Thursday, May 10, 2007

Books? Nah

A new way of getting out the word, and a new way of distribution, is needed; ask any writer.

Okay, why do people buy books? 

Impulse accounts for many sales.  A bright cover and a cool blurb at the grocery store and wham, a paperback sells. 

Curiosity explains a good many.  Generate a buzz, the publicists all say.  This means get people talking about it.  If a new celebrity biography comes out and all the sudden talk show hosts, coworkers, and bloggers are blathering about it, that book will sell.  People want to see what all the fuss is about, even when they know it's fake buzz stirred up by publicity flacks.

Most books don't get this treatment, though.

Oprah proved a long time ago that merely mentioning a decent book on TV can affect sales.  It helps when the show is as popular as hers, and it also helps when an audience seeks to emulate the host, as hers does, but still, any exposure boosts sales.

Most books do not get promoted.  No ads, no sales reps talking up the book to buyers from franchise bookstores, and no peddlers bribing booksellers the way record companies bribe DJs to play songs. 

Most books are published, sit on very limited shelf space for three days to three weeks, then get remaindered.  Paperbacks have their covers torn off to be mailed back to the publisher for credit, while the books themselves are pulped.  It's cheaper to throw them away than store or ship them.  Secondary sales at a later time don't factor into such profit-loss calculation.  

Remaindered hardcovers are bought at cost and sold at discount to recoup as much as possible.

So how can a book that is getting no promotion, and causing no buzz, sell?

Sheer chance.

The average print run is between 1500 and 5000 copies. Random luck might place the book in front of 1500 - 5000 people who just happen to be interested in it, and have the money for it.

Chances are slim that print run will equal number of interested customers, though, let alone find all of them.  Sales decline steeply when it's hardcovers, which are going for an average of $25 each, but mass market paperbacks now cost the best part of ten bucks each, too, so even they have a sticker shock factor.  

What is lacking?  

Word of mouth has no time to make the rounds, when a book has a shelf-life that is often shorter than that of cottage cheese.  Creating a buzz needs to be done before the book hits the shelves.  That means advance copies, and lots of marketing nonsense, such as phony jabber about how it's the book that did this, or made someone say or do that. 

Wouldn't you buy, "The book that made the President scream"?  Sure you would.

But of course, you’d have to manufacture a fake incident on which to hang such grandiose claims.  Perhaps write a fat book, take a galley proof to the President, and drop it on his foot.  "Made the President dance with outrage," would then be available.

No time for such things?  No access? No money for travel? No stomach for pranks?

Beginning to see the difficulties stacking up like a log jam?

What else is lacking for the average book?  It is born in obscurity into a world that neither asked for it nor wants it now that it's here.  It means nothing to anyone, having not caused even a minor celebrity flap.  And its contents are mysterious because no one has read it yet. People prefer sure things. They want what they already know. Reinforcement, not surprise.

It's lacking an advertisement.  No one's going to seek it out if they don't know about it, what ever it is. Especially a book.

People try all the time to use the internet to get out the word.  Look how blogging has blossomed from a cottage industry to a kind of flash flood threatening to overtake print journalism.  People have something to say and by damn they're going to say it.

Trouble is, they say it so much.  With so many words.  Look at this piece.  It's overly long and has no bullet statements in it.  Bo-ring.  No one will get this far.  I could put in a recipe for currant jam and no one would notice.

So is it hopeless?  Is the average know-nothing book doomed to be pulped after selling to the writer's parents and the few of his cousins deluded enough to think sucking up to a writer will get them anything worthwhile? 

It is hopeless, in the current system, yes.  Unless it's a genre novel, in which case there is a chance it'll sell a certain base number of copies automatically to those who buy books by category.  It happens often enough to sustain some publishers.  

A new way of getting out the word, and a new way of distribution, is needed.

Everyone will immediately think of the internet.  Everyone needs to go lie down 'til that thought passes.  The internet is not a magic solution to anything.  It's too crowded, too clogged, and entirely too splintered.  No way exists to ensure reaching even your best IM friend, let alone masses of people who might like the book you've forced upon the world.

Sure, it can help.  You can now have a website, and you can write on your book, your stickers, your posters, and your children's tee shirts.  Why not?  A few who see it might even be stirred to check it out.  Not many, though.

