How I’d Sell Books

I’ve had a fair amount of time to think lately, and musing about publishing issues made me consider the haphazard way books get publicized at present and how I’d alter things, if I were made Bookworld Queen. Books aren’t like bars of soap, their best qualities are not the pretty wrapper and the promise of a well-known brand name and yet it feels like that’s how they are sold, that and the relentless thumping home of a handful of titles. Books are ideas, they are slices of society, they are questions and they are challenges, they are also comfort, pleasure, excitement and escape. And their authors are artists, creative gold, and should be respected and used as such. To this end, I would:

1. First get my authors to cancel all their individual twitter accounts, blogs, facebook pages and all the other social media that dissipate everyone’s attention and energy. Consolidation is what we’re after, that and exclusive access to information.

2. Start up the most interesting newsletter ever, using my authors’ talents for writing. They can post about their work in progress, the genesis of their ideas, the research trips they undertake – think how great it would be for readers to become engaged by a novel in the production stage, how their interest and curiosity might be whetted by the non-fiction writers talking about how they approached their family over their tell-all memoir, or how an author first realised s/he needed to investigate a forgotten moment in history! The bookshop shouldn’t be the first place I hear about a new book. And I’d make sure there was space for all my authors over time, not just the few who are known about already.

3. I’d also engage readers in the working of the publishing house – there’s drama and excitement there – debut authors to be presented, the vision of publishing that’s currently being created, former editors musing over their relationships with classic authors…

4. Now for events. I’d be tracking down the right sort of locations for regular event evenings. Sure, I’d have readings occasionally, but I’d also want to put groups of authors together for discussions, tying books in to what’s going on right now in the world. It might be the release of a big film, or some current event, or a new cultural trend. I’d get the academics in with the editors and authors to debate where fiction is going (but NO boring death knells for the state of the novel!), school groups for fun activities, and sometimes there’d just be a ‘come and meet’ party (Christmas and midsummer). Then, I’d reach out to all the interested groups in the area – the bookshops and libraries, the book clubs and writing groups, the schools. I’d want to build relationships, work out what the community responded to, try to have a little control over creating the buzz, not desperately following it like headless chickens.

5. Authors create, publicists publicize. So it’s up to the publishers to work on having the best network of media contacts, and a huge network of readers. To whom they could send the now fabulous newsletter, and who would also be interested in the events. The publicist helps authors to place articles in newspapers and magazines, and to give interviews on television and radio. The publishing house is responsible for both media contacts and reading audience, they need them for every author they work with.

6. But authors are creative gold. I’d want to get my authors together regularly, for something informal and laid back and creative, a sort of workshop-plus-pub visit. They can work together to come up with ideas for book programs on television and the radio, and then the publicists would put those ideas into sellable form (because that’s their job, not the authors’). The authors need to keep thinking about that newsletter too, how to keep it innovative and fresh. And I think authors need to get together with their own kind to spark off ideas and keep excited in their own projects. Who knows what might come out of friendships and collaborations?

7. If I wanted to sell ebooks, once their novelty value has worn off, this is the perfect place for deals. Anyone who buys a hardback novel should get an ebook free – so they can take that book on the daily commute rather than leave it at home. When an established author puts a new book out, how about an ebook bundle deal, whereby a handful of backlist titles are sold alongside the new one? There could be ebook subscriptions for the genre readers: a book a month, get readers interested in authors they might not have tried otherwise (a great testing ground for new authors, too).

8. I’d use bloggers properly. I’d have a database in which to log their interests, which books they’d been sent, and which had been reviewed. If a blogger didn’t review, say, three out of five books, I’d strike them off the list. For crying out loud, we are the only sector of the market guaranteed to buy or borrow books for ourselves. Being sent a book for review ought to be a privilege and we should be professional about it. At the same time, I don’t review now for publishers who don’t say thank you when I send a link. There should be reciprocal benefit here. Publishers should get their reviews, and bloggers should get increased traffic. Links to reviews should all be put on the website, and tweeted, and publicized in all possible ways.

9. Finally, the website is the place where everything comes together. The newsletters are stored here, photos from previous events, details of upcoming events, all the reviews for books, all the latest deals and competitions, news and gossip. With a happening website, it makes sense to sell books from here, too. I have to say that on the two occasions I have tried to buy books direct from publishers, I have ended up at amazon out of sheer frustration. Penguin (who I think should be named and shamed) was my worst experience. A different shop for different imprints, so it took a while for me to track the books down, and then when I wanted one book from each of two different imprints, I couldn’t seem to combine my order. It was madness. A clear, easy, reliable shopping system, with big deals on pre-orders and featured titles, that’s what I’d want.

