a PAW web exclusive column
Selling the book
'89 talks about his job as director of publicity at Crown Business
By Rob Mackay '89
Will Weisser '89 was
able to turn his keen interest in reading into a fulfilling career.
For the past 12 years, he has been promoting books on subjects as
varied as business, politics, psychology, and foreign affairs. A
typical day for the former history major might including writing
press releases, organizing an author's tour, and trying to get writers
on NPR or the "Today" show. PAW recently caught up with
Weisser, 34, at his New York City office, where he is the director
of publicity and strategic marketing for the Crown Business imprint
of Random House.
PAW: What are some of
the mistaken ideas people have about the publishing world?
Weiser: When people think
of book publishing, they tend to think of big bestsellers, like
"Tuesdays with Morrie" or the latest Stephen King or John
Grisham novel. Yet there are more than 50,000 books published in
the U.S. each year - all of them fighting for bookstore shelf space
and reviews and media attention. I can't think of another industry
that produces so many products with so much scope and diversity,
which is great for consumers. The downside is how hard it is for
an author to find and connect with an audience. By contrast, there
are something like 500 movies released each year, and even the most
low-budget of them are widely reviewed and advertised.
Another myth is that
publishing is very glamorous - that it's all about book parties
and author lunches and sitting around discussing great literature.
There's some of that, sure. I've met some famous people over the
years, including Ted Koppel and Charles Schwab and Jimmy Carter.
But mostly it's a lot of hard work.
PAW: So what do you consider
the benefits of your line of work?
Weiser: I think the best
thing is the intellectual stimulation, both from the books I work
with and the people I interact with. My authors have included CEOs
of major companies, high-level journalists, distinguished professors,
doctors, government officials, and experts in many fields. It's
truly fascinating to listen to these people and find out how their
minds work. And it's just as interesting to keep learning how the
media operate - why one book will be written up in a magazine or
newspaper but another, equally good book won't. Or why one author's
appearance on Oprah will make sales skyrocket, while another's won't
Another benefit is that
you can feel good about selling books. Even on a bad day, it's comforting
to think that you're trying to get people to read more.
PAW: What are authors
like? Who have you enjoyed working with the most?
Weiser: Authors run the
entire range of human behavior. Some you expect to be difficult
and they turn out to be incredibly generous and grateful for everything
you do to help them. Marlin Fitzwater, the former press secretary
to Ronald Reagan and George Bush, is in this category, and so are
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, and Brian
Lamb, the founder and chairman of C-Span. Right now I'm working
with a Harvard scholar named Juan Enriquez - he's absolutely brilliant,
hangs out with people like Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan, yet is as
down to earth as anyone I've ever met.
I've found that when
an author has a thriving career outside of writing books, it's much
easier for them to keep the ups and downs of publishing in perspective.
But when someone has been focusing only on their book for years,
it no surprise that he or she can be demanding.
PAW: How has the Internet
changed publishing? Do you see it as competition or an easy way
to inform people about upcoming books?
Weiser: As a means of
communicating with potential readers, the Internet is a huge help,
especially for nonfiction geared to a niche audience rather than
a mass market. But as a means for distributing electronic books,
the Internet is definitely not competition at this point. The joke
is that the only people who care about e-books now are intellectual
property lawyers. It will take years, maybe decades, for e-books
to take off. But whenever they do, it doesn't mean the end of publishers.
Someone will still need to decide which books are worthy of attention,
and then work to promote those books to readers.
PAW: So what are the
main factors that lead toward your company publishing and promoting
a book? Is it earnings potential or the quality of writing?
Weiser: I've seen this
question debated on the Tigernet board devoted to writing and publishing.
Some aspiring authors are convinced that publishers are driven solely
by profit potential, which is definitely not true. I've seen many
editors go out on a limb to acquire a quirky book that may only
sell 5,000 copies.
On the other hand, publishing
is still a business, and ultimately we have to generate more money
than we spend on author advances and marketing budgets. We have
to balance our love for certain books and authors with our need
to be realistic about the marketplace.
There's an old joke
that a publisher hires a management consultant to help him become
more profitable. The consultant spends months studying the business,
then delivers his report. "Out of every 10 books you publish,
two make money, three break even, and five lose money. So you should
only publish the two that make money."
PAW: You spend a lot
of time writing press releases. Do you hope to write a book someday?
Why or why not?
Weiser: One thing I've
learned is that you should never try to write a book unless you're
willing to work incredibly hard to make it stand out from the pack,
and then promote it vigorously at every stage of the publication
process. For the foreseeable future, I have no desire to do that.
I'm happy being the guy behind the scenes, taking pleasure in the
successes of my authors.
Rob MacKay is a frequent
contributor to PAW Online and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.