Friday, November 16, 2007

Do We Have It Backwards?

In communication theory, I learned about backstage and frontstage regions, how over time various mediums have eroded the barrier between frontstage and backstage. Decades ago we saw more segregation, between the sexes, between cultures, religions.

It has taken blogs and the rise of the internet to really begin to break down the wall surrounding the publishing industry, and I think even now there are many who would say they don’t completely understand it. As authors become more desperate to understand how to improve their chances of success with their books the result is a rise in opportunistic marketing gimmicks and people who prey on the desperation and prevailing misunderstandings about how the book business works.

I’m not even trying to claim that I understand how the publishing business works, and most of the stories I hear center around the idea of how the publishing business doesn’t work, it’s shortcomings. The only thing that seems to be consistent is the sense that things are out of your control. Even now, it’s often thrown about that nobody know what makes a bestseller. True enough, but I do know how to almost certainly ensure a book won’t be a bestseller – don’t distribute it, don’t send out review copies, don’t do any promotion at all.

One thing I find myself wondering is why any massive advances are paid to untested authors when nobody knows what it takes to make a bestseller. And then, I find myself wondering, if word of mouth is so heralded as the trump card, what makes the critical difference, why don’t publishers hire talkers instead of publicists? I mean, come on. For the cost of mailing out a book and say a blanket rate per book of $50 you could hire people to sign on to DorothyL, 4MA, Rara-Avis if appropriate, Crimespace, various author forums and get them to talk up the book. And if you’re really smart and strategic, you can get it in conjunction – get your talkers interacting with each other.

Oh, and (of course) have them post reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo…

If someone provided me with a book and paid me $50 if I liked the book I’d do it. Of course, that would be the trick with me, as I am a reviewer. But I could see the potential there. At a cost of well under $1000 it would be possible to generate a lot of discussion that breeds name recognition for an author and a book.

The question becomes, why doesn’t somebody do this? Well, I suppose it’s possible that I’m the first person on a planet with billions to have this idea, but I highly doubt it. That means someone already is doing this, and is so skilled at it that nobody has caught on, or publishers don’t believe in the value of word of mouth. I find both hard to believe. After all, this is the same publishing industry that invests in thousands of ARCs for books they want to push hard: 10,000 ARCs of The DaVinci Code were produced and mailed out to promote that book, generating profits in the millions.

I certainly don’t understand the publishing business, but I am always willing to explore options and consider possible improvements.

The genesis of this post actually came from a comment made by Steve Mosby in response to a remark I made.

Sandra: I still think it’s hard on newer authors in hardcover, and honestly, I haven’t found the book in bookstores in Canada at all. I’m blaming distribution and some new stupidity about delaying releases here (HarperCollins has done this in the past year, instead of giving us the books when they come out in the UK giving them to us several months later). Very irritating.

Steve: Sandra - hardcover is a bit of a problem, I admit. It’s rare for me to try out a new writer in hardback, unless the book looks especially great. They’re talking about the death of hardcovers over here, which would be a shame as, personally, I love them. But the book world is currently a little ‘opposite’ to other artistic industries in that way. Both DVDs and CDs, for example, often come out in a cheaper, stripped-down, ‘vanilla’ version first, and then the one with bells-and-whistles comes out afterwards.

Ever since I read Steve’s comment, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. I must admit to regret, catching on late to some authors as I have, that I can’t now get their work in hardcover unless I buy it used. And I’d really rather not. I love new books.

I have also had some conflict over the fact that my books will be coming out in mass market paperback release. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that they’ll be affordable and Dorchester has fantastic distribution, which was worth a lot to me after my experiences with SC. We did our homework, comparing the Canadian distribution of all the publishers who were possibilities. I can work a book here easily. It’s much harder for me to work a book that never gets in stores proximate to me.

