Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Moving the Needle

Hi everyone, this was originally posted yesterday in the Huffington Post, where I will be blogging from time to time. I thought I'd re-post it here.

During my meetings with editors, agents, sales assistants, marketers, and other assorted publishing types in New York this past week, there was a common theme that kept cropping up again and again:

Moving the needle.

(That's "making an impact" for those of us not fluent in Corporatese.)

Editors want to take authors to the next level or make a splash with a debut. Publishers want to gain traction with new electronic formats. Sales and marketing teams want to make a splash. Everyone is desperate for a hit.

At the same time, along with this overwhelming drive to move the needle came an almost equally universal feeling of uneasiness: it's harder to move the needle than ever before.

One of the big recent surprises in the industry, according to a few different people I met with, is a newfound difficulty making a splash even with adult nonfiction. Now, to get an idea of what a huge problem/challenge/earthquake this is, bear in mind that for many years adult nonfiction was the bread and butter workhorse of the industry. Fiction, except for very very established authors, has always been regarded as something of a crapshoot. Nonfiction, on the other hand, was a source of relative stability, and publishers had gotten reasonably good at guessing at the size of the market for a project, giving authors a reasonably appropriate advance, and bringing in healthy margins.

Not so much anymore. Everything is difficult to break out.

What's happening?

Yes, book sales are down, but it's not as if they've fallen off a cliff. And there are still books that are wildly, hugely successful. But why is it that certain books are taking off seemingly out of the blue where other seemingly sure bets aren't doing so well?

One guess: the industry has gone from pushing the needle to being pushed by the needle.

Before the Internet, the publishing industry was one of a few powerful forces that helped shape the cultural zeitgeist - their choices of what to publish and what to market had a reasonably solid effect on what we consumed as a culture. Up until the Internet era, zeitgeist-shaping was much more of a top-down phenomenon. There simply wasn't much of an alternative to the books/movies/music/TV shows that major publishers/studios/labels/networks decided you would like. Your choice in zeitgeist was prescribed and proscribed in advance. Want to read something other than what the publishing industry decided to put in the bookstore? Good luck, pardner!

Not to get all Y2K on you, but the Internet has changed all that. Now we are positively besieged by an infinite number of stories and videos and Tweets and blogs and Gosselins and quizzes competing for our atten... OMG did you see that kitten video?

And holy cow almost all of it is free. People are deciding what media they want to consume out of a bewildering array of choices, and the ground is constantly shifting.

The competition for eyeballs is fierce, and the traditional tools at publishers' disposal aren't as effective as they used to be: Review space has all but completely disappeared, bookstores are closing and taking with them the precious hit-making front-store real estate (which publishers pay dearly for), advertising is costly and sporadically effective, and some (but not all) publishers have been slow to adapt to the potential of the Internet and especially social networking. In other words: their ability to move the needle has flown out the digital door.

To be sure, there are publishers who are still able to consistently generate hits, whether it's Penguin's remarkable run of trade paperback bestsellers or Hachette's stable of suspense writers, among others. And there are still hits happening, even if they seem to be increasingly starting modestly and then taking off through rabid word of mouth.

But if publishers feel unable to "make" a book and increasingly depend on word of mouth and the new bottom-up zeitgeist it will surely complicate a publishing business model that makes massive bets on progressively fewer books in the hopes that those books reach the "phenomenon" status that pads margins and launches careers. Will publishers continue to pay a premium for the privilege of taking an increasingly uncertain risk? Will authors be depended upon to bring their own celebrity/platform/253,078 Twitter followers to bear in order to make a hit for the publisher?

Unless the industry finds a better way to minimize their massive risk-taking or find new tools to move the needle, publishing will continue to bow before the increasingly fickle whims of the zeitgeist and the Internet hive. And the only thing worse than failing to push the needle is accidentally sitting on it.


KatieGrrr said...

Dooooooooooooom. And gloom too.

susiej said...

I feel like a total dinosaur saying this but I almost always by books on word of mouth from friends or by walking through the library/book store browsing. I hate to admit it, but the cover has a huge impact on me. Its what makes me reach for the book. I think of Twilight- those covers intrigued me-alas, I found the inside disappointing but the cover got me interested. Publishers need to pay those designers!

I may be only one buyer and behind the times at that, but I've got a whole family of readers that I buy books for and I don't give a hoot how many twitter followers the authors have.

Reesha said...

Ah yes. That Internet hive. So tempting yet so dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Took one single minute to look at the cat video. Which led to looking at another cat video, and another and another, ...wait. Where am I again?

Must be lunch time or something.

Anonymous said...

(mostly) true that, esp. the last line: ouch!

please, return the avuncular & sly Nathan to his loyal blog readers ... huff po, no, say it ain't so, I like your blog voice.

w/in yesterday's galleycat 20 or so comments, one (besides yours) stood out. the commentor observed the disadvantage of digital is finding (needle, again, though in haystack) what one loves. in a book store, I can pick up, look, flip through, consider and, oh yeah, buy. for all the focus on delivery, dRM, etc. ad nauseum, this comment -> -> -> the downside: books aren't being curated, as they were before. In the drive to make everything equal, the good & excellent are getting lost. My thoughts on this are evolving with the discourse but unless I know what's good, and can rely (as I do on, say, the NYTimes Book Review) on the source, I stop. This belief that all blogs are a) created equal and b) are going to gain traction w/someone like me (semi closet snob), is ridiculous. SItes like galleycat, that manically trumpet all things digital- as if delivery were somehow convergent with content - are emerging as forces that serve, mostly, to point the needle downwards, towards a sort of nauseating mediocrity ...

