Thursday, January 2, 2014

the hopeless quest for the perfect comp

As they sift through all the information we give them on new titles, booksellers say that “good comps” are their best tools for deciding what and how to order.   But like everything else in the book industry, it’s complicated.

We put our house up for sale this week.  When it came time to land on a price, the process had some surprising similarities to bookselling.  It turns out that no matter how unique and special your house may be (and ours is naturally spectacularly unique and couldn’t be more special), the most relevant factor is the comp, which is to say the price at which similar homes in the area have recently sold.   

“Price is a moving target,” our real estate agent and neighbor Tammy explained.  This means that no matter how much intangible charm you’ve got, no matter how much debt you’ve gone into to fix the place up, and no matter how much every amateur armchair real estate expert says it’s worth, it’s actually worth what similar nearby houses happen to have sold for very recently.

It’s a frustrating business to have to reduce a much-loved residence to a check list of features: square feet, number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms (one-yikes), yard (or not), condition of kitchen, garage, school district.  All of the other factors count (Twenties arts and crafts bungalow with one of a kind details!  Gorgeous boulevard!  Cool little eyelid windows in the attic!) But not as much as a solid comp.

So what’s the book connection?  Like a unique home, the one of a kind text is also a commodity, and thus reducible to a checklist of features:  subject, author, page count, illustration count, price.  Before saying yes, the bookseller wants to know what other books she has sold are “like” the new book I’m presenting.  

Reps and publishers spend lots of time and energy preparing these comps.  To be effective they have to be accurate, not wishful thinking.  And they have to be more than the result of an Amazon subject search.  The importance of this key piece of information predates the digital age, but now that a bookseller can simply click on comparable titles as we move through the catalog, noting how well they did, it’s essential.  A truly great comp is the Holy Grail. 

But I have the nagging suspicion that we sometimes rely too much on comparable titles, that they sometimes lead us from the essential uniqueness of every book.

Five types of comps are especially reliable:  the previous cloth edition of a new paperback ; the previous editions of a new edition;  a previous title by the same author;  other biographies on the same person; volume one of the volume two which is new this season;
But even these seemingly ideal comps can be problematic.  When I started in bookselling a paperback would routinely sell twice the number of hardcovers, but that formula is now long obsolete.  Much can change between editions of a reference book in terms of sales, especially since the advent of the internet.   An author’s previous books, which would seem to be a good rule of thumb to predict sales, are often on subjects so far afield  (or are so old) as to be meaningless.We routinely pitch biographies with handles like “first book on Mr. X in 75 years.”  No comps there,  .And even using sales on volume one to predict sales on volume two isn’t as reliable as it once was.  (Ask your bookseller how they did with the follow-up to last year’s extraordinary Letters of Mark Twain vol 1)

The gold standard for truly reliable comps might be something like the Whitney Biennial Catalog, which Yale publishes every two years.  A bookseller who checks sales on the 2008, 2010, and 2012 editions should have a pretty good idea of what to do with 2014  Though even in a case like this, fluctuation in art book demand makes it a guide, not a mandate. 

Like the comps for my house, book comps can be misleading, or at least incomplete.  A comp might reference other books on the same subject which had a similar number of pages, similar selection of illustrations, and similar price point- with no measure for whether it was actually a better book or not!  But this is one thing the rep is for. 

If a comp is good enough, I’ll sometimes make it the centerpiece of my pitch.  When Yale UK Sales Manager Andrew Jarmain described his approach to a new biography by saying “Sutherland does for Whistler what Ellman did for Oscar Wilde,” it was a twofer- a concise handle and a good comp.

But chasing comps too desperately can be a kind of fool’s errand.   There are so many caveats and specific circumstances in the sales life of any book that comparisons seem more like a wish than a science.   The shelf life of a new book now six to eight months.  The precise demographic that wanders into the store and sees the new book is never exactly the same as the one that bought the similar title two years ago.

We have a great new biography of Stephen Crane on the spring list.  The previous biographies are pretty old and nobody will have a useful sales history on them.  So I suggest checking sales on Red Badge of Courage, his best known work.   But is that really a good comp?  Maybe.

