Friday, September 17, 2010

juggling the books

Our new, Spring 2011 Readers are landing, giving reps our first taste of the forthcoming offerings we’ll be pitching all winter. “Have you read the Umberto Eco excerpt yet?” my colleague Adena asked the other day. (from his forthcoming Confessions of a Young Novelist) “You have to, it’s great!” I did, and it is.

When friends peruse our seasonal catalogs, I’m often asked “Do you read all this stuff?” Actually, no. No one could possibly read it all, and as every good bookseller knows, the point is to understand the book and who its surest customer is, not necessarily to wrestle intellectually with the author.

Every season there are back of the catalog books that make me sigh, “Someday I really must tackle one of these important linguistics monographs.” Then I realize that, while I know the meaning of each individual word in it, I don’t really even understand the title. But I know how it fits into the current professional literature (thank you editors), and who it's for, and how to help the bookseller figure out whether they have that customer.

The truth is, reps read a lot of the books we sell. Every good rep I know is constantly hyping books they’ve read and genuinely believe in. I try to read at least a couple full manuscripts or galleys from each of the three presses every season- some because we have high expectations and I want to know what I’m talking about when I’m asking booksellers to commit, and some because there are always books that genuinely interest me. Every season there are more than a handful that I’d buy myself if I weren’t already selling them. Loving the product really does make the job easier.

Aside from reading the whole book, the Readers are another way we break the ice with the new titles. With fifty page excerpts thoughtfully culled from each of the new trade titles, the phone book size readers are an efficient way to get a sense of the writing style, the author’s approach to the subject, and to identify the ones that might have legs, to use an overworked cliché.

If the selling season is a process of making friends with these new books, the Reader is a sort of Meet and Greet. By sales conference in six weeks we’ve moved on to dating. In a few lucky cases, we'll move on to heavy petting. And after selling a seasonal list for a couple months, getting familiar with each title's virtues and tics, we come to know each other very well. Though there are some books with which I’d like a long-term domestic partnership, there are a few others which I’m happy to leave at “See ya.”

Publishers perform a permanent, complicated juggling act. At this moment, there are authors considering writing topics and acquisition editors considering signing them. There are other writers under contract, busily working on their manuscripts, and copy editors shadowing them. Some of these titles might marinate for decades before seeing print (or e-ink.)

While most of the energy is directed at the most immediate, newly minted titles, there’s an immense amount of internal pre- and post- activity that supports the whole publishing mission.

A press inventory ranges from deep backlist titles that sell a couple copies a year but are important, so must be kept alive, to active backlist titles that sell well and predictably.

It encompasses recent titles that may just be getting press attention, and newly released ones that are streaming out to stores. Stock levels on all these books have to be modulated with a lot of skill and smart guesswork. Sales directors who make these reprint calls daily rarely get enough credit for the good ones.

Simultaneously, planning for production on forthcoming titles that won’t exist for two or more years chugs along, entailing hundreds of individual decisions and negotiations.

All of which is to say that while booksellers and reps will be poring over the new spring catalogs over the coming months, the publishers who brought these books to life will be keeping lots of other balls in the air.

Maybe that’s not so unusual. I suppose that while Widget International reps are out hawking the latest gadgets, the home office is making sure that the really cool one from twenty years ago that the old-timers want is still available. And that someone is thinking ahead to future widget trends (digital, most likely) and signing up designers to produce them.

Me, all I know are books. And the juggling act that is contemporary publishing and bookselling is a thing of beauty.

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