This is the beginning of a new series I'll be following up on regularly. Here, I'll be writing about publishers: big, small, and self. How they fit into the new publishing paradigm. What they can do to maximize their success given all the changes we're seeing today. About what big publishers can learn from smaller presses, smaller presses can learn from self publishers, and self publishers can learn from everone else. We're living in a fascinating time of epic change. And as with any industry with great disruption, publishing will see some groups able to leverage the change for greater success, while others remain mired in past practices and fail.
Book Marketing - The Old Way
For the last twenty years, most publishers in the United States have been heavily engaged in a vibrant marketing business. This book industry has spawned numerous book fairs, where publishers push their newest releases. Certain publications with only a few thousand readers each month are considered both successful and highly important, because they are a medium through which publishers can reach key book buyers. The entire model has been one of publishers producing books and then selling their wares to a very slim number of major book buyers at chain markets - Borders, Books a Million, Barnes and Nobles, B Dalton, Waldenbooks - and non-bookstore chains like Walmart and Target.
Over the last decade we've seen that market compress. Daltons and Waldenbooks went away, which was fine because they were simply absorbed by bigger competitors. Online bookstores were OK as well, because they were just more shelf space to sell books. Even Borders going under would not have been a disaster under the old model - loss of shelf space for a while, yes, but the market would recover.
But over the last ten years, things have been changing. Book buying has moved increasingly online. By some estimates, Amazon alone may sell half of all books in the US today, ignoring all other online booksellers. Online bookstores have several key advantages over brick and mortar stores:
- They have lower overhead, so they can charge less for product and still make money.
- They have centralized storage of books rather than distributed storage, therefore the shelf space is effectively unlimited. With ebooks, this has grown even more true.
- They represent an easy way for customers to browse books and get nearly any book they could want.
Which is all great for readers. But online bookstores represent a particular problem for publishers, because of that virtually unlimited shelf space. You don't need to sell books to an online retailer. They take all of them. They take every major publisher release, all the small press releases, and are now actively taking books even from self published authors and giving them the same shelf space as any NYC-published book.
Bookstores Are Changing
Right now, the last bastion of chain bookstores is in trouble: B&N is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The fact that they're considering spinning off their Nook as its own business spells out clearly that they're in trouble. The Nook IS the future for B&N. The only reason to spin it out is if they believe they cannot save the rest of the company, and are trying to salvage what they can before the rest goes under.
Indie bookstores are going under at a faster rate than ever before, and although we're seeing a surge of new stores open in the wake of Borders closing, and will probably see more open after B&N dumps the brick and mortar stores (or folds entirely), most of those will simply not be able to succeed in an environment where books are cheaper online, and online stores offer more breadth of availability.
The only brick and mortar bookstore which can survive these changes will be one which can offer books as cheap as Amazon, offer immediate access to as many books as Amazon, and still remain profitable. A difficult proposition (albeit not an impossible one).
Suddenly, we're looking at a near future where 80-90% or more of books might be purchased online (ebooks and print).
Now, on the one hand, that's OK. Publishers will still have a great outlet for books. It'll be online instead of in brick retail, but the venues are still there. But on the other hand, it's a problem because most publishers have spent a very long time becoming expert marketers...
...to chain bookstores.
Which aren't going to exist much longer.
Without the bookstore chains, all that marketing experience is out the window. There's no need for it, anymore, not when anyone can upload a book to online bookstores as easily as they can. There's no selling anymore. Suddenly the book fairs and expos are pointless. Kirkus loses its primary purpose (helping publishers sell books to retail chains). The massive industry built around that type of marketing is undermined and loses value. It's already lost value, and loses more with every brick bookstore closure and every new customer who moves to ebooks or online print book buying.
New Marketing for the New Publisher
Writers have been able to be their own publishers for a very long time now. Editing, cover art, and book formatting have always been available for people who wanted to create their own books. But in the past, almost all of these efforts failed, earning the (justly) derided title of "vanity publishing". Writers, and even to some degree small publishers, lacked one key ingredient: distribution. Major publishers had a virtual lock on book distribution. This has for decades been the primary value publishers offer to writers; everything else they do can be outsourced.
When the distribution lock went away with the dominance of online bookstores, it's left publishers in something of a pickle. Everything they offer, writers can now do for themselves, and generally do cheaper. A major topic last month at Digital Book World was what, if anything, publishers could offer writers to retain a good sense of value on their side of the deal?
I believe that the answer is marketing. But not the marketing of last year, done to bookstore chains that are dead or dying. Rather, I believe publishers must learn to market themselves effectively to readers.
Understand, most publishers haven't done much of this sort of work for a very long time. There's a serious learning curve attached. But writers out there are definitely seeing the value which an excellent marketing department can give their books. Ridan Publishing has seen virtually every book they have launched reach its respective genre bestseller list, and is now being approached by "name" fantasy and science fiction writers like Joe Haldeman interested in working with them. That's an enormous coup for a small press like Ridan. But writers as a whole seem to feel that their superb marketing department is well worth the 30% of net that Ridan keeps.
Yes, they keep less than half what a major publisher does for ebook sales, even though they do substantially more. And that's the sort of math I believe publishers are going to need to get used to in the near future; but pricing and royalty shares should be their own post.
Marketing isn't about selling to bookstores anymore. It's about reaching readers.
1) It's about building brand recognition as a publisher. Right now, most readers don't recognize the names of most publishers, or even care who published a given book. With a few exceptions (certain romance presses, and some science fiction publishers like Baen), readers buy a book for the author, not the publisher. This element is critical to change. Publishers need to build brand loyalty among readers to their specific imprints. What this means, for a large publisher, is that a central access point of shared resources should be used collectively by a very large number of small imprints. Each imprint would work with a small number of highly focused books, all of them excellent, all of them related enough in subject or tone that readers of one will tend to enjoy the others. Brand loyalty - to publisher, not to writer - is going to be critical in building publisher value.
2) Reviews are as important as ever. Which reviews are important has changed. At the moment, the most important book reviews in the world are probably the ones written by readers, on Amazon. Major industry reviews are no longer key to book success and will grow less so as brick and mortar retail continues to contract. The NYT reviews are no longer what they were a decade ago. Today, getting reviews where readers buy books is most important, and a set of disseminated reviews at various book blogs around the internet is second. You want reviews to be placed where readers can easily see them and have their fancy tweaked.
3) Direct customer relationships are crucial. Most of the successful indies and small presses I see today utilize direct relationships with their readers. One of the most common elements of this system is a mailing list. Twitter, Facebook, and blogs can be useful tools to acquire readers for your deeper connection methods (like newsletters), but by themselves tend to have only mediocre results in actually pushing sales. Social media is about connections, not about selling. Using it to build deeper connections with readers/fans is useful. Publishers must then drive those connections into brand loyalties, converting those brief connections into lasting customer relationships.
It's a very different form of selling from what most large publishers are used to.
I'm not sure how many of them are going to be able to make the shift. Those who do will probably excel in the new industry. Those who can't will probably see their market share and influence continue to diminish, and may eventually fold from the trade book industry altogether. No matter - for each that folds, I predict we'll see several outstanding new companies spring up to replace them, agile and adapting to each new change as it comes along.
As writer/publishers, owners of small publishing companies, or management at larger publishers, we face a significant challenge in the years ahead - to find ways to build our specific brands into something readers can have loyalty toward, and then leveraging that loyalty by continuing to consistently produce books that slice of the overall readership will love to read.
Special thanks to Kris Rusch, whose article here sparked the idea for this general response to one of the greatest challenges our industry faces today!