Bane of Anubis said...

Change or die. Welcome to the new world. Perhaps the publishing industry just needs Steve Jobs to come in and take the reins... oh, wait, he wouldn't touch it w/ a thousand-foot long, fiber-optic laden needle.

DanP said...

If you can't beat them, join them.

That the internet is affecting the spread of information (and its rate) is today's most obvious tautology. That has huge implications for books as Nathan notes. Yet, I don't see it being quite as bleak as depicted.

What is bleak is any cherished idea that the publishing industry can reestablish earlier influence using the current marketing model.

To be more effective, maybe the publishing industry needs to come up with their own innovation on the internet that helps 'move the needle' without effort. And maybe one that boosts the coolness of books and reading itself for the public.

I don't know what it would be, but could imagine that it would be some application for books that You Tube is for video. "You Book?" And it would sizzle with Twitter and not just bottom feed from it.

And maybe something that would not only embrace Kindle, but also make tactile books and the local bookstore a new cool.

I realize that is not solving the problem, but those are some thoughts.

AM said...

And exactly how big is this needle?

Kathryn Magendie said...

One of our little indie bookstores just "merged" with another indie - I'm glad they are merging, but at the same time, any way you look at it, one bookstore is closing.

Publishers, especially indie publishers like mine, will have to find "creative" ways to publish our books. POD printing, cutting back on advances (although I took a very small advance - I wanted it that way) etc etc etc. . . . but whether with the Big Guys or the little guys, more and more the "burden" falls to the author to get out there and market their books - word of mouth, book by book, reader by reader, march march on . . .

Nice post . . .

Anne Lyken-Garner said...

It's clear how far behind all this (including the needle thingy) many publishers are, when you consider how many of them still insist you send them queries by post.

Do they know how much it costs to send stuff through the post these days? (especially when you're sending 20 per week).

Sissy said...

This is a very interesting post. Many things to ponder...

JEM said...

I also wonder how much "moving the needle" has changed as our global population has increased. I've heard that 10K in sales can be considered a flop for many major publishers, although I know most smaller level publishers would be thrilled. I think when you have runaway successes like Harry Potter and Dan Brown, they reset the expectations of what to reach for in a global economy.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Fabulous, terrific, insightful blog post, Nathan! Right on spot...

Providers of content will be *putting* more quirky catchy and zeitgeisting items on the Internet that'll go viral and out of nowhere emerges a HIT! Then, as our attention spans shrink, it's on to the next quirky catchy, zeitgeisty thing... and then another. I'm thinking short content,(shorter books), faster production if something catches on. (A wave only last so long, LOL, I've seen a lot of surfers in Half Moon Bay). Catch the wave while it's there!

Haste yee back ;-)

Moira Young said...

It will be interesting to see over the next few years how much more responsibility for promotion will be transferred to the author. And, on the flip side, how many more authors will have to get a foot in the door by self-publishing and gaining an audience first.

But hey, if webcomic artists can do it, then surely we can if we have to, too.

ann foxlee said...

Very well said, Nathan, and I think the election of 2008 was proof that the bottom-up world has begun to overtake the top-down one.
The internet has indeed been the catalyst for the change, and hopefully publishers will learn to take advantage of it instead of feeling overrun by it. Obama figured out how to channel the bottom up approach to his advantage, and with all the smarties in the publishing world, I'm sure someone will figure out how to make it work for them too :-)

Gina said...

Sadly it seems these days as though traditional publishing as we know it, rather than moving the needle, is moving the deck chairs on the Titanic...

Marsha Sigman said...

I hate needles.

Mercy Loomis said...

Great post Nathan!

I have to wonder if all the digital zeitgeist out there will continue to be effective. It reminds me of the way trends in the market tend to saturate it--like what happened to horror books in the late 80's early 90's, or what many hope will happen to vampire books any day now. Basically, at what point will there be so much noise in the channel that people stop looking there and go back to using major publishers as a screen?

I do believe the advent of the internet caused a paradigm shift for world culture, but human nature being the same as before, I can only imagine the noise level of internet marketing continuing to increase until it becomes nearly worthless or "legitimate" sources emerge, which will be as difficult to break into as...publishing.

(Of course, this could take a decade or two...)

Matilda McCloud said...


But I do think publishers need to step back a bit and concentrate on finding books like THE HELP (which I loved). I've read other books recently that weren't hits like THE HELP, but were good enough to drag me away from the Internet for a good chunk of time (those dreaded midlist books, which publishers seem to hate, but readers actually like). I think publishers need to focus a bit more on these types of books and not just on the obvious moneymakers. Not sure how though...

Watery Tart said...

I like the idea that the publishing industry create an internet force that help matters... maybe send an independent panel of critics the week's releases for some honest reviews available to all...

I think mammoth advances to a few hurt the ability to 'spread the risk' so to speak, which will be really the only business model that can work.

