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August 30, 2006

Books and Sales Redux

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A few postings ago, I wondered out loud why so many people are horrified when they discover that book publishing is a business, and that -- as with all businesses -- salesmanship is involved at many levels. Visitors volunteered many good reasons why this might be the case. Please take a look at the comment thread.

The ideas and observations of our visitors got me pulling together a few more fresh, if mighty basic, thoughts.

  • There are always far more book-writer wannabes than the book-publishing industry needs. Econ 101, folks: If supply is huge and demand is tiny, prices will fall and remain low. Translated in terms of the book-writing biz: So long as there are a lot more people around who want to write books than there are places for them on commercial-publishing lists, the prices/salaries given to book-writers are going to tend to be small, smaller, smallest. Are you a book-writer wannabe? It doesn't hurt to remember that there's always someone who can do the job as well -- or almost as well -- as you can, and who will do it for less money too.

    Wait, this item doesn't really have anything to do with salesmanship and books. Oh well, it's a basic fact of commercial book-writing and commercial book-publishing anyway. Maybe someone will find it interesting. As I mentioned in the comments on the previous posting, book-publishing has to be one of the few industries where the vast majority of the people who supply the industry's product don't and won't ever make a living at it. In the U.S., there are only a couple of hundred people who make a living from writing trade books. ("Trade books" are the kinds of books you might buy at a Barnes and Noble.) Meanwhile, the book-publishing industry employs (and pays living wages to) many thousands. If you want to make a living from books, do indeed go into the books business -- but don't go into it as a writer.

  • Many book people are introverts. Actors love audiences; few pop musicians are shy; painters and photographers generally know in their bones that they have to play the game if they want to move some product. But people who work in publishing? And people who dream of writing books? What they often love most is spending quiet time with books. They like reading better than being with other people. Many of them would be happy, they feel, if only they could spend all their time inside a book.

    I feel divided about introverts and books. On the one hand, I sympathize with the introverts. God bless 'em, they're people too, and why shouldn't they have an art-medium of their own? It's understandable that they would dream of a place (booksville) where they could flourish, feel appreciated, and be taken care of.

    On the other hand: C'mon.. I mean, really. We all have to deal with the external world -- and, whatever else it is, book publishing is a worldly activity. But introverts really seem to hate the "sales" part of life. Many will go to amazing lengths to avoid it. When forced to get to grips with it, some will shriek in protest, while others will go rigid with offense and snobbery. As we all know, the shy can sometimes put on ferocious airs and be unpleasantly domineering.

    Small note: There's no deep historical reason why the book-thang should be for introverts. Modern American book publishing has its roots in 17th and 18th century bourgeois London -- a rowdy, mercantile, outward-directed world if ever there was one. Only later did the shrinking violets claim the field for themselves.

    I wrote a posting long ago comparing book people to movie people. Short version:

    If the movie-world view is all about the vital connections between art and trash, and about how each is the lifeblood of the other, the book person's imagination is taken up with the neverending struggle of art, talent and brains to triumph over the forces of money, hustle and fame.

    Is it too much to ask our books people to face the real world with grace and gusto?

  • For many people, books, reading, and writing are closely connected to school. And school is about "critical thinking," open discussion, themes, noble ideals -- anything but salesmanship. A typical book-person's life-reasoning runs along these lines: "I wrote well! I loved books! Good teachers gave my papers good grades! Surely life in the real world of books will be like a continuation of school!" It seems very difficult for people who were gifted lib-arts students to abandon the fantasy that professional writing and publishing are just an extension of English class.

  • As Friedrich von Blowhard suggested in the comments, for many people books remind them of libraries ... shelves of voices and minds from other ages ... immortality. Who wants to think that questions of immortality mght have anything to do with money and salesmanship? It would be like learning that there's no cosmic justice. You mean, the best doesn't automatically rise to the surface? And history's decisions might not always be trustworthy?

Incidentally, I should point out that facile cynicism about books and the books business isn't warranted either. It isn't true that book-publishing is a dirty, rotten game, and that everything is stacked against you, me, and quality, etc. Well, OK, it is true. But the situation in books is no worse than it is in any other industry.

