February 3, 2015

Two for Tuesday: The publishers are bad at marketing! (Or are they?)


We eventually talk about this book. I swear.

We eventually talk about this book. I swear.

If you think publishers are bad at marketing please email me, Alex Shephard, at alex at mhpbooks.com and let me know what you think we’re doing wrong. If you have a question about what publishers do to market books, you can also email me at alex at mhpbooks.com. If I get enough of emails, I’ll respond in a column when I don’t have the flu. (To find out why I am asking you to do this, please read the following.) 

Alex: Hi Mark! Happy Super Bowl Monday! Or should I say Super Bowl Funday? I will! Happy Super Bowl Funday.

Did you watch the Super Bowl? Or were you one of those people whose Super Bowl is telling other people they don’t care about the Super Bowl and don’t even own a TV? Those people are bad people.

Mark: I didn’t tell anyone anything about my TV or my viewing habits, and I’m tempted to keep it that way. But since you asked, I followed along on Twitter, which is surely the saddest sentence I’ve ever written. Can we end this conversation now? I need to go take stock of my life choices. This has been the final edition of Two for Tuesday.

Alex: You made a bad decision, Mark. I have learned that certain life events should be Twitter-free and the Super Bowl is absolutely one (though I did check-in occasionally, particularly with Jon Wurster). It was a great game! Did you know that Pete Carroll is a 9/11 truther? And that I am a Marshawn Lynch truther? And that FiveThirtyEight is staffed entirely by Pete Carroll truthers?

Mark: The FiveThirtyEight thing is pretty amazing. Last night as my phone filled up with variations on “whoa,” “wtf,” “no,” and “omg” (or, per Michael Schaub’s Twitter, “OH MY GOD” and “Oh, shit.”), I started to wonder how long it would be before we’d get the counterintuitive #hottake. (As it was, it was unusual to see so much broad agreement on a given topic.) FiveThirtyEight proved that the answer was “about thirteen hours.” Oh well, unity was cool while it lasted.

Alex: I watch the Super Bowl for two reasons: 1. the scorching hot takes and 2. the advertisements. This year’s advertisements were a total disaster—they were American decline-personified. Sure, there were a few of the dumb ads we’re used to—a car got an erection in one and a tortoise and a hare got it on in another—but the rest were real downers, man. We used to make things in this country. Now we’re forced to watch treacly nonsense about the importance of dads and the importance of dads properly securing televisions so they don’t fall on children and kill them and turn them into creepy narrator ghosts and the importance of overdosing on heroin while listening to terrible ukulele music. I wanted better ads! I wanted ads about how America is great and about the reason why America is great is a cool truck with cool truck nuts advertising a sexist search engine. (sidenote: did GoDaddy GoOutOfBusiness?)

Oh, there also weren’t any literary ads. There should have been literary ads! We should’ve taken out an ad for Against Football, at least. Sometimes I wonder why we have all this sweet, sweet independent publisher cash lying around and don’t use it. What’s the point?

Mark: Yep, that was a missed opportunity. Why didn’t we do that? Oh, I know why. Because the ads cost $4.5 million for thirty seconds. Which is another way of saying: $150,000 per second. So probably a bit out of our price range. But Knopf should have really stepped it up and paid for three seconds’ worth of airtime to promote the new totally authorized, totally posthumous Stieg Larsson sequel. Or better yet, they should have run an ad for the Garth Risk Hallberg book and collected some preorders! Preorders, Alex! As everyone in publishing tells us, they’re the only thing that matters.

Still, feasible or not, I would have loved to see some book commercials. Even if they were for schlocky books. Even if they were for James Patterson’s exploding book. Maybe next year, all publishers should band together to buy fifteen seconds during which they can quickly advertise every book they’re publishing in 2016. It can be like that video of all the episodes of Friends being played simultaneously. But you know what, that’s probably collusion. Actually, my talking about is probably collusion. Shit, even *thinking* about it is collusion. So for the record, I think talking to anyone at any other publisher is a terrible idea, as is thinking about any other publisher. I never do it, and I don’t know anyone who would.

Alex: I want a Bud Light/FSG tie-in starring Jonathan Franzen. It would sell Purity and Bud Light! Maybe the campaign could be called “Flipping the Bird with J-Franz.” It would involve Franzen flipping actual birds and people on the internet giving Franzen the finger? I am available for freelance copywriting work, btw, and I’m a total “mad man” if a certain “Mr. Draper” is reading.

The Super Bowl is nothing if not a massive celebration of American commercialism—it should be called “America, but more so” or maybe just “America, fuck yeah.” It is, in other words, a day that’s all about selling—selling perverted Internet search engines, selling weird pervert cars, selling the (perverted?) lie that the NFL is a competently run and totally not corrupt organization that cares about its players (and the possibly bigger lie that Bill Bellichick is not an android bent on destroying us all).

But we are not selling any of those things. We’re interested in selling books. And that’s why we were both drawn to Ken Auletta’s very interesting piece in The New Yorker about Matt Bai’s All The Truth is Out and why it is not selling particularly well. One thing that is selling, however, is that transition, which was fucking well-executed—even Michael Schaub has to give me props for that one.

