Book Pros Put Biz School Observer in the Corner

By Neal Comment

clipart-wrong-mailbag.jpgAfter we started poking holes in Anita Elberse‘s rationale for why publishers aren’t going to stop chasing “blockbuster” manuscripts any time soon, we heard from other people in the industry who disagreed with her analysis—as one commenter put it, “she understands the culture she describes so poorly,” it’s hard to take her conclusions seriously.

“Her argument seems to be that the only way to have a blockbuster book strategy is through huge advances, which means the publisher accepts a lot of risk up front and is them compelled to try harder to sell the book to earn back,” another reader told us. But should publishers really shoulder all the risk while the agent and author sit back and count their money? That’s clearly not the way HarperStudio, to take one highly visible example, approaches the business—and they don’t seem to be having a problem making deals with high-profile authors who stand a good chance of delivering hits.

Furthermore, a senior editor at a major publishing house confided, “many of the bestsellers that keep us afloat are not the blockbusters, they’re the ones that we bought for relatively little (six figures or less) and sold the hell out of.” (Examples: The Kite Runner, The Secret Life of Bees, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, and Eat Pray Love.) This, by the way, would seem to contradict Elberse’s assertion that “it [is] harder to get best efforts from sales and marketing representatives and other internal constituents” when a publisher doesn’t start out by spending huge amounts of money to demonstrate how strongly it believes in a book’s potential.

Not everybody believes Elberse was wrong, however. One reader suggested that if the subject was confined to “the big A-list books and their importance within a major publisher’s portfolio,” Elberse’s description of how publishers convince themselves that certain book proposals are worth spending millions to acquire is dead-on. The problem with that defense is that Elberse is the one who takes the conversation further by speculating on the damage a publisher would do to itself by not pursuing the blockbuster strategy—and her limited understanding of how people in the industry would behave under various circumstances undercuts her conclusions.