac. What a hack. Especially compared to Momma Shaq. (Confession: I too am a rapping genie. It’s a very small community.)

Ten bucks says the Shaq book gets a massive advance; meanwhile, authors with no advances are turning to fundraising to pay for their lives while they write, and the nonprofit Archipelago Books is asking for people to buy subscriptions to keep them afloat. Even published authors are being humiliated, but mostly at book signings. Also at book signings: Margaret Atwood and her LongPen. Since this blog is rated G, you’ll have to fill in your own joke here.

In the spirit of this being a sales blog, I thought I would include some sales-related links (please, contain your joy). It turns out that remainders can still help you make cash money. With all this new cash in hand, keep your ducks in a row with this retirement plan for writers and this explanation of the joys of buying three books for the price of two (or buying random used books for hilarity). You know what I hear really helps book sales? Binding your books in human skin. (Anthropodermic bibliopegy. Say that three times fast! —E) Not. Creepy. At all.

In exchange for your submissions to my Amish vampire story contest, I trade a list of the 61 post-modern novels you must read (I said you, not me), an article about how modern day ladies aren’t really interested in “rape novels” from the 70s (here’s a hint: it might have something to do with the word “rape” in the name), a “Publishometer,” and this great beef with the Hugos. Not convinced? I now share with you the Holy Grail of combos: free chocolate Fridays and on-demand flash fiction. Now go nuts below—bonnets are optional; hilarity is a must.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hammered by Thor

Once upon a time in Washington (it was 1979), the United States Supreme Court decided 439 U.S. 522, Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. In a nutshell, the Supreme Court decided that the Commissioner didn't abuse his power by denying Thor Power Tools a write-down of "excess" inventory. As a result, book sales for midlist authors (i.e. most of you, gentle readers) have suffered ever since.

Wait, what?

For an in-depth treatment, I'll direct you to Kevin O'Donnell, Jr.'s excellent article on the subject, but what happened is this: in the 1970s, Thor had a bunch of inventory that they were having difficulty moving. All companies—Thor included—pay income tax on their profits, which they pay after making all legally deductible expenses from overall revenues. One way, then, of increasing overall profitability is to pay income tax on a smaller percentage of gross income. Thor decided to do this by increasing their deduction in one field, cost of goods sold (COGS).

Now, there are legal ways of doing this. Say you have $1000 worth of inventory in your warehouses, but by the time taxes are due, the market value of said inventory has dropped to $800. The IRS will let you write down the value of your inventory, i.e. pay taxes on the lower of the two numbers (in this case, $800 instead of $1000). By the end of the 1970s, however, businesses had started writing down the cost of inventory that hadn't yet realized a drop in market value; in the above example, it would be as if your inventory were still technically worth $1000, but you knew (based on the rate you were selling it) that you would only sell 800 units at $1.00 per unit before Inventory 2.0 would come out, rendering your current merchandise obsolete and unsalable. Before Thor v. Commissioner, you could claim $800 in inventory due to slow rate of movement (ROM) and not due to actual depreciation in value; after 1979, you couldn't.

Now, as you may know, the book industry operates in two weird ways. One, it automatically renders huge quantities of its stock obsolete (i.e. hardcovers) every year by printing trade paperback/mass market editions, and two, it allows accounts to return unsold stock to publishers for full credit if those accounts can't move their inventory.

You might already see the problem: each year, thousands upon thousands of books are returned to their respective publishers, generating high levels of nigh-unsellable inventory at their warehouses. Because publishers can no longer write down the cost of their inventory based on inability to sell, they have to do one of two things: remainder the books, i.e. sell them for pennies on the dollar in order to get rid of them, or pulp (destroy) them. (This is the case for hardcovers and trade paperbacks; mass market editions are generally stripped. In case you were having a good day thus far, please note that 40% of books suffer this fate.)

Because publishers lose money on returns/remainders/pulping (and face losing even more money if they don't do this), they compensate by ordering smaller initial orders than they used to and allowing titles to go out of print faster. For a midlist author, this means fewer copies of your book are sold/shipped to stores and remain in print for less time than they would have pre-Thor. While there are potential missed sales here, the publishing houses generally come out on top by doing this, whereas most midlist authors get the hammer.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't want to discourage you from writing or make you cry yourselves to sleep at night. I just want to help you figure out what you're up against in this crazy industry. At this point, we've been operating under the post-Thor tax code for thirty years; there's no going back, and I'm honestly not sure there's a way to remedy the problem of smaller initials and shorter shelf life across the board. Any ideas you might have, however, are (as always) more than welcome in the comments.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Better Late Than Never

First, RIP, Frank McCourt. You'll be missed.