Mark: Michael, if you’re reading–and really, after such a terrible transition I don’t see why you would be–please chastise Alex for that ghastly, ghastly transition. Just think of all the other transitions we could have gone with:


Now those are some great fucking transitions. Top notch.

But yes, the Auletta piece. What a weird piece! Auletta wrote a whole post speculating about why Bai’s book didn’t sell as well as it should have. It’s a thoughtful essay and makes a strong case for the book, but I’m always wary of these kinds of pieces, largely because a) almost no books sell as much as they should have (except for Colton Burpo’s books–they sold considerably *more* than they should have) and b) the question of *why* a book didn’t sell as much as one person thinks it should have is extremely thorny!

Bai’s book is about the 1988 presidential candidacy of Gary Hart, and how it signaled (or didn’t!) a newer, more vulgar, more gossipy era in political journalism. This is actually a pretty niche topic! Don’t get me wrong–I will read anything about Gary Hart, to whom I was introduced by Richard Ben Cramer in What It Takes, possibly the greatest American nonfiction book of the last fifty years. Toward the end of his piece, Auletta writes:

 Perhaps the reason that the book didn’t sell, a well-placed publishing executive told me, is because Hart is ancient history, and books on the press are perceived by readers as inside baseball. But the other reason, it seems to me, is that thin-skinned journalists have less interest in reading, and writing, about their own mistakes.

I wrote above that the reasons why books don’t meet expectations are usually thorny, but in this case, they are not thorny: that well-placed publishing executive is correct! And Auletta is, I think, wrong! If the book had been targeted specifically to journalists–thin-skinned or otherwise–that would have been one thing, but this was a trade book marketed to the general reader, so journalists’ insensitivity seems rather immaterial here.

What did you think of the piece, Alex? And is this a marketing problem? (Spoiler alert: no!) Should Knopf have done some sort of brilliant micro-targeting of journalists who like reading about their mistakes?

Alex: I agree with you and the “well-placed publishing executive,” of course! Also, what do you think “well-placed” means here? I SUPPOSE it probably means that he has some relationship to the book and therefore knows something about it but I HOPE it means that he has a nice office or got his job through a temp agency. Maybe all three are true? That would be amazing. I love you, well-placed publishing executive.

I think the Auletta piece is fascinating, in large part because, as you’ve pointed out, it asks difficult questions about the book industry. I’m particularly fond of Authors United’s (hey, remember them?) description of the publishing industry as “venture capital for ideas.” Like venture capital, the industry—especially the corporations that dominate it—is often too beholden to trends, to big names and books that “seem like they’ll sell well” or have a lot of “buzz.” But the truth of the matter is that a lot—and I mean a lot—of work goes into selling books and a lot of incredibly talented people work on getting people to buy them and, nine times out of ten (actually more like nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand) those books don’t sell as many copies as they should.

In some cases, packaging may be to blame—not just the literal package (the cover/copy/blurbs, etc.) but the way the book is presented to consumers. In this case, though, I don’t think there’s anyone to “blame” for that—this is a book about Gary Hart, which is a subject that a limited number of people are going to be interested in spending $30 on in 2015.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the book is, ya know, about Gary Hart. I suppose it could’ve been given a title like All The Truth is Out: The Week The Media Got Shitty and Bad Because Before that Week is Was Real Good and Had Been Forever or This Is Why You Don’t Vote or something, but I don’t think that would’ve changed anything. After all, Gary Hart’s name isn’t in the title, which indicates that Knopf was nervous about signaling the fact that the book was, well, about Gary Hart. That technique sometimes works—The Swerve isn’t called How Lucretius Got His Swerve Back, after all, it’s called The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which doesn’t quite call into attention that the book is mostly about an old poem that most people probably didn’t give two shits about until Stephen Greenblatt told them to.

That said, balancing those two things is a tricky thing for publishers to do. Bai’s book is clearly an narrative history about Gary Hart’s candidacy and a Big Ideas Book about the changing face of media. It strikes me as more of the former than the latter, though Knopf clearly pitched it to consumers as more of the former than the latter. I picked it up thinking I was getting that and put it down when I saw that it was a (by all accounts) excellent narrative history of something I’m not particularly interested in (as a Milennial, I don’t care about anything that happened before I was born).  At the same time, there’s another important difference that may (sorry for all the punditry) have made a difference: perhaps people are more willing to read positive Big Ideas Books (How The World Became Modern) than negative ones (The Week The Media Went Tabloid). I don’t know. Sometimes everybody’s a pundit. Those times are the worst times.

But again, who knows what will work? I sure don’t and I am in the goddamn marketing department. My strategy tends to be pretty simple (and pretty contradictory!): try to tell a simple story about why a book matters and throw as many different things at the wall as you have the time and resources to throw.

Mark: The day that Norton publishes a book with “How [anyone] Got His [anything] Back” as a subtitle template will be a great day indeed. Are you listening, Matt Weiland? Melville House demands this of you.

