About a year and a half ago I had the pleasure of meeting Gretchen Rubin in person, though I’d been following her on Twitter for some time before that. I was supposed to give a talk to authors about the power of the tools on the internet, and when the list of authors was sent out and I saw Gretchen’s name on it, I immediately called her and told her SHE should be leading the workshop, not me! At that point, a year and a half ago, she had a great blog (since has become even greater) and about 5000 followers on Twitter. Even more importantly, she was engaged with the community — and this was a few years before the publication of her book. We spoke for a few minutes on the phone and decided that she would come to the meeting despite the fact that she was more experienced with the tools than the other authors who would be attending.
Gretchen turned out to be such a gift to have at the meeting because as I would speak to these authors and tell them what I thought they should be doing, she would chime in as a member of their tribe instead of the outsider (me) and give her own perspective about what was easy or challenging.
Over the course of that next year and half I followed carefully what she was doing and was always impressed. We got together in person a few times, and I would tell her what a great job she was doing, we’d compare notes about this and that, and she’d always say “but will it sell books when the time comes?”
Well, it turns out that it does work (I feel like a broken record ). Gretchen’s book, The Happiness Project, went on sale on December 29, 2009. On Wednesday we found out that it will land at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list for the January 17 list. I realize that Gretchen’s subject lends itself to blogging and twittering more easily than other books would, and it’s got a great jacket, title, and traditional publicity — but there is no denying, IMHO, that Gretchen Rubin worked hard, for a long time, establishing a relationship with the community, and it paid off.
Here are 5 things that Gretchen did right:
1) As I’ve said, it’s not a “campaign.” This is a long-term relationship with your readers. Gretchen understood that and started the relationship long before (as in years) it was time to “promote her book.”
2) She talked about her book…but she also talked about other people’s books, and in general, we got to see the world through Gretchen’s eyes and to know her. She posted frequently, linked them up in Facebook (often I found them on Facebook), and had GREAT content. I don’t think there was a post I didn’t love and I felt like I found a little present every time she put one up.
3) Once the book jacket was done she put it up on the site in a place where people could always see it so she didn’t have to always “promote herself.” I hear this a lot from authors: “I’m not comfortable promoting myself.” Gretchen didn’t promote herself; she was fabulously interesting, and when I would click through to read her posts I was always reminded by the book jacket that it was coming out.
4) She didn’t sit around waiting for a publicist to make her famous. Yes, there is traditional media as part of the mix; lots of it in her case. But it’s a healthy mix of traditional and social media and they riff off each other. It’s like having a well balanced stock portfolio…not to mention that she has a tribe with whom she can communicate about all of this media.
5) Here’s my favorite one: The Video. The video the video the video. Every author needs one (kidding); most are not good. The thing I LOVE about Gretchen’s is that it is simple beyond belief, and what it lacks in fancy production and editing it makes up for in spades with heart and soul.
I watched this video a few months ago and was so moved I’ve seen it about another 10 times. I think about it all of the time. Watch here.
UPDATE: The Happiness Project was published by HarperCollins.
A new year, a new batch of books. I’m particularly excited to have signed Christopher S. Stewart’s book about a lost city in the jungles of Honduras (PJ Mark sold world rights).
Q&A with Christopher S. Stewart:
Chris S. Stewart is The Deputy Editor of the New York Observer. His magazine work has appeared in GQ, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and Wired, among others.
1) What is your book about?
The epic search for a lost city buried somewhere deep in the jungles of the Mosquito Coast in Honduras. The city is called Ciudad Blanca, or the White City, and explorers as far back as the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes tried to find it – with no luck. Some of the men never came out of the jungle; they died or disappeared. Others got lost. It’s one of the biggest and wildest and most impenetrable jungles in the world – known as the little Amazon. But in 1939, one man claimed he located the El Dorado-like city and this is where the book begins.
Theodore Morde was an American explorer and World War II spy. His story is as layered and enigmatic as the White City. But here’s the twist: he died under strange circumstances before disclosing the city’s location. There are people who actually believe that the spirits of the lost city killed him.
But to this day, the mystery remains: What’s out there? What was it that drew in these explorers, and at such terrific risk? This is ultimately a detective story. And some of the answers began to come when I tracked down Morde’s secret journals in North Carolina and then set out with them on my own journey to find this lost place.
2) Broadly speaking, what is considered to be a “lost city”?