Remember our discussion on book covers? Well, looks like Bantam changed it up this time around:

Your Heart Belongs to Me

(The cover for the mass market edition.)

Many of you mentioned in your comments on the original post (see link, above) that your books (or books you had heard of) had terrible covers for the original hardcover that were rectified in the later trade paper/mass market incarnations. Looks like this happens to everyone—even Dean Koontz.

So I suggest the following: first, check out Sonya Chung's recent post on what jacket design is like from an author's point of view, and then (to borrow from Nathan), you tell me: Why do you think publishers (occasionally severely) misjudge their cover art? Why do they suffer the same pitfalls over and over?

Friday, July 17, 2009

(Fre)e Books?

First, a PSA: Book Blogger Appreciation Week will be September 14 - 18 this year, so if you blog about books, you really should consider signing up. Yours truly has already done so, and I expect to be in good company. Whether you've got your own blog or not, please consider nominating your favorites for some mega sweet awards—voting is already open. (There's a "best new blog" category. Just saying.)

Now, to business.

E-books are an interesting phenomenon; as Nathan noted yesterday, the debate over e-book availability and pricing rages on, whereas Agent Kristin recently posted about the serious possibility of e-book piracy via Our Dear Leader, Google.

I believe (perhaps unfairly) that human beings are decent to a point: we're happy to pay for something if it's not a serious inconvenience and we believe we're getting our money's worth, but when we feel like we're getting the shaft, we're all for simply taking what we can get. Remember when Radiohead let us pay whatever we wanted for "In Rainbows"? Well, six out of ten of us decided we wanted to pay $0.00, and even knowing full well we could "buy" the album from Radiohead for absolutely nothing, 2.3 million of us decided we were going to "steal" it from BitTorrent instead. Things like this make me wonder whether Kurt was too optimistic about the human race.

Anyway, I have to say I agree with Nathan about the $9.99 price point for e-books (that is, I'm in favor of it) and agree that if people are denied the option of buying, say, The Forgotten Rune in e-format and are told instead that they can pay $26.00 for the hardcover, most are just going to go ahead and buy a different e-book instead (Boy Wizard and the Arduous Quest, perhaps). I don't think the current model (charging consumers hardcover price for e-books while the print hardcover is out, then reducing it to paperback price when that comes out) is sustainable, and if publishers either limit supply or make consumers feel stiffed, consumers are going to turn to piracy more and more.

Example: before the advent of the iTunes store, I did this with music. (Don't give me that look. You did it, too.) Undoubtedly, legions of us still do this, but ever since I've been given the option of paying $0.99 for a song, I've done that. It seems like a fair price to me and the iTunes store is a convenient venue. Similarly, I believe most folks will be willing to pay $9.99 for a book, and as long as it's being sold in a convenient venue (e.g. Amazon's on-line store), people will be willing to shell out.

Now, there are alternatives to the existing structure and the Amazon Model: Peter Olson, former CEO of the big house, recently wrote an essay on e-book pricing and the future of the electronic book medium. In part, he argues that books with high initial demand (especially pent-up demand, à la Dan Brown) could be priced at nearly $40.00 per book in the initial twenty-four hours, then dropped down as low as $4.00 per book once the rush has subsided. (The article also explains the price structure for printed books—among other things, that for every copy of a $10.00 printed book sold, the author makes $1.50 and the publisher and bookstore make $0.50 apiece—so I'd definitely recommend you read the whole thing.)

What do you think? Are you partial to any of the three models I've listed (existing publisher model, $9.99 model, pay-based-on-demand model), or would you prefer something entirely different?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Dan Brown Cometh

As Laura mentioned yesterday, I have a theory regarding Dan Brown and the "Random House Hail Mary." Simply put, rather than adding to existing sales, I believe (as Arsen does—see link) that Dan Brown actually supplants existing book sales. Let me explain.