The kinds of decisions and conversations you’re describing are at once overthought and underthought–over thought because they usually involve dozens (if not hundreds) of emails and hours spent in conference rooms, and underthought because you simply can’t predict how well most books will sell. Certainly not a nonfiction book that’s part biography, part narrative history, part media criticism that takes as its focus one of the least consequential elections in recent history.

But that overthinking is a good thing! Given that success is so hard to predict, it’s great that publishers give a shit and make decisions, even if the decisions are sometimes wrong and usually don’t lead to blockbuster success, anyway. The wrongest part of Matt Yglesias’s epically wrong Vox screed last year (a screed that I should stop talking about, because it was written months ago, but I can’t, because it was so terrible) was when he wrote that book publishes are terrible at marketing.

Book publishers are not terrible at marketing. They are constrained by any number of factors (money, time, the increasing dearth of outlets that are willing to remember that books exist at all), but unless you market-tested every Gary Hart-related book published in the last twenty years and conducted massive focus groups and somehow found the email address of everyone who has visited the Columbia Journalism Review website over the last five years and bombarded those people with dozens of emails, I’m not sure you could do much better than Knopf did.

Though they probably should have put Hart’s name in the subtitle. Not because it more effectively represents the book, but because Gary Hart is the kind of all-American name any reader would love. Much better than Hartpence, which was Hart’s birthname. I’m glad they didn’t call the book All Truth Is Out: Gary Hart’s Name Was Originally Gary Hartpence.

Alex: Here’s how Yglesias leads off that section of his pro-Amazon explainer, aptly titled “Book publishers are terrible at marketing”:

When I was a kid, my father was a novelist as were both of my grandparents. So I heard a lot of stories about how useless publishers are at marketing books. Then I got to know other people who wrote books and they had the same complaints. Then I wrote a book, and their complaints became my complaints. But it’s easy to whine that other people aren’t marketing your product effectively. It took the Amazon/Hachette dispute to conclusively prove that the whiners are correct.

After all, imagine a world in which publishers were good at marketing books. Then it would be almost trivial for Hachette to get what it wants out of Amazon. It could just not sell its books on Amazon!…

The real risk for publishers is that major authors might discover that they do have the ability to market books. When George RR Martin’s next iteration of the Game of Thrones series is released, I will buy it. If I can buy it as an Amazon Kindle book, I will buy it that way. If he decides that the only way people should be able to read the book is to get Powell’s to mail them a copy, then I will buy it that way. And I am not alone. Nor is Martin the only author with the clout to not worry about the terms of distribution.

Vox is ostensibly an “explainer” site (though its record so far is pretty mixed), but this doesn’t explain shit. It certainly tells the reader that publishers are bad at marketing (Yglesias is a man’s man insofar as he is very good at talking authoritatively about things he does not know very much about) but it doesn’t explain why this is, or what they’re doing wrong, or anything really. Instead, Yglesias’s argument is simple: my grandparents and my parents were authors who thought publishers were bad at marketing, I am an author who thinks this, and I have friends who think this too. Thinking something doesn’t make it so, however, even if one’s family and friends also think it.

Like Emily Gould, I’m sorry Yglesias had a bad experience, whatever that entailed—same goes for his parents (his father, by the way, has a new novel out in March that looks pretty good) and, why not?, his grandparents. But if publishers are really so terrible at marketing and that is so obvious to everyone, shouldn’t it be easy to explain why they’re terrible at marketing? Especially on a site whose entire existence is predicated on explaining things? Yglesias doesn’t do that—no examples are provided, no evidence is given. It’s simply stated. “Publishers are bad at marketing.” A lot of people think this!

Look, marketing books is difficult. But one thing that always astounds me about the “Publishers are terrible at marketing” argument is that it’s never actually argued—it’s only stated. I think that’s because publishers aren’t terrible at marketing so much as people like Yglesias are ignorant about the publishing industry and the way it operates. That’s certainly a failure of the industry—publishers absolutely should be more open about how they operate, both with authors like Yglesias and the general public—but it doesn’t mean that they’re bad at marketing.

Still, a lot of people think this! So I’d like to invite readers, whether they be pro-Alex Shephard, defender of marketing departments, or pro-Matt Yglesias, defender of his ability to tell people what he thinks about things, to email me at alex at mhpbooks.com to tell me why you think publishers are bad at marketing—how they’ve failed, how they continue to fail, and what they should do differently—or ask questions about how marketing departments work. Then I’ll either turn them into a column or put them in this column next week. I’m serious! Email me. I want to talk about this. Because a lot of people think this and I want to know why—in large part because no one’s really ever given me an adequate explanation.

Mark: Can I email you at alex at mhpbooks.com to complain, yet again, about how this column has a terrible name? You know what, I’m going to do it anyway. I hope you address this issue in our next column. It’s an important issue, and has gone underexplored for too long.

Oh, is this that moment in the column when you post songs I’ve never heard of?

Alex: You mean the best part of this column? When Two For Tuesday (in which the “two” is me and you, I think?) becomes Twofer Tuesday (in which the “twofer” is too heavy ass songs)? You’re damn right it is. Here are two heavy ass songs from The James Gang.