Saturday, January 31, 2009

Commenting on the commenting...

Over at Jason Pinter's blog he has some people expressing their ideas on how to fix publishing. There's some interesting stuff being written, mostly about things publishers need to do surrounding marketing, promotion, business models, eBooks, etc. There very well might be some good ideas to be be pulled out of these suggestions but I still have to think the biggest problem is the big houses move towards "safe" books. Books like the Harry Potter series, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo prove that there are readers who will flock to exciting, compelling books if they're published. The problem is the large houses need to be willing to step outside the lines more often, trust their readers more, and quit feeling the need to only publish the "commercially relentless" cookie-cutter genre books that they're mass producing in droves. Anyway, I'm going to comment on some of the comments on Jason's blog, but first I want to make one obvious observation: indie bookstores are crucial for the health of publishers and the future of books, and right now they're struggling. A few years ago NY City had 4 mystery bookstores, which for a city of over 8 million people doesn't seem like that much. Now they have 2. When Small Crimes came out I had an event at Robin's Bookstore in Philly (the oldest bookstore in that city), and the owner, Larry Robin, impressed me as being someone passionate about books. A few weeks after the event, he announced he was shutting down, saying it's impossible in today's climate for a retail bookstore to survive. This same scenario is playing out everywhere. If you truly care about books and their survival, buy your books at your local indie bookstore--even if it costs you an extra buck or two. When the people who are the most passionate about books are out of the picture, then we're really in trouble.

Now for commenting on the commenting:

Author John McFetridge suggests that all formats of a book be released at the same time: eBook, hardcover, paperback, etc. As an author I hear John, especially with the price of hardcovers they're mostly only for collectors and libraries these days. But publishers have a good reason for releasing paperbacks a year or so after hardcovers, and that's so that the reviews, word-of-mouth, etc., generate interest for the paperback, so I think this would end up sabotaging paperback sales. Putting out eBooks and hardcovers together does seem to make sense.

Sarah Weinman is asking the industry to take a bottom up approach, make the reader more involved in the process. I think that's already happening. 100s of thousands of books are being either self-published or given away free on peoples web-sites/blogs, and the few that garner attention have been getting bought by NY. Again, the real issue is if NY could move past "safe" and commercial books and trust their instincts and readers, more of these books would be published by them initially, instead of going the route they've been going.

Scott Siglar talks about using podcasting to generate large audiences for books that were ignored by NY, and later was able to get contracts for. His point is that publishers need to watch the free content out there and see what books are proving themselves. I think NY is currently doing that, as Scott and Seth Harwood have proved. The problem is the "free content" will soon become a mess as 10s of thousand try to duplicate the success of Scott and Seth in podcasting, and David Wellington in blog serializing. The real issue again is NY taking more risks and not rejecting these books in the first place.

David Montgomery suggests the industry promote reading as a leisure activity, I guess sort of like a "Got Milk" campaign. While authors like Ian Flemming and Walter Mosley were helped a lot when John Kennedy and Bill Clinton were seen with their books, that was more readers finding out about those authors as opposed to new readers being created. Ads featuring celebrities reading books or "the cool kids" reading aren't going to get kids away from their video games. But again, as the Harry Potter books show, if publishers put out compelling books, readers will flock to them.


Jack Rice's Thrilling Adventures said...

Dave, I believe the New Depression (note to history, I used it first!) will change media in fundamental ways. The first Great Depression (this is Son of the Great Depression? Bride? BFF?) created pocketbooks and pulp fiction. Writers who would not have found a venue were suddenly freed and found a market. The same will happen with 'New Publishing'. The shape of that is too extensive for me to go into here, but there will be those who understand how to reach today's audience and those who don't.
The ones who don't get it will fail under the environmental stresses of the current economic problem (the Bush Depression?)

Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

the first depression changed publishing because there were not a lot of alternatives. With DVDs, video games and home computers people have many many other cheap entertainment options and I don't think we will see a repeat of what happened last time.

Dave Zeltserman said...

adding to what Jon said, libraries have also gotten a lot more sophisticated, and with interlibrary loaning you can get just about any book. This current depression is going to see book sales drop while library use increase dramatically (while probably also seeing library funding get slashed).

Gonzalo B said...

I have a few questions about the bookstore side of the business. Is it really that unprofitable for big chains to distribute more titles by small presses like Stark House, Wildside, Pointblank, Busted Flush, Crippen & Landru, etc.? Likewise, is it really that profitable for them to be overstocked with every books from James Patterson and similar authors, including titles that are old and unlikely to sell many more copies?

I'd imagine that the people that buy mysteries from small presses tend to be "hardcore" readers that buy more and more often than the average. shouldn't these businesses cater to them or do they constitute a small audience anyway?

A diversified offer tends to be one of the appeals of independent bookstores (albeit less and less since in trying to survive they're also favoring mainstream titles at the expense of rarities). Maybe the bigger stores could follow their lead. These days, it's almost impossible to find a Stark House/Crippen, etc. title at Borders or B&N and that includes their websites. I can't imagine how offering more titles would hurt them (and I guess this applies to all genres and topics, not just mysteries).

Dave Zeltserman said...

Gonzalo, I'm by no means an expert on this, but I believe the large chains are like supermarkets where publishers pay for shelf space as well as premium displays, which knocks out the smaller houses. My publisher, Serpent's Tail, uses Consortium for US sales, as do a lot of the other higher-end independent houses like Bitter Lemon, Akashic and Soho Press, and while they have an active sales force they deal almost (entirely??) exclusively with independent bookstores. It's kind of nuts right is promoting Small Crimes on their mystery book page yet the book isn't in any B&N stores. With the tiny publishers like Point Blank, etc., they may not have any sales force and may be content in either simply selling online or having their authors get the books into stores.

John McFetridge said...

Hey Dave, now a comment on the comment's comment ;)

I think your point and mine actually work together - with houses moving to more "safe" books, specialty bookstores closing and newspapers cutting down drastically on reviews, there really isn't much "excitement" generated from a hardcover release for any books other than those safe ones.

Certainly not enough excitement to last a year.

Add to that what Jon says about the competition for our time and a book really only has a very small window to get a sale - in any format.

Also, I believe what will really sabotage paperback sales are e-books. When the price of the e-reader and e-books come down - as they will - it's the mostly disposable mass market paperback that will be lost.

But we'll see. Anything can happen, really.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Hey John, now to comment on a comment^3

I think word of mouth can still be generated even without a lot of reviews. You're still going to have 10,000 or so readers reading the book from the library, excitement generated from the web, as well as other readers who try the hardcover and from the eBook (I agree, eBook and hardcover should come out the same time). And you never know when any book is going to get great reviews--Small Crimes (trade paperback) came from nowhere with very little marketing in the US behind it to get amazing reviews and make bests lists (NPR, Washington Post). My publisher, Serpent's Tail loathes putting out books from the same author less than a year apart because from their experience it takes a full year for that book to be absorbed, and I think there's something to that.

I think eReaders are probably great for students and editors who need to load up dozens of books to carry around, but I think there's one practical reason that's going to turn off the average reader. For me personally books I buy are in one of two categories--books I cherish and want to preserve, and disposable books that I don't care if they get damaged when I take them to the beach or traveling. eReaders are going to get damaged and lost if used in that way, and with their expense how many people are going to be willing to buy their second or third eReaders after losing/breaking their previous one--or be constrained on where you bring it and how you read?