Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Mysterious Customer

As a publisher, I'm always feeling the challenge to find new ways of looking at the world - in my case, usually from scholars. As an Editor, I'm tasked with helping that viewpoint come through as strongly as possible (along with other tasks, of course). I have worked with many authors both while working for a literary agency and working for publishers both trade and academic, and I have had the long talk about the final product. We talk all around the main point, but the fact of the matter is, no one really knows how to make people just buy the damn book.

But then I stroll into the (independent) bookstore and it's a whole different conversation. Rather than pulling out my wallet and deciding what new books to buy based on the merit of the concept, the strength of the writing, and consideration of how the new book fits into the world of books and ideas in general, I just rely on my own quirks, quirks that I don't believe any publishing marketing person could predict.

Since I was in Portland, OR, I of course ended up at Powells... in fact, 3 times in 5 days. Specifically, I kept going back to the City of Books, which is the largest used and new bookstore in the world. It was a truly spectacular place that everyone should visit. Having said that, I had to limit my purchases as I knew I'd have to get them all home, to the East Coast. They did have signs saying they ship anywhere, so I should have just gone nuts and taken advantage.

One thing to point out here is that Powell's offers new and used on the same shelves - as a fellow editor said at the conference I was attending, "oh, like Amazon!" Yikes. Anyway, it was interesting to consider, especially when browsing fiction. A novel that did not come out all that recently inevitably would have multiple copies. (In particular, they had an impressive range of Jim Thompson novels.) As a customer, you could choose an old beat up edition, if you felt so inclined. Sure enough, I got a smaller and cheaper version of Joseph Olshan's Nightswimmer, a book I read years ago and which has come to mind recently. I didn't have a copy - I had read a galley as I was working with his agent - so I welcomed an opportunity to buy it, but I also didn't feel the need to get a great copy. $4 later, I was happy and didn't have to add too much to my luggage. I have seen new and used next to each other in smaller stores and found it confusing and irritating, but here in such a vast space it somehow worked well.

I loved the enormity of the space, color coded in a very sensible way. But I'm definitely struck by the dilemma of any publisher. Do you look at that vast space and try to figure out how to direct customers to your books, or do you look at that vast space and shrug, and just work on your area(s) to get your list(s) as strong as possible?

Just to complicate matters further, I found Alix Dobkin's new memoir, My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming Onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement. I knew a friend studying homosexuality and the Left - a fascinating cross section, btw - would be interested, so I texted him. He replied in 10 minutes or so, saying, "Looking at it now at Harvard Bookstore. Looks awesome." Now Alyson Books doesn't care where my friend buys this book, as long as he buys it. But the bookstores can't predict and certainly can't control this way of browsing and choosing books. I could have just as easily tweeted from the store on my Blackberry, "omg Dobkin's My Red Blood out - gay leftie folkies unite!" (I think that's under 140 words but I ain't counting.) That in turn could have sent a bunch of potential customers scurrying for their local independent booksellers, or online, or to a chain (boo!).

Publishers just can't predict customers at this point in time. I was chatting about this point with a biographer who, like many biographers, writes great big fat books. His editor in the UK said outright that people won't buy big books anymore. The editor - at a giant trade house - also pointed to two books on his shelf. One was expected to do fine but got picked up by someone and talked up, and went on to sells tons of copies. Another was all set to get a big push and ended up never catching on. The editor shook his head and said he honestly could not have predicted those two outcomes, despite years in the business. There are just too many channels to launch or to ignore specific titles, and these channels cannot be controlled or predicted.

I hope this means a wider array of books and a market for them. I see big houses doing their best to co-opt these venues - twitter, facebook, blogs - and sometimes can't even tell who is human and who is just a spokesperson for a big house, pretending to be a personality but then slipping more and more marketing into tweets or status updates.

Ultimately, I go back to the concern of sustainability. If we all can promote books through our phones, blogs, tweets, facebook pages, etc..., are we more independent, as we're not waiting around for established publications to give attention to a book, or more dependent, as now we all race to our computers or blackberries or i-phones for updates all the time? Are we just opening ourselves up to more things that will manipulate and advertise to us?

I want to use technology for good - texting friend to buy leftie gay book from independent bookstore, pub'd by independent press - but I still remain conflicted. That's as good a conclusion as you're gonna get in March 2010, as things continue to change rapidly.

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