Marketing a book these days is like playing a slot machine; hitting one 7 won’t get you a dime. “There has to be this constellation of events,” says Daniel Menaker, whose departure was tied in the press to the low sales of Benjamin Kunkel’s much-ballyhooed debut novel, Indecision. “Not only a Times Book Review front cover but Don Imus talking about it and Ellen Pompeo actually reading the book on-camera. And Barack Obama has just bought it.”
It’s plausible that publishing would already be in the red if it weren’t for Oprah. And “she is reportedly going off the air in a few years,” says former Simon & Schuster CEO Jack Romanos. “The most effective marketing tool they have for a book isn’t going to be there. If I were still there, I would be figuring out, now, different and better ways to market in anticipation of that being taken away.”
This would mean far more than just the few book “trailers” you see online. “They’re all the rage right now,” says Bloomsbury’s Peter Miller, “but I would love to see an example of one video that really did generate a lot of sales. There’s a sense of desperation.”
“We just don’t know what our business looks like without Borders. And that’s terrifying. There’s just no way of getting around it.” —SIMON LIPSKAR, AGENT
If you think marketing is impossible, talk to the people in sales. Their job—forcing books into a shrinking handful of outlets—involves all the supplication of publicity without all the fun and free booze of book parties. And it has the added bonus of bleeding their companies dry.
Borders Group, which controls 10 to 12 percent of the bookselling market, is on death watch, putting publishers in an even less enviable negotiating position with bookstores. The remaindering and shredding of books—a cost borne largely by the publisher—is a relic of a consignment model developed during the Depression that makes no modern sense. Publishers also pay for placement in big bookstores, which they call “co-op,” under a complicated arrangement meant to cover up the fact that it’s payola (or, as some call it, extortion). Those 300 copies of, say, American Wife stacked precariously at the entrance? Bought and paid for by the publisher. “You feel raped having to pay for placement in a store you’re selling to,” says an agent.
“You can’t turn a camel into an alligator. I’d rather we have several soft years when investors get out and people who care about the values in the business reinvest.”
But at least with two major chains, you can play one against the other. Even in its weakened state, Borders can still boost a book into best-seller contention. If something is selling well at Borders, a publisher can pressure an increasingly stingy Barnes & Noble to reorder. If Barnes & Noble absorbed Borders’ business, it would control 30 percent of the market—versus 10 percent for all the independents combined, with big-box retailers and Amazon controlling most of the rest. (At its nineties peak, the indie-only American Booksellers Association had 4,700 member stores; today it has 1,700.) This matters because the following response from Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio is only technically true: “We buy every title published—our business is a long-tail business—less than 5 percent is from bestsellers.”
Editors insist that plenty of books get skipped. Richard Nash, head of indie publisher Soft Skull Press, estimates that one in twenty are passed over, though ten to fifteen copies are shipped into their warehouses in case there’s a special order. Many more are getting smaller initial orders than ever. That’s a very long, very skinny tail.
Barnes & Noble, briefly interested in Borders, has since recanted. Recently William Ackerman, a major Borders shareholder, suggested they should sell to Amazon instead. That probably won’t happen, but his reasoning is clear. Barnes & Noble is old news. Amazon is the future.
“The fear of Google [BookSearch] is ridiculous paranoia. The fear of Amazon is enlightened self-interest.” —MIKE SHATZKIN, BOOK-INDUSTRY CONSULTANT
Attendance at this year’s BookExpo was way down, but you wouldn’t have known it if you were among the 700-odd people at a presentation by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Lean, wiry, shaven-headed, and big-eared, Bezos talked up the Kindle, the new e-reader that may or may not account for 1 percent of the book market. No one knows. But while bookstore sales were to drop 7.1 percent that month, Amazon was on its way to 31 percent sales growth (albeit for all media products) for the second quarter. The audience greeted Bezos warily: His sleek, West Coast style made Jane Friedman look like Vladimir Nabokov.
In a Q&A session billed as “Upfront and Unscripted,” none other than Chris “Long Tail” Anderson quizzed Bezos on his plans. He couldn’t get many straight answers (though Bezos was delighted to discuss the suborbital space vehicle he’s working on). How many books would Bezos like to have available on the Kindle? “Well, I probably won’t be happy unless we have 20 million, but I’m hard to make happy,” he said, and then let loose a honking laugh.