Monday, January 29, 2007

Unreproduceable Phenomenon

I spoke at a writers club in Geneva while ago, and prior to it one of the organizers took me out for a bite. Over paninis, I tried to articulate my belief that no one in publishing knows what they're doing.

"Books," I said, "are like a science experiment without a control. If a book is successful, everyone is quick to take credit for it, and when a book fails, everyone scratches their heads, but no one can explain why either happens because publishers can do the exact same things for two different books and get two very different results."

My friend said, "I get it. Publishing a book is an unreproduceable phenomenon."

I liked that term so much I wrote it down.

Every book is released into the world under unique circumstances. Some of the things that factor into a book being published are:
  • Type of book
  • How it's written
  • Who the author is
  • Date of release
  • Amount of advertising
  • Amount of publicity
  • Amount of marketing
  • Publisher enthusiasm
  • Bookseller enthusiasm
  • Fan enthusiasm
  • Library enthusiasm
  • Cover art
  • Print run
  • Catalog placement
  • Size of advance
  • Foreign sales
  • Movie sales
  • Coop budget
  • Distribution
  • Similar releases
  • Market saturation
  • Price
  • Word of mouth

There are many other factors as well.

Now common sense would say that many of these factors are within a publisher's control, so the more that they do, the better off the book will be. But there are so many factors that even a big book with huge expectations can, and often does, flop.

So the current publishing model is to do the bare minimum, and see if magic happens on its own. And magic happens often enough to keep everyone in the game, trying to figure out how to reproduce it.

But that's the problem. Publishing is an unreproduceable phenomenon.

I once compared publishers to those Skinner pigeons who pecked a lever that offered a treat at random intervals. The pigeons kept pecking, even though their efforts didn't yield any direct, controllable results.

If we add to this situation the poor business model of booksellers having no accountability for sales (because of the return system) then the amount of risk a publisher must take goes up, along with the amount of money needed to be spent to earn money.

Suddenly we see why a 50% sell through has become acceptable, and why authors who follow their publisher's advice to the letter---or even do more than their publishers require---often find themselves without another contract.

If it's true that no one really knows what they're doing, and that luck is ultimately responsible for a book's success, then it really shouldn't matter what the author does because fate will decide what happens. Just write the best book possible and cross your fingers, right?

Well, sometimes that works. Sometimes you buy a single lottery ticket and win. Sometimes you buy ten tickets a week for thirty years before you win. But most of the time you never win.

Which begs the question: what should authors be doing is no one really knows what to do?

The answer is easy. You have to do everything you can to become your own unreproduceable phenomenon.

You'll do some things that work, and other things that won't, and when success comes you'll hopefully be smart enough to know that it wasn't any specific thing you did that made you a hit, but more likely a combination of things plus luck.

Luck doesn't mean you can stop trying. Luck means you have to keep trying until luck happens.


Jim said...

Joe: This is probably implied in one of your categories, but I'd be tempted to denote "Author enthusiasm" as a line item. That is because so much needs to be done primarily by the author, e.g., author events, obtaining blurbs and book reviews, operating websites and blogs, networking, etc. Not to mention, writing the book to the best of the author's ability in the first place.

Michael Carr - Veritas Literary said...

There is another predictor that is not necessarily reproduceable, but is a good indicator as to the success of the project. That is, the quality of the writing combined with the commercial nature of the book. Fantastic writing combined with a traditionally compelling story (i.e., plotted rather than literary) is the best predictor of success, I believe.

Sure, there are crappy writers who sell and good writers who don't, but the former category are usually lucky and the latter category are not writing with the proper attention to what kind of stories people like to read.

anne frasier said...

Publishing is an unreproduceable phenomenon.

wow. i love that.

Anonymous said...

What I love is Anne Frasier's baby picture. It's like a cross between a Stop Cancer Now promo and PUBLIC ENEMY (or maybe KEY LARGO). Irresistable.

So what you're saying is throw everything you can muster against the wall. See what sticks, and then pick it up and toss it again.

Beacuse it occurs to me that luck and lightning both strike once, but they are also unreproduceable phenomenon.

JA Konrath said...

I'm not sure I agree, Ross. I think the more you put yourself out there, the luckier you get. And the luckier you get, the luckier you get.

