The Reading Season

Like everything else associated with the holidays, I’m sure you’ll consider this article one that comes too soon. But, for the publishing industry, the looming spectre of the Christmas season has well and truly begun.

 

This post was spurred partly by my receipt of an actual gasp physical book catalogue last week, geared at – you guessed it – Christmas shoppers. With a smidge less than a month until the big day, every business even remotely associated with retail is pulling out all the stops.

 

However, I was curious as to what Christmas meant for the publishing industry. As one that produces physical objects that may easily be used as gifts, it would be clear to anyone that this particular national holiday is important to book sales.

 

And yet, for many, the book is not at the top of any Christmas lists. True, the rectangular package under the tree does have it’s own brand of predictability. The avid readers out there will also be familiar with the mingling of excitement and dread as you unwrap a carefully chosen book to be confronted with your fourth copy of Pride and Prejudice. Book buying can become a minefield at Christmas time, so how does the publishing industry address this?

 

Well, first and foremost, by increasing the number of new and exciting titles for readers to salivate over and parents to be confused by. The significant increase in books being released for publication around the first week in October has become so apparent that it now has its own name – Super Thursday. This is the day on which many of the big potential bestsellers are released, with plenty of time to entice shoppers away from shiny plastic and chocolate-coated nuts.

 

The reason for this is that new books are generally given between 2-3 months to prove themselves, sales-wise. Usually it becomes clear after the first two months whether the publisher has a bestseller on their hands or not. By releasing books on Super Thursday, these books have just the right amount of time to get on the Christmas bandwagon and help the word of mouth spread in the seasonal sales rush.

 

But this is done in order to target a certain type of recipient – the ones who (apparently) most commonly receive books for Christmas. An article published in UK newspaper The Telegraph a day before the publication of this year’s Super Thursday books noted a large skew in one area – children’s books, and a complete absence of one particular genre – chick-lit.

 

This says a lot about the expectations publishers have drawn out about who will be buying books this Christmas. Overwhelmingly, the season is targeted at children. So an increase in the release of books aimed at this age bracket makes sense. Christmas-themed books also represent a growing and popular trend. The Elf on the Shelf book, for one, has combined Christmas, books and toys in such an appealing way that many will choose to sit a small plush elf in their children’s room this Christmas, in an effort to both awaken their holiday spirit, and get some well behaved children in the bargain.

 

The other trend is more interesting. The absence of chick-lit novels, and the presence of those focused on crime and war suggests that – if you’ll forgive me for invoking a stereotype to demonstrate how I think the industry is using it – that book publishers consider men (particularly older men) to be the recipients of books more often than women will be this Christmas. This is certainly not to say that the industry is ignoring women over this time, but it does not appear to be their focus.

 

Interestingly, this surge in publication around Christmastime is also a positive step for the future of the print book. Let’s face it; an eBook has to be one of the more underwhelming presents available. Oh cool! A digital file! – said no one ever. And the rush is predominately towards print.

 

This Christmas, you may choose to buy a book for a loved one, or even yourself. Certainly the outpouring of usually non-existent catalogues and a higher percentage of new, physical books would suggest that this might be a good time to stock up. For the publishing industry, just like others involved with consumption, Christmas is an important time, with products produced especially for those swept up in the spirit of the season.

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The Forgotten Readers

We’ve all been inside one. For many, including myself, our love of reading was grown and cultivated in a building absolutely bursting with books. You could stroll through the seemingly endless rows of towering shelves, trying to find that perfect book. Especially as children, libraries seem to house never-ending possibilities for reading. Across the country, indeed, across the world, libraries are institutions that open their doors to thousands of avid readers every day.

Whilst the library is the main source of reading material for numerous individuals, it is a commonly overlooked vehicle for increasing promotion and awareness of your book. This is largely because many don’t consider an institution that buys one copy of a book and then lends it to as many people as possible an opportunity for substantial profit.

However, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that there are far more opportunities for promotion than first meets the eye.

It has been suggested that libraries purchase as much as 12% of all books sold in Australia. Although many towns no longer have bookstores, especially rural ones, many of them still have a library, or have access to a travelling library – yes, those still exist! All these libraries need to be stocked, and librarians are always looking for new and interesting titles to attract readers to their shelves.

