Monday, April 21, 2008

Where There's Trouble, There's Barbara Fister ;)

Okay, right off, I'm joking. However, I have been meaning to link to Barbara's article, What If You Ran Your Bookstore Like A Library? for a while. Some of you may recall that I quoted Barbara in the article I wrote on author marketing.

I think Barbara and I are pretty like-minded about the problems with author marketing and the increasingly pushy approach that's being employed and endorsed by authors on blogs, forums and discussion lists.

However... I'm going to play devil's advocate here for a moment. (Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater here - read on when your blood pressure goes down...) Do readers have any responsibility for the bad behaviour of authors?

Okay, I don't really think so. In fact, going over Barbara's article, there are several great suggestions for encouraging the purchase of new books - including the 20% discount off the next purchase. But this is what I got thinking about over the weekend.

It used to be that publishers would take 6, 7, 8, 9 books to nurture an author, to give them a chance to break through and have their backlist catch on. I mean, think of Ian Rankin. Book 8 in the Rebus series explodes. He wins awards and gains international recognition. And - joy oh bliss - his publisher has 7 books already published forming a backlist that's suddenly in hot demand. They're making tons of money off the breakthrough book and the backlist, and to date he's sold more than 17 million books worldwide.

Truth is, anyone in business knows you have to invest a certain number of years before you can expect to turn a profit. My brother-in-law runs his own business, my ex-husband used to. Different businesses, but similar philosophies. Don't really expect to be out of the red in the first three or four years. Sometimes longer. You have start-up costs, and more promotion involved early on in order to make people aware of you. Once name recognition and word of mouth kick in, then your costs level while demand increases (hopefully). My parents own their own business - that's definitely how I observed it working. Referrals alone drove a hefty percentage of work.

Increasingly, however, publishers aren't willing to put the investment in with newer authors and take the time for them to grow. While it's true nobody knows for certain what will sell, it's also true that failing to market the books almost completely ensures they won't sell. And that's a growing problem.

Publishers blame uncertainty in the industry. They blame declining book sales... in essence, they're blaming readers for not buying more books. Is that fair?

Well, I can talk out of both sides of my mouth here. For one thing, I love libraries, and used to work in one. But I'm a book addict, and I prefer to own my own copies. Other things - online book exchange places - don't resonate with me at all. I'd never sign on or get with that. Doesn't make it right or wrong, just totally not my thing.

I like new books. I love owning books. I love being able to refer to my favourites. I never want to be in a house with nothing to read when the power is out. I spend all day writing on a screen... I don't want to spend my evening reading from one.

So, publishers blame readers (without using those exact words). And readers blame publishers, for the rising prices, lack of promotional benefits with purchasing books, poor editing, photoshopped art. And who can blame them? If you're going to spend money, you want to spend money on a quality product and know you're getting value for your dollar.

Who really is to blame? It doesn't really matter, does it? After a while, it's like a feud or vendetta, the "he said, she said" scenarios where so many sins have been added to the first offense nobody can keep track anymore. The reality is, it's a vicious cycle, and the choices made by each side (for lack of a better term) cause the gap to widen and fuel the fire.

The fantasy/sci fi/horror community has had a lot of success with limited edition collectible books, some selling for over $100 per copy. Original art. Signed by the author. Beautiful work, all-round, and they sell out in a snap. Why? Quality product. We have a tendency to thumb our noses at those genres because they don't have the market share mystery enjoys, and yet they're wiping the floor with us with these beautiful books, and with promotion. There's no such thing as a mystery pioneer giving away free podcast downloads of their novel - fantasy & sci fi has been doing this for years. If we stopped looking down our noses, we might learn a thing or two from them.

This leads to what got me thinking about this, though. Lack of book sales=lack of publisher support to build a backlist=more authors desperate to sell well early on to stay published=all kinds of irritating and obnoxious promotional tactics under the sun employed by desperate authors afraid of being dropped by their publisher.

All I know for me is, I buy books. I buy a lot of books. I'm not responsible for the decline in book sales that's resulting in trimming from publishers, which is affecting the quality of art, editing and ultimately feeding the over-the-top terrorizing authors engage in in the name of promotion.

But how do we break the cycle?

