MIND MELD: How has the Internet impacted book selling?
It’s Tuesday, so that means it’s time for another Mind Meld question, where we grill those in the science fiction community on a question of interest. This time, a we ask a cross section of authors and editors our question.
Recently, Reuters ran a story (article here) about the internet and traditional book publishers. This gist being that, despite the easy availability of used books, the internet has actually helped publishers sell more new books.
I have just recently entered the world of book publishing, so I don’t know what that world was like before Web 2.0 came along and made everyone a critic, blurred the lines between the established media and the self-published, and made the writing process into a dialog. When I sold my book every bit of advice I ran across told me to get a web site, so I did that. Some of the advice also urged me to get a blog, and I did that, too. Having my contact information available to anyone who can type my name into Google has brought fan mail to my inbox that takes my day up a notch.
So the interactive part of the internet has made the book publishing experience much more friendly for the reader and writer, but does it sell more books? I think it does. As a debut author my publisher threw as much publicity behind my book as it deserved, unfortunately. Using my web site, my own and other’s blogs, and various message boards I was able to reach a much wider audience. There is no guarantee that making a reader aware of the book will lead to a sale, but you can be sure that no one buys a book he hasn’t heard about.
I will admit that the Amazon feature showing how many used books are available at a substantial discount makes me nervous. I mean, hey, I’m not getting any of that money. But it does mean more readers, which could translate into sales of my next book. And it does look like people are still buying the new book at the higher price. For which I’m grateful.
As much as I love to visit bookstores, sign copies, give readings, and attend conventions (all of which help sell books), my online activities allow me to do a lot of the same things cheaper, in shorter amounts of time, and to a potentially larger audience.
A thousand people a day roughly file through my website. That’s certainly larger than any given reading I’ve had. It’s more people than have ever show up at a signing. And I’ve gone to a few conventions without that many people being at the whole thing. How do I get them there? The main way is through my daily blog. Back in 1998 I created a personal site, but after clicking around every other personal homepage online, I felt they were too static. I came up with the idea of chronicling my life as a writer who had not yet published anything and started posting several times a week.
Fast forward almost a decade and what has happened is that as each person found a story of mine somewhere and googled my name, they came across my homepage with frequent updates. A lot of them kept coming back to read about what I was up to, or where my work was coming out next. To be honest, I’m always humbled and amazed people keep reading. I’ve added to that some free short stories, some free audio stuff, and the first 1/3 of each of my published novels as a way for people to get a really good sample of what I’m writing.
And it has had an affect on sales. While most authors sell single digit percentages of their books via Amazon, I sell double digits. Not as much Scalzi, or Doctorow, I’d bet, but enough that it makes a difference to my bottom line come royalty statement time. Whenever I give a booksigning, or travel to a convention, I always meet someone who’s a reader because of my website. A large number of people mention reading these samples online and buying my novels because of them.
I saw recently that the Kindle, Amazon’s reader was launched. I also see that it sold out, even though I have to admit I was surprised. I do about half my reading on my pda or laptop myself, but I still don’t see the advantages of the printed book form being trumped anytime soon. It’s just damn convenient, and easy to share and pass on to friends, resistant to damage, doesn’t require any special equipment to use, and has a strong design and tactile element to it that people still seem to respond to. I think many are worried about ebooks and so on, but to me the interesting side of the world online is in helping people reach a decision about print books. For me, Amazon’s Prime program, where I pay $75/year for unlimited free 2 day shipping was a far more disruptive idea than the Kindle. I’ve ordered and had more books show up on my doorstep 48 hours after seeing them linked and talked up on some random website than in the previous couple year’s combined.
It’s really an exciting time to be writing, and engaging with readers. What I wouldn’t have given when I was a teenager, sucking down books, to have been able to follow my favorite authors’ blogs as they worked on their next work, or read so many interviews by them, or listened to podcasts by writers I was reading.
I’ve worked for two different publishers in the Internet age, and both of them have had extensive sales online. Used-book sales have risen in recent years, but I haven’t seen any indication that new-book sales have suffered because of it. At my old job, we had a very healthy business in new editions of classics — and, obviously, that wouldn’t have happened if the audience for those books were only buying beat-up old paperbacks.
In my current job, I’ve found that esoteric, high-priced books for very specific audiences are doing better than ever — because they’re searchable online, either directly at the on-line booksellers, or just through search engines. I think this is at least partially a long tail effect: the extremely targeted books are increasing in sales, but higher-selling books might be off a bit, because the audiences are finding exactly the book they want, instead of settling for something more general.
The world of fiction isn’t quite the same, but the same thing seems to be happening — there have been a lot of smaller publishing houses started in the last decade, usually offering quirkier books (horror, slipstream, short fiction, and so on) than the larger houses. My impression is that the biggest books are as big or bigger than they ever were, since they can now (with Internet promotions or just fan activity) be ubiquitous. And there are more books on the very targeted end, which also seem to be doing better. What might be getting squeezed — I don’t have any solid figures — is the broad middle, the books that aren’t best-sellers but are supposed to appeal to a broad cross-section of the market.
I’m doing marketing for books these days, and I’m definitely seeing a shift in dollars from print to online media — in part because online activities are more measurable, but also just because they’re working better. It’s easier to connect directly to readers online, and to find the people who want the specific thing you have to sell. I only see that increasing, as better tools arise to help people find the things they want and companies to target the specific people who are most interested in their products. The days of mass-marketing are over, which is good for books in general and genre fiction in particular; we’re a specialized audience, so we’ll do well in the coming age of specialization.