The fact that libraries only buy one copy of a book, and are therefore not worth spending time marketing to, is a common argument. However, not only is this not always true, even when it is, that’s no reason to discount the library. School libraries in particular are known for ordering class sets (usually around 30 copies) of books they are interested in acquiring. If a book proves popular, libraries may buy multiple copies in order to cater to demand.

But even if they only buy one copy, that copy is one more sale you didn’t have yesterday. In a 2011-2012 report, Australian Public Library Statistics recorded 1,505 public libraries across the country. If every library in Australia bought only one copy, that’s still a significant sales count.

Additionally, the report noted that there were approximately 9 million visits to libraries every month. Consider the exposure that one book could get if it was seen 9 million times a month. Nowhere but a library will you have that kind of potential for people to see a book, and quite often pick it up and read it. If they love it, not only do you have a loyal reader, but they’re very likely to spread the word to all their friends, who can easily access your book from their library.

For the small press author, libraries, especially your local library, can be a great support in getting your book talked about. Many regularly host events with authors, including talks and signings. Others may also support the idea of launching your book right there in the library. Events like these not only open up more opportunities for sales, but also make sure your book is exposed in a place that has regular and dedicated traffic – and they ALL read books!

As many libraries purchase largely through library vendors, this can limit the opportunity for small press and self-published authors to get their books on the shelves. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance. Local libraries in particular love supporting authors who reside nearby. And once the word spreads about books that are popular, other libraries may begin to show interest.

Nowhere else in the world can you regularly attract such a concentrated group of readers as you can in a library. Those who are focused on the bottom line in the short term can dismiss those non-paying individuals who grip tightly to their library card. However, increasing the number of people who see and read your book is never a bad thing, in the long term it will contribute to an increase in sales. Especially if those library patrons are all as impatient as I am and, when faced with their desired book being on loan, goes out and buys their own copy because they cannot bear to wait. The book industry forgets about library patrons at their peril.

The Un-Conventional Pitch

Authors and editors alike are always interested in how the manuscript gets into the publisher’s hands – authors because they want theirs to be read, editors because it means things to edit – yay!

Traditionally, publishers receive manuscripts in two ways, depending on their preference and, usually, the size of the organisation. Most of the big publishing houses use literary agents, who write letters of recommendation, extolling the virtues of this particular client’s work. The person in charge of the slush pile (often your lowly intern!) reads the letter, and if interested, may actually set eyes on the manuscript.

The other way to do it, usually a more common method for smaller publishing houses, is through unsolicited manuscripts. This involves the author emailing or submitting the manuscript online whenever they choose. It is not based on the request of a publisher or the advice of a literary agent.

This is the method that Odyssey uses. Authors upload their manuscript through our submission portal in order for us to see it. We require them to include a synopsis, a biography, an ‘elevator pitch’ (how they’d pitch the book in the time it takes to ride an elevator) and the first four chapters of the manuscript.

Each of these methods work fine, indeed, at least for Odyssey, it’s how we discover most of our authors. But it does have its downsides. Both styles of submission are very impersonal; they consist of a letter, an email, or a summary. They give no scope for your impassioned defence of your work. All you can do is try and type as much as you can into that little box, and hope it’s enough to sell your work.

However, particularly with small publishers, a third option seems to be emerging.

As I noted in my blog post on the Supanova Pop Culture Convention a few weeks ago, going around these conventions with Odyssey, I have seen a number of authors willing to come up and make themselves, and their work, personally known to my boss.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Conflux Science Fiction Convention Odyssey attended in Canberra over the October long weekend. Conflux provided an option for authors they called PitchFest, which gave them a chance to pitch a particular work to my boss in 10 minutes.

The session worked thus: after brief introductions, they began by covering their title and synopsis. The publisher could then ask for clarifications, and even request the author elaborate on details they found interesting. Then they went over their author platforms, while the publisher made sure they understood the way Odyssey works, and knew what it would be like to work with a small press.

I considered this opportunity an excellent way to bring publisher and author together in a way that allows for a more personal and in depth interaction about the work. It was also a great way for everyone to get their names out there, and for authors to have a go at pitching their work.

