06 July 2003

In yet another display of the ignorance of the marketing dorks in the publishing industry (and all too often those who report on it), Reuters reports that Rival Publishers Pray for Harry Potter "Halo" Effect (via the Washington Post Book World). Leaving aside the poor grammar in the title—it should read "Halo Effect"—the article begins by proclaiming that "Rather than envy U.S. Potter publisher Scholastic Corp's success, industry insiders are grateful that Rowling's magic touch has fired up interest in children's books."

Hogwash. Envy is the single emotional reaction shared by virtually all publishing "industry insiders," even when they won't admit it, at home-run balls hit by the opposition. Very few "industry insiders" are literature people; those who are generally jump from publisher to publisher every few years. This greatly diminishes their influence over the overall attitude and approach of any given publisher.

Instead, the sales-and-marketing types who actually constitute the vast bulk of "industry insiders"—as some of my more perceptive colleagues in the editorial department when I was in-house called them, "S&Ms"—make two critical errors. First, they believe that the market for books and literature is a zero-sum game. This can readily become a self-fulfilling prophecy when they put out crap in the interest of short-term market share. Their second error exacerbates the first. As the Reuters article says, "Fantasy series and serials are the rage and there is no shortage of titles." This is precisely the problem: imitation as the sincerest form of marketing. This is not the authors' fault, particularly given the overwhelming slush piles at the major publishers. It is certainly not Joanne Rowling's fault! The marketing aspects of imitation extend to putting books in single-category boxes. This ignores the characteristic most common to longterm successes, both critically and commercially, in publishing: transcendence of publishing "categories." Although they're loathe to admit it, searching examination of publishers' accounts under GAAP standards reveals something that they subconsciously know: the long-term health of a given publisher depends upon the strength of its backlist (books published more than two publishing seasons ago).

That the publishing insiders really have little idea of what they're doing in categorizing (and hence ghettoizing) books shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as so few of them actually read widely and deeply in what they're publishing.