I'm surprised when people find this to be a Bad Thing. Losing my virginity where book publishing is concerned didn't make me feel depressed or get moral. While it killed any quasi-religious belief I might once have had in the sanctity and specialness of books, waking up to the nature of commercial book publishing enhanced my pleasure both in reading and in participating in the books game.

But this may be me. Perhaps we wouldn't have books at all if many book-besotted people weren't naive, foolish, and a little demented. As I mentioned in the previous posting, my dad was a salesman. I take "sales" for granted, and I have a lot of respect for the craft of promotion. Let's say you've made something beautiful. Let's say that no one knows about it. What have you really accomplished? I'm much more prone to quarrel with the prissiness and airs of the publishing world than I am with its semi-crass nature. Give me a frankly commercial project executed with zest, inspiration, and skill over an idealistic, visionary dream for insiders any day. Well, most days.

I was tickled to see a comment on the previous posting from Joanne Jacobs saying something similar. Joanne wrote that, as the daughter of a man in advertising, she takes it for granted that publicity and salesmanship play a role in book publishing. Maybe having a cheery and practical view of this side of book publishing has something to do with genes.

Joanne is a fabulous edu-blogger, by the way. Anyone with an interest in education issues will want to make Joanne's blog a regular stop.



posted by Michael at August 30, 2006


As for my take on industry types:

My experience is only peripheral (my wife has published a dozen novels), but from what I've seen of the non-starry eyed dreamers, the book industry is different from say the aluminum siding industry in that people go into it for a love of the final product.

The industry doesn't pay very well, so nobody who doesn't have some love of books for what they mean to them becomes an editor. (I've not really fraternized with publishers who aren't editors.) Editors are, of course, aware of sales, but even so, most of them live for the opportunity to publish a book that they truly love, or even better, can make into a book that they truly love.

As for writers (besides the starry-eyed ones of the previous post), most I've met aren't great sellers of themselves or their work. The work must speak for itself, and to the extent that most readers never see or hear the writer, it does. More importantly, most writers I've met can only successfully write what they believe, and hope and pray that what they believe is what others can believe in.

You can't write romances/Westerns/whatever that others will believe in if don't believe in the essential truth of Romance/the West/whatever yourself.

It's easy to recognize what sells, but unless it truly speaks to you, you're going to be hopeless at it. The most successful writers are those whose own hearts truly harbor the tropes that appeal to a wide range of readers.

For the rest of the writers, they must write and hope that what speaks to their soul speaks to their readers as well.

Any wonder that writers are a nervous, neurotic lot? You'd have to pay me a *huge* amount of money to put my soul out there for others to evaluate and often reject.

Lastly, most writers I know are *driven* to communicate. It's hardly a voluntary reflex at all. It's that small voice saying that if I can *truly*, *truly* communicate to you that spark within me that I so love, you will have no choice but to love it as well.

Cruisin' for a bruisin'? Absolutely, and writers know it. But yet, that promise, that desire to communicate that love, is so great they take the chance.

Posted by: Tom West on August 30, 2006 8:31 AM

I was one of the commenters on your earlier post that expressed a bit of anguish/heartsickness at the business of books. I'm not a babe in the woods; I work for a manufacturer of commodity products that wherein daily decisions regarding marketability, inventory levels, and product life lines are made. Now, while there are engineers and designers involved in the look and feel of our prodcuts, I don't associate their souls being imbued in the items as they come off the line for packing.
I realized a long while back that everything (including one's soul) is for sale and that the less emotion involved on the seller's part (and the more emotion you can elicit from the purchaser's part), the more successful your product and your piece of mind.

I admit, however, that there was a miniscule part of me (lodged somewhere in the grey matter where idealism still blooms) that was hoping that for a product like a book, wherein one's soul is poured in, that there was an infinitesmal chance that business was just a bit different. I'm not suggesting a total sap-ola job. Just a touch of the human heart.

