Pick a Title, Any Title
You only have so many titles to market to the public. How do you choose the right ones and how do you further their cause?
It’s never an easy decision. One title you might acquire reads beautifully, but where’s the platform for marketing it? The author doesn’t exactly seem television-interview friendly. Another title has a famous person behind it, but it’s missing a little thing called substance.
These are the dilemmas publishers face every day, and although choosing a title is certainly not easy, several publishers with a number of best sellers under their belts say that there are certain steps you can take to increase your chances of selecting titles with the greatest likelihood of success.
A simple edge
Doug Armato, director of University of Minnesota Press, says sometimes publishers just miss one simple point—as in, does the book actually have one? “I think a book has to have real knowledge and, for us, it has to advance our understanding of something that actually matters,” he says.
Margo Baldwin, president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing—which has published a number of titles that have made it onto national best-seller lists—feels that it comes down to a difference of opinion. She believes that publishers are forgetting to be different. “We had a book that we seriously were considering on global warming, but it just wasn’t setting itself apart,” she says. “Sometimes you get so excited about a subject matter that you just don’t realize you’re rehashing old stuff.”
Armato says one case study that illustrates the importance of this point involved “The Wellstone Way,” a book on political strategy. “We wanted to sell 3,000 copies, and we ended up doing 16,000-17,000,” he says. “It was a manual for running a political campaign, but [because it showed how to do] this without contributions and media buys as one of the focal points, it stood out for people. It shows that by giving a book just one or two modifications, as opposed to making it completely off the wall, you can increase its marketability.”
Blogs can bump up sales
Armato says books that have pre-existing blogs related to the book’s subject can help ensure more sales and will be getting more of his attention. “We had a book on breast cancer, and the related blogs raised the purchase of the book substantially,” he says. “It causes us to pay more attention to whether there’s a strong grass-roots set-up in the fields we want to publish in.”
Another thing to consider is whether your author would be willing to keep up a blog related to the book, even if it’s just checking in from different legs of the book tour.
Sometimes it’s not just about the book offering a different perspective on a topic, but about looking at a completely different type of books.
For example, Terry Nantier, president of NBM—which published Ted Rall’s “Silk Road To Ruin” and whose award-winning books have consistently required multiple printings and generated much publicity—says that publishers could do well
to invest in graphic novels, if they appreciate the nuances of the genre.
“The visual is such a large component for us, so we’re looking for good-quality of art and an understanding of the use of pictures in telling a story. It’s about continuity and setting out the pages the right way,” he says.
Not convinced of this burgeoning niche? The film “300” took in millions at the box office, one of the most
successful films of the last few years. It was based on a graphic novel written and illustrated by legendary artist Frank Miller. Oscar-nominated “A History of Violence” also came from a graphic novel. Regardless, that doesn’t mean just any story will do. The same strategy of selecting unique books applies.
“Even though it’s comics,” says Nantier, “it needs to often be more sophisticated in style or tone, and more deeply involving than your average superhero comic. A lot of general publishers are just throwing themselves into this field because so many [other] things are flat right now. You need to understand the specific skill set that has nothing to do with regular prose books … or bring someone in who does.”
Nantier also warns that when it comes to artists you select, you can’t set the bar as high on their promotional abilities. “It’s a plus when the author can do interviews, but we won’t [overlook] an artist because they may not be the best self-promoter. Artists are not of the mind to go to pitch themselves and be great publicists.”
O.J., oy vey
One thing most seem to agree on is that the O.J. Simpson book “If I Did It,” purchased by former HarperCollins imprint ReganBooks, is a cautionary tale to learn from, not to repeat.
Baldwin, whose company published international best-selling author Naomi Wolf’s “End of America,” says, “Obviously some publishers are in this business [only] to make money, but there’s always supposed to be at least the appearance that you’re trying to do something of quality. This book breaks that trust with the book buyer.”
Armato looked at the O.J. book deal more from a bleak business standpoint, seeing it as continuing the trend of the quick sale without a backlist future. “It was an attempt at selling a large number of books, probably at a large discount,” he says. “After it stops selling, what do you get out of that? A waste of marketing dollars better spent on books with backlist possibilities.”
Todd Stocke, editorial director of Sourcebooks, which has had a number of New York Times Best Sellers throughout its history, commented that it’s something he’s seen before and expects will likely happen again—if not with just a little more tact. “I think it’s just cyclical, and I don’t think it’s a dramatically bad thing,” he admits. “There’s always been publishers capitalizing on the moment; that will never go away.”
As important as considering a book’s uniqueness and longevity, as well as
the author’s media-friendly nature and potential for grass-roots marketing, is being mindful of the direction you
will give your salespeople for your new titles. Stocke says one of the larger
mistakes is not thinking long-term.
“You have to find a book that salespeople will be able to stick with into the sell-through proposition and in many cases building a book and the author,” he says. “Too many publicity programs give up on backlists because they’re always being handed a new front list—don’t do that to them.”
Rather than creating a direct incentive program for long-term selling, says Stocke, whose company also publishes the highly successful “Fiske Guide to Colleges,” you have to establish it as a part of your company’s sales culture from the get-go. “We always tell our salespeople that they need to keep a close watch on sell-through for six months to a year after publishing the book. That’s at a minimum.”
Don’t be too independent
Armato says that while some niche books can still be publicized well by independent bookstores, he feels you can’t rely on the mom-and-pop shops to sustain enough drive these days for new titles and need to consider this in your sales options when selecting new titles. “Indie stores used to launch and talk about the books that were harder to sell,” he says, “but it’s just not that way anymore. It’s a great loss to the culture, but you have to move on. I’m in Minneapolis, and the Ruminator independent bookstore was a huge part of book sales and that’s gone by the wayside. I find myself traveling to New York and San Francisco because they have the inventory.”
Baldwin agrees that independents will be a smaller part of a new title’s campaign, however, if you choose the right books and the right stores, they can still be major allies. “Find the stores that have unique events and a mission, not just selling and that’s it,” she says. “They need other ways to bring people in to make up for their higher prices, but when they succeed, the customers are very loyal. You don’t have to give up on them for the initial push and spreading word-of-mouth.”
Eric Butterman is presently writing the book “Turning the Corner,” with NFL football player Ike Taylor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.