Culture

Finding a New Way to Sell Books

Right now, in a lot of professions affected by the Internet revolution, there are people thriving unexpectedly, and people getting in unexpected trouble, and – mostly – a great deal of fear.

Catastrophic change is called that because it takes place so suddenly that society and the economy have no time to prepare, and several people experience catastrophy.

The advent of the Internet caused just such catastrophic change, amplified by the fact that at first, it didn’t seem something that would touch our daily life, but something that eggheads and geeks played with.  However, from the ability to communicate around the globe, to the ability to work remotely, the changes from the world wide web started affecting everyone and everything.

And though at the beginning it was relatively gradual, it was still too fast for the rate of change humans can cope with.  Also, the effects accumulated and accelerated, from shopping on line, to, well, in my field, the ability to publish your own work without the blessing or intervention of a publisher.

But the book business is affected in other ways.  Even if you still publish through a traditional publisher, as bookstores vanish – in great part because of competition from Amazon – the ability of the publisher to “push” you becomes more and more limited.  In fact, some years ago, publishers themselves were declaring the end of the push model.

Mind you, they still have some ability to push, but yes, it’s vastly diminished, which, for editors and publishing staff who are used to picking which book they want to become a mega bestseller, is a disconcerting event.

Which brings us to awards. Lately, there has been a scramble among some indie writers to get nominated for and win awards.  I think this scramble is wrong headed.

When I was a kid in Portugal, I bought compilations of Hugo and Nebula winning short stories.  Even then, there was a rather large amount of the outre and the attempt to shock the straights in those.  After all, I came of age at the crest of New Wave Science Fiction.  But for all that, most of the stories that won the Hugo were, if not the best of their years – I had no way to judge since most stories published in the US weren’t translated into Portuguese – readable, and often contained interesting ideas.

Since then “official science fiction,” the domain of awards and acclaim has been invaded by an academic vision of literature, which means there’s a continuous slippage of the meaning of “science fiction” and a loss of interest in entertaining the reader.

This was part of the reason some of us fought for the Hugo.  Because we, quixotically, thought it was worth reclaiming for the real “reader favorites” the award that was won by Heinlein and Simak once upon a time.

But we were wrong.  Oh, not in wishing to reclaim the reputation of one of the oldest awards in science fiction.  That was goofy because the battle was lost before we engaged, the award having been in the domain of log-rolling for several years.  No, we were wrong in thinking that awards still mattered.

You see, to the extent they did matter, it was at first when science fiction as a small community of “weirdos” connected at two or three removes at a maximum, to nodes of conventions, where these awards were given out, discussed and engaged with.  Later it was because the awards were important for publishers to signal to bookstores that they should stock the book.

Neither of those are operative now.

Fandom of science fiction – not in the sense of those who attend conventions, but in the sense of those who read it – is boundless and huge, a vast number of people who aren’t connected to the nodes of any convention, and don’t feel a need to discuss their reading tastes, or define themselves by what they read.

Part of that is the Internet sales, and part is the fact that science fiction has been mainstreamed, so if you read it you’re no longer a member of a small minority at whom people look askance.

The average reader buying science fiction on Amazon isn’t likely to ever have gone to a convention or know anyone who did.  And he’s not likely to be able to name any award, just like most romance readers aren’t absolutely sure what the genre awards are, they just know what they like to read.

As for pushing for books to be stocked in bookstores on the basis of awards, I suppose publishers can still do that; it’s just that fewer and fewer people are buying books from bookstores, so the exercise is largely academic.

So do awards make any sense?

Well, I’m up for the Prometheus (which I won once before) and I wouldn’t be heartbroken if I won it again.  In a career field where the kicks to the teeth far outweigh the pats in the back, it’s always good to know someone approves of your work enough to give you an award.

However, in terms of practical publicity and sales, most awards mean absolutely nothing… for us.

And this is where our error was.  The awards are very important for the professionals on the left, those who have academic jobs.  Awards look good on resumes. They’re useful to impress universities.  For the vast majority of the academic writers in science fiction – coincidentally mostly on the left – the awards are money in the bank.  For us?  Like conventions, they are a marketing technique of the past.

Both might be good – conventions for meeting your fans, awards for the ego boo – but they are not useful for selling more or reaching new markets.

What is the marketing technique of the future?  I don’t know.  I belong to several marketing groups and we’re all in search of the magic bullet, but so far we haven’t found even the magic paint pellet.

One thing that seems to work is writing a lot.

The other is – yes, still – at least in the beginning, word of mouth.

So, Charlie Martin and I are restarting Friday book plugs.  We’re also interviewing successful Indie authors, who might at least provide us models for how to succeed at this.

So, if you’re an indie author and have a book you wish plugged, send us your Amazon link to bookplugfriday at gmail.com.  One book per author per month.

In the era of catastrophic change, the name of the game is to move fast and be adaptive.  That way when the meteor puts an end to all the other dinosaurs, all you gain is more niches.

Stay with us.  We’re figuring out a way through this.

And in the book business at least, the move is towards a model that gives individuals greater freedom and more options.

Be not afraid.