Monday, March 23, 2009

and now what?

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the dangers of clinging to past ways of doing business. Contrary to what aging boomers like me believe, older experienced managers don't always offer the best ways of solving problems, because we're wedded to what worked for us thirty years ago, when we were starting out.

It's the book business that interests me most, and I realize that I've been only looking backward: I want small neighborhood bookstores, and book reviews and independent publishers so that a myriad voices can be found. Instead, we have megastores, online marketing, fewer juried review outlets, and a handful of conglomerates publishing blockbusters.

We're not likely to return to the recent past, but we need some of the key elements of the old model if we are going to preserve multiple voices, and if people are going to make a living writing, publishing and selling. We need a way to browse, as you can at a bookstore, and we need a way to get good reviews of many books. We also need a way for new writers to find an audience, which used to happen when the independent bookstores hand sold books like mine (I didn't become a national bestseller until my sixth book, and nor did Sue Grafton. Publishers today won't wait on slow bloomers like us--we get two books to break through, and then it's on to the new new thing.)

When I look at the blogosphere, I find it hard to cull out the voices I want to listen to. It's true there are some great book blogs out there, like BookSlut, but the big questions for all Internet media are: how can you make it pay, and how can you make it visible?

Similarly, if we move more and more to an e-book universe, how do you browse for books? The Amazon model, where they suggest "you might like Bloodsucking vampires of Outer Space" based on a previous purchase simply cuts out all other choices. The Amazon model also demands that you pony up a big cash outlay to get your book featured on their home page, just as Barnes & Noble demands a big cash outlay to have a title put in the front of the store.

So, my creative friends and readers, what are some ways to think differently about how to get books and readers together in the age of the Net?


Steerpike said...

Even in the changing marketplace, the key is still awareness, right? The more people know about an author and his or her work, the more likely they are to give some a try. After that I suspect many readers turn into loyalists, actively seeking out authors they know they've enjoyed in the past.

Since Amazon and other big retailers charge a lot of money to highlight individual works, can authors leverage advertising from smaller sites to build general awareness? Many blogs and sites that are just getting started will run banners for free or ridiculously cheap.

Another thought is to use a blog to provide readers a story that grows with time. I've found a couple of one-writer fiction blogs that are pretty good in some cases. Of course, coming up with another story and giving it away for free means daily work that takes away from your next bound project, but growing word of mouth that way may draw people to the stores when they find that an actual made-of-paper type of book is available from the same author.

Or you could use Twitter. I don't really know how, but everyone seems to be using it these days.

Libby Hellmann said...

I think the dearth of comments indicates we have no idea how writing and publishing should work in the future. At least I dont. I know what isn't working now, but to sketch out something that might is probably just a fantasy.

I do think one of the biggest problems emerged when writers began to be perceived as "content providers" rather than writers. So my first thought would be to free writers from that definition.

The other reality is that it just may not be possible to earn a living from writing and publishing in the future, except for the privileged few. So learning to live with limited expectations may be another unfortunate requirement.

I'm not sure how successful blogs and blog reviews are at driving sales. But they do build awareness and recognition. Same for Twitter. Hopefully that will yield sales at some point.

A weighty subject, Sara.

Barbara D'Amato said...

I've been hoping that print on demand machines would make it possible for small neighborhood bookstores to "stock" all the books in the world. If the machines sprang up everywhere, small bookstores wouldn't have to stock more than one of any item, so they could stock more titles, and it would relieve them of the problems of returns and shopworn stock.

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, good and hopeful point. Libby, I've been worrying that you're right about the changing realities. You're right, too, about being "content providers"--I think that was started by Simon & Schuster about 10 years ago. And it didn't help that pubs gave Grisham, Cornwell et al $8 to $12 million per book--can't be an inclusive house when your money is skewed like that.
Steerpike, these are really good suggestions--the first I've seen that start trying to work the Net for our benefit.

marla miller said...

Sara makes a great point about massive moneys distributed among a few big names. In part, this is why there are no marketing dollars for your books. And then there's the books that shouldn't be written by one-note headliners---I call this Hit&Run publishing---
PW just announced that a mid size house signed the former Miss California to a book deal---she can't speak or write but when has that stopped publishing from grabbing the money her headline making news has made?
Chicago authors, I teach marketing workshops to writers on the road--much learned from my own experience publishing with Simon & Schuster--the rest learned from rejection-
My columns are featured in The Writer Magazine and my rep. is solid.
Last word: marketing--you have to learn to do it yourself. Max Perkins and his kind are long gone.
BTW, I'm a southsider, born and raised in Mayor Daley's neighborhood.
Marla Miller