Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Book Business 8

Another gray day up at the lake. Saw about two dozen mergansers out by the island directly across from the canoe rack -- last year at this time they stayed for about six weeks. The water was clear and clean, I saw straight to the bottom off the dock. How much time do we have on this earth? Quist had an answer ready: "Not enough, poot. Never enough."

Vinegar Puss called around noon and got goin again about the book business. "What about focus groups? How come publishers don't use focus groups? Or customer surveys? How the hell do you know what your customers want if you don't talk to them directly?"

"Well, it's mostly a practical matter -- there're way too many books published to go out and conduct focus groups on more than a handful of 'em. So we tend to look at categories, not individual titles. Otherwise, how could we justify the expense? Unless you've got an author like James Patterson who markets himself as a brand. We tried it for our nature guides and our travel guides. Some of the feedback was good. But most of it confirmed what we already knew. Some people like red, some people like blue. Some carry 'em in their pocket, some carry 'em in their bag. You test all the variables -- price point, trim size, thickness, opacity, color vs. black-and-white, portability, page layout, photos vs. drawings, and so on -- and you hope you get enough of a consensus to make informed decisions. In the book business we're launchin a couple of hundred thousand new 'products' every year. Imagine if we tried to test market each one?"

"So you just rely on gut instinct? Sounds awful iffy to me. With that many books bein published it stands to reason you're gonna make a lot of mistakes."

"Like a major league batter, you hit .300, you're doing great. Ted Williams called it The Science of Hitting, but it's just as much an art. Here's what makes a great publisher, a great marketer -- a consistent and compelling point-of-view, a vision that others can buy into. You gotta believe that there's an audience out there comprised of people who share your interest and your world view. Some of it's taste, some of it's experience. You gotta be willing to take chances and take imaginative leaps. It's not for the faint-hearted. And it's not for those who can't read beyond their spreadsheets."

"But last time you were sayin how people don't always buy books because they wanna read them, they buy 'em for a slew of different reasons. How do you square that with the vision thing?"

"A good publisher, a good book marketer, knows that there are different reasons for buyin a book, and knows how to empathize with those who have those other reasons. You gotta understand the psychology of the collector, the enthusiast, the social striver, the snob, the conformist, the tired mom who wants to be entertained, the show-off, the introvert, the gift-giver, the professional, the amateur, the conspicuous non-conformist who turns out to be the friend of a friend of a friend. And then, of course, you gotta empathize with the readers, for there will always be plenty of real readers. In fact, they're the ones you gotta take care of first, those for whom books are meant to be read, and savored, argued with and agreed with. You celebrate them all -- the deep reader and the light reader -- and you try to figger them out. Who is gonna buy this book and why?"

"So now we're back to the central question. Is it a question that really has an answer, or is it just meant to prod you into trying out whole lot of different ideas."

Everybody loves somebody sometime. But I wasn't in the mood to keep goin with VP -- I had work to do, even if I hadn't figgered out whether or not I was gonna get paid for it. I ast him, "Why don't you come by the house later on and we can discuss it further over a glass of wine. Right now I'm tryin to prepare a marketing plan for a freelance job. I gotta go."

Vinegar Puss was quiet for a few seconds. Then he sighed and spoke directly into the phone, "You know what's wrong with this country. Marketing. Too much sizzle, not enough steak. I get it, but I don't like it."

Me neither, poot. Me neither. But I dint say it. I just said goodbye and turned to my books. Not one of 'em looked back at me.

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