• August 28, 2015

An Author's Redemption From Ignorance

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

As a college professor who is also an aspiring-to-midlist author, I find three questions about book publishing keep colliding in my head:

• What in God's name do BookScan numbers really mean?

• How can we as writers begin to fathom the M word? (Yes, I mean marketing.)

• Why do authors get the big chill when we seek to learn about those, and assorted other, mysteries of publishing?

After years of publishing with academic presses ranging from the relatively obscure to the venerable, I brought out a book in 2007 with a major New York house. This year I published with the same company again—this time, to my delight, with the help of agents who had invited me to sign with them.

Certainly, from the outside, my publishing experience looks like a soaring trajectory. And in many ways, it's been exhilarating. Five years ago, even my wildest dreams did not include being interviewed by Diane Rehm or profiled on the pages of Salon.com. In other ways, it's been a startling lesson in how much sweat and skill it takes to code-switch successfully. Peeking out at the publishing world from ivied walls, I've often felt lost.

My first proposal for a book aimed at general readers was, I felt sure, not only well crafted but also scrubbed free of technical language. Internally, I celebrated my ability to jettison the jargon—what fun I was having! That mood lasted until my editor calmly noted that, yes, I'd made a good start; now could I please lose the heavily academic tone?

Ouch. It reminded me of the time I joined a pack of anthropologists in Mexico for a conference. In the weeks before the trip, I'd boned up on my rudimentary Spanish, and I offered it confidently at the hotel. Shooting me a puzzled look, the porter mumbled something that sounded like, "I speak only Spanish." That was deflating, and not unlike my initial experience in mainstream publishing, when I had the sense that I wasn't speaking or—just as important—hearing comprehensible words.

My editor was right, of course. So I re-entered the starting gate and revised my pages. Next I unfurled the equivalent of octopus suction cups and attached myself to anyone in publishing who was willing to clue me in on this new terrain. It was, however, a process marked by missteps. I still have unanswered questions.

Let's start with BookScan, the publishing world's equivalent of television's Neilsen ratings. BookScan, my publisher says, tends to capture about 70 percent of retail sales for any given title. No, countered my agents, it's more like 60 percent. And there was the tip-off: There's no easy metric for correlating BookScan figures with numbers of books actually sold.

Let's say a book shows up on BookScan as having sold 7,000 copies. There's no way to determine if it has actually sold 10,000 copies (meaning that only 70 percent of its sales were captured and reported by Bookscan), perhaps 11,500 copies (with only about 60 percent of its sales were reported), or some higher figure.

Is that difference trivial? Maybe, but Andrew Zack, a California literary agent, argues that no calculation from BookScan reports will lead you to reliable predictions of sales. In a 2009 blog post, "The Lie That Is BookScan," he cites a convincing instance in support of his point: One of his authors' books sold just under 14,000 copies, but BookScan reported only 7,200.

That's one example, but it matches my own experience. BookScan figures for my book Evolving God come in at 47 percent of sales as reported to me by the publisher. The discrepancy is all the more noteworthy because, more than three years after publication, returns of the book are a thing of the past. (Returns: another jaw-dropping concept. See below).

How can BookScan veer off track like that for some titles and not others? While it's true that books sold at Wal-Mart or most airport kiosks are not included in BookScan figures, that's likely to matter little in my case. Megastores or fly zones don't feature my work. More relevant, indie numbers—sales from independent bookstores—are usually absent from BookScan. The "why," then, of its fuzzy numbers may differ from title to title.

And oh, those returns. Now there's a harsh lesson. It's enthralling to know that, shortly before a book's on-sale date, thousands upon thousands of copies are shipped out to stores. Yet it's close to certain that a lacerating percentage will come back unsold. In a trickle (if you're lucky) or a flood (if you're not), books fly home to (in my case) Manhattan, as if attached to some wayward literary boomerang.

