Garrison Keillor Says The Publishing Industry is Cooked

Well-written, fun piece about going to a swanky industry party in Tribeca; feeling the end.

"I ran into my daughter's favorite author, Mary Pope Osborne, in New York the other night, whose Magic Tree House books I've read to the child at night, and a moment later, Scott Turow, who writes legal thrillers that keep people awake all night, and David Remnick, the biographer of Obama.

Bang bang bang, one heavyweight after another. Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, Judy Blume. It was a rooftop party in Tribeca that I got invited to via a well-connected pal, wall-to-wall authors and agents and editors and elegant young women in little black dresses, standing, white wine in hand, looking out across the Hudson at the lights of Hoboken and Jersey City, eating shrimp and scallops and spanikopita on toothpicks, all talking at once the way New Yorkers do."

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I love it, too, Thomas--if I didn't I'd most surely be doing something less stressful and more financially rewarding. In fact, if I had it all to do over again I think I'd be an electrical contractor. When we re-did our house, our electrician made $85 an hour and completely disappeared for deer season--bow and gun.

Thanks for that news about MATING SEASON. I used to say that for me, "making it" would mean seeing my books in an airport bookstore. That hasn't happened, but a grocery store wouldn't be far behind. Are you in New England? MA? RI?
No, it won't end. Things are just very much harder than they used to be. We're entitled to wallow in our complaints. The writing is still a good thing in our lives; It's all the other stuff that has become grim. It's no fun at all to get several single-spaced pages from your agent, containing instructions on how to promote your books -- especially when you know what you're up against and how this will simply not work. In the end, it's something else to be held against you: you failed because you didn't promote enough! Never mind that you used the time instead to polish your work and do your research. That's why I am all for testing fresh waters to see if something else works better.
Yes. Exactly, Thomas. Except that I draw the line at certain types of promotion. They are neither cost-nor time-effective. Going to a book signing and giving a two-hour presentation (for free) when the effort sells only two books means that neither book store nor publisher have done a thing, yet they'll reap the rewards. I'm not doing that any more. For one thing, it's not at all good for my self-esteem and my blood pressure.

The fact is that "making it" involves pure unadulterated luck. Some reviewer has to discover you in an article and strike a chord with another reviewer, who'll also give you major exposure. At that point, you get other papers jumping on the bandwagon and you're on a roll.

As long as I'm in print that may yet happen. Personal promotion will not get me any closer to it. Unfortunately and unfairly, heavy promotion by the publisher does achieve the miracle.
Michael Connelly swears his West Coast tour of bookstores was a major factor in his getting noticed. It's not about selling books, it's about meeting the bookstore owner, making a friend, getting him or her to read your book.

Not for everybody, certainly. But I only sold maybe a couple of thousand books total and the majority were off Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But more than 50 were sold by one bookstore in Boise because the lady there liked me, liked my first book, and made it a special for the month.

Nobody likes being a salesman. But I think publishers today expect it. Seems risky to disregard what they want.
My editor has told me that at this point in my career that it probably wouldn't be particularly cost-effective for them (or me) to foot the bill for a tour--that the effect on sales wouldn't offset the expense. First you develop an audience, then you tour. I'm inclined to believe her.
I'm sure Connelly's first big tour cost him ten times the money he expected to make on THAT book. He decided to make a capital investment in his writing career -- all his future books.

The key is always quality (apologies to IJ). It wouldn't have worked if Connelly was a poor storyteller and the bookstore people didn't like his book.
I agree. It'ts also better for the self-esteem. And Michael Connelly's debut was quite a while ago, and possibly heavily funded by the publisher. I couldn't even get my first publisher to request a signing date from B&N. The store turned me down!
I think it's more than just promotion--you really have to have the right book at the right time. I'm pretty sure mine aren't really going to draw a mass audience no matter how they're promoted (not enough explosions, chase scenes on bicycles), and that's okay with me--though God knows I could use the money.
You might be a perfect example of where the publishers' marketing efforts fall short. I've read HIGH SEASON, and there are niches where I suspect it would sell like hell. I understand publishers don;t have the resources to foot the bill for tours of dubious merit. Do they have the resources to be able to look at your books--anyone's books--and be able tot ell you how to most effectively spend what resources you're willing to devote. Yes, it's a crap shoot, but I know I lack the time and resources to find the publications and locales that might be amenable to forming a base of sales. If someone could help to get you hooked up with some gay and counter-cultural sales and promotion outlets, you might do pretty well there, but I doubt you have the resources and energy to dig all that up yourself. I know I would.

That's where publishers could be very helpful. I get the feeling what happens is too often a matter of, "Congratulations. Here's your book. You're on your own." I don;t see where that's fruitful for anyone, including the publisher.
I don't think those markets are really even on their radar, Dana. Hell, I'm pretty sure I could sell 20,000 copies a year on Cape Cod alone if they'd just put a recognizable image of Provincetown on the freaking cover and make sure it gets put in bookstore windows up and down the Cape; you're talking millions of tourists with nothing in particular to do and lots of money to spend while doing it, many of whom actually want something Cape-related to read. This just seems like common sense to me, but to the marketing guys it sounds like capitulating to a regional marketing scheme that they don't really do. It's one-size fits all, except that of course it doesn't. It would cost them nothing, but still. Ditto a badge on the cover that says "as featured on NPR's Morning Edition." Lots of people like NPR; in fact that's pretty much my demographic. I suggested it for the MMPB of MATING SEASON, but did it happen? No, it did not.
Jon, it can be frustrating when you know your publisher can do small things to sell a lot of books but they won't do it. I was trying to get my publisher to put a sticker on Small Crimes proclaiming that NPR picked it as one of the 5 best mystery + crimes of 2008, and no dice. I know from experiments I did with some local bookstores that that would've sold a lot of copies. I'm trying to do the same now to get them to put stickers on my latest about Small Crimes + Pariah both being picked by the Washington Post as best books of the year, and it's still an uphill battle. For an 8 cent a book cost for the sticker, they'd probably sell twice as many copies. It's frustrating.
I feel ya, Dave. I've actually heard from more than one Cape Cod bookseller "why don't you put the freakin' Pilgrim Monument on the cover--I'd sell a ton!" Common sense, like I say. And yeah--my first was a NYT Editor's Choice and a WaPo best book, reviewed in the NYTBR and WaPo Bookworld the same weekend. Sold out the initial print-run in about three days, took two weeks to get a second, smaller print run out, sold that out, two weeks later the third printing appeared, and by then the momentum was pretty much gone. No follow-up from the publisher, no ad budget, zero--no push for reviews, interviews or features in national media, meanwhile the book's getting rave reviews in Chicago, Richmond, etc. Then the paperback came out and completely killed HC sales. It was quite bizarre, IMO, but apparently that's just how it's done.


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