Sunday, December 23, 2007

Don't Know Much About Anatomy

By Kevin Guilfoile

We don't talk a lot about the publishing business here, largely because there are already blogs that cover that beat so well. But there was a feature in Friday's Wall Street Journal that is asking for a discussion only because the article the reporter was trying to write is a huge part of the story he was trying to cover.

The headline was Anatomy of a Thriller and the article was about the very early hype for a debut suspense novel, Child 44 by British screenwriter Tom Rob Smith, which will be published next May by Grand Central. The piece briefly deals with the content of the novel (which is about the hunt for a Soviet serial killer at the dawn of the Cold War), calling it "cleverly plotted, packed with chilling psychological drama and densely researched." That sounds great and I'd like to read more, but most of the piece is taken up with speculation about whether the book can possibly make back its million dollar US advance.

You see this story often. At a time when most US newspapers have made severe cuts to their review coverage, the American media still covers the business of publishing with some gusto. Always, the favorite angle of these articles is whether a gamble on this author or that one will pay off.*

And that's funny.

It's funny because although competition for review inches is fierce, one way a publisher can guarantee wide reviews and, better yet, capture coveted outside-the-book-section coverage in entertainment sections and business sections and in general interest magazines like Time and Newsweek is to give a first-time author a million dollars.

Which is not to say that million-dollar advances are always undeserved or the result of cynical strategizing among editors and marketing staff. In fact, they are almost always the result of auctions--competition between houses for a particular manuscript. But all of this media hand-wringing about whether or not a book is worth such a huge advance is not just objective speculation because once the advance is promised that money immediately becomes a marketing tool intended to generate media hand-wringing about whether or not the book is worth such a huge advance.

The publisher is willing to write that check in part because they know the Wall Street Journal will run a story wondering if they're crazy for writing it.

Publishers often employ the marketing strategy of self-fulfilling prophecy. I don't think anyone really believes for instance, that an expensive ad in USA Today or in the NYTBR can generate enough sales of that particular book to justify the ad's cost. But publishers take out those ads for two reasons (two that I know--there might be more). First of all, they advertise in order to subsidize book coverage. The reason book sections are disappearing in the US is that they can't support themselves financially. Publishers advertise in the New York Times Book Review because the continuing existence of the NYTBR is extremely important to them, more important than making back that investment on a particular book.

The second reason is the hope that if you treat a book like you believe it will be a bestseller, if you invest in a book as if you are certain it will be a blockbuster, it will become one. This sometimes works and it sometimes doesn't but it's probably as good a strategy as any. A couple years ago I suggested that you could accomplish pretty much the same thing by holding a press conference with a suitcase full of money and declaring, "We are so confident that Sean Chercover's book is going to be a bestseller, we're going to set a million dollars on fire." You'd get a million bucks worth of coverage for your cinders, I guarantee you.

From this perspective a huge advance actually makes more sense than an ad campaign (at least with respect to a particular book) because if it works it doesn't cost the publisher a dime. Unlike the cost of advertising, every penny advanced to the author would be pennies they'd have to pay him in royalties anyway if they'd given a small advance and the book turned into a big hit.

So it's really not quite the outrageous gamble the Wall Street Journal says it is, as long as the Wall Street Journal keeps printing stories about what an outrageous gamble it is.


But that's not really what I wanted to talk about. To make the point about what's at stake for Grand Central the reporter, Jeffrey Trachtenberg, says:

It's especially difficult to crack the thriller genre. The field is so crowded that retailers and publishers prefer to focus on brand-name authors and seldom make big bets on first time authors.

He repeats the claim in a sidebar and includes a vague supporting quote from a publishing executive about there being "too many good writers out there already" (I'll take that as a compliment, thanks). It's an assertion that sounds factual because it has its own internal logic, but is it really true? It's difficult to get a book published in any genre, but the reason there are so many people writing thrillers is that there are so many people buying them, which means you need to publish more thrillers and so on. Is it any more difficult to sell your debut thriller than it is to sell your literary novel? Or your historical fiction? James Patterson's diabolical and mostly successful attempts to corner the bestseller market notwithstanding, it looks like each year there are more thrillers by more authors, not fewer.

MJ Rose must have statistics on this, yeah?


* Even as I write this, I notice that this piece is categorized by the WSJ as a "Hollywood" story, apparently because Ridley Scott has optioned the film rights to Child 44. That would seem to be odd given that the money involved in the film option, at least until the movie is actually made, would be a shallow pocket of worn nickels compared to the publishing deals, but I guess movie talk is sexy in a way that book talk is not.

JUST ADDED: Time magazine's Top 10 Crime Stories of 2007.


Pete said...

