Tuesday, July 11, 2006

downward spiral

print runs are based on orders. The cover flats go out, the publishing brochures go out. Orders come in. Say the print run of your first book is 100,000, and you sell 60,000. 40,000 are stripped. (I'm only talking paperbacks, and i'm really simplifying things here.) That's a pretty fair sell-through and above average. But here's where the inescapable downward spiral begins. Buyers for your next book simply check to see how many copies of your last book sold and base their orders on that, usually ordering less and almost never more. So the print run for books 2 will be 60,000. Let's say the sell-through for book 2 was 50%. 30,000 copies. The print run for book 3 will be 30,000.

The only chance you have of breaking that is to somehow impress the marketing department within your own publishing house. They will then promote your book more, promise their buyers that they're putting more money behind it so please buy more copies than the last book. They might throw in nice incentives, but all of this is rare and a little like winning the lottery. Fat chance.

Marketing liked my first thriller and wanted to back it, but they wouldn't get behind it unless I change my name. They didn't want orders tied to previous sales. My previous sales figures weren't bad, but marketing was thinking blockbuster. I was told not to tell anybody about the name change. Only my family knew about it. I didn't want to lie, so I avoided other writers and writing groups for a year. My real name wouldn't even be on the copyright page.

The downward spiral is inevitable for everyone, so even before orders and sales figures for book 1 were in I was asked to go a different direction with book 2. I was told this was in hopes of making some kind of impact on the marketing department the next time around. At this point, a writer is no longer writing for readers, she's writing for the marketing department within her own publishing house. All plot discussions had to do with pleasing the marketing department and what might possibly get their attention this next time through. From day one I've been against all this jumping around. Seemed like a really bad idea to me, but I was told it had to be done to stay ahead of the numbers.

My downward spiral wasn't massive, but over a span of books it becomes a bigger issue. The plan for my latest was to make a shift to a different genre in hopes of wooing M. The video I made wasn't so much for readers, but for the marketing department and reps. See, she's doing something different. See she's writing the kind of book that's hitting the Times. She's holding up her end and more. She's getting her name out there. She's involved, networking, featuring contests of her blog, going to conferences. (oops.)

So after all of this I got my print run figures yesterday. They exactly match the sales figures of my last book. What this tells me is none of what I did mattered. Nothing. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. I don't know if there's a moral to this story. Maybe that numbers are numbers. Maybe that it's time for publishers and writers to focus more on readers rather than trying to please and trick a computer.

The interesting thing about all of this is that my first book, Hush, is in its sixth printing and I'm still receiving royalty checks. It's the only book that was really mine and written without restrictions and dictates. The anticipation of the spiral is what screwed things up.

Of course this isn't the end of the story. It will be interesting to see if the work I've done on the publicity side will have any impact. I'm guessing not much, but we'll see.

this is something writers aren't supposed to talk about and most don't talk about, but i see it as a massive problem within the book industry. talking about it is just going to get me in trouble and not solve a damn thing. my big mouth.


Tribe said...

Not to make light of the situation, but I find it fascinating how all this works. Not to mention that there's no real "method" to any of it...the marketing people just take the easy way out and run with that figure.

Kelly Parra said...

This is a reality check to writers, Anne, thanks so much for sharing this with us. I really didn't know how much of this worked, but I'm learning from you.

I think you've done awesome things this year, and getting your name out there on the net. I'm sorry it didn't make an impact with marketing, but I think it will make an impact in cyberspace. I'm rooting for you! =D

Tribe said...

Something else that occurred to me...should you change your name with each book?

anne frasier said...

tribe, it is pretty fascinating. I wonder if the level of marketing control varies depending on the house. i would imagine it dones to some extent. i'd also be interested in knowing how thing were done 25 years ago. i have the feeling M didn't have so much control back then.

the name: yeah, i was thinking of that this morning. it almost make me think a writer should switch houses and names with each contract! but then that would piss readers off, because many of them feel the name change is to trick them.

kelly, thanks so much, and thanks for all of your help and support! i really do think this will be a solid test. i'll find out if what i've done has any impact on the reader front.

angie said...

How bizarre and disheartening. It will be interesting to see what impact your effort has on book sales, though. It really seems like the numbers are the only thing that will get the marketing dept.'s attention. And hey- same print run does NOT equal downward spiral. Holding pattern, yeah, but not going down.

