The New York Times has a terrible habit of putting the book publishing industry upon a pedestal. Book writing has always been an essential—even a crucial—career milestone at the Times that it must warp the paper’s perceptions of the book business. Today’s story about the flawlessly orchestrated sale of Amanda Knox’s memoir is a perfect case in point.
Knox’s book project reminds us what Big-Six New York publishing can do so well and what no one else can come close to doing, that is, coordinate a media launch with a book lay-down that blankets every airport, Costco, Wal-mart, Target, supermarket, newsstand and Kindle with a copy of the young woman’s memoir on the same day to generate a super-Nova of media saturation.
The cascading effect of seeing the book’s cover image over and over each day for a two-week period combined with the continual reinforcement of daily “exclusive” media interviews on magazine and morning shows creates an indelible impression like no other form of publicity. It can also generate massive sales in brief period.
That kind of publishing requires an infrastructure that only the big publishers possess. They’re also the only ones who can take the financial risk of advancing the author millions of dollars.
And yet, the NYTimes wants to believe last year’s 1.2m-copy selling Jaycee Dugard book was a surprise to publishers. Worse, the newspaper is deluding itself wit this analysis:
Booksellers, who have a finely tuned sense of what will take off with their customers, said the success of the book will rest on how it is written and whether Ms. Knox comes across honestly to readers. “I think if it has an authenticity and reflective quality, it could be huge,” said Roxanne J. Coady, the owner of the R.J. Julia bookstore in Madison, Conn. “If it is a variation of a P.R. campaign to clean up her reputation, I think it will flop badly.”
If independent booksellers had such “a finely tuned sense of what will take off with their customers” the stores would not be the endangered species they are today. Their economic value as weathervanes would have allowed them to retain customers instead of losing them to discount chains.
The bigger fallacy is that the writing is what will matter to the success of the book. Don’t get me wrong. The tack Ms. Knox takes in how she explains her story will determine its success. And a better written book will have a much bigger impact, especially if Knox can do what good writers really do, edit and frame her story to make an emotional connection with readers.
Nonetheless, publicity is what will make or break the book. Buyers will make their purchasing decision based upon their encounter with Ms. Knox through various media outlets. How Amanda Knox comes off on 60 Minutes and the Today Show, in newspaper features and radio interviews will signal to readers whether they want to buy the book or not. No one will come upon her through her prose.
Buyers on this scale are not readers so much as participants. If her story resonates, you join Team Amanda. The price of admission is buying her book. The book is a talisman, not a vehicle.
So far the Knox team has shown they get this in every way. The family has been disciplined. They’ve kept Knox from the press while still satisfying and teasing the interest of the public. They’ve chose Bob Barnett, a lawyer who plays the publishers like a harpsichord, to represent them. They’re selling the book at the perfect time to set the whole process in motion: February publishers auction; manuscript submitted by July; August for rest and media training; September to coordinate the October or November launch.
Whichever publishing house buys the book will wrestle with how to deal with the Presidential election. Though 2012 is likely to end with a whimper politically leaving Knox to fill the news vacuum for a few weeks before the Christmas book selling season really takes off.
In Amanda Knox Tale, a Delicate Bet for Publishers
By Julie Bosman; February 13, 2012