November 09, 2011
When it was published in 1948, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain became an immediate bestseller, despite the fact that the New York Times refused it a place on the bestseller list due to its religious subject matter. In my edition of the book, editor Robert Giroux wrote in the introduction:
Why did the success of the Mountain go so far beyond my expectations as an editor and a publisher? Why, despite being banned from the bestseller lists, did it sell so spectacularly? Publishers cannot create bestsellers, though few readers (and fewer authors) believe it. There is always an element of mystery when it happens why this book at this moment? I believe the most essential element is right timing, which usually cannot be foreseen. The Mountain appeared at a time of great disillusion: we had won World War II, but the Cold War had started and the public was depressed and disillusioned, looking for reassurance. Second, Merton’s story was unusual — a well-educated and articulate young man withdraws — why? — into a monastery. The tale was well told, with liveliness and eloquence. There were other reasons, no doubt, but for me this combination of the right subject at the right time presented in the right way accounts for the book’s initial success.
The right subject at the right time presented in the right way. Anyone who’s been at the publishing game for awhile can also tell you tales of poor subject (or execution) and poor timing. With regard to quality, as an agent I often felt that some people wrote better non-fiction proposals than books (and vice versa), which sometimes explained the disconnect between expectations and results. More often, either with fiction or non-fiction, there remains the simple explanation that sometimes the zeitgeist supports the subject matter of a book and sometimes the zeitgeist goes against it.
Further complicating matters, the act of getting the word out can be challenged by events that draw away the reader’s attention. Sometimes a book that took years to write can have its carefully planned promotion schedule upended by an absorbing national event such as the invasion of Iraq or a celebrity murder trial. Call it the dark side of serendipity.
And sometimes — even in retrospect — it’s hard to figure out whether any given coincidence helped or hurt the book. Take my novel, Primacy, which published approximately one month after the most recent Planet of the Apes movie became a surprise box office hit.
I only learned of the movie about six weeks before it arrived in theaters, so I certainly couldn’t change publishing plans to coincide with its release or to avoid it. The two works are quite different but — as both involve a talking ape — my publicist thought some people would focus on the parallels. As it happens, however, in more than a dozen radio interviews I don’t think I was once asked about Planet. On the other hand, if you saw the movie and then see the book at the bookstore, maybe the similarities arouse your hunger for more.
In any case, if bestsellers are more found than made because timing is almost everything, it seems worth briefly considering the aspects of book publication timing.
1. State of the economy. I opted to publish Primacy as a hardcover despite the soft economy. On a unit basis, I make more money on a hardcover, and I wasn’t convinced that the possible sales difference vs. a trade paperback would be adequate compensation. Also, the ebook is available at a much cheaper price, and to some extent the hardcover establishes the value proposition of the ebook. Moreover, I thought a hardcover would get taken more seriously by reviewers, whom I needed to affirm the credibility of the enterprise.
This all seems logical but I can’t deny that I’m fighting a force beyond my control: the lousy economy. Some people aren’t going to pay $24.95 for entertainment right now if it’s handed down from God. If you’re fortunate enough to publish when people are feeling flush, price point may be less of an issue.
2. State of the industry. With all the changes sweeping publishing, putting out a book today can feel like working Lucille Ball’s ever-speedier candy factory assembly line. In addition to all the typical considerations, one must try to calculate relative market share between paper and ebooks, the status of possible translation rights in an industry facing a high level of uncertainty, whether bookstores will be around in sufficient numbers when the book comes out, etc.
There are other factors. Genres get crowded or get hot. Pricing norms change. The industry mood shifts. Generally, publication decisions are made months in advance. Now a publisher not only has to make projections about the market for a given work but she has to predict the future of our rapidly changing industry months in advance.
With Primacy I saw a window where paper books would still be relevant and the trade — while hurting — would retain some vibrancy. But will that window have closed when I publish the next one? At some point, I’ll have to guess the answer.
3. Competition. As an editor and agent it always amazed me that a book would be pitched (or published) on a given subject that was not tied to current events, and then you would learn that two or three other books were being pursued by other agents and/or publishers on the same exact subject. Ideas are out there in the ether. You can work for ten years on a book only to find that, when you publish it, there are several others unexpectedly sharing the limelight at that very moment. Does this hurt your book or help it? Who knows! It depends on those mysterious forces Robert Giroux talked about.
Other aspects of competition are price, quality and perceived value. Say you have a great horror novel coming out in January. Stephen King decides to publish an equally great one that same month and sell his for ninety-nine cents. This is bad timing indeed. On the other hand, if competition is light when your book publishes, that would be a piece of good luck.
4. Social trends. The world of books is a microcosm of the bigger society. It’s rare for a single book to set the social agenda, although that has happened. Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities comes to mind.
More frequently, several books can unknowingly team up to bring social currency to a subject, the way Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind set up the success of E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy.
It’s easier to cite non-fiction examples of this without launching into a dissertation, but there are fictional examples aplenty. John Updike, Ken Kesey and Mary McCarthy, for example.
Primacy, while primarily seeking to be a page turner, deals thematically with issues of animal rights and animal testing. It happens that legislation that would limit testing on great apes is being debated in congress at this moment, but it’s getting little attention due to the distraction of issues such as the deficit and unemployment.
Since it’s a thriller, I never expected Primacy to set the social agenda of America. But if forces beyond my control one day conspire to give greater mindshare to animal rights, my book will benefit.
5. Disruptive (or supportive) events. In the summer of 1990, when I was still an editor at Doubleday, one of my authors was slated to appear on a major morning show the very week that the Gulf War broke out. His appearance got cancelled and he never had another chance to go on that show. On the other hand, if he’d been an army general writing about war, this event might have helped his chances for publicity. Yet, even in that scenario, it might have been hard for him to leverage those appearances into book sales.
There are several characters in Primacy engaged in animal rights terrorism. In real life, there are thirty-one people currently on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. All but one are Islamic terrorists. That lone exception is an animal rights terrorist, and if he is caught any time soon the ensuing media coverage might just give a fillip to book sales.
Then again, maybe not. Whatever our hopes or intentions, there’s always that darned “element of mystery” thing.
Last week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 33: Taking a Haircut
Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 35: Primacy Numbers (3)
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