Tuesday, August 05, 2008

TITLE as Marketing Tool -- Part II

I'm sure many of you can document exact dates for these historical turning points that are different from what I'm suggesting. Remember that there's a lag between when something "happens" and when that event becomes integrated into the mind of the general public. And it works the other way too -- the general public may have an embedded notion that doesn't affect changes in Business or Hollywood for a number of years.

Books are often published 10 or (in the case of Marion Zimmer Bradley's CATCHTRAP for example) 20 years after they are written. Influences overlap before and after the fact, blurring the pattern.

I'm showing you a pattern here -- bringing it to the surface. Don't get distracted from the pattern into the exact dates or what you remember from those years. Pay attention to the pattern. Once you can see it -- look for other kinds of hidden patterns in today's world. You will find plenty!



Star Trek was the first TV show that appealed to -- guess what? READERS. That 5% slice of the American public that bought and read actual BOOKS (not just newspapers and magazines) fell in desperate love with a TV show.

In the 1970's we saw BOOKS BASED ON STAR TREK - both non-fiction and fiction - come onto the shelves in the chain stores.

I remember when the first separate section for STAR TREK BOOKS appeared in WALDEN BOOKS. It had been a single shelf on the bottom of the SF section and contained only the latest publications. Suddenly it became a whole floor-to-ceiling section with all the back issues.
Then the section became not STAR TREK -- but TV-TIE-INS and NOVELS based on other TV shows appeared.

Yes, publishing had done things like this before, but in the 1970's what happened was huge -- just totally huge. Remember, the 70's is renowned in financial circles for the flat stock market and STAG FLATION and huge gas lines -- corporations were in serious financial trouble and couldn't grow to meet stockholder demands. This had never happened before in financial history and corporations didn't know what to do. It was theoretically impossible to have inflation and no-growth at the same time. GROWTH CAUSES INFLATION (they believed).

Something very fundamental underneath the business structure of this whole world changed in those years. It indeed had been impossible to have inflation and no-growth before. Now something changed -- and made it possible. I don't think the scholars understand the 1970's even today.

Today we're in yet another paradigm shift as massive as the 1970's with "productivity growth" where we have great increases in what we produce and a shrinking work force.

SF, Asimov and Heinlein and John Campbell all predicted this trend. Many novels have been published showing how technology can restructure the world to where 5% of the work force works and the rest are on Welfare.

So in the 1980's we had a phenomenon we called PAC-MAN-PUBLISHING (after one of the first computer video games where one character ate all the others). It just came out of the blue and knocked everyone over -- it kicked a lot of the really REALLY great editors right out of the business.

Behind the scenes (I found out much later) attitudes toward "publishing" had changed, very radically and very suddenly.

The corporations who owned the publishing houses looked at their "balance sheets" and decided they couldn't afford to continue to support non-performing assets like publishing houses.
Heretofore, they needed the publishing houses as tax write-offs.

Go look who was President in the 1970's, and who controlled Congress -- and what kind of tax laws were passed that actually caused Stagflation and how that could well happen again in the 2010's because very similar forces are in play.

Under the new tax laws of the 1970's, corporations could no longer afford to own publishing houses as tax write-offs.

So they sold them. (to other corporations, of course).

The independent publishing houses sold themselves to corporations.

Newly minted MBA's had to make a name for themselves causing corporate growth in a world where growth couldn't happen because of the tax laws.

So JUST LIKE THE BANKS TODAY, corporations took drastic action and seized an opportunity to "grow" by gathering up non-performing, money-losing, worthless assets all together and streamlining them into profit-makers.

Today those non-performing assets are Mortgages. Back then, those non-performing assets were publishing houses. The Business School principles are identical, and the motivation identical (tax code changes). With Banks today -- it was the Law passed in 1996 (or 1994?) by a Democratic controlled congress that forbade banks to do what was called "Red Lining" (drawing a line around a section of the city and refusing to lend mortgage money there). It was seen as racially based behavior and the law tried to stop it.