That state of affairs means that in the early months, neither BookScan nor the publisher can pinpoint sales. At this point, for example, I lack any precise notion of how my latest book, Being With Animals, is doing, as it was published only in January. There lies one root cause of the furtive compulsion to check Amazon every day (OK, more than once a day) to see your sales rank. As most of us know by now, a sales rank can shoot up by tens of thousands of places when only a single copy is sold. Addictive as it is, then—even seductive at times, as after a national interview like the one I did with Diane Rehm—it's a pretty meaningless measure.

I write books not primarily for the money, but because I adore writing. Connecting with the reading public about anthropology and animals is a privilege. Yet Andrew Zack's point is that, however many books you sell, the elusive nature of sales figures does matter: When BookScan isn't tracking sales accurately, an author may suffer when she pitches a new proposal to a publisher. We're only as good as our last set of sales figures, we're told, and it's true.

All of that is harrowing enough, but the skies only darken when it comes to discerning why books are (or aren't) selling. Here we enter the arena of marketing.

A few years ago, a kind publicist spelled out for me the distinctions between publicity and marketing. Publicity costs amount to review copies of books and a publicist's hard work, and nothing more. (I do not undervalue that hard work: An enthused, skilled publicist is like gold.) Copies are flung by the hundreds into the mediasphere in the hopes of print, online, and on-air reviews and interviews.

Marketing, though, costs money. And the conundrum is this: If your book isn't selling, or if your last book didn't sell, the money for ads dries up. Without ads, the new book won't move, unless its velocity derives from the slow swell of book-club buzz or the ripple effect of radio publicity, and those cases are rare.

"Marketing is excited about this one!" is music to any writer's ears. But disappointment may follow, as when the notion of "ads" translates into a few ephemeral mentions in cyberspace, come-ons that are extinguished quickly and with no visible trace. Each time a new book comes out, I go round and round, dizzied, like a child on a speedy carousel. Next-to-no marketing means weak sales, weak sales means next-to-no marketing. How do I get off this ride?

I don't mean to duck responsibility. No marketing campaign guarantees a book's budging off the shelf. If sales flag, my writing may be at fault. Or maybe I will have misjudged the keenness of readers' desire to explore why we humans are so moved by our relationships with animals.

On the other hand, in the three months since my new book's publication, I've done more than 10 radio interviews, a significant percentage of them national broadcasts. I've offered animal stories to audiences in Denver, Phoenix, Chicago, Santa Fe, and Richmond, and appeared on my local NPR station's fund-raising Pet Pledge Friday. In that case, my anthropological observations were wedged between call-in queries to my fellow guest, a veterinarian. The calls focused largely on the litterbox traumas of house cats.

But hey, you won't catch me complaining. For one thing, I can't write for a broad public and expect to chat away about Donna Haraway's latest species manifesto or new thoughts on posthumanism or whatever else is hot in animal studies. Indeed, as I write this column, I'm preparing for a book-signing at a local Barnes & Noble that will involve dogs as my co-stars.

For another thing, I learned a lot from that on-air litterbox Q&A. I am half of a team of cat rescuers (abandoned cats drape our furniture and the spacious pen in our backyard), and animals populate my life, not just my books.

Admittedly, I've not hit the TV circuit. (Even now I struggle not to end that sentence with a "yet"—that's just a last gasp of hope). Early on, for a fevered week or so, my thoughts had run crazy: Jon Stewart is a William & Mary alumnus; he'll invite me on his show! Ellen DeGeneres is an animal activist; she'll grab my book!

I'm riffing on myself, yes, but to a purpose: Some authors do have inflated hopes. But those aren't born from ego so much as from taking too literally our publishers' and agents' strategizing sessions. When we're told of the marketing department's enthusiasm, reality does not inevitably prevail. Reality is, of course, that most authors don't appear on TV. I am sincerely happy for those who do; all boats will rise, as my former department chair was fond of saying.

Publishers: We authors, some of us anyway, expend far too much energy seeking to understand this new landscape. We need an authors' boot camp. Or better yet, freshman orientation, the kind where no question is dumb, there's a little hand-holding to be had, and we all, mentors and apprentices together, eat pizza at the end of the day.

