The Myth of a Golden Age of Books

Amazing fact of the day: in 1931 there were just 500 or so real bookstores in America, and two-thirds of the country had no bookstores at all.

“In the entire country [in 1931], there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels.… In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Furthermore, two-thirds of American counties — 66 percent! — had exactly zero bookstores. It was a relatively tiny business centered in the urban areas of the country. Did some great books come out back then? Of course! But they were aimed only at the tiny percentage of the country that was visible to publishers of the time: sophisticated urban elites. It wasn’t that people couldn’t read; by 1940, UNESCO estimated that 95 percent of adults in America were literate. No, it’s just that the vast majority of adults were not considered to be part of the cultural enterprise of book publishing. People read stuff (the paper, the Bible, comic books), just not what the publishers were putting out.

— Alexis Madrigal

Categories: Books · Publishing    Tags: ·

Happy reading

Penguin Classics ad

This new ad campaign for Penguin Classics is lovely. (More here.)

The end of the shy author?

What usually gets lost in the perpetual refrain about authors becoming their own marketers is that there’s no particular connection between writing talent and a gift for self-promotion.

— Laura Miller, “Writer, Sell Thyself”

In a world where authors are expected to self-promote — and someday, perhaps, self-publish — would Salinger or Harper Lee or Thomas Pynchon, reclusive introverts all, have found an audience? Are we about to lose the writer, however brilliant, whose only gift is writing? Read the article.

Categories: Books · Publishing    Tags: · ·

Seth Godin: Ten Bestsellers

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This video is not new. It is Seth Godin’s presentation at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in February 2008. But I loved it at the time and still do. It is one of the few discussions of the digital publishing revolution that get me excited about the future rather than just scaring the hell out of me. Godin is a great speaker, self-promoter, and motivator, but there’s plenty of ideas here for ordinary mortals, too.

I recommended the video to a writer-friend today who is gearing up to promote his book, then I had trouble tracking it down on the web, mostly because I could not remember the name of it. So here it is, John: “10 Bestsellers: Using New Media, New Marketing, and New Thinking to Create 10 Bestselling Books.” Enjoy.

Categories: Books · Publishing    Tags: · · ·

No such thing as a bad review

A study uses negative book reviews to test the old saw that “all publicity is good publicity.” The result: for the most part, it is better to be trashed by the Times than ignored by it.

A crucial factor, they concluded, is how familiar a brand or product or other entity was before the negative publicity. Crunching data that cross-matched book sales against critics’ appraisals in The New York Times Book Review, they found that negative reviews of a new book by an “established” author hurt sales. “For books by relatively unknown (new) authors, however, negative publicity has the opposite effect,” increasing sales by 45 percent over their expected sales trajectory, they write. Evidently this boils down to increased awareness: the mere act of introducing something to a broader public — even by saying that it stinks — increases the chances that more members of that public will want it anyway.

Follow-up studies pointed out that as time passes, we may not remember the context in which we heard of something (a pan); we just know it’s familiar.

Categories: Book Reviews · Books    Tags: · ·

R.I.P. Inkwell Bookstore

Another one bites the dust: the wonderful Inkwell Bookstore, an indie in Falmouth, Massachusetts, the Cape Cod town I have been visiting in summer for 35 years or so, has closed. I will miss it.

If you have a favorite independent bookstore, support it!

Categories: Books    Tags: ·

How to design a book advertisement

My old friend John Kenney is a brilliant ad writer. He has created national campaigns that you would instantly recognize and Super Bowl spots, and traveled widely to research and shoot them. After twenty-plus years in advertising, he has a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Last weekend John sent me an email that I’ve been thinking about ever since. He pointed out a two-page ad that appeared in last week’s Times Book Review for Henning Mankell’s new thriller, The Man from Beijing. The ad was unusual in that it consisted almost entirely of a long, closely printed excerpt from the opening chapter of the book, framed by an eye-catching red border. John’s comment (which he has oh-so-graciously allowed me to reprint here):

The really smart thing — rule 1 of a good ad — is that it shared the benefit of the product with me. A review doesn’t do that. I was able to read the words, get a feel for it, experience it.

