Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Location: Books & Such main office, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Last Friday, on my FB page, I asked for suggestions on blog topics. The ideas were wide-ranging, to say the least. I’ve decided that this week I’ll look at three books I’ve read recently (two nonfiction, one fiction) and why I think the authors succeeded (or didn’t) in reaching their audiences. Along the way, we can discuss what makes a book memorable, what readers want, what’s up with all the freebies and other topics you asked about. No guarantees are offered that we’ll cover each suggested topic. Nonetheless, I think we’ll uncover some insights together. Hi-ho, hi-ho, off we go…
Let’s start out by putting the discussion in context–where is the publishing industry going, and how do each of us fit in this brave new world? I noted the chart below in Publishers Weekly’s May 16 issue. It portrays the lay of publishing’s land as Levy Home Entertainment sees it. (Levy describes itself this way on its website: “service[s] mass merchants, warehouse clubs and drug/grocery accounts. With over 600 million in annual sales, Levy provides books and services surrounding books to, BJ’s Warehouse Clubs, Kmart, Meijer, Rite Aid, ShopKo, Stop and Shop, Target, Toys R Us, Wal-Mart and others.” In other words, Levy places physical books in box stores and other chain outlets.) I want to stress that this chart expresses Levy’s projections–educated guesses. Now, with that all in mind, here’s the chart:
At a glance, it conveys that: mass merchants’ ability to sell books will grow slightly through 2015; online stores will grow consistently and become the main venue readers turn to; bookstores will decline to the point they will be about even with mass merchants.
What does that mean for a writer today? For one thing, Levy reports that mass merchants aren’t considering reducing the amount of space they give to physical books. So while the state of bookstores is enough to put any reader in the doldrums, we shouldn’t rush to report the demise of physical books.
As I’ve considered what’s happening in publishing and how readers access–and will access books in the future–the mental image that comes to mind is that of a boat resting on a shore. The shore is “anchored” to a continent; it represents tradition and a solid foundation, the past, what we’ve always known. It is traditional publishing.
The boat is e-publishing. Its sails are set for a new land, a new way of making books accessible to readers.
Writers (and agents) have to make choices: Do they stay on land? Do they board the boat? Or…
What I’m advising my clients to do and the way I’m positioning our agency is to straddle the boat and the land. I know. What an uncomfortable idea! Aren’t we taught that’s the worst thing to do when boarding a boat? Isn’t that what causes nosedives into the water? Yup.
But the majority of sales still are physical books. As a matter of fact, Amazon’s 2011 first quarter sales report shows that for the first time e-book sales exceeded physical books. Considering that the majority of those who buy e-books do so through Amazon, it makes sense to say it’s too soon for writers to abandon physical books. Most readers still want to buy a book, not an e-book.
Just ask yourself: How many people in your church own an e-reader? How many in your book club own an e-reader? What percentage of your acquaintances own e-readers? Since we’re likely to associate with avid readers and are avid readers ourselves, our answers will tilt toward a more progressive view. For me, I don’t know anyone (but moi) in my church who owns an e-reader. Out of the 11 folks in our book club (all professionals), 2 of us own an e-reader. I’d say 75% of the people I know own e-readers, but that’s because I work in publishing. My church and my book club are more representative of typical readers in America.
Another factor in this equation is that most authors still want to publish with a traditional publisher, and most authors don’t want to play publisher themselves; it’s a more complex role than authors realize–until they start down that road. What do authors like to do most? Write. What do self-published authors do most? Divide their time between writerly tasks and publishing tasks.
If you jump into the boat, it’s unlikely you’ll become a major success or even earn much money. Yes, you will earn some, but remember that getting in the boat means you’ve abandoned land, the place where most of your readers still reside. (Even if you’re unpublished, most of your readers are on the land, not traveling to the brave new world.)
But, if you don’t put a foot into the boat, that boat will sail without you, and it is sailing into the future. You’ll want to go there.
Timing is everything for each of us.
The questions each of us must pose are:
- How do we put our foot into that boat?
- How do we stay relevant to our readers without looking stodgy?
- What do readers want?
- What do authors need?
I’m eager to hear your responses to the ideas I’ve posed here. Remember, this is a forum. We don’t have to agree, and none of us has the right answer because there isn’t any one answer.
I will end with this thought that ought to stir up some of you: I think every writer needs to own an e-reader and use it. How are you supposed to sail to the new land when you haven’t even checked out the boat?
Tomorrow we’ll turn our attention to the three books I’ve read recently and unpack what makes a strong selling book (all of these are)–even in today’s precarious world of publishing.