No hard statistics here, but anecdotally I can vouch for the fact that most of my fellow train commuters are reading either thrillers or romance novels - so there's a crowded field of writers because there's an even more crowded field of avid readers. Sadly, few of those commuters are reading literary fiction, which means I'll be indefinitely keeping the day job.

As an aside, the rational and insightful economic commentary on display here is one reason, as my dad might have said, "You'll never have to hold a tag day for Kevin Guilfoile." Besides the fact that he can really write, of course.

Anonymous said...

Not to overstate the obvious, but the Wall Street Journal is a business newspaper. So I would actually be more surprised if they had focused more on the author or the book it's self, rather then the "DEAL".

And when it comes to thrillers, really most books, word of mouth beats out print ads. It is not uncommon for a publisher to start throwing money at a books ads only after a book has started some sales. The Da Vinci Code is a good example.

Anonymous said...

This acticle is more then a little misleading.

Mr. Smith received 1M US for in a 2 book deal, not for just one book...still are really good deal. But we are talking about 1M US, which works out to 1/2M in Britsh Pounds....Mr. Smith lives in England.

So, what Mr. Smith is really getting is 250 thousand per book. Nothing to sneeze at, but it sure does not sound as impressive as 1M for one book.

Anonymous said...

I'm heartbroken that Mr. Smith isn't really getting a million. Truly devastated.

But none of that changes the thrust of the post, which is that, basically, the news media doesn't give two shits and a handful of pocket change about books or authors unless they've made some kind of financial splash.

I'd wager that the public feels pretty much the same.

Which is a shame. A DAMN shame, in fact.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Okay many good points. Let me just say a couple things.

Yes, the WSJ is a business newspaper, but this story was in their "Weekend Journal" which covers arts and entertainment and real estate. They still prefer a business angle when talking about entertainment but my point is that EVERY newspaper prefers a business angle when talking about publishing. This won't be the last time we see this story with respect to Child 44 and the next time it will be in Newsweek or Time or USA Today.

I think the article stated pretty clearly that it was a two book deal. And it's true that to a Brit, a million US dollars doesn't buy as many suits at Harrods as it did a year ago, but that's almost beside the point. This article gets written because one million dollars is still a magic number. It was a magic number back in the days of Andrew Carnegie, too, even though his million was a lot more than ours.

You could parse that advance forever (Tom Rob Smith has no doubt only seen a small percentage of that money to date) but it's the fact that you can say "One Million Dollars" in a Dr. Evil voice that starts the automatic hype machine.

Also, The Da Vinci Code received a fair amount of hype prior to publication. I think they printed something like 10,000 ARCs for that book. I think that might have been the most advance copies ever (although someone please correct me on that if I'm wrong). Also the initial orders from the chains were far bigger than expected. The perpetual sales machine that became The Da Vinci Code couldn't have been anticipated, and probably can't be reconstructed, but it didn't come completely out of nowhere.

Still I agree--there is no better advertising than word of mouth.

thatguy said...

Maybe, Child 44 represents the capturing of both the Cold War politics and the art of criminal serial killing, having the best of several worlds and coming off as a story well written and plotted.

Reading still captures the imagination of the reader wanting to be entertained. Today, escapism against the reality of living provokes many wanting to pickup a book and begin reading hoping the story tears them away from their world.

Brian Haig’s character and language of Sean Drummond I can easily identify, looking forward in January when his new book will be published. Like V. I. enjoy the story because of the protagonist, carrying the reader within the pages of reading, wanting to find out what happens next.

As for a serial killer, I remembered being kissed by one in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A group of lesbians were killing off their patients in a nursing home on Alpine.

When they a serial killer is smooth and charming they aren’t kidding.

I come into the bar after work to have a beer seating myself at the far end of the bar, when Kathy came over from the pool table where a group of her friends were playing and asked if I would like to join them. I thanked her for her invitation but declined. She bent over and kissed me.

Kathy was a big girl, having a very pretty face. She was extremely charming

thatguy said...

Being in the Army in Germany during the mid sixties where the Cold War was much in vogue, and where the next moment could be the real thing, there was certain amount of excitement and interest.

On the autobahn, someone saying over there is Fulda, and East Germany, the communists, our enemy.

I grew up reading about British naval intelligence, Room 40, Sir Reginald Hall and American Black chamber.

I was lucky when I was in the army apart the Army Signal Corp, with a crypto clearance, where cipher had been reduced to machines with their key lists producing number groups banging away as FSK, frequency shifty key, teletype, and being able to send and receive Morse code.

Barbara Tuckerman’s Zimmerman Telegram finds excitement, learning to break codes and running down the Special Collection at the University of Chicago library, check the holdings for John Manly and Edith Rickert, Chaucer experts, our military intelligence during World War One. Some insight so close to home!

No doubt, Child 44 will run the Cold War excitement, having a spy coming in from the cold, having a twist of a serial killer thrown in.

Anonymous said...