I’m going to answer some (book) burning questions in today’s post, because I really want to talk about these things. The newswires are full of stories about the Death Of Books, and as Harry Potter draws ever nearer to its end, I’m betting we’ll see more coverage about the dire straits of the publishing world. Of course, these answers are just coming from me–an avid reader, author and former marketing brand manager. I’ve only ever worked on the fringes of Publishing, so I don’t know that I’m anything close to an expert. But boy, do I have opinions! Buckle up…
Why don’t people read for fun anymore?
I think there will always be readers, just as there will always be surfers, motorcycle enthusiasts and folks who collect dolls. Each one of these hobbies has enjoyed a rennaissance of faddishness at one time or another, but has then settled back down into a more realistic following. Leisure reading is a hobby about which many people can be very passionate, and other people can be occasional dabblers. For every book freak like me I’m betting there are a dozen folks who limit their leisure reading to a couple of paperbacks on the beach in summer and an occasional book throughout the year.
A few years ago I was in a bookstore with some friends. One of them came up to me and asked–very earnestly–how I knew which books were good and which ones I would enjoy. He had NO IDEA how to shop for a book. So he never went book shopping, until that day I dragged him into Barnes & Noble. It got me to thinking, because they were very good questions. I’m an avid reader. It’s gotten to the point that I can tell pretty closely whether or not I’ll like a book.
- Did I like the author’s previous work(s)?
- Do I like other things from this publisher/publisher’s imprint?
- Is this in a genre or vein which has appealed to me in the past?
- Are both the opening paragraph and a random paragraph from the middle appealing to me?
- Does the back cover blurb sound intriguing?
Yeah, those things help me, but how do we make book-shopping more pleasurable for the more casual reader? Some ideas:
Clearly identify genres in shelf and table displays.
Different casual readers enjoy different things. Some prefer mysteries while others groove on books where floridly-named women have sex with vampires. (Go figure.) It’s got to be very frustrating to face an unlabled book display with sixty or seventy titles–none of which are clearly labeled as to genre. It’d be like walking into the frozen food section, seeing a bunch of boxes labeled “Ice Cream” and having to then open each one to decide what flavour is inside.
Do A Better Job of Cross-Marketing
What little cross-promotion currently exists is good, but is mostly limited to displays of authors’ backlists. The newest Patricia Cornwell will be on an endcap, surrounded by several older Patricia Cornwell books. Barnes & Noble and BAM have been doing a few genre-endcaps (“New In MYSTERY!”) but that’s still very limited and doesn’t do anything to burst out any center-shelf titles. How about a database of “if you like this [book/movie/tv show/style of music] you might enjoy X book by X author”? Affinity sorts work very well for most cross-promotion. As people have become more comfortable with computers and databases have evolved, this type of thing should find a home in brick and mortar bookstores. It does work to Amazon’s advantage–at least in my case.
Embrace Genre Fiction
It’s what people will buy. It’s what people enjoy. I think it’s dirty pool to complain about people not reading for fun and then refuse to publish the types of books which people think are fun.
Kill The Oprah Book Club
Yes, I know it blows out a dozen or so books a year. If you’re one of the Oprah Book Club picks, you’ve got it made. (Unless you lied about being an addict.) But, frankly, if we’re trying to encourage people to read for fun, the books Oprah chooses are NOT going to win many people over to long-time leisure reading. They.are.de.press.ing.
Create More Serialised Fiction
The books that tend to be the best in sales are the ones which have recurring characters who develop over time. People develop an affinity for the characters and spend money to find out if Charles and Mallory ever get together, if Peter and Rina Decker successfully remodel their kitchen and if Harry lives or dies. Dickens was the master of serialised fiction, and every bibliophile knows the story of the folks waiting on the docks for last installment of The Old Curiosity Shop to find out the fate of Little Nell. The two genres which traditionally have been best at exploiting the serialisation format in recent years are Science Fiction and Christian Fiction. Guess which genres are doing the best in terms of sales? Of course, I still have major issues with the way Christian Fiction Publishers are bursting their serialised material. They’re putting the least amount of story in the largest possible font and large trade paperback format; marketing a $3 minibook as a $15.95 Serial Novel. A happy medium would be nice.
I think elitism and failure to understand the casual reader are the twin enemies of modern book sales. I’m not a genre snob, but I’ll freely admit that I don’t ‘get’ people who aren’t avid readers. Sometimes in my mind it’s still recess and I’m the dorky kid with the Nancy Drew on the front porch and the non-readers are the ones trying to knock off my glasses with the kickball. But really, if the kickball kids can be convinced to part with a few ducats in exchange for the written word, I will feel quite vindicated indeed.