Fabulous flops and flopulous fabs of the publishing biz

"People think publishing is a business," Curtis Sittenfeld was told by her editor, "but it’s a casino.”

Interesting story in the NY Times yesterday about the unpredictable "anything can and does happen" nature of the beast.
Sales in the trade segment (which includes both fiction and nonfiction) grew 5 percent in 2005 from the previous year, but year-over-year sales growth is expected to decline to less than 2 percent by 2010, according to book industry trade group data. The industry does follow trends to pursue growth, but when it comes to acquisitions, methods have not changed much in hundreds of years, says Al Greco, a professor of marketing at Fordham University.

"It’S the way this business has run since 1640,” he says. That is when 1,700 copies of the Bay Psalm Book were published in the colonies. “It was a gamble, and they guessed right because it sold out of the print run. And ever since then, it has been a crap shoot,” Professor Greco said.

There is a “business model” that supports this risk-taking. As Mr. Strachan puts it, “Lightning does strike.”
Sittenfeld herself is a prime example. Her agent managed to squeeze out a $40K advance for her first novel, Prep, which went on to become a surprise hit. So her next book deal -- natch -- was a dandy six figures. The book unfortunately sold a comparatively poo poo 36,000 copies, and where Sittenfeld goes from here is anybody's guess.

The article also invokes Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier's latest "flop", Thirteen Moons, which sold a couple hundred thousand copies, but fell far short of earning out its $8 million advance. (Please, Lord Jesus, let my book sales be as floppy as that!)

This aspect of "boxing the octopus" used to make me nuts. How are we supposed to react, use this info for marketing, or take it as any kind of clue to this industry that has no rhyme or rhythm? But after a decade or so, I stopped trying to make sense of stories like this. The Tao te Ching says, "Do your work, then step back." And I do my best to follow that advice, because really, the only lesson we can extrapolate from a story like this is the importance of writing what you love.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: You have to get what you need from the writing of the book. Everything else is a crap shoot.


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