What’s Wrong with Publishing? #5: Digital Dreams

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.

Back in the days when I worked in an office for a living, I had a nickname:

The Angel of Death.

I had this nickname because inevitably I would be in a meeting and someone (usually someone further up the org chart than I was) would throw out a great idea and everyone would think it was terrific and then I would be the guy to say, “Well, that’s great, but we can’t do it because…” Followed by some niggling detail everyone had forgotten.

I say this because I realize I’m about to set myself up to be Angel of Death-ed. I’m going to toss out some ideas about how books can be promoted, how promotions can be improved…and the world is going to want to shout, “That will never work because…” and then follow up with details that I have either forgotten or — more likely — never known in the first place.

This is the natural course of human interaction, and the Internet only amplifies this inclination because it’s so easy to type, “Meh,” “Fail,” “Epic fail.”

So, a plea: If you’re going to shoot something I suggest down, fine. Fine. But please, PLEASE — follow up your shoot-down with a suggestion of your own.

Yes, it’s entirely possible that someone else will shoot down your idea, too, but I don’t want us to take the easy way out and just “Fail” each other to death. Let’s be positive about this. If one idea won’t work, say why…and then suggest something of your own.

The main thing I want to talk about today is some of the potential of e-books.

When I speak of the “potential of e-books,” I don’t mean in their potential to change what we think of as a “book.” I don’t refer to the possibilities of interactive text or hypertext or any of the add-ons to text that might cause the word “book” to evolve. I’m thinking purely in terms of the potential of e-books to drive sales.

Does that sound mercenary? Yeah, it probably does. But book sales allow the industry to keep going. Book sales feed editors, clothe art directors, and — not incidentally — keep authors from wandering the streets like hobos. Book sales are important.

Of course, we all know the main ingredient in the e-book stew: A lower price point. Without the costs associated with warehousing, shipping, binding, printing, etc. — so the logic goes — e-books should cost a mere fraction of the cost of a printed book.

I can’t speak intelligently as to what the actual physical costs of book publishing are; it’s just a topic upon which I am not educated. I do suspect, however, that while they are significant, they are not the most significant factor in the price of a book. Meaning: Yes, e-books should cost less than printed books, but quite possibly not at the dirt-cheap level most readers seem to assume should be the case. If the average hardcover costs (for the sake of argument) twenty bucks, the conventional wisdom of the masses seems to dictate that the e-book should be under ten bucks. I suspect the truth lies between them.

So, yeah, we’re all gonna save some money by buying e-books, but it probably won’t be as much money as we’d hoped. Similarly, there’s going to be a period of adjustment as publishers figure out how much money they can actually make on e-books as compared to hard copy books.

But I’m not interested in the price of books so much as I’m interested in the cost.

Confused? Let me explain.

When you publish a book, there’s a cost associated with everything. This is true of whether you print it on paper or push it to a screen. However, when you print, there are physical costs that may make certain initiatives cost-prohibitive. And those same initiatives may be feasible when you remove the physical costs.

Here’s an example: When the paperback edition of Hero-Type (in stores now!) came out, it had a little something extra in it — an excerpt from Goth Girl Rising tucked away in the back. Nothing too terribly precious about that; I’m sure you’ve all seen something similar before. It’s a common promotional gimmick.

Now, when books are published, they are printed on large sheets of paper that are then folded down to the size we’re used to reading. These sheets are called “signatures” and the nature of paper (and the nature of folding) means that each signature ultimately gets folded down into eight pages of printed material. (Sometimes it’s four. But usually eight or a multiple of eight.) If you’ve ever wondered why a book in your hands has some extra blank pages at the end, this is why: The author’s text ended on a page that wasn’t a multiple of eight, so the rest of the pages went blank ‘cause no had anything to put on them.

You could use those extra pages for all sorts of things, of course, and believe me — I’m gonna talk about that next time. For now, though, I just want to make sure you understand: If you want to add something to a book, you have to do it in units of eight pages. So if you have a three-page excerpt from a new book, you’d be paying for five pages you don’t use (unless you happen to luck out and have some extra pages left over, of course!). Similarly, if you want to add fourteen pages, well, guess what? You have to pay for two more signatures and two of those pages will go begging.

This can get expensive. But… But the best promotion for my writing is, well, my writing. My work. If you read one of my books, you might enjoy another one, too, but how do I make sure you know that?

I can (and do) put excerpts on my website…but you would have to go to my website to see them. And what if you don’t?

Amazon and other e-tailers have free samples online…but what if you don’t bother to go there or search for my other books?

You can go to the library or a bookstore and flip through my other books…but what if you forget the next time you’re there? Or what if they don’t have any of my books on the shelf when you’re there?

No, the very best place for a promotional excerpt is the one place I know for sure that someone reading my book will see it — in my book! But there are costs associated with this: Someone has to pick, proof, and check the excerpt. Someone has to write, design, and approve an informational blurb explaining what this excerpt is and why you should care. And then, of course, there’s the paper cost. And the additional freight cost associated with shipping a book that’s eight or sixteen or however many pages longer than it would have been otherwise. And the fact that, as a result of the additional pages, it will take up more space on a shelf, meaning that instead of, say, five of them fitting, only four will…which could be a lost sale.

