Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Should the Publishing Industry Do in the Downturn?

Some of you already got a head start on this question in the comments section of yesterday's post, but today's question is a biggie: What should the publishing industry do to weather the downturn?

Moonrat also got a head start, and she lists ideas such as lowering print runs, more online retail, and of course, everyone's favorite head scratcher: the returns system.

What do you think we should do?


terri said...

Great series of posts! Thinking about your last blog post kept me thinking all the way through my dreadfully dull docket this morning, my thanks to you and the commentators.

My 2 cents:

1. Leverage the midlist and backlist authors.

Definitely more online retail. Use the massive backlists and midlists to create low cost downloadable ebooks and audio books available directly from the publishers websites. Not megabuck CD audio releases like the $80 Harry Potter audios, but affordable [ie - in the $5 range] downloads. The only upfront costs are the audio production and then it goes on the website forever.

I have favorite books from 30 years ago that I would buy again in audio form and have the technology to download myself. Also a great way to introduce new talent.

As for ebooks, look at the model in use by Netflix. They have brought out a good portion of their gargantuan backlist as 'instant watch.' If you are a subscriber, you can watch episodes online. I, for one, would pay a small subscription fee for be able to access ebooks on-line. I don't mind reading off the computer if it is well formatted.

2. Did I mention online retail? Many publishers actually have fairly pathetic websites. These sites need to be leveraged to bring in readers. Sample chapters, coupons, downloads, etc.

3. As for clinging to the blockbuster model. Look around . . . I have one thing to say . . . SUVs.

The race goes to the swift and adaptable, not to the big glossy dinosaurs. Use this time to become diversified and adaptable so when the blockbuster breathes its last, the publisher will have a varied portfolio to fall back on.

4. Lower the cost of e-readers. I am prime for a Kindle, but just can't afford it. I will have to wait for version 2.0 and then score one used.

Just my two cents worth . . . now I gotta get to work!

Jean said...

Advertise. Seriously. Do you ever see a bookstore advertise on TV? Christmas is coming up. Get those ads out there! Publishers could advertise too, of course. Put out TV ads with their 'big' names along with a couple they figure are going to break through.

If people who don't regularly buy books aren't thinking of buying books, well then, they aren't going to buy them, are they? Get them thinking about it. That's the first step.

Anonymous said...

How about some of these best-selling writers taking on more of the publishing risk? Big movie stars often forego a big salary for a cut of the movie's profits. One way to reduce costs, perhaps is for those mega-authors to be on the same side as the publishers--they take less advances for a larger percentage of sales...if their book sells well, they share the wealth...if it doesn't...the publisher doesn't take a bath...some thing with some of these big bets the publishers make with huge advances for books that disappoint: i.e. The Gargoyle. Seems to me profit-sharing is one way to go at the publisher/author level. That's one. Another is innovative marketing. Discounts on volume purchases: i.e. buy one author's book from this publisher and get the second book by that author/publisher at a discount.
Offer bookstores a choice of how they handle books they order: take these books as non-returnable and give them a higher percentage payout. Returnables pay less to the stores. This will incentivize (if that's a word) the bookstores to order more carefully while affording them the opportunity to maximize their take on a book's sale.
Embraced the new technologies more quickly. Seems to me that books online are going to be the future. I like to hold a book, but the kids today are just as comfortable as reading online. Bookstore chains like B&N and Borders may be the casualties here. Then you may see small speciality 'antique' bookstores surviving and thriving for those who want to read the 'old' style books that are no longer printed. Click and print is likely to grow. Just a few quick thoughts. Maybe not worth a flip, but there they are.

Anonymous said...

As a consumer, I feel I have to do a lot of work to find out about good books.

They should fix that. Then I'd buy more books.

Mira said...

I'm enjoying this discussion - it's really interesting to hear everyone's ideas.

In yesterday's post someone mentioned focus groups. I really agree with that idea. I think the industry needs more feedback from readers. Not thoroughly testing a product prior to release is a little like driving with blinders on. You can get all kinds of information about demographics, which can help you target specific audiences.

I would combine that with marketing, which really is the key to selling. Right now, it seems like name recognition guides marketing, but that's a very limited approach. If a focus group responds very positively to a piece of writing, market the bejus out of it, even if it's by a little known author - but market it in the right markets. That's my two cents.

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

keep advertising, keep selling more books and make it cheaper.

Amity said...

I'm not the most knowledgeable about publishing/distributing, but how much advertising is spent on already well-known authors? Because if the answer is 'lots', I'm not sure that's a good idea. Nearly all the women in my family are rabid Nora Roberts fans; they do not need a huge display at Borders saying her latest book's out. Trust me, they already know. What seems like a better idea is to sink some of that money into a less-known author, put him/her in the display. Then mom may pass said by, think 'mmm, interesting', and pick it up as she enters the shelves for Roberts. Two books sold, bam.

Ditto on series books. When Goodkind's "Confessor" came out I saw advertising everywhere. I'm sure that people who read the first nine books are already checking the web for release dates. Or, a simple sign will do. You're not going to get a lot of NEW readers picking up a TENTH book with a shiny display.

Of course, that's a bunch of assumptions on my part. I don't really know advertising budgets for said books...I just know what I see in bookstores.

Zoe Winters said...

haha, yeah, sorry about that. The way your last post was worded just lended itself to response in the "you tell me" department.

Major publishers need to say no to bookstore returns. If they all do it, bookstores can't do crap about it. It takes some of the financial pressure off of publishers, and allows books that do get bought by bookstores to have more of a chance, since they can't just pack them up and return them.

Publishers need to seriously embrace ebooks, more than they have. Also $9.99 for a fiction Kindle book is insane. Ebooks should cost much less than dead tree books. If it's more than a mass market paperback, it's epic fail. Unless it's nonfiction offering specialized information.

I also agree with more online retail. Though I think Amazon will abuse people if it has all the power. Other online bookstores exist.

Use print-on-demand technology as a test marketing tool. Publishers don't know if a book will take off? If they're printing in trade paperback, just use POS with Lightning Source. You can still sell to bookstores through Ingram. And you can test market. THEN if sales warrant it, go to print runs.

Go after authors with a platform. Fiction too. We can give out free ebooks and podcasts. That builds audience. These are already people who like the work.

Agents and publishers shouldn't get so intense about getting their hands on every single thing an author writes. Because freebies build platform. And that ultimately helps the publisher, IMO.

Zoe Winters said...

*POD not POS,

wow that was a freudian slip. LSI doesn't produce POS. In fact, most major publishers are using them for at least a portion of their backlist.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with Moonrat when she says that book prices should increase.

I'd buy tons more books if the prices were lower. Twenty-five dollars for an adult hardcover is a lot of money if you don't know if you'll like the book or author. Likewise 16-17 dollars is a lot to pay for a YA. The cost of a book is what drives people to the library to begin with, raising prices will encourage consumers to buy fewer books, not more.

Despite cost, though, I think marketing has so much more to do with a book's success than anything else (including the actual writing).

Instead of having that one "big book" each season from each publisher, why not spread that marketing around to five, ten? Honestly, if I see a YA on a shelf I think I might want, I have to grab it, because I'll usually never see it again -- it'll be sent back to the publisher to make way for the next lead title. Meanwhile, a few select authors who already have huge name recognition get the majority of publicity.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely the price of books is too high. Publish more in paperback and keep the price lower. $15 for an adult PB? Come on. If books were $10 or less, then you'd have a lot more buyers.

cc said...

(Anon 10:26 beat me to it!)

I'd try having more widespread marketing for lots of books rather than a select few. I'd also like for "new" authors, or authors that are not yet established to come out in paperback not hardcover.

Spending ten bucks (YA) or fifteen dollars (adult) on a paperback that also has some publicity would incite sales, in my opinion.

You can't gain readership if no one wants to take a risk paying 25 dollars on an author and book they've never heard of.

Marilyn Peake said...

My understanding is that the big publishing houses are making a profit, even in this time of financial struggle. I think that the publishing industry should find ways to cut back on areas of wasteful spending, but continue to carry on with the business of publishing. I think, as we enter this new millennium, we’re going to be forced to take a cold, hard look at how businesses are currently run. There used to many smaller businesses and tighter anti-trust regulations, and businesses still made millions of dollars. In recent years, a business has been considered failing and stock prices have fallen if a company doesn’t increase its profit each and every quarter. The problem with that approach in today’s world is that companies making hundreds of billions of dollars each year are still expected to increase profit every quarter, so they end up buying and trading companies like kids trade baseball cards. Two problems with that: 1.) All types of products, including books, are produced by only a handful of conglomerates and 2.) If that sector of the economy fails, consumers are forced to bail out the companies so that the worldwide economy doesn’t fall into an abyss. Here’s "A Who Owns Whom Guide to the Book Publishing Industry" compiled by a Sociology Professor:
And here’s information about Bertelsmann which now owns many of the large publishing houses:
For the first nine months of 2008, Bertelsmann tripled its net profits to $493 million. I don’t think they’re in trouble in a way that most of us consider "financial trouble". Borders may fail, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Can the publishing industry really not survive losing Borders? On the other hand, Barnes & Noble is considering buying Borders which would consolidate the major bookstore chains even further.

