Getting the Meeting

[Two days ago—Wednesday—I put up a post titled “What It Takes,” which promised an insider’s look over the next few months at the campaign to market and publicize my upcoming novel, The Profession. Response was so enthusiastic that we decided not to wait till next Wednesday to follow up, but to plunge in right away. Herewith Post #1, from my manager Shawn Coyne.

With Shawn’s post, we’ll establish a “What It Takes” slot on the blog every Friday until publication in June. “What It Takes” will rotate with “Writing Wednesdays,” here in this space. When each post has been up a few days, we’ll shuttle it to the column to the left. “What It Takes” will bring you in on the meetings, the marketing and publicity, what works and doesn’t work—everything. Expect a play-by-play as the campaign unfolds. Now, over to Shawn . . . ]

Steve and I met with Crown Publishers Wednesday, to discuss how we can work together to make his next novel, The Profession, an instant New York Times hardcover bestseller. I have to start my contribution to “What It Takes” by saying that just getting the meeting was a major win for us. Here’s why:

As Steve mentioned, I’ve been in book publishing on every side of the desk for almost twenty years (editor, publisher, agent, manager, and writer). I made my bones in the editorial department—ten years navigating a gauntlet of editorial meetings, acquisition meetings, pre-launch meetings, launch meetings, cover conference meetings, marketing/publicity meetings, pre-sales meetings, sales conferences, profit/loss meetings, agent lunches, and on and on. The last thing an editor or publicist or publisher or head of marketing wants to do is add another meeting to his or her life—especially one with an author and his manager, armed with “ideas” about how the publisher should sell the author’s book.

In the years I worked inside big publishing, there was not one meeting with an author that resulted in a unique or compelling marketing innovation. Most authors would suggest we try expensive print advertising or billboard advertising, and later on TV advertising—or ask us to try and get a major brand to come in with us on a cross promotion:

Buy a box of Kleenex and get a copy of his tearjerker . . .

They were all completely untenable requests that would have zero effect on the performance of their book. These meetings were excruciating. The big elephant in the room: my colleagues and I were not in the business of selling to consumers. We made (and our authors made) our livelihood by selling to retailers.

Here’s how it worked:

I acquired Steve’s second novel Gates of Fire, about the battle of Thermopylae. It was a bestseller when it arrived on the market in 1998 and it continues to sell today—close to a million copies to date. But before I acquired the book, I was authorized to do so only under the condition that I buy another untitled book from Steve in the same genre. We would commit to Steve only if he agreed to do his next book in the ancient military world.

Steve first told me to piss off, but I explained that we needed to make him a known commodity among booksellers so that they would keep him in stock and know where to put him in their bookstores. If he wrote different kinds of novels, one would be in the historical fiction shelf, another in the golf fiction shelf; another in the self help shelf . . . retailers would get confused. He called me back the next day and told me he had a file of research about the Michael Jordan of Ancient Greece, Alcibiades, and we came up with the idea for Tides of War. Great! I had the deal.

But now I had to sell Gates of Fire within my company.

For an editor, selling a book within your publishing company then (and today) is even more important than acquiring and editing the book. Unless you spend gobs of money that had to be personally approved by your publisher and your publisher’s boss (usually books that cost over $500,000 of advance guarantee), your book will not be a top priority. The big guns got the major attention (they should) and at that time Steve was to be published by the publisher of John Grisham, Pat Conroy, and several other major coin writers. Steve’s advance was solid, but it was a “test” kind of project. If it worked, Doubleday would be able to grow Steve’s audience from book to book and perhaps one day, he would join the Grisham ranks. If the book didn’t work, Doubleday would lose some money, but not debilitating money.

How does an editor begin to “sell” the book in-house?

Gates of Fire is what is described within the industry as a “boys’ book.” (Grisham and Conroy aren’t . . . I can explain why another time) And as the majority of publishing professionals are women, it’s not a compliment. It’s a ghetto. The way I got around the label was to call in every possible favor I could and convince my agent friends and colleagues around the business to ask their A-list clients to read the book and offer words of praise.

