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Publishing Tightens Its Belt But Still Plans to Spend Big

The title is contradictory but that's how I read two articles this weekend.  Publishing has apparently spent lavishly on wining and dining sales representatives. The New York Times recounts one such expensive endeavor just two weeks prior announcing layoffs, Macmillan invited its own sales and marketing staff  to meet with sales reps about the Spring 2009 publication list.  Between the meetings, the reps were offered wine tastings and spa treatments.  This year, the meetings will take place via webcam and/or telephone.  Random House had gone to Bermuda with its staff the year before.

But while these companies engaged in expensive staff retreats, I agree with another industry veteran, Robert Gottlieb, who said that the expense accounts were "small potatoes compared to the problems [publishers] face."  I doubt that HarperCollins saw a decrease of over $30 million in profits because of expense accounts.  No, I put the blame squarely on the industry embrace of the big book concept which Anita Elberse, a Harvard professor, articulated in the January 3, 2009, Wall Street Journal .

The entire industry seems to be structured around the one hit wonder. In order to achieve that one hit, publishers are paying exorbitant advances.  Elberse believes that this is the only way for publishing to be profitable because when a publisher spends a lot of money acquiring a manuscript, they spend even more to make sure it's a success.

Of course, if the whole business model of "throw enough money at a product and it will be successful" were true, then you wouldn't need to spend money at the acquisition stage, only at the marketing stage.

I read Elberse's article to suggest that success of a book is self fulfilling based upon the marketing dollars.  I agree that marketing is incredibly important and that authors don't do enough of it on their own, but I don't believe that the business of model of spending alot on acquisitions that thus spurs major marketing campaigns is the right way to sustain the publishing industry in the future.

My belief is that microtargeting is the answer to successful publishing.  I'll talk more about that concept in the coming weeks, but seriously, something within the publishing model is broken.  Holding onto that now, in this time of opportunity as Elberse suggests, is dangerous.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Monique
    Jan 05, 2009 @ 09:48:05

    Huh – the first thing I thought of after reading this was the music industry and how it seems to operate the same way, at least in the visible arena. How unfortunate! I love books and I think that having as much choice in the arena as possible is always a good thing.

    Add to that, I’ve seen what happens when a book (or movie, etc.) that should be big doesn’t make it due to poor marketing. It usually means that the creator is punished by the publisher/distributor/marketer (by cancelling the whatever or not re-upping the contract) even though it was the fault of the marketers in the first place.

    Hopefully the publishing industry will learn more quickly than the music industry.

  2. kirsten saell
    Jan 05, 2009 @ 11:26:19

    So basically, publishing is like one of those guys who does a half-ass job at work every day and never gets a raise, and just pins his hopes of financial independence on playing the lottery.

    I mean, hey, you spend enough money on tickets, sooner or later one’s gonna pay big, right? Wait, this one’s lucky. I can feel it.

  3. Robin
    Jan 05, 2009 @ 11:43:24

    While publishers probably aren’t going down because of expense accounts, IMO it’s a visible symptom of ass-backwards priorities, of myopic focus, and of outdated loyalty to outdated modes and models of business.

    And I’m sure none of those laid-off employees begrudges those junkets . . .

  4. LoriK
    Jan 05, 2009 @ 12:22:04

    I worked for many years in another sales rep driven industry & IME Robin is correct. The dollars spent on retreats & bonuses for the reps aren’t large enough to sink the company on their own, but they’re a symptom of a really dysfunctional culture. I could write a book about all the ways that it harms a company in the long run while appearing to be a great deal. Companies can get away with that when times are good, but when things are bad & your industry is in transition it isn’t going to fly. As a reader who values variety and generally hates the blockbuster books I certainly hope publishers get their act together in a hurry.

  5. carolyn jean
    Jan 05, 2009 @ 16:50:32

    I saw this too – sort of depressing. But it was interesting in that publishers feel they have to make the mega deals in order to be offered the best books. It’s sort of like an arms race, in a way, a destructive cycle nobody will be the first to break. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on microtargeting.

  6. Kimber An
    Jan 05, 2009 @ 21:48:10

    “I agree that marketing is incredibly important and that authors don’t do enough of it on their own,”

    The authors I know work their butts off. They hardly have time to write and put a lot of their hard-earned money right back into marketing. I feel a little stung by this statement on their behalf.

  7. Monique
    Jan 06, 2009 @ 00:09:44

    I have to agree with Kimber An. The authors I know write blogs, put their stuff out there and work hard to sell their books. Some of the bigger names don’t need to because they are the rock stars of romance, but a lot of them work really hard to get their name out.

  8. mia madwyn
    Jan 06, 2009 @ 22:55:17

    What are authors supposed to do to market their books? Whether or not they get picked up by Borders, B&N, Target and other big sales outlets is determined by covers (that they rarely have input on or control over) if they aren’t already a big name. I had friend whose cover was shown to the three buyers listed above and then was told, “We’re changing covers; they’ve said they won’t order big on this with this cover.” Not content, but freaking covers. And she’s lucky they were determined enough to give her first novel as good a shot as possible that they gave it a test drive and then invested in a new cover concept.

    But if the publisher doesn’t get behind a book and push it, authors are for the most part ignored. Other than what few stores you can visit personally for signings, you can’t create a huge groundswell of interest on your own. Or let’s just say I’ve seen many try and booksellers shrug and are polite but don’t increase their orders, because they’re bombarded with authors all playing the same p.r. games, especially in the romance genre.

    If there’s some solid advice on how an author can actually make a difference, I know a lot of people would like to see it. (And I know writers who are involved with some pretty major blogs, etc.)

    I’m not blasting you, but just kind of surprised at the idea that this could fall back on authors, having seen so many busting hump and seeing how little difference it makes in the big picture, with very rare exceptions.

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