Monday, July 16, 2007

Apparently, it's my fault...

...that Brian has written an insightful piece on Black Crime Fiction writers. (Don't you love it when you get an email with the subject line It's all your fault! Being me, the first thing that goes through my mind is, What did I do this time and how did you find out?)

I was actually writing up something else for today. I’ve seen a number of reports and commentaries on the decision to give away Prince’s new album in a newspaper in the UK, and how it’s angered retailers, who are already suffering from declining album sales.

And I’ve been thinking about it a fair bit, because the debate rages over whether or not to give away books for free online and if this is hurting sales or boosting profile. There are a number of authors – and publishers – exploring the benefits of free downloads in an effort to attract readers to new authors, and even established authors are benefiting.

But Prince’s move to offer his album for free in a newspaper prompted his UK record label to drop his album. Prince is receiving a fee plus a royalty payment of nearly £500,000 from the newspaper for the rights to give away his new album. The publisher picks up the £750,000 costs of printing and promoting the CD. So Prince is certainly getting paid - and arguably more handsomely than he would have done based on the lacklustre performance of his last release, 3121, which sold just 80,000 copies in the UK.

I think the main reason that retailers are upset is not because Prince gave his album away: It’s because they were completely cut out of the loop and are unable to benefit from this.

The argument with books is that offering them for free online is actually increasing sales of books. Consumers check out a chapter, like it, and then buy the book.

In reality, I also think the reason that the book industry hasn’t been hit with the same backlash is that online sales are a drop in the bucket. Consider these numbers. DorothyL: approximately 3200 receive the digest. 4MA: approximately 1000. Members on Crimespace: 760 (approximately). The DaVinci Code sold more than 40 million copies (60.5 in print according to Wikipedia) and I assure you, I didn’t buy a copy, and neither did my husband.

Clearly, not every book-buyer is reading mystery digests. In fact, I’m aware of debut authors with targets of 25,000 copies sold in hardcover, based on their book deal. 25,000 copies. That’s a long way from 3200.

In reality, online book sales are estimated to count for less than 10% of all book sales, and I think 10% is considered generous. A lady at Kevin’s work heard his wife had a book published and asked for the information, started writing it down and then asked which stores had it locally. (My publisher doesn’t permit me to deal with books on consignment, so…) Kevin said it was available online. She put her pen down and said, “I don’t buy books online.” End of discussion.

My theory is that bookstores haven’t been as affected by freebies online because of the limited reach of the internet. I’m not discounting the importance of a web presence (I don’t even consider interviewing authors who don’t have websites. I simply can’t get the background information about them that I need and it drives me mad if I’m moderating a panel and there’s no information about the panelists. I’d like to introduce Joe Schmoe. He’s an author. Yeah, there’s a newsflash.) but I am putting it in perspective. Right now, the internet alone isn’t enough to build a career as an author, and therefore it isn’t impacting stores in the way that Prince's move clearly impacted music stores.

However, I think that authors and publishers should take note of this example and consider it carefully. We have two dogs. One of them is adorable in every sense, except one. When we built a pen for the dogs outside we built a big doghouse, big enough for the two of them. It's huge. Put shingles on the roof and with an earth floor it stays nice and cool in the summer, and always dry inside. But the dogs never lie in it. Why? Nootka prefers to poo in the doghouse. And what Prince did reminds me of Nootka's annoying habit. He could have struck a deal to give the CD away in stores as part of a promotion. Instead, he bypassed the businesses that have helped him earn a living from his music in the past. Perhaps he thinks that, being desperate for sales as they are, they’ll forgive and forget by the time his next album comes out. However, the laws of economics apply to businesses. Few people work for love alone. Given that Prince’s own record label dumped the album, he may not be a quick scoop by a UK label next time around. He may find himself cut out of the industry there. And if others follow in the freebie offering trend in the UK newspapers may not jump for another opportunity to spend a few million on him and his album. Has he put short-term gain ahead of his career? Time will tell.

The Rap Sheet recently reported on the proliferation of serialized novels and as this trend continues the industry would do well to remember bookstores. Rankin’s serial novel began a few months ago in the NY Times. I missed the release (which feels pretty pathetic, but there just isn’t a newsletter/forum/list network in place that circulates the latest in a timely fashion – “Inspector Rebus” depends on fans to volunteer info they hear about, and contrary to popular opinion I’m not on top of what everyone is doing). Kevin caught it and printed off the first section (because he knows I actually don’t like reading online) but he didn’t realize it was a weekly thing and missed the following installment…

Anyway, enough said. If I’d known when it was coming out I would have bought hard copies, but since I didn’t and live a considerable distance from anywhere that sells US newspapers I shrugged it off with an “oh well” and will wait for the printed copy next year.

However, if I had known in time to order print copies I would have gone with the original and possibly skipped the book.

I don’t think the serialized novels have hurt publishers or booksellers to this point, but there is a risk in giving things away for free that compete directly with what retailers are selling. People could consider that hypocritical, coming from an ezine editor, but this is something I’ve considered. Do ezines reduce magazine sales? I can only say I hope not. If I felt that it was hurting the industry more than helping, I’d evaluate what to do. But since most ezines publish only short stories and there isn’t a big market for anthologies and most magazines publish considerably more than short stories I don’t think we’re in competition at this point in time.

I do think, though, that there will come a point in time where publishers and authors should look at utilizing the value of free offerings as promotion in conjunction with supporting bookstores. I have the niggling beginnings of ideas in my brain, but those will be saved for some future date.