Well, a lost city begins with a rumor – that there’s some spectacular and ancient world that vanished at some point in time and is waiting to be found. The city persists in legend and myth, stories passed along over the decades. Its size doesn’t matter much. But it’s likely encased in some impressive and mysterious history. There are lots of incredible lost city
tales: Atlantis, El Dorado, Z. And with these stories, there’s the ubiquitous riddle – if these in fact cities existed, what happened to them and where did their inhabitants go? I heard many end-of-the-world scenarios for the White City. Among them was the story that a volcano covered it up, another was that it was destroyed by an evil army.
But in many ways, a lost city refuses to be discovered. As I stumbled through the jungle and talked to people, the place I was looking for was always around the next corner, up the next river, over the next mountain.
For some of the indigenous people I met, the city wasn’t even meant to be found. They said it would continue to elude because the White City was a spiritual place, and that, like a specter, it constantly migrated from one unreachable location to another.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
- A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Decades from now, when we look back at the book business in 2009, it seems likely that we’ll see it as a threshold year, one in which all of the signs were there for what followed. It was a year in which sales held steady (Nielsen Bookscan, which covers 75% of the market, reported that overall unit sales through December 20 were 724 million copies, only a 3% drop from last year—and adult hardcover fiction was up an amazing 3%), and a few authors were so successful (Stephanie Meyer, Jeff Kinney) that the fates of entire publishing houses were altered by them; however, it was also a year that saw publishing’s profit margins squeezed in perplexing new ways. It was a year in which some of the most highly-respected bestsellers (Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry; Andre Agassi’s Open; Edward M. Kennedy’s True Compass) were also apparently the year’s biggest money-losers for their publishers, due to their multi-million-dollar advances; at the same time, some of the books with the highest rumored advances (Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol; Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue) were likely the most profitable. It was a year in which e-book sales increased exponentially, with the cherry on the sundae being Amazon’s announcement that they had sold more e-books on Christmas Day than p-books (though of course this was helped by all the people who got Kindles as presents and spent the day filling them); but it was also a year in which the prices charged for those e-books made them a threat to the health of the p-book retailers on whom publishers continued to rely, and possibly a future threat to publishers’ ability to make money on the e-book format itself, in spite of that format’s wonderful ability to eliminate the costs of production, distribution, and returns. It was a year in which the largest publishing houses slowed title acquisitions and reduced the number of titles they published, while one company—Author Solutions—increased its annual output to a remarkable 24,000 authors (even more remarkably, these authors were all paying for the privilege). It was a year in which review coverage of new fiction disappeared almost entirely, and yet one first novel (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help) sold more than a million hardcover copies thanks to word of mouth alone. It was a year in which publishers continued to spend exorbitant amounts of money on print advertising, in spite of data showing how ineffective such advertising tends to be, but also a year in which some publishers discovered the power of online media to reach niche markets at significantly lower costs.
What does this mean for the future? That for every trend there will be a counter trend. And since this is the time of year for Top Ten lists, here’s mine:
1. Trend: The large publishing houses will continue to reduce overhead as profits shrink in the years ahead. Counter trend: Publishers will be looking for mergers and acquisitions to compensate for those shrinking profits. The Big Six could be the Big Three within five years.
2. Trend: These companies will continue to focus more resources on fewer titles, using their strengths as large-scale marketers and distributors to publish brand-names. Title count at the largest houses could drop by as much as fifty percent over the next five years. Counter trend: At the same time, self-publishing (including partnerships like the one announced recently between Author Solutions and Harlequin) will grow exponentially.
3. Trend: Title reduction will be most significant for new talent, with the largest houses entrusting support of new authors to a handful of editorial imprints. The editors at those imprints–editors with proven ability to choose new material successfully–will increase in value. Counter trend: Editors whose job is to handle existing talent will find their roles diminished.
4. Trend: In terms of advances, the amounts paid for brand-names will continue to increase, with seven-figure or eight-figure acquisitions commonplace among authors with established track records. Counter trend: There will be an increase in five-figure acquisitions (perhaps with profit-share arrangements) for less predictable material. The six-figure advance—that dangerous neighborhood inhabited by books with lots of potential but few guarantees—will become a rare species within the decade.
5. Trend: E-book sales will grow exponentially, with the proliferation of new devices and applications for reading on smartphones, etc… Within five years, half of all reading will be done electronically. Counter trend: There will be a resurgence of appreciation for well-designed physical books, as keepsakes, gifts, etc… While e-books will create a downward pressure on pricing, there will be notable exceptions (as seen this year with Carl Jung’s The Red Book, in great demand at $195.00, or Thomas Keller’s gorgeous Ad Hoc at Home, a bestseller at $50.00).