If you came here for answers, I have one for you.  You want to be a writer?  

Pick up a camera.

Do a video blog or make a movie.

Books, outside the corrupt publishing industry, aren't the way to fame, fortune, or influence. No one reads anymore. Oh sure, more books are published and sold than ever before in history, but that’s a function of population density. The same percentage of people read in any given age as in all the others. Higher literacy doesn’t equate to higher book sales. Not in a direct way.

Unless the Republicans pay you to write propaganda, you won’t make money and no one wants the book you’ll write. Worse, it requires reading. Who’ll bother? Why should they?

Answer those questions and you might have a chance of finishing your book, getting it past iditors, getting it published, getting it distributed, and selling a few copies.

Then what?

Unless you genuinely enjoy putting words in order, there is no reason to write. Writing is thankless. No one cares, there is no feedback or even reaction even when something is published, and the only thing you will ever be asked for is free writing and more free writing. Oh, can you write an article for our newsletter? Oh, can you please sign this?

No pay, no respect, and no chance of figuring things out so that writers are suddenly profitable again.

Only the exploitative, lying publishers can squeeze profit from books. And they neither admit this nor share.

So let’s step back. Are you writing in order to have a book in hand? To make a physical object? Or are you telling stories? Do you care about the fiction delivery system used to get your voice to the audience?

Audience means those who listen. It’s about storytelling, which predates writing and is based on the oral tradition. People sitting around campfires at night listening while one of them talks. And the one talking learned to tell stories in a way that kept people listening.

If that’s what you care about, then how your story reaches others is immaterial. An CD is as good as a movie or book. It does not matter, except of course that each format has different requirements. Something intended to be spoken must be different from something intended to be studied on a page. Movies and even plays are entirely different, again.

If you can separate fiction from its format, you may have a chance of making some kind of dent. You could find a job writing ad copy for TV voice-overs. Or telling stories to kids at camp-outs. Not much money in either, but it’s at least making money by using words. Isn’t that what you want?

Why, then, do you write?

Is it really to see a book on a shelf with your name on it? Is it really to fulfill some dim fantasy of celebrity writer, jetting from convention to bookstore, signing autographs and being interviewed by jovial TV hosts?

Are you really that naive?

Not even the rich, famous ones live that more than a few weeks out of every few years, and even they have to court it to get it. Mostly, if they have books out there being sold, it’s because they wrote them. They put words into order.

Which brings us to content. We’ve decided the kind of bottle doesn’t matter, and the label is easily changed. What people who actually read the books they buy ultimately want is content.

What does that mean? A books content is what the words in it add up to. For a reader, it’s an experience. People read books for the fun of it, and to get something out of it. Often, that latter part means they learn things. A book that combines interesting facts with a fun experience will sell. Ask Dan Brown.

Many criticized The Da Vinci Code as a movie in book form. They cited its cinematic attributes, and spoke of its lack of literary ones. There is some validity to this. And it explains why the book is so popular. People reading it enjoyed the experience because it replicated many of the things they enjoy about movies.

Movies immediately involve viewers. Sight and sound, faces and voice, people, places, and things all captivate us.

Put those things into your book and it helps draw an audience.

Literary snobs will sniff and point to one of Proust’s paragraphs as if it’s sculpture. They’ll speak about how one must sift through it over and over to glean all its meanings. They’ll claim literary values, meaning references to other books, allusion, and book-rooted metaphor are somehow more valuable than movie echoes.

This is categorical thinking at its most bigoted.

Fiction changes with every epoch, usually with technology. Cinema has long influenced the written word. Fiction has adopted many cinematic techniques, and vice versa. The two have grown toward one another like spouses in a good marriage.

Denying this is absurd. Embracing it, and seeking further to bring in other kinds of influences, from the internet for example, will expand fiction’s vocabulary and lead to new forms. This will keep it pertinent and allow it to flourish even as conventions change.

Producing a book is only one small way to deliver fiction to potential fans. Those of us who grew up with books, and who love books, will always cherish them, but we who write must realize there are other modes.

We can create those elusive, naive things mentioned at the start of this disjointed, rambling essay: A new way to publish, and a new way to distribute.

We can create such new opportunities for writers by trying new things, exploring new ways of reaching people, and letting each other know what works. By doing this, we can bring fiction with us into the future, no matter how changed and strange it may be.

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