I think Barbara is actually heading in the right direction. We can't blame libraries. They're to us what radio is to music, and believe me, I know first-hand musicians love radio. They get a lot of exposure via radio. And it doesn't matter how many times I've heard a song for free - if I really like it I have to get the CD for myself.

We need to find ways to foster a strong reading culture, and a strong book-loving culture. That's where our energy should be invested, as opposed to promotional gimmicks.

Here's one thing I've learned with the new book: nothing I do (other than writing the best book I can) can compete with bookstore real estate. That's why I've been encouraging people who are considering purchasing the book online to consider Barnes & Noble instead of Amazon. I'm getting good real estate in some B&N stores to coincide with my release. And let's face it - nothing in the world is going to trump the sales advantage from good product placement.

Likewise, there's little you can do to compensate for poor product placement, or a failure to get your book stocked in stores. A lot of authors are spinning their wheels working books that have an automatic limited potential, because they don't have the distribution needed to sell more than a few hundred copies.

People have money for their fancy coffees and eating out and movies and all sorts of other things. It isn't that people can't afford books (some can't, this is true, some are on fixed incomes - I'm talking generally here) but it's that people don't see the value in what they're getting.

That's what we have to show them. And I believe that if we can find ways to nurture a strong reading culture, we'll all see the long-term benefits. No, the problem in the book business isn't with readers not buying enough books...

It's that we've failed to listen to our customers to make sure we're meeting their needs and adapt to remain commercially viable without compromising quality. Just today, there's another discussion on 4MA about poor book editing, and you can hardly drop by The Rap Sheet and not see a recent post about copycat book covers. As long as the publishing business is feeding this kind of negativity, it's signing its own death warrant.


Unknown said...

Good post, Sandra, as usual.

One thing, though, that's changed in publishing is that the bigger companies are now part of "media conglomerates." A small press publisher told me recently that a 5% profit margin used to be okay, but these new companies all want at least 10% and that's brought about a huge amount of these changes.

It may be that books are a unique product and too different from TV stations and whatever else the Bertleman's of the world own and just can't produce those kinds of profits.

Publishing may actually be better off when these multi-nationals get out of the business.

John McFetridge said...

Ha, that's funny. I didn;t realize my wife had signed in on this computer. Sorry Sandra, that comment was from me. Ha.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Laurie, I agree. I think that's a contributing factor. I'm at a loss as to know how to change it, but I think this is one of the reasons more and more authors have gotten behind independent publisher and small presses. They respect the commitment to quality, and the genuine love of books and publishing that goes with the territory.

Randy Johnson said...

I wish I could support a brick-and-mortar store. My little town had a Waldenbooks until a few years ago. Now the nearest bookstores are in cities an hour or more drive away. The constantly rising gas prices have made such a drive just for books an impossibility. Gone are the days when I'd make that long drive, visit several book stores, have lunch, and drive home to examine the prizes I'd come across. I miss that. Amazon,or rather the mails(I'm a member of several book clubs), is my best and only option. I wish that it was different. You don't find that unexpected treasure shopping through the mails.

Sandra Ruttan said...

One of the things I'm going to love about moving is being close to bigger bookstores.

I think I'm going to spend a lot of money when I get settled!

I am glad, though, that you navigate the web Randy, and do find new authors. There's still hope for the odd new gem and random find. :)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Funny John, I just assumed it was this Laurie (

Barbara said...

Thanks for reading the article, Sandra. It was partly inspired by your blog and the good questions you ask here about the industry.

And as you know, business is my trouble. Wait, something's off about that...

The consolidation of media is a problem. I don't know why people expect books to magically make more money when publishers are bought by big companies.

But avid readers now can go well beyond a limited bestseller list and get a wide variety of books - from all over the world, so that's all good.

Randy, Amazon isn't your only option. A lot of great mystery bookstores sell online. The Mystery Company in Carmel IN, for instance, does that and they have free shipping. Doesn't necessarily help with the browsing, part though.

That's where my cunning plan to have libraries instantly supply small local bookstores comes into play. (Not that it will happen anytime soon, if at all, but we can dream....)

Daniel Hatadi said...

I'll have a proper read of this tomorrow, but I do remember you doing something like this to me, such a long time ago ... brings a smile to my face, it does.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh, god, 80s music... Duran Duran has not held up well over the years. (Shakes head and covers her ears.)