Personally, I think there will be broad and sweeping changes in the global economy in this new millennium, and those businesses that fail will look at the innovators that succeed and think, "Geez, why didn’t I think of that?"

Jade said...

I am not so sure about the no returns policy. My publisher here in South Africa distributes books to the bookshops on a consignment basis - and this seems to work much, much better than the alternative where a bookseller will grudgingly order one or two copies and the book will never be visible or available, and there's no point in marketing it aggressively because two books don't make a very big display! The books published by my publisher are far more visible than those ordered on a "no returns" basis.

Another interesting fact - books that are signed cannot be returned because they are regarded as damaged goods - so a hot tip to a new author is to sign as many books as possible in as many different bookshops as you can. If they're on consignment, then once they're signed, they're sold!

I think that the book industry does need to promote itself more aggressively from grass roots upwards. It needs to regard itself as a fierce competitor to other industries - computer games, for instance. I'm sure that if enough marketing brains got together they'd be able to think up a host of effective ways to promote reading as a leisure pursuit and get more people discovering, or rediscovering books.

Crimogenic said...

I would have to agree with some of the points already posted here:

1. Update the return system (the way it is, it doesn't make any sense)

2. Use POD better.

3. Rethink advertising plans ( like Anon 10:22 said "Meanwhile, a few select authors who already have huge name recognition get the majority of publicity." Why would an established bestselling author need a display table, when his fans will seek him out no matter if his books were in the far corner in the basement of the bookstore.

Anonymous said...

Okay, lots of people are writing about the need to give e-books and new authors a chance. What about new authors or unpublished authors (whatever you want to call them) getting a chance to preview their first few chapters of a work on 'Company X's' New Authors Forum page. Based on clicks or comments or something, 'Company X' could choose to put the rest of the manuscript out- like itunes sampling then purchasing-for a certain price per book/download. Then, if that is going well, POD or a limited printing of that book would be available for those who like real copies vs. e-formats (perhaps a discount if you bought the e-book). More new authors would be able to break out with less gamble on the part of publishers, agents, book stores etc. I might be missing something big, if so, sorry!

Michael said...

I find the trend toward only publishing blockbusters very disappointing, but also very risky. Investing big money into a book that could very easily sell poorly does not make sense, especially in the market now. Investing modest money into many books with smaller initial printings would be much safer. And you never know when one of those small books could take off and be a smash hit like The Kite Runner.

Luc2 said...

Like others already stated, I think that POD could be a solution to many problems. Not only as a test marketing tool, as Zoe suggested, but also as a way to curb costs like distribution, warehouses and other logistics, as well as the costs of returns for books that aren't selling.
In the long run, I believe POD would also allow for lower prices, which would increase sales. I buy less books than I want, because they're pricey.

JES said...

Been thinking about this since yesterday's post.

One alternative model suggested itself, sort of a combined "bookstore business as usual" and POD approach. Bookstores would have (a) ONE copy of each of a gazillion books, or just a zillion or so plus terminals to place online orders on the rest of the gazillion, and (b) gonzo technofied and cross-referenced search capabilities, including, like, Amazon's "search inside this book" feature.

You'd go into the bookstore, find a book you think you'd like and maybe sit down in the coffee-bar area to look it over.

Want the book? No prob. Just drop off the specs at any of our dozen order stations around the store.


Come back tomorrow or next week, or watch your mail. There's your book. (Special rush orders available for a premium.)

Sort of on the order of those "Things Remembered" gift shops in a lot of malls, but with way bigger (because virtual) inventory.

Madame Lefty said...

As much as I'm not a fan of Ebooks, I do see the amount of people flocking towards it because of Kindle and other devices. It's something that should be looked into.

I think the online advice is fairly solid.

However, I agree with those who mentioned that the major advertising on the big Stars is a bit silly at times. Everyone knew when Breaking Dawn was coming out. There really wasn't a need to have that much of an elaborate promotion.

One anonymous poster said s/he feels that it's difficult to find new good authors.

I agree.

Everyone knows the Nora Roberts, Stephenie Meyers, and Stephen Kings. There fans will gobble their books up regardless.

Whereas other lesser known authors, consumers are left on their own.

I like for instance how Target has the Target book club pick, or whatever it's called. It calls attention to books you may or may not have heard of. I think if more publishing companies or even retail stores such as Barnes & Noble did a little more of that, perhaps book sales would go up.

I for one love it when B&N has a display table full of books on a particular subject and the like. It brings to light new authors for consumers to devour.

Plus you can't underestimate the powers of people such as Moonrat and Book Club Girl. People want a solid opinion, so if they can't get it in advertising they'll go online to find it.

Anonymous said...

Very bright people read this blog. I sincerely hope that that someone from the publishing industry reads these suggestions. Let me amend that to someone that has power to make changes.

lotusloq said...

so many great ideas!

I particularly agree with those who said that some of the ad money for the 3rd, 6th, 10th in a series could be spread out for those that are new. A perfunctory sign giving the release dates is enough for me because I'm already looking for when the new one is coming and checking online, etc. I think the same is true for most series readers as well as fans of particular authors.

As soon as my favorite authors come out with something new, I go get it. I don't need advertising. I just need to see it in the store. (although I must say that online release info is very helpful to know when to go looking in the store.)

Dan said...

Outside of releasing EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT PUBLISHING I LEARNED FROM SPORTS as soon as possible, I think the best way to solve the book down turn is simple: get people reading.

Sure, make information about good books more available - but also encourage the 'fringe' audience to read them too. I don't necessarily think the blockbuster mold will fold - it just needs to be more inclusive.

As they say in one of the best sports movies of all time, 'if you build it, they will come.'

Anonymous said...

I already answered, so I'll go as Anon so people don't get sick of me.

Why can't publishers send through email (so they don't have to pay for postage) a list of their new titles coming out? Similar to a book catalogue that they give to booksellers?

Every week I get a Borders coupon in my email -- to click on you also get to see the week's lead titles -- why can't publishers do the same, for each of that week's books getting released? Show the cover, give the back of book summary, list the price.

You could sign up for YA selections or Romance or Thriller, whatever you're into. It could be done by individual publishers -- so that imprints of Penguin (Dutton, Penguin, Razorbill, ect) are all together. Or it could be done in conjunction with other publishers as well?

Being aware that a non-lead title EXISTS is half the battle to getting sales. How can you buy a non-lead title when you don't know it exists?

Furious D said...

1. Improve advertising. Only people who pay attention to the "Books" section in their newspapers know when anyone outside of James Patterson is coming out with a book. The problem is that newspapers are dropping their "Books" sections. And they don't have to have 1 commercial per book, but have commercials of packages of authors. 2-3 thrillers, or 2-3 sci-fi, in an ad.

2. Reduce advances and improve profit share for top-list authors. If the authors write bestsellers they shouldn't need huge advances.

3. Look for ways to use technology to make production cheaper. There has to be a better way to manufacture the books to make them more cost effective.

4. Use POD technology to promote the mid-list through e-sales.

5. try out a line of affordable paperbacks aimed at the youth market. The best way to market them, get someone to try to get them banned. All the kids will want them. ;)

Those are just what I got off the top of my head.

Ryan Field said...

I think they should focus more on e-publishing.

Nathan Bransford said...

One thing to keep in mind about pricing -- production costs are only going up. What a lot of people are asking publishers to do is to cut prices at a time when costs are rising -- that's not an easy way to expand your margins.

Obviously this doesn't apply to e-books in the same way, which is why I think you'll see a whole lot of consumers continue to make the switch. There are some production costs associated with e-books, but not nearly as much as with a printed book.

Conni said...

I'll agree with the people saying e-books and POD, for mostly similar reasons.

I also think that publishers sending lists of new books to interested parties by email could be a way to increase publicity for very low incremental costs - setting up a mailing list isn't hard. An option for that would be to allow people to sign up for new genre releases by genre or all new releases.

Personally, I prefer the lazy way of getting information - my RSS feed, my inbox - rather than adding another dozen pages to my list of pages to check daily. I don't doubt there are more people out there like me.

Embrace the new technology. Don't fear it.

Marilynn Byerly said...


Publishers have failed to look toward the future of book distribution which is ebooks.

Like it or not, ebooks are the future. They are simply too efficient a delivery system, and with the price of paper and transportation skyrocketing as well as the slow death of the bookstore industry, they will soon be the only way many books will reach readers' hands.

