Mark Terry

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Word of Mouth/Promotion

July 16, 2008
Yesterday I got over-involved in a posting thread over on agent Nathan Branford's blog about a couple different publishers and/or imprints such as Vanguard, that are attempting a new business model. Essentially the business model involves publishes far, far fewer books, providing much lower advances, guaranteeing much more money gets put into promotion, higher royalties because of the lower to non-existent advances, and the upshot being that because they are going to publish far fewer books, they intend to treat each with tender loving care and turn each one into a bestseller.

It's not the first I've heard of it. I spoke with both David Morrell and Tom Grace (at length) about it, both of whom are at Vanguard. Both of them have a significant sales history and reputation and for one reason or another, can afford to go with a minimal advance (or none), or, at the least, are willing to. Vanguard, at least, seems to be focusing on authors who have sold quite well in the past and are looking for more promotional support from their publishers.

I'm not opposed to the idea, but I wondered in my first response if this would be a bad idea for the rest of us ilk, those of us with small or no advances already. Yes, it would be great if the publisher who was already not paying us much money decided to up our royalties and then promised and actually followed-through and spent a specific dollar amount on promotion. I just didn't see it happening that way, quite possibly because no publisher can afford to promote every book they publish effectively... most books are the equivalent of cannon fodder or spaghetti--you throw it at the wall and see if it sticks, and if it doesn't, you shrug and say, well, we didn't spend much money on it anyway and there's more where he came from. My point was that there were tons of books being published with small or non-existent advances so publishers wouldn't be inclined to increase the royalties to make up for that, and since their investment was so low anyway, what motivation did they have to throw any real money into promotion or co-op?

Somebody apparently decided I was focusing on the promotion element too much and money, and really, all it takes for a book to succeed in the marketplace is for readers to love it and talk about it, and after all, there's a lengthy history of books given modest advances and no particular push by the publisher that take off, and a lengthy history of books that are given big advances, huge marketing pushes that then fail.

Indeed there is and I didn't disagree, I just asked that she name 5, and I was specifically pointing out that I wasn't challenging the statement, I was just curious what she would put up. (Okay, yes, perhaps I was challenging the statement, but not because I thought she was wrong, but because I wanted her to substantiate her claim, that is to say, put her money where her mouth was).

So she did, and one of them was JK Rowling and Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone.

Yep, I don't disagree with that. Her publisher certainly did not realize when they paid her whatever little they paid her, that she was going to be the most famous writer on the planet. I would also add Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell and Janet Evanovich to that mix as well, and without spending a lot of time researching it, I'm sure I could come up with more.

I also pointed out, however, that it wasn't long after those authors developed an unexpectedly large following that their publishers started throwing a great deal of money into promotion. I specifically noted around the time the 3rd or 4th Potter book came out, how Borders had these giant 3 feet by 4 feet cardboard, glossy posters hanging from the ceilings in all their stores, that I asked who paid for them--the publisher--and could only guess how much it cost not only to make and deliver those signs, but then to pay Borders and B&N and everybody else for the real estate. (And I didn't say this, but I asked this when I was doing a book signing in their store where I was lucky to sell 7 or 8 books and there had been no promotion done by the bookstore or the publisher whatsoever, not even a sign in the store window saying I would be there. The only promotion done for that was what I did, which was minimal because I didn't have the money for anything).

My point, which I probably did not articulate as clearly as I should have, was that clearly the publishers weren't relying on word-of-mouth, they were spending money--and a lot of it--to promote their big authors, they were making sure they got reviewed by the major trades, but also made sure there were expensive ads and articles in major newspapers like the New York Times, USA Today, LA Times, et al., they were spending co-op money to make sure huge stacks of their books were placed on the front tables at the chain stores and at the New Titles sections, and next to the cash registers at Wal-Mart and Kmart and Sam's Clubs. In some cases they were paying for TV and radio ads.

