Will Traditional Ways of Selling Books be Effective in the Ebook Era?

I participated in a discussion with several authors the other night concerning ways of promoting our books. For once, I didn’t say much, just sat back and listened to their suggestions for getting book reviews, getting the publishing company recognized by RWA and MWA, getting their books in stores. What struck me was that these were all traditional ways of promoting books. There was not a single mention of online promotion, of alternate means of promoting.

I’m the first to admit that online promotion doesn’t sell many books if you’re an unknown, but to be honest, I never said that it did. For me, online promotion has always been about establishing an internet presence. What I know about marketing books can fit on the head of a pin and still leave room for a host of dancing angels, but I figured that once my books reached a certain critical mass of reviews, sales, and readers (fans?), momentum (via the linked nature of the internet) would cause sales to mushroom. Hasn’t happened, but that’s the theory, anyway.

On the other hand, do the traditional ways work? Or, more importantly, will the traditional ways of promotion continue to work as ebooks supplant print books? I never thought that would happen —  too many of us prefer the comfort of a print book —  but recently two bits of information made me rethink my bias. First, the day after Christmas, Barnes and Noble sold a million ebooks. Second, a recent poll found that college students don’t read books. I’m not sure all those people filling up their ebook readers are actually going to read the books they download, but the fact is, ebooks are selling.

Does it matter that our books aren’t in stores if people are going to buy ebooks? Does it matter that we don’t have offline reviews if people will have to go online to buy the books? Does it matter that we don’t have book signings if there are no print books to sign? Perhaps I’m looking too far ahead. Perhaps print books won’t disappear until long after we’re moldering in our graves, but the ebook era is approaching faster than we imagined. We need to find news ways of promoting to meet the challenge. Oddly enough, blog tours are already so prevalent as to be almost useless. But what’s beyond book signings, reviews in magazines, bookstores? What’s beyond blogging, Twittering, Facebooking? That’s what we need to be considering.

McBooks

The book business is a very thin slice of the entertainment pie graph, but it is still big business. Moreover, it is a business steeped in tradition and antiquated business practices. There is a chance that the recent upheavals “just happened” because of the economy, the high price of hardback books, the younger generation (and even older ones) not as interested in reading. It could also be due to more people buying used books or patronizing libraries.

But I don’t believe it.

I tend to see purpose behind seemingly unpurposeful events. I don’t necessarily think that those at the top of the publishing food chain created this so-called crisis, but I do think they are taking advantage of it; they would be foolish not to.

Innovative technologies, such as the much-maligned print-on-demand (POD) publishing, put the big guys at a disadvantage. True, for now, POD-produced books are more expensive than those printed by major publishers, but that is because the machines are new, very expensive, and in the hands of only a few.

What will happen when these machines become cheap enough that every bookstore owner can buy one? A customer will be able to walk into a bookstore, browse through a catalog or display copies of books, make their choice, and in fifteen minutes the bookseller will hand them their purchase, hot off the press.

For the bookseller, this will mean a cleaner, more profitable shop. As it stands now, 85% of books in a typical bookstore sell less than two copies. It also means less time packing up books for return, less inventory costs, and the ability to offer an unlimited selection.

For the big publishers, it will mean no more costly print runs, no more warehousing overstock, no more returned books, no more shipping costs, no more having to destroy 25% of their product as they now do.

It’s entirely possible that as the technology becomes even more advanced, there will be book vending machines — customers make their choice, the machine prints and binds your books, and there it is. Who knows, there could even come a day when you order a cheeseburger, fries, and shake for lunch, and at the same drive-up window, order a book by Pat Bertram to read while you are eating.

Many people see print books as obsolete, taken over by e-publishing, and that is definitely a possibility, but I don’t think it will happen any time soon. Many readers like the feel and smell of books; other readers, especially older ones or those with failing eyesight, need the print format.

What I do know is that heads of major corporations are not stupid. Why would they put up with the ridiculous expenses of traditional publishing ways if they don’t have to? And with new technologies (some of which, I’m sure, we have yet to hear about) they won’t have to.

The end of the book business? No.

The end of the book business as we know it? Without a doubt.

