February 05, 2008

It's still a Willy Loman world

The New York Times explains why it takes so long for books to get published:

Although publishers can turn an electronic file into a printed book in a matter of weeks . . . they usually take a year before releasing a book. Why so long? In a word, marketing . . . . Even before it’s edited, copy-edited, proofread and indexed, the publicity wheels start turning.

The fundamental obstacle is that costs are pretty fixed in traditional marketing. An ad buy during the Super Bowl costs the same, regardless of the item being sold. And these numbers for books just aren't good. So word of mouth remains the name of the game. But word of mouth takes months--years--to propagate.

Quips Laurence Kirshbaum, former chairman of the Time Warner Book Group, "If you’re trying to explain this to someone from Mars or the Harvard Business School, they'd kind of scratch their head and say, 'There must be a better way.' But so far neither Martians nor H.B.S.-ers have solved this riddle."

The Internet brought us the "long tail," but it can look like a filament to a small publisher. Worse, rejecting the "Influentials" theory most recently expounded by Malcolm Gladwell, Duncan Watts argues that "if society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one--and if it isn't, then almost no one can."

His conclusion? "The most effective way to pitch your idea is--mass marketing. And that is precisely what the wizards of Madison Avenue, presiding over our zillion-channel microniche market, have rejected as obsolete."

But perhaps there is a silver lining to be found in the by-now hackneyed idea of "online communities." In other words, identifying smaller markets but still treating them as mass. The one thing the Internet can do is turn anybody into a mass marketer. If they can afford the ad buys, that is.

Keeping in mind that according to Duncan, "The world isn't just complex--it's practically anarchic." Word of mouth can make "big hits bigger. But they also make success more unpredictable." Or as William Goldman put it, "Nobody knows anything." Hey, nobody knows that your next book won't be a bestseller.

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