Let's say John Q. Public enters a bookstore intending to buy a book. Some people believe that John intends to buy a certain book, x, and if he sees something else he loves (as a result of co-op placement, let's say), he'll buy that new book in addition to x. I'll grant that this is probably the case for consumers who are more or less unaffected by the recession, or those who have enough money to pretend not to be.

With regard to the majority of consumers, however, I disagree with this model. I believe that, explicitly or implicitly, John enters the bookstore with the idea of spending x dollars on (a) book(s), and should he find something he strongly prefers to his original target (e.g. The Lost Symbol), he's going to buy that book instead of what he was originally going to buy. This sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but hear me out.

1. Dan Brown has a phenomenal amount of marketing and publicity, meaning he's going to be most consumers' initial target anyway. This is cheating, I know, but it's true: the amount of attention he gets before on-sale almost guarantees that he's going to be the number one priority for many consumers come September. So, before we even consider the number of people he "converts" in-store, he's already converted millions of people who have yet to enter a Barnes & Noble or Borders. You know when people say "If you buy one hardcover this season, buy x?" Well, in this case, x = The Lost Symbol.

2. The national chains will be more focused on Dan Brown than anything else. This means that they'll be subtracting space from other titles to allocate toward The Lost Symbol. More space for Brown per store means a higher likelihood that consumers will purchase his book over another.

3. Hardcovers are expensive. The average hardcover costs around $25.00. If you walk into a B&N intending to buy the new Charlaine Harris and instead discover a massive shrine to Dan Brown, will you buy The Lost Symbol? I think so. Will you buy both? Probably not; that's $50.00.

4. The numbers seem to bear it out. Arsen notes that, despite phenomenal sales for Dan Brown's last book, overall sales were only very slightly up at his store; sales for The Da Vinci Code replaced existing sales rather than adding to them. Individual consumers have limited amounts of capital, and when they have the option of buying one book or another, they seem to be more likely to buy their preferred novel over buying both. And when Dan Brown's out, his book is preferred almost by default.

Sure, pre-ordering allows consumers to pay now and pick up in September, and for this reason the major chains (as mentioned in yesterdays comments) are really pushing pre-orders. It should be noted, however, that this doesn't affect the total amount of disposable income any given consumer has, and that a pre-order for The Lost Symbol is still competing against other fall pre-orders; nothing has really changed.

If your novel is coming out this fall, then, you'll be facing some stiff competition; to be perfectly honest, I think you can expect to see slightly lower sales numbers for your title as a result of the Dan Brown colossus.

You tell me, though: do you think this is an accurate description of your own behavior as a consumer? Why or why not?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Guest Post: Wednesday Wrap-Up

Hey everyone—

Eric here. I've got some intense sales meetings to attend this week—more on those later—so today I'm leaving you in the capable hands of Laura, a blogger who is (possibly) more mysterious than I am. I know it's very early in the blog's life for me to leave you with a guest blogger unannounced, but I promise I'll be back tomorrow. Enjoy!

The ever-gracious Eric has agreed to try an experiment (although he nixed the mad scientist lab coats and black rubber gloves), and so I've put together publishing links from around the web for your reading digestion. But if you hate this post, feel free to leave mean, trollish comments saying things like, "This suxs, bro," and I will cry myself to sleep. I can't promise I will stop posting, but the tears: those I can pledge.

Before you sharpen your tongues on the whetstone of my feelings, however, read this depressing news—even if you're an established and successful author, you will still be rushed to market higglety pigglety because the Dan Brown juggernaut is coming to town. I hear (from Eric) that putting a bunch of great books out at the same time doesn't mean more books are bought. It just means all sales go directly to Dan Brown. (Note: subject matter for a future post. —E) They don't even pass Go. With enough sales, they might get $200 in royalties, but they'll probably lose it all on Boardwalk anyway.

If you're smart, after The Lost Symbol is turned into a movie—that will make more in opening weekend than the rest of us will in a lifetime—you can write the unofficial prequel (Robert Langdon in high school, unraveling the mystery of the encoded locker!). Joe Quennan at the Guardian will show you how movie novelization (which he spells "novelisation," which is adorable) works.