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The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 3)

My guest blogger today is Dale Cozort, author of American Indian Victories. This is the third in a three part series discussing the future of books. Normally I don’t post such long articles, but I thought Cozort’s analysis was too important to edit down. Cozort writes: 

Part one looked at how the filters that keep readers from having to sort through a glut of really bad writing are breaking down.  Part two looked at how authors and readers can adapt to a world where the traditional filters are less uselful. Part three is kind of an “Empire Strikes Back” section.  It looks at how publishers might react to the new environment.  I’m not necessarily advocating these solutions.  I’m saying that companies or individuals may go these routes. 

Publishers could try to restrict the number of books published by raising the cost of entry.  In a lot of industries companies have prospered by making it difficult for competitors to enter the market.  That can be done a variety of ways.  Companies can raise the cost of marketing by launching expensive ad campaigns that only companies with a lot of cash can match.  They can get patents on key parts of a production process.  They can use economies of scale to reduce their costs far below their competitors’ costs.  They can dominate shelf space and exclude their competitors. 

All of those techniques other than maybe patents have been used to some extent in the book market.  None of them are likely to stop the proliferation of small print on demand or e-book publishers or the increase in self-publishing.  Expensive marketing campaigns can drive sales of some books up.  Publishers can’t afford to do those kinds of campaigns for all of their books though.  Lesser known authors with smaller sales potential can’t justify large ad budgets, and they are the ones most at risk from competition with small POD or e-book companies.  Economies of scale do make the cost of production lower for traditional large publishers as opposed to POD publishers but their return policies and the need to maintain inventories eat up much of the savings.  Dominating shelf space works in brick and mortar stores but is less effective at Amazon.com because there are no shelves to dominate. 

Publishers could work harder to establish themselves as reliable brands.  I rarely notice the publisher when I’m trying to decide whether or not to buy a book.  I look for favorite authors.  I look for attractive covers.  I look for exciting concepts.  I sometimes look at reviews.  I don’t recall ever buying or not buying a book based on the publisher. I may be wrong, but I think most readers are like me. 

Publishers may work to change that, marketing themselves as “name brands”-places you can rely on for high quality reading.  That’s tricky because quality in books is very much a matter of opinion.  Appealing reliably to a segment of the book buying public might not be hard, but a generalized ‘high-quality’ is more difficult.  Publishers could and probably should feature their imprint names more prominently on books and in advertising. 

Many if not most small POD and e-book publishers claim to be very selective.  Some of them may be selective, but it will take a while for those claims to be widely accepted by readers. 

I hate to say this, but publishers might also rely more on company owned pen names using a variety of ghost writers, and then promote the pen names.  That’s been done with various pulp and young adult series books from time-to-time, and publishers might extend it to areas outside of series books.  Frankly I hope that doesn’t happen.  Recognition is a large part of a writer’s compensation. 

Publishers may try to differentiate themselves by reinventing the book:  We have Web 2.0.  Why not Novels 2.0?  The idea is that the technology of publishing lets publishers do a lot of things they couldn’t do thirty years ago.  The design and layout of magazines, newsletters and textbooks have changed a great deal since the sixties.  The layout and design of novels really hasn’t.  Companies trying to differentiate themselves from the glut should be asking themselves how they can make novels more visually exciting for a generation with a short attention span, just as textbook makers and magazine editors have done.  They’ll need to do that without running up printing costs too much. 

So what would a “Novel 2.0″ look like?  I have some ideas I’m experimenting with, but I’m sure a professional design team could do better.  The key is to actually enhance the reading experience or at least not get in the way of it, while avoiding page after page of dull black on white that turns off younger generations of readers and avoiding a comic book feel that would turn off more traditional readers.  Good design could enhance the reader’s experience without drawing attention to itself. 

Going to some kind of “Novel 2.0″ design could do a kind of filtering by raising the bar for acceptable book design, making it more difficult for individuals without design experience to make a professional-looking book. 

