An Author's Redemption From Ignorance

Brian Taylor

June 20, 2010

As a college professor who is also an aspiring-to-midlist author, I find three questions about book publishing keep colliding in my head:

• What in God's name do BookScan numbers really mean?

• How can we as writers begin to fathom the M word? (Yes, I mean marketing.)

• Why do authors get the big chill when we seek to learn about those, and assorted other, mysteries of publishing?

After years of publishing with academic presses ranging from the relatively obscure to the venerable, I brought out a book in 2007 with a major New York house. This year I published with the same company again—this time, to my delight, with the help of agents who had invited me to sign with them.

Certainly, from the outside, my publishing experience looks like a soaring trajectory. And in many ways, it's been exhilarating. Five years ago, even my wildest dreams did not include being interviewed by Diane Rehm or profiled on the pages of In other ways, it's been a startling lesson in how much sweat and skill it takes to code-switch successfully. Peeking out at the publishing world from ivied walls, I've often felt lost.

My first proposal for a book aimed at general readers was, I felt sure, not only well crafted but also scrubbed free of technical language. Internally, I celebrated my ability to jettison the jargon—what fun I was having! That mood lasted until my editor calmly noted that, yes, I'd made a good start; now could I please lose the heavily academic tone?

Ouch. It reminded me of the time I joined a pack of anthropologists in Mexico for a conference. In the weeks before the trip, I'd boned up on my rudimentary Spanish, and I offered it confidently at the hotel. Shooting me a puzzled look, the porter mumbled something that sounded like, "I speak only Spanish." That was deflating, and not unlike my initial experience in mainstream publishing, when I had the sense that I wasn't speaking or—just as important—hearing comprehensible words.

My editor was right, of course. So I re-entered the starting gate and revised my pages. Next I unfurled the equivalent of octopus suction cups and attached myself to anyone in publishing who was willing to clue me in on this new terrain. It was, however, a process marked by missteps. I still have unanswered questions.

Let's start with BookScan, the publishing world's equivalent of television's Neilsen ratings. BookScan, my publisher says, tends to capture about 70 percent of retail sales for any given title. No, countered my agents, it's more like 60 percent. And there was the tip-off: There's no easy metric for correlating BookScan figures with numbers of books actually sold.

Let's say a book shows up on BookScan as having sold 7,000 copies. There's no way to determine if it has actually sold 10,000 copies (meaning that only 70 percent of its sales were captured and reported by Bookscan), perhaps 11,500 copies (with only about 60 percent of its sales were reported), or some higher figure.

Is that difference trivial? Maybe, but Andrew Zack, a California literary agent, argues that no calculation from BookScan reports will lead you to reliable predictions of sales. In a 2009 blog post, "The Lie That Is BookScan," he cites a convincing instance in support of his point: One of his authors' books sold just under 14,000 copies, but BookScan reported only 7,200.

That's one example, but it matches my own experience. BookScan figures for my book Evolving God come in at 47 percent of sales as reported to me by the publisher. The discrepancy is all the more noteworthy because, more than three years after publication, returns of the book are a thing of the past. (Returns: another jaw-dropping concept. See below).

How can BookScan veer off track like that for some titles and not others? While it's true that books sold at Wal-Mart or most airport kiosks are not included in BookScan figures, that's likely to matter little in my case. Megastores or fly zones don't feature my work. More relevant, indie numbers—sales from independent bookstores—are usually absent from BookScan. The "why," then, of its fuzzy numbers may differ from title to title.

And oh, those returns. Now there's a harsh lesson. It's enthralling to know that, shortly before a book's on-sale date, thousands upon thousands of copies are shipped out to stores. Yet it's close to certain that a lacerating percentage will come back unsold. In a trickle (if you're lucky) or a flood (if you're not), books fly home to (in my case) Manhattan, as if attached to some wayward literary boomerang.

That state of affairs means that in the early months, neither BookScan nor the publisher can pinpoint sales. At this point, for example, I lack any precise notion of how my latest book, Being With Animals, is doing, as it was published only in January. There lies one root cause of the furtive compulsion to check Amazon every day (OK, more than once a day) to see your sales rank. As most of us know by now, a sales rank can shoot up by tens of thousands of places when only a single copy is sold. Addictive as it is, then—even seductive at times, as after a national interview like the one I did with Diane Rehm—it's a pretty meaningless measure.