On this sinister side of publishing, we find that the newest installment about Anne of Green Gables (coming out soon) is going to be moody and dark. To which I say, listen, Lucy Maud Montgomery, I don’t read to be in my real life.

Also dark and exceedingly popular: zombies. My big problem here is calling zombies “the new vampire”—you try staking a zombie through the heart, and see how much good it does you. Also, vampires are all about sexuality. There are no books about sexy teenage zombies who sparkle as they decompose...wait, dibs! Mine!

In legit sad news, Charles Brown died, and Bibliophile Stalker has compiled a list of tributes (all link lists pale in comparison to those of the Stalker, and I for one won’t even try to compete). Frank McCourt is said to be near death, and Diana Wynne Jones couldn’t attend a really cool weekend conference about her work because of a recent lung cancer diagnosis. Skype your authors while you can, people!

Coming full circle, we have the birth of Full Circle Editions, a new publishing house that is not “profit oriented, market driven or celebrity ridden.” Wait, I'm confused. Could you be saying that all celebrities aren’t great writers? That Lauren Conrad is not the next Faulkner? This is not what Family Guy led me to believe.

When Conrad wins an award, then we’ll talk (please God, let that never happen, you’re just making my life moodier and darker). Meanwhile, the Shirley Jackson Awards just announced winners, Omnivoracious wants your votes on the best National Book Award winners, and Alison Flood hates on Michael Moorcock’s British Fantasy Award (is that even legal?).

In potentially retracted award drama, in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is dead set against author Sayed al-Qimni keeping the State Award of Merit. The Brotherhood may be banned in Egypt as a political party, thanks to two decades plus of Egyptian “emergency laws”—nice democracy, Mubarak—but they will call people apostates to their hearts' content. Also, Boyd Morrison wins the first self-published-on-Kindle-to-book-deal award. Which exists as of: now.

Not convinced this is a good feature? Don't see any relevance here to book sales? Me either, but I now resort to the ace up my sleeve: bribery. Win a free copy of Norse Code! Sci-Fi DVD sale at Amazon! Savings at B&N with a coupon! Feel free to bribe me right back—bloggers have tremendous sway, I hear.

All love, hate, and zombie survival plans in the comments.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Load of B.S.

"B.S.," of course, stands for "BookScan," as in Nielsen BookScan. BookScan is the best and worst thing that's ever happened to you. Why?

Well, a quick history. The Nielsen company enjoyed considerable success throughout the 1990s with Nielsen SoundScan, a service that aggregated and reported POS (point-of-sale, i.e. scanned through the register) data from a wide variety of retailers. For the first time, it was possible for the industry to really see how it was doing; sales from thousands of record labels could be tracked on a weekly basis at dozens of major stores. So, in 2001, Nielsen figured they'd try their hand at books.

There's a .pdf you can download from the BookScan site to tell you exactly which retailers provide POS data to Nielsen, but for your convenience, I've listed them below:

B. Dalton • Barbara's Bookstores • Barnes & Noble • Books-A-Million • Borders • Deseret Book Co • Follett Stores • Hastings • Hudson Group • Independents • Walden Books (owned by Borders)

Discount & Others • B& • • • • • CNI • • Cornerstone • Costco • • K-Mart • • One World Enterprises • • Stretch the Skies • Target

Non-Traditional (New for 2008)
H.E.B. • Kroger • Stop & Shop • Shopko • Toys "R" Us • Babies "R" Us • Starbucks

What's as important as the retailers listed here, however, is the retailers that aren't; specifically, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, and BJ's Wholesale Club. Because they (and several other, much smaller) outlets don't report their sales figures to BookScan, BookScan's numbers aren't complete. As I've said before, on a good day, they probably capture only about 75% of the overall marketplace.

The Good

For the most part, BookScan generates an accurate picture of any given title's overall sales. Moreover, it's the only tool the publisher has to analyze sales of books that aren't theirs, so even if it weren't as accurate as it is, it's still all they've got. (Publishing houses do solicit POS data from their accounts, so they have separate, often more accurate sales figures for their own titles.) If Chester A. Author published his first book with House A and is now at House B for his second, House B will use BookScan to analyze sales for his first book. These numbers, combined with comp title information, will factor significantly into the initial buys for his second book. The theory goes that the aggregate POS data will provide an accurate picture of previous sales, thus providing the foundation for reasonable expectations on future sales.

