Friday, November 21, 2008

Readers and the Doom Loop

NaNo Update (yes, finally, actual progress!): Back on track, with more than 3,000 words yesterday. And if I'm really, really good, I'll get to the end of the story today. I just have one big scene to finish and then the wrap-up scene. I think the first draft is going to come in at around 40,000 words, so I wouldn't have "won" if I'd done this officially, but I will have completed a first draft of a book. The target completed length of a book like this is in the 40-60k range, and I already know of a few characters I'm going to have to go back and weave in, then there are some characters who appear late in the book who'll have to be added to the earlier part of the book, and at least one character who needs to be fleshed out and developed, and all that is going to require a lot of new or heavily beefed-up scenes, so I can see easily adding 20,000 words in revisions. Therefore, I'm not even going to try for the 50k goal in the first draft. The fun thing is that when I started, I wasn't even sure I had a real book in this idea, and now I think I may have something really good, once I've developed it. I've stumbled upon creating one of my favorite fictional characters I've ever written (he's right up there with Owen), and I really love the way this world looks in my head. So, yeah, I'm glad I did this.

In other life news, I think I'm now healed from the cold, more or less. The Pink, Fuzzy Bathrobe of Imminent Death has been miraculously transformed, after a trip through the washing machine, into the Pink, Fuzzy Bathrobe of a Cold Morning When I Need to Stay Warm at My Desk. I made it to ballet class last night, and the mean, scary teacher wasn't so mean or scary. He was a stickler for technique, so if we weren't doing something right, he'd stop and correct us, but he did so in a nice, gentle way. And I seem to have discovered inner thigh muscles I didn't realize I had. As my dad would say, I now have a ballet ache.

And now because I want to get to the writing (somehow, I seem to get more done when I write at least a few words before lunch), I've got my last word on the Publishing Doom Loop, something I wrote last week and then got sidetracked away from remembering to post. After all that doom loop talk last week, I thought I'd wrap it up by talking some about what you, as a reader and book buyer, can do to have an influence on the way the publishing world works.

1) Buy what you like to read, regardless of what's trendy, and keep looking for that even if other trends seem to be taking over the shelves.
Part of what feeds the doom loop is the drop in sales for things that aren't trendy, so even if you have to work harder to find what you want, continuing to buy those things may help provide balance. If a book you know exists isn't carried in a store near you, you can have the store order it for you, and that can help subvert the top-down buying and distribution systems because enough special orders will trigger the system to stock the book, and sometimes the local booksellers will be intrigued enough to order enough books to stock their own stores, regardless of what the national buyer decided about that book. Remember that in the book world, every single sale of a new book counts. It's not like in the TV world where ratings are based on a sample. Most books sell in such quantities that a few hundred sales can make a big difference.

2) If what you like is part of the current hot trend, be picky about what you buy, and be sure to look beyond the covers to make sure you're getting what you want.
Let's face it, when something is really, really hot on the market, there's a lot of junk that gets put out. I was as big a fan of chick lit as anyone, and I have a box full of books that made me feel ripped-off because they were either dark family drama with a pink cover or they just weren't very good. I've never been bold enough to return a book that turned out to not be what I wanted it to be to a store, but I suppose if you get a chapter or so into a book and realize it isn't at all what the cover led you to believe it would be, and if you still have the receipt, you could return it, and that would keep it from being counted as a sale. If only the really good books in the trend are what sell, then maybe the audience for those books won't be so diluted when the market floods.

3) When there's a series or author or even type of book you want to support, try to buy the books within the first couple of weeks of release.
Rational or not, the publishers seem to care far more about sales in those first few weeks than they care about overall sales over a long period of time. A lot of decisions get made based on those first few weeks, and that's when a book is considered a success or a failure.

