Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Diversifying the Ecosystem: A Publisher Lead Technique for Shifting Sales from Amazon

There are many reasons for the diminishing, but persistent precariousness of contemporary publishing and bookselling. Some are rooted in broader cultural and economic forces far outside of the control of the industry itself (hello wage stagnation), but one is the radical concentration of sales through one particular retail channel. Ignoring how this concentration happened (at least for the purposes of this post), as we learned with monopolies the first time around, the high concentration of any aspect of any industry in any one company creates a fragile ecosystem, and the concentration of retail bookselling in Amazon is no different. Imagine, for example, what would happen to publishing if Amazon, somehow, went bankrupt. (They do look a bit like a stock bubble.)  Publishers know this, of course, and over the last three years or so have tried to find ways (that won't be stopped by an Amazon-sponsored frivolous lawsuit, of course) to strengthen other sales channels, from developing direct-to-customer sales to greatly increasing and improving their support of independent bookstores.

Overall, the strategies, combined with broader social and economic trends and the fantastic work indie bookstores are doing, seem to be moving the needle a little, at least in print books. But there is more that can be done. Here's one program that I think will successfully shift a meaningful percentage of sales from Amazon to indie bookstores, which shouldn't draw the ire of the Department of Justice and shouldn't cost publishers much, if anything, more than they are already spending.

Many people say I look a bit like Neil Gaiman.

This idea isn't my idea. It was hatched in a different brain and then, thanks as much to spring rolls at Cafe Zing as anything else, enacted at Porter Square Books. A couple of years ago, Neil Gaiman wanted to support indie bookstores and to do so he and his publisher decided to offer signed copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane nearly-exclusively through an independent bookstore. Thanks to Amanda Palmer's relationship with PSB, PSB was the store lucky enough to take on the project. The result: after a metric-ton of work at every stage in this project, PSB sold a little over 5,000 signed copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a significant percentage of which would have otherwise been sold through Amazon.

Oh! Oh! That makes me your Terry Pratchett

In the grand scheme of publishing and bookselling, whatever percentage shift that represented doesn't really register, but if a similar exclusive-signed-copies relationship is set up for Stephen King and Toni Morrison and Alexander McCall Smith and Jodi Picoult and well, every big-name bestselling author with a devoted following out there, that percentage in sales shift would register. Again, my point is not about putting Amazon out of business, but that the bookselling and publishing ecosystem is strengthened through the diversification of sales channels. Indie bookstores don't need to have a massive percentage of retail sales to be a viable, sustainable sales channel in the publishing ecosystem, but they still need to keep the lights on, still need to pay their bills, still need to pay good booksellers enough to stay in the industry. Exclusive signed copies of a major author's book is not going to save a failing bookstore, nor would it turn retail bookselling into a luxurious profession, nor, do I think would it shift sales more than a few percentage points, but if adopted industry wide, that shift in sales will greatly strengthen the indie retail base upon which so much of publishing rests.

Furthermore, the impact would go beyond just those specific sales; it would also introduce thousands of customers to the shocking fact that independent bookstores can provide great customer service for online orders. So many people just assume that Amazon is the only place to shop online for books, and in their defense, for quite a long time, online shopping at indie bookstores was not a good experience. But the independent online experience has caught up quite a bit and though there are still some aspects of online shopping that Amazon and other online-only retailers do better than indie bookstores, there are some things that indie bookstores do better than Amazon. Like drawing manatees. The result, would, again, not be some radical overnight, wonderland of rich indie booksellers, but that's not the goal. The goal is a strong, diverse bookselling industry, and this would help.

I wish I had the energy for such delusions.
Also, it certainly wouldn't hurt. I'm thinking of authors who already have publicity budgets, so it would be just a matter of shifting some of that budget to publicize the signed copies. And those 5,000 or whatever purchases, were going to happen anyway, as said fans were going to buy the book from somewhere. And yeah, there are some logistics that would have to be worked out, but they're not that different from when authors do bulk signings anyway and the bookstores handle most of the really gnarly stuff around shipping.

Furthermore, if the publishers and stores want to hedge their bets, all they have to do is open up the process for pre-order (which it should be anyway) and then print, sign, and order a number of books commensurate with the pre-order numbers. (Say, number of preorders plus 15%, as there will be sales after the book comes out.) There really is no risk or downside to this kind of program.

But Josh, you might argue, if every publisher does this with every one of their big name authors, won't that flood the market, diluting the impact? Well, if you're in the book industry and follow tons of publishers and authors on Twitter, yeah, the stream of “Signed copies of X from Y” is going to get old fast, but, though all book industry people are readers, not all readers are book industry people. A lot of Neil Gaiman fans, in terms of their relationship to the publishing industry, are just that, a Neil Gaiman fan and won't even notice if Stephen King is also doing the same kind of signed books thing. My twitter feed could end up filled with these programs, but I highly doubt that would be the case of the average current Amazon-only reader. Most likely, they'd be thrilled to get a signed copy of their favorite author's new book. Depending on the author, if done for every book she publishes, there might be author specific saturation, but that's what the pre-order system is for and if one signed book doesn't sell as well, just give it a rest for the next few.

But Josh, don't publishers already send bookstores signed copies of new books from big names? Yes, they do, and it's great, but with only shopping every extra click someone must make to buy something represents a lost sale. Sure, an author could tweet "I've sent signed copies all over the country so find your local bookstore," and that would be great, but it wouldn't generate a lot of sales and it certainly wouldn't shift a lot of sales. People just won't put in the effort. But a tweet with a link to a page with a "Buy" button will.

So what should publishers do? Well, they should look at their list for books coming out in, let's say, May or after, and get in touch with those big name authors. Then, identify and get in touch with potential bookstore partners, by say, February. Once the partnership has been established the various logistics (shipping, signing, order processing procedures, live date) can be worked out to give everyone involved enough lead time, to effectively fulfill the orders. (For PSB's Gaiman fest, we discussed in January and launched in February for a June release.) There really is no downside and the potential upside is contributing to the long-term sustainability of indie bookstores. I know I'm not a big name author, but I'll still do my part.

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