Starving writers. Mansion-buying writers. Who decides?

Before I continue with the second list of six, I want to share a link to author Maggie Stiefvate’s blog.

Maggie is the successful author of Shiver, Ballad, Lament and many others. (I hope I get a chance to meet Maggie someday.) Maggie is prolific, she’s brilliant, and she was “discovered” by a Minnesota publisher. That warms my Minnesota heart on a 20-degree spring day.

In a response to a writer’s question, Maggie delivered this bottom line: Publishing is run by readers.

I get her point, but I want to share some general disagreement.

I think publishing is run by editors going through a nail-biting process of figuring out what readers will want two years from now. For editors, it’s part guessing game, part experience, part marketing.

Functionally, there isn’t one big circle of readers. “Audience” is segments of different people. In data-driven marketing, companies have a process to engage consumers, collect responses, disaggregate the information, and use that data to make product decisions.

The other kind of marketing, the Don Draper model, is “Mad Men’s” ad team theorizing about what the product represents to a certain segment – and Don’s segments are very limited – and then throwing ads at them.

Publishers aren’t stupid. They understand modern marketing.

But the process of publishing is so slow – I’ve compared it to a snail crossing a pool of pancake syrup – the data loses its value. For example, Pepsi can spend millions on new messages and deliver new products quickly. They’re always developing new products, or twists on the old products, and keeping them at the ready. Because you never know.

They generate new data and experiment with new products based on data and then retest the product. Learning what people want is a circle. Don Draper is a line with some arrows.

Unlike Pepsi, publishers’ marketing budgets are relatively small. The budget goes to books they think – fingers crossed – have the best chance of being a hit. A handful of hits keeps the publishing business afloat. Most books never earn out their advances.

A publishing example: a company does a thorough marketing analysis of middle-grade boys. By the time they secure the “right” books, edit them and publish them, those boys are now teens with different interests. The new group of middle graders also might have entirely different interests.

Some things/events that change boys’ interests: (Remember, even middle-grade boys can be further segmented by income, reading levels, ethnicity, etc.)

  • New video games
  • New aps
  • A breakout television show
  • A novel goes viral
  • A book with a girl protagonist is megahit (Hunger Games), so they might dabble in a book or two with a girl protagonist
  • A megahit movie
  • New educational approaches in their classrooms
  • Teachers and librarians loving a new book and “hand selling” it to kids (awards and great reviews are motivators)
  • Sci-fi gets bumped by a new genre, like magic, thanks to books about wizard kids going to wizard school
  • A new, young celebrity hits the scene

So, what might have been a fabulous book to middle-grade boys in 2010 turns to mold in 2012.

I agree with Maggie generally. Readers want a good book. Writers, agents and editors are trying to deliver books readers want.

But bottom line, the decision-makers in publishing are often throwing darts at a big circle cut into lots of slices.

Good writers can starve. Bad writers can buy mansions.

Readers have a big role in deciding who starves and who buys mansions. But so do luck, timing, rapidly changing tastes, viral capacity, and the size of that year’s marketing budget.

The randomness makes me shiver. (Thanks, Maggie, for that awesome title.)

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