Notice something there? I just rattled off a bunch of costs associated with adding a promotional gimmick to a book…but only the first few apply to e-books.

Meaning that while it’s not free, per se, adding excerpts to e-books is a lower cost promotional effort.

What I would like to see in my e-books (hell, in every author’s e-books!) is not just one excerpt, but every possible excerpt from my work! (I would really like it if publishers could come together to execute some sort of cross-promotional framework whereby all of my publishers would promote all of my books (even the ones they don’t publish), but for now I’ll settle for each publisher sticking an excerpt from every single one of the books I’ve written for them into my e-books.)

Why not? The costs are negligible. And like I said before, the only thing I know for sure about someone who enjoys one of my books is that he or she has read that particular book. It’s the best, most effective way to say, “Hey! Here are some other books I wrote!” to that person.

You may wonder if this is really a big deal. You may be thinking, “Barry, don’t people who read your books know about your other books already?”

Considering that it takes less than a couple of seconds to go to my Amazon page or to type “books by Barry Lyga” into Google, you’d think so. But I get e-mails all the time from people saying, “Gee, I read [INSERT ONE OF MY BOOKS HERE]. What else have you written?”

For every person who sends that e-mail, I figure there’s a nontrivial number out there who similarly don’t know what else I’ve written, but can’t be bothered to send the e-mail. Consequently, I figure a major promotional hurdle for authors like me (i.e., those who don’t merit their own table at the bookstore) is to make sure every reader knows about every other book we’ve written.

Adding multiple excerpts to e-books has no consequences in terms of signatures, paper costs, shipping freight, or shelf space. It will cost a little extra time for someone to format things, but while that is a real cost, it is not an onerous one. Especially given the potential upside.

Best of all, here’s what I’d really like to see with e-books: Right now, when I put an app on my iPad or iPhone, Apple lets me know when there’s an update to it. Then the update downloads to my gadget and none of my current information is lost or changed.

I would love to see this ethic applied to e-books! When I have a new book come out, ALL of my e-books get updated with an excerpt. If you bought Hero-Type as an e-book, you’d get a notification when Goth Girl Rising came out and your copy ofHero-Type would be automatically updated to include an excerpt.

Don’t tell me it can’t be done. It’s already being done. Every day. With thousands upon thousands of apps. We can do the same thing for e-books.

Similarly, e-books are an opportunity to add the sorts of extra content that people enjoy. Again, I’m not talking about interactivity or video or anything like that (although all of that is possible). That’s a post for another day. For now, I’m talking about simple text. Things like author interviews, Q&As, bibliographies (“What books did you read to research this book?”), a related short story, and things of that ilk. Things that would have significantly higher costs to add to a paper book, but could be added to an e-book for slighter costs.

This is the lesson learned by the movie industry when DVD came along: In order to transition to a new format without losing your shirt, you have to make it compelling. “Why is this DVD cooler than your old VHS, Mr. Movie-Watcher? Because we have deleted scenes, alternate endings, subtitles, special soundtracks, director interviews, commentary tracks…”

All of this can be applied to e-books. Would I be happy to put the Boy Toy deleted scenes on a Boy Toy e-book? Or to put “Her Decade” into e-copies of Hero-Type? Sure! Why not?

So. What else? Well, what about adding a coupon to your e-book, a code you could use to get my next book at a discount? Or to buy a hard copy of the same book? (Similarly, hard copies of books could have coupons for the e-book version.)

And then, getting to the point of “But what about bookstores???”…

Special editions.

Look, I love bookstores. I want them to thrive. So why not take advantage of the e-book format on their behalf? Most bookstores have wifi these days. Set up a system whereby the publisher takes some of that special content mentioned above and offers it exclusively for download at certain stores. Want the version of the book with the embedded author interview? Well, that’s available at Store X. Want the one with the short story starring the cool secondary character? Well, that’s at Store Y. You could make the content exclusive for a specific window of time, then allow anyone to download it from the iBookstore or the publisher or author websites after that. No one gets screwed, and the people who really, really want it can get it on Day One.

Doing this with paper books would be madness. You’d have to have separate print runs, you’d have to coordinate shipments… You’d end up with some stores selling out of their special content too fast, and other selling nothing at all…but you wouldn’t be able to shift those unsold units elsewhere because that content is exclusive!

But with e-books, you can make as many editions as you want. Click.

It’s already happened in the movie and music industries, in case you’re wondering. Certain stores get special packaging or special content in a DVD or CD. This is the same idea. And, yes, at first it would probably benefit the big chains, but I envision a future in which a mess of independent bookstores come together as one big “virtual chain” to get their place at the trough, too.

Whew! That was a lot of words! And we haven’t even talked about non-textual boons to e-books!

I have a lot more to say, but for now I want to let you guys chime in. Tell me what you think!

(To see the comment thread from the old barrylyga.com, click here. If you want to add to the conversation, use the comment form below.)

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