Thanks for sharing your experiences with this bizarre business of writing. It's really appreciated.

anne frasier said...

angie -- yes, it's really bizarre! i know publishers are not doing well at all right now, and a large part of this is to try to save money on the actualy printing of books that don't sell. i actually think the publisher loses twice on those books, because i believe the bookstore still makes something on stripped books.

it does make me wonder if ebooks might be part of the solution. i've never read one, and i think i'd miss the actual book -- but i can also see where ebooks could be very handy in certain situations.

Tami said...

I tried ebooks for awhile and I hated them. This was back when they were really new, but I really missed holding an actual book. There is something about turning the pages and the smell of a new or old used book. I have that same feeling with digital painting. Though I think digital painting is great, easy and a lot more clean, there is something about the smell of paint and holding an actual paintbrush.

Thanks for sharing with us Anne. I've worked in marketing before (not in publishing but in tv) and I will say, books are not the only thing out there that this happens to. It's amazing what shows they decide to push and the reasons why. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with how good the tv show is or what it's about! What an eye opener!

anne frasier said...

tami, i'm not sure i could ever get used to ebooks either. maybe when i'm traveling they might be nice -- but i'm not even sure about that.

people who've worked in marketing immediately get this whole situation. others tend to scratch their heads. this is a bit off-topic, but i believe a cover can make or break a person's career. one bad cover can be the end if the writer isn't a brand name. most of us are teetering on the edge.

Jeff said...

Interestingly, this very issue was addressed on one of the panels at Thrillerfest. The panel consisted of an editor, an author, a publisher, and a bookseller. One member of the audience(a writer) asked a specific question very similar to your downward spiral example of declining book orders. The sad thing was, no one had a clear answer to the problem. I do remember one panel member finally shrugging and saying, "sometimes the writing life just sucks." What kind of answer is that?
The rest of the discussion dealt with how next to impossible it is for new writers to get their manuscripts read and accepted. :(
Thankfully, that was the only depressing panel discussion I attended.
I'm glad you've chosen to speak out about this issue, Anne. It needs to be addressed.

Jaye Wells said...

Thanks for the insight. It seems so many things about this industry get a shurg and a "That's just how it is" or as Jeff said "Writing life sucks." It's the weirdest business model I've ever seen. You'd never hear an accountant say, "These numbers don't add up. Oh well."

anne frasier said...

jeff, that's interesting that the subject came up at thrillerfest.

i do recall reading some suggestions for combatting the problem, but i can't remember what they were! i think one idea had to do with stripped books and returns -- but i can't remember what it was.

jaye, it seems like the whole business is in need of massive restructuring.

Bailey Stewart said...

I think the work you have done on the publicity side has worked - at least it worked for me.

Elizabeth said...

Anne, thanks for your insight and your bravery in publishing this post. What an eye opener.

M.G. Tarquini and I spent two days driving Barry Eisler and J.A. Konrath on the Phoenix leg of what they term drive-by signing tours. One of their theories in hitting as many bookstores to sign as many of books in as many corners of the country as possible is that a signed book is a sold book because booksellers won't strip it and send it back.

It's a tough row to hoe, though. Eighteen bookstores in two hot Phoenix days, and we were all delirious by 2 p.m. in the afternoon.

anne frasier said...

bailey: thanks. i know you really liked the PI blog. I've been slacking there lately. ran out of photos and haven't had a chance to take more.

elizabeth: thank you so much.
i read about your driving gig! i would be delirious too. i don't think i have the stamina for that kind of thing -- and probably not the charm. :) i've had mixed reactions to drive-by signings. i'd say half the bookstores i've hit hate them, so i don't think i'm doing any this next time. i'm sure joe and barry get a much better response from PR people - who often tend to be female and grumpy.

anne frasier said...

oh, i'll add that as far as chains go i've always had a wonderful response from Borders. Barnes and Noble can go either way.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Geez, I posted a comment and blogger ate it.

