Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hang on to Your Hat!

The book business is like a wild train ride these days. Everyone on it, from author to agent to bookseller and publisher, is scrambling to figure out where it’s going and how they can get on board, or at least cling to the outside hoping not to fall off.

In past years, when my Fall book was released, I would have as many as fifteen to twenty signings in bookstores within a two-day drive. I raced from store to store, greeting potential readers and talking up my books. It helped to build not only readership but also personal ties to the booksellers, who were invariably gracious and supportive.

This year, my book signing tour is almost dead. In city after city, the independent bookstores are gone, along with the knowledge and personal connections I had cherished. Left are the Chapters and Coles stores, spreading across the country in possibly the largest monopoly ever created in this country. While the in-store staff generally love books and are delighted to connect with you, they have no power. A small cadre of buyers at central office controls what books are bought and how many. Another small cadre set policy on bookstore events, and stores can’t plan their own local events without having them vetted more centrally. A complex event application form has to be submitted and approved. An eight-week lead time is required in order to ensure the application form can be processed and the books ordered. Furthermore, their new policy appears to be no signings in November and December. This means that an author or publicist seeking a signing has to start the process before Labour Day. If you have personal connections with individual store managers, this overly bureaucratized process can be hastened, but harried managers have little time to take on the extra work.

Instead of signings, I find myself in cyberspace along with all the other authors. Blogs, Facebook, interactive websites, Twitter, and You Tube are the new marketplaces, and they have become as crowded with competing chatter as any third-world flea market. It’s tiring, bewildering, and not nearly as satisfying as face-to-face talk. I also have absolutely no idea whether it’s doing any good. Everyone in the book business is trying to figure out what will connect them with readers without consuming every spare moment of their lives. At the same time, newspaper book sections are shrinking, ad costs are exorbitant, and book placement surcharges are out of reach for all but the biggest publishers, leaving publishers or authors scratching their heads about how to get the word out about their new books.

Dire predictions are being made about the future of books. Ebooks, vertical monopolies, declining readership, the rise of frivolous celebrity books… Is the train about to wreck, or is there some small side spur that can salvage, if not the industry as it is now, some elements of it still worth saving? I’m not an apocalyptic thinker, I’m a natural optimist. If you take a long enough view of history, some things die, others transform, and still other things are born. I have noticed some very interesting trends beginning to emerge in this clamorous cyberspace where we all congregate.

Online bookstores, although playing a large part in the demise of brick-and-mortar stores, are reaching customers quickly and efficiently in all corners of the country. Indeed, the world. No longer are you out of luck if there is no bookstore near you. Through Amazon, one can order my books everywhere in the world. Chapters, Barnes and Noble, and Borders all carry my books online. And through a clever payment scheme, Amazon encourages the sale of books through private blogs and websites. Even as professional review sites dry up, customer reviews are cropping up on blogs and in all the online bookstores. Everyone is invited to rate or review books. One can certainly argue the quality of customer reviews vs. professionals, but readers are talking about books and participating in the evaluation process more than ever before. Water cooler chats in cyberspace.

Online bookstores are also using complex algorithms to track customer buying habits and to recommend other books. I first learned this when a friend told me Amazon had notified them by email that my latest book was now available. They had bought a previous book on Amazon, and the juggernaut had “remembered”. Furthermore, when you click on a book, Amazon generates several lists of book suggestions. For example, “customers who viewed this book also viewed…” and “customers who bought this book also bought…” and “frequently bought together...” The books being connected to mine are far from random. Along with expected authors like Mary Jane Maffini, Joan Boswell, Vicki Delany, RJ Harlick – with whom I share many friends and signing tables – my book generates connections like Peter Robinson, Gail Bowen and Louise Penny, along with gritty British or Scandinavian mysteries. In other words, books similar to mine.

This virtual recommendation list will never replace the independent bookstore whose owner knows your taste along with every book in the store, and where you can browse back covers and first pages at your leisure in search of a new author. But it will go some way towards helping the bewildered reader navigate the overwhelming selection of titles crowding the virtual shelves. From the recommendations list the reader can click on the book, read reviews, editorial summaries, check out the author page and even read an excerpt.

There is nothing like the feel of a paper book cradled in your lap as you curl up by the fire or laze on the beach. There is nothing like the ambiance of an independent bookstore filled with carefully selected titles and a committed bookseller. Like the personal book signing, I hope they are not swept off the track by this speeding monolith of a train hurtling into an unknown future. We can’t turn back time or ignore the digital revolution. But perhaps, around the bend lies not a train wreck but a series of spurs that will foster new growth, new loyalties and whole new generations of readers. An author can only hang on, and hope.


Rick Blechta said...

Barbara, where ever did you get that photo of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway narrow gauge double header of K-27 locomotives? That's a fantastic shot. (Told you I'm also a railroad fanatic.)

Excellent post. The online booksellers are doing everything they can to build their brand. Watch for the next step: tell them your favorite books on a certain subject, and they'll generate further suggestions for you.

An independent bookstore has to be smart, proactive and agile if it wants to stay in business. It's no longer enough to open your store every morning and hope for the best. The reason so many continue to fail is that too often that's exactly what they do.

Linda Wiken said...

Great post, Barbara and very inciteful. Let's not forget book clubs in this mix, too. Connecting with them is a very good marketing tool.

Although I agree to some extent with Rick's comment about indies, that's only a small part of the picture. Many of the independents are savvy but lack the resources of time and manpower to compete with the large conglomorates (not to mention the ability to deep discount). So, they focus on what they do best -- and they excel at the in-store customer service. They know their product and they love helping mystery readers choose new reads.

Vicki Delany said...

Great post, Barbara. Thanks.

Rick Blechta said...

I think it's part of the new job description for indies to be more web-savvy. For instance, why not make that great customer service available to people on the internet? It can be just as personal (as opposed to being generated by a program) and doesn't need to take a lot of time.

Of course this means having a good website, responding promptly to emails and ramping up to ship via post, all of which isn't terribly difficult to accomplish. Sorry, Linda, but most stores don't bother with this and use the same excuse. Problem is, they're slitting their own throats.

From another vantage point, authors have to do the same thing in order to survive -- and most do -- or risk going under.

Sylvia said...

You summed it all up very succinctly, Barbara, but left us with a little hope. An exellent post.