Corporations did what Business School teaches -- take a challenge and turn it into an opportunity. Since they were forced by Federal Law to lend to non-qualified buyers, they found a way to do that and make a profit (huge-gigantic-insane profit) by "securitizing" the mortgages (bundling them with top-qualified mortgages) and selling them abroad.

The Banks did just exactly what Corporations did with Publishing under the same kind of tax-code changes that caused stagflation in the 1970's.

Banks used to make loans person-to-person in a community -- loaning to home buyers who "ought" to get the loan. Publishing used to publish books that "ought" to be published.

One of the tax laws that affected publishing had to do with stock kept in warehouses.

When stock stored (at considerable expense) in a warehouse is taxed while it sits there -- that means the publisher has to shorten print runs. That means books that sell slowly never get reprinted even though they are successful. That means the NEXT book by that writer doesn't get published. It has nothing to do with how many people want to read that writer's work or how important those ideas are -- it was (and still is) a tax law that prevents ideas from being published on paper and distributed through chain stores. It's all economics of tax laws.

So under these new tax laws, it wasn't the "face of publishing" that changed -- it was the foundations. Tax laws forced corporations to turn their publishing houses profitable just as laws forced banks to turn sub-prime loans profitable.

Prior to this makeover of publishing into a for-profit business, editors chose books to be published because they should be published, because they should be read, because they SAID SOMETHING.

After the makeover, editors were hired for their knack of choosing books to publish that made a profit. Packaging, promotion, distribution, = MARKETING was all that mattered.

The way publishing houses decide to buy or not-buy a book changed.

Formerly, they hired an editor who had a sense of what the world needs to hear said and gave that editor an annual budget to spend publishing books -- hopefully breakeven or some profit, but nevermind. The writer or agent submitted a manuscript and the editor, all alone, decided to buy it or not.

Now, most Houses use a committee. The "editor" only gets to pick out and present some manuscripts to a committee consisting of her boss (managing editor), art department, marketing, sales reps, accounting, maybe other editors in other genres -- none of whom have read or will read the book. The "editor" gets to "pitch" (yes, just exactly as is done in the film industry where writers get to "pitch" projects are producers) the possible books she'd like to publish. She gets perhaps 15 seconds to pitch each book. One or two of the ten she's presenting may get chosen, get the OK so she can buy it from the writer.

And what is the key feature on which that decision is made? TITLE!!!!! Maybe a two sentence description of the market it will attract, and a sentence about the story. If the sentences support the TITLE -- and it "fits" the sales rep's notion of what's been moving well lately -- it may (or may not) get bought. All those 10 titles were GREAT -- but only a few get chosen.

That's the new editor's job now. Very different from what it once was. And what these new editors saw in the computers when computer-tracking first became available is that TV-TIE-INS SELL -- they sell as good or better than "how to mow your lawn."

Why did computer tracking become available? Because how ELSE can you run a publishing House for profit? Before computer tracking and computerized warehouse inventory, it wasn't really possible to do this for a steady profit, predictably.

So editors and their bean counters saw that NOVELIZATIONS of FILMS sell.
They sell at big profits. It doesn't matter who writes them. They sell.

If the TITLE has STAR TREK (or another film or TV series) in it, it sells. Title is all that matters -- ALL THAT MATTERS. Just title and nothing more controls sales volumes.

Puzzling over what's inside those books that gets people to buy more and more, editors tried to find other things to please those book buyers. Because editors are readers, they kept operating for a long time on the assumption that something about the content had to be attracting these book-buyers.

But eventually editors began to believe the sales-computers as "modeling" became more accurate in the programs, and more stores kept computer records. Sales depend on title and cover drawing - not content. Sometimes, but rarely, on author name.

I'll bet they teach that in school now.

