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Technology may be speeding up the news cycle, but in publishing, things actually seem to be slowing down. Although publishers can turn an electronic file into a printed book in a matter of weeks — as they often do for hot political titles, name-brand authors or embargoed celebrity biographies likely to be leaked to the press — they usually take a year before releasing a book. Why so long? In a word, marketing.
As soon as a literary agent has sold a publisher a book, and even before it’s edited, copy-edited, proofread and indexed, the publicity wheels start turning. While writers bite their nails, the book editor tries to persuade the in-house sales representatives to get excited about the book, the sales representatives try to persuade retail buyers to get excited, and the retail buyers decide how many copies to buy and whether to feature the book in a prominent front-of-the-store display, for which publishers pay dearly. In the meantime, the publisher’s publicity department tries to persuade magazine editors and television producers to feature the book or its author around the publication date, often giving elaborate lunches and parties months in advance to drum up interest.
Now, as far as I can see, that article applies primarily to certain big name publishers and big name retailers, playing their long-established games. Bully for them, especially if they're publishing something I can sell in my little bookstore. (We have standards they sometimes don't meet, even though we're not as picky as perhaps we ought to be.)
But they're only a segment of the publishing world. They're a significant factor, sure. But if selling books has taught us anything, it's that the big publishers' obsession with creating fads, and replacing them quickly with new fads, isn't what a lot of consumers want.
Good backlist books, midlist books, small press books, niche books, regional-interest books, even self-published books, can do surprisingly well if they're kept in print, and are easily obtained. Novelty sells. But so does something that somebody stumbles across. Or backlist of an author a customer has recently discovered, perhaps years after the publisher has whipped up buzz and then abandoned the titles and the author. I won't be surprised if more big book houses learn to keep more books in their catalogs, long after the talk shows no longer care. We'll see.
Perhaps I'm wrong, but when I read the New York Times piece linked above, the thought that popped to mind was "Me thinks they do protest too much." (However that's supposed to go. Thinks? Thinketh? Protest? Protesteth? I never can remember...) If they want to keep giving elaborate parties, that's their business, of course. But I have to wonder if they're trying just a bit too hard to convince the rest of us that a high-flying style of promotion is necessary, in a day and age in which authors can self-publish, and self-promote, without ever even leaving their home, not to mention that this is a day and age when talk shows and magazines have more competition than ever, and perhaps can't quite drive the popular culture as much as they used to? It's not like the old days, when there were three networks, and no podcasts or bloggers, etc. Is it?
Am I calling big publishers and their marketing departments dinosaurs? Oh, my, no. Think Harry Potter. Think how people lined up to get into stores at midnight. Think how crazy some folks got waiting for the release date, book after book. Think how much people enjoyed the countdown.
Marketing can be powerful. No question. But word of mouth can spread a lot of different ways, and it can and does sell a lot of books ignored by the talk shows and magazines and newspapers. If I were one of those hotshots who is used to being wined and dined, I think I'd be keeping one eye out for signs that the gig was wearing thin. I wouldn't necessarily be sweating, because people who like to live high aren't likely go frugal without a fight. But I would be keeping one eye out.