What’s Wrong With Publishing?

What’s Wrong with Publishing? #7: What About Hardcovers?

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.

In the world to come, the upcoming Brave New World of publishing, what will come of the hardcover?

This is a question people pose a lot. The thinking goes that as e-books condition readers to expect to pay less and less for a book, there will be significant, entrenched resistance to spending the requisite bucks to buy a hardcover book. And then, the question goes, where will we be?

Well, I suspect we’ll be right here, still working away in publishing.

People say hardcovers may go away in the New World Order, and I say… Well, actually at first I don’t say much of anything. I usually just shrug my shoulders.

Believe me, it is not easy for me to take a laissez-faire attitude towards the fate of the hardcover. I love hardcover books. In particular, I love my hardcover books! They are sturdy and hefty and feel somehow Important in my hand. And, of course, hardcovers cost more money and generally have a better royalty structure. Thus and hence.


There’s no reason why a book has to be in hardcover. (Well, for most books. Certain ginormous coffee table books probably have to have that kind of binding. I’m speaking generally here.) Yes, it’s impressive. Yes, it’s advantageous financially. Yes, authors published in paperback often feel they’ve “arrived” when they get that first hardcover deal.


The price of a hardcover makes it something of a liability as we move forward into the future. I remember when I saw the first early sales figure for my first novel. I didn’t know how to interpret them (having no context for them), but I remember my editor saying to me, “Don’t even worry about your hardcover sales. Kids won’t buy your books until the paperback comes out anyway.”

Sure enough, when that first book came out in paperback a year later, I got swamped with e-mail from readers. For those of us who write for kids, it behooves us to remember that kids have many things to spend their limited income on, and if it comes down to a seventeen-buck hardcover or an eight-buck paperback… Guess which one will probably win?

Is there a chance that publishers and authors will suffer financially if all (or nearly all) sales are e-book or paperback? Possibly. I don’t pretend to have a breakdown of industry revenues in front of me. But I suspect that there will be a transition period, and then that you’ll see readers who originally bought in hardcover buying paperback instead…and possibly buyingmore books because suddenly they’re cheaper.

(If anyone knows of an average breakdown of sales in terms of hardcover vs. paperback, I’d love to see it! Comment below, with links, if possible.)

The truth of the matter is that e-books are forcing a re-alignment of consumer expectations in terms of books. Readers are re-evaluating what a reading experience is worth to them. There’s a very good chance that hardcovers will lose out in this, that the general consensus of the audience will be, “Not worth it.” And if that happens, then publishers won’t be able to justify publishing in hardcover any longer. I’m actually OK with this.

(One reason books are published in hardcover, by the way, is that for a long time certain traditional review sources would only review books that were published first in hardcover, skipping over paperback-only books. Guess what? A lot of those traditional review sources are either drying up…or are being supplanted by new review sources, like blogs.)

I hasten to add here that I am in no way calling for or otherwise advocating the death of the hardcover. If hardcovers stick around for a thousand years, I’ll be happy. I’m just saying that if they do go away, I won’t be crippled with depression.

And in any event, I don’t think hardcovers will ever truly go away. I just think they will become rarer and less of a commodity, more of a special event. Publishers will publish the Big Books in hardcover to make a statement: “Yeah, we know it’s expensive. Deal with it — it’s worth it.” Hardcovers will become collector’s items, like those special DVD boxsets that come with fold-out posters and extra content and a custom-designed logo beer cozy. It’ll cost fifty bucks minimum and you’ll have to order it specifically, but so what? You’ll have your way-cool edition and everyone else will be staring at a paperback or a Kindle. As with most things in life, if it’ll make you happy, you’ll find a way to have it.

If not, you’ll learn that the story is exactly the same, whatever the format. Which, at the end of the day, is what matters.

What’s Wrong with Publishing? #6: Oh Yeah???

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.

Holy crap. Has it really been that long since I’ve prattled on about What’s Wrong with Publishing?

*double-checks calendar, gulps guiltily* Yep, it sure has.

I meant to have these blogs coming out a couple of times a week, but Real Life and Real Work both conspired against me. But I’m back now, and we’re going to forge ahead as though there never was a hiatus. (These are not the droids you’re looking for, and thank you, George Lucas, for giving the universe such a convenient and useful catchphrase…)

Back when I started this little series, a fellow commented early on. I promised to address his thoughts at a later date and today that later date has come. If you don’t remember my first blog on this topic, go check it out here. You can see the comment there, too, but I’m going to reprint it below in its entirety.

Ready? Here we go!

i think they should publish more books
By: Joe, the Dancing Mule on Tue June 01, 2010, 23:03:11
I’m afraid I must disagree with your prescription, Mr. Lyga.

To the stockade with you!