I don't understand why authors have to get the marketing people behind their book. The book is the product - the company should automatically be invested in selling it. That's the marketing people's job. If it was anything else, people would be stunned. You don't say, "Oh, I'm just not as keen on selling that prescription drug" - if it's your stock that you've got the exclusive market on (and having an author to yourself makes them your exclusive product) then you get out there and sell it! Take advantage of having that unique product!

anne frasier said...

sandra, that whole aspect of publishing was a shock to me when my first book came out in 1988. i didn't know the books are all tiered, and even if a book ends up in a top tier, it still might not get much of a push depending on how commercial the marketing department decides it is. so it might be important to go with a publisher who understands and knows how to market the kind of books you're writing.

you would think all books would simply get equal treatment, but it doesn't work that way. many are actually destined for failure simply because of how they're marketed.

Nienke said...

How does this affect the quality of your writing and the quality of your enjoyment of writing?

I get the impression that the pressure of making the book "perfect" would accompany this marketing game. Do you find yourself thinking, "if only this book is good enough, it will get higher print runs?

Writing is hard enough, without having to worry about the business side of things.

What about using a new pen name and starting from scratch w/o telling anyone? Or is that more daunting than going along?

anne frasier said...

nienke: it definitely impacts the quality. no doubt about that. the success of the first book changed everything.
but the pressure and stress comes from the loss of control. suddenly a lot of people are involved, and trying to mesh the visions of several people is very difficult. i think some writers are better at this than others, and it probably helps if the editor and writer have the same tastes. if you are polar opposites it can be especially tough. when you're writing a story you really want to write, you KNOW if it's working. i found myself writing things (entire books!) i had zero interest in -- so i didn't even know if the book was working because i didn't like it to begin with.
those mss ended up getting tossed and i just started over. i wrote play dead in 2 or 3 months after throwing out an entire book. for me plotting by committee just hasn't worked. i just can't do it even though i tried really hard.

when a writer approaches the bottom of the spiral she really has no choice but to take a pen name.

jamie ford said...

(people who've worked in marketing immediately get this whole situation.)

All too well.

I work in advertising and PR, and my wife was an art director at a book publisher.

The downward spiral is a killer. Joe Konrath does his thing, but it probably only boosts his sales 5%. The rest is the buzz-worthiness of a book and the atractiveness of the cover.

Have you read the Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell? He talks a lot about what makes one thing a hit and another thing a dud. It's a good read.

anne frasier said...

jamie, i really enjoyed the tipping point.

i've been meaning to dig out my copy and read it again because the blog world also reminds me of some things from the tipping point. there was something about the average number of friends most people can comfortably have. it's an unconscious limit that's close to the same for all but a few really dynamic individuals.

and i do fear you're right about that 5% boost in sales. you can't get a buzz going from the outside. that kind of thing can help, but it's not going to tip it. as soon as you quit running you're back where you started.

emeraldcite said...

This was a really good post and the spiral doesn't come up as often as it should. Most newbies should be aware of it before getting involved. As if the trouble of getting an agent and finding a publisher isn't enough, the oncoming spiral is a major issue.

The sad part is that it doesn't seem that it can be avoided. Because of the purchase and print structure, the spiral is created.

I know it comes down to money and marketing. The market is too flooded for a house to focus on everything they put out. On the other hand, there are lots of good books coming out everyday.

I think the spiral is the scariest part for me. This is one of my biggest fears about publishing. I know that if I'm good enough, I'll finally break into the business, but I don't think there's anything I can do about the spiral.

anne frasier said...

emeraldcite: i do find it strange that people don't talk about this much. i sometimes feel i'm talking about some super secret and now i'll be shunned. i think the spiral has gotten worse in the past 5 years because publishers are desperately trying to cut cost every way they can.

emeraldcite said...

There's not enough shelf space for all the books anymore. I don't want them to slow their output because I really enjoy the various novels available.

I remember reading that Stephen King's reason for creating Richard Bachman was because his publisher didn't think it could handle more than one King novel a year. Of course, he proved them wrong, but there are a number of novelists who put out two a year.

This pleases the fans of a writer. I love when I can read two of my favorite authors' novels a year. Conversely, it takes up more space and cuts down on the momentum that a book can catch when it comes six or eight months before the next.

anne frasier said...

oh, yeah. i remember when publishers did not want more than one book a year. then it was one book every 8 months. now they are releasing three books one or two months apart. i think they can combine all their advertising this way -- and many of those releases seem to hit the times -- even the ones by new writers.