Thursday 17 May 2012

What do publishers really really want?

In a white room...
When away from home my life is decided by my iPhone. My total control-freakery, weirdo nutjob iPhone. Arbitrarily it decides whom I shall see and whom I shan’t; whom I should talk to and whom I shouldn't. Whole lotta whoms here, huh? 

Sometimes it will cheerily download my emails; sometimes it has a hissy fit and refuses access.  If it does let me on, it often decides – quite off its own back – that my responses (time-consumingly tip-tapped onto its tiny screen – torture for touch typists) should not be delivered.  Ditto Twitter – sometimes it will deliver tweets and DMs, sometimes not.  Facebook?  Don’t even go there.

So, when I was in London, I saw some friends but not others; certain publishers but not others. I caught some PRs while others must have thought me exceedingly rude.  I had hoped to catch my old friend Sam Baker and couldn’t quite figure out why she hadn’t responded to my nudges, and then – finally – I realized it was because she hadn’t received my missives.  Sigh.  But - who knows? – maybe there is method in its madness. Maybe I saw the people I needed to see…rather than those I just really really wanted to see.

I did learn some interesting things though, from those I saw.  That sentence bothers me too, but never mind.  Like, apparently a review on a good blog can be worth more than a review in a national paper or glossy mag in terms of sales. Now - although I am a firm believer in the power of social media - that still surprised me.  But one PR cited the instance of a page feature in the Daily Mail drawing in far less response than a blog post. Amazing.  In my own experience (as both a blogger and a journalist) many PR companies are still sniffy about blogging.  But maybe that is changing. 

And, you know how people all whitter on about What Publishers Want?  And Which Way the Market is Going?  The wannabe authors amongst us, that is (cos the others, frankly, don't give a shit). Well, hey, guess what?  The publishers haven’t got a clue what’s going on either. We’re all of us together, paddling blindly in circles. Honest.  I popped in to see an old friend who is now a head honcho at one of the Big Six.  ‘We used to know our customers,’ she said wistfully, leaning back on her comfy sofa in her big corner office.  ‘Y’know, Waterstone's, Smiths, Borders etc.  We knew what they wanted; we knew who they were.  But now…’  She shrugged eloquently. ‘We haven’t got the foggiest. Our customers are now the public, and we don’t know them, not remotely.
‘Celebrity still sells,’ she said with an eye roll. ‘But the rest is wide open. Wide wide open.  And content is key.’

What about self-publishing, I asked her. ‘Hell yes, of course,’ she said.  Really?  
‘We can’t come anywhere close to offering the royalties Amazon do,' she said sadly. 'We just can’t afford it.’ 
But surely, I mused, people still want – or should want – a traditional publishing contract?  She looked deeply unconvinced. ‘Why? Sure we can get them a good cover and good editing but, really, you can get that yourself if you know where to look.  What we do do well is to hold people’s hands – we look after authors a lot more now, we’re much better at it. We have to be.’
As I walked away I got the impression of leaving a huge rudderless supertanker gyrating slowly in the middle of a vast ocean.

It was pretty much the same story when I had lunch with a much smaller, more niche publisher.
‘What are you looking for?’ I asked.  He shrugged and mopped up some hummus with a bit of bread. 
‘It’s easier to say what we’re not looking for,’ he said.  Paused, swallowed, and shook his head. ‘No, actually that doesn’t work either. It’s wide, wide open.  We just don’t know really; nobody does.’

And as I looked round the big bookshops in London I could see what they meant.  There are no real trends; no discernible patterns.  Which, actually, I found rather comforting.  
‘It comes down to passion,’ said Mr Small but Perfectly Formed. ‘If a book has real passion behind it, it can be a surprise bestseller.’ 

He also said that they were shamelessly watching to see which self-published books were making the grade and stepping in to offer deals.  Does that mean we get great new talent plucked out of nowhere?  Not necessarily. As everyone who's ever self-published knows, you don't just need a decent product, you also need uber-marketing skills - or a shitload of luck. 

‘I’m looking at our backlist,’ said Mrs Big but Vulnerable. ‘There are some real gems there which I’d like to see polished off and brought back.’ Ah, that’s rather comforting too. 

But how, I asked them both, do we (the customer, the public) choose books - with the sheer volume out there right now? How can we discover the real gems and avoid the cowpats?  Mr Small reckons like-minded communities are the answer – online forums. Interesting.  Mrs Big cheerily admitted she really didn’t know. ‘Amazon sure as hell can’t do it – their algorithms aren’t sophisticated enough.’  

