An Industry on the Brink—Five Mistakes that are Killing Traditional Publishing
As many of you know, last week I was blessed enough to get to present at Thrillerfest, which is a conference held by the International Thriller Writers in the heart of New York City. What a blast and a WONDERFUL conference! If you ever get an opportunity to go, take it. Yet, now that I’m home, I feel compelled to share my observations and make the most of my $5000 investment. Why can’t you guys benefit, too, right?
Now that I have been to NY, talked to people and observed things first-hand, I feel I am in a better position to make an accurate analysis, so here are the five mistakes that I feel are killing traditional publishing.
When I first arrived, there was almost a palpable feeling of dread, doom and gloom. I felt like agents, editors and even writers were refusing to acknowledge the pink elephant in the room. Why? Because they were afraid of it.
The paradigm is changing and the world is going digital. No matter how many times we click the ruby slippers and chant There’s nothing like paper. People will always want paper it isn’t going to change a darn thing. The only thing this self-soothing will do is waste time while the windows of opportunity close.
When I attended the Craft Fest luncheon, the keynote was Jaime Raab, Senior Vice President & Publisher, Grand Central Publishing (Hachette). She began her speech with something akin to, “I know all of you are wanting to hear me talk about the changes in publishing but…” and then she went off to talk about all her favorite books over the course of her publishing career and why she thought they were game-changers.
And I was like WTH?
It was a lovely speech, but the troops are battered and broken and searching for a reason to fight for the cause. If you know they need to hear something about the changes in publishing, then by gum give it to them. I felt like the troops needed the Churchill speech. The Germans are coming. Give us something!
Instead, we had a nice nostalgic speech that offered little to ease the fear. And I am not meaning any disrespect, but I feel this fear factor is a big part of the problem. The leadership is afraid and that is filtering into decisions. Fear is a lousy place to make strategy. When we find ourselves defending, the battle is already lost.
But you know what? Good thing I am too dumb to be afraid.
The first thing I announced on my panel was that it is an AMAZING time to be a writer. It is a BRILLIANT time to be a publisher, even a TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER! But here is the thing. We have to change. We have to grow and growing sucks and sometimes is painful as hell but it is necessary because if we aren’t growing we are DYING.
We cannot build a 21st century future with 18th century tools. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself! Fight! Win!
We MUST face where we are weak, because if we don’t, we are vulnerable. Ignoring a thing doesn’t change a thing. The truth will set us free and if the truth is that we are being short-sighted and wasteful, then we need to FACE that so we can FIX it. Fear wastes time and energy.
After the social media panel there was a noticeable shift. People were smiling, they were hopeful. WANA (We Are Not Alone) is a wonderful plan that is fun, easy and has sold hundreds of thousands of books. Maybe WANA it isn’t THE plan, but it is at least A plan. WANA works for all kinds of writers and all types of publishers and it frees up time to do ALL the meaningful work. Best of all, WANAs don’t know fear. We only know hope, and that automatically places us in a position of strength.
Mistake #2—Paper is Married to
Raab continued to assert that “readers would always want paper” yet I will show exactly why this assertion is dead wrong. Let’s indulge in a little Economics 101.
The reason that readers will not always want paper books is that paper books are what is known as an elastic good. Elastic goods cannot fluctuate too far in price before people just decide to do without or change products.
For instance, coffee is elastic. We are all sad when Jamaica is hit by hurricane and loses much of its Blue Mountain Coffee bean crops, but we are simply unwilling to pay $15 for a cup of coffee. We all have a ceiling before we just do without Blue Mountain Coffee.
Elasticity is even more of a problem when there is a ready supply of easy substitutes. For instance, if Blue Mountain Coffee was the only source of caffeine on the planet, maybe we would keep demanding even as the price increased (inelastic), but it isn’t. It is too easy to buy a pound of Folgers instead.
Or we can even buy black tea or Monster drinks. We can take ginseng, guarana, and all kinds of other Chinese herbs to wire us for the day. While caffeine is inelastic (meaning if there was only one source we would continue to pay), Blue Mountain Coffee is NOT.
Artificial hips and superconductors? Inelastic. Paper books? Very ELASTIC.
We will only pay so much for paper books before we just go download the e-book, and this is a HUGE problem for traditional publishing. Why? Because paper books are married to petroleum. As the price in oil increases, so do costs.
Books need to be manufactured, then shipped. I worked in the paper industry and believe me, paper books are seriously heavy, which means they burn a lot of fuel to ship. They also burn a lot of fuel to return then pulp due to waste. Anyone who has ever had to move gets what I am taking about here.
