Wednesday, June 5, 2019

What To Do When a Book--Any Book--"Fails"


Determining What Went Wrong to Get Future Marketing Right

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Once upon a time, way back in the last decade, author and researcher Lisa Ann Hewlett's publicity predicament illustrated to the world of books what we authors suspected all along: Huge amounts of publicity surrounding a release don't necessarily translate into massive sales figures. I still remember it today and am haunted by it whenever a client tells me that her marketing isn’t working.

When a major publicity coup like Lisa’s turns out to be the most bitter dose of rejection we could expect to encounter, it’s an indicator that it could happen to anyone. That may happen even when the publicity is the stuff of which dreams—in Surround Sound and Technicolor—are made of.

It is reported (variably) that Hewlett’s Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children sold between 8,000 and 10,000 copies. Many authors would be ecstatic with sales figures that look like that, but everything is relative. It is believed that Miramax paid a six-figure advance for this title and projected sales in the 30,000 range for hardcover alone. Considering expectations for the book, the figures do appear dismal.

Therefore, smart people in the publishing industry searched for reasons for its less than stellar performance, especially with the kind of publicity this book received, and I mean biggies like Time Magazine (the cover, no less) and several "New York" magazines. TV shows like "60 Minutes," "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," and "NBC Nightly News" lined up behind this book, for heaven's sake. Even Oprah's magic book-sale-wand was not effective.

Hewlett’s book made great news! It warned young career women that they have been mislead by petri dish miracles reported in the press. She pointed out that women have come to believe that they can put conception after career and be reasonably sure they can have still have both. She attempts to exorcise that notion in Quest.

So, just what did go wrong?

Many groused that he title was not scintillating nor was the book’s cover. Those in the know wondered if that influenced book sales. But that’s a huge burden to put on professionally produced book cover or title choice in a book published by an experienced, savvy and BIG publisher. Something else was clearly wrong.

My thirty-seven-year-old-daughter who had just returned to college to embark on a career in anthropology suggested that women don't want to hear the dreadful news. She says, "I just flat out don't want to hear this bad news in the middle of something rewarding, exciting and new! Why would I slap down the price of a book to get depressed?" Another unmarried friend who is also caring for an aging mother said, “I wouldn’t buy it. What am I supposed to do with that kind of information once I have it?” For women like them, delaying childbearing isn’t a choice. It’s a necessity.

All this searching for answers may reap results, may help publicists and publishers and authors determine cause and effect so that this syndrome can be avoided in the future.

The problem lies in the fact that this soul-searching and hullabaloo was misdirected. Even Hewlett says, "I don't know what to make of this absence of huge sales." One can see her shaking her head in disbelief. If someone with her research skills can't figure it out, can anyone? It may be the economy, stupid. Or retailing. Or the book biz.

It's surely something completely out of the author's control unless someone had thought to run the idea by a focus group of career women the age of the book’s expected audience. In the publishing industry, the term “beta reader” is often associated with this kind of research, but it must be accompanied by hard questions posed to the readers and that seems to entail some notion of unforeseen exigencies.

That seems like a bit of a conundrum, don’t you think? To do that, a similar trial I might run for my The Frugal Book Promoter might miss the mark for brand new authors because a large percentage still might be operating on decades-old ideas of what big publishers will do in terms of marketing! If that hadn’t occurred to me or my publisher, we wouldn’t have asked the hard question!



But, I think the most valuable lesson that can be learned with the Quest kind of rejection—any kind, really—is that it is not personal, that it pay to search for the lesson even after the fact.

We must keep the faith, keep writing, and keep publicizing, because if we don't, we’ll never know if a book—or a career—was given the best possible chance at success.

Here’s what I know for sure. I now fear publishing less. If my faith should slip a tad, I know it need not be fatal. I know those things thanks to Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson is an award-winning novelist, poet, and author of the HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers. She taught editing and marketing classes at UCLA Extension’s world-renowned Writers’ Program for nearly a decade and carefully chooses one novel she believes in a year to edit.

The Frugal Editor (bit.ly/FrugalEditor) award-winner as well as the winner of Reader View's Literary Award in the publishing category. She is the recipient of both the California Legislature's Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment Award and the coveted Irwin award. She appears in commercials for the likes of Blue Shield, Disney Cruises (Japan), and Time-Life CDs and is a popular speaker at writers’ conferences.

Her website is https://howtodoitfrugally.com/



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