And its a topic near and dear to my heart as readers of this blog know. I'm pleased to welcome back one of my favorite guest bloggers, Barry Eisler, whose new cyber thriller, Fault Line, will be published at the end of the month. (Pre-order it now, here, its fantastic!) - MJR
Barry's Post: There's only so much you can do about a down market, much of which will involve cost-cutting and other areas in which I'm not in a position to offer a meaningful opinion. But it certainly wouldn't hurt matters if publishers could be more competent at the fundamentals of the business they're in.
One of the great things about the industry is the way it attracts people who love books, and the way that love infuses the culture. But the overlap between love of books and native business acumen is fairly narrow. Partly as a result of that narrow overlap, the industry is characterized by a startling lack of innovation and what might best be described as cargo cult thinking.
Here's a relatively trivial example. Recently, one of my publishers sent me a proposed jacket bio that began with, "Barry Eisler is the author of Rain Fall, Hard Rain, Rain Storm, [etc]. He was born in 1964 in New Jersey..." and ended with, "Eisler lives in the Bay Area, California." Buried in between was information about how I spent three years in a covert position in the CIA and earned my judo black belt at the Kodokan in Tokyo, and that the first of my books, Rain Fall, has been made into a movie starring Gary Oldman and will be out in April '09.
See anything wrong with this picture?
If you live in a cargo cult universe, you think: "All books I've seen have things called author bios on the jacket. The bio things include information on where the author was born and when, maybe on some other books he's written, something about a movie if that applies. I'll cut and paste whatever form we've used for other authors and presto, there's the required bio and now it's Miller time."
But if you're thoughtful, you pause and ask, "Why do we include a bio? What is its function? What objective is the bio intended to accomplish?"
Answer: in the longer term, the bio is intended to hone and amplify the author's brand. In the immediate term, it's intended to get the potential customer to flip the book over and read the inside jacket. Or start reading the first chapter. Or take whatever other immediate preliminary step is likely to make her more motivated to carry the book to the cash register.
Let's analyze the means by which the bio above would have accomplished these objectives. Have you, as a potential customer, ever been moved to buy a book by when the author was born, or by where? Or by where she's living these days? "Holy smokes, this guy was born in Newark, sounds like my kind of writer." "Damn, she lives in Bakersfield? Gotta read this book." Is a brand that would be honed and amplified by such information even conceivable?
As for a long listing of the author's previous works, readers who know them all are already going to buy the book, in which case their mention in the bio is useless (besides, they already appear inside the book under "Also by"). Readers who don't know the previous titles will be put to sleep by their recitation.
So not only is bio information on place and date of birth, previous titles, and current residence useless, it's actually harmful, because its appearance increases the likelihood that a potential customer will yawn and replace the book on the shelf before getting to the useful parts -- in my case, CIA, judo, and movie, all of which are relevant to my brand and increase the chance that someone who reads them will take another intermediate step closer to the cash register.
I see this kind of sloppy stuff from publishers all the time in a variety of areas, so I get a little impatient when I hear complaints about what a tough market it is. Yes, it's a tough market, but when has a market ever been easy? Business is always competitive, and if you want to succeed in it, you're obliged to work not just hard, but smart, too. Sushi is delicious, but how much of it would be sold if it were marketed as "Cold, raw, dead fish?" Which, if you look at a lot of titles and jacket designs out there, is pretty much the way publishing houses are hawking their own wares. You can't complain that people won't buy it if you don't know how to sell it.
For more of my wishy-washy opinions on marketing, how to package a book, and related topics, check out the For Writers page of my website. =