This grossly inefficient consignment model worked so long as readers had no other options. Yet, now with e-readers, e-books, indies and POD publishing? The game has changed.
Books were always elastic, but they are even more elastic now that there are other options. What the publishers are failing to understand is that as petroleum continues to rise in price, their profit margin gets thinner and thinner.
If NY doesn’t change? They will go bankrupt simply because the margin will fully disappear, then their costs will surpass what readers are willing to pay for a paper book. If big rig trucks ran off sunshine or happy thoughts, this might not be as critical of a problem as it is.
NY MUST make the change to digital, as many titles as possible before petroleum bankrupts the industry for good. Yes, some books will need to be paper, but POD technology can step in to fill that gap, minimize the waste, and drop costs so traditional publishers can increase margin.
The competition has not lashed their product to barrels of petroleum. The indies are not hobbled by waste, shipping costs and limited shelf space, and this is why they can pay their authors so much BETTER. Writers might not be great at math, but we aren’t that bad. It is only a matter of time before the Big Six will hemorrhage talent, probably the mid-list first as the demand for mass market paperbacks contracts.
Traditional publishers! Get those costs down so you can pay your people better. You can’t keep using a handful of mega authors to float the business. In the new paradigm, there is no reason to lose so much money. There are all kinds of creative and profitable solutions to make all authors profitable.
If this is a race, NY, you are riding a horse but trying to beat a Ferrarri. Help me help you!
Mistake #3—Reliance on Outdated Gimmicky Marketing Tactics
For those of you who know the WANA way, we abhor gimmick. Gimmicks worked in the old paradigm before the Internet and social media, but now? We have a much more sophisticated audience that demands authenticity. We don’t like being fooled either.
Tweeting as a character or interviewing yourself pretending to be your characters is, in my opinion, not the best use of time. Sure it might be fun for our devoted fans, but for new people who don’t yet know our books, it can seriously tick them off when they figure out they have been duped.
I was on Twitter and happened to see one author talk to a NYTBSA who I’d never heard of. So I followed and loved his tweets. Then I spotted him interacting with someone from the CIA. I thought that was really cool so I started following this other person and asking questions thinking I was talking to someone from the CIA. When I realized I had been talking to a character from one of this author’s books, I was mortified, then livid and then I unfollowed.
Play head games at your own risk.
Let’s use some logic. How many people are going to care about an interview from an imaginary character from an author they don’t know and out of a book they’ve never read? There is far better content that actually stands a chance of going viral.
Interviews don’t generally go viral unless they are with a super famous person who then does something very embarrassing (Tom Cruise and the couch thing on Oprah) or dies (Steve Jobs). Interviews with imaginary people? Probably not going to go viral.
A lot of people feel the gimmick is a tool so people will pay attention to our marketing, but thing is, gimmicks don’t work and marketing and advertising don’t work, either. All of it is just busy work that gives us the illusion we are doing something meaningful.
My impression from Thrillerfest?
I felt that the traditional publishers had far too much reliance on these tactics, which is likely why my sixty-one year old mother has a better Klout score. If no one is paying attention to what we post or spreading what we post, then we are doing something wrong.
Any pretending to be characters needs to be initiated by fans. Yes, there are loads of teenagers who love to role-play as Twilight characters. That is cute and fun. When we (authors) do it? Weird, and kinda creepy.
Mistake #4—Over-Fixation on Tools
There was an over-fixation, in my opinion, on tools. Yes, there are analytical tools that can tell us what time of day is best to tweet and what time of week is best to blog, and what time of month is best to run a promotion, but all I could think as people were talking about these tools was:
Are they tweeting or ovulating?
I know that IT geeks are fascinated with the idea of creating a program that can accurately predict human behavior, probably so they can get a date. But, thing is, they can’t predict human behavior. If we could accurately predict human behavior, then we have bigger problems than selling books and should start looking for the chip someone has implanted in our brains.
Yes, there is some predictability. I.e. Spamming people pisses them off. Talking to people and being kind and genuine generally is a good bet.
Beyond the fundamentals? There is no way to predict this stuff. People who love tools, in my experience, are people who want from others what they, themselves, are unwilling to give.
See, for Twitter and Facebook to work, to actually sell books SOMEONE must be present. When people use these tools to post for them, it is because they want the perks without the works. They want ME to actually be on Twitter/Facebook so I can click and then give them money, but they can’t be bothered to actually take time to be on Twitter talking to me.
Yeah, I’m all over that.
Tools RUIN social sites. RUIN THEM! When too many people start using these fancy tools to do stuff for them, the information becomes invisible. Also if no one is there to read and respond to the tweet because they are tired of talking to bots? Then Twitter is a giant waste of time that will not sell books because it is choking on automation. If people loved talking to machines, they’d call their credit card company, not log on to Twitter.
