NEW PUBLISHING PARADIGMS
We’re living in a strange and exciting time in publishing, where technology is advancing so quickly, we’re all moving at light speed just trying to keep up with it. You may worry about what this means for writers and readers. Will we get left behind? Will texting, Twittering, web-based gaming and alternate worlds take over for the more gentle comfort of curling up with a good book?
You’ll be happy to know that far from this being the case, technology companies, publishers and booksellers alike already looking ahead, designing new paradigms to embrace this brave new world. Contrary to what we might fear – raising a generation completely taken with the immediacy of cyberspace and the brevity of texting – the National Endowment for the Arts’ shows an increase in literacy for the first time in the history of their survey conducted five times since 1982. And the increases aren’t insignificant! 7% among adults and 9% among young adults. They found that fiction accounts for most of the new growth among adult readers and that 84% of adults who read literature downloaded from the Internet also read books. How does this mesh with the tougher trends we’ve been seeing in the market? Remember that there are more new titles published each year (recently as many as 275,000 books according to the July 20, 2009 Publishers Weekly), which means that there are more books out there competing for an audience. Even though that audience is growing, this translates to a heck of a lot of competition. I’ll talk about some innovative ways publishers are reaching out to their readers, but first I want to discuss some of the new means we have of getting books into the readers’ hands.
Like me, I’m sure you’ve been hearing a lot about e-books and DRM (Digital Rights Management). Electronic books are still a small fraction of the total market but they are growing.
There’s been a lot of buzz – positive and negative – about Amazon’s Kindle, and there are a ton of other e-readers out there: Plastic Logic, the Astak EZ Reader, BeBook, COOL-ER and the Sony Reader. This year, Sony comes out with a new Kindle-competitive reader, the Daily Edition, that will have a touch screen and allow wireless downloads. In addition to offering books for sale, they’ve arranged free e-book offerings that can be downloaded from public libraries across the country, so that anyone with a library card can borrow the books for 21 days. E-books still have a few kinks to work out. The Digital Rights Management I mentioned – well, that allows companies to control access to material, either via encryption or proprietary formats. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes, yes, it’s so that the consumer has to buy a particular device in order to read a book, but primarily this is so text isn’t pirated or put up for free on the ‘net, cutting off a company and an author’s revenue stream. Remember, if authors don’t get paid, they don’t eat. Very bad for the creative process. However, DRM can also make it more complicated or impossible for readers without the right equipment or up-to-date software to access works electronically. It can also lead to problems like Kindle’s removal of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from not only their server own but from customers’ personal devices when they discovered a problem with the rights. No one can remove your ability to access to a physical book in your possession and you don’t have to depend on the technology still being available five years in the future. On the other hand, in the event of a fire, you don’t have an off-site back-up of the books you’ve bought. Clearly, there are trade-offs.
So, we’ve talked about e-Readers. But you probably know it’s not absolutely necessary to go out and spend a lot of money on a dedicated reader. You can now download books or widgets directly to your iPhone, iPod Touch, Blackberry or personal computer. There are also DRM-free sites, like Smashwords, which provide content without encoding. In addition, some companies, like Sourcebooks and former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman’s new start-up OpenRoad Integrated Media, are experimenting with enhanced e-books – not just the ungarnished text, but e-books with additional links, audio and visual components to enrich the reading experience.
And we’ve only been talking about e-Books. What about audio downloads? In my experience, audio books are thus far well outselling e-books. CD and cassette tape versions are pretty pricey in comparison to the printed word, but now with digital audio downloads available from sites like Audible.com, costs are much more competitive, and more and more people, particularly commuters, are taking advantage.
But here’s another thing to consider – with so much content out there, how do any books…print, electronic or otherwise…distinguish themselves? Well, here’s the thing …it’s long been known that word of mouth is the biggest seller of books. That’s right, it’s not reviews or ads or cover quotes or any of that, though they can help with the buzz. You can’t have a bestseller without creating a book that gets people talking and telling all their friends. And where do people do a lot of their “talking” these days? That’s right – on-line. So I’m going to get into some social networking sites and creative promotional ideas that might be a little off the beaten path. If you’re not yet published, you may still want to take notes, because all these avenues will still be open to you in a year or more.
