Hello, my cherubs,
As we in publishing know, there is relatively little money in the book business ? compared to other forms of entertainment, say Television, Music, or Movies. And for years I've taken solace in one of the few advantages to this fact: at least we as creative people in this industry don't have to deal with, shudder, Focus Groups. You know, those little Nuremberg trials people in Advertising hold to determine if the great unwashed are going to prefer Stayfree Maxipads in a blue box or a yellow box. Let's face it: We're simply not going to test the ending of John Updike's latest novel to see if it skews well with girls between the ages of 12 and 16. Ditto the jacket design. And I thank God for that, every day.
So imagine my horror at reading an article, in this week's Publishers Weekly, about a publisher of legal advice books named Nolo Press which announced it has "taped more than 50 hours of focus group feedback and tested redesigned books in mock stores to come up with a compelling design" for its titles. And that this process took "Two years and 'hundreds of thousands' of dollars," and that "After field-testing several redesigns, the company decided on its new look: less text-heavy covers that feature Astrid, the golden Labrador retriever. 'What is more companionable than a dog?' said [Pat] Jenkins," Nolo's marketing director.
This would be hilarious if it wasn't so pathetic. And wrong-headed. Nearly a quarter of a million dollars, and they end up with a dog that's going to help you with legal advice about your divorce?
"Gee Astrid, she wants the beach condo too. What do I do?"
"What the fuck does that mean? Astrid! She's out to destroy me! Everything I've worked for!"
"You're Goddam right it is. Hey, get off of the couch and help me bury these assets!"
Seriously ? this is really, really dumb, and if other publishers follow suit it is at their peril. Nolo, you should change the name of your company to Big Fat Suckers. Because that is precisely what you are. If I were you I'd get your attorneys on this right away. You've been scammed.
I have found that marketing and sales people in publishing can be very useful in terms of PROMOTING AND SELLING BOOKS. Period. That is their job. NOT DESIGNING THEM. That is my job. I don't tell you how much front-of-store space to buy at B&N, and you don't tell me that the latest Cormac McCarthy design won't appeal to Soccer Moms in Des Moines, and we'll get along just fine. Knopf is very good about this, and that's a large part of why I am still here after twenty years and counting.
If anyone out there wants to chime in on this, either pro or con, be my guest.
And if PW wants to be taken seriously as an arbiter of the industry (and I do, for the most part, like very much what Sara Nelson's done with it) they should do a follow-up article in a few months to see if this idiocy is actually working. (And if it is, please bury the article. Just KIDDing.) Of course Nolo's going to say it is, regardless, but the real evidence will be whether or not Astrid is still marking Nolo's company territory by this time a year from now. Or if she's been put to sleep.