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.