Anita Elberse, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, had an aricle in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday called Blockbuster or Bust. It's basically about the publishing strategy of spending a lot of money on a few titles in the hopes of striking it big. There's a lot wrong with the article, like lack of context; e.g., getting it right that Grand Central Publishing does use this strategy and that they were giving out bonuses this year while so many other publishers were handing out pink slips, while neglecting the larger context, that GCP has always maintained a streamlined list compared to the other big houses, meaning they have a greater chance of publishing their fewer books well. When a publisher has a list of 1500 new titles for the year, just how many of them can get any attention? Back during my 11-year tenure as an independent bookseller and buyer, I was always happy to see my paperback Warner rep, Warner being what GCP was known as at the time, because I knew that I'd be seeing a reasonably sized list where I could buy decent numbers of virtually every title on the list and know those books had a chance - this was simply not true of any of the other mass market publishers at the time, where I had to groan my way through buying lists that were like long Chinese menus: a few things you'd love to have, while everything else just takes up space.
But that's neither here nor there, nor are the other things wrong with this article, since the biggest thing wrong with it is...
How can Ms. Elberse say, when talking of Vicki Myron's Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, for which GCP paid $1.25 million, that "The project...did not scream instant success: Cat books are not particularly hot sellers." What??? What are they teaching people at Harvard Business School? Certainly not publishing. Cat books, provided there's a strong narrative, have traditionally been huge sellers. Doesn't anyone remember Cleveland Amory's The Cat Who Came for Christmas? OK, maybe you don't remember how it did, because you weren't working in a bookstore in 1987. But I was. We couldn't keep that thing in stock! Why, Lillian Jackson Braun had a whole mystery series about cats - that's how well books and cats go together. And of course the biggest hook with Dewey is that not only is it a cat book, it's also a bibliophile's book. Publishers Weekly called it "...a love letter to libraries" and it's hard for me to imagine a more likely bestseller in the last year than a book that combines cats with the love of books. Honestly, the only way to make the book a more likely hit would be if it came with free chocolate tucked inside it. Well, unless one were allergic to chocolate, in which case that would only be annoying.
And speaking of annoying...
How can Ms. Elberse and others claim that, referencing the bestselling dog book by John Grogan, "Dewey is a Marley & Me for cat lovers"? It makes it sound like a pale imitator, a crass bandwagon-jumper. Hel-lo! If any book is a surprise bestseller from the animal world, if we're talking cats v dogs, then it is definitely the dog book. Look, I don't want to ruffle any canine feathers out there. But trying to claim that a cat book is riding the coattails of a dog book makes as much sense as Jonathan Franzen telling Oprah to stop riding his. Cats and books just go together, and do you know why? Do you know why there are more author pics snapped with cats than with dogs, by far? I will tell you. It's because by their very nature, cats are more suited to the reading and writing life. Cats are patient; they know how to wait - just like readers and writers need to be. And cats know how to pace a thing.
Here's just one example of cat behavior v dog behavior: Leave a cat alone for a week, put enough food and water out to last the week, and you can actually see the kitty calculating in its furry little head, "I need to make this last until She walks in the door again, no matter how long that may be." And that's exactly what the cat does, and isn't it great that she speaks so well? OK, now let's try the same thing with an inferior animal, an animal that would never have the patient disposition to write or read a book, an animal like, say, a dog. The dog says, "Oh boy! Oh boy! Lookit all dat fud!" Then the dog eats a week's worth of food in one sitting, vomits all over itself, and has starved to death by the time you've returned.
Really, it's not rocket scince, people: Cat Book + Strong Narrative = Bestseller. OK, there has to be some luck involved too, but it's definitely more likely than if you start that same equation out with Dog Book.
One thing that the "Dewey is Marley & Me for cat lovers" claim does draw attention to is publishing's marked tendency to take something successful - like vampire books - and clone it at every house to the point where the reader is tiredly saying, "Oh, stop biting my neck." Now as I say, I wasn't at all surprised with the success of Dewey. [See argument above if, for some inexplicable reason, you've elected to start reading this essay with this paragraph, thereby skipping all that has gone before.] And I definitely knew, once we had Marley and Dewey, that we'd be seeing more animal-oriented books and that those books would likely feature animals whose names would end in "...ey" since in publishing no one ever believes anything succeeds like doing things to excess, even though it so rarely does. Still, imagine my shock when the next animal-oriented book I saw in the stores was Stacey O'Brien's Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl. You do see that Wesley ends in "...ey," right? I couldn't help it, I'm afraid, when I saw that, the skeptic in me reeled back, "An owl book??? Oh my. They're really reaching this time. How big can the market be? I mean, an owl book???" Turns out I'm wrong every now and then: the owl book is a bestseller and got a starred PW review, a feat by the way that neither Dewey nor Marley achieved. All I can say is, Hoot knew?
QUESTION OF THE DAY: WHAT DO YOU THINK OF CAT BOOKS, DOG BOOKS, OWL BOOKS, PUBLISHING, OR ANYTHING REALLY?
Be well. Don't forget to write.