This is the sort of thing that seems obvious once you hear it. Who has ever bought a book because of a cherry-picked snippet from a review? Or because of a blurb? (I once heard Robert Parker say, only half joking, that he would read a book or blurb it, but never both.) Even the graphics in an ad, while they may get you to stop skimming long enough to look at it, do not allow you to experience the book itself. Yet these are the staples of book advertising: reviews, blurbs, and pretty pictures.

Of course, there are budget and thus space constraints with print ads. Not every book will be supported by a two-page spread in the Times Book Review. Still, it is odd that publishers insist on building their ads out of things that mean so little to the target audience when, with a simple cut-and-paste, they could let the reader try out the product in a way that car makers, say, cannot.

Categories: Publishing    Tags: ·

The Perils of Advertising

Rummaging through my computer recently, I came across this ad for The Strangler. It ran in the New York Times and the Boston Globe on February 6, 2007, and in the weekly Boston Phoenix at the same time. There was a radio spot airing that week, as well, which was very fun to hear while riding in the car. Some other advertising, too.

An ad like this is every writer’s dream, of course, and I’d be a fool not to appreciate it. But there is a catch-22: you cannot sell books without publicizing them; but the more you spend on publicity, the more copies you have to sell to turn a profit for your publisher. When you go to sell your next book, the publisher will be looking with a gimlet eye at a balance sheet showing not just how many books you sold but whether you actually made any money. Obviously, advertising expenses count. From an accountant’s perspective, it is better to profit on 25,000 copies sold than to lose on 250,000.

Obviously this sort of old-school dead-tree advertising is going to become quite rare in the grim new low-margin world of publishing. No doubt it already has. It just does not make sense to pay top dollar to broadcast your message to millions of readers in the Times when only a tiny fraction of that audience is your actual target. In theory, at least, the web promises pinpoint accuracy in aiming your ad, and costs far less. The shotgun approach makes sense for mass consumer products like soap and beer. For books, you’re probably better off with a rifle. Or, budgets being what they are, a pea shooter. Most readers, I suspect, are more influenced by word-of-mouth from a trusted friend than by ads like this one, anyway.

Categories: My Books · Publishing    Tags: · ·

Why authors should (and shouldn’t) blog

I began this blog for a purely mercenary reason: to sell more books. But I discovered to my surprise that I enjoy doing it. Good thing, too, because after three months at it I seriously doubt this blog will ever be an effective sales tool.

Of course, the logic behind author blogs is unimpeachable. The blog attracts new readers as flowers attract bees. These new readers, stupefied by the insights to be found here, return again and again until they decide they simply must have more, at which point they rush out (or more likely click) to buy a book, which they take to be like a blog post only very much longer. Or something like that.

The problem is not that this sort of thing cannot happen. It does. It has happened to me, in fact. The problem is that, as book-selling strategies go, this one is massively inefficient. The number of visitors is just too small to justify the investment of time. More important, counterintuitive as it sounds, most visitors to this blog simply aren’t interested in my books.

In the first few months of my blog’s existence, the overwhelming majority of traffic has come from Google. (I know this because statistics about blog traffic are harvested by several services.) Google referrals tend to be one-time visitors, not regulars. And they come looking for all sorts of things. Here is a small sample of the Google searches that have led people here: “Boston + movies,” “friends of eddie coyle,” “philip roth writing method,” “Graham Greene words per day,” “alphasmart neo.” Do you see a pattern? Me neither. Well, I see one: often as not, these people are not Googling “William Landay.” Of course I’m delighted to have visitors stumble upon my blog this way. That is the whole flowers-and-bees strategy, after all. But there is no reason to expect that these readers will be easy to convert to fans. Most of them have never even heard of me. A few I might be able to sway, but how many and at what cost in time?

Of course, a fraction of my blog traffic does come for the “right” reasons, that is, they enjoy my books or my blog, or both. For them alone, writing this blog would be worthwhile, not because it is going to goose them into reading my books (they already do that), but because core fans want and deserve a place where they can get a better sense of the writer behind the books or even contact him. What’s more, it is valuable to me to have them here. Novel-writing is a grueling, solitary business. The company of these readers — the occasional messages they send or comments they leave, the encouragement — is enormously heartening.