The Bad

You'll notice I said "for the most part." Since major retailers like Wal-Mart don't report to BookScan, a title that rocked out at said major retailers but failed to perform on-line or in the national chains (it's rare, but it happens) will have artificially depressed sales figures. (If you're the author of this unfortunate book, you'll be depressed as well. Ba-dum chh.) Seriously, though, if your book sold 10,000 copies, but 5,000 were at Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, and BJ's, your BookScan numbers will be off by a whopping 100%.

The Ugly

As agent Andrew Zack notes in his own post about BookScan, there are some publishers who, despite knowing full well that BookScan only provides a partial picture of overall POS transactions, treat it as if it were the be-all and end-all of book sales. Not only that, but in one case, BookScan reported numbers as low as ten percent of a book's actual sales, and editors at the (undisclosed) house had to be convinced of this by the author's actual royalty statements. (Zack doesn't say what said publisher actually decided concerning his client's new book, although he does follow up on his initial post here and here.) And, in case you were wondering, BookScan never changes its numbers—ever—so you can't complain to the Men Upstairs to adjust your reported sales if you think they're wrong.

Which brings us to the question: What can you do if you think you're getting B.S.ed by B.S.?

First, do your homework. As noted in Alan Rinzler's excellent primer on BookScan, you can subscribe to Nielsen's service for $5,000 per year (pricey!) or just $85 per year if you only want to track a single ISBN. Know thy sales. Like Alan says in his post, an author's BookScan numbers are like a credit rating, and are just as (if not more) important.

If you think there's a problem, approach your agent. Have him or her go over your royalty statements with you. This can help you figure out whether there's a major discrepancy between the publisher's numbers (which will be more accurate) and BookScan's.

If you and your agent believe there's a serious problem, contact your publisher. Let them know you're afraid artificially low sales reports from BookScan may impact sales on your future books. If possible, ask them to review their sales numbers and let you know if there's a problem. (The publishing house I work with maintains huge Excel files of market share data, which is beginning to include data from previously reticent retailers like Wal-Mart.)

Of course, this all only applies to non-debut authors; for those of you whose next book will be your first, your numbers may depend in large part on the BookScan numbers for your comp title, which you can't really control. If that's the case, just keep on keepin' on—promote yourself, promote your book, and do whatever you can to get your name and your story out there.

Monday, July 13, 2009

No! Yes! No!: The Schizophrenia of Sell-Through

In another post, I mentioned the concept of sell-through. Simply put, sell-through is a percentage representing the number of books an account sells relative to how many it bought (books sold/books bought from the publisher x 100). Logically, low sell-through is bad, decent sell-through is good, and perfect (100%) sell-through is great, right?


It's a little more complicated than that. For the national chains, 70% sell-through is generally regarded as the floor for "good sales." Much less than that and it's clear the publisher, rep, and buyer agreed on too high an initial order, and the publisher will then suffer substantial returns (more on those in a future post). 80% sell-through is very good. Once you get toward 90% and higher, however, the tide turns; as sell-through approaches 100%, it becomes clear that demand is outstripping supply, and it's likely that a lot of sales are lost to other retailers (other chains, independents, Amazon, &c) because the account is out of stock. In this case, the publisher, rep, and buyer agreed on too low an initial order.

(Keep in mind that for most debut authors, the majority of stores at a given account rarely have more than one or two copies on-hand at any time. There are about 500 Borders stores and about 700 B&N stores nationwide.)

Someone recently asked me why it's such a disaster for a book to have too low an initial. (Having too high an initial is clearly a problem—the publisher will have to take the books back.) Too low can be worse, however, due to missed sales; it takes a significant amount of time for frontlist reorders to be processed, shipped to an account's warehouses, distributed from the warehouses to the stores, unpacked at the stores, and displayed. Without a high enough initial, stores and warehouses will often be out of stock during this time, and while some customers will order the book for future pick-up, the vast majority will simply buy it elsewhere.

The sell-through game is a little different for on-line retailers like Amazon, for two main reasons:

1. Amazon doesn't need to order more copies than it plans to sell. The chains have to do this in order to have enough copies in-store to attract consumers' attention, especially if the book is in promotion. Have you ever noticed how those front-of-store tables always have thirty copies of the new Janet Evanovich, no matter how many copies the store sells?