Word-of-mouth is great. Absolutely great. But if your book is only available in every third store--probably 1 copy--and your distribution sucks, even if the 500 people who love your book talk it up, it probably won't sell. And it sure as hell won't sell if nobody can find it or has heard of it.

I find it interesting that "word-of-mouth" often seems, in reality, to mean that some feature writer at the New York Times writes an article about the book, then somebody at USA Today decides it needs a look and does an interview, and it grows from there. What seems to be missing is the notion of where that "word-of-mouth" may actually have begun. Did it begin with some reader buying a copy for his maiden aunt? Did it begin with a librarian or bookshop owner recommending it to readers? And how did they hear about it? Did they read a review in Publishers Weekly or Library Journal, did the publisher send them an ARC and they picked it up by accident, happen to like it and recommend it?

Or did the publisher's PR person send out press releases indicating how much money they had spent on the book and how hot it was and really, they should try and try to read this HOT NEW BOOK.

By comparison, for my last novel, my publisher sent out 4--yes, count them, 4!--advanced reading copies and I was mentioned in their catalogue and on their website. I believe it was also mentioned in a 1/3 page ad in Mystery Scene Magazine along with 6 or 7 other books. That is, as far as I know, the extent of my publisher's promotional efforts for The Serpent's Kiss. Again, welcome to the reality of publishing. (I, on the other hand, spent several thousand dollars on AuthorBuzz, sending postcards to libraries and bookstores, my website, and visiting bookstores and doing a couple radio interviews, library talks and book fairs. It sounds good, but it's a drop in the bucket and was largely wasted time, money and effort).

Let me give you an interesting example. I was a book reviewer for The Oakland Press here in Michigan for quite a few years. (Also other places). I still get books sent to me. Also press kits.

Most authors you've never heard of and even many you have, you get an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC). Sometimes it's the hardcover, sometimes it's the mass market paperback, most often it looks like a cheaper version of a trade paperback that may or may not have cover art on it--sometimes it's just a plain piece of paper with the title and author info on the front, no cover art. Typically there's a one-sheet describing the book--essentially the jacket copy and the author bio.

A year or two ago I received Barry Eisler's PR person's book. I think it was for The Last Assassin. Along with the hardcover of the book I received a black binder with a white label on the front that read: TOP SECRET. Inside the black binder were several pages describing the book along with potential feature story ideas. A multi-page biography of Barry. A one or two-page Q&A with Barry. A thing Barry wrote about acting like a spy and surveilling your surroundings.

Clearly, someone was going out of their way to sell Barry and his books.

Around the same time, David Morrell's book "Scavenger" came out. In this case, I know that David's daughter, Suri Morrell, was the one who sent it to me, and she's a professional book publicist. It came with an ARC of the book (with cover art), a binder, materials similar to Barry's with an author bio, Q&A, an article David wrote about time capsules, Internet links about time capsules, an article David wrote about how he came up with the story ideas. For David's previous novel, "Creepers," I got a similar press kit and a thin flashlight ideal for tossing in your luggage in case you're stuck in a hotel when the power goes out.

Okay, my question. What builds word-of-mouth? What generates the interest of book reviewers and feature writers? What does that word-of-mouth cost? What starts it?

You tell me.

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

People really don't spread books by word of mouth as much as people talk about word of mouth. I think my non-writing friends have recommended MAYBE one book a year MAX. I can't remember the last time a non-writing friend mentioned a book.

Sometimes I think authors market to other authors an awful lot, and I'm not convinced this works. I get so many advertisements, I can't even read them all.

I don't know the answers to your question. My own book-buying habits prove it's all about real estate and even co-op. I do think people will buy more books online as time goes on, and that will be about that Amazon pairing thing, and talk shows and such. There's just so much spam and advertising, I'm not convinced much of it works. We're desensitized.

If we do trend online more in the next ten or so years, I do think success will start to come to those who distinguish themselves in small niches, just like it has in other online industries.