Which leads me to the main point. Even though a blog may never yield a single additional sale, I heartily recommend that all writers launch one anyway. Just remember why you are doing it: because you enjoy it, not because you think it will turn you into a bestseller. Only your books — and a boatload of luck — can do that.

Of course if you are blogging for pleasure rather than to impress potential book-buyers, your blog will look a little different. It will be a truer reflection of yourself, your personality, your quirky tastes. This blog has been a little dry and generic, I think. I have been reluctant to post anything that was not “A” material, longish essays full of deepish thoughts. The result has been a blog with none of the serendipity that characterizes the blogs I enjoy most.

Take Terry Teachout’s blog about theater and the arts, About Last Night. I have been reading ALN for years with great pleasure because I never know what I will find there. It might be a longish essay full of deepish thoughts, but it also might be a YouTube video, a snippet from a book Terry is reading, a notice of an art exhibit. The randomness is what makes it fun.

I am going to tack in that direction myself here. The last few days I have posted a quote, a picture, a video, and a poem, little stuff I would previously have’ed and lobbed into the bottomless black hole of Twitter. Look for more of that. Finds like these are what “web logs” originally were: scrapbooks of the interesting nuggets people ran across as they went sniffing around the web. It’s why blogs like Terry Teachout’s work so well, why they keep renewing themselves with a mix of found and original material. This blog should be more fun than it has been, for you and me both.

Categories: Writing    Tags: · · ·

Kate’s Mystery Books closes (for now)

Kate's Mystery Books

Kate’s Mystery Books on Saturday

Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge closed on Saturday. Kate Mattes held an event with an army of volunteers who helped pack the place up. I stopped by and chatted briefly with Kate, who told me she plans to spend the next year or so getting her enormous inventory properly cataloged online, as well as digitizing two decades worth of book reviews. Then she may look around for a new bricks-and-mortar location if the conditions are right. In the meantime she will continue to hold author events, and her web site is still around.

It goes without saying that the city is a duller place this morning without Kate’s. Of course any number of bookshops have closed the last few years, but this loss feels particularly sad. I never knew the shop especially well, but it seemed like one of those places. It had the patina of years, and a community of readers had sprung up around it. Places like that can’t be replaced or recreated, least of all by a website.

But there’s no use sighing over the blandification of Cambridge, where a funky overstuffed bookstore in an old rambling red Victorian once would have seemed right at home. Or the general extinction of bookstores run by real, live book lovers. Things change. It sucks, but what can you do?

So I will just thank Kate for supporting me from the day my first book arrived and hand-selling my books ever since. I’m sure there is a marching band of writers out there who feel the same way. Thank you, Kate. We’ll see you around.

Kate Mattes and Robert Parker at Kate's Mystery Books, August 1, 2009.

Kate Mattes and Robert Parker at Kate’s Mystery Books, August 1, 2009.


Categories: Books · Boston    Tags: ·

Publishers as booksellers?

In a long and interesting interview with Poets & Writers magazine, Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has an interesting prediction for the future of book-selling: publishers, not online retailers like Amazon, will profit from selling directly to readers. It makes a lot of sense, especially as book-selling transitions more and more to digital and Amazon’s massive edge in order-fulfillment and customer service is nullified. Is it any wonder Amazon is rushing to solidify the Kindle’s position as the standard platform for eBooks.

Where do you think the future of bookselling is?

With the publishers. I think the publishers will be selling the books directly.

Are you talking about digitally or physical books?

Both. I think there are always going to be people who want physical books, but I think the digital part of the business is going to increase. One of the things that all publishers are worried about now is this idea that a book on Kindle is worth $9.99. If that establishes the price of what a book is worth, what does that say? What if I want to sell Maureen McLane’s book as a hardcover for twenty-four dollars? I think that’s a problem. Again, it’s a lesson from the music business. People have been used to the idea that intellectual property—that a book, an artwork—is worth a certain amount of money. It’s a mark of respect, in a way. But if you turn it into a widget, where every book is worth the same amount, it’s not good. This is where the author, the agent, and the publisher should be working together to protect their mutual interest. And not have the business be decided by a seller.

