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Fifty Shades of Red Ink

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Penguin, one of the world's top publishers, announced recently that its net profits are down a whopping 48 percent over the first six months of the year.

Stop the presses!

That's huge! Forty-eight percent? Imagine if that happened in your business. Don't you think you'd be trying to figure out what you can do differently? Because otherwise, before long, the only thing you and all of your coworkers will be doing is looking for new jobs.

Why are the numbers so dismal at Penguin? A company spokesperson blamed Fifty Shades Of Grey, the publishing sensation of the decade (okay, we're just three years into the decade, but that just sounds more dramatic). That trilogy, according to Penguin, is sucking all of the book-buying dollars out of the market. And that's why Penguin's net profits are down 48 percent.

Really?

Instead of blaming outside events, like the literary equivalent of a black swan, why not admit the truth? That you're publishing books no one wants to buy, or you're failing to market whatever books you did publish.

Penguin also claimed that it made much less money than usual on backlist titles, which means the books that have been published in years past but are still selling.

So ...you're saying that Fifty Shades of Grey is cutting into sales of Crime and Punishment? The Old Man and the Sea? The New Testament?

Shakespeare once wrote, "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves." In other words, quit blaming what you can't control and get busy doing something about what you can control.

Like publishing better quality books.

And actually getting off your butt and marketing something.

Publishers used to have an 80/20 rule, meaning that 80 percent of the marketing dollars went to 20 percent of the books. The rest of the books got no marketing; they got thrown against the wall like spaghetti to see what would stick.

Today, the rule is more like 99/1. Meaning that 1 percent of the books get 99 percent of the marketing dollars. And my hunch is that there are a lot fewer marketing dollars available.

The last math class I actually finished was 10th grade geometry, but here's an equation even I can understand: zero desirable books times zero marketing equals a 48 percent drop in net profits.

Which begs this question: What are Penguin executives better advised to read next? Book proposals or the wanted ads?

Seems like Penguin's walking on some pretty thin ice.