Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Debut Authors Promotion Panel

Earlier this summer I agreed to join a panel of indie booksellers from around the country tasked with selecting ten adult books, written by debut authors, being published in the Spring and Summer of 2014 for a special promotion. Publishers were able to submit up to three books for consideration and the panel has set up a system for winnowing a raft of titles, down to the required ten. I'll write more about this process later, once I'm able to discuss the specific books, but I wanted to discuss the idea of the panel itself because it seems to be a perfect win-win-win-win for publishers, booksellers, and bookstores, and suggests the kind of collaboration between publishers and indie booksellers publishing is going to need if we want to prevent all of the worlds books and publishing from being devoured into the gaping Moloch maw of Amazon. For this post, I'm going to describe the benefits to each party and then probably find a way to conclude the post by telling you not to buy from Amazon or something like that.

By far, publishers will get the most out of this collaboration. Not only will the selected books get extra attention, but, publishers will receive expert guidance on how and where to spend their increasingly limited marketing budgets. One of the biggest challenges debut authors face is that publishers don't know for sure who the market is for those books. Obviously, when they decided to publish the book, they believed someone would buy it, but unlike veteran authors, debut authors have no sales data to confirm, deny, or change, a publisher's guesses about potential audience. Essentially, we will tell the publishers what the potential audience is for these books with no hard data on what their potential audience is, allowing them to adjust (or set) their budgets for these books. They will know what books to make more galleys of, what books to feature at regional and national trade shows, and what authors to send on reading tours. Essentially, they get expert focus group data, for pretty close to free.

Furthermore, this program automatically surmounts the biggest barrier to a debut author's success; the challenge of the first reader. There is a massive bookcase in the staff room at Porter Square Books filled with galleys nobody has taken yet. Are there amazing books in that bookcase? Maybe, but, for whatever reason, the books in that case haven't found their first reader, the one (or several) bookseller who begins the magic process known as “buzz.” Much of a publisher's marketing budget for a book goes into getting one or two booksellers to read it and, as someone who is explicitly targeted by publishers, I can say that I have absolutely no idea what it takes to guarantee I pick up a galley. How much does the cover design go into my decision? Some, probably. What about other marketing material, like an accompanying letter or blurbs on the cover? I'll scan that stuff and I'm sure at least once such material has convinced me to try something, but I can't remember the book, and I can't remember what the material said. Really, the best a publisher can hope for in terms of breaking that first reader barrier is that they have established a relationship with me, either directly, as Two Dollar Radio and Melville House have, or through their sales reps, as Random House and Harpercollins have. By submitting their books to this panel, even if their books are not selected, they have automatically broken that first reader barrier.

And, of course, along with everything else, publishers will garner for their debut authors the best kind of sales allies they can have.

Our benefit from the panel is influence. Influence means a lot more to us than you might think. Not only do we love talking about books, and guiding readers to books, but I'm pretty sure all of us would like a little more say in what books are actually published. Being the ones who have to put the product in the customer's hand, a little quality control might be nice. This program doesn't give us that level of influence, but it does let us guide publishers in their marketing efforts above. We get to make sure publishers put their marketing efforts behind books we will support. The books we like will have better print runs, they'll have wider publicity, their authors will go on tour, there will be resources supporting our excitement. As many of your know from this blog, I tend to read around the edges, and though I haven't encountered much edge in the submissions to date, a program that at least allows for the possibility that a daring, innovative, risk-taking debut author will receive substantial publisher support, is a program good for literature.

Book Stores
Book stores actually have the least to gain from this program, and here we see one of the first direct results of the Department of Justice's case against Apple and five for the (former) six big publishers. Here's how the program should have looked: Publishers voluntarily sign up for a program offered by the American Booksellers Association that has to be explicitly opted into, not because they all talked about it ahead of time, but because it is a good program. Then, publishers agree to offer an extra discount on the titles selected by the panel, when bookstores (voluntarily opting-in) order a certain number of copies of each books, if they feel like it, because it would be illegal to compel the stores or publishers to do anything. A simple, direct program. A bookstore signs up, agrees to order a certain number of copies of the book in order to receive a certain discount, which is how it works anyway, and the publisher agrees that if their book is selected, that book will be available for that discount at that order rate. Simple. Legal. Better for everyone.

But I think the publishers and the ABA are nervous about any kind of action that even hints at the possibility that they might be working together to sell more books, even if that process has nothing to do with the price of the books to the consumer. So, instead of a simple program, bookstores see a whole host of different incentives from all of the different publishers, some of which, not particularly incentivizing. (At least that's what we saw for the Fall round.) Amazon is a monopoly (toldja), a government sanctioned, Wall Street financed monopoly, built on predatory pricing and questionable (at best) labor and tax practices, and unlike Apple, publishers don't have the available capital to risk lawsuits trying new ways to reign Amazon in. If the ABA is squeamish about a simple, voluntary, opt-in, discount for copies ordered program, there is going to be very little anyone can do, industry-wide to say, compensate bricks and mortar stores for the lost sales of showrooming, or diversify the ebook market, or really anything that helps ensure the sales drivers that bricks and mortar bookstores are, survive.

This debut author panel though, however, proves that there are creative ideas for bolstering the relationship between publishers and booksellers in a way that also bolsters sales. There's this perception that publishing and retail bookselling are dying because they refuse to change, have no new ideas, and are clinging to old business models, even as indie bookstores go from having zero ebooks infrastructure to competitive ebooks infrastructure in about three years, as publishers reapply traditional sales systems to the ebook market to allow indie stores to compete on price (ahem), as publishing and indie bookselling innovate and develop the sales potential of social media, as bookstores adapt in-store marketing, events, and bookselling to the new reality, and even as the ABA pioneers programs like this debut author panel. Unfortunately, the idea that publishing and indie bookselling aren't evolving doesn't fit the narrative that allows us to accept Amazon's predatory pricing. Wall Street, Eric Holder, internet commenters, book bloggers, and now, (sad face) President Obama, tell themselves the problem is with the lack of innovation, with an unwillingness to change, and with some kind of weird contempt for the customer, so they can pay Amazon's prices without feeling as though they are cheating. I mean, for fuck's sake, that book about innovation, was published by a publisher. They read the goddamn thing, too, you know.

A Concluding Observation
Though I can't talk about specifics yet, I do think I can say that every single entry I've encountered thus far, could use at least one more round of vigorous editing. I've seen ideas that could use more consideration, questions that could be answered and asked, and directions and themes that could be explored, along with plenty of sentences that could go from “eh” to “hey,” with another round of work. Some of these books will get it, but given how they're being packaged and presented, most of them won't. As I've said other places, the ROI on editing isn't very good. With margins squeezed by advantageous discounts to you know who, on both books and ebooks, publishers may not feel they can spend the extra money and time to make a good book great. Or, (and this is one of those pristine unconfirmables) my taste in prose is just different from what is happening in publishing right now, at least expressed in these titles. Even with that, I've been really enjoying this process. I'm reading books I never would have picked up, with a specifically critical eye that asks me to apply the skills I've learned as a reviewer and as a bookseller to assess their quality. Even though I've read a lot I haven't enjoyed and even though this reading means I can't start the new Jesse Ball galley I have (or the Cesar Aira, or The African Shore from the Yale Margellos World Republic of Letters Series, or the new James Joyce biography...) I have really enjoyed being on this panel. Now I just need to find one of those lucrative freelance book panel gigs and I'm set.

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