I am a word-of-mouth and book cover buyer too. I think another thing the 'market' needs to remember is as much money is made from a book selling 100,000 copies in a year as in a day (well... minus a little shelf time rental). The short-sightedness isn't helpful.

Susan Quinn said...

That last line - ouch!

This keeps circling around to something (not the drain)you've discussed before, namely the moving away from the influence of the elite and having the democratizing force of the internet sieze hold of the industry.

And this is exacerbated by the NYC Bubble Effect.

I suspect that the successful players, now and in the future, will figure out what the customer wants and deliver it. Like any other business. Bottom-up zeitgeist is another way of saying "this is what people want to read".

The entire business depends on connecting books to (buying) readers. Developing a consistent brand (Hachette) helps, but with word-of-mouth buzz driving a lot of hits, I have to wonder:

Where is the weak link in the industry? The part that's going to collapse first under the weight of all this change?

I don't have enough understanding of the industry to know the answer to that question. But I think the answer will help predict what the industry will look like 5 years from now.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think the weak link right now is that publishers are increasingly taking huge risk and shying away from small risks. I personally think the only way to survive in a bottom-up world is to make lots of small bets - not only does it increase the chance that the zeitgeist will pass your way, but the most profitable books are the ones where the publisher didn't pay a lot up front and it winds up taking off.

Instead, especially on the adult side publishers are doubling down and paying massive amounts for books that have to be phenomenally successful in order to just break even. And it's harder than ever to predict phenomenons in advance.

Anonymous said...


One thing that has dawned on me is that as an adult I find that I read far more non-fiction than fiction. As a kid, I read a lot of genre fiction, but I ended up reading a lot of adult fiction since the quality of kid and teen fiction was pretty low.

As for books today, they feel like they are going through a transition that movies went through when the idea of a blockbuster came out.

Sure, Stephen King wrote a lot of books that sold at lot, but I think the idea of a blockbuster book really started with Harry Potter, and the book retailers just did not know how to handle it. Now, mix that lack of knowledge with the wacky distribution system for books, and a lot of people ended up losing a lot of money.

I think we need to wait for publishers to figure out how to handle blockbusters and properly market them.

I think we can start to think of books the same way that we think about movies.

You have the blockbuster books with big marketing budgets. You have the Indie books that win awards; the ones your teachers want you to read. You have the direct to video books -- the ones that just don't receive a lot of marketing dollars.

The problem that I see when I go to a bookstore is that I feel like the retailers and publishers are trying to push me to read the Indie books and the direct to video books -- you know, the serial novels that read like tv shows. And I just want to read the blockbuster books -- the books that my friends are talking about, not the Indie books that only a select group of people read.

Stop trying to push the Indie Film when everyone wants to see New Moon. And check out the book "The Wisdom of Crowds."

Dara said...

Definitely a shift occuring. But there will always be a desire for stories, even if it takes a slightly different format or way of distribution.

There's still hope. :) We just have to keep writing and keep trying!

Josin L. McQuein said...

So why not take advantage of the Internet as a platform? If you have a book coming out and have a website for yourself or your book, why not post associated content like short stories or character dossiers for the book in question if it's fiction?

Especially with YA and/or fantasy where the readers are more likely obsessive about the details, it could add layers to the story. Sure it would be free to read, and a bit like author generated fanfiction, but it could also be worth it.

Jennifer Spiller said...

Nathan, in your response to Susan, it seems like you're advocating a mutual fund model over owning stock in just one company. If we want the mutual fund model to work, then we have to give it time and not plan to get rich quick. Either way, in this economy, I think it might take some real visionaries to get the publishing world on a new track.

Susan Quinn said...

So, if the weak link is big money bets chasing the blockbuster, then the larger houses, the ones with all the money, will be the most impacted. Houses that proliferate the small bets, either on individual books or via targeted imprints (which appears to already be happening), will weather the storm . . . better.

And the small presses may carry the day.

Or perhaps the micro-presses, as individual authors, or groups of authors, tackle their writing careers as more entrepreneur startup than lottery-style attempts to publish through the big houses.

Now that sounds exciting. More transformation, less doom-and-gloom.

But, whither goes the role of literary agent in this transformation?

Denver Bibliophile said...

In the last 50 years or so the unprecedented level of prosperity in the US has made it possible for the middle class to become a book market, but now that the middle class is shrinking, so is that market.

Cam Snow said...

Publishing companies need to remember that authors are like stocks... you need some that have blockbuster potential, but you also need a stable of dependable dividend payers that will make you steady gains. Yeah sure, the Brown/Grisham/Clancy types make you the high rate of returns and big gains, but without the full roster of mid-listers publishing houses would be much smaller.

When it comes to not being as dependable when it comes to selling, the problem is the sheer number of books these days... there are more books published in a calendar year than were published in an entire decade 20 years ago.

Kristi said...

Congrats on the Huffington Post - that's very cool.

Carolyn V. said...

So sad to hear when one's life revolves around books.

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

How can the editors and publishers claim they want the next big thing, when all they keep telling new writers is that they are not open to new acquisitions? They want the same old same old, a recognizable name that will rake in the big bucks! Or a story about another vampire or wizard. I don't believe they want different.

The Writing Muse said...

It all comes out in the they say.

Jacque said...


mlsfleming said...