Posted by: DarkoV on August 30, 2006 9:01 AM

Introverts they may be, but most people who write--or want to write--also want to be read.

Posted by: Rachel on August 30, 2006 9:07 AM

The fact is that very few books sell well enough to make decent compensation to the writer economically feasible for the book publisher.

Posted by: ricpic on August 30, 2006 9:55 AM

I agree with the comments above regarding heart, soul, love of subject, etc. on the part of the writer. But Michael strikes me as dead-on regarding the sales angle. I would think that most published writers have day jobs that serve to subsidize their writing activities and, moreover, understand that their writing will always be a hobby of sorts.

My own book (a technical tome) was written on the side, and I wrote it for career-building purposes. It brought in a little direct cash. Better yet, it enhanced my cred when I was flogging myself as a consultant.

Nevertheless, I put a lot of love and care into the project. And I was repaid in part by the technical knowledge I gained from the research and writing I undertook.

But I don't fit the paradigm of "author as "artist" who expects to earn a living from creating "art." Them's a whole diff'rent personality type.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 30, 2006 10:38 AM

"Let's say you've made something beautiful. Let's say that no one knows about it. What have you really accomplished?"

I say that depends on your goal. One motivation maybe not mentioned yet in explaining the writer's urge, is competition. Hemingway wrote (at least in part, by his own admission) to beat the "old men" at their game. These were dead old men, most of them, and long gone. But the quality of their work was obvious to Hemingway and proven by time; and evidently they presented him an undeniable challenge.

I think he would have written for that reason alone. He wrote proudly to friends whenever he thought he had succeeded---beating The Masters or even writing on a subject "as well as it can be done." This makes him guilty of gross egotism in some eyes, but I view him like I view my hyper-achieving older brother's training for marathons (or acing tests, or publishing papers, or wining awards, or performing cardiac surgery, God bless him): He's a born competitor. He needs no other justification.

Nothing truly great was ever done for money alone. Impossible to disprove, so I stand firmly by it!

I think every writer, the life-hardened cynic included, knows when she's written something beautiful---and maybe better than it has ever been done---and would not regret having written it, money or no.

To this mighty motivation the publishing world is just a lapdog fighting for scraps. It can not produce such work itself. If it could, it wouldn't need the writers! In that sense, we hordes of would-be Hemingways are firmly in charge, if we choose to be. We just have to beat the old man at his game.

Posted by: Matt Mullenix on August 30, 2006 11:17 AM

What you call "trade books," I call "Manhattan Books," all written, edited and produced in a certain way and tracked on the NYTimes Best Seller list. "Regional Books" or "professional" books travel in quite different circles and while you might not find them in airport bookstores, they DO sell and they DO having meaning. Western history books, books for organic gardeners, books about grizzes (though Timothy Treadwell may have ended that -- how much more "inside" a story can you tell after being extracted as half-digested remains from the stomach of a grizz?), "regional" (wipe that sneer off your face), unintelligible Algerian philosophy for insurgent minorities, tourist tripe, etc. are all out there without any awareness at all on the part of Manhattanites. (Bubble, Michael, bubble!)

In Montana there are a growing number of Book Festivals (this year Missoula has attracted Garrison Keillor's show) featuring a long list of "locals" (see "Montana Festival of the Book" via Google). None are known in "Trade Book" circles. Agents have stopped attending because they don't have to -- it's too much effort when books come jamming in the door daily. But how can they tell what's real and honest without going to the sources? They just take on what they already know and shrink the circle more and more. They're worse than Hollywood for getting hooked on repetition -- yesterday's hits recycled. (I say this as a reader.)

There are large cycles of popularity that sell books without any individual even trying: the avalanche of political books about Bush, 9/11, Katrina, ought to make the point. But also there are times when any book from or about Montana will sell -- doesn't much matter whether it's a novel about a cowpoke, a science lesson from David Quammen, a theory of citizenship book from Dan Kemmis, or a classic Western from Richard Wheeler. Sometimes it's dinos that jump off the shelves. Right now I'm watching high prairie people who write about the steppes of the Asian Middle East -- more of them that you might suspect.

