Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Oprah Exception

with 3 comments

I wanted to get back to the idea that the only way to increase the sales of novels would be to increase the number of people who love to read, preferably by changing something we do in schools so that more people would develop a passion for it.

And I still think this is wrongheaded–not only do  I not think schools are capable of increasing the numbers of such people, I think trying to sell books only to such people is what we’re doing now, and it’s failing abysmally.

And then I remembered Oprah’s  book club.

I have no idea if Oprah is still doing this–I’ll admit it, I’ve never watched an entire Oprah Winfrey show–but I do know that when she was doing the  club, any book chosen for it sold like crazy, and it was the only one of that author’s books that sold.

I’m putting that in italics for a reason.  The publishing industry is used to a particular kind of dynamic between writers and readers.  Readers who find a book they like go looking for anything else that author has written.  They buy the next book by the same author when it comes out.

If you think about readers you know, about the ones you encounter on  Internet discussion lists, you’ll notice a real tendency to speak in sentences like “I’m reading the new  Lee Child” or “Linda Barnes has something coming out and I’ve got to have it.”

Readers who love reading read writers, not books.  It’s much the same with people who are really passionate about film, or even about a particular movie star.   They don’t go to see the movie so much as they go to see the work of that director or the appearance of that star. 

But if nobody comes to the movie except the people who are passionate about directors or stars, the movie isn’t going to do all that well, because those people–yes, even the ones obsessed with stars–are a minority among the viewing public.

Movies get successful by bringing in people who seldom go to movies.  They are there for the movie, for that particular plot and those particular characters.  If the same director and the same stars put out another movie next month on a topic these people are not much interested in, they won’t bother to go.

What Oprah did was to market books to people who don’t usually read books.  They were there for the book, not for the love of reading or for an author, but for that particular work and what it had to offer.

Publishing, however, virtually never markets books to this kind of reader.  They stick to the people who love books already, to the readers who read writers (or sometimes genres) rather than books.

And those people are a minority audience for any work of art or entertainment.

There are three hundred million people in the United States of  America.  There are fifty thousand readers for any book at all.   What there aren’t are fifty thousand readers who read  because they love reading for any book.

People don’t go to the movies because schools teach them that there are lots of different kinds of movies out there, some of which they will love.

They go to the movies because people around them go to the movies and somebody took them once and they got used to the idea.  

The same with video games and popular music.

If books are going to sell in reasonable numbers to keep writers afloat as writers, then the publishers have to learn how to sell them to people who will read only one book this year, or maybe two. 

And publishers seem to have absolutely no clue as to how to do this. 

The  Oprah effect was real enough, but unfortunately it can’t be duplicated exactly.  People read the books in Oprah’s book club because they liked and admired Oprah–in fact, for the very same reason people go to movies or listen to various kinds of music.

The traditional methods of publicizing books and drawing an audience all seem not to work very well.  Book signings draw only people who already like that particular author, and sometimes they don’t even draw those.  I’ve seen major names in the genre draw almost nobody to book signings–and by their very nature, book signings are an exampe of preaching to the converted.

So aremost book tours, unless they can get unusual media coverage–that is, coverage on something besides the book page or the book segment of a radio or television program already pegged as the “booky” one.

What bothers me is not so much that we aren’t reacing the nonreader reader yet, but that we aren’t even trying.   And when we talk about selling books, or finding an audience for them, we never consider that part of the potential audience. 

It’s always all or nothing, people who love reading and nobody else.

There have got to be ways of reaching the wider audience.

Trying to do it through schools hasn’t worked yet, and never will, because it’s the answer to the wrong question.

The issue isn’t how to make more people love to read.  The issue is how to get people who don’t love to read to realize that they’d really love reading that particular book.

Written by janeh

May 1st, 2009 at 8:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Oprah Exception'

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  1. I see your point, but I don’t know how you sell to non-readers unless you make reading fashionable. You need a lot of Oprahs, all pushing different books and authors in order to increase the sales of books. You want all those anorexic bleached pop divas to be photographed reading, and pushing their favourite book in their interviews on entertainment shows. I don’t quite know how you’d do it, unless you paid them. Or the publishers did, out of their publicity budget.


    1 May 09 at 1:00 pm

  2. What Oprah does is make reading That Book *cool*. Same thing with the ubiquitous Harry Potter. It was cool to read HP, and stand in line for the midnight release of the next one, and try to get it 10 seconds before all your friends so you could text “can you believe what Hermione did?” first. Making a particular book or writer cool would seem to be a great marketing strategy.

    Sports stars endorse sports products, cars, razors and underwear. Movie stars endorse cosmetics, politicians, and causes, even though they know nothing about any of them. Apparently the endorsement thing works. So why not get big-time endorsements for reading? “Tiger Woods is reading Mark Billingham this week!” Let’s hear more about what Brad Pitt is reading to his kids, rather than counting them.

    I can’t imagine why nobody thought of this before. Occasionally, “what are you reading?” is an interview question in a Vanity Fair article, but I’ve never seen a paid endorsement.

    Hmm. Jane, maybe you can put a request in your next book. “If you’re a big-time celebrity, let it be known you like my books. That you read my books! Because the more money I can make doing this, the more books I can write!”


    1 May 09 at 1:53 pm

  3. Stating something clearly and firmly doesn’t make it true. I have no idea why increasing the number of booklovers is “the answer to the wrong question,” nor why “trying to do it through schools hasn’t worked yet.” I had no idea schools were trying. Sadly, I still don’t. And if they fail to teach mathematics or history–or sex ed or this week’s political hot topic, they try new methods rather than despair. I’ll grant you liking to read is not the same as being able to read, but they’re also not unrelated. It’s very hard to teach something to someone who sees neither pleasure nor profit in it, and the unskilled reader has a much more limited selection of texts.

    By all means, a dozen Oprahs, and sell by unconventional means. (They use billboards in England. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it used here.) But remember the limitations: if you’re trying to promote the midlist or starting author, Oprah won’t raise the median sales number. What she’s done is basically toss 12 lottery tickets a year into the pot. And only so many books can be “hot” in a given year.

    And despite a few things I’ve said–and more I no doubt will say in the future–Publisher’s Row is not occupied entirely by morons. Selling to people known to love, buy and read books is not stupid. They know where to find me, and they know I’m a reasonable prospect. I don’t know what a quarter-page add in LOCUS costs, but the publishers who pay for it know that everyone reading it reads and probably buys SF and fantasy on a regular basis. Say 1% of the readers will buy your book. What percentage of the readers of TIME will consider buying a work of SF? Of the watchers of prime time television? Of the listeners to the local rock station? They’re spending their advertising money where they hope to see the most return for the money spent.

    And is 50,000 copies really the maximum? THE LORD OF THE RINGS sells on average a million copies a year. The last I heard ATLAS SHRUGGED moved 100,000 paperbacks a year. Perhaps books people love to read are part of the answer.


    1 May 09 at 4:09 pm

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