Oh yeah, I talk about publishing, too

I forgot to mention in my purpose draft that I intend to use this blog to critique the publishing industry as well, particularly book publishers.

My largest critique of today’s book publishing industry (though it obviously applies to media across the board): Bumping up money on marketing and publicity while draining funds from editorial. A direct metaphor for this situation, imo, is draining a lake to flush your sewage system: at the end of the day, you’ll still have shit to flush but nothing to drink.

Listeners often react to this criticism by saying that it’s paradoxical or ideal. The idea is that there’s a line with good books at one extreme and good business on the other extreme, and they suppose that ne’er the twain shall meet. They say that is good business and that, especially in an industry whose sum value is worth less than Paramount Pictures (at least that’s what they told me at Emerson), good business trumps good content.

But I disagree. While in the short term marketing and publicity are able to sell books that people buy without a second thought, the books that sell on publicity and marketing don’t prosper into their later years. They, like Marguerite Duras’ face, age prematurely; or perhaps, as the industry saying goes, they have the shelf-life of yogurt.

Our industry does not sell dairy, though, nor stuff that expires at all. We sell knowledge; we sell mental value. If we can’t maintain that one primal distinction– primal because it sets us, book publishers, apart from other media distributors–then readers will not continue to prefer books over other content, other that is more exciting, other that is more stimulating, other that is more entertaining. We know that movies catch us out on the one, that theater on the second, that television on the third. We’re educated people with the intelligence to know where we’re beat. But what we have that others don’t, the force that both defines reading as an event and as an industry, is an insight into the psychology of characters that no other media can even approach. As long as we have that, we have sales.

But we no longer have that, nor do we promise it. We promise excitement and all the other things, because that’s what makes good marketing. So we sell one book powerfully up front, but it neither backlists nor works to maintain consumers as readers instead of moviegoers, instead of theatergoers, instead of televisiongoers. And if we can’t convince them to enjoy our product over those others, then they won’t.

Take, for example, this news from Publisher’s Lunch about Simon and Schuster’s latest marketing drive on Stephen King’s behalf: unsolicited text messages sent directly to cell phones.

1) It’s Stephen fucking King. You pay him million dollar advances because each of his new books sell themselves, at least for six months so that you can make back your advance. I won’t rag on Stephen King–he’s an entertainer who consistently generates a low quality of work that has a market (the man calls himself the McDonald’s of publishing for a reason)–but people that know about him know about him. Those who like his books will buy them, and those who don’t won’t. In America, there aren’t many book consumers who don’t fall in either of those categories. He doesn’t need new marketing ideas at this point in his career; just put up your posters, maybe have a TV commercial, and call it a day.

2) Spam mail is one thing that customers will look at. It came in our mailboxes, and we groaned. It came in our email inboxes, and we struggled a little. I guarantee you, marketers, that the day you start sending spam to something I have in my pocket with me all day long, I will take that cellphone with me to your office place, clench my fist tightly around it, and punch you in the face until its plastic mold breaks. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals doesn’t think I’m alone on this one. I guess since the lower court ruled in favor of you, it’s not so sad that you tried to defend yourself on this ridiculous count of foolery, but why you ever ran with this idea in the first place, I don’t know. It’s a good marketing idea, bad business idea. Two words: Ill will.

That’s enough for today. Leave comments, even if it’s just a smiley face. Thanks for visiting!

3 thoughts on “Oh yeah, I talk about publishing, too

  1. Very good points, my brother. Stick with your strengths, and on another matter, buy Amos a cell phone, so he can wrap his fist around it and punch those in need. 🙂

    I wish I had more of a body of reading experience of Stephen King, so I could more intelligently agree or disagree with you.

    Perhaps I should rewrite some of his books, and give them heft. 🙂

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