TOW Books: How to fail at publishing a whole new way

Below John Warner, editor of McSweeney’s online, author of So You Want to Be President? and Fondling Your Muse, and creative director of the struggling TOW Books, explains why he’s rejecting the age-old strategy of sending review copies to newspapers, and offering them to you instead.

I knew when I founded a humor imprint a couple years ago that these were tough times for publishers — too many books, not enough readers, and all the rest.

It’s just that, after editing McSweeney’s Internet Tendency for a few years, and seeing our cult readership grow, I decided that while there were probably too many books being published, the real problem was that there weren’t enough books being published by me.

TOW Books was going to be the solution. Back then I imagined that the challenge for most publishers was content, and since our titles would be good, and rigorously curated, so that if you liked one, you’d like them all, we would take bookstores by storm.

I know, stupid.

Now, after two years of, let’s call it, non-success, I understand that the problem is at least as much about publicity and distribution as it is about quality. (At least I hope that’s the problem.) So I’m here to announce that if TOW Books is going to fail at publishing, we are going to fail in our own spectacularly new way.

How badly are we struggling? Well, we’ve released four books. Their Amazon rankings at the time of this typing are:


The most distressing part is that last number belongs to a book I wrote, So You Want to Be President? — a book that should have been especially relevant and timely given that it’s a guide to running for office when totally unqualified. I hope it’s in Governor Palin’s briefing materials.

The plan was to dominate the humor section. My corporate overlords, F+W Publications, a nice bunch of folks with whom I’d previously done a book, were interested in branching out from their usual offerings, which focused on writing, reference, and various enthusiasms (knitting, painting on rocks, guns, baseball cards). We all agreed that we wanted to produce books that deserved to be read as opposed to simply looked at or flicked through. If not intelligent humor exactly, at least humor that extended beyond, “look, that’s a funny picture of a cat/dog/baby/federal employee” and “sometimes our president really does say some stupid shit.”

Jason Roeder, who became the author of the first book we released, put it as well as I’ve ever heard:

The humor sections of most bookstores are clogged with books that are really more like extended greeting cards. If you’ve ever opened a Shoebox Greeting and thought, “Man, I wish that dismal punch line pertaining to how decrepit I am at age 40 could go on for a hundred more pages,” I have some fantastic news for you, my friend.

Editing the McSweeney’s website had convinced me that there was an audience for the kind of humor that reached beyond a bloated greeting card.

Of course I was well aware that the humor on the website was not universal. Almost daily people wrote us email saying things like, “U think ur funny, but ur not,” or “My friend said your site was hilarious, but really, you suck,” or just, “You suck.” But the audience we did have was both growing and enthusiastic. I was pretty sure there were enough people out there who shared our particular sensibilities to support TOW. The audience I imagined, while not massive, was significant enough, particularly for titles where sales of a few thousand copies is cause for fist-bumping.

Was this arrogance? Of course. But editors are readers above all, and what reader isn’t compelled after finishing a good book to go up to someone and say, “You’ve got to read this”? If someone was willing to put a publishing company behind that urge, I wouldn’t turn it down.

From the start there were warning signs that things might not go smoothly. First, our planned launch title (to be written by me), a parody of a popular series of children’s books, was strong-armed out of existence by a threatened lawsuit from the publishers of the original.

What can I say? Sometimes you win and other times you’re crushed by the legal division of a publishing conglomerate.

The second problem was spawned by another section of the press release:

According to Mr. Warner, TOW Books will be dedicated to publishing titles with staying power instead of relying on slapdash parodies, designed only to capitalize on a current cultural trend and rushed to market to make a quick buck.

The first announced title to be published in early 2007 will be Kevin Federline’s Guide to Sudoku.

I assumed the joke would be obvious, but this little nugget was repeated in the Publishers Weekly coverage of our launch as fact. “The second Tow Books title, scheduled for release in early 2007,” PW reported, “will be Kevin Federline’s Guide to Sudoku.”

Perhaps my sense of humor did not translate as well as I thought.

