Innovations publishing should try

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

I call May and June Convention Alley. Three major events that focus (mostly)  on books occur one after the other: Book Expo America (BEA), which is the largest of the shows, focuses primarily on general market publishing; International Christian Retailers Show (ICRS), which hones in on Christian book publishing; and American Library Association’s(ALA) annual convention, which brings together librarians of all stripes.

With all these bookish people rubbing elbows in large conventions, many discussions regarding publishing’s present direction and future pBusiness walking crowd rushing people Royalty Free Stock Imagesossible directions occur–some planned as part of the conventions and others spontaneously. That makes Convention Alley an important space to ponder: What’s up with publishing?

e-books’ continuing impact

A bookseller at BEA made this statement that appeared in Publishers Weekly’s report on the show, “If I sold an e-book to every customer who came into my store, I’d be out of business in a week.” That’s a pretty disturbing statement considering the slow erosion of print book sales by digital sales. And the comment points out the importance of e-book selling for a comparable price to print books–if we care about bookstores  staying healthy.

Many general market bookstores are discovering what Christian bookstores have known for a long time: You have to sell–and often emphasize–product that goes way beyond books: gifts, garments, music, jewelry, etc.

Also experiencing the significant impact of e-books are libraries. Publishers and  libraries have yet to work out a relationship that enables libraries to stay relevant and able to easily loan e-books. Libraries are an important and steady source of books sales. But if publishers make it onerous for libraries to loan e-books, which generally is the case today, is publishing acting in its own interest?

The need to find innovative ways to reach the reader

Both bookstores and  libraries do something that publishers have been hard-pressed to figure out: gain access to readers. Pundits have been telling publishers for several years that they have to figure out how to reach niche groups of readers and to do so directly. But the industry is having a hard time shifting to that paradigm.  And maybe it’s not what publishing should be doing. But what about finding creative ways to connect with readers through a space they already occupy: bookstores and libraries?

Another possible way in which publishers could increase sales is possibly offering annual digital subscriptions. That  would  serve two  purposes: It would make readers more aware of the publishing houses they buy their books from (“I had no idea I liked so many HarperCollins books!”); it would bring regular sales since a buyer would turn to his or her subscription source before looking around at what else was available.

Or here’s another thought: Studies show that many digital book purchasers also buy the print version of books. Why not offer a package deal that would cost more than one format but would be a saving to those who want to buy both? This could encourage more readers to buy companion formats. We know people like to do this; how can we encourage them to do it more?

Or what about a reader having the opportunity to buy in collections. Say, purchasing all the mysteries in a series or even a series of cookbooks at once? This could be a way to give a boost to a completed series (sell that backlist!); or the publisher could make this more of a subscription-based approach with a discount offered to those who subscribe when the first book releases. What if the publisher could automatically upload the next book onto the subscriber’s e-reader? Any of these prospects could provide publishers with the assurance that a certain number of sales would sustain a series rather than the publisher anguishing over whether a series was coming to its natural end or could go on for several more books.

Help the mid-list author

The segment of authors who have been hit hardest by the myriad of changes in our industry is the mid-list. These authors have had 10, 20, or even 30 books published, but they haven’t “broken out” yet. That doesn’t mean they won’t. It often takes having a hefty number of titles available for readers to discover an author and then decide to buy all of that author’s books. Generally authors require (okay, get ready for this) a decade or more to move out of the mid-list range and into the top tier. Obviously a lot can go wrong in that decade, including the author running out of steam. But publishers find it increasingly difficult to justify continuing to invest in that building process, which could be to everyone’s detriment. A publisher has put considerable resources into an author who is mid-list. Might it pay to provide another push to see if the author can become a best-seller rather than deciding to stop publishing someone who could just be coming into his or her own rhythm of writing and development of voice?

What could that publisher support look like? Teaming a mid-list author’s book in a special offer with a best-selling author who writes in the same genre is one option. Or creating a series that includes top-selling authors and mid-listers. Brainstorming with the mid-list author ideas for a new series that has a tremendous hook and then having that author tag-team writing alternating books with a best-selling author.  This idea would work especially well if the publishing house selected a mid-list author and a best-selling author represented by the same agency. The agent would recognize that such a plan could boost sales for two clients. Another possibility: When a best-selling author is making an appearance at a bookstore, add a mid-list author to the event. As the long line for the best-selling author discourages some buyers, they’ll stop by to check out what the author with the shorter line has to offer.