I said the one thing I did like about Waterstones was their ‘favourite books’ lists and staff recommendations.   Because they seemed to like a lot of the books I'd already read and loved, I took a chance on Pema Chodron, figuring she might be good too.  And she was. 

And Mrs Big agreed.  But then, she would.  :-)

But seriously.  Word of mouth.  Which is maybe where we turn full circle and look at the value of blogs and social media again.    We're in a world of too many authors and not enough readers, with the big publishers generally no longer acting as decent gatekeepers.  The mainstream press doesn't really help either - they play the celebrity game and, to be fair, are simply overwhelmed by Too Many Books.  So perhaps this is where blogs and Twitter and so on come into their own.  Except...hmm... they're clogged up with people shouting about their own books.  Aaaghhh.  

Maybe we all just gyrate in a sea of more and more books? 

Anyhow, I wrote this a while back and it made sense at the time but, reading it back now, I haven't got a clue what I'm going on about.  what do you think?  Do we know where we're going to?  Does it matter?  

'What do you want to write next?' asked both Mrs Big and Mr Small.
'Not the foggiest,' I said.   :-) 


Potty Mummy said...

Well - you may not know whether your post makes sense, but it did to me. Thanks for posting it; in a way, it's comforting to know there's no grand plan or set template for writing success.

Anonymous said...

It seams the buk market has changed dramatically over the past couple years. By 360 degrees. :o)

Ross Mountney said...

Fascinating post - very poignant as a one-book-published-but-about-to-put-fingers-up-to-publishers-and-go-indie author, who has friends in similar circumstances. I like to think we writers - who are after all the ones who make money for the publishers but they forget that - will be able to really go for it themselves now that they have the facilities of the web, and there may come a time when the writers are choosy about their publishers rather than it always being the other way round!:) Thanks for this Jane, makes good sense to me!

Anonymous said...

I mean, celebrity has always been selling. Nothing's changed. So, if you want to get your book published in the mainstream, first become a celebrity. However, trying to become a celebrity by getting your book published will just make you scratch from the start. Every Time. :o)

Anonymous said...

But seriously, I'm not sure it's such a good idea to approach an agent or a publisher with a 'Just tell me what you can sell, and I'll write it for you.' :o)

Exmoorjane said...

@PM - I dunno, I like grand plans..even if they fail every time. :)

@Ross - I'm a dreamer too. :)

@Everything - :) (know knows) You're right, of course... I tried that before. :( But then again, I tried writing what they didn't want - and that didn't work either. :) Back to gyrating.

Anonymous said...

Heeey... I thought you'd said they didn't know what they wanted/didn't want. :o)

Exmoorjane said...

They used to say they knew what they thought they would want until they got it and realised they didn't want it any more... much like many things in life really. :)

Anonymous said...

So... They thought they used to know what to say when asked what they knew what they thought they would want until... Sorry. You lost me. :o)

Anonymous said...

And you HAVE lost me a gain... :o)

Anonymous said...

My take? Self-publish. I did and it's the most satisfying thing you can do. With Amazon, who needs book stores?

Yes, have a varied marketing strategy with as much a budget that you can afford, don't figure on getting rich, but above all, do it. Like this

Exmoorjane said...

@Everything - It's hockey...I lost myself long time back... :)

@SAOT - Well, yes - except, as you go on to say, you need the marketing. Me? I'm crap at marketing. :( When you say budget, how much and how do you spend it?

Anne Wareham said...

Marketing, marketing, marketing - do any of us need to know about anything else??
She says, having no idea about effective marketing, only ineffective =(

Anonymous said...
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Frances said...

Jane, I know you know how much I do love reading. I have my growing list of living authors and always check out their latest from the library.

I also enjoy prowling the library stacks, sometimes looking for a vintage book I've seen mentioned somewhere, and then just ambling along that bookshelf aisle, my eyes will land on something wonderful I was not looking for.

I read lots of reviews, and sometimes follow up on them. As more and more bookstores close up (like Borders) and the Nook/Kindle etc. set proliferate, reading begins to change.

When I was in London last month, I found many of my old favorite bookshops were no longer around. Well, to tell the truth, lots of my old haunts were not longer around, so I had to find some new ones.

Rambling away here, but still so love to read. xo