August 16, 2005

Poodles Turn Into Lobsters

As the News From Imponderables Central above reports, two more Imponderables books have been republished in paperback. How Does Aspirin Find a Headache? has a new cover, but When Did Wild Poodles Roam the Earth? has a new name: Are Lobsters Ambidextrous?

Why the change? It's a long story...

The book before Poodles, Do Penguins Have Knees?, was my best-selling hardbound book. In fact, it missed getting onto the New York Times Bestseller list by one spot (in those days, they mixed children's books with miscellaneous nonfiction and there were three Where's Waldo? books
on the list of five). My publisher, bless him, was determined to get the next book on the bestseller list.

I think it's safe to say that the quality of my different Imponderables books are pretty much the same (in 20 years in the Imponderables business, I've only had a couple of readers comment that a particular book was much better or worse than any other), so the relative success or failure of a book becomes a pure study in marketing. The main variables seem to be the title, the cover, and luck with publicity. Surprisingly, of the three elements, the title might be the most important.

Usually, I have no idea what the title of one of my books is going to be while I'm working on it. I share possible titles with my editor, who often passes it on to the sales force. When my editor gave my list of possible follow-up titles to Penguins, the sales force fell in love with "When Did Wild Poodles Roam the Earth?" as a title. I had my doubts. Is the concept of the question too complicated? Don't most people hate poodles? But the sales force prevailed.

HarperCollins liked my idea for a diorama for the cover, with poodles mingling with dinosaurs and pterodactyls. To promote sales, HarperCollins actually lowered the price of the new hardcover, and printed more copies of Poodles than any previous book. Sounds great, right?

Wrong. I knew we were doomed at the first booksigning I did before my book tour commenced. A nice crowd came and laughed at my lame jokes and lined up afterwards at a big desk filled with my new hardbound and my whole backlist in paperback. Women and kids were scooping up the new book. But men weren't. They were buying my old paperbacks. And since many of the folks were buying books as Christmas presents, they weren't buying the new hardbound as gifts for men. (Although Imponderables readers seem to be split pretty much 50-50 between males and females, the books seem to be given as presents to men much more than women).

And so I learned, the first week that Poodles was released, that the title was probably a disaster. The images of the poodles on the cover were a disaster. And disappointing sales followed. You can lead a man to an Imponderables book, but you can't make him buy a book with big poodles on the cover.

In fact, when it came time to release the paperback, HarperCollins wanted to change the title of the book. I resisted, fearing that some folks would buy the book, mistakenly thinking that it was something they hadn't read. I won this argument, and the only real change we made for the paperback was downsizing the images of the poodles on the paperback cover.

I'm still not sure we made the right decision to change titles. But I'm sure we made the wrong decision on the title thirteen years ago.