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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Focus Groups, The Americanizing of British Novels & How Publishers Can Join The 21st Century

This is the inevitable follow-up to the last post. I've had a few days to think over the article. Cross-posted from my personal blog. (Evil Kev is my husband.)

”I am thinking it would be fun to do an arc in a f2f group. Discuss a book in detail BEFORE it is published and then give the author the feedback - or at least the feedback that might be useful.”

When I read that my automatic response was It’s never going to happen. Yes, call me a pessimist, call me a cynic. Lynne’s idea (posted on my Crimespace chat wall) has merit but adds a layer of work to the already lengthy publishing process.

Only a few days later an article in the NY Times said: The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.

Publishers, by contrast, put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.

“We need much more of a direct relationship with our readers,” said Susan Rabiner, an agent and a former editorial director. Bloggers have a much more interactive relationship with their readers than publishers do, she said. “Before Amazon, we didn’t even know what people thought of the books,” she said.

Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling. Publishing employees tend to be liberal arts graduates who enter the field with a starting salary around $30,000. Compensation is not tied to sales performance. “The people who go into it don’t do it for the money, which might explain why it’s such a bad business,” Mr. Strachan said.

I agree that reader feedback is important and that publishers should be seeking it. However, I don’t think that Amazon is the best way to get the kind of feedback publishers need. More on this shortly.

Evil Kev and I have been talking about this a lot lately, for a variety of reasons. Part of what spurred it was the fact that Lynne has read my new manuscript. Lynne read SC for me when it was in ARC form. A 4MA-er, she knows her in-depth book club discussions. She made a list of discussion questions for me that I could provide to book clubs.

Since she was interested in reading What Burns Within I thought that was more than fair, since she’d helped me out with SC, despite the fact it’s manuscript stage. I was a bit unfair to her, because I didn’t even give her a teaser to ground her with the story. Just handed her the manuscript. Duh. When people read books they have the back cover description to tell them who the main characters are.

Lynne’s response to WBW (“I stayed up till three thirty this morning reading it. WHY did that publisher turn it down? Nice or not whoever it was has made a mistake - this is really good. I am totally enjoying it, I like the characters and the story has me totally sucked in.”) was what ultimately led to our discussion about readers giving feedback at the ARC stage.

As Evil Kev pointed out to me, movies have been doing this for ages, with focus groups. Writers often participate in critique groups, but that’s not the same thing. Those are selected groups of writers who see your work again and again, and who pass their work back to you. I’m not discounting the value, but this is about giving readers some say. I don’t want to touch on the issue of sensitive writers but believe me, if someone offers me an ARC or manuscript to read to blurb and doesn’t ask for feedback, I don’t give it. I know better than to mess with an author’s ego about their work and I actually do value my life.

End of day, it is the readers we write for. Without an audience no books will see print. And sometimes publishers underestimate their readers.

What justifies that assertion? Well, here’s just one example. Several months ago I was working on a profile for a new publisher that had a focus on imported British fiction. The profile fell apart, but the groundwork was there, in reader surveys I did.

“I frequently order from the UK or Canada,” DorothyL reader Sarah B told me. “Why? Because either the book is not available in the USA and I've had it recommended to me, or it's not available YET and I can't wait. Recent examples are Anthony Bidulka from Canada, and Jo Bannister and Val McDermid in the UK.”

Sarah isn’t alone, either. “When the US release is a year or more later than the UK release, I find a way to purchase the UK version,” Kim in Minnesota told me. “I'm impatient. I can generally wait a month or two but not a whole year.”

Deb in South Carolina voiced stronger opinions. “The main reason that I order books from the UK is that I don't want my UK mysteries or fantasies 'Americanized'. I find the 'Americanization' changes to be demeaning to me as a reader -- and an insult to the author. The author intended the book to have a certain impact on the reader and I have to believe that that impact can change with the 'Americanization' - changing terms, spelling, etc. If I don't understand a term, I look it up on the Internet or in one of the marvelous books such as BOB'S YOUR UNCLE or FANNY PACKS AND BUMBAGS. Most of the orders took a week or more -- depending on what I wanted to pay -- or could afford to pay -- for postage.”

Within thirty minutes of posing the question on DorothyL on a Saturday morning I had half a dozen responses in my inbox. What that tells me is that there are a high number of American readers who feel strongly about this issue.

American publishers are automatically losing domestic sales to the international market because of “Americanizing” the novels or bringing the books out months behind their original release. I understand sometimes this is necessary to accommodate author tour schedules and for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with ‘Americanizing’ the books, but a good example would be the most recent Rebus book. There was no new US Rankin title in 2006. The Naming of the Dead could have been moved up to coincide with UK/Canada release. Don’t give me the song and dance about touring. Allan Guthrie was in NYC recently doing promotion and Hard Man doesn’t come out in the US until June. In Ian’s case, this would have allowed US fans to get the last Rebus book alongside everyone else. I mean, imagine asking the US to wait six months for Harry Potter. Right.

Instead, what happens is that reviewers in the US acquire copies early and say, “Don’t wait for the US release, get it now.” And people do, and down go the US sales figures.

This could be the same with American books being released in the UK – I honestly don’t know, so please don’t take it as US bashing. (If you want to hear someone bash just get me started on generalizations about Canada’s love of bloodless murders and stupid cops.) This is just one example of something I’ve seen readers discuss, that I know some feel strongly about.