2. Amazon's search function is designed to guide you to the hardcover edition of a book even if the mass market or trade paper is already on sale. Whereas the national chains will return any hardcover copies of a given title to the publisher by about a week before the trade paper or mass market edition goes on sale, Amazon hangs onto them because they know they can continue to sell them. (They also have great discounting, so even if consumers find both the hardcover and the trade paper/mass market, the price difference may be so insignificant that they opt for the hardcover anyway.)

For these reasons, Amazon's sell-through is terrifically efficient: over 90%.

So there you have it: sell-through needs to be good (hopefully at least 70%) but not too good (90%+, Amazon being an exception). There's no such thing as having sales that are too high, but it's very possible to have sell-through that is.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Y'all Got Serv— Uh, Skipped

Hot on the heels of my last post concerning co-op developments and Andrew Wheeler, here's another of his posts, this one dealing with three of the worst words a debut (or any) author can hear from his or her publisher: "you got skipped."

I highly recommend you read Andrew's post and then come back here, but if you don't have the time, I'll provide a quick run-down and some commentary.

As I've noted before, books are sold from publishers to accounts by the publishers' sales reps (sometimes called "account managers") and are bought by the accounts' buyers during what are termed "sales calls." The ultimate outcome of a sales call is a list of numbers: the number of copies of each book presented that the buyer would like to take for the account.

For national accounts like Borders or Barnes & Noble, sometimes that number is pretty good, say 1,000 - 2,000. Sometimes it's very good, say, 3,500 - 6,000. And sometimes it's just super, say, 10,000+.

And sometimes, alas, that number is: 0.

Yes, zero is an option, and when a buyer decides not to take any copies of a given title, that title is said to have been "skipped." (Noun: "a skip," as in, "Venezuelan Vampire Vixens V was a skip due to poor sales of Venezuelan Vampire Vixens IV.") There are those pesky comps again. More on those in a future post.

What does it mean for you if a national chain skips your book? Well, to be flat-out honest, you are somewhat doomed. A lack of presence in the national chains is a severe handicap, and your sales will then essentially be limited to the independents and the major on-line retailers, such as Amazon. (Yes, there's also the "mass merch" channel—e.g. Sam's Club, Costco, Target—but they take far fewer titles than the chains. If you get skipped at B&N, you're sure as hell not going to be shelved at Wal-Mart.)

You are only somewhat doomed, however, for the following reasons: because Amazon has the ability to reach consumers anywhere, 24/7, if your book sales really take off there, you certainly won't be skipped again when it comes time for the national accounts to buy your next book. (You'll also make some handsome royalties. Ka-ching!) Then again, if you languish at the bottom of Amazon's search results, you won't get those sales and may never be heard from again. On the other hand, word-of-mouth at the independents might score you mainstream reviews and increase your sales, but that's a pretty big "might"—the independents can only do so much. (As Andrew notes, the number of independent book stores has dwindled from 7,500 to just 1,700 over the past two decades.)

You're right to be angry, sad, depressed, confused, or all of the above if your book gets skipped by one of (or more than one of) the national chains. But what can you do about it?

Don't give up. No one is more interested in promoting you than you are. Ask your agent and editor what you can do to help sell yourself and your book. Now might be the time to change your mind and actually go on that six-city book tour, or even just accept an offer to appear on a local radio show.

Visit your local independent book store(s). Try and get them to buy a few copies of your book. If they say yes, ask if you can do an author event or sign some stock. Oh, yeah, and continue to shop at said stores so they don't go out of business.

Take your fight to the blogosphere. If you've got a web site or a blog—and you should—try to get the word out through that outlet. Let your friends know on Facebook. Tweet about it. (Just don't say anything in anger, or something you might regret later.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Update: More on Co-op

Also, if you didn't get enough co-op related heartburn from my guest post on Nathan's blog, take a look at Andrew Wheeler (a.k.a. G.B.H. Hornswoggler)'s recent post on the subject.

Have a great night!

Judging a Book By Its Cover

Before I started working in sales, I did a brief stint in library and academic marketing. Anyone who's ever spent much time around librarians—especially school librarians—is familiar with the old adage, "don't judge a book by its cover."

