The conventional press rarely covers them, but these days the action is with the literary agencies more than publishers. And oh, the changes we’ll see. Small shops will partner up in all kinds of unexpected combinations, creating a whole new landscape of mid-sized agencies. More British shops will follow the lead of PFD in planting a flag in our city. At the top, keep your eye on those acronyms. CAA is coming to NYC; you don’t open an office here without a decent literary department. Meanwhile, ICM is on the rocks, even though its literary department does fine. And with the gloves off among agencies, more authors will be on the move, too. When royalty statements for this fall land, certain big authors will be mighty piqued. The two most important words next year for people like Anne Rice and Patricia Cornwell could well be: “Hello, Phyllis.”
Of course, those authors aren’t the only ones piqued at the moment. Conventional wisdom up until recently held that the more off-the-book-page ink you could generate for a title, the better the sales. But in 2003, that formula got turned on its head, as many books that drew headlines yielded consistently disappointing sales — and those that worked were often the ones with the least “news” within their pages. The results seem just as bad for books inspired by headlines.
In the wake of the remainders focused on 9/11 (which continued this year with expensive books like Steve Brill’s After), publishers still rushed to sign books right after what appeared to be victory in Iraq — only to see the first wave embedded in disappointment. Even Jessica Lynch’s book, which claimed one week as a No. 1 New York Times bestseller (thanks to the parking of all the bigger books on the “miscellaneous” list), will sell well short of Knopf’s expectations.
The book from Elizabeth Smart’s family sank even faster than the Lynch book, despite high-profile publicity. Stephen Glass’s surprise novelization of his experiences in fabulism didn’t sell. Folks in the UK may have cared about former butler to Princess Diana Paul Burrell’s A Royal Duty, but sales for the secret title here were well short of Putnam’s massive 750,000-copy printing.
What did work surprisingly well was Hillary Clinton’s Living History, which garnered rivers of ink focused on how the book did not reveal anything. Putnam’s Kate Remembered was also launched as a surprise, and continues to sell briskly — again, not because of its revelations, considered meager, but because of the enduring popularity of its subject. What does this mean for 2004? With many books about Afghanistan and Iraq still to come, editorial repositioning is strongly recommended. Or to boil it down, better not to make news, but to focus on those who can outlive the news cycle.
Carol Fitzgerald, Founder, TheBook ReportNetwork.com:
The bottom line this year? Readers are overwhelmed. With so many titles being shipped and delivered — but not being sold to their highest potential to the end consumer — it’s no wonder readers are suffering from cover-blurb catatonia. How can you expect people to buy books when they haven’t a clue what they’re about?
For starters, instead of running ads filled with phrases like “his best ever” and “one that will keep you up all night,” run an ad with one line that actually gets readers excited about the book’s subject, plot, and characters. I still remember the Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas ad that had me pick up my first James Patterson book. The best ads, of course, call readers to action. My favorite holiday ad this season is Hyperion’s for The Five People You Meet in Heaven. The headline: “Who are your five people?” The sell: “Give them all the perfect gift.” And in a world where every movie, DVD, and TV show gets weeks of pre-advertising, let’s think about getting consumers into the loop early — a row of books above the registers in stores with a header that says: “Pre-order These Upcoming Titles Now.”
While you’re at it, you can also plaster a big “Coming Soon” banner on an author website, which, believe it or not, is not just a repository for covers, excerpts, and blurbs. A site should be about a great author interview where the author shares why he or she wrote the book. It’s about a bio that says more than “The author lives with his wife, two children and his dog in California.” It’s a place to tell readers about the next book, as well as the frontlist and the backlist. And psst!: For those trying to connect readers to book clubs, have I got a list of ideas for you.
Lastly, think about partnering with other publishers to promote titles. USA Today recently noted that 90 other books benefitted from sales of The Da Vinci Code. Where is the ad or in-store flyer that publishers cooperated on to get those books into readers’ hands? Instead of lamenting that The Da Vinci Code is what every reader is reading at your expense, think about how to get other titles driven their way.
Bethany Chamberlain, President and CEO, Spier New York:
All signs point to 2004 as the year of multiculturalism in publishing. We’re not talking about simply grabbing more African American and Hispanic titles, but delving deeply into those and other emerging markets. Given the early, self-published success of E. Lynn Harris — buoyed by grassroots marketing and niche-driven direct sales — it’s clear that intimate contact with the reader can be your secret weapon as you search out untapped new markets. Publishers are starting to look for more ways to build a direct dialogue with readers — both online and off. The “value-added” trend is going to continue in book marketing, even as budgets pick up a bit. We’re also seeing clients go a little deeper into their lists lately, not only throwing support behind the big books but also finding creative ways to reach niche markets for those midlist gems, making the campaign work very hard in as many venues as possible.
Michael Meller, Founder, Michael Meller Literary Agency, Munich:
German publishing would seem to have dipped as low as it could this year, but the picture will remain muddled until spring ’04 due to ongoing mergers and integrations: Ullstein, Econ, List and Marion von Schroeder into Bonnier, owners of Piper, Carlsen, Thienemann, and Ars Edition (with Ullstein now due to be returned to its roots in Berlin); Heyne into Random House Deutschland; and Scherz into the Fischer Group. Things at Eichborn are still volatile due to a messy ownership-vs.-board clash, and Suhrkamp, the high temple of literature, has rattled the literati with changes by the widow of Siegfried Unseld. Then there’s Europa Verlag, still looking for a buyer, and Hoffmann & Campe, looking for a new Publisher: Will it be Günter Berg, recently still of Suhrkamp? What’s certain is that all eyes will be on the launch of the new literary imprint Schirmer & Graf, from Lothar Schirmer, the almost legendary photography publisher, and Tanja Graf, most recently Editorial Director of Piper.
What will probably have the largest impact on publishers and agents outside Germany is the several hundred translators mostly responsible for bringing UK and US authors into print in Germany, who have joined the union of public employees and demanded higher fees for their work. First-round negotiations fizzled, and parties are currently at an impasse. This could put the purchase of foreign titles — particularly non-blockbusters — in doubt, and be a real boost for German authors. On the retail front, booksellers are feeling good going into ’04. With 500,000 copies of Harry Potter sold in English (admittedly at hugely discounted prices) and close to 2 million sold in German — no discount on these, of course — as well as the success of several celebrity biographies, it’s been a shot in the arm for the industry.
Christine Martin, Managing Director, The Bookseller Information Group, London:
The UK book industry is the latest victim of that “King of the Retailing Jungle”: the supermarkets. As a consumer magazine publisher for ten years, I experienced the ever-tightening grip of supermarkets in the battle for newsstand sales. We too bemoaned deep discounting, soaring promotional and merchandising costs, the burdens placed on our supply chain, and the overweening power of the major players. Yet we did see our markets grow as we reached a broader customer base searching for the holy trinity of convenience, choice, and value that drives the supermarket proposition. Supermarkets are here for good, and we must learn to work with them to the long-term advantage of the business. My message to book publishers is to stand firm, negotiate damn hard, and defend your margin. Analyse your portfolio with the same level of rigor and sophistication supermarkets use to benchmark their product range. Finally, learn to leverage their strength to your advantage. It’s a game of “supermarketing judo” where the little guy really can come out on top.