Novels 2.0 might be easier in e-books.  An e-book doesn’t have to be a simple transfer of an existing book to electronic format.  E-book readers are just specialized computers.  That means that they can potentially do a lot of things that you can’t do on a printed page.  The current generation of e-books may not be able to do all of these things, but eventually the e-book version of a novel could have built in mood music that changes as you flip the pages (I would hate that and turn it off).  It could have a built-in audio-book version with good professional-sounding audio.  That would let you read, then simply switch to the audio version when you had to do something like running errands. 

E-books could have hyperlinks to pop-up boxes that let impatient readers find out more about a character or a town or some event that is mentioned in passing, or even pictures of characters or scenes.  For that matter they could even have small clips of video embedded in the pages at a few crucial points.  An e-book mystery novel could have clues to the mystery hidden in hyperlinks.  It could also have “Easter Eggs”-little hidden touches that could only be accessed by a special combination of buttons.  Easter Eggs are common in computer software and DVDs.  They’ll probably become popular in e-books too.  Readers might find an alternate ending that they never knew was there, deleted scenes, insights into some of the characters, backstory, or historical notes.  Some brave authors might even include earlier drafts of the novel as Easter Eggs or additional content. 

E-books could also have more color illustrations.  Adding color to a print book adds to the cost of printing.  In an e-book the only cost would be the illustrator.  E-books wouldn’t have to be restricted to black on white print color schemes.  Without the restrictions of having to be printed, pages could be as eye-catching as web-pages. 

All of these “Novel 2.0″ ideas might make it more difficult for an individual or a small publisher to create a state of the art book.  They would also raise a publisher’s costs.  Getting a state of the art novel 2.0 ready would require a person capable of creating professional-sounding audio, someone capable of making visually exciting interior page designs, probably a professional illustrator, and maybe even someone capable of making professional-looking video clips. 

From a publisher’s point of view, would standing out from the competition be worth the additional costs?  Would readers really seek out books written as Novels 2.0 rather than more traditional books?  How long would it be before little groups of would be writers, designers and illustrators found each other through the Internet and began producing their own Novels 2.0?  They might even produce Novels 2.0 before the big publishers do. 

Unless I’m missing something it doesn’t look like the old ways of filtering out “bad karaoke” writing are going to come back.  Some of the things I’ve talked about may bring back some of the filtering by “raising the bar” of talents you need to have in order to publish a state of the art novel.  Readers will still have to get used to a situation where they have more choice but they also have more junk to wade through. 

The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 1)
The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 2)

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 Dale Cozort is author of American Indian Victories.  Visit his website at www.DaleCozort.com.

The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 2)

My guest blogger today is Dale Cozort, author of American Indian Victories. This is the second in a three part series discussing the future of books. Normally I don’t post such long articles, but I thought Cozort’s analysis was too important to edit down. Cozort writes: 

Part one looked at how the filters that keep readers from having to sort through a glut of really bad writing are breaking down.  This section will look at how authors and readers can adapt to a world where the traditional filters are less useful. Part three will look at how publishers might react to reestablish their role in filtering.  

New Types of “Brand Names”: With the glut of books, readers are looking for ways of to be sure they are getting good quality reading material.  In that environment, “brand names”-names that readers have heard of-sell books, even if the names have little to do with publishing.  Celebrity is its own brand name.  Oprah’s book selections come to mind.  Fortunately or unfortunately, talk show hosts with the ability to attract readers are scarce. We probably won’t see book recommendations from say Jerry Springer.  (Shudder) 

We will probably see celebrities of other kinds acting as filters in various ways though.  Politicians like Newt Gingrich and actors like William Shatner have gotten into the book business.  Celebrity “bookshelves” or endorsements on Amazon.com and the like would sell books too, but would probably be too expensive in most cases, though actors and celebrities in certain niches might find that it’s a good way to keep their names in the public eye.  Would you be more willing to try a book from someone you’ve never heard of if it was on an Amazon bookshelf from say Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, Angel and Firefly) or one of the actors from his shows?  If you loved those shows you might, and if the quality was high, you might try others from his shelf (assuming that he had one).  Popular bloggers sometimes get into the book filtering business too, recommending books and sometimes writing their own books. 

