I recently had a few excellent customer service experiences. (Bear with me--this will become relevant, I hope.) I stopped at the garden center this past weekend and talked with some employees who clearly love flowers (my wife sent me on an errand for cyclamen, which I'd never heard of before...but it is definitely a keeper). I spent way too much money, but our house is the better for it. Then, just today, I called an inn to make reservations. The reservations clerk spent 20 minutes on the phone with me, walking me through the various rooms available, and was just sincerely enthusiastic about her place of business. In a world of rudeness, it was a delight to experience such graciousness.
What I realized is that people who really enjoy what they do for a living are an asset to any enterprise, whether large or small. The folks at the garden center advocated for cyclamen and verbena, the reservation clerk was an enthusiastic advocate for her inn, and I am someone who wants to share my "finds" (authors) with the world at large. My job is tough, but it's fun too.
The gardeners, the inn, and I all have the same challenge: How do we get you to spend your money on our product? At least where I live, there are a million small garden shops, so the competition must be fierce. In this economy, too, flowers are too put on the list of things that aren't necessary so that we can pay for gasoline instead. The inn has plenty of competition from other hotels, many of which are cheaper. And my books are just a few among the tens of thousands published each year. This sounds mercenary, but how do I get your money? I need your money so that the company can stay afloat...and the authors need your money to compensate them for the long hours spent working on manuscripts.
I think this is where so many authors/writers miss the boat. They need to understand that business is not about us publishing the book that THEY want to write. It is about writing (and then publishing) books that people WANT to read. And by that I mean, books they are willing to spend their money for. How do I get them to buy a book by a new writer rather than an extra flat of impatiens at the garden center? As you can imagine, it's a tough job. Most people would rather stick with something tried and true (fill in name of best-selling series author) than take a chance on something new.
A lot of people (myself included, sadly) are fond of railing against society. Why don't "people" buy my books en masse? Why do I get all those returns after six months? Why am I not a best-selling author? Why is it that people are willing to shell out $25 for a third-rate DVD rather than $10.95 for my high-quality book? But this is thinking about things the wrong way. It's our job as editors and publishers -- and writers' jobs as novelists -- to give people something they WANT to buy. You and I may find a specific manuscript fascinating, but ultimately, it's the market that has all the power. There's critical success (the satisfaction of good reviews on a great book), but that's very different than commercial success. Unfortunately, none of us can survive solely on critical successes.
But what of publicity, you say? No amount of publicity MAKES the reading public buy a book. No one forced 25 million copies of The DaVinci Code down readers' throats. Dan Brown tapped into something there. As a point of comparison, look at a recent disaster, The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubinfeld. Holt paid way too much for it, gave it good publicity, and watched it sink like a rock because it failed to capture the public's attention. (It didn't help that Freudian psychology, on which the book is based, is decidely out of the psychological mainstream these days.)
So where does that leave us? Still looking for the next big thing, I suppose, and hoping we can tap into such a deep chord in people that they will rush out and buy our books as soon as they're published, rather than waiting for used ones on eBay.
<--- Above and left: Cyclamen.
These photos don't do justice to this amazing flower. The blooms are stunning, and the foliage is lush, tropical, and interesting. Mine are doing quite well in pots on the deck. Attention authors: Please send me manuscripts with a floral theme! "The Cyclamen Caper," "Sunflowers for Suspense," "Impatiens is a Virtue," etc.