For example, years ago I did my damnedest to fins speaking engagements. Now speaking engagements come to me. And when I do those, they lead to others.
It's still luck, but one lucky turn begets another.

Stacey Cochran said...

The way I see it is like this.

There are three components to be successful in this business.

1) Content, 2) Distribution, and 3) Strong public relations.

If you aren't a bestseller, it's a sure thing that one of these components (or two or three) needs improvement.

You have to ask yourself if you have the best of all three. If you do, you will have a bestselling novel.


Jude Hardin said...

I think evoking powerful emotions in the reader is key to selling a lot of books. Some authors seem to do it again and again, book after book. They might not be the most eloquent wordsmiths on the planet, might not be the critics' darlings, but they know how to make the reader laugh, cry, shiver with fear, etc.

Every great story touches a broad range of emotions, IMO. And, not to sound sexist, but women are typically more emotional than men, and women buy way more books. So whose emotions should we be aiming for?

So, for some authors, at least that part of it--evoking powerful emotions--is reproduceable. In theory, anyway.

Therapist/Writer said...

The idea behind Skinner's "sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't" approach to sporadically rewarding pigeons is called intermittant reinforcement. It is proven to be the strongest method of ensuring repeated behavior from the subject-pigeon or human. Stronger than rewarding every time; way, way stronger than punishment.

It's based on hope and desire. Best motivators in the world!

Therese said...

I'm with kingm and jude here.

When I set out to write my most recent novel (my first sale, as it turned out), I did a lot of analysis first.

What sells well? Why? How can I use my abilities and tastes to craft a saleable work (I'd written two novels that didn't sell)?

Then I wrote what my agent calls an "upmarket" novel. High quality writing with a plotted story, as kingm put it, above.

It sold at auction within days of going out on submission, and sold, too, to seven foreign publishers.

Whether or not readers will love it remains to be seen, and is the only real test of success. BUT, even on her third read-through my editor cried at the end, which seems like a good omen!

I too have observed the "unreproduceable phenomenon" of publishing. I think we also have to look at authors who are dispelling that by continually writing books that readers love.

JA Konrath said...

I think evoking powerful emotions in the reader is key to selling a lot of books.

The problem is that a great book that evokes powerful emotions will sit untouched on a book shelf unless someone buys it.

Booksellers don't read everything. Reviewers skip 95% of all books released. And the sales reps push everything pretty much equally.

Even a terrific book with a commercial hook needs luck to be read.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately for me, I sometimes think that writing itself is an unreproduceable phenomenon.

Tom Schreck said...

My plan is to make a gigantic sandwich board with my cover on it and just walk the streets of Manhattan...

See you at Love is Murder

"On The Ropes"

Lesley Livingston said...

See... I need more coffee.

I've been staring at the subject line of this post for some time now, wondering what on Earth Joe could possibly have to say about 'Unpronounceable Pheromones'.


Anonymous said...

I think that's true about it being an unreproducible phenomenon. And I hope luck has a lot ot do with it. Otherwise I should've given up long ago.

The same may be true of TV shows and popular music.

One can change one's luck, but I'm not sure the means of doing so is any more reproducible.

Anonymous said...

I figured that was the secret - LOL

Honestly, I don't kinow what works for a lot of stuff. Sometimes I'll write a blog post that was just slung together and it garners lots of comments. Other times I'll finely craft a piece and it gets nuttin - LOL

I'm starting to think it's all a crap shoot - LOL

Great post though, certainly a lot to think about! Thanks!

Jude Hardin said...

Good point about luck being a factor regarding a book ever being read in the first place, Joe.

I'm sure there are lots of awesome novels out there that we've never heard about, and never will.

But still, to even have a chance at word-of-mouth mania, I think powerful emotions are key. I keep thinking about a miserable, poorly- written little novel called The Bridges of Madison County. That novel's success was pure luck, for sure, but it touched on the emotion of the everyday housewife who longs for true love. For a soul mate.

That's what we have to tap, I think: emotions that are mostly unspoken, yet felt overwhelmingly by the masses.

Especially the book-buying women masses.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

It's the same for movies or television shows or songs or works of art. Anytime you're at the mercy of fad or fashion or whim, of the ever changing tastes of the public -- you run the risk of failure.