4) The publishers have pretty much outsourced most of the marketing for most books to you, the reader, so use that power.
The majority of books get a minimal marketing budget -- no advertising, no snazzy giveaways, no book tour, no store signage, no special store placement. Instead, they're counting on word of mouth to sell books. In other words, they're counting on readers to sell books for them. Since they've given you that job, you can use your word of mouth power to support the kinds of books you like, whether or not they're trendy. Post reviews to the online booksellers, book communities on social networking sites (MySpace, LiveJournal, Facebook, etc.), book sites like LibraryThing and Shelfari, or your own blogs and web sites. Talk to friends about books (especially if they're not readers -- use peer pressure to make people feel like they should be reading). Read books in public. Mention books in other social forums, the way people might chat about TV shows, movies, music, etc. If there's a bookstore you visit frequently and if there are staff members who seem to care about being knowledgeable, chat with them about what you've read and enjoyed when you visit the store -- they'll probably be glad of ideas for recommendations when other customers come in and need help. So many of the currently hot series (like the Twilight series) took off not because the publishers marketed them, but because the fans were so enthusiastic about spreading the word. Some of (mind you, not all) the Twilight fans can be a little scarily overenthusiastic, but boy, do they know how to market books. They created MySpace and Facebook communities and fan Web sites, they made their own t-shirts about the books, they practically kept their friends chained in the basement until they agreed to read the books. They made it so that you were pretty much a freak if you were a teenage girl and hadn't read these books. Then once it caught on among the teens, that got media (and publisher) attention and bestseller lists, and it spread beyond that initial group. Since a few hundred copies can make a difference in how the performance of most books is perceived by the publisher, if you can influence a hundred sales either through direct contact or through Internet postings, you alone could actually make a measurable difference in a book's performance. Plus, increasing the amount of conversation about books makes it more likely that you'll be able to find the good stuff and not waste money on the bad stuff (see item 2).

(And people who become known for doing a lot of word of mouth on books -- say, they review a lot on Amazon and have a book-related blog that gets a lot of traffic -- tend to get offered review copies from publishers, so if you establish yourself as someone who can really spread word of mouth, you may end up getting free books.)

5) If you like a book (or want to read a book but don't have the money to buy it), request it at your local or school library if it doesn't have the book in stock. If the library has a waiting list for the book, put your name on it. One of my local librarians says she orders more copies of a book once the waiting list gets to a certain length. Sales to libraries count toward a book's overall numbers, and libraries are great ways to introduce readers to books.

6) Give feedback to publishers and bookstores.
Remember that authors have almost zero control over where a book is shelved, which stores are carrying it, how much it costs and what's on the cover. If you can't find a book you want, think that the cover didn't represent what was inside the book or think that the book is misclassified, writing to the author about these things won't do any good (it will just trigger homicidal impulses in the author -- aimed at the publisher, not at you). The author very likely knows all these things and has a bloody forehead from banging it against the wall of the publisher to point this out. Instead, write to the publisher. The publisher's street address is printed in the book, usually on the copyright page (as in most things, e-mails tend to be disregarded, but if someone takes the effort to snail mail, it might get read). If you're boycotting the postal service, the publisher's web address is usually printed in the book, and from there you can usually find some kind of feedback form. If you have trouble finding the books you want in a store on an ongoing basis, the chain web sites usually have some kind of feedback form or customer service address. At an independent store, you can talk to a manager. Again, don't contact the author about this because she can't do anything to help you. You'll save yourself time and energy and get better results by talking to someone at the bookstore.

If you absolutely loved a book and want to see more like that, do write to the author because that helps keep us going, but also write to the publisher so the publisher knows the degree of reader interest in a book and what readers like about it. I'm not sure that reader passion will ever trump bottom-line numbers, but if praise is mixed with feedback about how the reader almost didn't find this book she loved because it had a stupid cover or was shelved in a place that she usually wouldn't have shopped, and if the publisher gets enough letters like that, something might sink in.

7) Remember that you don't have to buy something just because a celebrity "wrote" it.
One of the worst business practices in publishing is the way they throw huge advances at celebrities for ghostwritten books that don't end up being profitable. They sell okay, because this is such a celebrity-driven culture and there are people who are willing to let children read a book written by Madonna (seriously, am I the only person freaked out by that?), but they usually don't earn out that huge advance, which means the publisher loses money, and it's the other non-celebrity authors who end up suffering when their advances or print runs get cut. I forgot to add this to the stages of the Doom Loop, but you know a trend has just about peaked when you get celebrities "writing" novels in that genre -- like Nicole Richie's chick lit novel. Not that all celebrities who write books are frauds. I actually first discovered Hugh Laurie as a novelist, so when House first appeared, I was like, "Hey, it's that guy who wrote that book." However, I don't think he got one of those multi-million dollar (or pound) celebrity publishing deals. Celebrity-"written" books are one category where I have no guilt about telling people to buy them at the used bookstore. That's where most of those books end up, anyway, and it's not like Jerry Seinfeld (the latest mongo book deal) is going to starve if he doesn't earn royalties or get another book deal. Maybe if enough readers rebel, the publishers will learn.

8) If you're an author, write what you want to read.
You don't want to entirely disregard market realities, but one thing that helps drive a trend is the manuscripts that come in. If editors see a definite trend in submissions, it serves as a sign that there's a hunger out there for that kind of book.

And now I'm going to go finish my book.

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