Already, they are the growth industry within publishing. In September according to the AAP, they rose 77.8% in sales. To see the kind of growth ebooks are experiencing, go to the International Digital Publishing Forum ( and click on the industry statistics.

The publishers need to rethink their distribution deals with ebook providers, particularly Amazon which demands 66% of the cover price. This is utterly ridiculous since this covers computer storage and automated sales, not warehouses, human labor, and shipping.

Agents and authors with clout need to fight back against the 15% ebook royalty which in an insult, particularly for books that are going into paper where a vast majority of the book costs -- acquisition, editing, and cover -- are factored into the book's costs. If authors can't make a living in the system, the system will fail.

Ebooks may also be the solution to the shrinking midlist. The surviving bookstores and box stores are increasingly focusing on the bestsellers and list leaders, and the midlist has very few sales outlets.

The midlist is where the new authors and the next superstars come from so the publishers simply can't abandon it. They should move many of these books into ebooks or use the small ebook publishers as a farm system similar to what professional baseball teams use. This method has already been used by wily romance editors when they saw the immense success of erotica.

I cover this topic as well as the POD situation in more detail and give an overview of the current state of publishing in an article available on my website, . Click on the short story and article icon to find it.


Amazon is in the process of trying to take over the POD market. Currently, they are only going after the small publishers, but, as its history shows, the major publishers will be next.

Right now, a few small publishers are fighting back with lawsuits, but the conglomerates are ignoring the situation. They are fools not to become involved.

Sure, Amazon is only a small percentage of the POD market right now, but with bookstores disappearing, Amazon is setting itself up to be the major player in this form of distribution, as well.


The conglomerates need to move their offices out of NYC to cut costs. Baen Books moved to Wake Forest, NC, a tiny town outside of Raleigh, and they are doing just fine courtesy of the Internet, etc.

The money saved should be invested in better pay for editors and for reinvigorating the midlist to find new talent.

Madison said...

Be willing to take on brand new clients. They don't cost as much to pay as the Tom Clanceys and Nora Roberts' of the world and may turn up a lot more money for the publisher.

Marilynn Byerly said...

Selling from publisher websites doesn't work. Small publishers and epublishers have been fighting this problem for years and have lost. People want one stop shopping so they go to Amazon or Fictionwise even if the book costs less at the publisher site.

According to my publisher friends, for every book sold on their site, they sell over a thousand on the big sites. My own royalties tell the same story.

Big publishers also don't want to antagonize their selling partners by competing against them.

Zoe Winters said...

I agree with Marilynn on the Amazon issue. This should be number one priority. Kindle royalty rates are insane. There needs to be either another strong e-reader contender (Like the Sony E-reader) and an equally good distribution channel, to keep Amazon from gouging publishers on Kindle. (I mean who are they kidding with this, "we take 35% on ebooks" business?)

Or... publishers need to start fighting it. Big publishers. Because Marilynn is right, Amazon will only steadily increase who they're coming after.

Also, Amazon's POD policies will blow up in their face. Booksurge and CreateSpace do not create products as high quality as Lightning Source. If the public is expected to accept POD technology than there are big quality concerns and so far LSI is leading the race.

Part of why Amazon hasn't yet been able to shut out LSI is because major publishers do use them for backlist. But it's only a matter of time if Amazon isn't cracked down on like yesterday.

lauren said...

I agree with those who've said that the way books are advertised leaves huge room for improvement. There are so many avenues that just aren't used: for example, S&S owns the YA paperback imprint "MTV Books." Do the books in that line ever get a mention on MTV? Nope. The one that DID get promotion on MTV, Stephen Chbosky's THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, is still in print and has continued to sell well for eight years. Word-of-mouth has done a lot for that particular book, but I'm sure S&S / MTV Books could have racked up some similar hits with a little bit of TV promotion.

I know a lot of people who would buy more books if only they could find out about new books and new authors without doing loads of Internet research. The problem with only having a few new books making it past the fabled "tipping point" every year is that those are the books that get recommended over and over from one 5-books-per-year reader to another. So you wind up with one big new memoir bestseller, one big new pop nonfiction bestseller, one big new fiction bestseller, and one big new children's or YA bestseller every year or so. And then people like me go crazy because they can't turn a corner without having one of their female friends recommend EAT PRAY LOVE to them. Gah! Make it stop!

There's got to be a way to get more new books into the general public's consciousness. Savvier TV and magazine advertising seems like a good idea to me.

ChristaCarol said...

A lot of great idea's viewed here. The only one I remember (after reading all of these) that I had difference's on was with JES's, the in store ordering system (if a book is not in inventory, i.e. the returns issue). I personally, as a consumer, want my item then and there. I don't want to have to drive back up to the book store (especially when BN isn't nearby), spending gas, to pick it up. I'd rather it be there the day I go to the store. Just my two cents though. Unless they're willing to ship it to me free :-D

As for the marketing and advertising aspect of publishing, some people had it head on. As a consumer, I know NOTHING about the book world unless I do some work and searching on what is coming out, etc. Consumers don't want to work to find what book they should buy next or what is coming out soon they might be interested in. If anything, publisher's have ignored a big issue that could really help them. Someone mentioned a newsletter, or something that updated you if you subscribed on what books would be coming out that month, etc. Someone else mentioned TV ads (while not cheap, may be something to consider during the holiday season). I definitely agree someone somewhere needs to put this idea in movement and realize that they can grab so much more book readers by the collar to go buy books if they are visually given a chance to know what is available without having to take the time to look.

MoJo said...

The only one I remember (after reading all of these) that I had difference's on was with JES's, the in store ordering system (if a book is not in inventory, i.e. the returns issue). I personally, as a consumer, want my item then and there. I don't want to have to drive back up to the book store

That struck me, too, christacarol. There's already an answer to this:

The Espresso Book Machine

Kiosk book buying at B&N. Or Wal-Mart. Can you imagine?

I blogged about that here.

Ulysses said...

As with any retail model, it all comes down to one of two things: increase flowthrough, or decrease overhead.

The concensus seems to be that the returns policy is the largest and stupidest contributor to overhead. It may benefit the customer, in the sense that bookstores may order a wider variety of books than they would otherwise, but I don't think it helps much, really. It sure doesn't help the publisher. It's a wonderful thing for the seller, but even they have to get annoyed by the inventory/accounting complexities.

Increasing flowthrough is a marketing thing: advertising, promotions... really raising awareness of brand among consumers in such a way that they cannot NOT buy. Unfortunately, traditional marketing takes money and doesn't always have measurable returns. Marketers have to know their audience, reach their audience and entice their audience... which isn't easy even in good times.

Of course, publishing could just die. Then no one would feel guilty about not reading more because there would be nothing more to read. Writers would not dream of big advances because there would be no advances. We'd become eccentric hacks writing snarky comments on blogs for nothing more than the joy of provoking a response and...

I think I'll stop now.

Whirlochre said...

Widen the net to catch what gets squeezed out of people while there's nothing much good to say and no-one can stop themselves from saying it.

Alternatively — free cuddly toys.

More importantly — not flinch.

Heather Zundel said...

The whole structure of publishing needs to change, not just one thing or another. The current returning policy publishers have with bookstores is terrible. Returning the books and able to get a full refund? Moonrat covers this topic a whole lot better than me.

And I am a big fan of the tangible, hold-it-in-your-hands books, but something seriously has to change (this is in direct conjunction with the above paragraph). I can foresee a legitimate “print on demand” model really working for publishers. With technology now, it is next to nothing to store information digitally. Books could be saved electronically on file on servers, and on back-up servers on back-up servers to insure all possibility of loss. And then, whenever someone wishes for a book, they can order it electronically (which the majority of us do already anyway), the order can be received and processed, sent with ease to a printing house electronically, printed and shipped directly to your door. Publishers may even look into models of offering this service directly. Now, no cost of shipping, no need for returns because it is there is only what it is needed, no storing costs, etc. Or a very similar model could be based off the “Threadless Model” - where people vote on a t-shirt design and then it is printed in a limited quantity, then if it runs out, people can vote again, and once enough votes are accrued, there is another printing run.

Then more money is directly retained by publishers. The problem is what indie music artists face – breaking out from the crowd. The extra money could be put into promoting more unkown authors (something all of us on this blog would enjoy) but we would have to get in the game a lot more ourselves to stand out. More authors could be accepted for publication. Everyone wins. We just need to figure out how bookstores would play a role in it, because I am still a big advocate for them. It is an evolving market. It’s possible, and this is a model that could work.

Vancouver Dame said...

Tough question. I've worked in the communications business (local & wireless) which went through several upheavals when cellular phone technology hit the field. In order to survive, companies will usually downsize in whatever area is not achieving an acceptable return, and consolidate where possible. The guy at the bottom is the guy who stands to lose the most (last in - first out) which means new writers have to try even harder).