What if the guy who designs a dream car, playing happily with his Autocad and his clay models, were required to get cleaned up, grab his credit card, and go around to the neighborhood car dealers telling what a fun-filled, status packed, gossip-worthy car it is and how he would be more than willing to give a speech about it?

Haste yee back ;-) said...

To the closet snob...

Sir/Ma'am, get used to it. With all this information and entertainment coming at you, you're just gonna have to *know* yourself well enough that YOU decide what YOU like... and leave the rest, no matter what others tell you.

Yes, no one wants to miss witnessing a train wreck, but everyone will come away with their own perception.

As anxiety provoking as it is, yer jus' gonna have to suck-it-up and learn to think for yourself!

Face it, there is no *certainty* on this planet; there's always something ready to bite yer ass!

Haste yee back ;-)

DanP said...

In classical decision theory for dealing with large and shifting uncertainty, it is generally better to make many smaller, less funded bets than it is to make a few very large bets unless the big wager projects are almost certain to succeed. That's because the smaller bets allow the risk taker to learn something about the market from results that generally inform better future bets.

I think the publishing industry has already been doing that. They invest in the big, high payoff, likely home run bets. It is just that this process does not always produce what the public wants to read. And I would venture that this is increasingly the case as the blockbuster projects are usually established writers or celebrity ghost-written books that are both a) certain of some level of success, and b)fairly predictable.

There are analogies in the food service industry, albeit perhaps stretched. Forgive me for a moment.

In any case, consider that McDonalds, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut etc. caters to predictable reliability in their offers (a sure low cost bet for many-- although not for me)

Then there are the higher cost, sure bets: e.g. Ruth's Chris, Macaroni Grill.

However, few would consider either paradigm as their personal choice for "best meal ever" much less for a special night out on the town.

That is how Yelp has come to be such a motive force in the restaurant industry. Don't like it? Maybe, but there it is.

My point is that, while we enjoy certainty in our lives, the real adventure and spice often comes from eating or reading something that sparks an unknown quadrant. And for that we want something less than predictable; both nourishing, but also surprising.

The problem is that by over investing in the sure things, publishing has left itself at the mercy of its market which may have other ideas informed by rapid word of mouth, email and tweet.

Although these seas certainly look treacherous for publishing, I still think there are opportunities too. They just require some change in the way in which the game is played.

Also, in my mind, the role of the agent in the "many smaller bets" world will become even larger and more fundamental.

Hang on.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

I found this "moving the needle" post - inspiring - I feel almost cheerful, having read it.

I am a new convert to Twitter - tweets are to blogging, what haiku is to epic poetry (and I do love Milton!) - so convenient, succinct, easy, delightful - I can't say enough good things about Twitter. The tininess of tweets reminds me of the tininess of synapses - or root hairs on tree roots - so small, but so much LEVERAGE there...oh yeah!

Maybe you'd have to be a poet to understand - a couplet in iambic pentameter is about 100 words+spaces - and Twitter gives you a whopping 140 to play around with. Plus link to your website + photo...what more could one ask for?

Anyway, oh well. 2B or not 2B, etc...

r louis scott said...

No wonder the publishing world seems to be in trouble in the digital world, they are using an analog description in their desire to change it!

SZ said...

Well there is Thee rare and elusive big mouth spotted belly kitten caught on film on my website if you click my profile ! >^..^<

I think getting more big names to have top ten lists will help. exp Oprah

Nick F. said...

I'm reminded of a post I read on mashable the other day (maybe even last night. I have a terrible memory for that sort of thing) about how sites like twitter are changing media. I think all in all the post was flawed in its arguments, but it raised some good points. Chief amongst the points that I thought was good was, in a nutshell:

In the past, the news was what NBC, CNN, the New York Times, et al told you was news. Now, Twitter and other such sites tend to pick up on things well before major news outlets and on things news outlets wouldn't touch, and the topics snowball and spread all over the internet as if it were, say, the death of JFK.

So that's it then. Chaps my age have taken over the news, and now we're coming after your books. What's next, the most followed person on Twitter becomes Prime Minister of Canada and Fred becomes his second-in-command (apologies for lack of knowing proper Canadian political terminology for that one; it's quite useless info in day-to-day Pennsylvanian life).

Rooty Too, mRoo, and other nom de plumes said...

Needlework! How cool!

fatcaster said...

Post -- Well said and right on
HuffPo -- Dude

Vegas Linda Lou said...

If authors need to have their own celebrity/platform/253,078 Twitter followers, then why wouldn't they want to self-publish and net $10/book instead of $1.75?

Still thrilled with my decision to self-publish Bastard Husband: A Love Story, which will be the basis for my one-woman show (coming in January).

Think outside the box, writers--it's every man for himself.

Chris Glennon said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steph Damore said...

SO you mean to tell me this whole internet thing isn't a fad?


This is why I'm getting my PhD in media psychology and studying the affects technology has on our society, particularly publishing (how's that for platform? - Oh right, not enough in this day and age. drat.)

Scott said...

Customization is the New Vampire.

Marilyn Peake said...

Wonderfully written and insightful post. I’ve heard some of the same things from others in the publishing industry and am very excited about the future.