We don’t have to post a lot to be effective, and being real is the best plan. We can’t expect from others what we are unwilling to give. And yes, I know some of you have to work day jobs and can’t tweet during the day but pssst….Twitter and Facebook are GLOBAL. People in other time zones will see your posts.
Again, better uses of time. These tools are interesting, but if you work the WANA way, they you have a whole team of people helping you, so it matters less and less what time of day you post. And besides, I have enough to do without setting my watch for
a quick roll in the sack while I’m fertile tweeting.
Mistake #5—Expecting Commerce Before Community
At Thrillerfest there were a couple new book sites introduced where readers could go and interact with their favorite authors. Um, didn’t we already have Goodreads? Now there are two more?
Don’t get me wrong, these are lovely sites and I think they have a lot to offer, but we are back all pitching to the same people, the same over saturated 8-10% of the population who defines themselves as “readers.”
There are hundreds of millions of people who will only read one or two books a year, but I have said this time and time again. Who cares if it is YOUR book? Every mega-success from Harry Potter to 50 Shades of Grey has come from mobilizing the fat part of the bell curve, the people who would not normally define themselves as “readers.” Traditional marketing and “reader sites” will not make our book the next Twilight or Hunger Games.
I am saying this as respectfully as possible, but traditional marketing has some lazy and uncreative people thinking this stuff up. We all want the magical site where we can find….readers. You know what? Back when I sold cardboard (corner board), I would have loved a site called www.LetMeComeToYouAndHandYouMoneyWithoutAnyWorkOnYourPart.com. That would have made my job WAY easier. Instead, I had to hit the pavement, look around and look for people who could be converted into buyers.
For instance, we had to pay attention to the HUGE boxes being used to ship water heaters so we could step in and say, “Hey, I bet those giant boxes are really expensive. If you use four pieces of corner board, some wrap and strapping, not only could you fit more water heaters on a truck, but you could seriously cut your shipping costs and drastically improve your profit margin.”
We had to work for the sale, but NY? Let’s just put more “reader sites” together and then people will come and give us money.
Am I saying these sites aren’t great? No, they are lovely and shiny and pretty but they are not a substitute for creating a customer. We can’t have commerce before community. It’s like building a McDonald’s in the middle of a field and hoping people will show up to eat burgers. It makes more sense to wait until there is a thriving community and then build the McDonald’s. Then the McDonald’s is there to serve the community, not the community there to serve the shareholders of McDonald’s.
This is why it is critical for us (writers) to build community first. If we have a community of support, then these sites with goodies and interviews and all that jazz will work better. I spent two years building the idea of WANA before we built WANATribe. By the time I launched WANATribe, it just made the experience of being a WANA even better. It allowed you guys to interact in new and fun ways.
But what if I had started off with WANATribe? It would have been me taking not giving.
Is NY DOOMED?
So after all of this, is traditional publishing doomed? I say it can have a bright future, but the people in charge have to start listening to people who are doing publishing (and social media) better. I know there is probably some pride involved, but get over it. Yes, you rocked publishing for over a century, but now? Not so much. You have a lot to learn.
The thing is, e-book sales are not a Zero Sum Game. Joe Konrath made a brilliant point about this in a recent blog:
Ebook sales aren’t a zero sum game. A sale of one ebook doesn’t preclude the sale of another, because this is a burgeoning global market with hundreds of new customers introduced daily, and people naturally horde more than they need.
Let’s say there are currently 100 million ebook readers, and 1 million ebook titles on Amazon. In ten years, there will be billions of ebook readers (following the path of mp3s). But there won’t be a corresponding 100 million ebook titles available–there aren’t that many people writing ebooks, and never will be.
What this means is that traditional publishing can remain if they are willing to change and listen to people who are doing things right in the digital paradigm. Books are not so cost-prohibitive that people cannot buy more than one. I know a lot of us in the indie world have offered to help NY, but we can’t do this for them. The Big Six have a lot to offer and many of us hate to see that go away. We do hold a respect for what they do and they have a lot of talent.
With the explosion of smart phones, tablets and e-readers, this could be a Golden Age for publishing, but the Big Six cannot embrace their future while clinging to the past.
What are your thoughts? Opinions? Ideas? What have you observed? Do you think the Big Six can survive or should they be parted out to the indies? Do you think the mid-list is next to defect? I don’t mind any opinion, so long as it is respectful.
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
***Changing the contest.
It is a lot of work to pick the winners each week. Not that you guys aren’t totally worth it, but with the launch of WANA International and WANATribe I need to streamline. So I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners will now have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of July I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.