Meanwhile, my 2 cents is to pay attention. Make sure you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. As more people jump on the trend to serialize novels in newspapers and offer free ebooks we need to make sure we aren’t cutting booksellers off at the knees.

And be sure to go check out Brian's article. I'll have to finish devouring it when I get home from the library later. I'm a bit scattered today, as I have some major stuff going on, but nothing I can talk about. At least, not yet. : )


Unknown said...

As I've mentioned on my blog, I've thought about posting up one of my books for free, but one of the reasons I haven't is because I can't see it reaching much of an audience that way. Especially as my main audience is me and I'd choose paperback over electronic formats any day (I don't even like hardbacks much).

The Prince album-inna-newspaper is an interesting idea, but most of those CDs are going to get chucked without even being listened to. Giving away copies in a record store or making it available free online at least means people are obtaining it through choice. In this case, Prince has reduced himself to the level of the cheap plastic toys that sometimes crop up in my boxes of breakfast cereal.

I'd be interested to know how often online literary phenomena actually translate to success offline. I know most examples will be super-successful bloggers (who usually talk about sex), but recently I have seen 'The Book With No Name' by Anonymous in 3 for 2 offers and that claims an internet pedigree. It also looks a bit shit, but I haven't read it, so that could be an unfair judgement.

Anonymous said...

Not sure about free downloads, but I believe giving away books is important for a debut author and/or a debut series. And in the blog I'm tinkering with, I'm serializing a book (slowly) to be published next year. (Of course, I'm not giving up the ending until long after the book is out. Evil laugh.) Booksellers are a major recipient of my giveaway program. I hope I'm encouraging them to read it. I can't imagine doing something to tick them off.

Anonymous said...

I imagine that part of the reasoning of giving a book away for free is to create word of mouth. Chances are that even if Joe Smith liked your book and doesn't buy it he may tell someone else, and they'll tell someone and so on and so on.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Vincent, I do wonder how many of those CDs went in the garbage. And I wonder if the newspaper will seriously recoup their investment.

Jack, I'm interested in hearing how it works out. So far, I don't think anyone's ticked off the bookstores, but the Prince CD thing makes me aware that it would be possible, and probably a good thing to always consider that.

Sean, good point. I'm sure there's some word of mouth, although again, I'm not sure how much. I still think the internet doesn't have the reach authors would like, although that's changing.

Interesting that at least Vincent and I admit to preferring hard copies...

Anonymous said...

Giving books away only makes sense if (1) the giver believes the book will generate primarily goodwill and referrals; and (2) the giver understands the process will take more than one book. Giving away book #1 hopefully creates buyers for book #2 and 3.

Anonymous said...

This isn't the first time Prince has given away cd's of his music. A few years ago he gave a cd with every ticket purchased for his live shows -- and that's the big difference between music and books. In some ways, music is simply returning to a time when musicians made their living from performances -- like classical musicians do in most city orchestras.

Maybe someday authors will return to the days of Dickens and Oscar Wilde on tour, but it seems unlikely - or unlikely for more then a few authors.

Anonymous said...

I think the line "don't poop in your own doghouse" should be our new catchphrase.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I feel pretty silly, especially after Sandra said where she was going today -- books ARE given away for free everyday, it's called the library (sheesh).

The Toronto Public Library told me they order another copy of a book for every five requests they get. They have 26 copies of my novel (okay, I check, I admit it) so this means they got 130 requests (well, the book is set in Toronto, I'm sure that helps). Does this mean I lost out on all those sales? Does it mean those people will buy the next one, or just take it out of the library again?

I don't know. I'm just thrilled those 26 sold.

I don't know how publishers feel about public libraries, but I'm pretty sure if libraries didn't already exist there's no way you could get them started today. I don't know how they effect book sales.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Jack, I wonder if there's any real way to qualify the impact. How are you assessing the benefits? Just feedback?

John, I don't see libraries as being quite the same thing. Libraries still purchase books, for one thing, and they primarily provide a service to people who don't buy books. And there are also those who put a book on hold in the library, find out they're #127 and go buy it anyway.

The freebies I'm thinking of are the ones where the retailer has no chance whatsoever of making money from the sale of a product. This is true of online downloads and could be true of some serialized novels. It's just interesting to consider. Of course, if everyone starts giving stuff away for free, at what point does the market become so saturated with freebies that people stop buying?

I really have no idea. But I think the way Prince went about things with this album wasn't good. People have been doing all sorts of things for ages, but times have changed. The record stores are really hurting in the UK, and even if he only sold as well as last time, they could have really benefited from those sales.

Eileen, yeah, I love that phrase!

Anonymous said...

Great article. As a reader libraries benefit authors because these days you have to really believe in a novel before buying. So libraries are good because you try before you buy. Plus in Australia there's a tiny (so tiny) payment going to authors under the Public Lending Rights act. I also think that offering chapters and stories on-line help authors sell books again because you try before you buy.

This is also where e-zines help authors because it's an opportunity for readers to read a story and then follow up the author and see if they want to buy the book.

I agree about Prince's CD giveaway being problematic because it isn't a targetted approach to people who actually want music. I can see a lot of it dumped and it's a shame because through music stores it would actually be getting to people who want his stuff. Curious to see how it all ends up.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

You know (and I'm surprised no one has mentioned it yet) I cant help but be reminded of those old, thin, crappy, flimsy records that used to come in magazines, attached to packages etc.

Anyone else remember them.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I remember those, you had to put them on top of another record to play them. I can't remember any music that was on them, though...