Popular writers can act as filters too.  Authors do recommend promising new writers to agents and publishers.  They sometimes offer blurbs to promising young authors or recommend them in their blogs.  Some popular authors near the end of their careers as writers have taken to being “co-authors” with a collection of promising young authors, basically lending their name (and probably some polish) to books written mainly by the younger or lesser known author.  The popular author’s name on the book attracts readers, acting as kind of a filter while pointing fans to good new authors. 

I could see aging but still popular and intellectually active science fiction authors like Jerry Pournelle or Robert Silverberg doing virtual bookshelves of promising new science fiction on Amazon in exchange for a share of the revenue from any traffic driven to the books on their shelves. Another possibility: publishers could set up boutique brands of “X-famous author Recommends” books, letting the author act as screener and to some extent putting his status as a brand name on the line.  That might also be a way for an up and coming independent press to differentiate itself, though the cost of bringing a big name in may be prohibitive. 

Data Mining: In a world with a glut of choices in books, figuring out reader preferences and directing them to books they’ll like can be great for both authors and readers.  Amazon is often very good at this.  Their recommendations based on previous purchases can be extremely well targeted.  To some extent their data mining replaces the old bookstore owner who knew the customers tastes and could direct them to good new authors. 

From a reader’s point of view, sites like Goodreads or Shelfari can do some of the same things.  If I see a reader with ten or twenty percent of their Goodreads library in common with mine I know that there is a good chance I’ll like the other books they’re reading too.  Sites like that would be even more helpful for finding new books to read if readers could sort other readers by percentage of books in common.  Goodreads is to some extent an amplified word of mouth. 

Word of mouth/social networking: Speaking of word of mouth, it can be important as a filter too, but for some reason doesn’t seem to work as well for books as it does for movies.  Part of the problem is our diversity of tastes in books.  Social networking may amplify the role of word of mouth, but so many aspiring authors are trying to manipulate it in various ways that it may not be particularly effective. 

Websites/blogs: Author websites and blogs may give readers some idea if they are going to like an author or not.  From a reader’s point of view it’s probably a good idea to look for an author’s blog or website if you’re not sure you want to take a chance on a book.  If the blog or website is not professional the book may not be either.  If you don’t like the writing style on the blog, that’s a good sign you won’t like the writing in the book either.  The flip side of that is that authors need to make sure their websites look professional and make a good impression.  That’s a do as I say not as I do thing.  My website badly needs remodeling.  

“The Wisdom of Crowds”: A couple of years ago someone at social networking website Gather.com had what seemed to be a brilliant idea: Stage an American Idol-style contest for unpublished authors.  The winner would get a publishing contract with Simon and Schuster and a big boost in sales from their exposure during the competition.  It would be democracy in action.  Readers would choose who got published.  Well, for a variety of reasons it didn’t work out that way, though two reasonably worthy winners did eventually emerge. 

The concept has been tried a few times since then, both by Gather and by Amazon.com, but in both cases the ‘popular vote’ element has been toned down.  In both of the subsequent Gather contests, the eventual winner received little popular attention during the contest and little advertising boost from the victory.  I still think there’s potential in the approach, but nobody seems to have found the right formula yet.  All of the contests so far have suffered from a common problem: not enough impartial readers participating.  There is also an inherent problem with the approach.  If a publisher’s marketing people don’t like a book or understand its appeal that makes it hard for them to market that book effectively. 

Web forums: As an author, it’s a good idea to have some presence on various on-line forums related to your subject matter, but you’ve got to be careful not to let them eat up too much of your writing time.  You’ll also need to learn how to avoid trolls, flame wars and the usual Internet hazards.  If a major hunk of your potential audience decides you’re a jerk, then you probably aren’t helping yourself.  If you get a good reputation on the forums but don’t get stuff written you’ve defeated the purpose of the exercise.  Also, be aware that a good reputation in an Internet forum is a very transient thing, as are boosts from blogging and web posts.  If you don’t maintain a consistent presence any impression you have made will quickly be forgotten. 