I agree with those who have cited - publishers need to advertise differently - reassess the market and whether consumers will want to pay the big buck prices on the bestsellers, and major existing authors. When new authors are published, an incentive to consumers would be to offer these books at a cheaper rate than the established authors. That could be offset by taking the suggestion of having the author and publisher share the profit or loss of one of the 'expected' blockbuster books. I wonder what the established writers would think of this change? There are some excellent suggestions in all the comments, but the bottom line ($$) will always impact the final decisions. In summary, the publishing business should perhaps revamp itself by listening to some of the consumers. Sometimes the business gets too big and forgets what fuel is feeding the fire that keeps it running.

C.D. Reimer said...

Seems like bookstores can return books that they don't sell. I'm curious where they find books for the remainder pile -- last year's Stephen King hardback for $5.99! -- and bargain books. If these books are not selling, why are they still in the bookstore?

rinverv said...

Someone in the past thread (Mark Terry?) mentioned publishers branding themselves. This is a very smart idea. Every book is different, but surely a publisher could come up with enough subdivisions to make their product consistent. It would be much like the way TV networks or the comics publishers brand themselves. So far, the only book publisher who comes to mind who's taken advantage of this is Harlequin.

Just_Me said...

Here are the facts and factors as I see them:

1. You can't raise prices because the readers will turn to used book sellers. Why pay $15 when you can get the same book a month later on ebay for 75 cents?

2. The return system is ridiculous. This is retail. No more returns from book stores. I'm not sure who is to blame for this, the publishing house or the seller, but the sellers need to get a quick course on how to run a retail business and start selling books.

3. Update websites. Every author should have one. Every publishing house should have one. Every website should shunt the reader to a place to buy the books.

4. Advertising. If I have to listen to a holiday jingle about shoes on the radio I should hear one about the sale Barnes and Noble is having.

5. Publishing House coupons. I don't think it's been tried. But how about $1 off two if you buy from Tor or the Penguin group?

6. The publishing houses and sellers need to stop acting like the only people responsible for sales are great authors and discerning readers. From the model described publishing houses do nothing but make contacts. That's big, I'll grant you, but the publishing industry can't survive if the powers that be keep acting like their hands are tied. Instead of making a brand around one or two major authors (like Nora Roberts), how about making a brand around the publishing house.

My shelf has about 5 major publishing house names on it, with a sprinkling of other books. I check new books to see who published it and when because I know the editors at those houses consistently buy books I like. Tor is already starting this, they have a blog and a good website with free stuff (including online e-books). The others need to jump in with this.

7. Make alternative versions to dead-tree books feasible and affordable. Nope, I don't have a kindle. I like paper and money is tight. But if Kindle were cheap and I could easily download books, I would. If I could find cheap audio books, I'd download those. But money is TIGHT, that's kind of the meaning of recession, and I won't spend over $5 on a book. Even the audio version.

8. Diversify. Lately the houses have been pushing blockbusters and big names. Well, we're sick of it. Like the song that won't stop playing I go to the store and scream, "Not another vampire love story! Not another tween fantasy! Make it stop!" I know what I like, and I know I haven't found a new author I love in almost a year. I'm going to try Lisa Shearin next, I've heard wonderful things about her, but if Magic Lost, Trouble Found doesn't pan out I'm going to bite the bullet and wait for the next Jack Campbell book.

9. Make the books available. I think this is the biggest problem for sellers and publishing houses. They invest in the wrong things. Six major titles go out, they get premium shelf space, and the book store has 3 million copies. But they don't have a copy of book 1 of another series that catches me eye while I'm there. So, yes, I buy the popular title (maybe) but I don't buy the three other books that caught my eye because I want to start the series at the beginning.

And by the time I get home I've talked myself into waiting for the next time I go to the store. By which point I've forgotten that title ever captured my attention.

Impulse buys are a major cash contributor to the coffers. Make the books available. Stock the full series. Hide the big names in with other really cool titles.

Shannon Ryan said...

I think Seth Godin nailed this in his article linked from Nathan's November 7 entry.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I've thought a lot about cross advertising/marketing. Kiddos who like video games or Dungeons and Dragons would read books with similar story lines--high action, intense plotting. The show TrueBlood has surely increased Harris' book sales--the show is like one long commercial! (I'm in spec fic, have met her agent, and I'd never heard of her books before the show, for instance. I love the show and have since bought two of her books.)

Additionally, cross market with other media like music. It's just market research; it's not brain surgery. Other industries do it with great success. One of the failings of the publishing industry is to think we're "special" and "different" in some way. Other artistic endeavors sell well--with proper market research.

I think the midlist is sorely neglected as a money-making machine. Advertising doesn't have to be in the New Yorker or Times. Use Google-ads for Pete's sake! I agree with those in the thread who say it's tough to find those midlist authors, what with no advertising and Big Bright Displays for Nora and Stephen in the freaking way all the time.

So, my solution--for the bookstore: more specific blue signs at B&N, etc. Not just "Fantasy /Sci Fi. How about Epic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Vampires, Historical Romance, Space Opera, etc, (incidentally, the same labels we use in our queries, which somehow never make it to the bookstores) to let one book sell another.

I currently have to look through hundreds of sci-fi books to find, say, an epic fantasy. As a customer, I don't have all day, but most times I walk out of the bookstore with about four more books than I intended on buying. I can't be the only one. Find ways to capitalize on that. And if a book is cross-genre, then put it under two blue signs, or even three.

I don't know that I have an opinion on returns, but I know in the design industry, where I worked for many years, returns came at a price--20-40%. It's called a restocking fee. It may be time for restocking fees in the publishing industry.

LiteraryMouse said...

A really good question.

I'd suggest less hardcover releases and more paperbacks. I've actually been reading a lot more books lately (and writing, doing lots of writing) because I'm out of work and it gets depressing. But $20 for a book is usually too much.

For the most part, I've been picking up paperbacks that were originally released as hardcover but are now cheap enough to afford.

Yes, my meager food money is being used for books. Sometimes you need to feed your mind too.

Erik said...

Social Media, involving:

1) Book fans who just like reviewing and chatting
2) Wannabee writers who would salivate over contests,
3) Casual book readers drawn in through Twitter, etc
4) The kitchen sink.

In short, they have to stop being victimized by trends and effin' RIDE them. The brevity of writing on the 'net is not a threat to longer works, it BEGS for them. Bring them together.

Anita said...

First...All of us book lovers out there have to pass that love on. Hit the young crowd, people. If you've got kids and/or grandkids, turn them on to the power of books. Start a book club with them or at your local library, send every parent you know a list of fabulous family read-a-louds, make sure the schools in your 'hood are participating in Battle of the Books. Make reading cool...because it is.
Second...the publishing industry needs to go after the youngsters with the same sort of drive. And I say, "Push the Kindle on them early." My tweenager would never consider writing a book with pencil and paper, and though she loves the feel of a book in her hands (who doesn't?!), I know she and other kids will adapt to the technology of reading faster than the rest of us---just like they have to the technology of writing.

Nathan, you're awesome!

Anonymous said...

A lot of great info and ideas here. I like the idea that we're getting to a point where you can:
1) Go to Amazon or and read the first few chapters.
2) Make a choice: Pass, Download, Or order hardcopy (Maybe even get a special price if you buy digital and hard copy)
3) enjoy the satisfaction of hassle-free and risk-free book buying

It almost seems like we need a big company to specialize at this. The "publisher of the future." I don't like having to dig through 10 pages of garbage links in order to find the book I searched for at Amazon. A books-only company could make the book buying experience very satisfying.

Also, said company could have Bookstores on the street with POD machines. They'd have the big-name guys on the shelves, but you could also browse the library, order a copy, and five minutes later you have a book with pages still warm from the press. A hot, fresh latte and a hot, fresh book.

Please tell me this is coming soon!

They could also take on lots of new authors, because the risk is minimal. Granted they would probably have to hire editors to dig through the slush faster, but anything that's readable could be bought on a per-sale contract. And some of it would take off.

Scott said...

Why aren't the people who work in bookstores better sales people. Believe me, I like the no hassle approach. Half the reason I go in is to relax. But if I were working there, I would have a personal list of books that I think people would like depending on what they're looking for, or what they have in their hand.

If bookstore employees posted their personal lists, or there were lists from authors/customers/barristas, you might create a tone of "unearthed gems" that would entice browsers.

Newsletters are another way to get the goods out, but they need to come from reputable sources. A monthly newsletter that stores could subscribe to could both train employees and do the work for them.

The tactic of just putting books on shelves doesn't sell. I know they group like-for-like on occasion, but if retailers put more concerted effort into spreading the love for more authors, they might sell that blockbuster and a lesser-known author. Two-for-one helps everyone.