The scattershot approach at least gives more openings to authors – a tentpole strategy similar to the one you advocate leads to a very conservative mindset, in my opinion. If the publishing house has to make its bones on fewer releases, then there is more pressure to hit the ball out of the park every time. As such, like in movies, television, music, etc, there will be big pushes around the same set of proven stars/themes/products, over and over again. This leads to more superhero movies*, more comedies with guys getting bodily fluids on themselves and getting whacked in the balls, more Dick Wolf shows, and more manufactured pop pablum**.

Well, either you misunderstood what I was saying or — more likely — I didn’t express myself clearly. As I responded in the comments back then, I’m not talking about a drastic scaling back the likes of which you seem to envision, but more along the lines of cutting back enough so that a tentpole isn’t necessary. One of the open secrets of publishing right now is that the Big Books support all the little ones, mainly because the little ones never break out enough to support themselves. With more effort spent on each book, we could come closer to that beautiful world in which each book supports itself…or at least nears that goal.

Basically, I don’t want the number of books to be cut in half or by a third. I have no particular arbitrary figure in mind, honestly. But even if each editor had one less book, s/he could then focus that much more on the others in the pipeline. Would this make editors look for more “blockbusters?” I don’t think so. I think editors would realize that with the added time/resources that they could break out that cherished book that otherwise might not stand a chance.

Right now, the tentpole books are a necessary evil. If more books were breaking even and paying their own way, the pressure to have a tentpole blockbuster would be lessened.

I fully acknowledge that this would require a shift in the way people think about acquiring, editing, and selling books. But that’s why we’re all here.

I think the answer is to go the other way – more opportunities for more authors, and more profits realized to authors.

I’m all about that, too! 🙂

I am not a writer, but it seems to me that the writer has fewer opportunities for ancillary income based on his talents than others. Bands who get screwed by their record label deals can always go on tour (and be screwed by their tour management, but much more gently), actors and directors and such can make commercials and straight-to-dvd schlock, even athletes can make publicity appearances, endorsements and autograph sessions. While I’m sure book signings are wonderful things, they don’t seem to drive much cashola to the author (unless I’m seriously mistaken).

Unless you sign hundreds and hundreds of books per signing, yeah, they don’t drive a lot of cash into the authorial coffers. Signings are really about marketing and publicity, not sales. It’s a way of generating good will with the bookstores and meeting your fans. It’s not really a revenue driver for most authors. And, yeah, there are fewer opportunities for ancillary income for authors, though I suspect creative thinkers will find ways to change that. (For example, I post deleted scenes toBoy Toy on this site for free. Some people have suggested I should have made them available as a cheap e-book.)

The irony, of course, is that the authors who have great ancillary opportunities are the ones who don’t need it. If I put thoseBoy Toy scenes on Kindle for 99 cents, I don’t think I’d make much money. But if, say, J. K. Rowling e-published some material she cut from her books, I bet she’d make…well, much money.

Of course, the plan is simple: (mumble) (mumble) internet (mumble) electronic readers (mumble) profit!

The best plans are always that simple, aren’t they? 🙂

so, anyway, thoughts:

1 – the truly big authors should consider using their power to make the relationship between publishing house and author more equitable. (or like recent experiements by trent reznor and radiohead, cut out the middleman altogether.) the little guys have no power, and so a sort of benevolent cadre of big fish looking out for the little fish is probably the only way the little guy is gonna get a fair(ish) shake.

I think there is a lot of opportunity in this regard, and I’ll be talking about it later in more depth. But, yeah, it would be great to see bigger authors and smaller authors team up to each other’s mutual benefit. Even the biggest author has audiences s/he doesn’t reach, audiences s/he may be able to reach with the help of a smaller, niche or cult author. And the benefits to the smaller author are obvious.

2 – writers are creative people – they should find ways to use new technologies and such for story-telling. I’d like to think the days of the linear reading/text-only experience are coming to an end. Video and audio and non-linear storytelling are the new hotness, IMO. People who can trailblaze this area can fundamentally alter the relationship between reader and writer and show others the way.

I would like to think that the days of the linear reading/text-only experience are NOT coming to an end! There’s something inherently magical about that experience, and there’s a reason it’s endured for so long. I agree that there are lots of exciting possibilities with new technologies, but at the end of the day, there will always be a place for a good book, told in a traditional format, whether it’s printed, beamed, lit from behind, or read aloud. This isn’t a zero-sum game: Embracing new technologies and modes of storytelling does not have to mean abandoning the older methods.

3 – Internet supernerditry, part deux. Authors (like Barry Lyga and barrylyga.com) must continue to push the interactivity between writer and reader.*** This not only bonds the fan to the author, it allows the author to consider alternate methods to reach the fan base.