So help us out when we ask questions. Don't assume we know the lingo. Do assume we don't grasp the ins and outs of BookScan, returns, marketing decisions, and other aspects of the craft that are as obvious to you as breathing. Better yet, don't wait for us to ask. Unconfuse us spontaneously.

Because instead of peering at shifting sales equations or daydreaming about even the tiniest print ad, we'd really rather be writing.

Barbara J. King is a professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary. Her latest book is "Being with Animals" (Doubleday, 2010).


1. 11159995 - June 21, 2010 at 07:32 am

Dr. King neglects to mention one reason it is much more difficult today for books like hers to get noticed--the shrinkage of space in general print media for book reviews. Book review sections have disappeared entirely from some major daily metropolitan newspapers, and for those that remain, including the prestigious New York Times Sunday Book Review, the number of pages for the section has declined. This leaves the U.S. much less well served than many foreign countries where newspapers still devote a lot of space to book coverage and where general media, like the Times Literasry Supplement, even review some fairly specialized scholarly books. The closing of many independent bookstores also has had a major impact on the ability of midlist authors to reach their audiences. The blogosphere and Web 2.0 world have only very partially offset these deteriorating aspects of the market for books in this country. It is one reason that fewer university presses even try to make a go of it in the trade-book arena.---Sandy Thatcher, past president of the Association of American University Presses, 2007/8

2. agrudjr - June 21, 2010 at 10:00 am

Who is Diane Rehm? JK, JK...

3. rmcbks - June 21, 2010 at 06:09 pm

Dr. King,
As a former trade book editor (31 years) and now scholarly book marketing director in a think tank (2.5 years), I have only great compassion and sympathy for your concerns. I still tell my freelance writer/author clients that regrettably they must learn about the publishing industry if they really want to publish intelligently and well. It is not what most authors have signed on to do and it comes as a bit of a shock. So I include a crash course in publishing as a part of my consulting. Explaining BookScan or Amazon's rankings (not about sales per se but about rate of change in sales) are only two of the minor issues that can be baffling. Throw in contracts, returns, subsidiary rights, digital issues, distribution arcana and you have a stew that does not go down easily.

And when you add the fact that 764,448 new self published titles and 288,355 traditional house titles were produced in 2009 you have a staggering job to find a market for any one single title.

The bottom line is that authors can ill afford not to learn about the publishing game today even if it is becoming more complicated and challenging. The days of writing in your study, sending off a manuscript to an editor, and waiting for the money or accolades to roll in are long gone. Even if most of us, including us senior editors, wish it were still true.

Just in case I do a four hour workshop that is an author's boot camp and hope I can push back (at least somewhat) the tide of pessemism that can drown even the most upbeat of writers.

So thank you for your column/essay. I appreciated it.

4. bjkingape - June 21, 2010 at 09:27 pm

Thank you Sandy Thatcher: I am lucky enough to write occasional pieces (book reviews) for the TLS, and as a contributor to Bookslut.com had the opportunity to interview Ron Charles, the Washington Post's chief fiction critic. Both of these experiences have definitely sensitized me to the deterioriating situation regarding national arenas for book reviews in the US. I couldn't agree more... and hadn't thought of it but yes it makes (sad) sense, the closing of independent bookshops has impact too.

To rmcbks: Thank you for writing in. The titles numbers you cite are staggering indeed. I'm delighted to hear about the four-hour workshop! If only it were feasible to make this somehow available more widely to more authors- while still of course compensating you appropriately for the work involved. There's a market, I am sure, for this service.

To agrudjr: Diane Rehm is an insightful talk show host at WAMU radio in Washington, whose show goes national every day on NPR. Check it out, it's easily findable on google.com

5. wisensale - June 22, 2010 at 09:24 am

How does the author know if the publisher is telling the truth in the number of books sold and in the royalties given the author? Is there a national clearinghouse somewhere that contains such information or is the publishing world the very last surviving enclave of pure trust and honesty? Thank you.

6. bjkingape - June 22, 2010 at 10:40 am

Don't know about last surviving enclave, but in my case I absolutely do trust my editor (and my agents) for faithful reporting. It seems to me most editors and agents are committed to their authors (although realistically we know that the commitment varies according to any number of real-world variables ranging from booksales to authors' personalities). For me the question is more the confusing maze of things to learn and the discrepancies in knowledge that industry insiders versus outsiders like me, might have.