One of the big buzzwords these days in marketing is “viral,” which essentially means something widely passed from person to person, creating a snowball effect. There are some wonderful examples of viral marketing out there to look to, one of the earliest being the promotion for the Blair Witch film. The marketing for this was brilliant, including a website that purported to tell the “real” story and background on The Blair Witch. The website garnered so many hits there were frequently times when it couldn’t be accessed, which only added to the mystique. The whole made-up tale was treated as fact and, like a true urban legend, the mythos spread like wildfire. HBO has done similar incredible marketing for their True Blood series, based on the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris. They’ve developed an actual website for the American Vampire League and created marketing campaigns for various goods and services as if they’re targeted toward vampires. For example, the ad in a.m. New York for Monster.com “When you sleep in a coffin, it’s easy to think outside the box.” They’re even marketing “Tru-Blood,” the synthetic blood substitute drunk by discerning vampires everywhere (in reality an energy drink) with slogans like “This blood’s for you.”
Others have gotten in on the act as well. Berkley, the publisher for Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires series created a course catalog for her fictional Texas Prairie University and the author has continued this with a recruiting page on her website. There are even hidden extras here and there that encourage readers to explore and stay awhile.
Some television series are keeping audiences interested in the off-season with on-line games, special webisodes or Twitter mysteries like the one currently running for the show Castle. The same methods can be applied to books –yearbooks for fictional schools, character blogs or dossiers, free short stories or bonus extras for fans. The keywords here are “value-added content.” Your audience is bombarded all day every day with marketing and promotion. You don’t want your efforts to say “buy my book,” you want to create a community and give something back, make the whole exchange more of a give and take. Art – any art – is partially a contract between the creator and the audience. Both contribute to the experience, bringing talents, expectations and imagination. With books particularly, the story is not fully-realized until someone reads it, allowing the characters to stretch their legs and live and breathe for awhile in their minds.
This is why so many publishers of books and e-books alike are reaching out to people on the social networking sites– running contests, asking questions and encouraging discussion, creating a sense of community. They’re also promoting their works through banner ads and buzz sites like AuthorBuzz , which reaches approximately 3,000 booksellers as well as readers and more than 18,000 book clubs. It’s been so successful, that the company is starting up Kidsbuzz to promote children’s fiction.
Other new partnerships include Dorchester teaming up with Textnovel for a writing competition, America’s Next Best Celler. Contestants get an account on Textnovel and must publish at least twenty chapters/6,000 words to the network by November 1st. The winner receives a Dorchester Publishing Contract. There have been other similar contests as well, including the partnership between Penguin USA, Createspace and Amazon for the famous Breakthrough Novel Contest in which writers compete for the top spots and a chance at publication.
Authors are also utilizing social networking as to build their followings: Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are all great resources, as are group and individual blogs. In addition, there are wonderful interactive sites out there that encourage readers to share reviews and recommendations: GoodReads, Shelfari, LibraryThing, Scribd. You can even buy books on-line in virtual worlds like Second Life (for adults) and Poptropica (for kids).
Let’s say your head isn’t spinning just yet. I promise I’ll log off the internet and get back to the real world very soon now. But while we’re on the subject, how many of you have passed along YouTube links to funny snippets or wonderful book trailers? Book trailers—short films that tease a book just as they would a movie—are wonderful examples of viral marketing tools and are even now being shown on television from time to time. Podcasts, video blogs (aka vlogs) and other multi-media presentations are also good marketing. Even the brick and mortar stores have come to realize this. Libraries now will often have video blogs from their librarians or web interviews with visiting authors to encourage readers. Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon all have discussion boards and blogs.
The internet is not just a great tool for getting the word out, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to reach a lot of people. Of course, it can be a huge time sink, so you do have to learn to balance your promotion with your writing.
Okay, so back to the real world. What’s hot and what’s not? What other trends are we seeing in publishing beyond the cyber circuit?
