12 April 2006

Lincoln on Steroids

Sometimes someone in the publishing industry says something amusing that, intentionally or otherwise, reveals a great deal about the egos involved and foolishness of the marketing models adopted by the publishing industry during the era of publishing conglomerates. (These are not new; it is just that the conglomerate era has made them universal.) An article on the problem of books being released in bunches ends:

But in book publishing, the source of convergence is not always clear. When two books came out about Abraham Lincoln last fall, David Hirshey, senior vice president and executive editor of HarperCollins (which is publishing the second book on Barry Bonds this season), said he wondered, "Why now?" William Morrow, a HarperCollins imprint, brought out its own book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, earlier this year. "It's obviously due to the new steroid allegations about Lincoln having come out," Mr. Hirshey said.

Motoko Rich, "Boston Mob, Party of 4: Authors Publish in Packs, " NYT (12 April 2006) (paragraphing and typography corrected).

As amusing as this inference is, the underlying theory is more than a bit disturbing. Of course, in an "ideal" world the publishers would be able to just sell virtually identical products. That would be consistent with soap marketing theory: Differentiate by brand name, not by content (although content reputation is definitely fair game). There's just one tiny problem with doing so in publishing—copyright law requires different substance for different "products." The Dan Brown fiasco is only the tip of the iceberg; sometimes infringement gets asserted on the basis of the table of contents of a nonfiction book!1 As that NYT article also asserts:

In some ways the debate reflects an age-old question pondered by economists when discussing retail behavior. "If you're a restaurant, are you better off putting yourself across town to get away from competition, or would you be better off being on the same street with all the other restaurants?" asked Austan Goolsbee, professor of economics at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. The answer, Mr. Goolsbee said, comes down to a complicated set of tradeoffs between losing sales by being too close to the competition and gaining customers because more people overall are attracted to a concentrated group.

Of course, there's a critical assumption here: That the products are in fact replacements for each other. And that is where things begin to get truly interesting, in a morbid sort of way. Children's fantasy is an excellent example. Prior to the appearance of a certain boy wizard a few years ago, children's fantasy did not get much attention in the publishing hierarchy, despite the long sales records of The Wizard of Oz (and its twenty-odd "sequels") and other examples. It is now a fad, a growth segment in the publishing marketplace—primarily because publishers want to replicate the success of Harry Potter. I suppose that some of this is just corporate politics writ large—back in the 1970s and 1980s, the myth that "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM" among information technology managers has gotten a skewed translation to "nobody ever got fired for acquiring kiddie books with dragons." (It's another way to shift blame onto someone else—it must have been the sales-and-marketing-dorks' fault if I gave them exactly what somebody else had been successful with.) Of course, if the copy is too close one ends up in court… or poisoning the marketplace.

  1. Of course, at least some of this is because publishers try to leverage their size with their lawyers, hoping to intimidate the other side. It reminds me of silverback gorillas at the zoo—and it's just as likely to truly establish (or reinforce) dominance as a bunch of captive males beating their chests.