Wi12 Education: Industry Professionals Map “The Life Cycle of the Book”
The education session “The Life Cycle of the Book” at last month’s Winter Institute in Minneapolis traced the stages of a book’s journey, from an idea in the writer’s imagination to a hit title on top of the bestseller list. The Saturday, January 28, session, traced each step of the process — from author, to agent, to editor, to sales conferences, to marketing strategy, to bookstore sales — for Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton.
Moderated by ABA president Betsy Burton, co-owner of The King’s English in Salt Lake City, Utah, the panel featured Strout, whose newest title, Anything Is Possible, will be released by Random House on April 25; Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple Books in San Francisco; Molly Friedrich, Strout’s agent; Susan Kamil, executive vice president and publisher at Random House; and Ruth Liebmann, vice president and director of account marketing at Penguin Random House.
Mulvihill, who is an ABA board member, told attendees at the packed education session that he had suggested a program focusing on the life cycle of the book because he wanted to know more about “how the sausage is made.”
As Strout’s agent, Friedrich said she knew that Lucy Barton was a masterpiece with bestseller potential on first reading it. When it was released on January 12, 2016, Lucy Barton debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, but this happy end was the result of a long, deliberate process, according to Friedrich. For authors, the fear that the review world will not give their book the respect that it’s due never really seems to diminish, she said; in her experience, even if an author is publishing his or her 10th book, in their mind, nothing is a given.
“A lot of what an agent does is try to help manage an author’s expectations, to focus on the work and stay honest to the work,” said Friedrich. “There was such a long trajectory of so many things that had to happen long before Lucy Barton went marching on to the number-one position at the New York Times.”
According to Kamil, a few things helped ease the trajectory for Lucy Barton’s debut at number one, including the fact that Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kittredge had recently been released as a successful HBO mini-series. This helped generate awareness at the right time, resulting in rapturous reviews and prodigious online chatter.
At the start of a book’s journey to publication, said Kamil, the acquiring editor presents a manuscript to the company president; it is then shared with the publicity, marketing, and sales directors. In order to come up with the best possible plan, the marketing and publicity departments brainstorm for about seven months to identify the target audience and strategize on messaging.
“The publishing process takes a lot of time,” said Kamil. “We need a long runway so that we have time to build awareness in the house, with [booksellers], and then with the American reader.”
As the book is being edited into its final form and the marketing and publicity teams have devised a clear strategy, Kamil will meet with the sales department to review sales goals and hear what tools they need to get the book into the marketplace. After that, the publishing company must consider the best publication date. This is an ongoing process that involves constantly tracking the competition and evaluating the retail environment, while also considering when people are most likely to shop for that particular book.
Liebmann, a former bookseller, said book buzz is generated on two parallel marketing tracks. The first, marketing to the consumer, involves “pre-heating” the marketplace so that when the book lands in bookstores there is already some awareness among readers. The other track involves getting the sales reps and booksellers incredibly excited about selling the book.
To illustrate two different ways to generate book buzz, Liebmann presented an analogy involving the best way to cook onions versus the best way to cook steak. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was an “onions” book, Liebman said, that necessitated a slow buildup of heat, whereas building buzz for a book such as My Name Is Lucy Barton is more like cooking steak, which requires a big campaign that heats up all at once.
According to Kamil, Random House’s experience in the marketplace has shown that advertising on social media, including on Facebook, is a very effective marketing strategy when it comes to generating early reader interest.
“Advertising on Facebook, like it or not: this is where a big percentage of the public is spending their time, and we must be where the people are,” said Kamil. “Facebook advertising has been very effective for us because we can target the readers who will be most likely to be early buyers, plus we can test [marketing] messages to see which ads get more clicks.”
Another marketing strategy publishers use to generate reader awareness is online giveaways. To promote Emma Cline’s ’60s-era coming-of-age novel The Girls, Kamil said that Random House gave away galleys on Goodreads over the seven months leading up to the book’s release. The company, which wanted it to be the “buzziest” book of summer, set a goal of 20,000 “add to shelves” on Goodreads; the week before publication, it had reached more than 30,000. Along with giveaways on Goodreads and NetGalley, Random House also offers giveaways to readers who subscribe to its newsletters.
“A lot has changed in the digital world but one thing that has remained the same is that people are influenced by what other people are reading,” Kamil said.
In addition to mailing galleys to bookstores, publishers begin the push to create indie bookseller buzz at sales conferences, Liebmann said.
“Sales reps represent our books to you, but the other thing they do that is just as important and sometimes more important,” she said, “is that they represent you and your stores back to us, so even though you are not physically in that room, you are there in spirit.”
Bookseller feedback can prompt a bigger print run, an increase in marketing dollars, a revised marketing strategy, changes to flap copy, or more cities added to a book tour, said Liebmann. If a publisher underestimates the impact of a book, it is often bookseller feedback that will help the company realize it might have a hit on its hands.
“As some of these reads start to come in from booksellers all over the country, we’ll start to realize that we have something very special,” said Liebmann, “so thank you for those of you who chime in early.”
Mulvihill explained that at Green Apple there are two or three people who are the store’s official buyers, but all 35 employees contribute to the buying process.
After considering how many copies to buy as well as the available replenishment and shipping options, Mulvihill said that buyers need to think about who will write the shelf-talker; whether the book cover will look good on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram; where in the store to put it; and what titles to put next to it. In seeking out the next exciting title, he added that store buyers are constantly getting ideas from Edelweiss, suggestions from other booksellers, and the galleys that reps put in their hand.
“And when you get a handwritten note from an editor who knows your first name, how can you not give a book at least 20 pages?” Mulvihill said.