Personally, I think it’s important for those in control of the media to take some responsibility for shaping the cultural zeitgeist. Even when media gives in and publishes questionable material similar to whatever’s receiving lots of views on TV and the Internet, media is then further shaping the zeitgeist by limiting the type of material available to the rest of society. I mean, people slow down on the highway to gawk at car accidents; but, really, do most people want to watch car wrecks 24/7? I read today on Publishers Marketplace that the three Kardashian sisters, now nicknamed The Dash Dolls, signed a book deal with St. Martin’s Press. All I’m going to say is: No comment.

I love The Huffington Post. It’s so cool that you’ll be blogging there from time to time. Speaking of using independent media to offer a smart alternative to more traditional press, The Huffington Post is a great example. It’s only been around since 2005 and is already a powerful force in today’s media. I tend to be a news junkie. Several years ago, quite a few people I had never seen before on TV news suddenly started being interviewed as political commentators. Turned out they were all bloggers on the HuffPo and Wonkette blogs. Their comments were always smart, bold, often cynical, with complete disregard for the status quo.

Remus Shepherd said...

I think you hit the needle right on the head with this article, Nathan.

It creates a Catch-22 for writers, though. An author who is good at generating their own publicity doesn't need a publisher. But authors who are not good at publicity, and thus need publishers, will not be picked up by them.

Alma said...

Excellent synopsis.

Congrats on writing for the HuffPo, btw.

Scott said...

I agree with DanP. Why is the publishing industry still at odds with the Internet? Surely they can find a way to use it in their favor. I see book trailers and such, and if they're good enough, they can virally infect the zeitgeist.

It also looks like there will be a Studio system of sorts where writers will be hired to write books that respond to the climate. Fair enough, I say. I've been wanting the opportunity to have a go at a commission for awhile, as I think I have a decent range. Anyone do a LOL Cats novel yet? ;)

Not really doomy at all, unless you're a publisher who is very cozy with the existing model. Time to get proactive as before, but in a "knew" way.

Karen Schwabach said...

I didn't mind pushing the envelope, but the needle? What kind of needle is this? Quilting, hypodermic, tattooing, space? Are we pushing it through muslin, skin, veins, or Seattle?

Either way it sounds slightly unpleasant.

Anonymous said...

I like that the reader has more choices now and for free. I still love going into a book store, browsing and buying my share of soft covers (not so big on hardcover books anymore -- I live in a small NYC apartment). But content is more important than even access or price. I hate that every nonfiction book lately has to have the author reveal a "bombshell secret"... Andre Agassi, MacKenzie Philips... books are going the way of cable TV... too much sensation and not enough substance.

If publishers put out well-written and meaningful books -- fiction or nonfiction -- I will be the first to buy up.

Anonymous said...

Gotta agree with anonymous at 9:18 a.m. in re Huff Po. Are we gonna have to listen to Nathan dissing the President now, and demanding Biden's resignation?

Or dishing out celebrity gossip that won't go away?

Anonymous said...

@Dan P:

The winning formula seems to be:

YA + serial novel + good enough movie

Small press is really these days, but there is no good approach to filter through all the books available on lulu, so we really need a digg + lulu combination. We need a way to source the good from the bad on the Internet.

Othewise, how do I know what to buy?

Here's my approach:

A movie comes out that I enjoy based on a book, a friend suggests a book to me, a book is a part of series like the Doctor Who books, a book is by an author that I have enjoyed in the past, a author like Stephen King recommends it, or the book has good placement and marketing at the front of a bookstore to convince me take chance. I have been burnt by the later.

What authors do I get burnt by the most? The mid-level ones that I haven't read in the past. Why would I risk my cash on an unproven author during a recession?

As for reviews, I really just read the ones on amazon, not the ones in newspapers like the New York Times.

Anonymous said...

I've never thought that the publishing marketplace was any different than any other business. Just like the mining business, there's pipe dreamers hoping to uncover the mother lode; meanwhile, there's a lot of pay dirt to work for a few flecks of gold dust, the bread and butter money of existence. Peculiarly though, the dozen or so biggest publishers are the ones who are counting on the mother lode to pay off. There's 90,000 other publishers out there with no such illusions.

The digital age has brought whole new marketing possibilities that large publishers can't or won't incorporate. They're selling themselves short as a consequence.

On another hand, if it's all about the benjamins to begin with, there's only benjamins at stake. The houses that are in it for the benjamins will live of die by the benjamins.

Art is and always has been about art appreciation. If an art audience is one or one billion strong, parol (word of mouth advertising) is the sole determining success factor, as it is, was, and always will be. No amount of advertising dollars will ever change that.

Terry said...

Nathan, Thanks for bringing us this information and your observations from the New York world of Publishing.

The Internet is affecting just about everything: the stock markets and so many industries, particularly the media. The newspapers, of course, Hollywood, but also the fashion industry.

It used to be the Big Designers told everyone what was hot. No more. The Sartorialist and others are showcasing Street Fashion. People are making their own unique choices and the Internet blogs are driving the trends. Now you see the fashion magazines and the designers following the proliferating street fashion blogs.

Change brings anxiety but also opportunity. The hard part is figuring it out, and as you and others say, assessing the risks. It could get bumpy.

The captain has turned on the fasten your seat belt light...

Dan Holloway said...

I would have thought the answer is
1. not to pretend you can predict or second guess a bottom-up phenomenon (your main problem in traditional publishing as far as this is concerned is lead time).

