Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lessons from Launch: How a Book Gets Debuted

Caution: This is going to be one of those how-the-book-business-works posts, so it will probably be a bit too nerdy for some of you who just prefer to read about books themselves. If you’re the latter type, enjoy this lovely post from McSweeneys.

Every few months, I get to sit in on a really cool meeting called “launch”, which heralds the debut of a new season of titles to produce and promote. In a room of about 70 people (all of the publicity and art departments, a smattering of people from sales, production, marketing, and a handful of lucky assistants), each editor gets 10-15 minutes to present their list of books for an upcoming season. (This meeting usually goes 3-4 hours, but there are snacks and coffee to keep you going.) For a non-fiction title, the editor presents the basic premise of the book, comparable titles that have done reasonable well, the expertise/profile of the author, and why they think it’s going to have a fantastic life. For fiction titles, we learn a bit about the basic story, the style of the author’s writing, how their previous books have done, and who its potential audience might be.

This meeting is, without a doubt, the highlight of my job. Why? Because it is the one point in the book publishing process (apart from the acquisition process, which often happens behind closed doors) where you get to see the editor be unabashedly optimistic about a book’s future. Literally launching a book into its future life, the editor becomes a cheerleader for the book. As of launch, a book has everything possible, and as the editor explains why they bought the book and why they fell in love with it, it is hard not to fall in love with the book as well. There is nothing to kill the dream of the book’s promising future just yet: we haven’t seen any rejected jackets, no less-than-optimistic sales force, no bored or apathetic readers. We only see the good, the possible, and the promise.

This meeting is where you get to see why so many people want to become editors: speaking with clarity, humor, and confidence about their upcoming projects, the editors act like storytellers. They are deeply passionate about why they acquired a book, yet thorough and sincere in explaining the book’s strengths, challenges, and potentialities. (It is a tremendous test for a young editor, who has to adjust their presentation style to get just the right balance of extemporaneous enthusiasm and polished sobriety. The editor must also be well-read in the book’s context, especially when presenting works of non-fiction. The editor has to convince us that this book gives us something new to talk about, or that the author’s voice is fresh enough to bring blood to a supposedly dead subject. What does this book reveal that has never been revealed before? What reward does a book on ancient Egypt or the Revolutionary War provide to contemporary society? These are all important questions that the editor attempts to answer in their launch presentation.

“OK…so what’s the story?” This is ultimately the most important question the editor has to answer in their presentation. They have to tell you what the book is about, how they experienced the subject the way the author tells it, and how other people will appreciate, connect to, and benefit from this book. There is, of course, always some degree of concern about a book’s commercial viability, but this is not the meeting to confront the reality of the marketplace, or to even express doubts about the size of a book’s potential audience. An editor gets to discuss a book’s merits without denigrating other books, consumer tastes, or even the economy, ultimately making an argument about how the book can and should stand on its own strengths.”

Most importantly, in the middle of conveying all of their optimism for a book’s future, the editor has to also persuade the other launch attendees that they have to put aside their own skepticism. Even if the room is already predisposed to hate a given premise (i.e. yet another paranormal romance that rips off Wuthering Heights), the editor has to tell the story of how, by reading the book and speaking with the author and their agent, their own hesitations dissipated, and how they formed a solid admiration for and confidence in their new acquisition. Nothing kills a book’s future like doubt, and in launch, the editor has to dispel any hesitations and fill you with conviction.

My first week working in book publishing, I got to sit in on a launch meeting. The reaction this meeting produced in me may have been the product of my impressionable youth, or it may have been that it was my first meeting of this kind. Yet even 10+ launch meetings later, I can still see what so inspired me on that day: getting to see exceptionally brilliant and talented editors discuss their upcoming projects with an uninhibited degree of energy, hope, and possibility. They talk about each new title as if it were a newborn child, portending only good things and having tremendous impact on the world into which it will debut. Even in a publishing climate filled with anxiety, there's nothing like occasionally relaxing with the promise of a great new project.

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