Aside from this more formal aspect of it, I also found, as I have with every convention I have attended this year, that interest can also be expressed very casually. Throughout the day, a number of authors stopped by to discuss publishing with us, some interested in how Odyssey worked, others wanting to quiz our authors on what is what like to be published with us. Our boss was always open to informal sessions over coffee, and, as always, we found a few interesting manuscripts over the weekend.

So it seems that any and all opportunities to make yourself and your manuscript stand out should be enthusiastically undertaken by authors. Networking is key, as you get a chance to both formally and informally meet different publishers, and figure out which one is best for you. Some authors we have met at previous conventions are now part of the Odyssey family. If you can, I would always recommend taking a chance on the unconventional pitch

Fostering Beginner’s Luck: Branding Debut and Midlist Authors

As I mentioned in Monday’s blog, one of biggest problems ahead for the publishing industry is the closing of opportunities for debut and midlist authors. There is an unfortunate reduction in paths to publication through a traditional publishing house for both debut authors and for those who are steady but not spectacular on the midlist. There are a variety of factors contributing to this reduction including digital disruption, margin-squeezing and cultural homogenisation, but I won’t go into them in this blog. There are also some fantastic and brave people out there actively working to boost the opportunities for debut and midlist authors. This blog isn’t about them either. Today I want to cover how that shrinking window of opportunity can be combatted at a small press, by both the publisher and the authors.

In my opinion, I think a small press is probably best suited to work with debut and some midlist authors. It might not be the dream scenario for many authors, but it’s the most workable. Small presses, by neccessity, have to help grow new talent or nurture midlist talent as it’s the bread-and-butter of the small press industry. Small presses have both the ability and the motive to get out there and find new voices and take risks on them. Further, many small presses are less constrained by structures which can limit the bigger houses and hence can be more nimble and diverse in their publishing efforts.

One of the most important things a small press can contribute to helping debut and midlist authors to succeed is help with development of the author brand (as well as their writing craft). An author’s brand is an essential tool in the digital world, potentially more so than before Amazon and ebooks. An online presence is a necessity for community engagement. While this may not lead to direct sales, if an author’s brand is properly managed it will lead to a broadening of the base to which authors can hawk their books. It means reaching more new readers more often.

In 2013, bestselling author Neil Gaiman teamed up with a smartphone company to unleash a campaign where he could collaborate with his fans on a series of short stories. The response to the campaign was overwhelmingly positive and highly engaging. Fans submitted story ideas corresponding to themes that Gaiman then turned into short stories. Fans then submitted artworks inspired by the stories. This was a modern, technology-enabled creative conversation between an author and his audience. It worked brilliantly.

Here, Gaiman used his author brand to create momentum for a campaign that wasn’t aimed directly at selling books. Instead, he engaged his readers in a venture that allowed them inside his creative process. The cynical benefits were that Gaiman’s brand and the smartphone company’s brand both got a boost from this campaign. The more idealistic benefit is that Gaiman expanded on an excellent connection with his readers and further developed their passion for him as an author.

The take away for debut and midlist authors is not they can do exactly what Gaiman has done, but that they could replicate it, in part, to create bigger brand awareness and engagement for themselves and their audience. This isn’t a strategy for hard sales of books but more about increasing online presence. The purpose of this is to indirectly or eventually increase sales, but that’s not the direct outcome or immediately tangible reward for the exercise. For authors this is a no-brainer as building a strong brand helps your marketability with publishers and makes them more willing to take a risk on publishing your book.

Another brilliant example of author branding, that is in the physical space rather than digital is Odyssey author Rachel Drummond. This year, Drummond appeared at Supanova with a stall marketing her book The South Forsaken. With distinctive yellow signage and an open and engaging personality for readers, she was a huge success.

These two examples show approaches to branding that should be informative for how authors can push forward both online and at events:

  1. Be Distinctive/Interesting.
  2. Be Open and Engaging.

These seem to be rather generic ideas, but they are fundamentally important for authors when designing and implementing an online presence for their readers to engage with. I haven’t put forth an argument as to whether authors need to do this, because they absolutely do. It’s really non-negotiable unless you’re a bestseller. To get ahead as an author today you need to get out there and engage in whatever way possible.