The Americanization of Narcissism, also on the spring Harvard list, has one perfect, appropriate comp: Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism.  This book was a sensation when it came out decades ago, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies.  But the title draws a blank with many younger booksellers, and it’s often fallen out of active backlist and hasn’t sold recently.  So my most effective comp is worthless.

Like real estate prices, comps are a moving target- I add and subtract from my list as I go through the selling season.  And booksellers are an excellent source of new comp ideas.  I rarely get through a season without stealing a few original ideas for comps from one bookseller and using them on another.

Sometimes a comparable title pops into my head like an earworm.    Saskia Sassen’s new book Expulsions somehow brings to mind Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine every time I start talking about it, but it’s not similar enough to suggest it will sell that way.  A new title about Josephine Baker’s bizarre attempt to assemble a “rainbow tribe” of multi-racial adopted children all but screams Michael Jackson’s Neverland, but I’m reluctant to cite MJ (what book?) as a comp.  Yet the first bookseller I called on this season said it’s the first thing he thought of when he saw the book.

Use of superstar, freakishly successful titles as comps for much quieter titles that happen to be on the same subject is to be discouraged.  Malcolm Gladwell has been so over-used as a comp that I hesitate to bring him up even when we actually do have a title that resonates with his.   Our Professor Anonymous may have the better book but we don’t have the Gladwell Inc publicity machine.

Sometimes good comps can be plotted geometrically.  The Harvard series of Annotated Jane Austen’s continues this season with Northanger Abbey.  One comp axis contains the other active editions of Northanger Abbey so the store can gauge customer interest in that title; the other axis contains the six previous Harvard Annotateds of her other titles, the format of which is identical so should have a similar sales pattern. 

Sometimes a great book really is incomparable, such as the forthcoming Why Architects Still Draw by Italian architect/poet Paolo Belardi.  In this case the most useful comps remind booksellers of how well MIT Press does in this genre.

Extraordinarily prolific authors can present their own issues.  Terry Eagleton has a very long list of successful titles, so the trick is to find the comp among them that is closest to his new book.  Note that this sometimes means resisting the impulse to just list the best-selling prior book!

My favorite comps are unexpected, and come at the book from off-stage rather than full-on.  I like comps that help us to think about a book and imagine its reader more than comps that promise some slavish repeat of a sales pattern. 

One of my favorite new spring books is Poilu, the World War I diaries of a French soldier.  It’s utterly unique but the universe of potential First World War comps is massive.  So my colleagues and I came up with various literary references- Paul Fussell, Vera Brittain, e.e. cummings- that have little to do with replicating a sales pattern but, together, really help to bring the book into focus.

Literary references can crop up in unusual places.  In Bleak Houses: Disappointment and Failure in Architecture, the author argues that the best writing about buildings is found in novels- specifically, Elizabeth Bowen and Alan Hollinghurst.  I love mentioning Eva Trout and The Stranger’s Child as comps even though on a purely metric level they don’t qualify. 

Talking of novelists, the apt literary comp is especially useful for relatively unknown writers.  For the fantastic but obscure-by-design Margellos World Republic of Letters series, which introduces works in translation to English audiences, having a few good comps is essential: Rodrigo Rey Rosa will be of interest to Roberto Bolano and Paul Bowles readers, and Can Xue evokes Kafka, Borges and Bruno Schulz.

One of our collective rep favorites this season, Alon Confino’s A World Without Jews, faces the challenge of a massive pool of potential comp titles on World War II and the Holocaust.  We narrowed the list to a few essential historical texts like Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners and Hitler’s Furies, along with Confino’s earlier works.  But I loved it when my colleague Patricia added Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, and when my other colleague Adena finished Avi Shavit’s profound new book about Israel, My Promised Land, and rightly suggested it belongs on the list.  The horror Confino describes makes Shavit’s young Israel seem inevitable.

I suppose the most extreme form of book comparison these days is found at ground zero for extreme everything - Amazon.  Here you can easily generate price lists of the identical book offered by re-sellers at a bewildering variety of prices.  In an odd way, it undercuts the idea that comps predict sales or value, though "value" in A-world is a meaningless concept..

So back to the house.  I’m hoping that we find a buyer who approaches comps on our home the way smart booksellers approach comps on our books- as information, good to know, but in no way replacing the unique object, which stands alone on its merits.