For all of the snark and gossip rampant in book publishing, it’s still a favor-based community.  We help each other with our books even if we can’t stand one another. It’s part of the book publishing ethos. We don’t view the blurb game as helping a competitor or even an enemy. Rather, we’re helping a writer and a book, the very reasons we come to work every day. So we do it and we’re happy when it works out—even for an editor or publisher we can’t stand. That makes book publishing (at its core) a business of passion and possibility—capable of great growth.

Going hat in hand to your friends and enemies for help is what is called the “GET BLURBS” cycle. Getting blurbs was crucial then because people inside your publishing house (publicists, marketing, sales directors, sales reps, art departments etc.), and especially book store managers and major account buyers, don’t have the time to read every book a publisher releases.

Blurbs were also crucial for Gates of Fire because Barnes & Noble’s fiction buyer is a woman.  She orders a gross initial number of units for all of B&N stores and is one of the most powerful people in publishing. If she doesn’t think anyone will want to read a novel (no matter how much money was paid to acquire it or how much pressure she gets from a publisher to buy stacks and stacks of them) she won’t order it at all, or she’ll order a very small number of copies, making it virtually invisible in the store. Just as a male buyer would look for help to determine the demand for a novel in a genre he didn’t read himself, so do women buyers. I had to get some blurbs to get Steve’s book a chance. (Years later I had lunch with the B&N buyer when I started Rugged Land Books. The first thing she said to me was that Gates of Fire was one of her all time favorites.)

Gates of Fire was and is blessed. It’s a boys’ book that transcends genre. The B&N buyer recognized that. Steve received rave advance quotes from major A-list powerhouse writers like Pat Conroy, Nelson DeMille, Stephen Coonts and on and on. Then I took a chance and gave the head of the entire corporation (the former head of Bertelsmann U.S., Peter Olson) a copy. He loved it so much we convinced him to speak into a tape player (it was 1997) about how much it meant to him. I played his tape at sales conference. “If Peter loves this book we better make it a success” was the subtext to the sales force. The excitement that brewed in-house, then went outside to the retail world.

Booksellers and sales clerks started to read bootleg galleys of Gates of Fire before it went on sale, so we printed up advance reading copies for them and gave them away free. They fell in love with it, and then they hand sold it to their customers the day it was officially published.

Store clerks literally picked it up and put it in bookstore browsers’ hands. Twelve years later, they still do.

Once it was published, it got rave reviews in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Book Review and on and on. The word-of-mouth from the retail world meshed with the print outlets covering the book industry, and reached consumers’ ears organically. That’s the best way to sell anything—not billboards, not print advertising, not TV, not Kleenex boxes, but a recommendation from someone or some institution you trust.

That’s how it worked.

An editor at a publishing company does a million things that few people understand [I don’t think Steve knows any of this stuff to this day], especially authors. When it went well back then, the author could do what she is driven to do—create great stories without having to worry about “publishing.” When it didn’t go well, the author had a bucketful of publishing professionals to blame.

In 2010, Steve’s editor, publisher, marketing director, publicist, and eBook publisher at Crown still face the myriad of meetings and postmortems of meetings that I did in 1996—probably more. These meetings are built to coordinate a campaign that will win in-house and then retailer attention. Without that kind of insider approval, the theory goes that a book doesn’t stand a chance—especially in today’s brutally competitive 200,000+ published-books-a-year marketplace.

But all of these people at Crown carved out two hours of their professional lives to sit in a room with an author and a Black Irish wild man to talk about how we can try something different to promote Steve’s new novel, The Profession. They didn’t do it because they like us or to humor us. They did it because THEY LOVE THE BOOK so much so that they want to give it the best chance to reach the most people possible! Before his ass even hit one of the 14th floor conference room chairs at 1745 Broadway, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010, at 10:35 a.m., Steven Pressfield had in-house support a full seven months before The Profession goes on sale.

To be continued.

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  1. Jennifer (Conversion Diary) on December 3, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    Wow! I just read every word of this, and am bookmarking it to come back to later. What a treasure trove of information. Thanks, Shawn!

  2. Sheri Blume on December 3, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Awesome insider information, though I cringe at the whole “boy-book” thing. Yes, I can see where Gates of Fire would be geared towards male readers, but I love these kinds of books. However, in terms of marketing, one must have a label. I have long been the exception for what female readers want.

