What’s Wrong with Publishing? #2

Welcome back.

First, what I suppose will become my usual caveat: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

At the risk of sounding sycophantic: I have three publishers, three editors, three sets of everyone involved in making sure my books get to you, the reader. They are all tremendous, inspiring, hardworking people, and it would kill me if anything I said herein was construed as denigrating them.

OK, now that that’s out of the way…

Well, no one called me a moron last time, so I guess I’m going to keep plugging along on this. 🙂 One fellow did chime in with some terrific thoughts and insights, so I encourage you to go back to the last entry and read the comments section. I’m going to be talking about a lot of the issues “Joe the Dancing Mule” (is that of the Staten Island Dancing Mules?) brings up in my own sweet time, but he makes several good points. If you want to discuss them, have at it!

As some of you know, for many (many — too many!) years, I worked in the comic book industry on the distribution side. For those not hip to the business lingo, a distributor is basically someone who stands between a producer (i.e. a publisher) and a retailer (i.e. a store like your local bookstore) and facilitates business between them. (Some would say the distributor just adds a needless layer of complexity and skims a percentage of the profits for that, but I’m not here to debate the necessity or lack thereof of distributors today.)

In my years in comics, I saw — I have to be honest here — a lot of really bone-headed, brain-dead business thinking. Oh, I could tell you stories! (But I’m not here to discuss the comic book industry, either.)

What I want to do, though, is talk about some practices in the comic book industry that differ wildly from practices in the book industry. I’m not saying that book publishing should or must adopt these practices; I’m just saying that they’re an alternate way of doing business and are deserving of some firing neurons in your gray matter.

There are no large national chains in the comic book industry. There are some smallish regional chains, but for the most part, the comic book industry is made up of a wide array of small, locally- and individually-owned stores. As a result, it can be difficult to coordinate the sorts of mass promotion that book publishers take for granted. For example, if you want your Latest Big Thriller prominently displayed to the book-reading public, you can leverage your co-op with B&N and/or Borders and you know immediately that your book will be front-and-center at a plethora of bookstores nationwide. That’s without even dipping your toe into the independent bookstore world.

(Sadly, though, there are times when stores take the co-op money and then shrug their shoulders and don’t bother with the promotion. Or shortchange it. Or do it half-assed. So like Twain says, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”)

In comics, there’s no single point of communication, so you would have to negotiate with each individual comic book store. Which is a nightmare, of course, so no one does it. What the comic book publishers do instead is speak directly to the end-customer, the comic book reader.

See, for the most part, book publishers don’t think of you, the reader, as their customer. They think of the bookstore as their customer. The lion’s share of their promotional, publicity, marketing, and sales efforts do not go into convincing readers that the Latest Big Thriller is a great book. Their efforts go into convincing the stores that the Latest Big Thriller is a book that will make them lots of money…and then let the stores sell it to you.*

In comics, though, the publishers use a different tactic, a more “grassroots” tactic, if you will. They evangelize their upcoming comics directly to the consumers, counting on consumer enthusiasm to goose the retailers into stocking the comics in question. (Of course, they also do outreach direct to the stores, but the level of direct-to-consumer promotion in the comics industry is well above that in book publishing.)

Comic book publishers ultimately see the reader as their customer. Why is this? Quite simply because they HAVE TO. You see, in the comic book industry, comics are sold non-returnably. This means that when a store orders, say, 30 copies ofSuperman, that store is stuck with 30 copies. If the store sells all 30, then, hey, great! But if the store sells five copies, well… Someone’s eating ramen for a month.

Compare this to the book industry, where books are sold on a returnable basis. Your local bookstore can order 30 copies of, say, my book. But if they only sell five of them, guess what? The store can go, “Oh, well,” and send those unsold 25 copies back to my publisher in return for credit. And my publisher eats the cost of those books, and my royalty statement is a little sadder.

So in comics, the publishers have to be more aware of the reader because if readers don’t buy their comics, the stores — wallowing in vast unsold piles of their stock — will stop buying them. In book publishing, though, unsold books just go back to the publisher and become credit in the store’s coffers to use to buy the next book, which may sell better.

Now, neither system is perfect. Far from it. The bookstore model certainly allows greater risk protection, greater experimentation, and greater diversity at the bookstore level. If you know you can return an unsold book, you might be a little more willing to take a chance on this Barry Lyga guy, secure in the knowledge that if his particular combination of words doesn’t sell to the masses, you won’t take quite as big a hit as you might otherwise. But the comics model, I think, gives the publishers more work, yes, but also a little more input into what’s “big” and what isn’t. It also means they have more direct communication with the reader, which means a better insight (though still flawed) into what sells.

I would like to see book publishing take a page (har-har) from the comic book world and be a little more aggressive in speaking directly to and with the end-reader. This is already happening, to a degree, as the Internet has facilitated and — in many cases — necessitated greater communication between those particular groups. But I would really like it if children’s publishers could somehow come together to make a concerted effort to talk to kids where and how they live.**

We’re already seeing publisher Facebook pages and fan clubs, which is a nice start, but in book publishing (unlike in comics) no one knows or cares who a publisher is. Quick — name the publisher of your favorite book! Odds are (unless you’re working in the industry) you can’t do it without looking it up. A Publisher X Facebook page is great, but if readers don’t know their favorite book is with Publisher X, then how much help is it to you, your authors, and your customers?

What is needed is a way to get cool stuff into kids’ hands, stuff that will make them want to go out and buy the books. You can’t do that with the pens and bookmarks and postcards that you give to bookstores. You need fun, creative book excerpts, innovative text messaging, viral video. In short, you need the sorts of things that authors and publishers both have been trying to execute (to more or less success, depending) for years now.

But many of those efforts are underfunded and are of the “Oh, yeah, and we can also…” variety. They’re the also-rans of marketing. I think they need to be more front-and-center, more aggressive. Grabbing readers’ attention and driving them into stores to buy books.

Ideally, there would be some sort of effort across publishers. Now, why would competitors join forces to do this? Hell, it happens all the time. Every industry on the planet (except comics…hmm…) has some sort of industry-wide trade organization whose sole goal in life is to promote that industry to the public at large. I’m talking about a specific organization that would promote books — reading — to kids. Possibly in conjunction with some sort of anti-obesity campaign: “Feed your mind, not your belly.” Something like that.***

Whew! I’m beat, and this has gone on pretty long. Next time, I think I’ll talk about Free Comic Book Day and its possible implications for the book industry. In the meantime, please add to the conversation below. I want to learn from you guys!



*I suppose I need to add here — lest someone pounce on me for suggesting otherwise — that of COURSE book publishers love, adore, want, need, and cherish their readers. Of COURSE they do. But their primary sales focus is getting books onto shelves, then getting them into hands. The two notions are in no way mutually exclusive.

**Again, to forestall pouncing: I’m not saying that authors and/or local stores should NOT be doing these things. I’m just saying that publishers should get in there, too.

***Yes, indeed, I am aware of the various literacy organizations out there. I think they have a major role to play in all of this and have a wealth of experience to bring to bear.

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