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Event Recap: Books are Sacred, Lawn Mowers Aren’t

Last night, the NYU Center for Publishing gathered some publishing heavyweights to discuss how their books became bestsellers in today’s publishing industry during their NYU Media Talk event.  Authors R.L. Stine, Elin Hilderbrand, and Malcolm Gladwell talked about book success in a digital age with TIME Book Critic Lev Grossman as moderator.

In today’s world of big business and the ongoing ebook pricing battle after the famous Amazon-Hachette disagreement, Gladwell feels that books and other cultural products need to be treated as sacred.  “Should books be carved out from other kinds of economic behavior as special? I would say yes.” He continued, “I think cultural products ought to be considered separately from lawn mowers.”

This is important to consider since ebooks have become a significant part of sales for most authors.  Children’s authors like Stine have seen little change (since most kids don’t own ereaders), but Hilderbrand, who writes what she categorizes as a “beach read,” has seen a major shift of sales.  In 2010, about 1/3 of her sales were in the ebook format.  In 2014, her book Matchmaker sold about 75% in ebooks, presumably because it’s easier to buy your next beach read from your ereader.  “I prefer that people read a paper book but it’s the same content” so it’s not that big of a deal to her.

No matter which format readers are using to consume their media, all authors present felt that the key to publishing success today wasn’t online but through the tried tradition of the author tour.  For them, speaking at events like last night’s, doing bookstore signings, and making speeches are incredibly important for finding readers.  “I’m the author who likes to tour,” Stine said. “I love getting out and meeting my readers and telling the same twelve stories over and over again.” He also said visiting schools helps him see what kids are wearing and how they’re talking these days.

For additional promotion, some authors, like Stine who is “on Twitter all day,” embrace the world of social media (especially Twitter) for direct communication with fans.  Hilderband will also tweet because she likes to, but allows a social media team to run her Facebook, with her occasionally checking in on what’s being posted.

But some authors, like Gladwell, don’t feel those who use Twitter are representative of the general reading public and it’s therefore unnecessary for promotion. “I’ve never bought the argument that having an active social media presence is a necessary activity for an author.  Whereas I would say, that in my case, going out on the road and doing speeches is.”

Beyond writing and promoting the books, each author feels that success isn’t necessarily tied to how the book is packaged by the publisher. Hilderbrand admitted to having titled only about 50% of her books and to having no opinion on her covers. “Anything I absolutely, positively do not have to do, I do not do,” she said, explaining that she only has time to write her two books a year, do publicity, and take care of her three children.

For Gladwell, the title of his book is important to his book’s message. “I take titles very seriously,” he said. “I would be very nervous letting someone else title my own works. I spend a long time mulling over [them],” and maybe that’s why his titles often become part of what Grossman called the world’s common lexicon. Despite his opinion of titles, Gladwell also feels no need to have input on the cover design, saying he is not a visual person.

It seems that the overall message from the panel was that although more people are consuming ebooks and engaging in social media, the best way for authors to find success is through some kind of in-person promotion.  Additionally, while success might be somewhat connected to book design and titles, that isn’t always the authors’ responsibility, but rather the publishers’.  So perhaps the takeaway from the event is that for an author to become a bestseller, he or she needs to discover their own formula for reaching their targeted audiences instead of trying to follow a pre-established outline to success.  Marketing a book isn’t like marketing a lawn mower: the cultural value is different and requires a more varying marketing plan for each brand.

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