The quality (or lack of quality) of a work does not guarantee anything.

No one will ever be able to explain why one creative product survives while another fails -- it's simply not possible. And those who try will only find frustration.

Rashenbo said...

That is a great term. Good article. :)

Allison Brennan said...

Luck may be a factor (as Tess Gerritsen says "fairy dust") but luck isn't the only or the most important factor in selling.

There is so much we don't know and can't control that we like to point to something completely outside of our control--that magic wand, the fairy dust.

Yes, it's a factor, but you still need a good book, a savvy agent, an editor who loves it, a marketing team who knows how to create a compelling cover, a sales force that gets behind it (and I disagree, Joe, that all books are pushed equally by the sales team), some bookseller buzz, and distribution.

Yes, all those things can happen and a book can bomb. Is that just bad luck? So when they do everything write and it's a success, that's just the luck of the draw?

I like your original list because it highlights everything that needs to go into the publication of a book. But luck is not the most important factor, and I think it denigrates writers, both published and unpublished, to dismiss success or failure as "luck."

JA Konrath said...

But luck is not the most important factor, and I think it denigrates writers, both published and unpublished, to dismiss success or failure as "luck."

Great response, Allison.

I don't believe I'm dismissing success or failure as luck. I believe I'm trying to closely analyze success and failure, and I see no commonalities.

Because taste is subjective, there are no universal indicators for 'good' or 'bad.'

I've read a lot of books that I believe are better than bestselling books, even though they've sold much less.

you still need a good book, a savvy agent, an editor who loves it, a marketing team who knows how to create a compelling cover, a sales force that gets behind it, some bookseller buzz, and distribution.

I agree. But sometimes books succeed when the agent isn't savvy, and sometimes a sales force gets behind a flop, and there's no set formula for generating bookseller buzz. If these things happen, luck is involved to some degree.

and I disagree, Joe, that all books are pushed equally by the sales team

You're right. In a perfect world, they would. But they don't.

Coincidence plays a huge part in life. We like to think that our actions and decisions are the reasons we're at where we're at, but they really aren't.

We had no control over the parents we have, the language we speak, the area we were raised in, the schools we attended, the color of our skin.

We meet our mates by happenstance--if I hadn't applied for that job because my brother worked there, I never would have met my wife. If I had sex ten minutes later, my son would be a different person. And so on.

We can't predict what the sales team will love. We can't always land a great agent, because she might have been having a bad day when she read our submission. There is a great deal beyond our control.

Luck does not mean that the book isn't good, or that the author didn't work hard. But there are other good books and hard working authors who don't have the little degree of success I've attained, and I'm not nearly a big as many authors who I know haven't worked as hard as I have (as far as I know.)

There's no fairness. No one deserves success. We all try our best and let it ride.

That's what I mean by luck.

Elizabeth Krecker said...

LOVE this concept: "an unreproduceable phenomenon." Wow!

Bear with me for a moment, but I think there's another analogy here to be drawn between search engine optimization and book publishing.

There's a way to write web copy crammed with the most popular keywords and phrases that people use when they hunt for your subject using search engines. So, the question is: do you cram your copy with key words and risk awkward or, worse, unreadable writing? Or do you write the best damn copy you can and hope for the best?

Just like publishing, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, you write the best damn copy you can. Then, you go back and carefully introduce two or three (no more) of the most popular key words or phrases to ensure the best possible search engine rankings. And, no matter what you do, your ranking will change every day. But that's ok, if you've tailored your copy just right because you'll still stay at the top.

From what you are saying here, we should write the best damn books we can, then tailor everything we do to assure our book has the greatest possible chance of winning a publishing contract, and then be successful at book stores.

Thanks for that! Somehow, in my weird web-altered mind, this makes it all a clearer!

Anonymous said...

J.A. wrote, "And the sales reps push everything pretty much equally."

Do you honestly believe this? I find it hard to imagine.

JA Konrath said...

J.A. wrote, "And the sales reps push everything pretty much equally."

I was wrong, and said so in my response to Allison.

Of course, I'd never say that to a sales rep, who will swear on the record that they love all of their children equally, just like any good parent.