Friday, October 17, 2008

The Wacky Book Biz

I made even more progress yesterday. Yay! My goal is to totally wrap up this book by the end of the month, and then I may actually do the National Novel Writing Month thing, though I don't know what project I'd write. Meanwhile, I've done no "training" for that 5K tomorrow morning. However, the t-shirt is very cool, and I'm not going to worry about time. I'm just getting out and doing something in my neighborhood.

The Internet has been a-buzz with all kinds of weird book industry news/opinions. One theory that someone supposedly in the know has put out there is that there will be fewer books published, but that means more competition for the books publishers think will sell (namely, books with celebrities' names on the covers, written by ghostwriters, or else prestigious literary names who win prizes, even if they don't sell a lot of books), so those advances will be higher. But since those books seldom actually sell well enough to merit those high advances, that means the publishers will be even more in the hole. My agent did point out that this probably is limited to non-fiction and literary fiction, the areas where it's more about prestige than profits. This probably won't apply to genre fiction.

But still, I wonder if anyone has considered the radical concept of not paying to excess for books that don't actually sell that well (at least, not in comparison to what the author is paid). Yeah, the other publisher may be the one to get the big-name book, but if the book ends up losing money in the long term, isn't that kind of like a white elephant? Letting the other publisher pay through the nose for a book that's only good for a publicity splash would be like sabotaging the competition. Then the smart publisher could buy and publish a bunch more books that may not hit the same numbers or get the same publicity, but that would turn a profit. What's better, to sell lots of books at a loss or a few books at a profit?

Then there's apparently a movement among independent booksellers to try to get customers to boycott Amazon and the major chains and try to get authors to stop putting links to buy their books at Amazon on their web sites. Supposedly, independent bookstores are all about reading and literacy and fighting censorship, and they can really help authors by handselling their books, rather than the authors being dependent on publishers paying the big chains for better store placement, and the more independents there are, the less power the big chains have in determining what gets published. And that all sounds good. In theory, I love the idea of a neighborhood bookstore, perhaps with a friendly bookstore dog or cat, where the bookseller knows the regular customers and can make good recommendations based on their taste and put aside new books for them when they come in. That's the kind of place I've occasionally daydreamed about running.

But to be honest, I've never encountered that kind of store outside the pages of a book (novelists seem to like making their characters run their dream bookstores). Part of that is because this area doesn't really have any independents (though one is opening soon), aside from specialty religious or ethnic stores (there used to be a mystery store, but they closed a few years ago, and they only sold hardcovers). And part of it is probably due to my weird independent streak, where I slink through the shelves, trying to hide from helpful staff, and I'd rather search the entire store with a fine-tooth comb myself than ask someone for help or, God forbid, a suggestion. I don't think I've ever been hand-sold a book in any bookstore, chain or independent, except maybe by another customer.

I'm sure there are some fabulous independents out there, and I know that a lot of the science fiction/fantasy specialty stores have been really supportive of my books. However, I've had less than positive experiences with general-interest indies, mostly because I don't read what's apparently on their "approved" lists. We used to have a local indie chain in this area, and they were some of the biggest book snobs I've ever encountered. If you dared buy something other than highbrow literary fiction, you got treated like an ignorant yokel. Just try buying a romance novel there, out of the small selection they deigned to carry. When they first started doing new Star Wars novels (the Timothy Zahn books) and they were in hardcover, I bought one at one of those stores because a friend had given me a gift certificate there. You'd have thought I was bringing about the downfall of western civilization. Oddly, they made no effort to steer me toward something else I might like. They just sneered at what I did buy. I can't imagine any other retail business where the staff is allowed to openly disparage customers' purchases, but I ran into the same attitude at every one of their stores. I'm not surprised they went out of business. I don't know about other general-interest indies, but a lot of those booksellers blog, and I've noticed a similar book snobbery attitude there. I've also noticed that while they're proudly anti-censorship, that seems to be because they tend to agree with the censored books, and they're quite likely to refuse to carry books they don't agree with (though that, of course, isn't censorship). I was overjoyed when Barnes & Noble came to town because I could finally get a broad selection of books and only the occasional bookseller sneer (there were still a few, but mostly they just ignored what I was buying).

It's like if someone who's that particularly self-righteous form of vegan (and I'm not saying all vegans -- but I'm sure even vegans know the type) opened a grocery store, and then sneered at or criticized anything anyone bought that wasn't on their approved list of foods. "You put that in your body? Don't you know that eating that is destroying the planet?" Or else they only stocked the foods they approved of, but still labeled their store as a general grocery because they figured they carried all the foods anyone should buy. Pretty soon, their only customers would be those who already only ate the approved stuff. There's nothing wrong with having a specialty store that caters to a specific niche, but if you do that, you can't pretend that you serve the interests of everyone, and you can't complain when the supermarket down the street makes more money and has more customers. You especially can't expect your customers to boycott the supermarket, even to buy the things you don't carry, or for suppliers not to sell their goods through the supermarket.

Frankly, if you have to resort to threatening authors if they don't remove Amazon links on their web sites or to encouraging people to boycott other stores, then you don't deserve to stay in business. You'd be better off improving your own selection and service so that people would want to shop at your store. I guess I could be making enemies by saying that, but then aside from the sf/f or romance specialty stores, I don't get a lot of play in indies. I think Book People in Austin may now be carrying my books after I met someone who works there at a convention. The Tattered Cover in Denver wasn't, but then there's a Doctor Who fan who works there I met at WorldCon, so they now may be. Last I heard, Powell's in Portland didn't have them. I didn't find them in any of the New York indies. So, yeah, I'm keeping my Amazon links because it's a quick and easy way for people to go buy books while they're still thinking about them. I do have links on my site to independent stores I've heard from or that readers have told me about, and I'm open to adding more if you know of a store that carries my books.

And then there's the fact that my books have started appearing as free downloads on file-sharing sites, which is upsetting and sad and entirely illegal, in case you were wondering. Yes, that's costing me money (adding up the number of downloads on one site for all my books and what that would have been in royalties was more than a mortgage payment), but it's also cheating readers because it artificially lowers the publisher's perception of these books' popularity, my popularity and the popularity of that kind of book. So if hundreds of people are illegally downloading the books instead of buying them, that means the sales figures are lower, so the publisher thinks it's not worth publishing more books. Worse, the highest number of illegal downloads was for the book with the lowest actual sales figures, the one whose sales performance is the reason for no book 5, which blows the "file sharing actually helps sales" argument.

Sometimes, a real job starts to look good. I know I'd make more money.


Carradee said...

Hey, Shanna. I'm sorry to hear about that piracy. *e-hug*

It led me to do a Google search, and I found one site. When I tried reporting the material, I had to call myself the copyright owner or someone authorized to act on the author's behalf. I'm not.

So I'm passing the link to you.

As a warning, the site's language is a bit condescending. I'm pretty levelheaded, and it made me grit my teeth and want to give the site a closer look to see if maybe I could…

*takes a deep breath* Will not persecute site for poor grammar and condescending language…

*tight smile* Anyway, I'll see what I can do to help. And pass on any more links I find that require "authorized" complaints. *rolls eyes*

Angie said...

I just wanted to say that I did buy two of your books at Tattered Cover after Once Upon Stilettos came out. :)