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Moving the Needle

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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.

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