About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bad Gertrude, Bad Bad Gertrude

I'd linked a while back to a PW report that Simon & Schuster was downsizing its sales force. Now PW reports that the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, the regional group of indie booksellers, sent a stern letter of protest. The field reps are a crucial part of the book business, and without them our book culture will disappear.

Well, good luck with that.

It isn't that NAIBA isn't right to protest, for I believe that they are. Publishers as a rule under-invest in selling books, this move by S&S the latest little piece of it.

It's just that solutions NAIBA offers aren't very helpful either.

Among their alternate suggestions:

Eliminate multiple ARC mailings. If this means NAIBA thinks publishers can consolidate and do fewer mailings with the same number of ARCs, good. But if they mean sending out fewer ARCs of fewer books, these are the same people who happily fill bags with galleys at BEA, and we send galley copies to get people reading and talking about new books.

Do away with promotional gimmicks. Well, OK, maybe, kind of, except that with all of those galleys publishers do want theirs to stand out. Though this may be the best idea, because I think most of these giveaways are kind of silly.

Cut celebrity advances. Not gonna happen. This is a cure-all that a lot of people throw out. But publishers pay those advances because they expect to earn them back, and there isn't a perfect way to predict ahead of time which ones will and which ones won't.

Publish fewer titles. Now, film studios have actually cut back on titles, and the world isn't exactly suffering for new movies to see. And publishers do publish an awful lot of books and can't attract attention to all of them no matter how hard they might try and more often don't. So I agree with this in theory, but fear the reality of it would disagree with the theory. Because this is a creative business, it's hard to tell which books will work and which will not. If you take too many fewer chances, you have fewer chances to win. Some of the titles that are published, are published because there are arrangements in place at various ID outlets to take those books and put them into supermarkets and drug stores and truck stops hither and yon in places many of us may never even see. The world doesn't need a 298th Jake Slocum or Long Arm novel, but I guarantee you if Berkley gives up that slot somebody else will fill it.

And one big difference between film studios and book publishers. Any major studio movie represents an outlay of many millions of dollars and is huge in absolute terms and perhaps even in proportion to the overhead for running a big company like Paramount. A book with a 12,000 copy print run can cost under $20K, not counting allocated costs like a proportion of overhead. One editor can easily shepherd 25, 30, even 40 of those books a year for a salary of $100K, perhaps even less. If Penguin cuts back on titles, it's not going to say "no" to the next Charlaine Harris, which will actually have a big investment if for no other reason than you have to spend more money printing hundreds of thousands of books than 12,000 of them. It's not going to say "no" to a celebrity title it is reasonably sure it will make money on. No, it's going to cut at the middle or bottom of the list, with a title with an insignificant marginal cost. It could cut five of them and maybe pay to have another rep in the field, and the rep will have five fewer books to sell.

So that idea of NAIBA won't save any money.

So no, publishers should not cut back on field reps. My answer is "spend more, make more," which is not how the publishing industry works. Theirs is "spend less, make more," which is just another NIMBY way of saying the fat in the budget isn't where their money comes from.

Oh -- Gertude is the kangaroo's name. And don't ask me which kangaroo.


Anonymous said...

spend more, make more...or , stepping over a dime to pick up a penny.
Lyn Lejeune

Maria said...

I didn't see an offer to cut the biggest waste of money in publishing: Stop accepting stripped books/returns.

Oh, but I guess the bookstores wouldn't suggest that...