How to Sell (Good) Books

Written on March 11, 2008 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui

Mecenas My old friend Fernando González-Ariza is presenting tomorrow (info below) his last book on editorial strategies, focusing on the second most lavish literary prize after the Nobel Prize, the Planeta, whose celebrity equals the controversy raised by its award. The last time I met him he told me, through clouds of smoke and sips of beer, what his work was about, and I thought it would be quite interesting for the curiosity of ST readers, in Spain and abroad. I remember a good post of Rolf’s about the Man Booker Prize. They are not always the best books, those which receive the award. The reason is that prizes depend on other factors apart from literary quality.

The fact is that publishing business has changed completely in the last decades. At the beginning of the century it was still a gentleman’s affair, a leisurely activity which cared more about proclaiming the glory of well-known authors or discovering new talents, than about making any profit from the editing process. Yet the time of Maecenas –Augustus’ “culture minister” (here depicted by Tiepolo presenting to him the Liberal Arts) who supported Vergil and Ovid and gave his name to the protectors of arts– is over, at least in the publishing world. The disinterested gentleman has stepped aside from his hobby and the businessman has taken the editing profession in his capable hands.

That means that costs have to be met, money has to be earned, books have to be sold. A literary consequence is that experimentation and avant-garde extravagancies which flourished at the beginning of the century have been abandoned in favour of good story-telling, which is, for obvious reasons, much more effective in its appeal for the masses. Another consequence is that good writers depend, to be widely recognized, not only on their talent, but on the marketing manager of his publishing house. Quality is necessary: but it means little, if it is not accompanied by publicity. And one of the most efective marketing strategies today are the literary prizes.

A prize gives prestige to the books in a way no advertising does: its presence in the media is assured, and the costs of the prize are easily met by the sales and by some nice tricks like paying the prize to the author as anticipation of the authorship rights. The strategies vary: sometimes awarding a famous author will make the prize itself prestigious; sometimes, however, a good young author may find in the award his step to fame, and the editor will earn the glory of the discovery –and a much larger percentage from the sales than a confirmed best-seller author would allow him.

For that percentage is a keystone of the whole thing. The metamorphosis of publishing into a pure business has meant that authors are not any more linked to publishing houses by ties of personal loyalty, but they have to be kept through lavish contracts, or they will go elsewhere with their talent. Business is business, isn’t it? The figure of the literary agent comes in to mediate between authors and editors: the greatest of Spanish literary agents, Carmen Balcells, is a mythic name in the field, before whose name some take off their hat, when they have one (a very useful attachment for these occasions, because hatless admirers are forced to turn to exagerated mouth-and-eye-opening, undoubtly a much less aesthetic option).

These things I remember of the conversation with Fernando. But there were many others, so for anybody who wants to hear more, I attach the announcement of his presentation.



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