Alas, this is what consumers (including you and I) do every day.

Book covers do a number of things for us, but in my opinion, the three most important are (in no particular order):

1. Tell us what the book is called and who wrote it;
2. Give us an idea of the book's genre (thereby already telling us whether we're likely to enjoy it);
3. Provide an iconic, interesting image, so as to—as Seth Godin puts it—"tee up the reader so the book has maximum impact" (see below).

Human beings are visual creatures. This means that any factor that interferes with the above three points can literally tank a book's sales.

A couple of examples.


The above image violates the first "rule" I outlined, namely that the book's cover should communicate the book's title and author. In this case, does that matter? I don't think so—it's clear (at least, to me) that the book is fiction, probably literary fiction, and so I'm likely to pick it up. (This may be an artifact of my having worked in the industry, though, so I won't assume everyone makes my intuitive leap.)

The more important point is that the cover is striking, iconic, simple, and somewhat mysterious. This is the key to driving sales, as noted by the inimitable Book Ninja (who is, in turn, quoting this original post by Seth Godin). Both Seth and the Book Ninja correctly point out that the book's cover is designed to drive readers to the story—front cover to back cover to flap/jacket copy to book—and a stumble in this first step (i.e. a bad cover) can translate to very poor sales.

What about this cover?

Your Heart Belongs to Me

In my opinion, this one doesn't follow the second "rule"—communicating genre to the consumer—and may have cost the publisher sales as a result. If you didn't see "DEAN KOONTZ" emblazoned in forty-eight point font across the cover, would you identify this book as horror/thriller? I doubt it. I, for one, would immediately mentally classify it as contemporary romance and never give it a second look, since that's not a genre that interests me. I mean, even if you do read Dean's name on the cover, you may assume he's jumped ship and written some kind of romance novel—quite an assumption, I think, but I couldn't blame you for making it.

The cover is fairly striking, but you can tell that's not enough; it's also got to appeal to its target audience. I'm sure you've all seen the cover trope commonly called "the clinch," the hallmark of a romance novel, and this post over at Jezebel explains the intimate relationship between cover and genre. Consumers interested in romance buy romance and pick up anything that looks like romance; the same goes for consumers of children's books, literary fiction, business books, and so on. You can't swap Harry Potter's cover art with that of Freakonomics—even if you properly label each with the correct author and title—and expect sales not to be impacted.

While we shouldn't judge the content of a book by its cover, the fact is, we can and we do, and publishers are betting on the fact that we do. So, once you've sold your book to said publisher, how can you make sure your book isn't tanked by an inappropriate or boring cover?

Well, to a certain extent, you can't. While there are certainly authors (mostly hot shots and celebrities) who have significant say in terms of their cover art, the vast majority of book covers are engineered in the publisher's art department with little or no input from the author. (You may begin to suspect as I explain the industry more and more that, once you've sent your MS off to the agent, fewer and fewer things are in your control. If so, you are correct.) It's also worth pointing out that Koontz is one of said hot shots and still is not immune to the occasional bad cover.

However, he has dozens of books to his name, and this could be your first one.

The good news is, I've very rarely heard of an author who absolutely loathed his or her cover and whose book went to print regardless. While no one from Big Name Publisher is going to come to your house with color palettes to have you pick out the color scheme for your next book's cover, they will run the cover by editorial, sales, marketing, publicity, your agent, and you, and they will most likely be willing to hear you out if you have a major grievance.

In a nutshell, then:

• People pick up, judge, and occasionally buy books based on their covers.
• Publishers assume this.
• Good covers communicate data to the consumer—author, title, genre—as well as excitement/intrigue via the use of iconic, generic (generic meaning expected/familiar, not boring), and interesting images. This is one of the major factors that translates to good sales.
• You want good sales. Therefore, you want a good cover.

If your publisher is showing you cover proofs for the first time, look for these signs. If you would pick it up off the shelf based on the cover alone, that bodes well for you and your book.

I leave you, then, with these: the best book covers of 2008, as judged by the New York Times Book Design Review.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Most of the blog's back-end, logistical nonsense has been sorted out, so I'll start my regular posting tomorrow and Friday. Thanks for your patience!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Feel free to read my recent guest post over at Nathan Bransford's blog.