I worked in online publishing before I worked in traditional publishing. In 2000, I was the executive editor of an online publishing startup called Bookface.com. It’s long gone, though our CTO is at Google now, and a lot of the issues that Amazon’s Look Inside the Book and Google Print are facing are things we dealt with – and I’d say dealt with well – seven years ago. Back then, we touted the ebook not as a replacement for physical books, but simply another revenue stream/format that publishers could take advantage of. Audiobooks certainly haven’t replaced physical books, and while the iPod and the MP3 have seen a surge in audiobook sales, my suspicions and my experience have always been that more book sales means more book sales. When I worked at Bookface.com, we had thousands of titles from all the major houses online for free reading, and I found that my own book purchases skyrocketed that year. I agree firmly with Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow that the best advertisement for a book is the book itself and that everyone (or most everyone) has a threshold point – a certain page count – at which they give up reading online and purchase the physical book, whether that’s three chapters or three-quarters of the way in! (With me, it was a third of the way in to Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.) All of which is to say that I am very down with the net as a tool for promoting reading.
As to how the internet has impacted book selling at Pyr, I’d say it’s an absolutely essential component. We put up sizable excerpts of almost all of our titles – as much as a third of the book in some cases – and we’ve moved the bulk of our advertising out of dead tree media and into online advertising. From the start, our publicity director, the wonderful Jill Maxick, has treated online bloggers as being on parity with professional print reviewers, something that seems like a no brainer now but wasn’t as widely acknowledged three years ago as it is today. We frequently host online giveaways via blogs, and we have a “street team” of over a dozen young readers who get advanced copies of our books in exchange for blogging about them honestly on their livejournal accounts. I personally maintain two blogs and a newsletter and have been a frequent speaker on several SF-related podcasts (shout out to Shaun Farrell’s Adventures in SciFi Publishing.) But it’s been pretty obvious for some time that we’ve moved from top-down marketing to peer-to-peer referral, and you can make a strong case that the shift in the paradigm isn’t just coming but has already occurred.
As the recent debate that raged across the blogosphere recently on the state of the digest magazines touched on, online marketing doesn’t just exist as an end unto itself, but as a way to build community. Last year or thereabouts, Asimov’s ran an essay that mourned the death of genre in a typical graying-of-fandom lament that saw the era of the memeographed fanzine as the heyday of science fiction. And my thought was – has this writer never logged on? The science fiction and fantasy community is larger than it’s ever been, with an unprecedented level of communication between authors and readers, but it isn’t happening in the traditional venues. It’s happening online. (Duh.) That level of open communication, that ability to find, research and discuss books with people all over the world, is only to the good. And as more and more of our lives plug in, that will only intensify. Gibson said recently that he felt the word “cyber” would phase out, in the way that “electric” has and “digital” is in the process of doing. No one says an “electric toaster” anymore or an “electric clock”, because the assumption is that everything is electric. In the same way, “cyber” will disappear as everything and everyone has a cyber-component as part of its function/functionality. But they’ll still be physical books – it’s just that part of the books’ “functionality” may be the ebook aspect, and the internet will be used as part and parcel of every stage of the books life – which starts out written on a computer, delivered electronically, copyedited electronically, marketed online, discovered and discussed online, and consumed both in physical and online form.
We’re in an age where your web-presence isn’t just your business card, or your hook, but is seen as being synonymous with your whole business/product. Which means there is no excuse for publishers who don’t maintain a good web presence. But the other thing is, and this goes back to that line about the endpoint of marketing being community, it isn’t just a big billboard in cyberspace that you put up that says “buy from me.” I get emails through my website all the time from people who say, “I saw that essay you wrote online two years ago about how Fonzie is actually the archetypal shaman. That was great, so I bought your latest anthology.” Like an old rant about Happy Days has anything to do with whether you’d like a collection of works by science fiction authors! Only it does. Because you’re engaging people on the level of their own interests, not with some marketing screed, but with a shared love of pop culture, and that makes them wonder what other loves you might share as well. I’m completely down with the argument that the entire structure of how people relate to each other and to media on the net emerged from classic fandom, and that the 21st century is the age in which we’re all geeks now of one sort or another. The internet is just a tool for facilitating communication, and the best way to move books has always been and still is word of mouth.
As an author with a newer science fiction imprint (Pyr), the Internet has had a huge impact on me in terms of generating an audience and generating sales. Fifteen years ago, I would have been almost completely beholden to the whims of the large chain bookstores. But using the Internet as a marketing platform, I was able to spread the word about my first novel, INFOQUAKE, and push people to buy the book in alternative outlets. I didn’t see nearly as many copies of INFOQUAKE in the big chains as I would’ve liked. But largely because of the Internet, the book sold more in independent and online stores than chain stores by a 3-to-1 margin. It was nominated for a major SF award (the Campbell) as well.
But even more important, the Internet has allowed me to keep in touch with readers during the (too long) break between novels. Before the prevalence of websites and blogs, the only way for newer SF authors to keep their name in the public eye was to write gobs of short stories and spend a lot of time on the con circuit. Now I can have an ongoing one-on-one dialog with readers through the blogosphere and social networking sites, and keep them posted on news of my next book. (Which, in case you were wondering, is titled MULTIREAL, and will be in stores in July 2008.)
The trend towards one-to-one marketing of books on the Internet is only going to increase in the future. You’re going to see the slow death of the mega-blockbuster and the resurgence of the ultra-specialized niche market. (Hell, you’re *already* seeing it.) That’s only going to lead to more interesting reading. (Hell, you’re already seeing *that*, too.)
Filed under: Mind Meld
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