Mary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott said...

How about the return of the dime novel? Only, I'm not talking about real dimes, more like two or three dollars.

The model I like to think about is those wonderful German Reklam books--slim, cheaply produced, generic-looking books that sell for very low prices. In germany, the Reklam books are mostly PD classics. But there's no reason why they couldn't be backlist or midlist books, or even authors who specifically write cheapies, like they used to.

OK, maybe those cheapies wouldn't be great lit, but they'd keep people reading at a time when it's hard to justify paying full price for a book. And, as happened with the dime novels in the old days, there'd be a few breakout authors who transcend the category.

Cheapies have one undeniable affect on buyers: it's hard to buy just one. I know that in Germany I'd go to buy a couple and come out with a bag full. OK, part of that is because it's not easy to find German books out here where I live, but it's also because I figured they were cheap and took barely any shelf space.

I don't care that they are kind of ugly. They're readable and fit easily in a pocket.

Nikki Hootman said...

I'd like to see Amazon put out the Kindle "on contract." A bit like when you join one of those book clubs: get 10 books for free now if you promise to buy 10 books within the year. (Or whatever.)

The way I see it working is this: I get the Kindle now, for free, if I contractually promise to purchase X number of ebooks in the next 12 months. X might be a pretty large number to cover the cost of the Kindle, but if I'm buying 5-10 books at the book store each month it's going to pay itself off quickly.

I think this would have several benefits:

1) It gets readers like me, who balk at paying $350 for the Kindle, into the digital market.

2) Digital books are cheaper, which means your book money goes farther. For compulsive readers, this doesn't just translate into the same amount of money for more books. It means I will read a wider variety - and then get addicted to a greater number of authors - and then buy even MORE books. Overall sales increase.

2) It means Amazon (and perhaps publishers) have a rough idea that they're going to get at LEAST a certain number of book purchases within the year.

3) It popularizes the Kindle (or other ebook reader) so that it becomes a device of mass appeal rather than just a specialty item. I've NEVER seen a Kindle in real life! How do I know I want one unless my friend gets one and I play with it?

M Clement Hall said...

Almost certainly this is the wrong attitude for blogs, but coming from a profession where everyone outside the profession is totally confident of solutions to every problem that those inside the profession cannot fix, I'd like to suggest to Nathan (whose efforts on behalf of the reading public I greatly admire) that we have the benefit of an analysis of the problem from a panel of three assorted industry insiders, representing for instance the publishers, editors and the booksellers. Nathan could referee, and is well qualified to give the views of the agent who stands between writer and editor.
Then perhaps if we knew the problem better, we would be less free with our solutions.
For many years I have preached the dictum, "easy and obvious answers are almost invariably wrong answers."

Lehcarjt said...

This is the most fascinating topic. I'm incredibly impressed with everyone's idea.

As an unpubbed author, I don't feel I know enough of the intimacies of publishing to add much to the conversation.

But as a consumer, I have a couple of thoughts. First, my local indy bookstore always keeps a stack of books on the checkout counter. The stack is a book hand chosen by the person at the counter. The moment I pick up the book (which I only do if it seems like something I might read), the employee tells me they read it, loved it, and why. Nine times out of ten I buy it on the spot.

Second, I used to buy a lot of books, but as the years have gone on I've become more of a library user. Why is that? The primary reason is that I find it so hard to find books I like. There is nothing more frustrating than spending money on a book only to chuck it at the wall on page 30. I tend to only *buy* from authors whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. I still read a lot of other books (especially recommendations from friends), but almost 100% of the time I get them from the library.

If the publishing industry wants me to purchase more midlisters, then the quality has to go up. Period. I’m frugal enough not to want to waste money on books that aren’t worth reading, and I find the good majority of midlisters unreadable. (Sorry – harsh I know, but that’s my purchasing practices)

Anonymous said...

If the publishing industry wants me to purchase more midlisters, then the quality has to go up. Period. I’m frugal enough not to want to waste money on books that aren’t worth reading, and I find the good majority of midlisters unreadable. (Sorry – harsh I know, but that’s my purchasing practices)

That's all well and good in theory, but one person's crap is another person's gem. What one person sees as below-quality another might see as brilliant.

Ryan Field said...

I LOVE Nikki Hootman's idea.

"I'd like to see Amazon put out the Kindle "on contract." A bit like when you join one of those book clubs: get 10 books for free now if you promise to buy 10 books within the year. (Or whatever.)

"The way I see it working is this: I get the Kindle now, for free, if I contractually promise to purchase X number of ebooks in the next 12 months. X might be a pretty large number to cover the cost of the Kindle, but if I'm buying 5-10 books at the book store each month it's going to pay itself off quickly."

paula said...

"Sex scenes" and "Anita" have begun to articulate the problem. Many of the comments are interesting and offer partial solutions that could help, but as I see it, the fundamental problem is a shrinking readership. As the Web and other pursuits vie for people's time and people become more image-oriented, books become a harder sell.

In addition, there is an anti-intellectual streak in the U.S. that has only got worse over the last 15 years. This is a huge cultural issue that isn't easily tackled. I wish I had a suggestion for "fixing" it, but I'm just not that smart.

Anonymous said...

To lehcarjt:

Please tell me you are kidding? Do you even understand what mid-list means? Roughly 98 percent of books can be considered mid-list.

Mid-list doesn't mean mediocre, it only means they are not the publisher's ONE novel they are pushing the marketing hell out of that season.

You are missing out on tons of good books. Too bad for you.

Deborah Blake said...

"I personally, as a consumer, want my item then and there. I don't want to have to drive back up to the book store (especially when BN isn't nearby), spending gas, to pick it up. I'd rather it be there the day I go to the store. Just my two cents though. Unless they're willing to ship it to me free :-D"
Just as a note: my local Borders (which is a "mini" and doesn't have much stock in their tiny space) will let you order something they don't have in stock--and they ship it to you for free! (And you can still use the online coupons they send you via email.)

Julie said...

Weren't returns covered in Cheney's recommendation #73? Or, was that a development after 1931?

Marilynn Byerly said...

Everyone keeps talking about Amazon and the Kindle as the way to spend their money. Amazon is the bad guy, folks. Any writer who spends their cash there is sleeping with the enemy.

Some writers see Amazon as the writer's and reader's friend, but, increasingly, Amazon is showing its ugly profit-is-everything nature.

The used book shown with the new book in search results is one example of this. Amazon makes more profit by acting as middleman for used booksellers than it does by selling new books.

Amazon's current attempt to force publishers to use their POD provider is an even more frightening example of its methods.

Amazon is tightening their grip on the smaller publishers by telling them they have to use Amazon-owned Booksurge for POD.

Amazon's contract says that Amazon will control the price of the book sold, its price cannot be lowered at any other venue including the publisher's site, and it will control the look of the book and its quality.

For the right to have a "buy now" on their books, publishers will be at the whim of Amazon in most aspects of their product.

With Amazon moving aggressively into epublishing with the Kindle, publishers may lose all control of their product if they knuckle under to these tactics.

Amazon justifies all this as a means to make it simpler for them to ship books all at once, but they don't say that POD books printed through Ingram's Lightning Source and other POD providers are shipped the same day with the Amazon label attached so the buyer can't tell who has printed it or shipped it.

For complete details on this situation and the class action lawsuit by some small publishers against Amazon, go here

Only small press is the victim of this current Amazon contract stipulation right now, but, if the publishing industry doesn't stand firm against it, the Amazon gorilla will squash the rest of the publishing industry.

Amazon is trashing the publishing industry and its authors because the buyers have given them that power. Take it away by spending your money elsewhere.

Other Lisa said...

I love a lot of these ideas. I particularly like (in fact I suggested it too, in an unrelated post) the idea of Espresso machines in brick and mortar bookstores. Honestly, a good bookstore with a thoughtful selection can sell books that otherwise would not necessarily find an audience. For example, for some reason, the Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica has always had an interesting selection of books about China and Chinese history (the late lamented Midnight Special was even better, but it's gone now, alas). I went in to B&N to buy a novel from an eFriend of mine and of course had to stop at the China section. Sure enough, two books I didn't know about and "had" to buy.

And speaking of my eFriend's book, this was her first published novel. It's a romance novel and the paperback house that published it offers this book and others by new authors at a discount. I'm guessing that the writer loses some with this arrangement but also wins some if the discount and promotional program results in increased sales.

And back to bookstores: there's a wonderful independent bookstore close to my house where I do a lot of shopping. It's owned and staffed by people who love books and love reading, and they write little cards describing and recommending the books, and I've gone in there and bought things purely on these recommendations. Their selection is also really thoughtful - they tend to have things I want that other stores don't necessarily carry - and of course they special-order, and the orders arrive promptly. So great customer service canhelp sell books. It takes knowledge and passion.