2. to widen the portfolio through a mixed package of contracts - digital only (yay Carina for finally figuring out what many outside the industry have been bashing away at for a while); zero advance; even freemium.

J.J. Bennett said...

I consider myself the average buyer of books. I'll tell you why some books take off and others don't. The content is family friendly and people want to escape from the reality of the world today. Books do that for people. In trying times books are affordable entertainment for everyone. The hours you get out of a book far out weighs a movie.(and the acting isn't bad either) If you want a sure thing make your book appealing to Dads, Moms, kids, and grandparents. (It's just my opinion...)

J.J. Bennett said...

The needle will fly off the charts!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I suppose tomorrow's post is about what a writer can do to avoid sitting on the needle? :)

I like your comment about making lots of small bets. I think that's very applicable to writers, too. Not to beat a dead horse, but there are tons of short story and non-fic markets out there to help build up resumes, thereby hopefully lessening the risk of editors taking us on for book length work.

Mary Wallace said...

Exactly what Chris Anderson said in "The Long Tail"... now the exciting part of the future comes: trying to find how to ride the new waves of consumer desire. Its still possible to sell to the masses, but you have to be open to seeing what they are buying and what they really want, instead of putting them into whatever slot you thought they should be in. I find it exciting...

Jenifer Fox Your Child's Strengths said...

The problem I see with the publishing business-- aside from being technologically behind {and in an attempt to "catch up" they will make mistakes--(such as thinking that 285,000 Twitter followers is a sales platform)}--is that they have become like the housing industry built on "spec".

How about they stop chasing the blockbuster? Big advances are risks---so stop taking the risks. Publish the good stuff, get solid contracts that are not driven by the advance and spend less on advertising. If self publishing is going to be the competition---and it is--then think like and act like a self publisher.
Next, publishers need to believe in the power of an imprint. There is art in the imprint. An imprint can create a name and it is the name coupled with the imprint that will win the day for publishers. There is not "art" in the classic sense everywhere online. There is a plethora of content, but is without validation.

The future will depend on quality, not quantity. Perhaps publishers should be thinking about to really capitalize on their imprint, no matter what the venue. If blogs are the competition, maybe they should be thinking about to imprint certain blogs.

Art will always win the day. The future is about design and brand. Publishers should take stock in their brand and find ways to make it work for them.

Anonymous said...

..."285,000 Twitter followers is a sales platform..."

It CAN be. Depends what you do with it. Are they 285,000 targeted readers of your genre, or 285,000 random internet accounts auto-generated from a list? Does the writer have a real rapport with these "followers"? If s/he says, "chesk this out," do they listen? if the answer is "Yes," then I'd call that a sales platform.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...


If you didn't really read the post I don't think we really need to read your comment.

Nathan Bransford said...

Also, on the 280,000 Twitter followers, check out the recent success of CRUSH IT! by Gary Vaynerchuk, someone who has been able to leverage his impressive social network to some impressive books sales.

thoughtful1 said...

Well, I guess I have to let my reactionary show a bit: day to day life is all tangled up now in complex and stressful morasses of procedure. When I am done my day's work I am drained and strung out and when I come home I want my mind my heart rate my shoulder muscles and my soul to relax. I used to read and read and read and read. Now I read when I am on vacation and the rest of the time engage in passive tv or internet pass times. I used to be a pretty steady book consumer. Now I am inconsistent. The publishers can't count on me any more. I don't have the time or energy to browse nor the money to spend for hard cover new releases. I have found reading on the internet is actually easier than getting a book. I would like to own a Kindle, maybe after my children are out of college.

Point of my diatribe? I think life has developed away from being an acute experience of joys and pains toward being a functional experience with productivity being the goal. Books are real and deep and personal, acute experiences. I, at least, need a certain serenity to explore those experiences and maybe many people are like me. We don't have the serenity to read. Except on vacation.

So to the publishing world I suggest producing enough alternative products to pay the price and then produce some good books that may reach some few people sometime. In one of your earlier blogs, Nathan, you said something about books becoming the property of few or something to that affect. I will not be one of those few, but there will be a few times when I will want books.

Nick F. said...

I saw that and couldn't help but think that's what the publisher's mean when they say "next big thing". Also, did anyone else notice the dire lack of books dealing with real vampires? I mean c'mon! A whole table full of vampire books and the quintessential vampire story isn't even there. It's a sad, sad world when Bram Stoker doesn't make the vampire table.

Anonymous said...

One thing I didn't see mentioned, and of course you wouldn't mention it, is that a good many who are trying to "push the needle" don't fully comprehend the internet. It slithered up behind them and caught them off guard. And they just don't know what to do.

Someone in the comment thread already mentioned how Pres. Obama and his staff saw internet potential and went after it. And it worked.

One of the most interesting things I've seen is that traditional publishers are now buying the rights to e-books, from small e-publishers, and making deals that would never have been made five years ago. And they are doing it very quietly, too.

Genella deGrey said...

Aside from The Great Depression v2.0, it's an interesting time to be alive.

Thermocline said...


Are you seeing any of the major publishers adapting their strategies? You've mentioned some of the smaller houses are adjusting but what about the big players?

WV: botox - (how appropriate) A toxin used to hide a publisher's stress lines.