6. Trend: As more consumers become e-book readers, demand will increase for the availability of e-books simultaneously with p-books. Counter trend: Publishers will try a variety of strategies to meet this demand while not undercutting their p-book sales, such as offering more expensive “enhanced” e-books at publication and plain vanilla, less expensive e-books several months later (the strategy recently announced by Macmillan) or by offering a variety of “bundled” discounts to purchasers of multiple formats (prediction: within five years, it will be common practice to give every p-book purchaser a “free” e-book version of that book at time of purchase, as is already the case in the music business, in which someone who buys a cd can also listen to that cd on other devices in digital form, without paying a separate fee).
7. Trend: Fewer and fewer books will be sold to publishers at “auction,” and that practice will disappear completely within five years, as more and more publishers realize that the “winner” in such auctions—the publisher willing to pay more to acquire a book than any of their competitors–is often actually the loser in the end. Sales will be made either by brand-name authors to their previous publishing company or by new authors to carefully chosen editors with strong reputations. Counter trend: Instead of auctions for the highest advance, there will be auctions in which a basic advance is established by the agent, with the auction winner being the publisher who bids the most in marketing committed to the book.
8. Trend: As the initial sale becomes less of the focus for authors, the agent of the future will become more of a business manager who handles every aspect of an author’s career, overseeing the author’s online presence, developing sources of revenue outside of book sales such as workshops and lecture tours, and acting as the author’s publicist in between publications. Counter trend: Publishers will create free-standing departments whose services can be purchased a la carte by authors, whether that author is self-published or published by a competitor who doesn’t offer such services.
9. Trend: As the Boomers lose their eyesight and their children become teenagers, demographics will favor books for young adults over books for adults. This is also the generation most likely to embrace a variety of online and offline formats, without feeling the need to choose one over another. Counter trend: While auctions and advances diminish for adult titles, they could heat up for young adult material as publishers bet big in search of the next Stephenie Meyer. (Prediction: publishing houses will soon have entire departments devoted to developing books about the undead.)
10. Trend: Every year for the foreseeable future, books will be purchased between Thanksgiving and Christmas about how to prepare high-calorie foods (a favorite from this year: Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, by Jennifer McLagan). Counter trend: Every January for the foreseeable future, the bestseller lists will be dominated by books about how to lose the weight gained by eating those high-calorie foods. (Not much of a prediction, sorry…but I needed a tenth trend to complete the list!)
Nina Sankovitch, the author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, has compiled a fabulous gift list for all the readers in your life: The runner: What I Talk About When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami; The Optimist: On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor; The Teenager: The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald. For the full list click here.
Last week I had the pleasure of meeting with Caroline Vanderlip, the CEO of a company called SharedBook. Among the many fabulous things SharedBook can do, is personalize a book for a customer. The process for the publisher is crazy easy: I gave her the file and the jacket, we decided upon a price, and voila, Crush It! by Gary Vaynerchuk was available a day later as a personalized option for customers in time for the holidays.
On the customer end, I went in and clicked to buy the book, uploaded a photo, wrote a message, and the book is now being sent to me. Free Shipping. Really seamless and lovely shopping experience.
How can this not be the biggest thing in book publishing since sliced bread? Wouldn’t everyone who’s giving a book as a gift want the opportunity to to personalize it for the recipient? I plan on trying many more of these!
As an aside, SharedBook can also seamlessly bring a blog to a book format. Check it out here.
A week before Thanksgiving a mysterious package arrived for me at work. A festive green card was taped to the top and little foodie oil spots dotted the cardboard sides. One thing was certain: the box was heavy with something yummy inside. Harvey, the messenger who brought it up to me, watched eagerly as I opened the box on the spot (He wanted see if his guess of chocolate cake was right — apparently, the messenger center had a bet going). Lo and behold, a beautiful batch of two dozen chocolate chip cookies to celebrate my first acquisition: Cara & Phoebe’s Quarter-Life Kitchen.
Cara Eisenpress and Phoebe Lapine are the creators of Big Girls, Small Kitchen, the food blog that had our mouths watering for months before the pair came in to pitch their book. We were inspired by their sophisticated take on childhood classics like Pesto Mac ‘n Cheese and Pancakes with Pomegranates. Cara and Phoebe’s book will tell the story of their friendship (they’ve been cooking together since a middle school bake-off) complete with recipes and a foreword by Ina Garten.
We’re super excited about this book — and so are our stomachs. What else can I say? It was love at first bite.
p.s. Check out the recipes for Cara and Phoebe’s scrumptious book deal cookies. We chomped through those babies in less than two days and I don’t think the janitor was too happy about all the crumbs we left behind…