Just speculation and observation, though.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

This is a great story, essentially focusing on the apocryphal nature of book publishing. Someone hears a story about an "overnight success"--only it turns out the person has been toiling in obscurity for years and years. "Word of mouth" sells a book? What what the hell is word of mouth anyway? You can be sure the "real" story is some well-placed publicity thatgets people talking and then it builds.


9:55 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

--I wonder about writers marketing to other writers, too. A lot. And in terms of it being SPAM, no kidding. I get e-mail notices from authors I've never heard of and mostly they annoy me. It's an instant delete. Even for authors I know and like, I glance at it and say, 'okay, they've got a book coming out, good,' and delete it. It's rare I follow through and read the whole damn thing. People who haven't worked as journalists or freelance writers have no ideas how many press releases and professional notices cross my inbox every day.

--absolutely. And the thing about getting press is that it's cannibalistic--newspapers eat each other. If someone at the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times or wherever does a piece on a new or old writer, there's a good likelihood other papers will follow. Why? There's an old adage in the newspaper business that three notices indicate a trend. Well, that was before the Internet, where you can google things and find three mentions of damned near anything.

Newspaper reports and freelancers don't generate all their own ideas, it's impossible. So they go look for them. If you're a feature writer and are looking for a feel-good story to fill up your front page in Chicago, and you see there's an article in the NYT about a rags-to-riches author, and voila, that author happens to live in Chicago... or Illinois ... or is touring in Chicago ... or has a relative in Chicago... or the book takes place in Chicago ... or mentions Chicago... you've got your hook and your day's assignment is taken care of, you call the publisher or check the writer's website and set up a phone interview and in a couple hours you're done and you can go and worry about the next day's story, which might be about a quadriplegic swimmer in the Olympics or the latest movie to come out or whatever.

But I'm extremely skeptical that word-of-mouth JUST HAPPENS because people are talking about your book.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Writer Mary Reed e-mailed me separately because she couldn't get into the Comments section. Here's her comments:

Your latest blog is sure to generate comment and here are a couple of thoughts. Ref the overnight success, darn tooting right! If we ever become one 8-} it will have taken us more than l2 years considering our first co-authored story was published some l5 years back, and the first novel about 9 years ago. Not exactly overnight but we have sure paid our dues! But the vital thing is to keep slogging along and hoping for the best.

But I do think stories of Joe Schmoe whose debut novel was purchased for half a million will always generate its own buzz, although I also seem to recall Arthur C. Clarke created a bit of a sensation with his one penny advance some years back. It seems to me that announcing any extraordinary aspect on how the book was acquired is one key to extensive pick-up in the media once the initial story appears, and I have no doubt this is partly behind such deals. But how often really does the publisher recoup the advance by sales?

11:11 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

It's sort of hard to tell about those stories of no advances or 1 cent advances. Stephen King took one of his advances as $1 and claimed it was to shut up all the reviews that focused on the size of his reviews, although one insightful person I read suggested it was probably for tax purposes.

I've also heard that John Updike doesn't accept advances and only takes royalties, but that's quite an exception.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

For the most part, I think novelists who become bestsellers have books with "breakout" qualities. Promotion gets the ball rolling, word of mouth makes it snowball, etc., but I think eventually it comes down to the writing. Something that writer is doing resonates with a large part of the reading population.

11:48 AM  
Blogger MissWrite said...


4:39 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

It's all in who you sleep with. :P

7:41 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

No offense. But I 100% disagree. It's not the writing. It's almost never the writing. If it was the writing then so many of today's best pure fiction writers (not genre) would be household names. There are many brilliant writers out there . . . toiling in obscurity. . . and most of the reading public wouldn't know good writing if it fell on them like a ton of bricks. YOU know good writing because you want to be a published writer. Because we travel in circles with other aspiring writers and published writers . . . it can SEEM as if people are looking for good writing. But no. I think most break-out books are solid, seamless writing that moves the story along, tightly written, with a character who's uusual or funny or has extreme drive or a twist on a familiar profession, some quality that's appealing, and then there's the "hook." But I don't ever think it's somethiing in the "writing" itself. Not if you are talking about books with massive buzz. Because every single one of them. . . whe you ask someone about the buzz. . . it will boil down to "Totally cool book about a BLANK who goes up against a BLANK in a race against time." Or a "BLANK who is really a vampire who has done BLANK." A hook with a character with a coflict that's totally fresh.

