Thursday, November 13, 2008

My Solutions for the Doom Loop

NaNo update: I passed the halfway point and hit 28,000 words yesterday. So, yeah, not so much with the balance and avoiding the all or nothing thing. It seems like if I do 2,000 words a day, that leaves me with enough free time that I actually feel guilty about it and find myself doing more work, but doing 4,000 words a day somehow seems to take up most of the day and leaves me with no free time. I'm not quite sure how that works. The story is taking shape, but I'm totally stumped for an ending. I know how it should end -- you know, good guys win, evil vanquished, yay! -- but I'm not entirely sure how that should come about. By this time, I'm so far away from the synopsis I write seventeen years ago that it's of no help whatsoever (and that was a really lame way of doing it, according to the judge, and I have to agree).

I've been talking about the Great Publishing Doom Loop, which is what happens when a trend becomes hot and soon all you can find is books that fit the trend, but then when that trend fizzles out, nothing is left of it as the publishers all chase the next trend. There are certainly business realities that feed the doom loop, but I have a few ideas on how publishers could avoid the worst of it. Mind you, I'm no MBA, but I have worked in marketing and communications and I listen a lot to readers and booksellers and spend a lot of time in bookstores.

So, here's my manifesto on what should be done when the revolution comes (not that I'll be leading the revolution, but I am open to being an advisor):

1) Avoid the all-or-nothing mentality (yeah, I'm one to talk).
Yes, if a trend comes along, then you naturally want to take advantage of the opportunity. It would be silly to ignore it entirely. But you don't have to go crazy, and you don't have to stop doing everything else. Variety is your friend. Sticking with some things that may not be burning up the bestseller lists at the moment but which do sell steadily will probably pay off in the long term. You don't want a whole segment of your customer base to get out of the habit of shopping for books because there's nothing to satisfy them. When a trend fades, it doesn't mean it has to stop entirely. Just pull back to a reasonable level.

2) Don't forget about quality when pursuing a trend.
While you're taking advantage of current market conditions, do so only if those books are books you'd be willing to publish if that subgenre wasn't the hottest thing on the market. Don't pressure authors into writing the currently hot thing because it will show if their hearts aren't in it. If you've got an author you want to keep on board but who doesn't fit the trend, that's where the variety thing comes in.

3) Be honest in your packaging and marketing.
Don't use pastels and funny fonts and breezy-sounding cover copy on a serious book, just because the funny books are what's popular. Don't put a sexy cover on a non-sexy book, just because sexy is hot now. Readers recoil when they feel burned. And it's that variety thing again. You've got plenty of people buying the currently hot stuff. If you've got something different, you want the people who aren't into that trend to be able to easily spot the different stuff. Right now, if I hit the fantasy section and see a book cover that doesn't feature a black-clad, tattooed chick with her back to me, I will probably pick it up, just to see what it's about, because it's different and doesn't look like the books that I know I'm not looking for.

4) Try to understand the trend.
For an industry that is so driven by public tastes, it doesn't seem like publishers do much market research. Harlequin does focus groups and surveys, but I don't know of too many others who've done things like that. Knowing why readers are all over a certain kind of book and what they like about those books could make a big difference in avoiding the doom loop. It could help publishers avoid flooding the market with books readers won't respond to, and even as the trend fizzles, it could help publishers know which books to stick with or which elements they can carry over to other trends so that they can still satisfy those readers. I got the feeling that the publishers never really understood the appeal of chick lit, for example. They just reacted by flinging out a lot of stuff that looked kind of like it until the market was flooded and the trend tanked. There's been a lot of talk about finding the next Harry Potter, but it doesn't seem like they've bothered to look into what the various market segments found most appealing in those books -- and I'll bet that kids were into slightly different things than teen boys, who were into slightly different aspects than teen girls, and then adult men and women were into yet other aspects. You might not be able to find something else that crosses demographic lines to such a massive extent, but finding out what those various groups were looking for could have helped publishers fill that gap within each of the groups. Instead, all they seem to be doing is looking for "boy with magic powers" stories to fill that gap.