But I have had this twinge of disappointment that I won’t have a hardcover of WBW or Frailty. Part of that disappointment comes from knowing that the books are every bit as good as what does get put in hardcover. I’ve shelled out the ridiculous $32 Canadian (and sometimes more) for hardcovers that are boring, predictable, contain typos and are perfectly forgettable, except as a source of irritation for the money spent on them.

Here are some simple truths I think we can all agree on. Some people are going to wait for the paperback, no matter what. They can’t afford hardcover, don’t like hardcover.

Some people are collectors and love hardcover.

And book profits are definitely impacted by used book sales.

The only thing I can safely conclude from that discussion is that there is a feeling that books are overpriced. One commenter goes so far as to suggest that blaming second-hand book sales for cutting into profits is an excuse the publishers use to pay less. There does seem to be some feeling that the publishing industry is gouging consumers amongst at least a few who are willing to speak up about it.

This is where some further erosion between backstage and frontstage regions might actually be helpful to the publishing industry. I think a lot of the cynicism we have for Hollywood carries over, even on a subconscious level. The media conditions us by showing us overpaid stars squandering money, breaking the law and getting off lightly. I’ve had people who’ve honestly been shocked to learn I’m not on easy street having a book deal, they really seem to think there must be a lot of money in it.

One of the main problems I see is that the authors are on the front lines. They’re the ones who attend the conventions, who sit for signings, who give interviews. And they get to hear the complaints. The result is frustration, for authors who don’t always understand why things go wrong, who legitimately wish they could eliminate the source of a reader’s complaint, but can’t. They often don’t even know who to talk to about whatever the problem was.

I skim blogs, so I hear the horror stories. Publishers pay for co-op space, and the stores forget. Authors turn up for signing events and there are no copies of their books on hand. I’ve lost count of the number of times I was supposed to receive a review copy of a book and the publisher never sent it out.

I keep going back to Steve’s comment, and keep thinking that maybe if we did turn the tables we’d see higher profit margins. Don’t put someone out in hardcover until they are selling phenomenally well, and then give them the bells and whistles for their extra money. Include author interviews, maps of the setting, whatever’s appropriate.

I’d spend money on that. I mean, Kevin spent £20, plus shipping, to get me a hardcover of Rebus’s Scotland.

There is a part of me that’s rather weary with the complaints about the cost of books. There are those who can’t afford new books, or many new books, and I do understand that. But I personally know people with thousands in the bank, with no credit card debt, with a $200,000 mortgage on a $400,000 property, with an inheritance worth more than that in the future, who buy food organic, eat out whenever they want, will spend $3 each morning on their specialty coffee, who will not buy books because they’re too expensive.

Many people have money to spend on what’s important to them. If you don’t have the money use the library: volume protects libraries from being closed down and raises their budgets. Buy used books from the library – it’s a system that supports authors with purchases of new books.

But dvd sales bear the proof that people who’ve seen a movie in the theatre will then pay for it a second time, and even a third. Hands up if you saw LOTR in the theatres and then got the dvds. We did. Both versions of the dvds.

I think the main difference is that people aren’t as willing to spend a lot of money on what might be a dud. It’s easy enough to go to a movie theatre and only spend a couple hours determining whether you like something. It’s harder with books, and taste is subjective (and some really don’t like spoilers) so reviews aren’t always helpful. I can understand why those who have nothing to do with the industry might be left feeling that there’s a snatch and run system at work – bring out the expensive version of the book first to grab the higher profit margin, and by the time the reader finds out it isn’t good it’s too late.

That’s the one thing I can say about coming out in paperback. $8 or $9 isn’t a lot to spend for several hours of entertainment, and I’m confident the books are worth it. Hopefully, this gives me a chance to build a readership. But even in hardcover, I wouldn’t be apologizing. Books, for me, opened my mind to new worlds, new experiences, helped me understand events of the past and made me think about the possibilities of the future. Reading is a skill, and it’s a journey, and it is all the books I’ve read before – good and bad – that have contributed to my growth as an author. TV networks have slogans like “Time well wasted”.

