22 January 2005

Caviar or Nine Lives?

(This entry is another that, although not directly connected to the "fan fiction" thread, is indirectly related, because it deals with branding and publishing.) Today's Guardian has a couple of pieces that touch on the author's role in marketing of books, and expose some of the industry's tricks for exploiting authors. A short item in "The Bookseller" notes that

Lavish dinners where retailers meet star authors are now an integral part of most book marketing campaigns. In theory the guests will be wooed and their positive impressions will filter through to support from shops; in practice such evenings can be hit and miss. Random House held the first big dinner of the year for Jane Fonda, whose autobiography My Life So Far is due in May. At the Mirabelle in London, Fonda was engaging company for the heads of Waterstone's, WH Smith, Amazon, Ottakar's, Borders and Tesco. She talked freely about her films, working with Vietnam veterans to shed the "Hanoi Jane" tag, and the lack of intimacy in her marriage to Ted Turner. Most promisingly, she pledged to work hard to sell the story of her "spiritual journey," with 10 days of signings and interviews on publication. The retailers fell in love, and pre-orders were quickly doubled.

Note that the only people buying on this basis were the bookstores, and they're only ordering returnable copies. Although this is certainly an important step—very, very few impulse buys, and probably less than a majority of not-planned-by-title buys by those looking for a book, are made without putting one's fingers on a physical copy of the book—it is not at all the same thing as actually selling the books.

As one reaches beyond the lavish publishers' parties that are restricted essentially to celebrities and those with previous bestsellers under their belts—that is, those least likely to need extensive publisher marketing support—one finds less happy circumstances. Robert McCrum notes that

[A] McEwan or an Ishiguro will devote almost as many months promoting his latest work as he spent writing it. This is the condition of the writer today, as itinerant as a medieval troubadour, with air miles. If, for example, you are fortunate enough to win a big prize — Booker, say, or Whitbread — you can easily spend as much as a year on the grey brick road of book promotion. This has absolutely nothing to do with good writing and almost certainly inhibits its free, mature expression.

Now, more than ever, the book-promotion machine is working against the interests of the writers it has been set up to promote. Now, as never before, the marketplace is devouring the hand, the arm and the head that feed it. Authors of all shapes and sizes have become either the dupes or accomplices of a publishing industry that is exploiting its writers as its unpaid representatives. A publishing house that sends an author to a 'book event' is selling books of course. It is also bolstering its place in a cut-throat market at virtually no cost. In the process, the odd, lonely business of putting one word in front of another in a small, white room gets neglected.

"Writing a Book Is One Thing…" (reparagraphed for clarity). Consider how other segments of the "entertainment industry" work. Sure, musicians tour in support of albums, recordings, etc.—and they usually get paid. Paid more than from the recordings for all but a select few. Actors who appear in support of a film are doing so on a contractual basis. Sport figures (coaches and athletes) get appearance money.

So, then, what makes publishing different? Is it that the artists really are starving, and therefore can't be trusted to behave properly in public? Is it something different? Is this author just reaching for cheap foreshadowing effects?