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M.J. Rose on the Publishing Industry

My Wiley colleague Jason Marcuson was kind enough to send me a link to M.J. Rose’s blog, Buzz, Balls & Hype. M.J. is a talented writer and an outspoken critic of the publishing industry. We need more passionate authors like M.J. to help get publishing out of the rut and develop new and exciting products and promotional activities.

Here’s the heart of M.J.’s point:

When we, as an industry, continue to rely on the old ways of doing business and refuse to make any real marketing and advertising breakthroughs as to how we publicize books and incentivize readers - things aren't going to change for more than a tiny handful of books each year.

Absolutely. But I believe we also need to quit trying to live in the old blockbuster world. All too often a publicity budget is disproportionately tilted towards a very small number of what are hoped to become breakout titles. When some number of those titles flop, and they will, it only magnifies the lack of spending on the rest of the list. You don’t need to spend a fortune on each title to give it a chance. Just look at the impact Amazon’s “buy-x-get-y” program can have on a book.

I also strongly believe publicity is a shared responsibility between author and publisher, hence the desire to only hire authors with solid platforms. I can think of several books my own group published where the author’s platform delivered considerably more sales than any P.R. activity we could have initiated from the publisher side.


Kathy Sierra

I believe the bigger problem is not how we advertise/incentivize books, but in how we decide what books to create (and how to create them).

I feel that a big part of the problem is the inherent and pervasive assumption that MOST books will not be successful at all -- and very lucky to earn out their advance.

This attitude (backed by statistical evidence, yes) works as a self-fulfilling prophecy, since it affects the way the book is written, and no amount of publicity will fix a book that doesn't meet the right needs of its intended audience.

So rather than focus only on blockbusters, I'd rather see a model where there are fewer books, but *most* are written and promoted to be very successful. Right now, it's the opposite. In a 'hits' model, the majority of the ones not likely to be hits are written solely for the advance (or to further the author's resume). These aren't bad things, necessarily, and the quality may be quite high -- but it's asking a different question, "How can I work efficiently to do a good job assuming I will earn only the advance?" vs. "How can I make sure this book will be really successful... which really means, what can I do to make sure the readers get exactly what they want and need?"

It's the second question that dramatically ups the odds of having a successful book. Until we get past the mindset of a hits-only model, we'll continue to put out too many books that no amount of promotion will help.

It's never been easier than now, however, for the good books to rise to the top... with only the most minimal amount of promotion from the publisher. And while I agree wholeheartedly that the author's platform is very important, I think it's much more important *before* the book is written, rather than as a vehicle to promote the book. The more involved in the community the author is, the more likely they are to truly understand where readers are not yet being served.

Great post, as usual, Joe and this one also happened to push a few of my big buttons ; )

Joe Wikert

Hi Kathy. Thanks for raising some great points that I missed. Regarding the author's platform and the importance of it *before* the book is written...excellent observation! I sometimes get too focused on how the platform can sell copies of a book rather than considering the importance of how it should be used for the construction of the content. Some of the best books in the tech area, and elsewhere I'm sure, were the result of an author taking their extensive community experience and pouring it into a great publication.

Also, your note about publishing fewer books and trying to make them better really hits home. Again, I'm as guilty as anyone of trying to push the envelope on a new series, approach, etc. Sometimes when you know it's best to test the waters with X titles it's too tempting not to go to 1 or 2 more than X. Or, in order to achieve the desired revenue growth results, it's much easier to "get there" with some increase in title count rather than making fewer, better books (note the comma!). Even when shelf space is shrinking it's hard to take your foot off the accelerator. One concern is that your competition is going to keep pushing the limits and you'll just lose that spot on the shelf. I'm not saying these are the right approaches, just that they're the sort of thing that goes through your head when you're trying to manage the publishing side. It's a tough balance, but I'd like to push more in the direction you're talking about.

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