The Frontiers of Publishing
A Guest Post By Jason Dyck
I should note up front that I am not an expert on the publishing industry. I am an editor and a bibliophile, and I have more than a passing understanding of marketing, but I currently have no books of my own for sale. This is my attempt to pass along what I learned from someone orders of magnitude more experienced than me.
I had the chance a few weeks ago to sit at the feet of the great Tracy Hickman and learn about his experiences in the new frontiers of publishing. Tracy and his wife Laura have been experimenting with new ways of reaching their readers, new ways of delivering content and getting paid for it. They have decades of experience in the industry, and they’ve recognized that the world is changing, and they need to keep up. The Hickmans have a series of books they’ve been using as subjects for these experiments called the Dragon’s Bard. The books use (among other things) the serial novel format, with chapters released regularly to subscribers, who also receive special collectible editions when the book is complete. This model is what led them to understand the changes in sales model that I’m about to share with you.
You see, the Dragon’s Bard publishing model was initially based very closely on the traditional publishing model. Being a lifelong bookworm, I was somewhat aware of that model, but in a fish-in-the-water sort of way. Until Tracy laid the whole thing out for me, I’d never really stopped to think about how it worked. The old sales model looks like a pyramid in three tiers, and works something like this:
* Hardcover- Initial sales are to hardcore fans, collectors and trendsetters. The publisher is looking to generate a great deal of hype with a beautiful book and rave reviews from the important people who will be the first one’s to own the book.
*Trade Paperback – Six months to a year later, the paperback is released. Sales are driven by the hype generated by the tastemakers who liked (they hope) the initial release. There is (as I understand it) less marketing push here: earlier sales are expected to drive these later sales.
*Mass Market / Discount books – This is just cleaning up the stragglers. Selling to people who would not otherwise have read the book, scraping up the bits of profit left in the book as you move on to the next one.
The old model is obviously very top-down, relying on 20th century-style media channels. Good Morning America and Oprah were the kind of outlets that would generate your initial buzz, which would trickle down into the lower enthusiasm and price brackets and direct them to your book.
That model is mostly dead. With the changes in publishing, distribution, the rise of ebooks, economic pain for buyers and sellers both, and the democratizing influence of the Internet, that top down approach has very limited effectiveness. There are still lessons to be learned from it, and ways it can be adapted for current trends. For example, since the gatekeepers are gone there is now a demand for guides to find the good stuff, a way to avoid the worst of Sturgeon’s Law. That’s what that top tier and the publishers themselves were needed for, and what still needs addressing today. However, the model itself is defunct.
That was roughly what Dragon’s Bard tried initially. Subscribers would receive chapters as they were written, and at the end receive a fancy, hardbound, numbered book. Paperbacks were introduced later, intended to be driven by the buzz from the subscribers. That didn’t work nearly as well as they hoped, and eventually led them to understand the right way to go about it. The new model flips the whole thing on its head, to become a funnel. Here’s what it looks like:
* Cheap or Free Content – Blogging, sample chapters, short stories, limited time giveaways of books. People today want to try your material before they will spend money with you. The Hickmans tried selling snippets of two chapters each week leading up to the release of one of the later DB books for two dollars. Fans bought them, and then bought the book as well. All of those people who now know you’re style and quality can be funneled down to buy your
* Ebooks – Low cost, easily available. The golden price range is between $2.99 and $4.99, which is essentially an impulse buy for someone on a modest but steady income. Many people will buy your book even if they aren’t raving fans at a price and convenience like that. Depending on their lifestyle and how much they liked the book, many of them may funnel down to buy your
* Paperbacks – There are several kinds of people who will buy paperbacks. I should note that this differs <em>heavily</em> between fiction and non-fiction. I’m going to deal strictly with fiction; you can probably apply the principles to non-fiction easily enough. Some may not have an ereader, though there are fewer and fewer of those. Some people buy the physical book just to better support an author they like, or to have something they can have autographed at the next con. A few want a copy to gift or lend, though many of those will opt for a nicer option for gifts. According to Tracy, most of the paperback sales are in trade paperback, rather than the smaller mass-market or pocket edition – those have mostly been replaced by the ebook. Among these people who want physical books, a few will be devoted enough to want
* Hardbound – These are the casual collectors and the old fashioned. Again, motivations may vary, but at this point they are mostly a matter of aesthetics (having a nice book on the shelf), or pride (having that book on the shelf), or for giving as a gift to someone else. A very few of these buyers are going to demand this.
* Collectibles – This is a high-quality hardbound, possibly with exclusive cover art, definitely signed and probably numbered. This is for the hard-core collectors and the rabidly devoted fen. There will be few of these sold (and if you can accurately predict how few, you can make them even rarer and make those collectors happier still) and the margin may be smaller, but they will make those customers happy and inclined to support you more, both morally and financially.
Sell to your widest audience first, and let them generate the buzz for your more expensive options. Make sure that you’re hitting all the sales avenues, but always from broadest to narrowest. This model isn’t exact; for example, some people may skip a level (for example, many people may buy a paperback instead of an ebook) but the general idea is solid, and your approach will be essentailly the same. As I mentioned earlier, there is still a need for guides, and as they appear they are worth engaging and courting, but there won’t be a few, controlled central message channels that you can dominate to create interest in your book.
Of course, all of this is logistics. The key to making a go of writing professionally is in your audience, which the Hickmans well understand. “It’s no longer about being published … it’s about being read,” Tracy told us. “It’s all about the audience today; acquiring direct contact with the reader, maintaining and growing that relationship. Anyone can get ‘published’ today. Being an author is all about having readership.” Understanding distribution is all well and good, but there has to be someone to buy those books. Without a story worth reading and people who know about it, you’ve got nothing to distribute.
The world is changing, the ground is broken up around us in this business, but from my own observations and the Hickmans’ experiences, this looks to be a pretty good roadmap for the new lay of the land.
*Full disclosure: at the same symposium where I met Mr. Hickman and listened to him explain all this, I also happened to win free tuition for the writing seminar that he and his lovely wife run. My name was drawn at random, not in exchange. You can find more information on that seminar here; I highly recommend it.
Jason Dyck is our very own Free Range Oyster (which is one of my favorite handles ANYWHERE) and his professional site is here. Jason is attempting to break in as something all of us need. Well, no, not a multimillionaire, though that would help (us and him!). He’s trying to break in as a freelance editor. If you need one, consider giving a try to one of our very own ATH family.
©Jason Dyck 2013 If you wish to repost this, please seek permission from the author.