If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about traditional publishing, what would it be?

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55 Comments

  • BJ Hoff says:

    Great ideas, Janet. Hope lots of the people who need to read this *do* read it.

  • I am fascinated by the publishing industry and thoroughly enjoy these insider briefings you give us. So thanks.

    I am encouraged to think it often takes a decade or more to break out of mid-list status. Knowing this creates more reasonable expectations for me and long-term determination within me.

    With my magic wand, I would only make publishing’s machinery move along faster. However, the more I learn, the more the glacial pace makes sense.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Bill, I’m pleased the decade-long mid-list status encouraged rather than discouraged you. I was concerned how readers would take it; so it’s nice to know at least one person wasn’t devastated by it.
      On one hand the glacial pace makes sense, on the other, traditional publishing needs to pick up its pace to stay competitive with self-publishing. That could happen if publishing beefed up its personnel, which it’s reluctant to do until it can show greater profit digitally. But increased profitability is beginning to occur so we can hope faster turnaround will be one place publishing invests in.

      • Lisa Bogart says:

        I was encouraged by the “decade” comment as well. It made me feel like I was on track rather than desperate to figure out how to make a bigger splash. Keeping up good work is the thing to do. The turtle and the rabbit right?

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Lisa, I laughed at your turtle-rabbit analogy. Precisely. And let’s all remember who won the race.

      • I have to admit the comment of how long it takes to break out surprised me, but I also feel it helps to keep my journey in perspective.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Cheryl, yeah, publishing itself doesn’t always recognize just how long it can take to build a writing career and make an author “an overnight sensation.”

  • I can’t choose just one thing, Janet. You have so many good ideas. I am totally on board with the ebook/print combo since I am enjoying my Kindle app but I can’t give up my love of paper. And I have always loved collections, especially when they come in a cute box. Maybe I’m nerdy or OCD, but if I enjoy a book or two in a series, I like to have them all lined up on my shelf. And I adore the bestseller/mid-list author team idea. Multi-author novellas have become so popular, and I love reading those because I find great authors I had not heard of before. Great blog post for a Monday, Janet. It’s invigorating to read about publishing, and now I’m even more enthusiastic to get busy this week with my reading and writing. Maybe some day I’ll have my own cute box collection….

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Meghan, you are so not alone with liking to line up a series on your bookshelf. My client, Robin Jones Gunn, has had both her Glenbrooke Series and Christy Miller Series re-released multiple times. Each time the covers are redesigned, there’s a major boost in sales from readers who want matching covers on their shelves.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    Love the idea of pairing the bestselling and mid-list author! Like the band that opens for the superstar. I think it’s an especially great idea for the CBA which, I think, has a reputation for cooperation more than competition.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Sarah, you’re so right that not every best-selling author is willing to be paired with a mid-list author, but there are ways to work around it that make both authors happy.

  • Andrea Cox says:

    All wonderful ideas, Janet! I hope whoever my future agent is thinks like you.

    Blessings,
    Andrea

  • Janet, this post is like liquid gold! So insightful and packed with brilliant suggestions!

    Thinking beyond the box is what will enhance traditional publishing.

  • Larry says:

    I’m used to finding often brilliant perspective and ideas regarding the industry here, but todays blog, Janet, is one of the best by far!

    The subscription model is a fantastic idea. It allows for publishers to get a steady, quantifiable source of revenue, and can allow for them to share titles that readers of a particular genre might not have known about or felt inclined to read, possibly introducing them to a new favorite author or series (and would go along with helping mid-list or new authors).

    The physical / digital combo is also a great suggestion. Other entertainment industries already do this, such as allowing for Blu-Ray and DVD combos (or a Blu-Ray copy and a digital download “ticket” for the purchaser), and it would allow to bridge between traditional format readers and those who prefer e-readers.

    The ability to buy an entire series would be great: I don’t know how many books I’ve read at a library and went to go buy newer books in the series, only to realize some of the books that were too “new” for the library but “old” in regards to their place in the overall series weren’t stocked in stores.