Time spent reading is time well spent, and if you find stuff you really, truly love… priceless.


pattinase (abbott) said...

SOmetimes you don't realize you're contributing to the problem when you buy used books on Amazon. It was one thing to buy then at a bookstore years later, but quite another to buy it the week it comes out used. Why is this allowed?

Brian said...

Concurrent format releases is an idea also that way people can get what they want.

But I like the DVD-type idea. First a book comes out in a cheap format (Like I've said before here, the publisher need to be like drug dealers and give the shit away in the beginning and get the people hooked), then you ramp up to a HC release and maybe throw in extras (related short stories, unrelated short stories, deleted scenes, an interview, an essay on influences, an abridged audio version -- i dont know something).

I also wish that bookstores and movie stores would sell bundled versions of the book and the movie instead of just slapping a sticker on the front cover/case.

Putting aside the fact that he's giving it away how many people would have bought a HC copy of The Blonde just to get their hands on The Redhead (a 50 page novella) if the initial run had been PB.

Randy Johnson said...

I'll admit to buying used books. They are usually for authors I'm not familiar with. Being disabled and on a fixed income, I have to mind the expenses. But here's the thing. When I find a new author I like, I have to find their old books. More used books. But from that point on, I buy every new book they put out. I do prefer hardcovers also. But you take what they offer.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Patti, here I go, saying something I probably shouldn't say online...

But if the MWA, the ITW and all these other organizations want me to part with hundreds of dollars per year in memberships, this is what I damn well expect them to be fighting for. Hollywood writers can strike, but we don't even have publisher support putting pressure on amazon to stop this practice? Give me a fucking break. If all the big publishers banded together and wouldn't give amazon the standard retailer discounts until they agreed to stop the practice, things would change. And from that perspective, I have to wonder about amazon - they're biting the hand that feeds them by contributing to the erosion of the book business.

However, my understanding is that publishers make more money selling foreign rights than they do from actually selling physical books, so it seems only the authors are as worried about book sales. (And I stress the word 'seems'.) Authors don't sell, they get dropped.

Brian, I love concurrent release. Love, love, love it. We do get some of that here, because the Rankin books will hit in trade paperback and hardcover simultaneously usually.

And I agree about the idea of bundled book/movie packages where appropriate. I love the idea of the special features. Hell, you could do an audio interview with the author and put the CD in with the special edition hardcover, that sort of thing.

Randy, I understand buying used, particularly in those circumstances, but the main thing I appreciate is you use it to test new authors and you will buy new if you like the author after that. Mainly, here, I encourage people where possible to use the libraries, and even buy used from the libraries, because they do support authors - we have a royalty system in place here for library borrowing. My primary grievance is with people who are loaded who gripe about spending $10 on a paperback. It takes me on average 8 hours to read the typical book. At a cost of even $20 that's not high for the entertainment value, and paperbacks cost far less (unless you buy trade).

More than anything, I just don't want a future where all there is is formulaic crap, and less and less choice in the bookstores, but we're already on our way to it.

Anonymous said...

My tuppence worth!

The problem with book sales is that not as many people read..
To prove that point, i don't know many people off line who do! It is in fact an interesting topic while out,
"Michelle reads!"
"Really, why ???????????????"

Anyway, our generation is filled with DVDS,cinemas,T.V,Internet and the rest.
People are much less inclined to spend the time on a book when they can watch the movie or whatever.
I've heard such comments made. It's sad to think people don't like the smell of a new book or don't look forward to some time alone reading.
It's just everyone is so busy!

Thats not to say no one reads. Us readers are still a strong group in this world. The thing is to remember not to let technology change things completly.

The idea of buying a book and dvd set is appealing to me. Something like that would do really well around Christmas.

Oh and Sandra, if you fancy paying me to talk about books, i'm on :O)

Barbara said...

Oh, boy, did this wake me up. Rant alert! Rant alert!