Free samples: Baen Books, a science fiction publisher, has a program where people can download free e-books of some of their authors’ older books.  The idea is that readers will get hooked on the free samples and then go out and buy the newer books from those authors.  Apparently that has worked fairly well.  The key here though is that these are books that have already been through the filtering process at a traditional publisher, and the authors have other books that have also been through that process.  Giving away e-books is probably not going to work for most aspiring authors, though some other kinds of free samples may. 

New technology: The first few good writers who hop on a new technology that takes off can often establish a good readership.  In the early days of the World Wide Web it was relatively easy to establish a good-sized niche readership if you consistently had something interesting to say.  Good writers who jumped into blogging early and consistently did well.  Those niches fill up quickly though, and it becomes more and more difficult to attract readers.  Technology advances will undoubtedly open up more niches like that.  The key for aspiring authors is to recognize technologies that are likely to take off and get into them early.  That’s much easier said than done.  You can waste a lot of time on things that look promising but never really amount to much. 

So, do I have a magic key to solving the filtering problem and getting authors together with their audiences?  Yes, but I’m going to keep it a secret and use it to become fabulously rich.  Just kidding.  I don’t think any one thing is going to fix the problems or even that all of the things I’ve mentioned are going to solve the problems.  Readers, authors and publishers are going to be living in an environment where many times readers never find authors that they would love, where good authors often never find their audience, and where publishers never find authors the public would love.  At the same time we’ll be living in an environment where readers have more choice in their reading than ever before.  They’ll have to work harder to exercise it, but it will be there. 

Finally, if you’re an aspiring writer be a reader too.  Go out and do what you have to do to find good books from authors you’ve never heard of before and from publishers you’ve never heard of before.  You’ll find some “bad karaoke” writing, but you’ll also find some gems and reading those gems will make you a better writer.  When you find good writing tell your friends about it.

The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 1)
The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 3)

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Dale Cozort is author of American Indian Victories.  Visit his website at www.DaleCozort.com

Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (part 1)

My guest blogger today is Dale Cozort, author of American Indian Victories. Normally I don’t post such long articles, but I thought Cozort’s analysis was too important to edit down. Cozort writes: 

If you’ve been around aspiring writers much you know that a good percentage of them produce the writing equivalent of really bad karaoke.  You also know that there are undiscovered gems out there.  Until recently the book buying public has not had to deal with the ‘bad karaoke’ books.  We’ve probably missed a few gems too.  What we saw in bookstores was filtered.  Sometimes that filtering kept out good books, but it mainly kept readers from wading through an awful lot of crap. 

Like it or not, the filters are going away.  Good books are still being published but they are hard to find among increasing amounts of drek.  Readers, authors and publishers need to figure out how to deal with the glut.  If we don’t the book market will continue to spiral downward, with more writers pursuing fewer and fewer readers.

The key issue for readers, authors and book publishers is going to be how to replace the traditional filters and get high quality novels together with their audiences.  

In part one I’ll look at what has happened to the traditional filters.  Past two will look at potential replacements. 

So what have the filters been and why are they going away? 

Filter One: The Expense Of Putting Together a Manuscript: Until recently putting together an acceptable manuscript was difficult and expensive.  Personal computers and affordable laser printers made writing a novel and putting together a manuscript much easier.  Before  affordable PC and laser printers you didn’t just have to write the novel, you also had to type up the manuscript, then retype revisions, a slow and cumbersome process that kept many would-be novelists (including me) from ever sending a completed manuscript to a publisher. 

Affordable computers and laser printers let more people write novels.  Established writers could write faster.  The result was empowering.  A lot more people wrote a lot more stuff.  The result was also disastrous.  The publishing industry simply couldn’t deal with the increased flow of manuscripts.  That brings us to filter two.. 

Filter Two: Publishers: Publishers used to look at the stream of manuscripts coming in from aspiring writers and rejected the ninety-nine percent or more that for one reason or another they couldn’t profitably sell.  That took care of most of the ‘bad karaoke’ writing. 

Writers had little choice but to accept the verdicts of the publishers.  Publishing and promoting a book was expensive.  An author could almost never make money publishing a book independently.  Also, ‘subsidy publishers’ preyed on would be authors, charging exorbitantly to print unsellable books.  Most readers correctly felt that self-published books were mostly junk because if a book was any good it would have been published by a real publisher. 

