Sunday, March 02, 2008

Short and Free Books Bring New Readers

Since I'm a small-time publisher, this topic is of interest to me: how do people learn about new books? When I say 'new,' I mean new to the reader, not just recently-street-dated books. When I think back to some of my more favorite books, they came from a small number of sources:
  • Browsing a bookstore;
  • Recommended in school;
  • Recommended by friends.
So, how much of this is influenced by a publisher's advertising and review copies? The first one is probably the only one -- as near as I can tell, recommendation by authorities and acquaintances are the two primary ways everyone I know reads. While reading a review may have been handy, I can't think of a book I've bought based solely on a review. The 'browsing' one has gained a huge foothold in online stores like Amazon: you don't have to rely on what can fit into a cramped storefront or Borders' bottom line. Since online stores hold a heck of a lot more than retail, there's more opportunities to find something new.

So, how does a book improve its chances of being recommended? Neil Gaiman says free copies is a huge influencer -- the low risk to the reader lets them be more adventurous in what they read. If a couple people who got a free copy recommend a couple new readers, in theory the marketer has improved their customer base. A lot of publishers sell their remaindered books to discount chains, but we keep them here and send them out as review copies and, from time to time, do a mass donation to libraries around the country. While this reduces our bottom-line profit, one copy in a library has a chance of passing through dozens of hands -- or it might be sold at a FOL sale for four bits to someone who might not have otherwise bought it even for $2 at a discount store. Might those copies end up on eBay? Yeah, probably; but, again, if they're that valuable, our sales are better. If not, some eBayer is going to buy it for a buck plus shipping, again reducing their risk in the chance of reading something crappy. Big publishers, the tightest of publishers, probably spend a buck to print a hardcover with a dustjacket; do they give them away for free? Not a chance. Small publishers like us spend a couple bucks per TPB , but everything we've seen is that you get better exposure by giving away $500 in free copies than a dinky, two-color advertisement in the back of a magazine for $500. (by the way, if you're wondering how to get a free copy from a publisher, your best best is to ask -- you might have to claim to be a reviewer, but to avoid being called a liar make sure to write a review at Amazon or your blog when you're done).

That possible risk for readers is also a driving force behind the increase in shorter books. Although, from looking at the reasoning evidenced in the NPR story, the problem isn't that books are getting smaller, but that publishers have been driving for big-bucks with huge books. Go look at a paperback from the eighties or earlier: they're in relatively large print on small pages, printed all the way out to the edge of the paper, and they still can only hit 200 pages. And they used to release darn near everything in paperback form: novels, biographies, business advice, joke books. In an attempt to increase revenues from books, publishers started spending more money on acquiring writers who produce larger books that they can charge more for. And they did away with the small-format paperback, charging twice as much for the same content in a slightly larger shape. Readers, in return,balk at the time and money to devote to reading a $19.99, 550-page book when they would gladly have spent $4.99 on a 250-page book for an afternoon of reading fun. So, to improve flagging revenue, publishers give larger advances to proven writers, and get the writers to produce more and more....to which readers responds, "too long, too expensive." I'd say this is a balancing out of that cycle -- readers want to be entertained, and you can't be entertained if you're afraid of how you're going to afford it.

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Anonymous Jessica said...

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9:47 AM  

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