Warning sign number three came shortly after this bit of erroneous information escaped. Word got back that there actually was significant demand from chain bookstores for Kevin Federline’s Guide to Sudoku, provided it could be produced quickly.

Warning sign number four was that I actually began working on FeDoku: Kevin Federline’s Guide to Sudoku.

Here was the opening of the book’s introduction, written in the voice of (the now-ex-) Mrs. Federline herself.

Look, I not stupid. I know that when the world looks at my husband that they see a former dancer turned third rate rapper who knows next to nothing about either shaving or birth control and managed to drag an A-list celebrity down to the D-list through the sheer force of his non-talent, but from the moment I met my Kevin I knew that he had it in him to do something really special and especially real, and now he has!!!!!!!!

In the first three weeks of the imprint’s existence I’d discarded our vision of humor that might endure beyond a daily news cycle for something more perishable than a chicken salad sandwich down Rafael Nadal’s tennis shorts.

Fortunately, because I was distracted by the threatened lawsuit over the other book, we pulled the plug on FeDoku and got down to the business of finding talented writers who could deliver funny books.

We quickly signed up three promising projects by authors whose work I already admired from editing them at By coincidence, the books all fell under the umbrella of “fake advice”:


    The books were hilarious. I laughed myself silly editing them. The F+W design and production people did a fantastic job. In my mind I began scouting for my future vacation home, which would be purchased with bonus monies earned from these runaway bestsellers.

    We launched them at BookExpo in New York, with special shot glasses filled with special Jack Daniels. We felt giddy, and not just from the booze. I began to picture my New York Times profile, where I would be crowned a cultural tastemaker. Somewhere in the article I would be referred to as “the Judd Apatow of the written word” — the piece practically wrote itself.

    In fact, nothing much happened, or at least not enough happened. There were a handful of reviews, the occasional notice in the media, face out placement in the appropriate sections of bookstores, and some, but not enough, sales. If a tree falls in the forest and that tree is turned into paper that goes into a book that doesn’t sell tremendously well, does the tree make a sound, and if it does, is it something like the silent scream of an author when the product of their talent and hard work disappears into the bottomless void? The sad fact, and I’m afraid that it is a fact, is that the reason we’re struggling is because very few people even know our books exist.

    Of course we at TOW Books aren’t alone in our struggles. Articles about publishing in decline appear weekly, if not daily. (Soon there won’t be enough book coverage in newspapers even to report on our continuing demise.) The vast majority of books, many of them as or more worthy than ours, suffer the exact same fate.

    People are full of helpful advice. “Use the Internet,” they say, but they don’t tell me how. The most common suggestion is to get on The Daily Show, or failing that, The Colbert Report. (As a sign of the sort of books we publish, no one mentions Oprah.) “The Colbert Bump” is a real phenomenon, and authors everywhere thank him for it, but as we well know, for the vast majority of books it just ain’t going to happen.

    At TOW Books, we’ve been doing what publishing has always done, launching books into the world and hoping something good happens. This usually takes the form of sending hundreds of copies to newspapers and magazines and radio and television outlets, hoping for reviews and coverage. If only we could get on Fresh Air we’d have a real shot! I would say it’s akin to throwing shit and the wall and seeing what sticks, but what we’re throwing isn’t nearly as sticky as shit, and the wall has millions of book-sized holes in it.

    I don’t know what ultimately happens to these copies — I have an image of editors and producers, or media gatekeepers getting crushed under toppling towers of books — but they aren’t getting assigned for reviews, they’re not getting coverage, and I have not earned the down payment on my summer home, so we’re not going to do that anymore.

    Instead, we’re going to give them to readers, and my hunch is that if you’ve encountered this message then you may be the sort of person we’re looking for. Really, if you think about it in this day and age of Amazon and blogs and Facebook and MySpace, and LibraryThing, and Shelfari, everyone has a public forum where they can express their opinions.

    If you want a free book in either old-fashioned paper or new-fashioned electronic form, we have a special website. Please, help yourselves. All that I ask in return for the free books is that you say something somewhere about them, even if it’s along the lines of “U think ur funny, but u suck.”


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