Malia Sutton said...

The Huggington Post.

Very impressive.

Malia Sutton said...

Sorry. I have long nails.

I meant "Huffington"

Joan said...

Very interesting article and yes.....I did go watch the kitten.

Awwww.......metaphor for the publisher "breaking out of the box"

Nathan Bransford said...


Haha.. I wouldn't mind writing for the Huggington Post. Sounds friendly!

Mira said...

Ah shoot. Even when I'm saying I'm not getting into battles on the internet, I get all 'fighty.'

Let's try again.

First, Nathan, I admire you. I just do. This was a really good article - very insightful and well-written. Spot on. I also love how you're successfully pursueing your dreams. Very inspiring to watch.

To make up for my recent 'fighty' words, I'll share an idea, which may or may not be a good one.

If I were a publishing company, I would immediately, as in yesterday, create a company blog. I would put my most charismatic employee(s) in charge of moderating that blog.

I would then target that blog toward READERS. I would make it an extremely fun and interactive blog, with contests that gave away free books, book reviews, interactive games with my best-sellers, and then more interactive games with mid-list.

Once I built the blog up, I'd start using the blog to conduct informal market reseach - what types of books would you like next? What are your favorites, etc. Then I would also use the blog to promote my upcoming releases.

Well, maybe a website, rather than a blog.

Okay, that's my idea.

And congrats, Nathan, on the Huffington. Also, that kitten video was the cutest thing I've ever seen in my entire life. I now need a kitten - stat!!

Brandi Schmidt said...

I believe authors needed to not only write a great book, but also be marketing genius. It's a tweet eat tweet world out there. I am trying to build my "platform" every day. It's difficult and sometimes I wonder if it's worth it. I may never be a famous blogger (like Nathan) but I try. I've heard that you need to begin marketing your book at least 2 years prior to it's release!

Authors better step up and learn to market themselves and their book. Facebook it, get linkedln, tweet your pals, and blog your book.

(sigh) I'm tired just thinking about it.

Anonymous said...

Good grief Charlie Brown ... the flights of fancy to cyber space, are not as one of your comments indicate: "Change or die. Welcome to the new world. Perhaps the publishing industry just needs Steve Jobs to come in and take the reins... oh, wait, he wouldn't touch it w/ a thousand-foot long, fiber-optic laden needle."

Progress dear ones is not meant to eradicate the past, but to enlighten and enhance it. Get real. Do you expect John&Kate to replace Masterpiece Theatre also? Is the preoccupation with YA fantasy, horror/vampire or chick lit cartoons dancing in animation on author's web pages really going to deter my grandchildren from reading classic literature or somehow prevent you from discovering the next J.K.Rawling, finding the joy in Olive Kitteridge, who by the way has brought on a new trend in novels. I remember when so many lamented that short stories are dead. I don't think so. They are alive and doing very well and have come into a new dimension as part of "a novel of stories"

Progresss is not replacing literature, it might make it more accessible, through the Kindle, it may change part of publishing as you ... oh my ... you who are the professionals out there know it today ... but it will not replace your brains.

I'm sure watching the kitten video will not rot your brains either. YouTube and have a good time, it's no more or less like Donkey Kong in the eighties. My son held the record in our local "record" shop. Oh, do you remember those black round thinks with a hole in the middle? It hasn't prevented him from reading three or four books a week.

I love reading agent and publishing blogs. It gives me some insight as to what is happening in a world where I am yet a player.

I do not, as a result of having a little fun with these amazing electronic wonders, neglect to write. I'll continue reading these blogs, though I have until tonight refained from a comment.

I had to stop reading after number 20 of the comments.

So those of you who are on the agenting, publishing end of this "business" have faith. The cream always rises to the top, and people like water, always seek their own level.

Keep moving the needle and you will eventually make beautiful music.

Nathan Bransford said...


I agree that too many publisher blogs are too focused on publicizing events and releases and talking at readers instead of interacting with them. I think they could learn a lot from what you're saying.

Dawn Maria said...

I agree with your thoughts Nathan, so here's my question- how do emerging writers find our way in the midst of all this craziness? This isn't our grandmother's publishing world anymore and we've all been brought up on that paradigm.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think all that authors can do is to write the best book they can, find a great advocate for their work, and do whatever publicity they're able to do when the book comes out. Everything else is up to fate.

Mira said...

Nathan - thanks!

Well, you've inspired me to say more. :)

Something I've learned from frequenting blogs: if done well, they create a highly loyal community.

Direct reader participation would help readers feel invested in the publisher's books, and if they met authors on the blog, a fan base for authors as well. This would be a step up in terms of marketing, outreach, brand loyalty - but most important - feedback. What do readers really think and want? What type of books will they buy?

And all of this could be done for a very low cost.

The trick is the person(s) who run the blog. That's the key. You need someone charismatic, decisive and fair. Shame you're probably not available, Nathan. :)

Mira said...

Oh, now I'm talking too much. I'll just say this, and then stop.

Amazon creates brand loyalty. It does this through wish lists, recommendations (I could mess with mine for hours), listmania, author's bios and blogs, discussions, reviews.

Just an example of a company doing it really well.

Peggy said...

Dude, I had to watch that kitten video five times!

Dawn Maria said...