    And supporting mid-list authors just seems to be the basic business sense the industry is lacking. Putting all marketing resources and capital in a select few mega-authors means that if those authors don’t sell, the company is in a bad fiscal situation.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Larry, thanks for the compliment. I appreciate your comment about how hard it is to actually buy a series in a bookstore or find the entire series in a library. I hadn’t thought about that when I wrote the blog, but you’re absolutely right that it’s challenging for a reader to find all the books of a series after discovering one of them.

  • Judy Gann says:

    Janet, thank you for mentioning the need for publishers and libraries to find common ground when it comes to e-books in libraries. I posted a link to an article on this very topic on Library Insider’s Facebook page today at:

    http://www.facebook.com/libraryinsider

    I’m certain e-book lending will be a major topic of discussion at the ALA Convention next week.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Well, Judy, you and I accidentally coordinated in our posts today. Yes, we’ll definitely see lots of reports coming out of ALA on the library-publisher relationship. I’m at a loss as to why these two entities, who have the same goal of reaching readers with books, have had such a hard time agreeing on what digital loaning of books should look like.

  • Janet, your comment about helping the mid-list author reminds me of the brilliant compilation of five authors recently in the form of The Trust Chronicles. Their ideas were innovative, and they beautifully combined the gifts of authors at different stages in the publishing process.
    So many great ideas here today.

  • I love the concept of making digital and print sales work together instead of fighting each other. Personally, I would like to see an option where I got a discount on the print edition if I had already purchased the e-book, because if it is good enough for me to want to loan to friends, I almost always end up buying it in print.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I agree, Megan. Plus I’ve found readers who enjoyed a digital book want a print copy to put on their bookshelves. We re-experience the joy of a book just by looking at its spine and remembering. I love to run my finger down a row of books and recall the wonders of each volume.

  • I can see the benefit or parentering for me, the mid-lister … I just don’t know why the best-seller would care for that arrangement. What would they gain?

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Stephanie, your readership doesn’t necessarily neatly cross with the best-seller’s readership; so the best-selling author will increase his/her reach. But also, the best-selling author might love the idea of the series and want to participate but can’t write an entire series alone because of other writing commitments. Also, if the series is with that author’s current publisher, it provides additional books to sell. If with a new publisher, that publisher would be interested in showing the best-seller just how great their marketing and editorial departments are, and the best-selling author would benefit from the energy the publisher would put into the project. And then there are the finances. The best-selling author would almost certainly receive a larger advance and higher royalties.
      The reason I mentioned the best-selling author and the mid-list author being represented by the same agency is that the agency would be interested in advancing the careers of both clients and would make certain it was a win-win arrangement.
      But, wait, Stephanie. You ARE a best-seller!

      • One thing that might come into play, too, for best-sellers is their desire to help other authors.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Cheryl, that is an additional reason, but Stephanie is right to assume the best-selling author would need to have additional compelling reasons to join hands with a mid-list author. That might not always be the case, but I know how many demands are made of best-sellers. Their problem is the opposite of the unpublished author–too many opportunities are offered so hard choices have to be made.

  • Obviously the bestseller wouldn’t gain a thing partnering with me. I can’t SPELL ;-). “Parentering” ?????

  • On the ebook front in regards to libraries, is there anything to be learned from Britain? I seem to recall that authors in Britain earn royalties from the lending of their work through libraries … which says to me that publishers earn $ as well. That would require a huge shift in America and libraries are already strapped for $, but I’m just adding it to the discussion, because perhaps it could make the ebook issue better for both sides of the equation somehow.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Stephanie, I remember being shocked when I heard that British libraries paid royalties each time a book was loaned out. I’m not picturing both the library industry and the publishing industry reconfiguring how the finances work; it’s too grand a leap for both parties. Both publisher and author would benefit, but then we don’t know if publishers in Britain sell the books for a bigger discount and therefore the math might work out about the same for the author and publisher except on the best-selling books.Of course, libraries are cash-strapped, as you said.

      • Judy Gann says:

        I agree with Janet. I can’t see libraries and publishers reconfiguring their finances. Libraries purchase their books through major distributors such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor rather than directly from publishers.

        One interesting exception is some publishers are experimenting with selling e-books directly to a few libraries, rather than these libraries purchasing e-books through Overdrive, the main e-book distributor. Personally, I wonder if this might provide the key to solving the publisher/library e-book dilemma.