The idea of paying people to talk about books while pretending they're merely interested readers makes me physically ill. I'd have to stop talking to people about books for fear they're plants. I'd have to retire to a cave in the desert, only sneaking into bookstores when they're deserted. I wouldn't be able to trust anyone, and I might not hear about good books because I'd have stopped listening.

It's being done already - can't put my finger on it, but there was a thread somewhere about people talking up books in comment threads and bloggers growing absolutely furious about it, comparing notes, and outing the offender. (Some non-fiction work.... forget what.) I also knew someone hired by a political campaign to pose as a disinterested citizen on blogs and talk up their candidate or diss their opponent. This is insidious and unethical, and I'm sure everything is already being poisoned by it. It's the Karl Rove approach to getting the word out.

You know, I want people to buy my books, but when the industry performs badly I don't want to a) blame the consumer who doesn't know anything about the industry and just wants to read or b) trick the consumer into buying something because they're being nudged to do so by a flack posing as a friend.

And if we get the industry organizations to get active about it, great - let's follow the lead of the RIAA and really piss our audience off. How to grow the industry - not.

We have to find better ways to connect books with readers. Chiding them for buying used books is not going to work. Getting organizations to try and plug up the routes people are using to get books will not work. Others will spring up. The number of book swap sites already flourishing guarantees it.

AND THIS IS A GOOD THING! We need more readers, more healthy ways to introduce people to books without polluting their lives with advertising, and more ways to make it worthwhile to buy a book new. The very people we are considering offenders are our future.

Right now, what I'm hearing is a lot of anger at consumers for doing what makes sense to them - shame on them for spending three bucks, not $24.95! Don't they know I need the money? Well no, they don't. And if they don't even know you, why should they care? They are getting tired of being constantly shamed. Should we be ashamed for buying shoes at Wal-Mart because the person who made them lives in poverty? Sure. But we should think about what is going on in trade agreements and global politics and try to fix it, not blame people who can barely afford shoes for buying them cheap from people who can barely afford to live.

I'm really worried we're going to back ourselves into a corner where we're looking for a savior that is the offspring of Karl Rove and the RIAA. Which would be a total disaster. There has to be a better way, and it will require change and creativity, not shame and negativity.

Sorry about that. I think the combination of Christmas advertising and political campaigning is making me very grumpy. And hearing about the new Facebook plans to use friends for spamming has frustrated me, too.

Barbara said...

PS: just bumped the link I couldn't put my finger on over at John Baker's blog.

again, apologies for my grumpiness. I will be mulling over positive things to say, promise. I really do feel there's a way forward, and a lot of good reader energy out there. Otherwise, why would 600,000 people list 20 million of their books on Library Thing? We just need to find a new economics of publishing.

That's all. Easy-peasy.

It would be easier to say these things if my cat didn't keep pawing my keyboard as I type... god, everyone thinks he's a writer!

JamesO said...

"It takes me on average 8 hours to read the typical book."

It takes me longer, and therein lies part of the problem.

You can watch a DVD in a couple of hours (well, maybe not the Lord of the Rings;}#). TV shows are an hour tops. Anything that takes longer to consume, anything that requires, dare I say it, a bit of effort, is going to be knocked into second or third place when it comes to most peoples idea of entertainment.

Your wealthy friends who moan about the cost of books are really moaning about the perceived effort they have to put into a book, compared with a dvd or tv show, in order to get their entertainment fix.

The same is true when it comes to marketing books, too. Even to us dying breed of dedicated readers. Faced with a new author, I need some reassurance that their work is going to be worth my effort. Sometimes the fact that a publisher has gone to the trouble of a hardcover release goes some way towards providing that reassurance - in the same way that people will pay extra for perceived quality in food (just don't get me started on organics), they will pay the extra for a hardcover as it shows a greater commitment by the publisher to the product.