I write books not primarily for the money, but because I adore writing. Connecting with the reading public about anthropology and animals is a privilege. Yet Andrew Zack's point is that, however many books you sell, the elusive nature of sales figures does matter: When BookScan isn't tracking sales accurately, an author may suffer when she pitches a new proposal to a publisher. We're only as good as our last set of sales figures, we're told, and it's true.

All of that is harrowing enough, but the skies only darken when it comes to discerning why books are (or aren't) selling. Here we enter the arena of marketing.

A few years ago, a kind publicist spelled out for me the distinctions between publicity and marketing. Publicity costs amount to review copies of books and a publicist's hard work, and nothing more. (I do not undervalue that hard work: An enthused, skilled publicist is like gold.) Copies are flung by the hundreds into the mediasphere in the hopes of print, online, and on-air reviews and interviews.

Marketing, though, costs money. And the conundrum is this: If your book isn't selling, or if your last book didn't sell, the money for ads dries up. Without ads, the new book won't move, unless its velocity derives from the slow swell of book-club buzz or the ripple effect of radio publicity, and those cases are rare.

"Marketing is excited about this one!" is music to any writer's ears. But disappointment may follow, as when the notion of "ads" translates into a few ephemeral mentions in cyberspace, come-ons that are extinguished quickly and with no visible trace. Each time a new book comes out, I go round and round, dizzied, like a child on a speedy carousel. Next-to-no marketing means weak sales, weak sales means next-to-no marketing. How do I get off this ride?

I don't mean to duck responsibility. No marketing campaign guarantees a book's budging off the shelf. If sales flag, my writing may be at fault. Or maybe I will have misjudged the keenness of readers' desire to explore why we humans are so moved by our relationships with animals.

On the other hand, in the three months since my new book's publication, I've done more than 10 radio interviews, a significant percentage of them national broadcasts. I've offered animal stories to audiences in Denver, Phoenix, Chicago, Santa Fe, and Richmond, and appeared on my local NPR station's fund-raising Pet Pledge Friday. In that case, my anthropological observations were wedged between call-in queries to my fellow guest, a veterinarian. The calls focused largely on the litterbox traumas of house cats.

But hey, you won't catch me complaining. For one thing, I can't write for a broad public and expect to chat away about Donna Haraway's latest species manifesto or new thoughts on posthumanism or whatever else is hot in animal studies. Indeed, as I write this column, I'm preparing for a book-signing at a local Barnes & Noble that will involve dogs as my co-stars.

For another thing, I learned a lot from that on-air litterbox Q&A. I am half of a team of cat rescuers (abandoned cats drape our furniture and the spacious pen in our backyard), and animals populate my life, not just my books.

Admittedly, I've not hit the TV circuit. (Even now I struggle not to end that sentence with a "yet"—that's just a last gasp of hope). Early on, for a fevered week or so, my thoughts had run crazy: Jon Stewart is a William & Mary alumnus; he'll invite me on his show! Ellen DeGeneres is an animal activist; she'll grab my book!

I'm riffing on myself, yes, but to a purpose: Some authors do have inflated hopes. But those aren't born from ego so much as from taking too literally our publishers' and agents' strategizing sessions. When we're told of the marketing department's enthusiasm, reality does not inevitably prevail. Reality is, of course, that most authors don't appear on TV. I am sincerely happy for those who do; all boats will rise, as my former department chair was fond of saying.

Publishers: We authors, some of us anyway, expend far too much energy seeking to understand this new landscape. We need an authors' boot camp. Or better yet, freshman orientation, the kind where no question is dumb, there's a little hand-holding to be had, and we all, mentors and apprentices together, eat pizza at the end of the day.

So help us out when we ask questions. Don't assume we know the lingo. Do assume we don't grasp the ins and outs of BookScan, returns, marketing decisions, and other aspects of the craft that are as obvious to you as breathing. Better yet, don't wait for us to ask. Unconfuse us spontaneously.

Because instead of peering at shifting sales equations or daydreaming about even the tiniest print ad, we'd really rather be writing.

Barbara J. King is a professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary. Her latest book is "Being with Animals" (Doubleday, 2010).