Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

December 5, 2001:
Selling the book
Will Weiser '89 talks about his job as director of publicity at Crown Business Publishers

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 accomplish anything.

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 robertazo@hotmail.com.