7. drgarysgoodman - June 22, 2010 at 10:53 am

Barbara & Colleagues:

Don't seek redemption from publishers. Indeed, seek less and less from them, because they're clueless.

You cited a few of the quirks. Books are consigned to stores, which is a wacky way to distribute anything. Yogi said it well--it ain't over until it's over. Sold doesn't mean (really and truly and gosh I mean it this time) sold. Your returns haven't necessarily stopped. Like tattered, heroic lost pets, they can crawl back for years, especially from the independent bookstores.

Even once revered houses are adopting a Tom Sawyer marketing model, getting authors to pay to be published, or asking them to buy many copies of their own books. This just in, yesterday, from a publisher I know fairly well: "Hi Gary, I would think about this [book] if you would buy some copies."

After sustained publicity efforts, you may not sell that many books. Radio is a blast to do, and easy too, with telephone interviews, but it is generally inferior to print media in moving inventory.

Is THE BOOK the answer? My most recent projects I recorded for a major publisher as audio seminars, instead, and profitably.

I've had the wonderful experience of publishing some business bestsellers, and it is delightful to receive thousands of calls and notes from those whose lives have been improved.

But book publishing, today, is a lot like breeding horses and racing them. At the track, the atmospherics are delightful, but getting to the gate is expensive, indulgent, and best-suited for the already rich and famous.

8. fiona - June 22, 2010 at 03:02 pm

William Germano's GETTING IT PUBLISHED has most of this info. Also, the news about what publishers do and won't do for a book is not new. You can find most of it in HOW TO GET HAPPILY PUBLISHED, which was published at least 25 years ago. What often happens is that academic authors, who really have strong research skills, don't research the publishing industry as they would research any other topic.

Also, everyone reading this should BUY BOOKS. The reason the publishing industry is in such doldrums is that books aren't selling. Don't borrow books. Give them as gifts. BUY THEM, and consider it a contribution to charity, society, good works, and me (a book author).

The Fiona

9. bjkingape - June 22, 2010 at 03:17 pm

Gary- Ah, redemption! The headline, of course, isn't mine- as you will know, authors don't write headlines or (often) titles. I'm seeking no redemption, only some clear guidance. I'm truly happy for your success! I have to say, I don't feel at all comfortable with a conclusion that publishing a book is 'best suited for the already rich and famous.' I just refuse to accept that.... what a sadness that would be for those of us who enjoy reading many voices, many experiences. (I understand perhaps you mean only to report, not to endorse; still, I don't accept it...)

Fiona, thanks for the titles. As you might imagine, I have done some research... You'll notice that the points in my column, though, come out of personal experience with CONFLICTING information received: even diligent research can't always tidy that up so easily. I love your final point: yes, I do buy, buy, and buy books, I have walls lined with them at home, of all genres, I give them as gifts, and wholeheartedly second your advice.

10. francishamit - June 22, 2010 at 03:39 pm

It always perplexes me that Academics somehow think they are immune or excused from doing the heavy lifting of actually promoting their books. Other authors, those who actually make a living from writing, know differently and have for decades. Even if you have a big traditional publisher you will be expected to sell. Everyone loves writing. To be sucessful you have to take the next step and master and learn to love selling as well.

11. 11159995 - June 22, 2010 at 04:09 pm

To #5, it is a standard part of every book publishing contract that the author has the right to audit the publisher's records to check on the accuracy of reporting of sales and royalties.