The system worked for the most part.  Authors with enough persistence and skill could find a publisher.  Readers could know that the books they saw on a booksellers shelves usually, though by no means always, met a set of minimum standards.  Publishers prospered in that environment, taking most of the risks and most of the profits from publishing.  Most writers didn’t prosper, though authors who made it through the filters and established a name for themselves could earn a modest living at writing, and a few very big name authors became moderately wealthy. 

Smart publishers made an effort to find the few publishable manuscripts among the “slushpile” of unsolicited manuscripts they received.  That made sense because if they didn’t they not only lost out on a potential profit, but they also handed that profit to their competitors.  Good publishers also took pride in finding and nurturing new talent. 

Several things changed that system over the past several years.  First, the sheer number of manuscripts coming in made even skimming the slushpile more expensive.  Second, many major US publishers were bought out by conglomerates from outside the publishing industry.  They moved to the short-term “what is the bottom line this quarter” thinking that has destroyed so many US industries.  Many publishers also seemed to develop a “who needs talent when we have marketing?” view of the industry. 

Most major publishers stopped looking at unsolicited manuscripts a few years ago.  They farmed that function out to agents.  As the slushpile flood diverted to agents, those agents were also overwhelmed and most of the good ones stopped looking at unsolicited manuscripts too. 

New authors found it harder to get published by traditional publishers.  They also found it easier to take other routes.  Print-on-demand and e-book technology makes both self-publishing and being a publisher much less expensive. 

Some readers still look down on self-publishing and to some extent on being published by small POD or e-book publishers.  Part of the problem is lingering attitudes left over from the old “big publisher versus vanity press junk” dichotomy.  Part of the problem is that a lot of small POD and e-book publishers do publish “bad karaoke” writers.  

Small POD and e-book publishers have little short-term incentive to filtering out the junk.  Being selective can actually hurt a small publisher in the short-term because most novels will attract enough of the novelist’s family and friends to pay the bulk of the (very low) costs of publication. That makes it close to cost free in the short term to take a chance on a new novelist if the advance is low enough or if there is no advance.  Some, but by no means all POD publishers actually charge the author for publication, which gives them incentive to publish just about anything. 

At the same time, POD and e-books are in many ways a much more rational way of publishing books than the traditional publishing model with its wasteful return policies.  Some newer, smaller publishers are finding and publishing gems or at least books that satisfy certain audience niches more effectively than traditional publishers.  Readers who stick exclusively with traditional publishers do miss out on some good reading. 

Filter Three: Bookstores.: Up until the last couple of decades, bookstores acted as an additional filter, with small bookstores owned by people who were also avid readers  Those bookstore had limited shelf space and did not stock books that they didn’t like or think would sell. 

That changed in two waves.  First, bookstore chains pushed most small independent bookstores out of the market by stocking a larger selection and charging lower prices.  That cut out much of the filtering function of bookstores.  More shelf space meant that bookstores didn’t have to be as careful what they stocked.  Loose return policies meant that if a bookstore overestimated many books would sell it was the publisher’s problem, not the bookstore’s. 

The increasing power of the chains also made the market less responsive to local preferences.  A local bookstore had to know what would sell locally and order accordingly.  Owners often knew and talked with customers.  That was much more difficult for chains. 

Second, Amazon.com rose to challenge the chains.  Amazon lists books at very little cost to themselves and do almost no filtering.  Best sellers from big traditional publishers are listed along with self-published “bad karaoke” POD books.  Amazon reviews can give some idea of the quality of a book but they’re fairly easy to game. 

So the traditional filters are disappearing.  Readers can’t find new authors they like among the glut of “bad karaoke” books.  New authors often can’t find a publisher, and often can’t find an audience even if they find a publisher.  Traditional publishers no longer reliably find fresh talent and increasingly rely on marketing rather than talented writers.  That shrinks the market by making books less attractive to younger readers. 

So how can all of that be reversed?  I have some ideas.  They’ll be in part two.

The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 2)
The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 3)

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Dale Cozort is author of American Indian Victories.  Visit his website at http://www.DaleCozort.com

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