Well, for one, given the tough economy, the higher price point books are having a bit of a struggle. In other words, hardcover and trade paperbacks are down, though they’re far from out. Mass market is still holding pretty strong. One of the things publishers are doing in order to keep their price points down is aim toward shorter books. Authors who might have gotten away with 150,000 words in the past are being asked to pare down closer to 100,000. The reason for this is twofold. One, of course, is that the less paper it takes to print the book, the cheaper it is to print and the less a publisher has to charge to recoup their investment. The second is that if only a certain amount of shelf-space is given over to an author or a genre, four or five thinner books fit easily in the space taken up by just two thicker volumes. Publishers are also looking at cutting costs in other areas that don’t directly affect the quality of what they publish, things like printing fewer advance reading copies and doing more electronic ARCs instead, saving on editorial lunches and travel and trying to match print runs more closely to actual orders. It’s more cost effective now than it used to be to go back for a second or third printing, even in small numbers, than it is to warehouse books that don’t sell or take hefty returns.
Some publishers, like HarperStudio, are exploring new publishing models that mean less advance money for the authors but potentially more royalties on the back end. Rather than a hefty advance and then, say 8% to 10% royalties, authors will receive a more modest guarantee against 50% of the monies earned. Thus far, however, this model has worked best for non-fiction and other books with a built-in platform. Publishers have also been experimenting with models that don’t allow for returns, though that’s still a difficult sell to bookstores, who will order less if they stand to lose money on anything they can’t move.
Another new trend we’re seeing is serial novels. Okay, not so new, since NAKED CAME THE MANATEE (a novel with chapters written by many different authors, including Carl Hiaasen and Dave Berry, first serialized and then collected under one cover) is over ten years old, as is Stephen King’s THE GREEN MILE, but we’re hearing more and more about them these days, both in novel and graphic novel form. The Internet is a big venue for serialization, as well, of prose as well as webcomics. We’ve even of late seen novels published on toilet paper, like Japanese author Koji Suzuki’s horror story THE DROP.
Then there’s the wonderful high concept or gimmicky novel. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES falls into this category. Really, the title says it all. Quirk Books is to be commended for their phenomenal use of viral marketing in the promotion of the book to bestsellerdom. It might be true that there’s nothing new under the sun, but the way that very disparate elements are combined, like in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES or SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND SEA MONSTERS, makes things new. A great voice can do the same. Think of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books. What do you really remember? The mysteries or the antics of Stephanie, Lula and Grandma Mazur?
That said, though, it’s interesting that right now dark and sensual tends to outsell light and humorous, though there are, of course, exceptions. It’s also interesting that the boundaries between genres are falling. Romance, fantasy and thrillers are all doing well, as are their fusions – paranormal romance, urban fantasy and romantic suspense. Not only are the walls breaking down between genres, but the line between adult and young adult fiction is sometimes whisper thin, with as many grown readers as young adults picking up series like Twilight and Harry Potter. More traditional mysteries, science fiction and literary works are having a difficult time of it, but here’s the thing…trends come and go. Only a few years ago, thrillers were struggling and cozy mysteries were all the rage and you couldn’t give away urban fantasy. Now it tops he science fiction and fantasy bestseller lists. Don’t chase trends. The important thing is to write a really amazing novel with a wonderful concept, great characters, and a pulse-pounding plot. Maybe you’ll revitalize a genre or forge your very own path, but don’t stress too much about what’s hot right now. Trends ebb and flow, but a timeless novel is just that. You need to write what you’re emotionally invested in and what plays to your strengths. If you’re not invested in your work, a reader won’t be either. The best goal is to be a breath of fresh air, become the author to whom all who come after are compared, not the person riding the coattails of those who have come before.
New and debut novels are selling all the time. Remember that it’s the publishing industry. We’re always on the look out for the outstanding. We don’t have a business without you…the readers and the writers. Is the path to publication difficult? Certainly. But it’s never been easy to break in. It has, however, always been rewarding.