Thursday, November 18, 2010

Covers (probably part I)

image Covers have an uneasy relationship with social media, or so it is beginning to seem to me. So much about the book making and marketing processes have updated themselves for a socially networked world. In this world covers are, in best cases, avatars for books and their authors and lightning rods for their publishers in the worst (think Liar and Magic Under Glass).

I can’t quite articulate what bugs me about the state of covers and the web, but I think it boils down to a suspicion that we as publishers and passionate readers aren’t thinking about them correctly—or at least we’re failing to understand their role in the new marketplace fully.

For example, the indispensible Bookshelves of Doom blog is holding a rather intriguing contest. Leila describes it thusly:

Create a book cover -- something that would attract you (or an audience that you think is missing out on the series) WHILE ALSO reflecting the contents and tone of the story -- for one of D.M. Cornish's books2, for either Jenny Davidson's ThMy Photoe Explosionist or Invisible Things, or for one of Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda books. (Just one! You don't have to do one of each! I mean, unless you want to, obvs.)

All right, this seems like a great use of the web and social media in the cover process, right? Well, I’m not so sure. I think Leila’s brief on the cover design encapsulates the problem I’m sensing: the tension between “you” (her audience of people who know these books) and “an audience that you think is missing out on the series.” Satisfying these two constituencies is not an easy thing to do, and I think the web has made it even harder.

Communities of fans can easily gather around a book or series on the web, and when they do, conversation naturally turns to covers. And unlike in days of yore (when such conversations took place in private smoke filled rooms), these conversation get amplified and move beyond the fan community very, very easily. Really, it is unspeakably easy to tear apart a cover on the web. As a publisher, it’s really tempting to listen to the true fans insights on jacket design. I mean, why wouldn’t you listen to the readers who’ve already committed to the series or the author or even the genre?

Actually, I can think of several reasons. In some cases, I think it’s unwise to listen to them too carefully precisely because they’ve committed to the series (especially if they’re asking for big changes). In my experience, fans care a great deal about covers but I’ve never heard of a fan abandoning a series because she didn’t like the cover. So, however much feedback a community might give on the look of a book, a series, or a genre, there’s very little ultimately at stake for the book or its publisher with that community. Covers don’t exist to retain readership (that’s the text’s job); covers exist to increase readership.

Make no mistake, Bookshelves of Doom understands this; read the whole post to see. But the description of the contest is such a deceptively difficult task, that I remain troubled.

Maybe I’m wrong (I kinda hope I’m wrong), and this contest will lead to designs from within the fan community that appeal strongly to those outside the fan community (while at the same time satisfying the fan community). In any case, I’m glad to see the conversation.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Evaluating talent is difficult…

Especially in a team context. Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

And guess what? It’s not any easier in the book industry.

In sports, general managers look for players who have superior skills in their own rights, but also skills that complement the existing players on the roster. And that means that there will always be GMs who pick Sam Bowie ahead of Michael Jordan—widely considered the worst draft-day mistake in sports history. If you asked today, most of GMs would say they’d make the same decision given the same information. It’s that “given the same information” part that really matters. Stu Inman, the GM for the Trail Blazers in 1984, wasn’t an idiot. He just wasn’t psychic.

In books, editors are in a similar situation. We look for books that are phenomenal in their own rights, of course, books that will meet the great unarticulated desires of the reading public—the Michael Jordans of the book world. But we also seek manuscripts that complement the other books in our lists and that play to the strengths of our houses.

It’s this last part that I think is hard for people—writers—to relate to. Book publishing can seem so solitary, but it’s really not. In reality, books get sold into stores as parts of lists—you might as well say teams. To understand why a publisher doesn’t take a book even though it’s good (and they know it as well as anyone), you don’t need to look much farther than that 1984 Trail Blazers team. On draft day, the Blazers already had an all-star shooting guard (Jordan’s position) in Jim Paxson, and they’d drafted another shooting guard in ‘83, future hall-of-famer Clyde Drexler. They needed another shooting guard like [name any publisher] needed another vampire novel. So looking at his team and then looking at the available talent, picking Bowie, a 7’1” center, was the obvious move. Jordan probably wasn’t even his second choice.

Of course, in hindsight, none of that matters. In hindsight, Inman would have picked Jordan even if he’d had six all-star shooting guards on the roster. But that’s hindsight.

Take a look at this post from Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary, and you’ll begin to see what I mean.

"I’m seeing an increased wish for contemporary, real-world stories (ie, without supernatural elements). I’ve heard a couple of editors putting out feelers for a ‘weepie’ story. And it’s incredibly hard to find a really great love story.

"I was talking to an editor just on Friday who, like me, would love to find a story set in another part of the world, set against a real political situation. And my own wish to find a bleak novel (definitely with literary quality, this one) set in Scandinavia (or I’d settle for Iceland quite happily) was echoed by another senior editor last time I was in New York.

"Magical realism is also of interest. Worlds that are real but where strange things happen."

“Weepies?” A bleak Icelandic novel? Can’t they decide? Are these editors idiots? No, but you can bet they’re making the best guesses they can with the information they have, both about the market and about their teams.

(CC) photo courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vedia/

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tweetdeck Coach Class

Sometimes, it’s fun just to step back and wonder what would happen if the people all smashed together in my Tweet Deck and Google Reader were all forced into similar proximity in the real world—you know, like on an airplane. Could I introduce @lizb to @surlybrewing? Who would hog the armrest?

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