Thursday, October 13, 2011

Can Moneyball Work In Book Publishing?

I recently saw the movie Moneyball, based on the best-selling book of the same name. I couldn’t help but walk away wondering if the same strategy can be employed in book publishing.

The theory behind Moneyball is two-fold.  First, in the case of baseball, a team can be competitive without overpaying for superstars on the free-agent market.  Second, that a statistical formula can be used to identify a potential talent, calling upon certain evaluative factors that may be undervalued or ignored by others.

It was developed by Billy Beane, a former New York Met who was predicted to be a superstar as he worked his way up the minor leagues but turned out to be a bust as a Major Leaguer.  As a scout and later as the general manager of the Oakland A’s, he found a way to replace players he’d otherwise have to pay millions for with low-cost substitutes.  It wasn’t that he got lucky once or had a trick formula for success. He knew how to evaluate talent in ways most scouts didn’t consider.

Book publishers, to some degree, seem to base their success formula on a few big books a season.  Perhaps they should be looking to boost their smaller books or lesser known authors, instead.  Some of the major publishers release well over a thousand new titles each year. Only a handful could possibly make the best-seller list yet they keep banking on star power to make them profitable.  But what of the other titles?

I never quite understood why publishers make an effort to publish so many titles but only support a small percentage of them.  But I do know publishers aren’t dumb or even overly optimistic. Their formula builds a few things into the equation:

First, they want to know a title won’t lose money.  How do they do that? They pay small advances, seek out an audience that’ll purchase from the author, and select books in genres that have a successful track record. They look for authors who will commit their own resources to market and promote a book.  Essentially, the publisher believes if they print the book, it will sell.

Second, publishers publish books that could have a long shelf-life, meaning they may sell 1000-2000 copies each year, forever, and that puts them in the black.

Third they look for books that they can sell the rights to, such as foreign rights, audio rights, movie rights, etc.

Fourth, they look to capitalize on a trend, believing if the public suddenly likes memoirs or UFO erotica, that anything published on the hot topic will sell with little effort.

But the publishers, even if correct in any or all assumptions, still under serve the potential sales of their books by not putting more PR or marketing muscle into them. Publishers shortchange their authors, and lose a chance to build up brands that could be wildly successful. Instead they pay huge ransoms or advances to lure name talent, betting the farm that a few big hits will outperform the collective of the rest of their line of books.

If Moneyball were applied to book publishing, they would begin to pay attention to all of their books and talent and not just fixate on a few heavily-paid stars.  Perhaps if they paid attention to more authors, their book’s publishers would find the road to profitability doesn’t have to come on a few desperate bets.  You can win in publishing with a bunch of low-rent no-names.  The A’s did.  Someone just needs to find a way to rate authors and allocate PR budgets accordingly. And to shift the publisher’s focus from the elite, best-selling, celebrity author to all the others.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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