From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:
They worked in Manhattan, which was too hot in the summer, and too cold in the winter. They didn’t make enough money to buy their own apartments downtown, but they’d never think of moving to Brooklyn or Queens or any of the outer boroughs. Mummy and Daddy had the money, boatloads of it in many cases, and Mummy and Daddy believed in appearances. So, if Second Son needed a place to live, well, then let’s just buy him something in the right neighborhood, so that he can live in relative comfort.
Second Son had use of the summer house upstate or in the Hamptons (before, y’know, it got discovered by [sniff] celebrities) and in due time, Second Son and the wife would move to Connecticut to raise the kids, commute into the City to do Important Work.
What Important Work? Publishing, of course. Perfect work for the Second Son or the Third Son or the Fourth. Perfect way to use that expensive education without really going into Trade or soiling the hands on something a little less…dignified.
Most of the people running publishing companies in those days were the children of old money who were not expected to make a profit at what they did. They were expected to do good work, to influence the culture, to put their minds and hearts behind good (or at least the right sort of) causes.
The people who started or ran the companies were, for the most part, male. All of them were white. And only a handful—the most innovative (and the most underrated)—were not from old money. Ian and Betty Ballantine, for instance, started Ballantine Books in their apartment in 1952, which was not the way most publishing houses started in those times. Ian and Betty were the anomalies.
The children of old money were not anomalies. Their influence pervades publishing even now, when all that remains of their companies are dusty old names that have long since been sold to corporations.
When I came into the business, though, handshake agreements were common, particularly with agents, who talked about things like “gentlemen’s agreements,” and “honor,” even though most of them had as much honor as any thief.
The publishers, though, the publishers truly were not interested in making a profit. They wanted enough money to keep their Manhattan offices, and to publish prestige products. They liked bestsellers, although they often manipulated the lists so that the worthy books could be considered bestsellers, and they really liked dominating the conversation around the entire country.
The books that made profits for the publishing houses—well, we don’t discuss those much. The “trashy” novels. Science fiction. Mystery. Romance. The [sniff] genre titles, they funded the literary titles, and made the prestige books possible.
But, long about sixty years ago, the culture was changing. The masses—always a problem when it came to prestige products—had a lot of disposable income, and wanted—not the most prestigious book—but something fun to read. Sure, they bought the prestige book, and displayed it on the coffee table so that their neighbors thought they were erudite, but the books they read lurked in the bedroom closet or the enclosed end table or the basement, and those had lurid covers and shocking subheadings.
The problem was that a lot of the racks around the nation that handled books wanted books to sell, not books to impress. The handful of bookstores weren’t enough to make the requisite amount of sales, so somehow, these publishers had to convince the department store book departments and the grocery stores and drug stores and the truck stops to take prestige books.
Truck stops never did, and neither did drug stores, but department stores…they could be lured by prestige. Just like university bookstores and libraries—with the right promotion.
What was the right promotion? Well, that was the question, wasn’t it, in a mass market world. How to make books that are good for you, or at least books written by the right sort (our kind of people) sell better than they naturally would.
The editors who actually believed in the product, and the sales force who were, in those days, an actual force, unique to the company, had the job of making those books profitable. And sometimes, that was impossible.
. . . .
A lot of things were tried, and a lot of things failed. But the successful things, well, some were done utilizing the Right People Who Had Jobs in the Right Places, things such as:
- Convincing that one reviewer to read the book and maybe, in exchange for a lovely lunch, write a slightly more positive review than usual.
- Planting interviews in the right magazines and newspapers, read by the right people
- Sending copies to the influential bookstores ahead of publication, so that the store owner felt involved in the process and might encourage the influential in the community (including the reviewer at the local paper) to cover the book.
- Sending the author to universities, to talk to professors and other influencers (although that term wasn’t used then).
- Sending the author, and copies of the book, to the influential bookstores. Initially, the authors gave lectures there as well, but most authors are dull as dishwater even when someone poured a lot of liquor into them, so the talks evolved into signings only, and more than one per day.
. . . .
But for the most part, the book publicity you still see today started around 1955 or so, and changed only as book buying changed. The sales force went away—why have a sales force when all you had to do was sell to the single buyer for the nationwide chain? And then the right magazines became shadows of themselves, the struggling newspapers cut their book sections, and the author tour became a way to get bookstores around the country to order enough copies of the book to get on the New York Times list.
But that was that.
Ads on television, still in its infancy in 1960, didn’t really work, especially with Our Sort, because television by its very nature appealed to the masses. Jaqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls, revolutionized book publicity, but it was commonly accepted that she wrote trash, and the techniques she used were unique to her.
(They weren’t. They were the same techniques most companies used at the time to sell any brand name item. Techniques all snubbed by traditional publishers at the time because of the whiff of the masses…snubbed until they actually needed those techniques to get their books on the shelves.)
Book publishing rolled in a few more techniques—the book fairs, like the LA Book Fair and a few other “accepted” methods of promotion—but for the most part, until January 2020, the promotion done for books by traditional publishers was the same kind of promotion done by traditional publishers 60 years ago.
. . . .
Only now, the Right People don’t control the media. Corporations do. And there’s too many diverse voices and too many influencers not under the control of Our Sort.
The right magazines are gone. The newspaper book sections are gone or styled back to one review.
But that doesn’t matter. The booksellers…they’re Our Sort. They will come through. We can market to them, support them against the Big Evil Amazon, and our books will sell enough to make a decent profit, enough to keep our little division of our books in the black.
Let the authors handle the online promotion. We’ll set up a book tour, and maybe some direct-to-bookstore marketing, and all will be well.
But problems lurked on the horizon.
Bookstores were struggling. Big or little, it doesn’t matter. Barnes & Noble, the last big store, was being mismanaged into oblivion. The little stores were hanging on by finding their niche, but that niche wasn’t always The Right Book. Some of the most successful stores were genre—mystery, science fiction, and quite often, romance.
Even so, they weren’t making a big profit, and it had become a sad ironic joke in the industry that book buyers would use the stores to pick up a book, maybe read the opening, and then order the ebook online. Or the hardcover from Amazon, where the price was half of what the bookstore was doing.
Still, the book tours continued and the promotion wheel geared up, and writers occasionally appeared on the Today show (but not on Ellen or any of the talk shows, which were more focused on performing than ever).
Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch
PG keeps thinking one day he’ll disagree with one of the posts Kris writes about the book business, but he’s probably wrong.
The “business” end of the traditional book business is full of people who would have a difficult time being hired by any revenue-generating employer other than a publisher. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, they genuinely believe they are good business people despite growing evidence to the contrary.
Jeff Bezos knows how to sell books. Random House, not so much.
For visitors to TPV who may be aghast at PG’s opinion, he would ask how many books Amazon sells each year vs. how many books a traditional publisher sells each year.
Ditto for how many books Amazon sells each year vs. how many books Barnes & Noble sells each year.
Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.