I think the publishing industry has a great deal to learn from the other entertainment media, but it is notoriously slow to change in its ways. And it will always be hampered by the fact that reading is a slow pleasure in a world seeking ever more instant gratification.

angie said...

You know, I was recently at an event at Changing Hands bookstore, and one of the big-wig booksellers made a really interesting point. She said the problem is that there are TOO MANY new books coming out. After I picked my jaw off the floor, I kinda got what she was saying.

Currently, a book has about six weeks to sink or swim. If the book doesn't take off immediately, the publishers will yank the book out of that valuable shelf space and put out another one. Part of the reason some books don't do well is that they are slow-build books not skyrockets. If there are another 10 books waiting in the wings for their shot at the big time, the slow-build book isn't going to have a chance. How scary is that?!

Some of the alt promo stuff is brilliant (Duane's "extra" for the second ed. of THE BLONDE is a fab idea), some of it is just another hyper-annoying permutation of BSP. Finding that balance is a massive challenge, especially when, as a reader, I'd rather the writers I dig be spending their time, y'know, WRITING, than psycho-pimping their books.

As for the sock puppets...well, it's gonna happen, and not always because over-zealous (and IMO unscrupulous) writers pay others to do it for them. It's actually pretty easy to just make up alt. web/blog IDs and say whatever the hell you want. The pressure for book 1 to do reasonably well is intense, esp. with the trend toward "hit now or you're outta here" continuing to build. Weird freakin' world, eh?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Barbara, you've hit the nail on the head for why I'm not on Facebook, or MySpace.

Sadly, there are gimmicks in every single corner, and people finding ways to use technology to advance themselves. The main thing about the "talkers" is this:

a) it would only work for a very short time
b) discerning readers would catch on
c) most of us on lists actually consider the source of the recommendations. I could see it working better on DL than 4MA where the group is more interactive.

The only reason I'd say I'd do it if I like a book is because I do it already. And if someone offered to pay me for what I already do, why not?

I don't particularly like that Amazon allows used books to be sold from their site along with the new. It is frustrating for those who've had it happen that the day their new book comes out someone can buy a used copy for 1 cent. It is frustrating for authors to understand why places sell ARCs when they're distinctly marked "not for resale".

I do wish Amazon wouldn't sell used books right there, but that's also the extent of my care on it. Do I think organizations should do something about it? I think that the question of whether authors are behind hurt from the practice to the point of being dropped by their publishers is one that we should be looking at, instead of redrafting the rules of eligibility for publishers every few years.

I also think that the reason it's coming up on the internet is because there is no venue for it, for authors to address some of these concerns. From the perspective of the Crimespace discussion, I find it interesting to see the reasoning people use on everything. I do think there are a lot of things we don't even bat an eye about paying surcharges on. As I've said elsewhere, my main roll my eyes response over grumbling about the cost of books (which is actually a HUGE topic in Canada at the moment because of the dollar issues, and even now books coming out in the US at $7.99 are being priced here at $10.99, which is fueling rage and forcing retailers to sell at the US prices) is that many of the people I hear it from - not online but in life - are people with loads of money, who buy their dvds and their x-box games and all that stuff, but grumble about the price of books. And honestly, I don't get that, and probably never will.

Going over to what Chel said - stats in Canada prove the reader numbers here are actually holding steady, and I've been provided with other data that shows book sales overall are actually up a bit in other countries, it's just that they're spread over more and more books because the number of titles being published has increased.

Stats also show specific shifts in reading habits based on the age of people, and a lot of people don't read in their 20s and 30s because of establishing careers, raising families, etc.

There's really only one clear point to make about hiring readers: it centers on the tired line I get from people that word of mouth is what makes the difference. This is their marketing plan. My question is, do publishers really believe that? if so, wouldn't they hire talkers? I have to guess they don't really believe in it, because they don't. I also know that individual authors recruit friends to talk up the books places, which is about the same thing. Is it making a difference? I'm not sure that it is.

