• 01 Jan 2009 /  Opinion

    Books and Window from sxc.hu

    Is Reading a Lost Art?

    The other day I was having a discussion with some people about how reading was becoming a lost art, and how publishers could sell more books to more people. This also led to a discussion about hardcover books vs trade paperbacks vs mass market paperbacks and the amount of resources each format uses, which in turn led me to thinking about things like eBooks and eBook readers. Book publishers are finding it more and more difficult to sell old-fashioned dead-tree books in today’s world.

    “But Herne,” you think, “I’m reading right now.”

    Well, yes, you are reading, but are you thinking as you read? Chances are you aren’t thinking about a whole lot as you read. Our current level of technology has taken a lot of that cumbersome thinking stuff out of our hands. For the most part, most of us use very little of our brain’s power or imagination in day-to-day life, we certainly use less of our imagination than we used to anyway. With our level of technology and the Internet, we don’t need to imagine what we’re reading about, the Internet provides us with convenient pictures and narratives to tell us what we’re thinking. So is the Internet and technology making us more stupid?

    No, the Internet and technology is not making us as humans more stupid, but it is making us more lazy.

    Book Formats

    But back to the discussion at hand—Publishers want to sell more books, how do they do this? First of all, let’s briefly take a look at the different book formats; Hardcover, Trade Paperback, Mass Market Paperback, Audio Books, eBooks, PDFs, and Podcasts (Podiobooks).

    Hardcover books: Pros—Durability, better paper therefore longer life, higher markup for publishers. Cons—Higher costs, more (paper) resources used, larger format means the product is heavier, less portable, and therefore more costly to ship.

    Trade Paperbacks: Pros—Durable though not as durable as hardcovers, often better paper used therefore longer life, price markup for publishers decent, lighter than hardcovers so shipping costs are lower. Cons-Still cost more than mass market paperbacks, resource use still fairly high, larger size means less portable than mass market paperbacks.

    Mass Market Paperbacks: Pros—Cheaper for consumer, small format means several can be shipped for the cost of one hardcover, fewer resources (less paper) used to create them. Cons—Lower price point means less money for the publisher (and author), less durable, cheaper paper used.

    Audiobooks: Pros—Often more palatable to the consumer because they don’t actually have to read the book themselves, more portable. Cons—Production requires the use of voice artists or readers, which increases production costs, not to mention the costs of getting the audio files to an audio medium so that the consumer can purchase it.

    eBooks, PDFs, and Podcasts: Pros—Very few resources used to produce the content, self-publishing is a breeze. Cons-Harder to control the distribution and copyright, also requires some sort of technical device (eReader, computer, MP3 Player) to consume the content.

    The Secret to Selling Books

    So you want to know how to sell more books? Well, let me give you my opinion, one simple bibliophile’s opinion on how to sell more books. I purchase and read a LOT of books per year, and you know what entices me to buy more books? Content and pricing.

    “Well duh!” You say, “Of course content and pricing is going to influence how many books people buy!”

    Well here’s the thing… You want to sell more books and I want to buy those books, but I am not going to purchase a “fluff” fiction book for the same amount of money that I would spend on something like a technical computer book or a high quality photography or art book. So here’s the secret to selling more books: Give the consumer what they want for the price they want to pay! Duh!

    I am more than willing to spend $30, $40, $50 for technical books on computers, or guides for software, or for instructional books on photography, but I am not willing to spend that sort of money on the next “New York Times Bestseller” or some other kind of frivolity that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. I’m also smart enough to know that publishers spend a fair amount of money to get their products on these lists, so I’m not falling for that old gag. So how about we sell books at prices that people want to pay? Whoa! Simple concept! Publishers don’t seem to grasp it, though.

    Publishers historically release new titles to the market in hardcover at the highest price point and hope that they’ve generated enough interest in (or spent enough money on) their product that people will be willing to shell out around $35 (on average) to purchase this product. Yes, books will sell at this price because there are always people who are willing to purchase first run hardcover books; libraries, institutions, people who follow “best seller” lists without thinking, etc. So publishers will spend a bunch of advertising revenue to get their new books on the “best seller” lists and sell 20 or 25-thousand copies of the book at this price and about 6 months later they’ll often come out with the trade paperback version of the title. Many of the people who wanted the book when they first saw it come out in hardcover will now look at the trade paperback, now at around $20 (on average) and think maybe they should buy it now. So the publishers will sell another 25 thousand copies or so of the trade paperback. Then, finally, after about a year after the book first appeared on the shelf as a hardcover the publisher will produce the mass market paperback edition of the book, now priced around $10 (on average) hoping to persuade the hold out readers to purchase their product. This would traditionally also be the time to introduce the next hardcover book in the series, assuming that the first edition did well enough to warrant a second edition.

    This “traditional” schedule of publishing worked well in the past, but consumers have come a long way in the last 10 or 15 years. Now we have the Internet and electronic devices and we want instant gratification for everything! If you’re waiting a year to get your book into the hands of Joe-average consumer, then you are losing sales hand-over-fist. Publishers need to wake up now, take a hard look at what’s happening on the Internet and in the “new media” environment that is so commonplace today if they want to keep selling books in the future.

    As I said, I am a bibliophile—a book fanatic—and I’m not going to wait a year to purchase your book. If I’ve seen your hardcover book and it seems interesting to me I might make note of it to look it up later or purchase it secondhand but I am not going to shell out $35 for your average fiction book, and chances are I’m not even going to remember your publication when you’ve decided to publish it as a mass market paperback a year later.

    If you want to sell more books then you need to produce more titles in more formats so that people who wish to purchase them can do so more easily. Sure, you can certainly continue to produce books in hardcover format because there will still be those people willing to pay more for this perception of a “better” product, but most people like myself who consume a lot of content are smart enough to realize that “premium” does not always mean “better.”

    You need to start offering your products simultaneously rather than consecutively. I would much rather see the hardcover and trade paperback editions released simultaneously followed shortly, say within three months, by the release of the mass market paperback edition. I think you would sell a lot more books if you gave the consumer what they want to consume rather than making them wait for it.

    Premium Content vs. Premium Pricing

    When I think of “premium content,” I think of more content or something special that’s not included with the regular, lower-priced model.

    So how about we add a little carrot to those hardcover sticks we want to sell? How about we start including an eBook version of the book with every hardcover book we sell? Think of how little that might cost versus the large gains you would get back. Most publishers are using a page layout program such as InDesign or QuarkXPress, so it costs them nothing to export a second copy of the postscript file off into a PDF creation program. You take that PDF and you burn it on to a mini CD, and you include that CD with every book! Now we’re talking! Now I might be willing to spend that extra bit of money to purchase your book so that I have the option of reading it on my eBook reader of choice, but I’ll leave that for another blog post.

    In that blog post I want to talk about why eBook readers like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Digital Reader could be amazing products, but are not making the impact on the market that they could because of the huge price points, the lack of a standard eBook format, and the paranoia called “rights management.”

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