I'd love for these guys to get an Espresso machine!

Word verification: "nerwa." Huh.

JES said...

Christacarol and Mojo: Personally, I'm looking forward to the Brave New e-book World. My idea was directed more at that portion of the book-buying which isn't apparently interested in going that way, ever, because they have to have their own copy, or have to feel the paper in their hands, etc.

That Espresso Book Machine looks AMAZING.

Oh, and along the lines of Nikki Hootman's suggestion: I think Amazon (or more likely an external brick-and-mortar partner, say Blockbuster or some such) ought to make Kindles available for rental --pre-loaded with book(s) of a reader's choice. I bet consumers would dip a toe in that water once or twice, LOVE the device, and then think, The hell with THIS -- I'm getting my own! Kinda like the way they (used to?) rent out videogame consoles as well as the game cartridges themselves.

Kyle said...

One comment I've seen repeated in these responses is that there should be less advertising on the blockbuster authors and more spent on the midlisters. The reasoning goes that people already know when those books are coming out, so why advertise it? I have a few reasons why:

1) First off, I humbly suggest that the group of people who post here are not the average consumer. Most of us are writers (published or not), or people with an avid interest in publishing. Reading and books in general are a much larger part of our lives.

I'll use the example of baseball to illustrate my point, since I'm a huge baseball fan. I follow it very closely, and I know when the playoffs start and who is in them. Casual baseball fans, such as my wife, rely much more on TV commercials to tell them "The playoffs are starting, don't miss these two teams go for the World Series!"

For the casual reader, who may read a book every month or even less, a commercial that James Patterson's newest Alex Cross book is out can remind her, "Hey, I liked his previous books, I think I'll go pick that one up." She probably wouldn't have even gone to the bookstore without that commercial.

So advertising the big names can help, as now the casual reader is making a trip to the bookstore, and judging from what I see in B&N and such, they'll often end up buying several books.

2) People suggest that the big name authors don't need advertisement because they are already household names. While the latter is true, it doesn't suggest the former. Coca-Cola is the most recognized brand name in the world. Yet they advertise constantly. Why? To remind people how much they love their product. To keep it a household name.

The purpose of advertising is not just getting people aware of a new product. It's to keep people aware of their existing favorites. Look at McDonald's, for another example. Bah-dum bum bum bum, I'm loving it. They were already the most popular fast food place in the US. Did they really need to create such a successful campaign? Yes, to keep people coming back. And to get even more people interested.

Now of course, those aren't direct comparisons, because McDonald's and Coke really only have one product to promote, which is their brand. Publishers have many products to promote. But the point still has merit, I think.

As to what publishers should do, I think they should look into more reading programs for young children. Try their hardest to promote reading to children. Take a long term view and build the customer base.

Nathan Bransford said...

Wow, I'm in awe of these comments. Very smart!!

Linda said...

Love JES' rent the kindle idea. As someone who wobbles on the luddite/techno edge (and is too vain to buy the bifocals she desperately needs), I'd like to try one out on a cross-country air trip before committing the bucks.


As a writer and blogger and PW subscriber, I pretty much have sufficient exposure to new books and make note of what I want to read. I prefer to buy in brick-and-mortar, yet when I go to the HUGE B&N a couple of towns down, the book's not in stock (already returned). So, I browse, looking for a substitute, and get consumer fatigue in about five minutes that not even an overpriced latte can rejuvenate.

I leave, often emptyhanded and go to the library. It's easier - fewer identical books, less choice yet somehow more meaningful choice, a smattering of new and classic. Libraries are just more manageable. If the big bookstores would make their stores more like libraries - fewer identical books staring at you from the front displays, less glitz and cardboard stands cluttering the aisles, I'd probably buy more.

Another thing. I LOVE wine. I love to go to nice wine stores where all the bottles are livingly displayed, along with pithy little descriptions and ratings.

Why can't the bookstores do that? Sure, that's what flap copy is for, but if I have to wade through three rows of Nora Roberts, Stephen Kind, Dan Brown, and the other bestsellers to get to the midlist and lesser-knowns, I'm too damn tired to pick up a book and read.

And Nathan - print book prices WOULD go down IF the returns policy wasn't so nuts (how much of that price is due to shipping here and there and everywhere), if publishers printed in smaller initial runs and used POD, and relied on trade paperbacks versus hardcover.

Arghhh.. .way too long - can you tell I'm stuck on my NaNo novel? Peace, Linda

Simon Haynes said...

Publishers should promote books and book vouchers as the ideal birthday or Xmas gift in a downturn. They're relatively cheap, and there's something to suit everyone. Forget the electronic junk this Christmas and go books.

If I remember correctly, recent stats said that only 20% of the US population regularly buys books? Well, I'd try and hook another 5%

Brigid said...

Nathan, how about a follow-up blog topic about how agents are dealing with the economic downturn? I work in finance, so I can talk about the corporate side until I'm blue in the face -- but I do that all day. :-) But what about you guys? Are agents going to tighten up on what they'll accept, knowing that publishers are going to be very picky? Or are agents going to accept more clients than they'd normally handle, knowing that advances are going to be mighty thin going forward? How are you dealing with the economic downturn?

Anonymous said...

What about product placement? When was the last time, aside from Good Will Hunting, that anyone in a movie or television show talked about a book? Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA on Desperate Housewifes, or The Brief History of the Dead on Six Feet Under, etc. etc. etc. It worked for Reece's Pieces.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

You need the Boulder Bookstore, a monolithic indy with a huge new releases area (just like the library) and a "recommended reading" section with employee reviews. It also has "stacks" you can get lost in and little nooks to sit down and check it out. Best. Bookstore. Ever. (A lot of folks prefer the Tattered Cover, which is also nice, but I love Boulder Bookstore.)

Adaora A. said...

They have to take the time to invest in newcomers. Pouring all (or most of) their major resources and effort on 'tried and true' gives the big bucks straight away but does little to invest in the future. I think spreading the impact of publishing houses with variety is key. That old saying, 'don't put too many eggs in one basket' is important.

Juliana Stone said...

yes, promote the new authors...says I who will have a first novel published in summer 2010

MoJo said...


Personally, I'm looking forward to the Brave New e-book World.


But may I suggest that the Kindle is NOT the eBook messiah. Any ebook manufacturer would be smart to rent and gain market share that way. On the other hand, Sony has theirs in Target and Best Buy, so people can try before they buy. IMO, that's more important than hype and Oprah.

Zen of Writing said...

I was in Barnes & Noble earlier, looking at trade paperbacks and realizing they would be $2-5 cheaper at Amazon. So, why doesn't B&N sell them cheaper? I know it kills profit margins, but is it better not to sell books? Maybe, who knows what the corporate machinations are there.

I don't know if indy bookstores could do it, because they wouldn't necessarily generate much more traffic that way, but B&N would. I'd buy more there, and I prefer new books. My local indy places are great, but small, and don't have the same selection.

Of course, nobody beats Amazon's selection, but nothing is stopping buyers from going directly to the used bookstores's website and bypassing Amazon. I like Abebooks and Strandbooks. Oh, wait, that doesn't help publishing... altho it does, because after I buy an author's book used, I am way more inclined to buy the next one new.

One last note on B&N, I hate that club thing, where you actually have to pay $25 a year to get 10% off. It keeps me from buying anything.

Linda said...

SS @ S, I am SOOOO there. I have a conference coming up this spring... thanks.

Zen, EXACTLY! 20-30% of the harcover price doesn't do it for me when I can get 45% off at amazon. B&N will give you an extra 10% off if you spend $25 for a member card. at least Borders gives you the card for free.

I went to B&N this weekend, bought a few books for my kids, bought one paperback for myself, then spent double that afternoon at amazon - because I could get the latest SHREVE and GLASS for so much cheaper (and PHARMAKON, already off the shelves at B&N). My back-of-the-envelope estimates I saved $52 buying at amazon over the store on six books. Peace, Linda

Anonymous said...

I've found myself turning toward plumper books during the economic downturn. More pages - better deal. Could be a trend!

usman said...

The Returns System is a no brainer. Some people commented that in case this is implemented, Booksellers will only order the big books, the bestsellers, and not take risks with new authors.
This is a posible solution: to have a two tiered returns policy.

1] The Bestsellers, the Harry Potters and Da Vinci Codes. They become non returnable once a retailer orders.

2] Debut Authors: Publishers and Retailers share risk. The retailer can return agreed on some pricing or volume return formula.

ChristaCarol said...

Deborah: "Just as a note: my local Borders (which is a "mini" and doesn't have much stock in their tiny space) will let you order something they don't have in stock--and they ship it to you for free! (And you can still use the online coupons they send you via email.)"

Awesome! Wish I had a Borders near me :( And I'm not even in a hodunk town really!

