Friday, October 20, 2006
Think Marketing Dollars Always Work?
[Finally! I had pretty much given up for the day. Blogger was so gummed, I couldn't even bring up the page to post. Then suddenly--there it is.]
Last Monday’s issue of the Wall Street Journal had an interesting—and sobering—front page article about one publisher “rolling the dice” to pay high dollars for a book and its marketing. Editor John Sterling of Henry Holt & Co. was smitten with An Interpretation of Murder, a historical thriller (and first novel) by Jed Rubenfield. Sterling paid $800,000 for domestic rights for the novel—one of Henry Holt’s largest advances ever paid. He then committed to a $500,000 marketing campaign. (You pay that much for a book, it doggone better sell well.) Meanwhile Rubenfield kept foreign rights, and later sold the novel to 31 foreign publishers for a total of over $1 million.
Sterling knew other big books would be hitting the shelves about the same time as Interpretation, including The Thirteenth Tale, a gothic novel that’s been compared to Jane Eyre. So he prepared a marketing blitz to create buzz before Interpretation came out. He spent $17K on printing ARCs (advanced readers copies), built a $10K web site, and held some power lunches with key players in the bookselling industry. Plus he got Rubenfield to make required changes on the manuscript in a hurry so they could launch their all-out marketing push in seven months, to coincide with BookExpo America, the annual booksellers convention in May. The book would not hit shelves until September.
Early signs looked good. The book garnered some favorable reviews, and Interpretation was named the Number One pick for September by Book Sense, the marketing arm of the American Boooksellers Association. As a result, the book would be displayed at about 1200 independent bookstores and promoted in more than a dozen newspapers. Sterling ordered a first printing of Interpretation of 185,000 copies—a very impressive number for any debut novel.
Interpretation hit shelves on September 5. First week sales numbers weren’t good—only enough to rank it #18 on the New York Times extended bestseller list. This would be a great showing for a new author, normally. But remember the amount of money put into this book--$1.3 million. And that was just purchase and marketing—not cost of producing the book. Holt would need to sell at least 150,000 hardcover copies just to break even on its investment. BookScan, which tracks about 70% of sales, showed that Interpretation sold only 5400 copies the first week, which would be followed by 4,000 the second and 3,000 the third.
[My note: you have to understand the meaning of “sold” here. BookScan tracks “sell-through” numbers. “Sell-in” numbers are what the publisher sells to bookstores. “Sell-through” refers to purchases by actual customers in stores. Sell-through numbers are also the ones that drive the bestseller lists. No doubt Holt’s sell-in numbers were high, as the book was highly touted and was expected to sell. But if subsequent sell-through numbers are poor—all those books sitting on the shelves will soon be returned to the publisher for a full refund.]
Meanwhile a couple of not-so-good reviews came in and Rubenfield embarked on his author tour. Second week sales were worse—he slipped to #20 on the list.
At the same time that “other” book—The Thirteenth Tale—hit the shelves and immediately soared. Its publisher, Atria (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) had paid over $1 million for the novel, but then had saved its marketing dollars for the launch, rather than creating an early buzz. Also, Thirteenth hit an unexpected jackpot—it was named the pick for the new Barnes & Noble Recommends program. Suddenly, without cost to the publisher, Thirteenth was being specially displayed in all B&N stores and hand-sold by some 40,000 booksellers. Thirteenth hit #1 on the B&N bestseller list its first day. It then went straight to #1 on the New York Times list. Interpretation dropped to #30. All hopes for a blockbuster hit were now gone. And it didn’t even look likely Holt would make its needed 150,000 in sales to break even. Bad, bad news after all the hoopla. They could only hope for a future movie deal, and paperback rights would net some extra money.
What does all this go to show? Sterling agrees that book publishing, for all its planning, is no more than a roll of the dice. “I still marvel that despite everything we do,” he said, “we just don’t know.”
The ending twist—On Sept 20, as Interpretation numbers were falling and things were looking bad for Holt, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez spoke to the United Nations. During that speech he held up a copy of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, and praised the book. Immediately it shot up on the amazon.com bestseller list, prompting the printing of an additional 50,000 copies. The publisher of Hegemony? Henry Holt & Co.