    I actually worked for a B&N store for five years and hand-sold the daylights out of Gates of Fire. It was one of my go-to books.

    Can’t wait to see more about this whole process with the hopes of one day being there myself. Good to have some advance recon going in.

    And terribly excited for the new book!

  3. Janet L. on December 4, 2010 at 5:23 am

    Who knew when we peruse a bookstore all the work that goes into getting those books on the shelf — we tend to just think of the publisher and author, maybe the agent involved, but it takes a village from what you describe.

    Great insights behind the curtain. Thanks!

  4. Hiro Boga on December 4, 2010 at 7:07 am

    What a wonderful story–the book behind the book!

    Book publishing is indeed a business of “passion and possibility” — that’s what kept me in it for ten years. Thanks for making the process visible in such an entertaining way.

  5. Jeffrey Neubauer on December 4, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Fascinating post!

    As my 11 year old daughter and I relaxed in comfy leather chairs at Borders last night, delighted with our newly found nuggets of gold, hers of fiction and mine of fact, she asked, “Daddy, why don’t you ever read fiction?”

    I pondered the observation. “Well Hannah, when I want to be entertained I’ll watch a ballgame on television or some poetry slams on YouTube. But when I open a book, I like to discover more about factual issues and events which interest to me.”

    “What about balance Dad? You can discover stuff from reading fiction!”

    I chuckled to myself and whispered back, “That’s why I like hangn’ with you. I always discover stuff!”

    Shawn, I’m going to pick up Gates of Fire today! Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. Mrs. Silence Dogood on December 4, 2010 at 9:53 am

    I hardly ever comment on blogs but, that was awesome. I can’t wait to read more of this!

  7. Walt K on December 5, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Geez, I can’t help but see that Seth Godin is probably right about the publishing industry today. It’s becoming irrelevant.

    From the above, it sounds like publishers merely inject layers of crap and politicking between an author and audience.

    What do publishers do exactly? Decide which books will be hits? Apparently not. Their batting average is pretty bad according to industry averages. Do they promote books? Apparently not. Unless you’re Grisham or King. Do they develop an audience? Apparently not. They expect an author to have a platform. Do they print books? Two hundred and eleven factories, plus Lulu can do that. Proofreading? Copy editing? Book cover design? You can freelance any of that for less than $100 per hour.

    Apparently, the only thing traditional publishers can do is get a book onto the shelves at Barnes and Noble.

    But how relevant will that be as Kindles and e-books and Amazon become the major outlets?

    I’m wondering if an author’s time would be better spent cultivating an audience that he or she can own directly, rather than campaigning and sucking up to the middlemen publishing execs who are merely in the way.

    This article is an eye opener.

  8. Bill Pace on December 7, 2010 at 6:59 am

    Holy cow!!

    I learned more about the publishing world in that one article than I’ve learned in my entire reading life. Incredible info and insight and I can’t wait to read future installments!

  9. Satya @ Fierce Wisdom on December 7, 2010 at 8:09 am

    Holy sh** — a serious, well-written insider’s perspective on the publishing biz for once. Brilliant, and a fascinating story… Thanks for sharing this.

  10. Michael on December 8, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Pretty awesome!

  11. Stacey Keith on December 9, 2010 at 6:21 am

    This was AWESOME. I feel as though I’ve been given the keys to the kingdom. As one in a network of Gulf Coast writers, I can tell you right now how viral I intend on making this post. GREAT JOB.

  12. andrew lubin on December 10, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    OK, if that’s how it works for name authors, then we can only assume that the other authors are left to shilling books from the trunk of their car? Not a good thought.

  13. jeff on December 14, 2010 at 7:48 am

    Fascinating. It actually made me shiver to realize that Tides of War might not have been written if Steve wasn’t half-forced into it. It is, IMHO, his best fiction book, though I haven’t yet read Killing Rommel.

    So, thank you to Shawn for writing this. Now if he’ll just explain why Pat Conroy is a “girl’s” book… Is that for his more recent fiction or for all of it? I think I have a pretty good idea why, but would love to hear it straight from Shawn.

  14. Debbie Phillips on December 15, 2010 at 2:21 am

    Speaking of exciting, best-selling books, Shawn, you have one on your hands right here!

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