After reading a lot of these responses I feel like I should be giving Amazon the stink-eye.

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

1. In writing about new publications I often find it hard to receive the information without having to hunt it down. Email newsletter and RSS Feeds should be posted on every publisher's homepage - option of weekly/ monthly news / upcoming publications - currently most require you to choose by author ie: sign up to get news about Ann Kelley or about Jenny Downham - you only choose those you know and it takes a long time to sign up for several - instead options to choose by genre 'sign up for all YA new releases' , or an option to get all, would be helpful.

2.Promote discount packages to bookclubs. Recently tried to by 8 copies of ten books - no bookseller could give us any discount; result, some chose to share or buy second hand. We might also try an author we had not considered if in a package deal.

3. Support more live book fairs, meet the author events, at schools and universities, to ensure future markets - whilst maintaining social networking (facebook pages etc) as background fan base. Maintain actively - some are updated very infrequently. If you like X, you might like Y works for Amazon - that is better than months of no news if the author is hidden away working on the next book.

4. We book lovers need to ensure to promote our own favourites to others - I bit the bullet for the first time yesterday in my local bookstore, a browser had three in her hand and I saw she had a Jonathan Franzten, which gave me a lead in. Asked her what else she liked, and suggested a book by a friend. She ordered it!

Love some of the other ideas posted here too.

DFortier said...

If marketed properly, the recession could help the publishing industry snag back an entire group of users.

Money is tight, and there is less of it to throw around for entertainment. For a couple to go for a night out at the movies for a few hours it costs a good chunk of change. We went out the other night to see a show and here's what it costs:
$21 for two tickets
$12.75 (4.50 for popcorn, $4.25 for a large drink, $4.00 for a medium drink)
$33.75 for the theater alone. Since we went on a Friday to downtown, there were no meters to park at for free.
$3.00 Parking
$37.75 total night expenditures, not counting the drinks we had after the show.

My big marketing plan for the publishers: Show a couple on a night out at the movies and flash a price for each transaction, and then the total cost. Then flash 2 hours, on the screen.

Now, show somebody reading a paperback on the sofa with a steaming cup of tea or coffee... Show 2 hours on the screen change to 3,4,5... and then flash >> "Books, starting at around $7.99 for hours of enjoyment. With all the story of the movies, without all the cost."

It's kind of lame, and somebody could probably do it better. Now is the time for publishers to start pushing the economy of books.

Anonymous said...

Get rid of fiction hardcover releases altogether. When I'm desperately waiting for a book, and it is released in hardcover something like a year before the paperback will be released, that is when I go to the library instead and often don't end up going back a year later to buy the paperback.
I cannot see the logic of paying triple the price for the same story.

Scott said...

Other lisa, your bookstore is what I'm talking about. Recommendations from people and employees you get to know and trust. The world opens up like a can of awesomeness when that happens in ANY industry. It's like visiting a foreign city and meeting someone who can tell you where the 'real ____' is.

Since selling more books to both the initiated and otherwise is the tide that floats all boats, something as simple as a "new author" section might be added to all bookstores. They could blanket the section with reviews from prominent websites, authors, celebrities, whatever. And the books could be significantly discounted. I mean, if I'm new, above all I want to be read so that I can move out of the minor league section with my next book and slug it out with the big boys.

It all seems to come back to awareness via the many channels of communication we're afforded these days. So if I were a publisher, I would be focusing my efforts on some low-cost solutions for retailers and auxiliary entities to help promote some good product that's getting lost.

The cabbage is falling off the truck on the way to the supermarket, peeps!

WitLiz Today said...

Starts at the top. Quit publishing so many damn books. And I write this as a newbie writer knowing I could be in the book crunch of whereof I speak if that were to come to pass.

But ugly is ugly, and as I look toward the future for writer's and author's as a whole, well frankly it's bleak, not to mention the future is now.

Take, for example, the heinous practice of acquiring books just to fill quotas. STOP. IT. Who does that hurt in the long run? And I mean smash a promising career kinda hurt.

Quotas gotta goas. I'd rather be published based on the merits of my book. If I were to ever find out my book was acquired by quota I'd make a nota, return the paltry advance and break the contract.

Next, STOP with all the NF. After all, how many more ways can an author write, 'you're fucked up and I can fix that,' before I start to feel like I'm worse off for having read the books?

In other words, how many NF books does it really take to screw a lightbulb?

Less is more. Trust me.

Anonymous said...

Zen and linda said:

"... Zen, EXACTLY! 20-30% of the harcover price doesn't do it for me when I can get 45% off at amazon. B&N will give you an extra 10% off if you spend $25 for a member card. at least Borders gives you the card for free..."

This stops me from buying at B&N all the time! I prefer to buy at brick and mortar stores rather than Amazon. But at least with Borders they give you coupons you can sign up to recieve in your email box -- I already got mine this morning. That extra 20-30 percent off a book -- a five or six dollar savings -- makes a real difference, and spares me from having to go to Amazon.

People in publishing get to read for FREE -- they are called ARC's. If the publishing industry had to shell out 25 bucks for an adult hardcover or 17 dollars for a YA hardcover every week just to read a book that interested them, they might think twice about their pricing.

LOVE this discussion, Nathan.

Anonymous said...

How about letting the mega-sellers not have quite so much of the advertising dollars, so that midlist authors get a bit more push?

What about trying to reduce costs through all publishers accepting electronic submissions, etc.?

What about shutting off the TV so there's time to read? What about parents and teachers reading to kids (get 'em young) so that we make more readers?

I personally don't like the ideas of more online retail or more ebooks. That doesn't work for me and it puts the independent booksellers out of biz -- and they are the ones who truly love books, who can take a midlist and handsell it to bestseller status. Shop indie.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I disagree with the "don't publish so many books" idea. I read something like one-three books per week. This doesn't include my short story reading and my own sizable slush. I'm a reader with specific tastes and if numbers are slashed, it's likely to hit in one or two more niche genres rather than an across-the-board.

Incidentally, I don't often prefer Oprah's selections, women's fic, romance, etc, that all sells so well. So if it's more of these published and less genre-specific, then I'll tend to read less.

Besides, TV is giving reading a run for its money for the first time in several years.

Erik said...

If I were leading a brainstorming session that was chartered to develop a strategic plan (a day job of mine), I'd start grouping these into some rather well defined areas. I think I see a lot of patterns developing.

My own comments on social marketing, incidentally, were a short-term solution to the problem of "not enough readers". My long-term approach remains solving that problem by leveraging what the industry has to generate more excitement, but I think there's a short-term series of experiments that are worth trying towards the same end.

But we have some good stuff here. I'll organize some of it tonight.

Eva Gale said...

Tackle the returns system becuase it is one thing that has, is and WILL plague the publishing industry forevah if it's not.

I have a small business and I cannot imagine operating with the returns system. How could you possibly take the risks you need to grow? It makes absolutely no sense. I would focus on smaller print runs and cutting out warehouses. It's must be cheaper to have your own warehouse and staff if yourself and if you're printing smaller runs the space used would be minimized.

Now is an excellent time to break away from places like Ingrams, too. You have the swell of e, and a downturn in the market. Pull in tight, regroup and start it small.

Authors wouldn't suffer becuase everyone would benefit and they could still outsell runs. It works for all.

Eva Gale said...

And you could market it as a green solution. Less books hitting the shredder.

bryan russell said...

Ah, psychology... it's interesting how people respond to questions. Almost everyone that's responded has approached it from a long-term "fix the industry" vantage point, while to me the question indicated more of a concern with the short term. How do we weather this particular (and hopefully short - I like to think of myself as an optimist) downturn in retail and publishing?

I found it fascinating that everyone jumped on the long-term solutions, drawn to the logic of an industry transformation. Lots of interesting stuff has come up... but it got me wondering about the short term. What are some specific things that might be done to help the industry right now? Industry transformation might be needed and might be coming, but if so it won't be fast or easy and won't do much to help the publishing industry this winter. So what are some ideas for the industry right now? Maybe this is a tougher nut to crack, and one of those situations where the forest is easier to see than the trees. But I like trees, so I thought I'd ask. Now, I have no particularly good answers myself... but I've always felt that sometimes a good question is just as important.

Paula said...

Interesting take, Bryan, and a great new question.

As for the short term, it seems to me that the publishing industry moves so slowly that anything they do for the short term will end up actually happening in the medium term.

Eva Gale said...

Gather publishing houses together and open your OWN bookstores. It's normal in the manufacturing business. Retail store grows to the point that it's more cost effective to manufacture their own product. So they turn around and buy out the comany that is the main producer of their product.

Let Walmart and the other stores gag because crazy women who love romances WILL hie temselves to those stores and purchase. And romances are the major seller in the industry, no? That's what my RWR says all the time. *g*

Jenny said...