  • Wow, Janet!
    This is an amazing list of excellent marketing ideas that would be a boost for all involved. And there is a need all the way around too.
    I especially like the pairing of the print/ebook.
    The mid-list author is often so close to making that break-through when a decision to let them go changes not only their future, but the loss for faithful readers AND future followers.
    The need to diversify and sell more than books opens the door to the imagination. I recently suggested an idea for my children’s books to my illustrator that would filter on over to my pre-published novels.
    What I love most about Books & Such Literary Agency is the commitment of all the agents to honor God first, and the faithfulness to your clients so above and beyond what is in a contract.
    May God bless you ladies as you attend these bookish events and be assured you have a faithful prayer team backing you up every step of the way.

  • Micky Wolf says:

    As always, Janet, a great post–full of good information and ideas. Your insights help with the ‘push, pause, and persevering’ parts of being or becoming a (published) writer. :)

  • These are great ideas! I would love to see a publisher subscription model like you suggested.

    It seems to me that if large publishers are going to enter more seriously into a direct relationship with the reader, they need to consider two levels of branding. At the top level is the branding of their name with respect to quality. In other words, crafting a strong brand image that tells the reader, “Harper Collins books are well edited and well designed.” At the second level is the branding about specific genres of content; for example, using strong sub-brands that readers will seek because of the nature of the content itself (“Harper Collins Romance”). In other words, one level of branding is a quality signal, the other is a content signal. These two levels require very different strategies in terms of brand building. I’m sure they work on their branding to some degree like this now, but the tactics will need to be modified to more consciously engage with readers in a direct relationship.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Natasha, the two levels of branding ring true to me. Publishers seem to see-saw between having clearly defined imprints and in-house divisions that only make sense to the super-connected industry professionals. But a clearer name for each division would be helpful to everyone. Excellent suggestion!

  • This is an exciting and insightful post, Janet. I would love to see all of these things come to pass.

    I think if I had a magic wand, I would want to see stronger support groups on the local level for authors and maybe reviews of local books by the weekly papers.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, I love it when local media support an author. More of that would be grand. this weekend I read an article in our local paper (our city’s population is approximately 150,000) about a grade school teacher who had her first children’s book published recently. The article filled an entire page and had a big photo of her and her dog (it was a story about rescuing dogs). Maybe authors need to give their local media more opportunities to say yes!

  • I have absolutely nothing to contribute to this blog post. Janet, I’m just amazed at the way you think! Your clients are blessed.

  • Giora says:

    Thanks, Janet, for this post and I have a question about ICRS. Are there really popular international Christian novels? Is there a market for a novel, set in China and the US, where a young American Christian woman introduce Jesus to her friend, at young Chinese woman? Thanks.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Giora, your question seems straightforward, but it’s actually kind of complicated. The “international” in International Christian Retailers Show refers to the many publishing representatives from other countries who attend the show to buy rights to reproduce books published in America in other languages. In terms of whether there is interest by American publishers in a novel that is set in China and the United States, it is possible there would be. The novel would most likely need to be told from the American’s point of view because that is the character readers would relate to best. I wouldn’t describe such an idea as “popular,” but there would be openness to it.

  • Amanda Dykes says:

    Such innovative ideas; thanks for shedding light on them! It’s funny, sometimes I think I’m so used to the status quo, my imagination doesn’t extend enough beyond it to think of things truly outside the box… which of course only perpetuates any problems in the status quo. This post was great encouragement to really be willing to think beyond the mold. Not just re-vamping the things that exist, but blazing new trails entirely, too.

  • Wowzer, Janet…those are some fantabulous ideas! Ever think about becoming a publisher yourself?

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    I am in a group of readers that you are forgetting. Those who love to read but never had the space or the money to buy books…before e-readers came out. I read about a book a week, but have always gotten those from my local library. I never bought books for myself. I would usually get 1 or 2 new books a year (Christmas and Birthday)from others but never bought books for myself. Enter the e-reader. Now it is affordable and I have the space to buy books. Now I buy e-books all the time, but if the price goes up I can very easily go back to the woman who loves books and only reads them from the library. E-books have made buyers out of non-buyers. I do buy books for my children, but that is a different story.

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