So why is that the marketing plan bandied about so often? And if nobody knows what makes a bestseller, why does anyone get an advance over four figures until they've got a proven sales record?

There's really only one thing I'm intrigued by: to do with what Steve said about releases. I do wonder if we have it backwards.

Here are things to think about:
1. Hollywood has actually put so much pressure on us here over piracy laws that governments have been coerced to look at legislation.

2. Some people have complained that giving away material for free online (Spinetingler) is eroding the readership of print magazines.

3. How do we generate readers?

James, you're right, of course. Although I must say that my reading this year has taught me many of the best books aren't coming out in hardcover. Because they aren't coming out from bigger publishers, perhaps. Of course, best is subjective. Of my current top ten list for the year (which will change from what it is at the moment, I'm fairly certain, based off my current reading) half the books were original paperback releases.

Now here's another question I'd love to do a study on: Are readers more willing to try, or stick with a series, in paperback or will they follow to whatever format the author is in? James, remember my friend Marsha? Once she buys an author in one format she wants to keep her collection uniform. I wonder how many feel likewise.

Of course, my argument that giving things away builds a readership (ie: Spinetingler, and yes, used book sales too) is one that can be debated. Certainly there is a potential cost. What would I do if it was proven that the e-zine was contributing to a declining readership for print magazines?

I know the answer. I wonder what everyone else would say.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Angie, I already caught you in part with what I said to Chel above, about the number of books being published, but yes, that's one of the factors.

Of course, I'd like to see a breakdown by genre instead of just the arbitrary numbers because they encompass self help books and diet books and all that stuff as well.

And just wait until you see what I say about marketing in an interview coming out next year. You've made me laugh.

(And you're so right about alternate personas. Some of us actually speculate when new people turn up on lists... well, more so forums... if it's the same person under a pseudonym. I can't imagine doing that, but I've known others to do it just to agree with themselves in an argument.)

stevemosby said...

Well, I should probably say something, although my opinions are vague at best.

I can only speak personally, but I'm an avid DVD collector, so I often go for the special editions even after I own the stripped-down release. And this is because I'm interested in the features and the film-making process. With books I love, I'd happily shell out for an extra hardback that had an extensive interview with the author, maybe first draft material, research notes - whatever. An insight behind the scenes, basically.

At the same time, I can see that many people wouldn't do this, and so only very popular books would get the attention lavished on them. There have been a few I can think of - for example, Da Vinci Code and Labyrinth, both already best-sellers (and very visual ones at that). Also, the collector attitude with books is probably different: you want the early edition, not one that anybody can pick up. The scarcity is what makes a collected book valuable, which is at odds with the idea of producing a hardback for an already popular book.

I suppose what I'd be more against is an author being judged by their hardback sales, although thankfully I don't think most are. You're right about the foreign rights sales, I think. (I hope). I'm not against places like Amazon marketplace or Ebay, because I tend to admire the way individuals circumvent the systems they're given. No reason why they should do things the way they're told to by a company, after all. When my first book came out, the girls in my office congratulated me - then bought one copy on ebay and shared it around. People will do that, and it's not always simply up to them to change their ways.

A related question. You, as an author, are standing around at a festival. Someone approaches you with a pristine, proof copy of your novel and asks you to sign it. Specifically no message - just a signature. Would you do it?

Sandra Ruttan said...

"A related question. You, as an author, are standing around at a festival. Someone approaches you with a pristine, proof copy of your novel and asks you to sign it. Specifically no message - just a signature. Would you do it?"

I'd sign it.

I was so busy talking to Alexander McCall Smith I forgot to tell him my name, so he just inscribed the book. It's still here. But then I'm a selfish person and love my books.

The resale of signed books doesn't bother me. But then, I'm one of the ones who would buy the collector versions, so I'm weird. But I won't buy signed early editions of books used.

I know, I know. My contradictions are part of my charm. And don't you owe me an e-mail?