So this is the result of sitting around, not being able to type – overthinking and empire building! These are just my ideas and I’m sure people can come up with better ones. It was just fun to speculate. And keep your fingers crossed for me – at the moment, my arm does seem to be slowly improving.


Ebooks: Publishing Shoots Itself in the Foot

I get very tired of misleading headlines in the media, which continues to be biased against the conventional book. On the BBC website the other day there was an article entitled ‘Sales of Printed Books Slump in 2012’. This was based on the statistic that the revenue of the paper book market had fallen by 4.6% across the past year, a loss of around £74 million in the UK.

However, a spokesman from the Bookseller declared that ‘In essence, people are buying more books but they are paying less for them’. This is because the ebook market rose about 5% to 13-14% of the market share (the article admits that ebook figures are hard to verify) and the fall in profits is the result of heavy discounting by publishers, with many books being sold at rock bottom prices.

I think this is what they call a ‘loss leader’, a way of enticing consumers into a new market in the hope they’ll become hooked. There are a couple of problems with this, however. The first is that the much lauded growth of ebooks is really not that impressive. When CDs were introduced in the mid-80s, they rocketed ahead of vinyl, with market share growing 20-30% or more each year. This is not surprising; the CD marked an evident improvement in the experience of listening to music: consumers enjoyed much better sound quality and durability with their new purchase. Ebooks don’t improve the book that’s being read, and at best they imitate the experience of ordinary reading. Then there are the surveys that indicate some reluctance by readers to switch formats. This blog seems to have access to good statistics and claims that last year nearly half the kindles given as gifts in the UK had still to be opened, a month after Christmas. And this year’s survey claims that a third of people given eReaders in the USA used them once before putting them aside. Ereaders are not the unqualified success publishers hoped they would be in converting non-readers into readers. As for increased durability, well, let’s not get into the problems of power failure, problems with amazon, issues of obsolescence and the interesting situation that will occur the next time a main publisher hits the wall. Owning an ebook is only loaning one while the company lasts.

However, between the huge discounts the publishers are offering and the tsunami of self-published works currently flooding the market, readers are having their perception of value altered. I heard publishers fretting about this at a literary festival event I attended: if a nicely produced book retails at around £10, it will be considered as a good gift. However, if customers begin to associate books with the price of a pound or 99p, this is far too cheap as a gift option. But of course canny consumers will become increasingly reluctant to pay more for their own reading needs. If there is a ready supply of books at this extremely low rate, who would pay more? Add to that the wealth of reading material available online for free, and suddenly books aren’t commercial products any more, they’re moving towards open source.

My feeling all along with ereaders is that they are a welcome addition to publishing as a multi-media industry. They are great for readers who do a lot of travelling – communting to work and so on. They can be very good for people with poor eyesight, as the font can be easily increased. My friend with MS loves hers, because she can put it down on a table, saving strain on her hands (although watching her try to use the teeny buttons below the screen can be painful). But this doesn’t account by any means for all the people who love reading. The problem with the ebook is that it is fundamentally a gadget, not a significant technological improvement in the act of reading. They are a great addition to the options we have for reading, but as a replacement for books, they are not entirely satisfactory. And their main effect so far has been in efficiently reducing the overall value of the book market.

To say this, though, is like an act of treason in the current climate. I think this is because there is a powerful fantasy at work in our culture that insists technology is a force for great good. What’s new must be better than what’s old. The end of the nineteenth century was supposed to have witnessed the collapse of the ‘grand narratives’, which is to say the stories surrounding religion and science that supposedly showed mankind headed towards a state of perfection, stories that explained life and gave us optimism for the future. At the end of the twentieth century, I think technology has given us a new boost in such fantastic endeavours, a sort of steampunk rewrite of the old grand narrative of science. Whether that’s true or not, the stories remain skewed towards the celebration of ereaders and the derision of paper. But right at the moment, publishers have paid huge amounts to create new departments to handle ebooks, they have put thousands of hours into creating digital archives and paid substantial legal fees to sort out nightmare problems of rights. And all this to provide consumers with nearly free books. Who says businesses aren’t charities?