5) Look beyond the bottom line numbers to find potential you can do something with.
I think a lot of the doom looping on both the publisher side and the bookseller side is because of the way sales are measured. I don't think anyone actually tracks overall sales by type of book. Stores may track title sales or department sales, but they're probably not tracking sales of, say, urban fantasies with vampire heroes. Likewise with publishers, who track title and author results, and they usually look at total sales, period. They don't seem to have a way of noticing that the same readership is being spread out among more books, and they don't seem to care as much about steady, ongoing sales as they do big bursts that make a splash. That goes back to the research -- if you've got a book that is selling steadily if not spectacularly, that is getting lots of positive reader response, and that seems to have "legs" beyond the initial release date, which is the way a lot of non-trend books seem to go, then it might be a good idea to look into why it hasn't managed to break out -- is the market really limited to the relatively small number of people who are really into that book, or is there some reason why other readers who might like that book aren't finding it? Find a bunch of readers, survey them on their reading habits and tastes (genres they like, which bookstore sections they shop in, favorite authors, favorite books), give them copies of the book, then survey them after they've read it on what they think about it, where they'd look for it in a store, maybe what their impression of the cover is and whether they'd have bought it if they'd seen it. I bet it would be eye-opening to correlate reading preferences to impressions of the book, and my guess is that most of the time the problem is that the book is being marketed badly so that people who might like it don't find it. And that will change the impact of trends because one reason trends get hot is because those books become so easy to find. If you can improve the performance of existing books/authors, trends become less important. For an industry that functions like Big Business in so many respects, it's amazing how non-businesslike they act when it comes to marketing and sales. They seldom do focus group tests on things like covers and cover copy. It's like they expect Big Business results, but the things that really affect results are still done on gut instinct. The closest they come to getting cover feedback is with the major chain buyers, who can trigger a cover change if they hate the cover but think the book has potential.

6) Take moderate risks instead of copycatting.
This is one of those lessons they never seem to learn. So many of the huge bestsellers literally came out of nowhere. They were rejected by just about every publisher around and sold for relatively low advances (see the first Harry Potter book). The initial book may not even have done that well, but sales gained momentum as the series progressed. What's really sad is that often the follow-up books that come in a trend go for far more money than the initial hit that sets off the doom loop. That first book may have sold for only a few thousand dollars, but then when the trend gets hot, similar books during the buying frenzy will command huge advances. Of course, that initial author does eventually earn the money in royalties and will get higher advances for later books, but those later authors will probably not earn out their advances and will end up making more money than the books are really worth. Which is most profitable for the publishers? And yet so many are afraid to step out there and buy something that isn't just like whatever's currently hot, preferring to throw a lot of money at something trendy. Since a publisher has a lot to do with which books become bestsellers (as I've mentioned before), it seems like buying something different for a modest advance and then putting the money into pushing it could pay off far better than buying something trendy for a huge advance and then having to also pay to push it in order to make the book earn enough to make up for the huge advance.

7) Be patient.
This problem probably has a lot to do with the fact that many of the publishers are owned by entertainment conglomerates who are used to overnight ratings and weekend box-office reports, so they treat books the same way. But someone can see a movie on Friday night and tell several friends right away so that those people can go on Saturday, and then they can tell more people, who go on Sunday, and you're already getting word-of-mouth results on opening weekend. Books don't work that way. First, unless it's a highly anticipated new release, it might not even be on the shelf on release day. Even if someone buys it on release day, she may not get around to reading it until the weekend. It may take a few days to read it, so it may be a week after release day before she can tell anyone else about it. Then that person may not read it right away, so by the time word of mouth can spread beyond one level, the book is probably out of co-op placement at the front of the store, and it's even harder for someone browsing the store to see it and realize that's the book her friends were talking about. Plus, they're really bad about not really pulling the marketing trigger until release date. I was lucky if they put up the information about the book at the online bookstores on the release date. Apparently, it was policy that they didn't put up information like the cover copy and reviews until release day, which made it hard for someone who stumbled across it while browsing to be able to decide to buy it or look for it. I can see the argument that you don't want to spend a lot of energy marketing something that people can't just buy right away, but at the same time, if you're expecting most of the book's sales to come in the first two weeks, and if you'll consider the book a failure if it doesn't have big sales in those first two weeks, regardless of how well it sells in the long term, and if you're counting on word of mouth to do most of your marketing for you, then you need to get the conversations about the book going before the release date.