But no one for a buzz book says, "Well, you just have to read the writing--he does it beautifully." UNLESS you are a writer.

Your response is precisely the response that Mark was talking about a few posts on secret handshakes. We like to think we can say it's this writing thing because most of us want to believe WE have that kind of talent and can hone it and get a deal and that's the secret. But really, luck and money and talent and hook and timing all swirl together . . . not "well, obviously it's because Joe Schmoe has doe something with the writing thatothers aren't." Because if thatwas the case we can all thik of THOUSANDS of best-selling books where you read them and think. . . huh? Servicable, yes. But doing something MArk isn't or you aren't or x person isn't? Not sure that's true.

5:30 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I probably don't feel quite as strongly about this as Erica does, but...

Yeah, I agree with her. At the same time, I think NY editors may very well respond to beautiful writing, but the average reader...

Probably not. (Assuming anyone can even define it).

I think it's easy enough to give an example here: The Da Vinci Code.

I haven't heard a single writer or critic say, "Dan Brown's writing is good."

It is, actually, quite serviceable. It does pretty much what it's supposed to do.

Most people also argued that the character of... what's his name, was a cardboard cutout. I'm not quite as inclined to agree with this, I thought he was interesting in a bland sort of way--what he did and what he knew was interesting and how he responded was interesting, and in an action thriller, that's what it's all about.

But that hook, the conflict, it's awesome. And it meant a hell of a lot to a whole lot of people.

But I'm not sure it's possible to necessarily plan that at that level.

5:41 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Erica and Mark:

I agree with you guys. I didn't mean it boils down to the writing as in the prose per se, but definitely along the lines of most break-out books are solid, seamless writing that moves the story along, tightly written, with a character who's uusual or funny or has extreme drive or a twist on a familiar profession, some quality that's appealing, and then there's the "hook."

Beautifully said, Erica. That's what I meant, really. Plots and characters that resonate with a large part of the reading population, along with tension on every page (per Donald Maass).

I just happened to walk into Books-A-Million last night while Brad Thor was set up for a signing. Also there was Steve Berry, who'd driven down from Georgia just to hang out and support Brad. Here I was standing a few feet away from these NYT bestselling authors, and I didn't approach either of them because I was embarrassed to say I'd never read either of them. I went to the shelves and read a couple of paragraphs and thought how absolutely ordinary (and even downright amateurish in places) the prose was. These guys sell books because of the things Erica said, not because of their lovely prose. Of course, if a writer (I'm thinking James Lee Burke here) can combine all those bestselling qualities Erica mentioned and write first-rate prose, all the better I think.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Interestingly, I've interviewed both Brad Thor and Steve Berry (twice, in Steve's case). They're both very approachable, I think.

I've read at least one book by both and I think they're very good storytellers for a specific type of reader. I'm not a big fan of either of them, which isn't to say they aren't good, just that they don't punch my buttons and there are plenty of books that do.

Brad Thor was a guy who couldn't get published, so he self-published and peddled the book around to bookstores himself and eventually they sold and someone in the industry got interested and picked him up and gave him a push. He's one of "those" stories, the ones that makes aspiring writers think that might be a good idea. It probably isn't.

What surprises me most about Brad is what an arch-conservative he is, which is in keeping with his books, but isn't something I see that much in writers.

The thing that has surprised me about Steve is that he has continued to be an attorney despite being a bestselling author (although in the last interview he suggested that might change because the writing/promotion is taking up so much time).

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