Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Death to the Trees

Fall is upon us, and along with the annual crop of dead-in-the-water movies like "The Wicker Man," publishers begin to fell rainforests by the acre. Announced six-figure first printings are as common as $.99 Frosty the Snowman decorations, and advertising rates skyrocket. Last winter I published a terrific humor/pop culture book, and my jaw dropped when I found out that the ad we bought in Entertainment Weekly was more than the author's entire advance.

Peruse your local bookseller and you'll find stacks of tomes from perennial mega-sellers like Patricia Cornwell, Vince Flynn and James Patterson to newcomers with massive marketing budgets like Jed Rubenfeld's THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER, which received a snazzy full-page color ad on the back of the New York Times Art section today. There are even a few stalwarts changing seasons, like Brad Meltzer, who traditionally publishes in the Spring, and John Grisham, who offers his first book of non-fiction with THE INNOCENT MAN. Plus there are sleeper hits waiting to be discovered, like Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson's JEWTOPIA, based on their hit play. I'm not just saying that because I edited it, but because it's honest to god one of the most creative books ever published. Think Jon Stewart's AMERICA written by an even more neurotic Jerry Seinfeld.

Part of the reason I love wandering around bookstores is checking out the new paperback editions of old hardcovers, mainly to see if they have different designs, what the concepts are, and trying to figure out why the publisher likely chose that direction. In my experience, if a publisher releases a paperback with the same or similar cover to the hardcover, it means the hardcover met or exceeded expectations and they don't want to fix what ain't broke. If the paperback has a drastically different cover, it means the hardcover didn't meet expectations and they're hoping a new, eye-catching package will attract a paperback audience that wasn't there for the hardcover. Zadie Smith's ON BEAUTY, which I'm currently reading and enjoying, took route #1, with an elegant simplicity which was retained for the paperback. Tom Wolfe's I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS took route #2, putting the original design in the trash compactor and going all meta on us by eschewing the title altogether.

Hardcover of ON BEAUTY
Paperback of ON BEAUTY

So far I've been very impressed with the marketing behind Meltzer's THE BOOK OF FATE, first with the announcement that it would be cross-promoted with his popular "Justice League" comics, and just this week when Meltzer did several web-based interviews on Perez Hilton, Pop Candy, and AOL. I wasn't impressed just because in each piece Meltzer was interviewed by a different celebrity (the only time you'll see Adam Brody and Barbara Bush in the same sentence), but because between the comics and interviews Hachette/Warner seems to really be targeting younger readers. Whether this was intentional or an Arrested Development-esque, "Well that was a freebie" I can't say, but I like it.

Needless to say, publicity for most thrillers generally consists of newspaper advertising, a few reviews here or there, maybe interviews in People and Time, hardly the milieu for the Gawker crowd. I'm glad to see this, partly because high concept books like Meltzer's seem such a natural fit for younger audiences weaned on high-concept storytelling (see: Caribbean 2, Pirates of the). I'll be very curious to see what fate has in store for THE BOOK OF FATE. And if you haven't yet, pick up a copy of THE FIRST COUNSEL, my personal Meltzer favorite.

In today's New York Times there's an article about author Claire Messud, and how Knopf hopes her new book THE EMPORER'S CHILDREN will bring Messud commercial success on par with her critical acclaim. An interesting article, more so in that just a few weeks ago the Times ran a similar piece about George Pelecanos, focusing on how, despite being one of the most critically-acclaimed crime novelists working today, he hasn't found the commercial success of colleagues like Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly.

I'm very skeptical of these kind of articles, because despite the tremendous publicity one gets just from being featured in the Times, the overriding theme is that the author isn't as popular as he/she or the publisher would like. There's an inheret negativity, and of course the article always goes out of its way to mention the pumped-up marketing plans the publisher has in store for the new book. Yet for Pelecanos Little, Brown's seems to be working, and based on bookscan THE NIGHT GARDENDER is already his most successful hardcover ever, with plenty of life left heading into holiday season.

So I guess the moral is there really is no such thing as bad book publicity, and since books get a mere fraction of the attention as movies, television and music, in the end an article in the Times is still an article in the Times.


Blogger Jason Pinter said...

Publishing, in my opinion, is a very different animal than most media forms. Movies get reviewed in every single paper in the country. Most books will get less than five in mainstram publications TOTAL. So a negative review, while still negative, might reach a huge amount of readers who would have never heard of the book if not for the review. People talking badly about a book is still infinitely better than not talking about it at all.

Bad reviews tend to hurt literary fiction the most, since they're so dependant on them. For example, the last John Irving book didn't meet expectations because his normally steallar reviews weren't so stellar.

A couple of years ago, the Times reviewed James Patteron's BIG BAD WOLF, Unsurprisingly they trashed it to pieces, yet it became the bestselling Alex Cross novel yet. Not sure if the review helped, but it certainly exposed the book to a huge audience that never would have read about it.

1:32 PM  

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