"Where's my Fifty Shades of Gray?"
You could hear disgruntled publishers pounding their desks from one side of Manhattan to the other. They all recognized, even though they didn't want to put it in words, that their ability to identify the next hot book had withered. Little that they published was selling well. So they had to have a new strategy to find something to bring to market.
That strategy amounted to overpaying radically for books from self-published authors who managed to sell 20,000 to 40,000 copies. The thinking along Publisher's Row was this: If these rank amateurs could sell so many copies without us, think of how many copies they could sell with us!
Unfortunately, there were a few flaws with this not-so-brilliant strategy.
The first is that publishers have forgotten how to market books.
Or rather, they have never really adjusted effectively to the world they used to control. A Simon and Schuster or Random House would take out large ads in newspaper book review sections, with a tacit understanding that all of their books would get read and many would be reviewed favorably.
Since newspapers aren't publishing too many book reviews these days, and since fewer and fewer people are actually reading newspapers, that strategy stopped working during the Clinton administration.
Then there was always co-op advertising, a fancier way of saying payola, in which publishers paid bookstores to put specific books in the window, on the front tables or even on bookshelves with the face of the book and not the spine facing out.
Amazon put paid to browsing, so that was the end of that.
In short, publishers had gotten so fat and lazy doing those same simple things over and over that they had completely forgotten how to innovate in their marketing.
As a result, today, the major publishers are doing practically no meaningful book marketing.
So why exactly did publishers figure that if a motivated, self-publishing author could sell X number of copies, at a lower price point, mind you, that a major publisher could come in and sell even more copies at a higher price?
And all that without marketing the book?
So for the past year or so, publishers hoping to catch lightning in a bottle have bestowed mid-six-figure advances on authors who combined writing a manuscript with a lot of social media self-help in order to generate sales. Few of those books will actually earn out their advances. The strategy, therefore, is all but dead.
There's another way to describe a book-selling strategy that hinges on overpaying unproven authors in the hope that their books, whatever they are, will turn into the next Fifty Shades.
It's called playing the Powerball, and there are very few businesses that succeed with a model based on buying lottery tickets.
So what are publishers going to do next?
They won't be competing on quality any time soon. For all the claims they make that their books are "curated" and therefore better thought-out and better written than self-published books, anybody who actually reads books in mass quantities (I do -- it's my job) will tell you that quality doesn't matter to publishers.
What matters to publishers is whether an author has built up a strong enough brand and social media presence to make selling their book a no-brainer. If you have enough people following you on Twitter, you could sell word soup to a major publisher.
So for the majors, it's back to the drawing board. Publishing mediocre books by authors with large numbers of Facebook followers didn't cut it. Dropping obscene amounts of cash on unproven authors won't work. What will?
The publishers whose brands actually stand for something in the minds of readers will navigate these perilous times effectively and still be making money five years from now. I'm talking about Regnery. I'm talking about Thomas Nelson. I'm talking about Harlequin. Readers see those brands on the spine of a book or in a book marketing email and they buy the book, without paying too much attention to who wrote it or what it's about. They trust the publisher's brand, and they know it's a book they'll like.
Ford and General Motors got going not that many decades before Simon and Schuster and Random House. Their brands matter. They have spent billions of dollars making their brands relevant to consumers. Maybe if the major publishers started paying more attention to what they actually stood for, they wouldn't be contemplating their own demise.