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[ profile] truepenny had an interesting post and comment threads going on about series and the way they're handled in book publishing, and the refusal of some marketing departments to label books as series, especially when in the fantasy genre, series are pretty much de rigeur and par for the course.

I started asking some questions of [ profile] casacarona in this thread here concerning why some of those things were. Because obviously, the business and science of selling books is something I am deeply interested in.

I was really set to thinking by this response (bolding hers, not mine):

But the thing you have to understand is that a publisher's customer is not the individual book buyer/reader. A publisher's customer is a book wholesaler, or a large chain buyer, or a library buying service, or an independent bookstore. Publishers don't sell books to readers. Bookstores do that. So we have to listen to what our customers tell us about what they want. They're the ones who are buying.

One thing that really struck me is the idea that publishing companies view booksellers as their customers rather than middle men.

I can't help but asking: why? Why haven't book publishing companies tried to do away with the middle man? I understand that there are probably historical and business reasons why, but given the current economic climate and the state of the industry, I have to say, I think it's time that these companies consider the radical step of getting rid of the middle man.

I know that some publishers do directly sell their books on their websites, and at roughly the same price that you'd pay in a brick-and-mortar store, but that seems silly to my mind.

Looking from a business perspective, it seems to me that if I were in charge of a publishing company, I'd want to see how we could divorce ourselves from the retail chain stores and the booksellers and connect directly with the readers, because it seems like profits could be increased that way without actually having to put that much more money into the process.

I think the publishing industry needs it's own kind of iTunes. In that, it needs a place where books can be sold without being tied to a brick-and-mortar retail industry that is so clearly in jeopardy.

I think if there were a collective site where books could be ordered cheaply, then companies could more accurately estimate sales and not have to sacrifice any profits to booksellers. Furthermore, they wouldn't have to worry about warehousing. If the book is either sold in electronic format, or some kind of Netflix-esque shipping arrangement for books is worked out with the post office so that books arrive quickly, you could solve a lot of problems.

Especially if these companies got together and had one communal printing operation, such that books could be printed as needed, and no need to make more copies of something than you need, thus forcing yourself to warehouse them at your expense.

Which got me thinking about series and specifically how series work within the SF/F genre. If I
were a really savvy publisher of SF/F books, I'd use this tendency for fun and profit.

I would somehow work it so that a pre-payment could be made, such that if a reader really liked Book One, they could sign up and pre-pay to get all the books in the series at a fixed price that would be cheaper than paying for each book individually as it came out. Let's estimate a paperback at eight bucks, and there are three more books going to come out. You could sell all three books to the reader at 19.99, even though it would cost 24.00 to buy them one by one, but you'd be getting that money in advance, and getting a pretty good estimate of the interest in the next few books. Because SF/F book deals come in two and threes, the publisher knows there's going to be a sequel before the first book is even released.

Or, you could even do it book to book. Like this one? Sign up to pre-order the next one automatically! You could even do it without the reader plunking down money, just to gauge interest and potential sales.

I can think of several books I'd do this for, as a reader. I'm very eager to find, one day, the sequel to Lies of Locke Lamora, and I know for damn certain that the minute The Pretender's Crown comes out, it'll be in my little hand, and it's book 2 in the series. I would've pre-ordered it the minute that I finished The Queen's Bastard if I could have, but Amazon didn't even list a sequel for it at the time.

It's just that thinking of the booksellers as the customers when they're really intermediaries seems bad business to me. Yes, they buy, but they also return and it doesn't hurt them. They have the most control and the least risk. If you don't want to be signing the UPS man's little electronic clipboard in a few months and seeing those books again, you have to entice me to take those books home and keep them on *my* shelves. So, yes, publishers, you do need to worry about me. And worry about the money I have that you're missing out on because the booksellers are keeping it from you.

True confessions time: there are a lot of books I would've bought new, but I couldn't find book one of the series, so I just waited until I could find book one in either the Book Barn or online that's used. Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series seems to be popular, but I can't figure out which book comes first or find it for love nor money, and I've looked. If I find it at the Book Barn for a dollar, they're going to get that money, even though I probably would've paid full price if someone had labeled the damn first book and kept it available to me.

I'm not attached to bookstores (save the Book Barn, but ZOMG, goats! cats! Kindly book folk who give me free donuts!). I go there because it's most convenient, but if the publishers made it so that going straight to the source was cheaper, more reliable, more convenient, and got me better customer service? You'd be better believe I'd do it. I don't live next door to the Book Barn, and there are lots of books I can't find there because it's hit or miss.

If I could get for six bucks what costs me 8.99 or more in a brick-and-mortar store and know it would be at my door within three days? I'd definitely pay that.

Frankly, if I were a publishing company, I'd try to get away from the big chain retailers. I think it would make more fiscal sense to a) empower independent booksellers and b) try to reach directly for readers.

Chain booksellers have a vested interest in only selling what is successful, except, they have a large hand in shaping how successful something can be. So a lot of good books fail not on their merits, but on table placement and how many are in stock and whether the buyer for Barnes & Noble or Borders knows what they're doing or not (and as SF/F goes, whoever makes decisions about the Borders in Queens is a freaking numbskull).

These chain bookstores also have a vested interest in putting the financial burden on publishing companies rather than absorbing costs themselves.

Not to mention that bookstores these days are hardly selling books. They sell music, food, coffee, little doilies you don't need for anything, DVD's, and sometimes even electronics (yeah, we actually found headphones for my fiancee's iPod cheaper at Borders than K-Mart. Go figure, we also didn't buy one damn book there because their SF/F section sucks and they were selling books about Republicans in a Blue State, post-election and not on the discount rack, either).

Given what goes into making a book, I'm wondering why publishing companies are putting up with this. Books can make millions. If the public likes it, it can make serious money. Now, imagine what those mid-list books could do it publishers could recoup the profits that were sacrificed to the booksellers, if publishers were allowed market to their full potential, rather than relying on second hand sources?

I'm trying to think in terms of markets and business models here, so it's possible that my very non-business like mind is missing something, but I still firmly believe that those companies which are going to survive and eventually prosper are those who are going to be willing, in the face of this economy and the changing climate, take radical actions and step away from traditional practices.

Date: 2009-04-05 05:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The first Dresden book is called Storm Front. I think they do start numbering the books midway into the series.

While the idea of publishers dispensing with the booksellers has some merit, to me it would be a nightmare come true. Our local Borders is where we go to hang out. Aside from the casinos, it's the only place we have to go to spend an evening. Each time we go to Borders, we invariably discover dozens of titles that we absolutely must own. Fortunately for our pocketbooks, we don't buy them all. The pleasure lies in browsing and talking about what we're seeing. Amazon, on the other hand, is where we go when we know exactly what we want to buy. It's quick and convenient, and absolutely free of socializing or discovery. Were there an iTunes version of a bookstore, we wouldn't spend nearly as much on books as we do, in part because we wouldn't have any sense of what's out there. LIkely, I also wouldn't read as broadly as I do, because I'd be limited to what I already knew about. Also, there'd be no place to go on Saturday night, and that's just depressing.

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