Now I watched the kitten video and I want a kitten again because two teenagers, one cat, one female dog and a puppy who dug a hole in the carpet last week isn't enough.

Anonymous said...

Why are the publishers paying such big $$$ for new authors.

Is it that the author is greedy or are the publishers hoping to knock out the competition.

Look at Stephenie Meyer. Now I don't know if she was a well known author before Twilight (from what I can see Twilight was her debut). And she was offered $750,000.00 for a three book deal (based on her submission of only one book). She still had to deliver the other two.

Then she was paid yet another $450,000.00 for the forth (which by then was a fair gamble).

knight_tour said...

I think that some publisher should come up with an option that helps authors like me. I don't need an advance. I just want my book published. But, agents make their money from advances, so they won't touch this idea. I think the idea of advances should be reexamined, at least to some degree. How about a publisher that pays no advance, but pays a portion of whatever the author makes from the book to the agent?

therese said...

Yes, the intent and expectations of a few has been the norm for too long.

The times, they are a changing. I do not relish the roles agents and editors play as advocates of what the public masses deserve.

Keep up the good work! STORY is always the first answer... good writing can be fixed.

Anonymous said...

"How about a publisher that pays no advance, but pays a portion of whatever the author makes from the book to the agent?"


There are small publishers who do this.

JTB said...

sounds like too much management with too much time on it's hands trying to read too many crystal ball and frightened to fly into the future with it's eyes wide open and zipper undone

wendy said...

You're doing newspaper columns now? 0.0

Re the kitteh vid, I've noticed that YouTube videos featuring kittens or cats have more hits than any other kind.

I've decided to self-publish.

Kate Douglas said...

Excellent post, and you've definitely nailed it. I happen to enjoy social networking--Facebook, MySpace, blogging. I don't use Twitter--too time consuming--but I firmly believe that the time I invest in my readers online pays me back tenfold. I've seen sales on my ongoing series continue to do well since the first book released in 2006. Now, four years and sixteen trade paperbacks later, I'm eagerly awaiting the release of #17 next month--and already blogging and Fb'ing about it. I use those sites to build up a buzz because as susiej says, word of mouth sells books. The more mouths spreading the word, the better.

Anonymous said...

I read Jen Jackson's blog as well and occasionally I hop over to the Maas website to see what's up.

They have a section called 'What we're looking for this month'. Great idea for prospective submitters. (OMG that's a word???)

Anyway, makes me wonder why every major PUBLISHER doesn't have a 'What YOU'RE looking for this month' blog/forum/whatever.

I oversimplify, but it too often seems like the industry does market research by counting harry potter and twilight sales and deciding that means we need 500 clones of each to satisfy the masses.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Mira, you're spot on. I just read the most intriguing blog from a website hosting company, though of course I've now lost the link. It was on CNN.

Yawn, right? Or it could be, but it's just FUN. Pix of employees at their halloween party. Contests. Ideas. Lots of interaction.

I'll keep saying it over and over: Conversation is the new genre.

Blogs, online books, and all the media available now is going to change what many books look like. Blogs are a great start for that.

Mira said...

Thanks SS@S.

"Conversation is the new genre." Nicely said. :)

Nathan, if your bosses wouldn't mind, you might consider offering consultation services to publishers. Help them start up (and more importantly, learn to RUN) a blog, linked to their website.

Nita Lou Bryant said...

Thank you for the succinct guidance in your reply to Dawn Maria's comment. I found it inspiring.

DanP said...

Reading this morning's posts, I'll check in as another Mira admirer (easier written than said). I think you've got the seed of the right idea.

It might be much more productive for a publisher to drop a staid blockbuster bet and invest those funds in a well run blog that gins interest in many more niche authors and subjects. Variety! The blog could also search for interest and trends from those following the blog-- much the way Nathan does for his followers here.

Matilda McCloud said...

I agree--Amazon very user-friendly and lots there for book-oriented people. Sites like Library Thing are also good--you can sign up to become a reviewer and if you're lucky, you'll receive an ARC of a soon-to-be released book. It's a very popular feature. I also participated in a 100-bloggers green book event for Eco-Libris, where we all released our reviews of newly published green books on the same day at the same time. There are ways to get "smaller" books noticed.

Chris Eldin said...

And the only thing worse than failing to push the needle is accidentally sitting on it.

AHAHAHAH! That and the kitten video.

Marilyn Peake said...

Here's an amazing story: a 28-year-old guy who got a book deal AND a TV deal based solely on his Twitter tweets: here.

Anonymous said...

what's a "green book"? Is it a book with environmental themes or any book that was produced in an environmentally sensitive manner?

Anahita said...

Hi Nathan,
I just wanted to say thanks for providing so much insight about the publishing industry. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the warning. I will now delete you from my list of blogs to visit. Anyone who writes for the Huffington Post is nobody I care to read after. Ugh.

Nathan Bransford said...


I understand. Blogging about books and the publishing industry (and not politics) is a sure way to offend anyone.

therese said...

Interesting post and very insightful. So the world of publishing is shaking because it's no longer in the position of power to dictate what information is shared with the masses...

Now, to rebuild their bottom line profit margins they may had to actually have contact with the masses? Or maybe reassess why their midlist or those pesky novels where what funded the structure of an industry determined to enlighten the masses...

How delightful!

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