By Amazon.

Yeah. We should be deciding what a book is worth, not them. It’s a problem.

Are you envisioning bookstores going away the way that record stores did?

I think that bookstores are going to be around, but I don’t think they’re going to be the major channel. Especially if we go more and more digital.

Read the whole thing here.

Categories: Publishing    Tags: · ·

Writers as Performers

Obviously the internet has blown a hole in the business model of the publishing industry, and we have all heard dire predictions that digital will obliterate printed books altogether. The doomsday scenario usually maps to the demise of the music CD: Kindle equals iPod, Amazon equals iTunes, eBook equals MP3. The details may vary, but the end is always the same — the poor printed book is the next unfortunate dinosaur technology to be smashed into extinction.

If that is indeed how things play out — and who knows — then we writers may well find ourselves in a situation like today’s emerging musicians. In the MP3 era, bands do not “break” by getting radio play. They freely give away much of their music over the web and make up for the lost sales by touring constantly. Ticket sales replace CD sales, at least in theory. This may be a lamentable change from the musicians’ point of view, but the truth is “any new music-related business must accept the fact that it’s competing against a huge store of readily available free music, and build that fact into its business model.”

There is as yet no iTunes for books, no single, dominant legitimate online seller, let alone a killer peer-to-peer platform like Napster or Bit Torrent. And the Kindle and Sony Reader are as yet no match for even the earliest iPods in terms of design, usability, or sheer coolness. For many other reasons, especially having to do with the nature of books and book readers, the switch to digital is not likely to be as apocalyptic for writers as it has been for musicians, at least in the near term. But when the change comes, however it plays out, how will authors replace the income lost to digital distribution and piracy?

One thing is for sure: Malcolm Gladwell is sure to survive the flood. Gladwell is flourishing even in this twilight era by doing what indie bands have done: performing. He reportedly commands forty thousand dollars for live appearances, no doubt much more for the corporations who often hire him to speak. Last year he even displaced “The Lion King” from its home in the Lyceum Theater in London’s West End, for one night only, for two shows. The Gladwell shows sold about 4,000 tickets at £20 apiece. Gladwell said of his London shows, “The Lyceum evening was very 19th-century, in a way. Dickens and Twain and countless others gave lectures of that sort in theaters like that all the time.”

Does all this have any significance for the rest of us? Can mere mortals take a lesson from Gladwell? Well, most writers cannot do what Gladwell does, obviously. Gladwell is a celebrity. He also happens to be a gifted speaker. In appearances on stage and on TV, he is a natural storyteller and raconteur. Whatever you think of his books — and the backlash against Outliers has been harsh; Michiko Kakutani’s review in the Times described it as “glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing” — as a writer looking to the future, you have to wonder if Gladwell isn’t onto something.

Consider the usual bookstore reading. The author is sweaty and uncomfortable on stage, or vaguely pissed off at having to do a dog-and-pony show merely to sell books. Usually he has little to offer beyond a bald pitch for the book. He will relate a story or two about where the idea for the book came from, invariably he will read (badly) a paragraph or two, answer a few desultory questions, and that’s it. It’s not much of a show. Now watch Gladwell on stage. He takes seriously his duty to entertain the audience that shows up to see him. He has a story to tell. He has practiced the craft of live storytelling and honed his material. He is a thoroughly professional speaker — which is to say, he is an entertainer.

Most writers will never be able to earn a dime on the speaking circuit, as Gladwell has done. Nor, frankly, should we have to. A book is not a song or a speech: it is not intended to be performed live. It is intended to be “heard” only in the intimacy of the reader’s mind.

But I have a feeling that the writers who survive will have to be a little more like Gladwell. We will have to be better showmen. Gladwell has a point in looking back to Dickens and Twain, who also lived in an era of looser copyright protection and rampant piracy. What these writers knew was that, while their books could easily be reproduced, the author’s genuine presence could not. Unlike indie bands, we cannot replace book sales with live appearances. But we can do a much better job of using these appearances to drive sales by taking seriously the opportunity that a reading or live appearance provides.