8) Rethink book advertising.
Most book advertising, quite frankly, sucks. It's like there's a generic book ad template out there that everyone uses -- the cover of the book, a few review quotes, maybe a picture of the author if the author is really famous. I bet you probably have a vivid mental image of the generic book ad right now. Publishers like to tell lower-tier authors that advertising doesn't sell books, as justification for not doing any advertising for their books. But then they go and spend a fortune on (really lame) ads for the big-name authors. The only reason those ads work is that those are authors with a huge enough fan base that all it takes to sell zillions of books is just announcing that the author has a new book out. They don't even have to bother with dropping the cover and quotes into the generic book ad template. They really just need to fill half a page of USA Today with "The New Book By Nora Roberts Is In Stores Now" in giant print. I'm not even sure how well those ads work. To a large extent, they're ego sops for the authors. If a publisher wants to retain a bestselling author, they have to demonstrate their commitment to the author, and one way of demonstrating that commitment is by taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times book review section. As a result, the majority of a publisher's advertising budget is spent on very expensive ads that may or may not do any good for books that are guaranteed to sell well, even without advertising.

The generic book ad template does nothing to sell books by new or less famous authors because it doesn't say enough about the book to allow people to know if they'd even be interested in such a thing. It would take truly creative advertising that goes beyond the cover-and-quotes model -- something like you see for other products, where the ad has an attention-getting headline and some clever copy that gives at least a feel for the story. I don't think publishers have the budget, even if they did cut back on the pricey ads for bestsellers, to do a real, effective national advertising campaign that could sell books by entirely unknown authors on a very wide scale. But I think you could do a really effective ad campaign online for a reasonable cost -- do the clever headline and the fact that it's about a book in the ad, and have the ad link to a site with all the info about the book, including an excerpt and purchase info. You can really target specific demographics that way and hit a good number of people who are likely to be interested for far less money than a single small ad in a national publication. I know someone whose publisher is doing that for her books, and she saw her web hits and sales really go up when they advertised, of all places, on I Can Has Cheezburger. I've halfway considered doing an ad for my series at GraphJam, since it's focused on office humor, so it's a good tie-in, and is one of the less expensive sites in that group, but I don't have the resources to make the kind of campaign out of it that it would take to really get results. Plus, I'm not sure how widely available in bookstores my whole series is now, and it would be rather pointless to advertise something people couldn't find other than online.

At any rate, it's nearly impossible for readers to discover the majority of new books being published right now, and that doesn't sound like a very good business model to me, to put out products you have no way of knowing if people will like, packaged in a way you don't know will actually appeal to the customers, and without doing much of anything to make potential customers aware that these products exist.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Along those lines of covers not matching content, when I saw the covers for Patricia Briggs Moon Called series, I decided to never so much as poke at them.

Then through a convoluted series of events, I accidentally read an excerpt and discovered IN THAT EXCERPT that the main character wasn't the, er, woman of easy virtue she seemed from the cover. The excerpt left room for some concern still, but I decided to risk it.

For friends of mine and other people I've met online, those books have lost readers—and sales—from the needlessly slutty covers. (Do I really need to see Mercy's bra a la Blood Bound cover?)

I live with my parents. If I bought a book like that, they would see the covers alone and flip, regardless of the content. In fact, they'd hate the content, too-they hate fantasy.

Anyway, I guess something someone told me at my previous job applies here: "You're still expecting business to make sense."

*thinks* Can't really see why that's such a bad thing.

And it would be nice to be able to walk into a bookstore and not bite my lip as I worry if I want to risk reading [fill in the blank].