Wednesday, April 02, 2008

When the Payout Doesn't Pay

I'm guessing that a lot of you already saw this piece from the weekend's NY Times on how bloggers are still being offered huge book deals. Basically, for those of you who haven't yet read it, the article highlights a recent (rumored) $300,000 deal for a blogger who runs a blog called, Stuff White People Like. There are then various quotes as to why this is a ridiculously high number, how bloggers are still sought after but most of the hot ones are already taken by agents, and how a good many of these books, including Gawker's, fail.

Interesting. To be honest, I didn't realize that this was still such a trend: I thought that publishers had maxed out on bloggers and weren't really pursuing their deals with the same frenzy.

Evidently, I don't know what I'm talking about.

This article - and the $300,000 figure - were being discussed on several boards I frequent, and the general consensus was some sort of weird ire at the blogger. Or maybe I mistook that and people just thought the publishing house was insipid to throw this sort of money at an unproven author. But in my mind, certainly, the author shouldn't be blamed. In fact, I say, good for him! If he can milk that money out of a publishing house who foolishly threw it at him, who am I to hold it against him? It's the publisher, the one who got caught up in the bidding frenzy, who should be held responsible - as noted in the NY Times piece, it's highly unlikely that said publisher will earn back that money, but then again, ya never know, and I guess they wanted to take their chances.

But herein is the big problem with our industry: no one knows which books will sell. Maybe it will be this $300,000 purchase, maybe not. There is little to no market research, little actual marketing beyond the first few weeks of a book's release, and while many people involved love books, they don't have a real understanding of the financial decisions behind the business, and thus, many books "fail," despite these huge advances and/or buzz.

My husband, who is in finance, always shakes his head and says things like, "It's like no one wants to make any money in publishing." And while, obviously, this isn't true, the net effect of it is the same: few books do make money, and no one is really fixing the problem. In my opinion, the problem is this: too many books are published and then left to languish with no marketing or publicity behind them. Too many other books are given huge pushes, and it turns out that they're not so good. When a book does succeed, sometimes it's serendipity, sometimes it's a really good book, and sometimes, it's just luck. So what's the solution? Gasp...I think the industry should publish fewer books and rather than try to meet some sort of quota with how many they have to churn out, focus instead on finding gems that will resonate (or even be heard of!) with their respective markets.

I've rambled. I meant to stay on topic about bloggers and book deals because certainly, some can do well, like the success stories of Jen Lancaster and Stephanie Klein. But the larger point, I guess, of this post, is that when a publishing house throws $300,000 at an author, and no one buys the book...who is to blame? To me, it's the publishing house, even though the author will be the one to take the fall.


Anonymous said...

I feel like the problem with bloggers-turned-authors is that many times what happens is that the blog is just transposed onto paper, that though "new content" is often promised it really isn't a vast change from what readers of the blog the book is based on can get on the Internet--for free. Who would buy a book of Stuff White People Like when they can just go to the site?

But Jen Lancaster and Stephanie Klein, what they ended up bringing over from the blog was their specific voices, not actual content--and even if they did bring some content straight from the blog, it was integrated seamelessly into the memoirs. I feel similarly about Pamela Ribon of was a blogger-turned-author who ended up writing novels, the first one loosely autobiographical about a blogger. But books like the one the Fug Girls put out? Well, you can get their fun, snarky commentary on celebrity outfits on their site, so why buy the book? I feel like the point of contracting bloggers to write books should be to use the established readership's attachment to the blogger to introduce them to an entirely new facet of what the blogger as an author has to offer. But...sometimes that doesn't happen. Which is too bad, because a $300,000 advance is a lot to earn back.

Trish Ryan said...

The advance is fabulous if the author aspires to one book. Why not take the money? Book #2 might be a harder sell, though, unless they turn it into a series...which seems entirely possible.

Polly Kahl said...

Does it really matter who's to blame? It all comes down to money. If it turns out to be a good investment, more publishers will do it. If it isn't, they won't. I give kudos to publishers who are willing to try something new. It probably won't fly, but at least they tried and were cutting edge. And of course, what blogger would turn down a deal like that? Kinda sounds like a blogging fantasy come true, doesn't it?

Reminds me of Chris Crocker "Leave Britney Alone!) on youtube. He was so popular on youtube he's getting his own TV show. If it's successful, more producers will be scouring youtube for new stars. If it's not, that approach will fade away. That's commerce for ya. said...

This is just an excellent post. Do I say that too much here? Damnit!

I checked out the blogs of Jen and Stephanie (I didn't realize how quickly they had achieved success and to what a degree). So they and others seem to have won the blogger's lottery.

And if someone offered me $300,000, I'd take it and run to the bank.

Anna's comment was spot on that it makes a difference whether the author simply does a cut and paste job of transposing the entire blog into the book...I think that leaves readers feeling cheated and probably leads to poor sales. (I'm also thinking of "Julie and Julia", who's blog/book is rumored to become a movie with Meryl Streep)Julie Powell will be coming out with a second book one of these days and I will be interested to read it since she's no longer really keeping up her blog.

I thought your comment that perhaps publishers shouldn't publish so many books was very interesting.

I thought about that the other day when I was thinking of the proliferation of tv channels now that we have cable/sat tv.

Having more books/tv channels creates more opportunities for stars to be created....but it also may flood the market with so much crap that real talent doesn't get the finacial/marketing backing to get noticed and create a readership....and hence, there may be really good writers who fall by the wayside after poor sales mean their publisher drops them or they quit writing after three books because they cannot financially support themselves with the small advance/sales they are earning.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

That's a great analogy re: the TV networks. And yes, that's the problem exactly: if you're going to give 1000 writers advances of $10k or something in the single-digits ballpark, you're setting up most of these writers for lousy sales and little marketing. Why not instead give 100 writers (okay, that's too small a number but I'm trying to do easy math here) $100,000 advances and really make sure that their books land in the hands of readers? Because most of these smaller books probably never earn out their advances, small as they might be, so...what's the point?

I'm sure there is one - truly - I don't understand the system as it is now, so I'd be curious to hear a counter-argument.

Anonymous said...

I think it's better to give more authors less money and let them find their markets.

Most writers expect to have to do a lot of their own marketing anyway. Isn't the publisher better off earning a little money on a lot of books, rather than betting the wad on one or two potential blockbusters? And wouldn't the world of books be better if people with niche interests or non-mainstream tastes could discover books that they thought were just perfect?

In the world of digital media, this concept is known as the "long tail," a concept popularized by Chris Anderson of Wired. The idea is, you can make quite good money by selling smaller amounts of more things.

This concept is also working well for independent films, thanks to Netflix. People can discover and rent movies they've never heard of, that never found theatrical release. The distributor may not make as much money as a Hollywood studio, but the overhead is less, so the profit may be more. And the system supports a lot of quirky, cult films.

I'd love to see many more quirky, "small" books available.

Jen A. Miller said...

Interesting. I've reviewed quite a few books that were once blogs. Some were wonderful -- Julie Powells Julie & Julia comes to mind. That wasn't a reprint of the blog but a book that came from her experiences while writing the blog with a few mentions to that original text.

On the other hand, I just reviewed a book that came from online posts/blogs, and it just wasn't there.

I don't think if it's much different than books from any other source. Agents, editors and publishers are always looking. Blogs are a new source. Like any other book, it depends on the strength of the writer (and the editor) to make it a good read.

Milly said...

Ursula LeGuin wrote a wonderful article on this subject in a recent Harper's magazine (I think it was January of February, but not sure). You should read it and then reask those same questions.