What I dislike MOST about publishers (not all of 'em, just some) is that they take advantage of writers by living off them as parasites. NO services rendered: the writer is required to pay for this and pay for that. The writer must defend and prove and proof, etc. while the publisher sits in his office picking his teeth. THEN the writer goes on the road to risk ego, life and limb, while the publisher blames him or her for not doing more. Where are those agents and editors who used to shape and coax ad support?

"It all costs too much," whines the publisher, while I could sit here and make a page-long list of free publicity ideas. After all, the newspapers have to put something in between the ads and scandals. It has nothing to do with being an extrovert -- it has everything to do with knowing the field of Western art or animal control agencies or small town political strategies. If you don't know the names of the publications, the ways they get their news, who organizes their professional meetings, the sources of their supplies, no wonder no effort is made to use those means.

Ask any salesman how important research is. You don't just go out there on a shoeshine and a smile if you're smart.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 30, 2006 12:19 PM

Just going by personal experience here, and I never met your dad, who I'm sure was not like the examples I've observed, but it may be that the reason People of the Book World (such as myself) have a wariness of the the Sales World is the People of the Sales World we've encountered over the years. You know, Real Go-Getters Who Sell the Sizzle and Don't Take "No" For an Answer. In other words, the kind of people who make most intelligent people nauseous.

Posted by: Bilwick on August 30, 2006 12:26 PM

All this makes me want to do is write a book.

I might be insane.

But I would KICK ASS on that promo tour!

Posted by: communicatrix on August 30, 2006 5:20 PM

The publisher acts as a classic middle-man. So lets take a look at the value he provides to those he is between.

For the reader, the primary purpose served by big publishers is gatekeeper. When you buy from a good publisher, you are buying, perhaps more than anything else, the judgement of the editor about the author. You are paying to increase the probability that the book you are planning to spend time with won't be unreadable trash (for your idiosyncratic value of "unreadable trash", of course).

This is not to say that all (or even most, really) publishers print books that I want to read, but the ones that stay in business print books that someone wants to read and is willing to pay money for.

For the author, the publisher serves two purposes. The first is, of course, monetary. The more prestigious the publisher, the more likely that your book will be in all the bookstores and will sell enough that you can quit the day job. As Michael noted, though, the supply of authors with basic competence is quite large relative to the demand for their work. And the vast majority of authors, contrary to their own strongly held opinions, are not better than workmanlike writers. The result is that, unless you can appeal to an audience as large as that of Clancy or King, basic economics dictates that your work will not be monetarily well compensated.

Which brings us to the second thing: perhaps the biggest value of publishers to authors is that they provide validation. And the more important the publisher, the more valuable the validation. Take, for example, publishing a short story in The New Yorker. I don't have any idea what they pay for such a piece, but I'd suspect that it wouldn't come close to paying a reasonable hourly rate for the writing, but writers fight for the opportunity to be in that magazine.

If all a writer wanted to do was see his words in print, he could self-publish. Print-on-demand has made this both easy and inexpensive. And, if you're the sort to do it, you can huck it to all the stores in driving distance, and probably end up netting money comparable to that of the average author published in NY. But you won't have the validation, and for many authors that's the biggest payment from publication.

BTW, this attitude certainly reduces the monetary rewards of authorship for all but the very top end of the market.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on August 31, 2006 1:22 PM

You know, Real Go-Getters Who Sell the Sizzle and Don't Take "No" For an Answer. In other words, the kind of people who make most intelligent people nauseous.

Maybe they have to be like that because sometimes what they are selling is shit. Shit thought up, produced and foisted on the world by these so-called 'intelligent' people. Of whose membership I am sure you consider yourself.

Posted by: grandcosmo on August 31, 2006 9:20 PM

Doug says:

"If all a writer wanted to do was see his words in print, he could self-publish. Print-on-demand has made this both easy and inexpensive...But you won't have the validation, and for many authors that's the biggest payment from publication."