I would like to see publishers utilize the internet to maximize their effectiveness. Having a website isn’t enough – it needs to be a professional website that suits needs. Friend of mine in the business told me about one night that $10,000 of sales were put through (educational publisher). She was finally able to persuade her boss that having a functional website that allowed direct purchasing was a sound investment. Go back to that last paragraphs in the NY Times article. Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling. Publishing employees tend to be liberal arts graduates who enter the field with a starting salary around $30,000. Compensation is not tied to sales performance. “The people who go into it don’t do it for the money, which might explain why it’s such a bad business,” Mr. Strachan said.

We may love writing and books, but this is a business. Presently, the method for determining popularity seems to be based on sales. However, that becomes cyclical at some point. Someone has a great book out. It gets lots of attention. The publisher puts money behind pushing the paperback release. It’s stocked in Wal-Mart and Costco and all the right places to fly off the shelves. Bestseller. Comparable success follows for the next book. The author becomes a bit of a brand name and so then every single title they produce is automatically stocked in those outlets. Of course the books will do significantly better than the one by the new author who got a $5000 advance and no promotional budget. Sales only show us part of the picture. This does not necessarily mean that there is more of an appetite for Mr. Bestseller’s book than for Mr. Unknown’s. It just means Mr. Bestseller’s book is more readily accessible and heavily promoted so more people are likely to see it and buy it.

A lot of authors seem to be invested in finding the way to get on that promotional cycle so they can get exposure. What I think could be great for everyone is if publishers would shift it in a different direction.

Here’s a thought. Okay, not all logistics considered. But what if publishers started forums attached to their websites. They pick focus books each month and the author comes on to do an online discussion of the book, interacting with readers. This would be an attraction feature. By that, I mean that if word got around that JK Rowling was going to be on one website interacting with readers and answering questions and reading their comments I bet the traffic for the site would go through the roof. HBO did this a few years ago, for THE WIRE, with David Simon. I hide behind the luxury that we aren’t on Orion’s radar and they’ll never offer me an ARC of a Rankin title. I’ve never had to make a choice about reviewing a Rebus book. I do still review books I buy but I use it as my ‘out’ with those titles so that I can just sit back and enjoy them instead of doing a more critical assessment when reading. But if there was an in-depth discussion Ian participated in on an Orion forum I doubt I’d be able to resist.

So, you have your attraction that draws an audience. In addition to selected monthly discussion titles you also have general discussion sections for news about upcoming releases and customer comments on books. Why? I have mixed feelings about Amazon, because of how the system works. Since Evil Kev orders the books when we do use Amazon I can’t post reviews because I’m not considered a customer. And since we share the same credit cards (you know, being married and all) well, I can’t participate. Then we see the power of anonymity at work and we know how some people use it to bash people they don’t like.

The forum could conduct polls, provide authors and editors with feedback on new titles, provide feedback on things such as covers, and properly designed be an effective promotional venue to spread the word about new titles from that publisher.

By comparison to some things publishers invest major promotional money on, this could actually be done cost-effectively.

Now, I’m going to leave you with more thoughts from Lynne. She gave me permission to use them. They are her opinion, but I think they highlight things I’ve heard other readers say on lists, in one cohesive email, and these are things worth thinking about. Please overlook the fact she’s talking about my manuscript (I mean, bless fans like Lynne, this is who I want to please with my work and I’d keep writing if for no other reason than that she’d come kick my ass if I didn’t, but she was reacting to the reasons I’d been given for a rejection) and see beyond to what she’s saying about styles of writing and what does and doesn’t have a place in a story, as well as older books that are still popular that don’t fit the modern conventions.

Your book is good. Yes you have a lot of characters. Yes you have to read into in a bit to sort them out --- what are we? Stupider than a hundred years ago?

H Rider Haggard, Erle Stanley Gardner, George MacDonald, SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE -- not one of them would get picked up today because you have to read three chapters to get a start on the story and even then it is slow and takes time to learn who is who and what is going on. People today want instant gratification - open the book and the first person you meet is the only name you need to remember, and the action is right there. That is fine now and again but it is not the only way to write and certainly it is not the only thing to read!

Edgar Rice Burroughs - like how famous is Tarzan? - and his first book of the series is almost entirely a buildup for the rest of the series! One of the best stories I ever read was People of the Mist by H Rider Haggard and really getting into it was work. Getting into Lord of the Rings is work. Why do people still read it? Because we know it is worth it. Without already knowing that would they still keep going through chapter after chapter of scene building? Can you tell this is a rant?

The bottom line is that your book is worth getting through the beginning with. Has Bob Fate read it? In some ways it is not so far off from his style. Baby Shark took a bit of reading to get going in too. Yes there is, in both cases, action at the start, but there is also character building and set up, explanation of future events, background - all good stuff. It can and is over done at times but not by you. There was one author who went into detail on the wife of a retired cop who was not in the story and the wife was certainly not in the story as she had been dead ten years yet he gave detail on her social life and colour preferences and stuff - now THAT was unnecessary and really ticked me off (in fact that whole book ticked me off and the author was and is widely published but I never tried another of his).

Okay, rant over. I am not saying your story is perfect - I am not qualified to judge really but I do know that I enjoyed it and expect a number of other people will too given the chance. It is better than what I am reading now.

Of course, maybe this is the reason publishers don’t have forums. Maybe they’re afraid…

(Quick news insert: Scotch on the Rocks over at Pulp Pusher, which you should bookmark because they’ve just accepted a story from yours truly for the July issue.)