Friday, October 21, 2005

Haste makes waste

Maybe technology isn’t such a great thing.  You know, they say technology makes everything faster, but isn’t there also a saying that “haste makes waste”?  Certainly in the publishing business, this seems to be true.

It seems that nearly every publisher has linked up their system to Amazon’s and/or bn.com’s system.  So what happens is that very early on, covers and copy from publishers end up on Amazon or bn.com.  The problem is, those covers are often not final and the copy is often wrong!

Just today, I ran into two examples of this:  On one book, the original idea was to enclose a DVD with the book.  But ultimately, the publisher couldn’t clear the rights to enough material to make it worthwhile.  Yet versions of the cover with a “DVD Included!” splash were posted online and in some cases remain online.  Further, today I found out that Barnes & Noble’s internal systems still show that the book has a DVD included.  Maybe that’s why B&N seems to have ordered so few?  I’ve heard accounts don’t like DVDs or CD-ROMs included, because they get stolen right out of the books.

On the second book, the title included a word that is an acronym, but at no point were periods used in the acronym.  Think DARPA instead of D.A.R.P.A.  There was prior agreement that the style with no periods was correct, but the cover proof that showed up had periods.  There have been dozens of emails and conversations—many heated—over this issue, believe it or not.  Perhaps the publisher didn’t want to go to the expense of redoing the cover?  I’m not sure.  But the reality is that this cover—the wrong cover—is now up on Amazon.com and bn.com.

Now, it’s been a long time since I’ve worked in a publishing house.  Amazon.com and bn.com were barely off the ground, if at all.  But even so, I have to say I’m stunned and amazed by the willingness of publishing houses to put covers and copy out there that’s not final.  I know, I know, they say they do it all the time.  But hasn’t anyone ever heard that you only get one chance to make a first impression?  The accounts place their orders based on the covers they receive.  (If you thought there was some army of readers out there deciding how many copies B&N ordered, you are sorely mistaken.  It’s all about the package, how much co-op the publisher is offering, and the author’s prior sales record.)  So if the publisher shows the B&N buyer a cover that sucks, why on earth would that buyer place a significant—if any—order?  And if the publisher says, “Oh, we know it sucks.  We’ll be fixing that,” should the buyer have any confidence that the next version will be any better?  I know I wouldn’t if I were in his position.

And the same thing goes for the title and the copy.  Boy, I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve gotten into with publishers over titles and copy.  And what makes it especially frustrating is that the decisions on what’s on a cover, what the title is, and what the copy is, are most often made by people who have never read the book!  One strong argument made by one publisher to me is that authors want covers and titles, etc., that make sense once you’ve read the book, and publishers want covers and titles that make readers want to pick up the book and buy it.  And I can understand that difference.  So why don’t they use more focus groups and tests to determine which cover works best?

As an agent, I’ve actually done this a couple of times.  In this fabulous age of technology, it was nothing to email over one hundred friends and family a series of titles and subtitles for a book and ask them which worked for them.  Same with the copy for another book.  With the title and subtitle, I confess the title I hated was most popular and that’s what’s on the book.  But I could live with that.  You can’t argue with the masses.  With the copy, we came up with a version that everyone loved, but the editor’s boss vetoed it, without coming back to the author for his feedback.  I read it now and cringe.

Every once in a while, I get emails from a focus-group company, asking me to take a survey.  I always do.  I’m curious to know what the questions will be.  So why can’t publishers come up with different covers and run them by online focus groups to find out which one would work best?  I can’t imagine that it would be that expensive, particularly since the rewards could be so great.  Can’t you imagine the response at the accounts to this?  “We ran four different covers by 1,000 people who viewed the images online.  This cover received 75% of the votes.  We also ran four different title options by 1,000 people and this one received 80% of the votes.  Finally, we ran the flap copy by 1,000 people and 78% said this copy would compel them to buy the book.”  Why on earth aren’t publishers doing this?!  It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?

They say one of the secrets to New York Times best-selling author James Patterson’s success is that, as an old advertising hand, he gives his novels out to a focus group of readers before they are published.  This is a bit like studios running test screenings of movies, I’d say, and it’s not a bad idea.  I remember hearing once—and I mean once—that a publisher was requiring that all books have a second read in-house before they could be accepted.  I’m not sure if this was because the house thought editors were slacking and thus wanted to put some pressure on them to actually edit the books they acquired the rights to, or if it was to help ensure that the books would sell.  If the latter, I think it makes a lot of sense.  In fact, I suspect most authors (and agents!) would welcome the increased attention to their books.

The problem that I always experienced while working in-house was that there would never be a meeting where there was a “a plan.”  As an editor, I felt all I could do was whip the book into the best shape possible and try and get some quotes in as early as possible, so that they would be on the solicitation cover (the one that is sent to the accounts six months in advance and therefore the one upon which the accounts base their orders), and try to make sure the cover copy was at least accurate, if not good.  I do recall rewriting the cover copy on a book once and having a very unhappy copy chief in my office telling me, essentially, “Don’t tell me how to do my job.”  Of course, I never understood his unhappiness, since he’d never read the book and clearly the free-lancer to whom he’d assigned the cover copy had never read the book.  I just wanted to engage the reader, rather than leave them asking, “Huh?”.

And therein is a major weakness of the publishing business:  Most of the decisions regarding authors’ books are made by people who have never read the book, and therefore have no passion for it, no understanding of it, and no investment in it, other than the advance.  Of course, the latter is why agents are always trying to get bigger and bigger advances.  The general consensus is that if you don’t get a big advance, the publisher, director of sales, director of marketing and director of publicity won’t take notice.  The book will get published like cars being manufactured.  They all get roughly the same treatment.  Sure, some get leather versus vinyl, or foiled versus just printed, or embossed, but the frame is the same and the guts are basically the same.

I once told a friend that Gillette spent a billion dollars on the Mach 3 razor.  That was probably the only new product it pushed out that year.  Random House must publish a couple of hundred books per month.  How can any of those get individual treatment?  Well, if the publisher invested a million dollars in the advance for one, perhaps it will.  But that’s not even one book per month.

Author beware.  Only you can truly pay attention to what’s happening with your book.  You have to monitor Amazon and bn.com.  You have to reach out to all of your contacts, friends and family and try to get buzz going.  You have to ensure that haste does not make waste, because your publisher surely will not.

Z

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Amen to the copy and title problem. At my publishing house, we editors are struggling for more say (having actually read the book) in choosing a title and cover. Also the copy writers are quite resistant in giving us the short read-through we need to ensure accuracy (and to catch flat-out, offensive errors). For example, just two weeks ago I had a copy person I work with deny me one last look at copy that had the author's name misspelled...argh.

Nancy said...

I read a book not long ago, I wish I could remember which one it was because it drove me crazy, that was rife with typos and mispellings. It drove me nuts and I never finished the book.

I hate to categorize like this but with the younger kids coming into the work force now I think we'll see more of this in the future.

For some reason, there is less teamwork and more "Me, me, me..."

Am I wrong in thinking this?

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