What’s Wrong with Publishing? #3: Free

Welcome back.

The usual disclaimer: 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. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

As promised, this time I’m going to blather a little bit about Free Comic Book Day, the comic book industry’s only industry-wide promotional event/opportunity.

Before I begin, some background: There are few things in this world on which I could be considered an expert, fewer things still on which you should blindly accept what I say. I am the first to admit this. However, when it comes to FCBD…I’m da Man. No, seriously. I’m the guy. I was there from the beginning and I made the event happen. This isn’t me bragging — I’m just establishing my bona fides when it comes to FCBD. In December of 2001, the higher-ups at Diamond came to me and said, “Hey, there’s this idea to give away a bunch of comics. Do you think it’s doable?” I said, “Sure.” They said, “Great — you’re in charge.”

And for three years, that’s what I did — I ran FCBD on top of all of my other duties at Diamond, and it was fun, it was grueling, it was rewarding, it was sort of crazy, it was frustrating, and — weirdly enough — it worked.

In the comic book industry, we launched Free Comic Book Day on a budget that could charitably be described as “shoestring” and more accurately described as “non-existent.” And yet we gave away millions of comic books around the world, raised awareness of the art form, gave stores a “second Christmas” in terms of sales, and — best of all — got some great comics into the hands of some folks who wouldn’t otherwise have had them.

The book could benefit from a similar concept. I’m not talking about blindly mimicking Free Comic Book Day and having an annual Free Book Day across the globe (though if someone wants to pull it off, great!). I’m mean leveraging the power of free and the strength that comes from throwing an entire industry’s weight behind a cause and a promotion.

We don’t have to give away entire books. Maybe we could produce and give away special compilations of excerpts or special printed excerpts or special e-books. I don’t know. I don’t pretend to know. There are lots of ideas and lots of possibilities. The important thing is establishing that connection I discussed last time — having publishers see readers as their ultimate customers, communicating with them, even if the sales channel still has a distributor and/or retail store interposed. When publishers understand how to sell to readers, sales will go up. Simple as that. When publishers understand how to sell to stores, sell-in may be great, but sell-through will always be dicey and subject to the time-honored business technique officially known as “crossing your fingers.”

Exactly what we do is less important than that we do something. Sound crazy? Sound wasteful? It is, to a degree, but recall the old tongue-in-cheek advertising maxim: “Half of all advertising money is wasted. Now if we could only figure out which half.” The only way to find out is to try things and see what works.

What I learned from Free Comic Book Day was this: It’s better to try something than to try nothing. I can’t tell you how many boneheaded, idiotic ideas I had when I was running FCBD. But each one taught me something and then I moved on to the next idea on the pile. Since I had no budget and — especially in that first year — no expectations at all, I had the freedom to try whatever I wanted. As long as it didn’t cost money.

That’s all fine and good, you say, but still — Why would any publisher join an organization and/or support an effort that might raise awareness of its competition? Well, let me tell you.

Let’s say you are Publisher X, and you have a terrific new book coming out soon. People who love the books of Big Author are gonna love it. Only problem is, you have no way of talking to Big Author’s fans because Big Author is published by someone else. Unless there’s some kind of cross-promotion going on.

But why on earth would Big Author’s publisher agree to this? What’s in it for them?

I’ll tell you what’s in it for them: Big Author’s publisher has a new book coming out from Newbie Author. And Newbie Author’s book would totally appeal to readers of Author Z. And guess who publishes Author Z?

That’s right: You do. Publisher X.

You scratch my back, I scratch yours. It’s as old as the oldest primates, friends, and it works. A rising tide lifts all boats, or whatever other cliché you prefer. Makes no difference to me.

It’s a notion that the comic book industry — riddled with internecine, juvenile conflicts dating back decades — was never able to fully embrace. But book publishing might be able to because in book publishing the AUTHOR, not the publisher, is the brand.

Free is good. Free works. Amazon gives away free samples — shouldn’t bookstores? Yeah, you can flip through the book in the bookstore, but you can’t take it home with you and think about it. What if you could take home a little excerpt? Read it on the subway, think about it… And when you decide you want it, there’s a code in the excerpt that you can use to tell that same bookstore that you want the book — punch it into a web site and the book will be mailed to you or reserved for you, possibly with some kind of a bonus, but definitely with another FREE excerpt for another book. I would love to see some sort of spinner rack or display at the front of every bookstore in the country, packed with cool little printed excerpt booklets that people can take with them, each one a sales tool not just for that specific book, but also for the next book the customer will buy.

I’m glossing over a lot of details, obviously, and I’m skipping the hard work part and the spending part, waving my hands like a magician and saying, “Abracadabra!” and expecting a new promotional paradigm to fly out of my shirt cuff like a dove. But that’s OK. Remember: I ended up in charge of FCBD because I shrugged and said, “Sure” when asked if I thought it would work. I didn’t know I’d end up in charge of it. And once I was in charge of it, I had no idea what to do and absolutely zero money to do it with.

That first FCBD — the first Saturday of May 2002 — I went to two comic book stores. Neither one had a big crowd. At one store, a guy told me, “Yeah, a few people came in a little while ago looking for some free comics.” I went home despondent, figuring I’d screwed up, I’d dropped the ball. FCBD was an abject failure.

Little did I know that I had picked two of the rare few stores to have a bad day that first year. When I got to my office on Monday morning, my inbox was overflowing with e-mails from publishers, retailers, and readers telling me amazing stories about the day, the success. FCBD was a success, and I was the last person to know. Literally millions of comics given away. Christmas-level sales at the retail level. Truly massive amounts of free publicity for an industry that was hurting.

That was one guy. Before social networking. With absolutely no money and zero experience at running such an event.

Are you going to tell me that the entire publishing industry, marshalling its resources, can’t do something just as effective, if not a million times more so?

Look: Nothing up my sleeve.

Abracadabra.

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