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Ah, the gentle art of book-ish persuasion.... This was a year in which the publishing industry kept its literati tendencies in check and infused a Hollywood-style razzle-dazzle into contests and other promotions intended to nudge books into at least a glimmer of the popular culture spotlight. With book sales down from last year, publishers are being forced to abandon their high-brow position above the fray and dive right in with movies, TV and other competing forms of popular culture.
“Publishing for so many years was viewed as a fussy gentleman’s business, as an academic corner,” said Jacqueline Deval, publisher of Hearst Books and author of this year’s “Publicize Your Book” (Perigree). “That hasn’t completely gone away, but it’s certainly attenuated. Publishers are becoming more slick and savvy on reaching potential audiences.”
The hype doesn’t take the shine off books, doesn’t diminish the importance of literature in our culture, she said. “It’s a mistake to treat books as precious things, as part of that rarefied academic realm of the world. That’s the kind of thinking that makes books feel inaccessible.”
Who says new books aren’t fun in a movie premiere kind of way?
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) promoted her memoir, “Living History” (Simon & Schuster), on a Barbara Walters TV special this year. In November, Madonna talked up her second children’s book, “Mr. Peabody’s Apples” (Callaway), on “Late Show With David Letterman.”
There also were troubling signs that a book alone, minus the celebrity, isn’t sexy enough to turn a consumer’s head. In June, after Oprah Winfrey featured John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” on her show, for instance, Penguin released a new edition of the classic with this plug dominating the cover: “The book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back.”
Even publishers with sure-fire hits on their hands tried to come up with new ways to cannonball their books into the public consciousness.
In June, a moving billboard on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood and an electronic sign on Times Square in New York were timed to mark the exact moment that “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (Scholastic) was released. It’s impossible to say whether the marketing of J.K. Rowling’s latest added to the novel’s star power, but it didn’t hurt -- and more than 11 million copies have been sold in the U.S.
Largely, though, big-splash publicity campaigns didn’t pay off. In the first 10 months of the year, for instance, sales of adult hardcover books were down 5.8%, to $965 million, compared to the same period last year, according to the New York-based Assn. of American Publishers.
In this uneven economy, consumers consider new books to be luxury items, noted Robert Baensch, director of New York University’s Center for Publishing. (According to the latest study by R.R. Bowker, which tracks U.S. publishing statistics, the average retail price of hardcovers in 2002 was $25.06 for fiction and $28.60 for nonfiction.)
As a result, major publishers are forced to think globally, Baensch said. “The big guys are taking the lead of saying, ‘I’m not just publishing a book. I can have a miniseries [tie-in] on TV, a mega-event with movies, plastic figures at McDonald’s or Burger King, and the fluffy toys at Toys R Us.’ ”
In the past few years, the industry’s expansion has perpetuated the frenzy. Last year, U.S. publishers released 150,000 new books, up 5.86%, according to the Bowker study. The number of new publishers on the scene: 10,305.
Publishers are taking no chances with even brand-name authors, designing marketing campaigns to build and sustain buzz.
In a contest promoting the latest volume in “The Dark Tower,” the series of novels by Stephen King, Simon & Schuster and Penguin invited readers to submit videotapes dramatizing an excerpt from one of the books. The winner will meet King in New York next year -- travel expenses are not included -- have one photograph taken with him and can ask “one or two questions.”
Dan Brown’s colossal bestseller “The Da Vinci Code” (Doubleday) already is on its second contest since its publication in March. In the first one, participants worldwide had to solve a complicated puzzle based on the book’s plot. Brown will name a character in his next novel after the winner. The second contest is offering a three-night stay in Paris. “The Da Vinci Code” is one of the runaway hits of the year, with more than 5 million copies in print.
Books with lower profiles got into the game too. The winner of an online sweepstakes for “This Book Will Change Your Life” (Plume) by Ben Carey and Henrik Delehag will receive $4,000 and a copy of the book.
In time for the holidays, DK Publishing is offering to put readers’ snapshots on the cover of “America 24/7,” a photography book put together by the team behind “A Day in the Life of America.” Submit a digital photo to a DK Publishing Web page, and the publisher will send “America 24/7" with a custom jacket for about $6 extra.
Twenty percent of the book’s buyers have ordered the custom covers, a spokeswoman said, and 30% of the submitted photographs are of pets. The book has a first printing of 500,000 copies.
DK Publishing calls the offer “the first mass-customization of a bestselling book.”
There was a time in this country when books took off without mass marketing, pointed out Jeffrey D. Groves, an English professor at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, sold more than 500,000 copies within five years. And that was before books were advertised in magazines such as Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly in the mid-19th century and before writers such as Mark Twain traveled on book tours, Groves said.
Maybe it’s a quaint notion to think that readers still make a point to wander into stores and, by serendipity or with a bookseller’s help, stumble upon a book that helps define who they are, that opens up their world.
In her new book of essays, “Thank You for Not Reading” (Dalkey Archive), Dubravka Ugresic writes that the outlook is bleak for literary writers. In the overcrowded marketplace, “the concept of literature is disappearing, and its place is increasingly being taken by books.” She writes about the U.S. market: “The individual voice is increasingly rare. Every voice, every text is slotted into the market niche of the moment, the buzzword of the moment, the codes of the market.”
But not everyone thinks the outlook is so bleak. The right book still can sell without a monster advertising campaign, said Eric Kampmann, president of Midpoint Trade Books in Kansas, a sales and distribution company for more than 150 independent publishers.
Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” for example, took off even before San Francisco-based publisher MacAdam/Cage launched a big advertising campaign.
“A small publisher, like anyone else, is susceptible to a windfall,” Kampmann said. “That keeps motivating them and gives them hope that they’ll come across the book that’ll become the next ‘Harry Potter.’ ”