June 15, 2011
One of the easiest mistakes one can make in business and in life is to assume that just because some big things are changing that means everything is changing. Every boom and bust cycle in history has affirmed this disconnect, but one need look no further than the second-to-last bubble — the Internet bubble — for a subject with relevance to the independent publisher boom.
Internet investors recognized that they were witnessing the early days of a powerful new medium, and they were right about that. Some investors got rich by picking winners in this transformation and some entrepreneurs got fabulously rich. But as this realization of the Internet’s power dawned, other investors and entrepreneurs lost very badly for at least two reasons: (1) they underestimated the amount of time this transformation would take; and (2) they forgot that human nature doesn’t change just because technology does.
Thus it’s important to keep in mind that the changes that make it possible to establish an independent publishing operation don’t by any means guarantee its success, even presuming the books are good, professionally edited and well designed.
Look around and you will find many independent and micro-publishers building their business models with an over-reliance on direct-to-consumer retailing and print-on-demand technology. The problem with the former is that most people don’t wish to shop on publisher websites; they want a one-stop-shopping experience. And the problem with the latter (when it is employed without engaging a distributor) is that it ignores a huge resource — the book trade — whose troubles are well document but which remains far from dead.
One day, perhaps, books will be beamed directly to our retinas and we’ll read with our eyes closed. But that day won’t be tomorrow. And one day, too, the book trade might shrivel up and disappear. But in the meanwhile, John Malone, a guy who knows how to make money placing big bets, is trying to buy a controlling interest in Barnes & Noble.
For me, the point that tipped me toward pursuing an authors’ consortium model for the publication of Primacy (and other works) was the relationship I managed to land with a distributor to the book trade. This is a piece of the puzzle not everyone can get, but it is worth seeking out and trying to acquire. Unless he’s a marketing genius (and there are a few of those out there), anyone who chooses to bet on his own publishing talents while intentionally ignoring the book trade has set out on a fool’s errand.
Here are: Six Ways the Book Trade Still Matters
Some people change because they want to. Most people change because they have to. E-books are the future and the future is here — but not entirely. The people with the most leisure time on their hands are the oldest among us, and many of them don’t want to abandon printed books, thank you very much. Others already have their credit card on file with Amazon or B&N. It’s easy. We take the path of least resistance. We shop today where we shopped yesterday. Not always, but most of the time. For books, whether online or on Main Street, we still mostly shop at bookstores. That will be true for a very long time. Maybe even forever.
As easy as it is to click around the Internet, the buying process still requires entering credit card information on sites where you don’t already have it stored. So you’d rather go somewhere you do a lot of business, which is one reason Amazon has had such success branching out beyond books — they made it so easy for the customer. In the non-electronic world, it’s likewise true that a well-located bookseller (or book section in a mass-market retailer) may be on your way between errands. A micro-publisher exclusively selling its own books can never compete with that.
Bookstores are filled with people who love books and know books. And we often need help sorting through all the choices out there. A micro-publisher just wants to sell you his book. A bookseller wants to earn your trust by selling you the best book for you. Which is likely to command more of the purchaser’s loyalty?
Who in the book business — author or publisher — doesn’t wish people bought books by the dozen like cans of Coke, consumed them, then bought more of the same? But it is the nature of books that they are sold one at a time. Each sale, in a sense, is a new sale. In that context, one or two or three people flogging a handful of books isn’t much of a sales force. But despite all the consolidation in the book business, there are still tens of thousands of people out there whose main job it is to sell books. Why wouldn’t you want them working for you if they’re willing?
In the book business, as in any business, awareness matters. The more “impressions” you put in front of a potential customer, the more likely she is to make a purchase. Every bookstore — Internet or bricks-and-mortar — that carries your book presents an opportunity to make one of those impressions, even if they don’t close the sale themselves. Publishers that confine their sales channels to their own website (or their own website plus Amazon) are missing opportunities for exposure.
Every independent publisher and micro-publisher should ask themselves a simple question: Would I rather stuff envelopes or stuff channels? There are dozens of distributors and thousands of retail outlets working to move books from the warehouse to the consumer’s house. They share your goal, and they already have the means in place to deliver. Don’t get stuck driving your own UPS truck. Make them your partners.
Yet, if you’ve visited the Verbitrage website, you’ve seen that we do sell direct to consumer. So what gives? Well, it’s easier than ever to sell direct and we make a lot more money on a unit basis if we do so. Plus, I don’t imagine in my wildest dreams that every bookstore in America will choose to stock Primacy or our future books, and even those that do may lose a sale by not always having the book in stock. We should always have our books (and they’ll always be signed by the author). But what we won’t do is undercut our trade partners on price — not by a nickel.
The book trade still presents an enormous resource for those authors and publishers lucky enough to have access to it. That’s why you’ll find Primacy “wherever books are sold.”
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