But in the 1980's, gradually they changed what's available on mass market chain store shelves so that the books that have the best chance of appearing before your eyes so you can ignore the TITLE are the books structured like movies (or TV series) -- or even blatantly imitative of them (Buffy-type Fantasy universes abound in fantasy novels all of a sudden.)

TV of the 1960's (i.e. Star Trek) changed PUBLISHING by re-creating it in the image of TV (and/or Film -- remember Star Trek led the way from the small screen to the big screen and one very VERY large reason Star Trek got that opportunity was the sales of those STAR TREK NOVELS.)

But now track the percentage of people who buy all the books sold in the USA. I haven't seen this year's statistic -- bet you though it's fallen bellow 10%. There are well over 300 million people in the USA now. Maybe with election non-fiction and Harry Potter we might have edged up to 15%.

Now, in the 2010's, the INTERNET and e-book may give us a chance to get back to the kind of editing that chooses books because they "ought" to be published and read -- because they contain ideas that people really need to know about whether the people think so or not.

You see, by packaging ideas in fiction (especially Romance or Comedy -- or Romantic Comedy) you can get people to consider them even before they know they need to know.

So, we as writers, are now living through the third huge paradigm shift in our industry in a lifetime. Definitely INTERESTING TIMES!!!

First there were Movies and Movie Magazines promulgated ideas of how a woman should look to attract a man. (men?)

Next there was TV (I LOVE LUCY) that delineated Relationships between Husband and Wife, and created the TV-TIE-IN NOVEL. (and novelizations of TV episodes, too).

Now the INTERNET -- which is moving from text to images and animated or video images, too.
And we are selling novels using a BOOK TRAILER -- Trailer being a term taken from Film, which contains the SET PIECE moments from the script.

All of this is what I call The Fiction Delivery System (analogous to Health Care Delivery system). No matter how the links are arranged between the Imagineer's Mind and the Fiction Imbiber's Mind, the point is to move ideas, feelings, concepts, and most important the amalgam of all that into a Point Of View from one mind to another.

That's what Shamans did around camp fires -- that's what we do today via novels, TV shows, Movies.

To do it for a profit (i.e. commercial fiction) you must follow the public's thinking. To do it the way it used to be done (profits catch as catch can) for the sake of the ideas, you can LEAD public opinion.

Combine the two -- Mass Market paperback series, online e-book series in the same universe -- and you can affect the direction of the next paradigm shift.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Yeah, what Kimber An said!

  2. Okay now I just have to get my Dark Knight/Mama Mia/Dexter novel written and I'm a hit....

  3. How does this trend affect libraries? I hope it doesn't -- but I have creeping fears. I'm delighted that our public library stocks all the currently popular novels and most of the midlist; that practice saves me lots of money (where I'd have to choose between spending money for a book I'm not sure of, or know I want to read only once, and not reading it at all). But it's equally important that libraries keep all the principal classics (and even -- or especially -- more obscure semi-classics that tend to go out of print) in stock, whether they're getting frequently borrowed or not. To me, that's an essential part of a library's mission. Space considerations, though, seem to lead to library policies based on the nonprofit equivalent of "sales." Luckily, we have an excellent statewide interlibrary loan system, and the venerable Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore seems to have EVERYTHING. So far, anyway.

    I was shocked when MS magazine vanished from our corner neighborhood library. Yes, the main branch downtown still has it. But that's an IMPORTANT magazine. Every library should subscribe to it. (I wasn't finding enough articles of interest to me to want to subscribe to it myself; I wanted it easily available on the shelf where I could check the contents each month with no financial outlay.) The librarian told me it was cut because it wasn't getting checked out enough. ??? Patrons might be avidly reading the current and back issues in the library without ever checking out any of them, so how can circulation of back issues be relied on as an indication of a periodical's popularity (as opposed to a book)? Anyway, to repeat, it's their JOB to keep such material available, even if it doesn't get read with the frequency of bestselling novels and PEOPLE magazine.