I can't deny this was true for me. My two books (with their tiny markets) could easily have gone the POD route. I considered it, and given equal sales, I would have come out WAY ahead by self-publishing.

Yet, what would my mom think? Actually Mom would be proud either way. But the fact is you can't put a POD project on your resume. Maybe that will change as the mode becomes more common. Maybe it should. Until then, there will be a basic satisfaction in a publisher's interest, at least for the likes of me.

What I think trade publishers ought to fear from POD is the work of more confident, more experienced writers who don't give such a damn for validation and can sell their own books, thank-you-very-much. Having enjoyed some kudos for "having a book published," he might be willing to trade that (mostly imagined) back-patting in future works in return for ten times the royalty.

There may be a basic schism between writers and salesmen, but never doubt there are writers out there who can sell, too.

Posted by: Matt Mullenix on September 1, 2006 8:39 AM

Re introverts and selling: I suspect that the qualities needed to MAKE a book-- the ability to obsessively sit at a desk, day after day, pulling things from your imagination-- don't line up well with the qualities needed to get out and hustle "product".

I'm moderately sociable for a writer but find signings unnerving, for what it's worth. I'll do 'em, but....

Posted by: Steve Bodio on September 2, 2006 9:37 AM

The last time I looked, salesmanship subsumed virtually all of culture (certainly including religion), a great deal of sexuality, and the better part of short, virtually every social aspect of humanity involves a healthy dose of salesmanship.

With apologies to Dr. Johnson, he who is tired of selling is tired of life.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 2, 2006 11:26 AM

Well, yeah, grandcosmo, I do consider myself intelligent. Not a super-genius; not even a genius. But intelligent enough to spot a BS artist when I encounter one and intelligent enough to want to distance myself when I do. I would say if a salesman feels he is selling dreck, maybe he should find a line of work where he could feel better about himself and his product. I have a feeling that you are a Real Go-Getter Who Sells the Sizzle and Won't Take No For an Answer and, perhaps, feels stung by my words? If the shoe fits, it fits; if it doesn't, no need to feel stung. And why the "so-called" and quotes around intelligent? Are you trying to say that there are no intelligent people? (Whether you consider me one is of no interest to me; you don't have enough information to judge. I just find your reaction to my post interesting, raising more questions than it answers.) Or that books are produced only by "so-called 'intelligent'" and that all are fecal? Very odd.

Posted by: Bilwick on September 5, 2006 9:31 AM

FVB: Your statement is a classic exposition of the extrovert outlook - sales (read interpersonal contact) is what makes life. I'll counter: what makes life worth living is the challenge of problem solving, the spark of creativity, the joy of beauty, in short the internal life of the individual. Sales - convincing others of the the solution, gaining appreciation of creativity, showing others the beauty - these are merely onorous actions needed to make a living, and are at best irrelevant and at worst antithetical to actually loving life.

Posted by: rvman on September 6, 2006 2:56 PM


Interpersonal relations are "at best irrelevant and at worst antithetical to actually loving life"?

Say what?!! Did you have parents, siblings, friends? Do you have a spouse or children? Do you seriously consider that salesmanship has no role in any of those relations?

My point was that you appear to be confining your notion of salesmanship to essentially what is bad in interpersonal relationships (dishonesty, manipulation, compulsion, exploitation, etc.) , and then triumphantly rejecting it. However, this is known as begging the question, that is, assuming what you are trying to prove. What about the good elements of interpersonal relationships? Like communication, negotiation, mutual benefit, reliability, division of labor, empathy, etc.? I know for a fact that the most financially successful salemen of my acquaintance base their work primarily on these latter elements.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 10, 2006 10:50 AM

Just to shift the conversation a bit, there is occasionally a publisher so attuned to what I really want to buy that I don't even look at the title and author -- much less the squib about contents. I just buy whatever they publish. My best example is Graywolf Press. Unfortunately, so few other people seem to have my taste that these publishers almost invariably get bought out or go broke.

Maybe someone should review publishers!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on September 10, 2006 1:33 PM

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