To #8, though older books about publishing still contain valuable information, the landscape of publishing has changed so dramatically over the past 25 years that depending only on what older books say can lead you badly astray. And this is true of publishing contracts as well, which in the good old days didn't have to include much about electronic rights.
---Sandy Thatcher

12. bjkingape - June 22, 2010 at 05:43 pm

Francishamit- hello, I am perplexed by your comment! Immune or excused? I seriously wonder, how do you conclude that, from my piece? I have been doing and will continue to do everything I can think of... and am following all the advice from my editor and my very wonderful agents, to help "move" the book:

Among these things are my blog (the Friday Animal Blog, which I love writing greatly, whether it sells one book or not!) at http://www.barbarajking.com, tweeting, linking up with other fantastic writers who make a great support network so that we trade "leads" and ideas, making personal appearances however small or large, have been widely on radio nationally and locally with the next interview airing this coming Monday, doing monthly book columns and book reviews to keep engaged in lots of wonderful book-writing going on, am doing all kinds of outreach to animal-oriented and science-oriented organizations, etc. etc. This just is not about author's effort-to-sell....

13. kedves - June 22, 2010 at 09:04 pm

Also, everyone reading this should BUY BOOKS. The reason the publishing industry is in such doldrums is that books aren't selling. Don't borrow books. Give them as gifts. BUY THEM, and consider it a contribution to charity, society, good works, and me (a book author).

The Fiona

Yes, perhaps when I reach the median U.S. household income, I will do this. Now, full-time in academic work, I am 29% below it. I use the library and buy used books for pleasure. I give to charity in other, more direct ways. The way things look now, I will be I be doing that for the foreseeable future.

14. readandwept - June 23, 2010 at 11:18 am

The info in this piece is old news to me (as Fiona said, it would be hard to have read anything about publishing at all without knowing it).

But I appreciate the author's candor at noting the difficulty at stripping away her academic language, and indeed, the pride she felt because the academese that remained in her proposal was invisible to her. If Barbara King wants to write an article about what concretely she learned about how to write for trade audiences -- what exactly was academic about her first proposal and how she learned to change it -- I would love to read it.

15. formerprof05 - June 26, 2010 at 09:55 am

What's missing in this entire discussion? Marketing strategies for the 21st century, that's what. The wonderful thing is that Prof. King has been published by a major, non-academic house. But that's just the beginning.

Check out any best-selling author. They have their own web page on which they include information about themselves and all of their books. The copy on these websites is SEO friendly so that it pops up in Google and other searches. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are employed to create interest and distribute information. Many publish an e-book version on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. All of this is probably more effective than national interviews on NPR.

My question is, why is a major publisher not suggesting, insisting on, or even doing this sort of thing?

16. bjkingape - June 26, 2010 at 11:06 am

Formerprof 05 is right, and I should have mentioned in the article itself that I was encouraged by my agents to set up my own website. The fantastic Authors Guild helped with this endeavor; I recommend them (for a good number of reasons) to other writers. See the result at http://www.barbarajking.com, where my blog is also maintained. I also tweet @bjkingape

I did all this myself, and pay for the website myself. Not unusual, of course, and not resented either. Still this kind of thing we authors do is only one piece of the marketing arena. It wouldn't seem to preclude other pro-active strategies, by publishers themselves.

Readandwept, thanks for the idea for a future column.

Kedves, I hear you. I couldn't always have bought so many books, on an early-years teaching salary; I've been at this a long time now and am grateful to be able to do it. I do think what The Fiona had in mind in part was that in situations where you're going to buy a gift for someone, anyway, why not consider books?!

17. richardtaborgreene - June 27, 2010 at 07:02 am

I do not understand why anyone at all would now, in 2010, try to sell a prose work????????? Why on earth?????? Multi-media is a word comprising web links, tutorial lessons on downloadable software, video clips, live interactive group blogging sessions, and the like. Isn't it some slice of that that we all publish now??????

Prose---why would anyone even try! What a tired old decrepit interface to ideas. Just because schools know only it does not make it non-dead.

18. bjkingape - June 27, 2010 at 11:39 am

Richard, I've just been spending part of my weekend reading some of the most incredibly untired undecrepit undead prose ever- a gorgeous novel, a compelling non-fiction work, pieces in Transformation, a literary journal... Sorry, can't dismiss prose, and why on earth would anyone do something so sweeping?! Why live in an either/or world as the one you suggest?

What I'd most like to hear are responses from others - what do you think of post #17?

19. footbook - July 05, 2010 at 04:42 am

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