The industry has to get serious about learning how to market midlist books to niches. The midlist has traditionally been where most eventual bestsellers get started. Unless you nurture new authors through enough books to create a readership, you will never develop your bestselling authors. Nora Roberts did not sell a million copies of her first novel. Neither did Janet Evanovich or Jennie Crusie, or many other other authors who now routinely top the bestseller lists.

These authors started out selling their books to niche markets writing for publishers (often Harlequin) who knew how to reach those niches.

The key to niche marketing is to use web strategies that attract the niche market buyer's interest and participation months or ideally years BEFORE the books are released, not afterwards.

Niche markets can be profitable if you aren't greedy. The "Blockbuster or Bust mentality means bankruptcy if you can't find that rare blockbuster". The alternative, publishing carefully selected niche books where you already have methods in place to reach your niche can lead to much steadier profits.

Ardin Lalui said...

Why not "give more" with a book? When you pay for a book you're paying for two things: all the work that has gone into creating it and bringing it to market; and you're paying for 150 pages of paper bound up in a color cover.

If a publisher is giving you all this for your $15, why don't they throw in a few freebies that don't cost them anything.

1. I don't think a CD of the audio would cost much to throw in there included in the original price.

2. Also, why not give me membership of the publishers online area, a special area where I can get stories and news about this author, a few free short stories, sample chapters etc.

3. I'd also love if buying the book entitled me to download it for free as an ebook. I know that means I'm never going to pay for the ebook, or the audiobook if you give me a free cd, but how many people pay for a hard copy, an audio copy and an ecopy? I want all of them once I buy the book.

4. And I want to feel special. I want to go backstage on the author's website and be treated like a valued customer. I want to post comments and interact with other readers who paid for the book. I want to be first to hear what the author is doing. All of this doesn't cost that much extra for the publisher, but it gives me a world more for my $15.

Scott said...

Just wanted to throw my full support behind Erik's efforts before this thread gets left behind. No matter what you manage, I believe any work you put towards distilling and organizing 90+ posts makes you a bona fide gentlemen and scholar.


Steppe said...

I think to weather the downturn they should
go into the automotive business.

I think they lost touch with the basics of what books are and represent. A book is an intimate conversation with a writer. But life itself has become very much of a less intimate experience. I read all the sales ideas and they seem sound and good common sense ways to patch the leaks in the boat but they don't address the evolution linked to history.
They need a new boat much like the old boat but built with fresh materials.

To own a book was once a great achievement. To write a book was almost unthinkable. That translates in modern times to taking the art of writing seriously as a personal responsibility even if you are the only person who ever reads your novels.

The business is not adapting and the predatory competitors are cannibalizing the old big publishers.

You can't be a great publisher without great writers and publishers didn't become great publishers without time.
To write the classic novel form in the old fashioned sense of 310-450 single spaced pages with a powerful plot and good character development and fine tuned pacing is something the blockbuster authors only pull of sporadically.

The publishers need to remember they work for the audience and writer. The writers need to remember they work for the audience and publisher. The audience needs to spend its money wisely and remember that books were once the most personal experience that some people ever had in their life due to the communications restrictions that people had and still have in their lives about discussing anything honestly openly while
searching within the writer reader and publisher synergy of delivering information for some sort of authentic experience.

Something that when your done you remember as opposed to just another fleeting image in a hurried world.

I only started paying attention to the business part of the book mystique for the last six months and I never attempted to write a full length story until I thought I had enough accurate knowledge of my own inner world and other peoples inner world added to the type of stories that have been written and rewritten since Guttenberg printed his first bible.

Thats what people forget.
Books were once hand copied they weren't next weeks "Kindle" for the fire.

So wordy post to the quick close.
A long term strategy based on talented people or go build automobiles and stand in line for a government bailout.

I believe in writing as an artform.
A few select books changed my life.
So even if I never get published the book I am writing "MUST CHANGE MY LIFE"

...or my time was wasted and I go back to short stories song and poems.

Its about books.

Have a nice vacation Nathan.
Very savvy comments on the business
from those who understand it's workings in this thread. Thanks.

Erik said...

This is what I got from the list. These are only bullet points, and each would need an extended explanation if we were going to make it into a strategic plan. However, I think we have the best points here.

Note that some of this is in progress in various forms - specifically internet sites devoted to readers.

Naturally, I may have missed a few things. This is what I'd put up on the wall to elicit comments and additions at the end of the brainstorming. There's always something.

1. Generate Excitement
a. Use Internet better
i. Online sales
ii. Social Marketing
iii. Book chat / review
b. Advertise
i. Traditional Media
ii. Guerilla campaigns
c. Get known authors to take risks for art

2. More work available
a. Use more midlist authors
b. Tap into larger author base

3. Improve business model
a. Lower cost of books
i. Return of “Dime novels”
ii. eBooks
iii. Use POD technology effectively
iv. End hardbacks
b. Fix rest of business model
i. End returns policy
ii. Mass-market to chain stores

Lori Ann said...

I'd love to buy more books in brick and mortar stores, but I have a problem--in my "twin city" university town, we have one "new books" bookstore. ONE. For a population of over 100,000 people (including 23,000 students). And it rarely has the books there that I want, so it's either drive an hour to a larger town, hunt it down in our tiny used bookstore, pray it's not checked out at the library(the newest stuff is always too hard to get there) or order off of Amazon. I'm sure you can guess which I do on a more regular basis. Having one of those "espresso"-style or POD places people keep mentioning would be amazing, and perhaps a better way to open up book-buying markets in lower-population areas. But that is more of a retail-end issue, and I don't know how much control publishers have over the opening of bookstores.
Also, as everyone else has said, it's just a little bit ridiculous how difficult it is to find good new books/authors. When I find an author I like, I usually buy everything that author has within a year, at which point I'm sad because I have to find someone new to read, and that's difficult. Being able to read the first chapter of a book online makes it easier to decide I like an author and want to try them--if I like the first page or two, 9 times out of 10, I buy the book. It's just too hard to find those first chapters. I hate hunting through the jungles of Amazon for them (bad wordplay/pun, sorry), but right now, that's my only option.
I don't prefer ebooks because there are still too many issues with traveling with them, and I'm so clumsy I know I'd spill coffee on and destroy a Kindle (a book survives a coffee spill much better). But if it were cheaper to get a Kindle or something like it, I would change my mind--after all, I already read most of my fiction online these days in the form of fanfiction, fiction-writing blogs, etc.
And I never buy hardbacks. The ones I own I either got used, from the discard shelf at the library, or as a gift. The only exception are the last three Harry Potter books, because I had no other choice (and they were marked down enough that the cost wasn't an issue). It's insane to spend extra money on a hardcover when I prefer paperback anyways--they weigh less and are much more portable. Of course, this means that when a new book comes out as hardback only for a year, I'm stuck waiting for the paperback to come out.
I'd imagine there are also plenty of ways to reduce overhead and production costs where the books themselves are published, but I don't know enough to give constructive advice. Print on demand would probably help reduce inventory to an extent. Outside of some people browsing bookstores, most people don't really care what the bookcovers look like--if all the books I ordered off of Amazon came to me with generic white backgrounds and black titles/text, it wouldn't bother me in the slightest, especially if it cut the costs.
So you could have colorful, artsy book covers for a short first run/the books that go to bookstores, but later runs could be more generic, and even all the same size. This would cut down on costs for sure, and it might even drive up the sales of the in-bookstore books, since the people who *do* care about getting the prettier cover would be more likely to buy from the bookstore than online. You could even make the cover-art downloadable and printable for the people who want to sticker it on top of their generic copies...and the more artistic types might (who am I kidding, they would) decorate their generic books themselves.

Erik said...

Another follow-up:

Many of you many not know this, but there are a large number of review sites that, taken together, could form a grassroots revolution in how word spreads about books. One of the leaders is Breeni:

She's taken upon herself the task of introducing us to all the book bloggers she can find one at a time, so if you're interested in who might be part of the next revolution in books please have a look:

These area all people who do this because they love books and want to hear more about books. Their efforts need to be supported!

Link said...

Yeah, I know I'm over half a year behind but here's my two cents:

The entire publishing industry needs to function like all other businesses! That means, create a product (books - duh), market the product, make money.

People here probably won't like this opinion but why do authors get an advance? If the product is good, it will sell...sort of (see next point). If that's the biggest risk for a publisher, eliminate it. It's just a loan afterall. Call me crazy but a $20,000 advance isn't going to cause me to quit my day job.

A book will sell if it's marketed. Why does the entire industry expect the author (of all people) to be the marketing arm? At best, most writers are artists not salespeople. Like many posts said, advertise!

The whole industry is a gigantic dinasaur. I'm really surprised that little has changed the last 10 years. Case in point, CNET article stating B&N will have POD in stores "next year". The article was printed in December of 1999!!!

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