Has the book business really changed and are we helping or stuck in the machine?

Every time I peek at the book recommendations that appear on my Kindle I’m left to wonder if the book business has really changed as much as I once hoped. In many respects I know it has changed, but when it comes to marketing books, I wonder if the changes have really made a difference in the outcomes.

The way it was done then…
Years ago, when I first got interested in the business behind the books that I love so dearly, I was told the bestsellers supported the industry. This idea was used to explain why the lion’s share of marketing dollars went toward marketing those books. It seemed like yet another example of the old axiom – you can’t get a loan unless you don’t really need one.  The big publishers would not invest in marketing a book until it had already proven it could sell well. The facts were more nuanced than that—you had the occasional phenom debuts that got more support—but for the lion’s share of published books the basic principle held true.

The electronic revolution…
These days, electronic publishing has created new ways for books to reach the market and readers. Authors are not as heavily reliant on the big NY publishing houses. Anyone can publish a book electronically and a few authors, and their books, have even made it into the realm of the bestseller by first self-publishing electronically. However, self-publishing electronically still leaves the author and book heavily reliant on the electronic bookseller. They, in turn, rely heavily on algorithms to recommend books to consumers. This type of marketing—suggestions right there on your e-reader—seem even more powerful than the old traditional marketing channels, such as print advertising and publicity. And while the algorithms do consider the individual reader’s buying history, it seems book popularity also weighs heavily in the calculation.

The algorithm is not there for my benefit. It is there to sell books.
The selection of books displayed prominently on e-retailers’ splash pages and in their direct mail advertisements has even less to do with my personal reading history. This is the only explanation for the avalanche of e-mail and on-screen advertisements I got from Amazon recommending the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Not that I have never read a similar book, but the vast majority of my Amazon purchases would not lead anyone to recommend those particular books for me. This is not a slam against the books in any way. My only upset at this recommendation was a bit of outrage at the effort wasted trying to sell me a set of books I and most of the free world had already heard about ad nauseam. I wanted to shout “there are many other really amazing book you could pimp!” But I also know that Amazon is just following that same business model that the big NY publishers, and probably many other marketers, have followed for decades—sell more of what is already selling.

So why am I talking about this?
When the role of the internet in our daily lives began to expand exponentially birthing and dragging social media along with it, it gave new marketing tools and new hope to the not-yet-bestselling authors. I don’t have any illusions that a single blog post or tweet can compete with the power of a Kindle book recommendation, but I do believe our voices used in the social media arena have more power than they would have without it. Social media can have a snowball effect that might seem somewhat similar to that traditional book marketing model. The more popular a book is (already selling well) the more it will get talked about on social media (more marketing for a book that is already selling). The biggest difference is that tweeters, bloggers, you and me are less likely to be motivated by money (selling more books) and may be more motivated by genuine love of the book in question.  Key phrase here is may be. Why the equivocation?

There is another reason people may talk about a book and that is to draw an audience and attention to what they are doing. If I were to tag this post with the name of that trilogy I mentioned earlier and then use that name in the post title, you could be certain it would not be because of love of the book, but to further my own interests. Again, not condemning the book or the practice of being a clever marketer. I’ve been known to attempt the intriguing post title to draw in readers. But, I try to mostly post about the things I’m passionate about. In this case, I’m passionate about book publishing and blogging about books so that will probably be reflected in the title. Occasionally, the things I’m passionate about are also popular—serendipity! I certainly wouldn’t advise avoiding talking about popular things. If you don’t talk about things other people are interested in then you are only talking to yourself and an empty room. 

So, I have two questions for you today. First, do you think all of the changes in the book industry are adding up to the equal opportunity book market that writers dream about? Second, do you talk about what’s popular to build your platform? Why or why not?

14 thoughts on “Has the book business really changed and are we helping or stuck in the machine?

  1. In response to your first query, yes, the online promo scene does mirror the traditional one in the horrifying ways that you pointed out. On my blog and Facebook posts, I tend to highlight very handpicked books and authors who I deem worthy. Wildly commercial projects already have ad campaigns galore. So my posts often include indie authors who really shine. But I am selective.

    • Selective is good! Helps maintain credibility. Shout outs to bad books can take away from the value of your shout out for good books.

  2. The changes in the book industry are making a huge difference, but not necessarily to getting the unknown author out there. Indeed, the biggest change is not in the ability to get authors known, but rather in the ability for authors to get a bigger piece of the retail price of their book. How long this will last is a big huge nasty question, but at the moment, the publishers are having big probelsms.

    Mind you, if you ask me, the core of their problem is based on their retrenching tactics… going to where it is safe and often ignoring books that are more risky to publish. But that is a different ptopic.

    Long story short (too late), I think the role of reviewers is growing tremendously. Indeed, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked where I can buy some book or another that I have reviewed. In fact, it happens so much that I am thinking of going pro with my site and putting in links to the different on line book sellers. I’ve resisted it because I thought that maybe my reviews would be viewed as biassed because I am making money off the deals.

    Mind you, one person bought a book I totally panned because he thought the things I criticised made the book sound like he’d enjoy it.

    So, yes… I think the nature of the book industry has changed, but only so far in the role of gatekeeper has moved from editors to reviewers. Well… I guess we were always gatekeepers, but we’ve been promoted.

    On the other hand, this is not a new situation; this is what the book market used to be like. Small publishers and book mongers held the keys to the kingdom.