Agree emphatically. I also think, though, that publishers need to get into this mix, as I’ve discussed in previous blogs. Publishers have resources that authors can’t match and they can make it a lot easier for this to happen. Without rehashing my previous argument: Publishers can help brand their authors to everyone’s benefit.

4 – self-publishing. sure, it’s much-maligned, and given the state of the self-publishing industry of the past, deservedly so. but in the click-to-print era, i think a talented and charismatic author could control a significant portion of the delivery (and monetization) of his work.

This is happening already. The problem, of course, is separating the wheat from the chaff, not to mention getting the word out without the resources of a publisher behind you. (Yeah, I know anyone can promote themselves on the internet, and that’s the problem: Anyone can promote themselves on the internet! And while “the wisdom of crowds” is an attractive ideal, no one has yet proven to me that it’s inherently any better than a gatekeeper system.)

anyway, those are my two rubles.


* – which I enjoy, but it’s still a larger problem overall. the mass death of the truly indie movie house in the last 20 years has been breathtaking and sad.

Oh, I know. There’s a decent little indie theater a few blocks from where I live, and I first took notice of it because I was shocked to see it at all.

** – who or what is a Bieber?

Isn’t it a kind of carpet? Oh, wait — that’s a Berber.

*** – and I have to tell you, on a philosophical level, there’s something difficult for me to contemplate in the democritization of fandom to writership, but this is the world we live in. even a misanthrope such as myself understands this.

Interactivity between author and reader is one thing; democritization is another. I enjoy my contact with my readers, but at the end of the day, they’re my stories and I’m gonna tell ‘em how I want to. As Steve Jobs once said, you can’t give people what they say they want because by the time you do, they’ll have changed their minds. You have to produce the best work you can and hope people will recognize it for what it is.

Thanks for your thoughts, Joe. Next time, I’m going to respond to some more

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.)

What’s Wrong with Publishing? #4: Don’t Fear Digital

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.

So, it’s time to talk a little bit about e-books.

Back on the day when I pre-ordered my iPad, I happened to speak to someone at a major publishing house. I mentioned that I’d pre-ordered my iPad and there was much gasping and astonishment at the idea that I would buy an Apple product. (Oh, all right — there was no gasping or astonishment. There was, instead, a sort of droll, “No kidding.”) I described what I would do with it, what I was looking forward to, etc.

And this very smart publishing person said something like, “I can’t wait to see what you think of it. You know, we’re having a meeting here tomorrow about the iPad and e-books and all of that, talking about how we can fight them.”

Fight them?

Fight them?

That’s crazy talk.

Look, e-books are here and they’re here to stay. In the coming years, they’re only going to get bigger and more important and more in-demand.

Many people — too many — think that the purpose of the publishing industry is to produce and sell books. Not true! The purpose of the publishing business is to produce and sell stories (or, in the case of non-fiction, information) that are to beread.

Whether we read it on a screen or on a page doesn’t matter.

The discussion about e-books too often devolves into a shouting match of “Luddite!” and “Digital diva!” as two sides hurl pointless invective at each other than ultimately has nothing to do with actual publishing and actual stories, and has everything to do with simple prerefence.

Well, get this straight: The e-books debate has nothing to do with your personal preference or even your business preference. This is not an argument about “I like e-books” or “I prefer a dead tree in my hands.” Stop getting sidetracked by that! It has nothing to do with anything! Preference one way or the other is absolutely moot; history is moving in a specific direction and we can shape it, but we can’t change that direction. It’s like squeezing a tube of toothpaste — you can make ess-curves with the toothpaste or you can make a straight line, but once you squeeze, that toothpaste is going one way: OUT.

The music industry tried to “fight” digital music and look where that got them.

The question we should be asking when it comes to e-books — the meetings we should be having — is not about how to “fight” them, but how best to exploit them.

“But Barry! E-books mean the end of independent bookstores/books in my hands/hardcover editions/quite possibly the universe itself!”

No. No, they don’t.

Well, more accurately: They don’t have to. Sure, if we’re stupid (like the music industry), all of that could come to pass. But if we actually learn from the mistakes of the past, e-books could end up being a great opportunity.

You may recall that I kicked off this series of posts after spending some time at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, NY. It’s a wonderful independent store that has just celebrated twelve years of bringing books to its community. While at the river’s end, I spent quite a bit of time discussing publishing and its future with the store’s owner, Bill Reilly. One of our topics of conversation was, of course, e-books.

And what was his opinion of the dreaded e-book? This man who makes his living selling actual, physical books? This independent book entrepreneur?

Here it is: “I’m not afraid of digital,” Bill told me. “I welcome e-books.”

Next time, I’ll talk a little more about why we should all welcome e-books. Until then: Don’t fear digital!

Oh, and be sure to tell me what you think in the comments section below. The comment form gets rusty if it isn’t used all that often…

(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.)

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.