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?