    • You said: “I thought that maybe my reviews would be viewed as biassed because I am making money off the deals”

      I don’t think so at all. Magazines like Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, and the NYT Sunday Book Review have been making money off of reviews for years without loosing credibility. As long as your not selecting the books to review or slanting the review based on financial consideration then your credibility shouldn’t suffer. And I do think readers can tell when reviews don’t honestly reflect the reviewers opinions. A reviewer might be able to get away with it once or twice, but the body of work (reviews) will sufffer if reviews aren’t honest.

      You said: “Mind you, one person bought a book I totally panned because he thought the things I criticised made the book sound like he’d enjoy it.”

      I had a discussion on the blog recently (https://smartgirlsscifi.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/sfr-reviews-are-you-getting-enough/) where this came up. I think it is very common and handily reinforces that honest reviews are most helpful to readers.

      • True! Readers are clever, and trying to fool them would backfire. Besides, the point of my site is to market me… the money I’d earn is peanuts.

        Great topic, by the way.

  3. The answer to the first question is a big I WISH. Sadly I think the playing field will remain unequal for a long time to come. It still comes down to advertising dollars and individual authors can’t compete with the big dogs–unless they have deep pockets to begin with. Review sites are cropping up everywhere. The little ones, where unknown self-published authors have the best chance of getting their books reviewed, have a miniscule readership compared to the outlets most utilized by NY publishers and watched by readers. Ad space on sites such as Romantic Times is cost-prohibitive. I think the best hope for self- and small-press published authors is Amazon ranking which is fueled by not only sales, but “Likes” and reviews. And the best way to pump those up is by offering your book for free.

    I don’t know that I ever talk about what’s popular. I share what interests me and if it happens to be a hot topic or one that others like then I guess that’s my rare good luck!

    • I fully support an author/publisher’s right to give books away for free, but the thought that it might become a necessary step for all debut authors really worries me. Especially, when the product is the author’s only opportunity for revenue. Large publishers (or even established authors) with cash flow from many projects could afford to give away promotional items in the short term. Asking the author who may have no other cash flow to do this seems like another devaluation of the author’s efforts. You are probably absolutely right on this, but I fear the more books are available for free the lower the purchaser’s perceived value for a book will be across the market.

      However, the current efforts of some publishers to keep e-book prices artificially high seems like fighting the riptide and could be detrimental to the authors they’re working with. I hope everyone can come to a happy middle ground on price!

      On the other hand, I love the idea of free samples which give the reader a chance to judge the value of the work (siense they no longer can assume the publisher is doing that for them) and still preserves the potential income of the author.

      • I agree with you Charlie. The Free Sample option is brilliant. You can ‘give away’ a portion of your book and get people hooked… by the time they are done reading the sample, they will probably buy it if they are interested. This has worked time and again for hooking me.

      • I absolutely agree on the freebies. I’m just afraid it’s the only way the little guy is going to be able to entice readers to give them a chance. Reviewers are inundated with requests these days and now you have to court them before they’ll go out with your story–just like sending a query letter to an agent or editor! The thing that gives me the most hope is readers. They’re a voracious lot and consume books at an alarming rate. I love the idea of a free sample! 🙂

  4. I hope I can respond without coming off long-winded.

    To answer your first question, I think the days of “equal opportunity” in publishing is over. If you didn’t jump in when self-publishing first kicked off, it’s probably too late. The opportunity is equal, but people are not.

    In the beginning the pond was huge and the authors willing to take the risk were few. Now that pond is stagnant with every real and wannabe writer struggling to get noticed.

    The key to tremendous traffic and sales is one part talent, and ninety-nine parts of being noticed by people of influence: big name bloggers, news people, other celebrities, and the charismatic.

    Occasionally a phenom will bust that paradigm but those authors are few and far between and their celebrity is fleeting. Very few people are remembered forever.

    As for your second question, I generally stay away from the trending topics. Part of the reason is because I hate to follow a crowd, and secondly because my readers would probably appreciate an original topic more.

    If I feel strongly about it, I’ll bring it up, but most of the time I let it die a natural death. No matter how popular a topic, eventually it too becomes old news.

    That said, if someone talks about a trending topic with her own twist or does it in an entertaining manner, I am quite likely to comment on that blog.

    Does it help an author’s platform? I think that depends on how the author uses it. If she’s parroting what everyone else says, it’s just noise. But if it’s got an angle, something unique or interesting, it could help raise her searchability on Google.

    • Not long winded at all. I think this is a topic that really requires a bit of thought and discussion. No easy answers.

      I think you’re right that discoverability has become a huge obstacle for authors. I mean it has been a factor for decades, but the lower threshold to publishing (probably coupled with the huge unemployment problems were currently facing) has made it into a real monster on the godzilla scale.

      I think you’re right on target again about noise vs fresh takes in blogging. I’m sure the topic of my post has been covered elsewhere, but I hadn’t seen it tackled this way in my tiny corner of the net. Maybe it is laziness on my part that I wanted to bring the discussion to where I’m standing and get the opinions of the people of my acquaintance, but I didn’t pick the topic because it was trendy. I chose it because it was on my mind…I think that is a natural part of the blogging process.

  5. I agree with Thomas. There have been changes but those changes do not necessarily, in fact rarely, improve visibility for the best of the indies out there. I’ve noticed the books Amazon recommends to me are still those from the big pubs. There are so many fabulous indie works out there and for the most part, they are still overlooked in favor of, excuse me, The Fifty Shades phenomena. Like your book is a hidden gem.
    Nah, I don’t talk about what’s popular in order to build my platform. I talk about whatever happens to pop into my brain.

    • Afraid you’re right on the recommendations, though I can clearly see my purchase history having and influence on the recommendations that pop-up in my android app. I’m sure there is a way to get more tailored recommendations on my Kindle.

      Re your blog – Luckily for your readers, it is a pretty spiffy brain! 😉

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