Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Choices, Choices, Choices

While I'm trying to learn about promotion so that I could do a decent job attracting readers to Smuggled Rose, I'm also attempting not to be irritated that authors who sell to larger publishers have a bigger team to rely on to help them with promotion, etc. Here I am, wracking my brain to think of ways to get ten or twenty more readers, knowing that my book will be a huge success if I can attract even 1,000 readers, while a traditionally published book starts with a print run around 20,000 or more. Which is why, of course, the traditional publishers are so picky about trying different sorts of books. They can't really afford to only sell 1,000 copies.

But it's a two-edged sword. While the big guys are looking at 10-20-30 thousand or even 100,000 units sold, they are also unable to offer smaller audiences variety because the audiences are too small to be profitable. Which is where the small presses come into play. They only need to sell 1,000 units to have a "run-away hit" on their hands, not 100,000.

The situation abounds with ironies.
  • Many small presses started out publishing erotica. There wasn't a "traditonal" market for erotica, except perhaps the "literary erotica" like Anais Nin. Once folks could get erotica via the anonymous and very convenient Internet, these stories exploded and suddenly, small Internet presses abounded, all trying to get into the "hot, Hot, HOT" game.
  • The big presses noticed and started pushing authors to make their books hotter and hotter. New erotica lines started. Now, you can't sell a book to a traditonal publisher that isn't hot. Lines, such as traditional Regency, that focused on other romantic elements than the bedroom action, were eliminated. If you aren't hot--you aren't hip--and you sure aren't going to be published.
  • Back to the small, Internet presses. Bouyed up by their success with erotica, small presses realized that there are "niche" audiences for other types of stories, too. They branched out into mainstream. After all, they only needed to sell 1,000 units. They opened new lines and included traditional Regencies and other mainstream books that the traditional publishers were eliminating, figuring there were still audiences out there--after all, there are a LOT of readers who skip over the sex scenes or simply don't care about them. There actually can be an enthralling story written which isn't all about physical dexterity and condoms.

Now, the small presses are eating away small clusters of audiences who can't get what they want any more from the big presses, and the big guys, in an effort to keep their audiences from straying, are focusing more and more upon the sensual elements--figuring, I suppose, that that is all anyone wants to read, anyway. (I keep wondering if they are right and I'm living in some sort of Father Knows Best fantasy, or if there are still readers out there for whom the storyline is more important than how many sex scenes can be inserted between page 1 and The End.)

Bottom line: I'm not sure the big guys are right, despite "the sales numbers". What I think is happening is people are realizing they have choices. If someone wants to read vampire stories which are not thinly disguised erotica, they can probably find them--somewhere. Readers may still go to their local bookstore first, because there really is something seductive about walking through those aisles, picking up tangible books, reading covers, first pages, and just...looking, but if they don't find what they want, they can always go home and search through the Internet. And small press is waking up to the idea that they really can offer choices to their readers and develop audiences simply by publishing things which bigger houses determined could not find a wide enough readership to be profitable.

So, while I'm still a bit peeved that not only do I have to write the darn novels, but I also have to work much harder to promote them than my friends with big publishers, I also realize that what I'm getting and receiving in return is much, much more interesting. It is a choice and freedom. I'm free to write the kinds of stories I like to read and write, with the sensuality level which is appropriate for my specific characters, rather than bludgeoning my story and characters into something they are not.

I firmly believe we are on the cusp of larger changes here. If the big publishers are to keep up with the action, I don't think increasing the number and weirdness of the sex scenes in a book is going to do it. I think the real answer is: CHOICES. With the technology exploding, the big guys, including bookstores, need to think about the following:

  • Offer more variety--offer books that may not fit mainstream/large audience lines by offering them first as e-books with the option to have them printed on demand in the actual bookstore if the reader wishes! There is technology that would allow bookstores to have a print-on-demand (POD) system in their back room. Instead of boxes of books they may have to strip and send back to the publisher, they can simply shelve "sample books" and when a reader wants to buy something, they take the book to the counter and while it is being rung up, the actual purchased copy is printed out for the reader at that point in time, and the sample is reshelved. Or, the reader can buy the one copy on the shelf and the transaction at the cash register can automatically send a job to the POD system to have a fresh copy printed out so it can be placed on the shelf to replace the one sold.

    Either way, the point is that this would mean publishers could offer more variety at less cost, because huge print runs in advance would no longer be required. No more stripped books being sent back to publishers. No books sent back, period.
  • Because what I see now happening on the Internet is the emergence of individual tastes. Music, video, everything is diverging, taking away audiences from traditional forms by allowing folks to basically find and consume the artistic efforts they prefer. Companies willing to move fast enough to accommodate this divergence of taste will profit. Companies which insist that one-size-fits-all will find that this was, in fact, never true, despite all the advertising in the world.

I, personally, am dying to see how this progresses because over the last few years, I've been increasingly depressed as the historical market dwindled down to just hot, sensual historicals that I simply did not like. As a reader, I felt snubbed and left to forage on my own in used bookstores for the types of Regencies, mysteries, and 50's style Science Fiction I prefer. Now, I have hope both as a writer and a reader.

So, being a little author with a little press maybe ain't so bad even if it is more work, because it's my choice and it gives my readers a choice, too.


Sonja Foust said...

That's a really cool idea about the POD stuff!

Amy said...

Yeah - I don't know that we'll ever get away from trucks delivering boxes of books, since there are hardcovers and it is cheaper to produce en masse and then ship the boxes to bookstores, but I definitely think there is room for POD systems in the backs of bookstores. It could even be done in combination with computers located in the bookstore where folks could browse for e-books and purchase/download the e-book or if they preferred a paperback version, the store could print it up there and hand it to the customer at checkout. There is so much that could be done, now.

It will be interesting to see if folks really do move away from the traditional paper books to e-books, in which case POD would be completely unnecessary, or if there remains a real desire on the part of readers to have that physical book in their hands.

E-book readers may make all the difference, although Sony made too many mistakes with their's, including the biggest mistake: an attempt to lock their users into their specific store--thereby drastically cutting back on the user's choices--but that is just so typically Sony (the folks who brought you the ROOTKIT spyware on their music CDs in attempt to lock down and prevent copies). Sony doesn't believe in choices, that's for sure. They want to lock you in and down as much as possible...sorry...bit of a rant there, but it really ruffs up my feathers when big companies try to push me around.

We live in a very interesting time, that's for sure. I'm really hoping to see lots of changes over the next few years.

will freeman said...

It’s comforting for me to believe that the printed word will always be the standard accepted form for readers. We need that center -at least I do. However, we must also recognize how the popularity of blogging changes the industry creatively. What interests me is how this makes an impact on creativity, as writing is now capable of being more interactive both visually and audibly. Perhaps the future of the E-book will be a psychedelic experience? Your thoughts?

Amy said...

It's interesting that you should say that, because in the back of my mind was the idea that as the idea of e-books develops, we may see a merging there with other forms of communications such as video, music, etc, making it a richer experience. We are already seeing the advertising end of this change developing with the onslaught of "trailers", i.e. short movies to advertise a book. What could be more natural than to begin to add music and/or video to the book itself? As a sidebar, this is yet another reason I think Sony made so many mistakes with their reader--which is capable of none of this. There are some traditional publishers already experimenting with Manga and other "cartoon-like" books in the actual "print world". The younger generations are used to having it all right now, including music, video and the "written" word, even if the written word is electronic. The Japanese are already into a sort of serialized form of books they can receive on their mobile devices, so...
It is hard to say how this expansion will ultimately transform the reading experience, but it will be interesing to see.