Monday, September 12, 2005

Devil's Advocate

When a new candidate for sainthood is advanced within the Catholic Church, a prelate is appointed to look for reasons why not. The term is "the devil's advocate," because he is required to attack the goodness of the saintly person. Peter Winkler is volunteering for that role in a comment, and I thought what he says worth repeating for those who don't read all the comments:

He begins by quoting me: "I have attracted almost 50,000 visitors to a blog devoted to a novel and its heroine. Yet few in the industry show any interest in a tool for pre-selling the book, or the pre-sold audience that might be lurking behind those numbers."

Would that really help sell a book in a bookstore to an audience who hadn't read part of it on the internet? I suppose the cover could say, "Read the book that 50,000 people have discovered online." If I saw that on a book, I might be skeptical of the claim. So much hype is fakery. How would I know if it was true? If I was internet savvy, I would probably wonder what that number means. Lots of readers will try something if you give them a free sample. There's no sales resistance. It's quite another thing to ask them to commit to buying a book. I hate to be the devil's advocate.

I don't think that blurbs mean very much. They certainly don't seem to induce anyone I know to read a book. After all, in most cases, blurbs are written either by friends of the author, or writers who have been hogtied into blurbing by their publishers. Same with reviews: I have seen books reviewed in both the Sunday and daily editions of The New York Times, especially when the authors are Times staffers or ex-staffers.

No, the way to employ the website would be to send viewers to or the publisher to pre-order the book, or purchase it after publication. It's also a way to let readers know of book tours, reviews, etc.

And many of the fans of the excerpts published so far tell me they feel a real link to the heroine. What better way than to bring fans closer to her than through a "living" site?

It's very hard to overcome people's prejudices, even with cold, hard numbers. Could I recount two of my experiences? I wrote a book proposal in early 1997 for an annotated directory of web sites devoted to TV shows. At that time, there were lots of web directories in print, including ones devoted to various special interests, like "The Book Lovers Guide to the Internet." I had two agents and they could never sell my book. At the height of the internet boom! One sentiment I heard from two other agents was that publishers assumed that people could look things up online through search engines for free, that web directories in print were superfluous and didn't stay in print long.

Clearly you are right. Agents either already agree with your idea, or you're sunk. There's no salesmanship involved, because they're not biting.

My last proposal was for a James Dean encyclopedia. I flogged it relentlessly for years. I tried agents to no avail. I didn't give up there. I approached editors directly. A few even requested my proposal. I assumed that with Dean's status as one of the most visible pop culture icons and the 50th anniversary of his death this year, someone would agree with me that it was a no brainer. No one agreed with me. Some told me there were too many other book about Dean in print. I argued with one editor that that showed how much interest there was in Dean. Then she looked up the numbers for those books in BookScan and said they were too low to warrant an offer. I didn't bother to go back to her and point out that those were backlist titles that couldn't even be found shelved at most bookstores, that my book would be new, would get the benefit of all the anniversary hoopla. That was all in the proposal anyway. It didn't sway anyone.

You're correct: nothing an author says is going to sway an agent. That's because they believe they know the market. I guess that's to be expected. And since it's a business, I can't blame them for not taking on projects they don't think they can sell. After all, I'm sure that all an agent has to do is make a few phone calls--

Agent: Hello, J. Bigass Editor? This is Sheila Hotagent. What do you think about a novel of personal discovery written in the voice of a 24 year-old woman?
Editor: Hate it.
Agent: Thanks, I do, too.

Winkler goes on:

I grant you that being able to demonstrate some level of interest in your book should be a plus. But it may not be able to surmount the prejudices of agents or editors, a lot of whom are hidebound and conservative.

I hate to be relentlessly negative. You've already experienced enough frustration as it is.

756 agents-worth!

Have you tried approaching editors directly? I would, and not just at small presses. If that doesn't work, some serious soul searching is in order. Maybe serializing it online on a pay as you go basis?

Like you need my advice. Reminds me of a joke I read in Mad magazine as a kid in the 60s. There was a man who read so much about the bad effects of smoking, he gave up reading. This whole publishing game can kill one's desire not just to write, but in books and reading.

Well, I have approached a few editors who are Yalies, thinking they would be interested in a book that takes place at Yale. The only ones who have answered back are those in non-fiction or kids books. Seems that without an agent, I'm S.O.L.

Now to your question about whether 50,000 "hits" on an Internet site will translate into a fraction of book sales. There's simply no answer to that question. I can't say what percentage of those who stop by would click through to and purchase a copy of the novel. But I do know that I now have nearly 100 links to other bloggers, many of whom are regular readers (and some are commenters) on the site. Again, how many would purchase the book for anywhere between $12-$18? Dunno the answer.

But what guarantee is there that anyone will purchase books that the publishers turn out? After all, a goodly number of them get NO publicity. This is one of the big areas of anger from authors. A friend of mine published a very fine book about fathering, and was at the time an editor at a parenting magazine. The net result: his publisher declined to option his follow-up project, citing weak sales.

There is no guarantee of book sales. The new book on "Deep Throat" (the Nixon source, not the porn film) has sold poorly. You'd think it would be a winner. I don't follow the ups and downs of the book trade, but there have been other notable failures this year.


Blogger magdelena said...

I'd like to open this comment by saying that I am one of the bloggers/readers who feels that affinity with Cassie. I appreciate very much the organic feel the 'Beyond You and Me' site has. So many sites are cold and faceless, yet yours is warm and inviting, more so for the enigma that you are. The novel is paramount, in an excellent trade with your persona. Your words speak.

I can't comment on agents in the literary industry. I have friends who grew tired of them in music and art, and I imagine their tales would extrapolate well.

I do have years of experience with bookselling, during which time I saw the evolution of net publishing and the concerns that created. By and large it made little impact and was quickly forgotten. Of more concern were the changes wreaked by the shareholders. If I start to discuss this I may never stop, suffice to say they changed the market for the worse. Range suffered at the mercy of bulk bought face front core stock. Smaller publishers were spurned, reps could no longer court bookbuyers and wile away glorious lunch times over wine selecting titles and numbers. In sum, the decisions of what would be on the shelf was made high up and a long time before we had any say.

Deeply saddened and sickened by the direction the industry was rapidly moving in, I resigned. And when I left, both the UK's biggest book chain and music outlet were owned by the same company. Selected artists and authors are plugged relentlessly and damn the rest.

So 'A' core stock dominates sales. Walk into ANY bookshop in the country and you will see EXACTLY the same titles on every shelf, in every subject area. Thank God we have a healthy second hand and antiquarian book scene.

Here in the UK, a customer no longer has the luxury of ordering a book on approval. You have to commit to the purchase based upon the scant information provided by Whitiker. The extraction of profit over value means that very few cross the line in a race that has no clear rules. Once an individual bookseller could champion your cause, I doubt that is the case any more.

Sorry to be such an Eeyore.

On a much brighter note, I would certainly buy the book and have no hesitation in recommending it to others.

9:15 AM, September 16, 2005  

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