Disney up the Girl

We survived our five-day stint in the Magic Kingdom with our sanity mostly intact. The girl celebrated her fourth birthday in the most magical place on earth that isn’t Tijuana.

Her number-one favorite attraction? The water slide at our hotel, closely followed by getting the princesses to sign her autograph book.

She was most definitely not a fan of the rides, outside of Cinderella’s Golden Carousel, and “It’s a Small World,” which she rode three times and adored (and yes, the geedee song is still stuck in my head where it will presumably remain until the American Idol finale).

She was terrified on the spinning teacups, even though we didn’t spin them. She took a careful look at the flying Dumbo ride, Goofy’s super-slow roller coaster, the Speedway Racetrack, and Pirates of the Caribbean, and nixed them all.

She had a full-body freak-out during Mickey’s PhilHarmagic, a five-minute, three-D movie (“I liked it when the princesses arrived, but I did not like when Donald got into trouble,” she said, once she’d stopped shaking and regained the ability to speak.)

We sort of tricked her into riding Splash Mountain, by showing her the people on the floating logs after they’d come off the five-story drop without showing her the five-story drop, and oh, was she pissed. She ran off the ride straight into my arms and screamed, loud enough for them to hear her in Adventureland, “I NEVER WANT TO REMEMBER THAT RIDE EVER AGAIN!”

Bottom line: a birthday at Disney is probably a dream come true for a certain kind of hearty, adventurous, fearless four-year-old.

In our case, I’m pretty sure that we could have spent the weekend in a hotel with a waterslide, then gone to a shoe store opening with one of the clerks dressed up as Cinderella, and the girl would have gotten pretty much the same things out of it.

What else? I have finally located the website for the Kansas City Literary Festival. I’ll be at a meet ‘n greet author breakfast Saturday morning at 8:30 this Saturday morning in the Kauffman Conference Center, then speaking at 11:20, then sitting on a Book to Film panel at 12:50, and signing books at 1:30. Hope to see my Midwestern brothers and sisters there!

In other news, do you know what makes a book a best seller? Well, guess what? Neither does anyone in publishing! Big advances don’t always equal big sales! Sometimes, a book that gets bought for peanuts turns into a big hit! Also, eight million dollars was probably too much for Bertelsmann to pay for Charles Frazier’s COLD MOUNTAIN follow-up!

This, of course, does not come as a news flash to anyone who’s in publishing, a business that’s governed by hunches and copycatting and where, as the Times correctly points out, there’s very little research to back up the marketing and publicity plans.

As an author, I can attest that it’s tremendously frustrating to work in a world run by anecdotal evidence, hunches, guesses, and hand-patting it’s-just-the-way-we’ve-always-done-things precedent, because you don’t know if you’re actually getting any bang for your buck (and when you’re at the point in your career where it’s your own bucks you’re spending, multiple that frustration by about a thousand).

Are print ads in the New York Times more effectiver than print ads in local papers, or ads online? Well, people seem to think so – because booksellers read the NYTBR, which is why Danielle Steel’s books get full-page ads there even though one assumes that Danielle Steel's readers are getting their information from outlets that actually review romance. Does that mean that Times ads work for writers who are not Danielle Steel? Nobody knows.

Is a New York Times review that big of a deal? Every publicist I’ve ever worked with would kill or die for the tiniest Times mention…but, as has been amply documented, a front-page rave didn’t do much for Benjamin Kunkel.

Is it better to spend your money on an ad in Oprah, where it’ll stay around for a whole month, or to spring for an ad in People, which is a weekly but has an enormous circulation? Again, there’s not a lot of research either way.

Do online ads work at all, or do people just click past them? Are radio ads effective?

Do book tours actually get people to buy books? Publishers sure seem to think so, although, again, if there’s ever been any research done about dollars spent versus book sold, I’ve never seen it.

There’s only one promotional tool that I’m completely convinced is a good use of my time and my resources, and you’re reading it right now...and I’m continually astonished at the writers out there who don’t have their own websites, which seems like the cheapest and most obvious thing you could do to promote your work.

But after that, it’s all guesswork and crossed fingers and throwing things up against the wall and hoping that they stick.

Even though it is frustrating to try to figure out how to get a book into readers’ hands in a world largely absent facts and figures, I’m not sure that writing – not marketing, not selling, but actual fngers-on-the-keyboard writing – would benefit from the kind of market research that puts butts in hotel rooms, or in front of Spider-Man III.

What if readers were asked to fill out the kind of surveys that hotels routinely email to their guests? What if the novels were test-marketed the way movie trailers and movies themselves are screened? Can you imagine a world where Charles Frazier’s editor sat him down with a flow chart and said, “We’d prefer you to stick to the Civil War?” Or one where an editor told an author, “based on the Amazon reviews, eighty percent of your readers would prefer an unequivocally happy ending?”

When it comes to marketing and promotion, I’m all for healthy pragmatism about the realities of publishing as a business.

Books are a product in the marketplace, and the more information publishers and authors have about what gets that product to as many readers as possible, the better for the industry.

But when it comes to writing – when it’s just the author and the blank page – I say, let’s leave market research, surveys and focus groups out of it, and just let the author tell the story he or she wants to tell.