Monday, April 13, 2009

The Book Business 7

I was on the phone with Vinegar Puss this mornin discussin the state of publishing. Not the best way to start the week. I said, "Book marketing should be simple, but to make something simple takes a lot of work, a fair amount of uninterrupted time, and a pretty good imagination. In other words, it ain't easy, especially for the big houses that keep lookin over their shoulders, watchin the Hounds of Finance chase after 'em."

Vinegar Puss cleared his throat. He said, "Don't knock my former colleagues. There're still a lot of good people tryin to do their best."

"I'm not knockin anyone, I'm just sayin they don't have the time or resources to do it well. Marketing begins with a mental exercise. The publisher hands you a book -- or, more accurately, the components that will someday become a book. Likely it's still in pieces, the unshaped text in a marked-up manuscript, the germ of a cover idea, a decision on trim size and design, the author interview and CV, with the almighty P & L hoverin over everything like Max Schreck. Whatever the state of the constituent parts, you gotta imagine what the finished book will be when everything comes together. If you make a mistake at this point, VP, the game is up and you can go home."

"Yeah, and do what -- solve some sewage problems in SimCity? But you're an ace marketer so that doesn't happen. Instead, you close your eyes and you see it whole and everyone on the team gets it. Then what?"

"You go to step two, the big question: who is gonna buy this book and why? You can ask it anyway you want -- to whom will this appeal? who is the audience? where is the market? what can I compare it to? -- but it always comes down to the same thing. Who is gonna buy this book and why?

"Here's where the uninitiated can get tripped up pretty bad. They assume that books are purchased to be read. Well, maybe some of 'em are -- genre mass market, study guides, self-help. Kid's books, YA. But a lotta books function most importantly as units of social currency."

"Where the hell did you pick that up? NYU?"

"Nah. At the Old Town on 18th Street. Messy dude with chipped teeth told me that ownin the right books can help fix a person's status. Smart guy, had the whole thing figgered out: 'Who says you have to read a book to talk about it, or show it off, or keep it as furniture? You wanna carry around 2666 to make a statement, be my guest. You think buyin Glen Beck on Amazon keeps you connected to the tribe, do it, darlin. You got eight feet of shelf space in the living room you wanna fill, go for the classics in them fancy bindings. As for the coffee table, it'd sure look nice with the NY Times Complete Front Pages sittin on it, dontcha think?'"

I thought to myself, in the old days, decorators would come by the store and buy books by the yard. How did they choose the titles? The color of the dust-jackets. Kept a tape measure at the info booth just for them.

"'And what about books as gifts? Remember that little book of poetry you gave to your twist-and-twirl last Valentine's Day? -- was that really for readin? Or that history of the Ottoman navy you bought for your old man -- dint I hear him snorin by page twelve?'"

"He's right - how many people you know read Finnegans Wake, Gravity's Rainbow, The Road to Reality, or the Bill Clinton memoir all the way through?"

"It's like this overstuffed Nazi thing by Littell that's gummin up the works these days -- perfect for that shelf of Fat, Significant & Disturbing Novels I've got in my guest room. But I might have to get rid of my copy of Sacred Games to make space for it. Shoot, almost two thousand pages between the two of 'em -- a whole season's worth of House."

"So how's this gonna work for e-books?"

"Nobody knows, VP. For now, we're still talkin about tryin to market physical books, you know, the ones that consumers don't necessarily buy to read. The techno-savants playin with their Kindles think a book is all about the text. It's a pretty shriveled-up world they're promotin."

"Hey, all this book marketing talk is makin my head spin. I dint even think about the fact that people buy books for lots of different reasons. I thought they read 'em. Means you really got to know your customers and why they buy, huh? Shite, it's almost ten. I gotta go. Lemme call you back tomorrow so we can pick up the discussion."

With that, Vinegar Puss said goodbye and hung up. My coffee was cold, my cruller was stiff. I looked out the window, a white-breasted nuthatch was creepin head-first down the honey locust in the mid-morning sunshine. I blinked and looked out again and thought to myself, it's great to see color comin back into the world.

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