How? Watch Gladwell. Or watch any of the presenters at the TED conference. Don’t sit behind a desk or stand behind a lectern. Don’t lecture; tell a story, preferably one that is not just a pale summary of your book. Learn to use PowerPoint or Keynote. Study presentation gurus like Garr Reynolds or Nancy Duarte for ideas. Whatever you do, don’t read — at least, don’t just read. You have twenty minutes to fascinate your audience. Make it count. Put on a show.

I have broken every one of these rules thus far in my career. I have been told by editors and agents not to waste my time on readings, that you cannot reach enough people to move the needle by speaking to a dozen people at a time. But the world has changed in the last few months, and in the wreckage of the publishing industry there will be room for fewer writers. So writers, grab every opportunity you can, including readings. It is one of the few opportunities you will have to separate yourself from the run of ordinary writers.

The Way We Write Now: Novelists and Their Blogs

I once heard John Updike say in an interview that he could not imagine a day going by in which he did not produce “text.” The word jumps out of the sentence — “text,” so like the “content” the web feeds on. Updike was frighteningly prolific. Like the great Victorians, he seemed to pour out words: thirty novels, plus countless poems, essays, reviews and, best of all, short stories. Had he been born later, he would have been a natural blogger. He would never have been so enthralled by the magic of seeing his words printed on dead trees.

I’m no Updike. I can easily imagine a day in which I produce no text. Happens all the time. The enemy of the possible is the perfect, and, alas, often the enemy of writing is perfectionism. Managing my perfectionism is probably my biggest struggle as a writer. But blogging demands constant output — content. So how will blogging affect my day job, writing novels?

I have always avoided writing for the web because I was afraid it would suck away some of the creative energy I need for my novels. Novel-writing is grueling. It demands long periods of quiet and concentration. The web, an endless stream of flashing, hyperlinked calls for your attention, is lethal to that sort of sustained focus. It is a stimulation machine. The novelist Neal Stephenson shut himself off from the web entirely because, he said (via), “I simply cannot respond to all incoming stimuli unless I retire from writing novels. And I don’t wish to retire at this time.” I have always felt the same way.

But, after The Crash in publishing, midlist (or downlist) writers like me simply cannot afford to ignore the web. Toxic as it is to book-writing, the web is essential to book-selling.

And we writers simply have to become better marketers. We cannot just leave it to publishers to sell our books anymore. They don’t know how. I recently asked my agent, What would be a realistic sales goal for my upcoming third novel? Fifty thousand copies? “The question is naive,” she answered, “because nobody has any way of knowing how many it will sell.” In no other business would it be naive to think about how many widgets you might actually sell when you try to figure out whether it is profitable to produce them. But that is the industry wisdom. So we writers have to turn to the web as a way to circumvent the publisher-bookstore complex and market directly to our readers — that is, if we can find our readers.

Or maybe it is better to say, if our readers can find us in the vast, raucous environment of the internet. It is a long, hard job to make yourself visible on the web, to find your audience. The bloggers who do it best, like two of my favorites, Andrew Sullivan and Sarah Weinman, have been at it a very long time.

But we novelists can do it, too, I hope. As business writers like Seth Godin have proved, authors can learn to pitch their own books cheaply and effectively. What choice do we have? A lucky few will be buoyed up to the surface by huge marketing campaigns by their publishers. Most won’t. We writers are all independent booksellers now. So increasingly, sometimes reluctantly, we establish ourselves on the web with blogs like this one.

I do not mean to turn this into a blog about blogging, but I suspect I will have more to say on the subject in the future. For now, suffice it to say that blogging and novel-writing are uneasy partners. I’ll post here as often as I can without it interfering with writing my novels. Like Neal Stephenson, I don’t wish to retire as a novelist at this time.

Setting my fears aside for a moment, I wonder if blogging will actually help my novel-writing by teaching me to write fast, without self-editing. It may just loosen my fingers. Imagine, loose fingers! You keep yours crossed for me. I’ll use mine for typing.

Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·