The Change in Publishing/Book Marketing

This past weekend, as announced on the website here, I was at the Phoenix Comic Fest, where I was selling my books at Bard’s Tower, and doing some panel appearances. With me at the booth were Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon, Alan Dean Foster, Jody Lynn Nye, Melinda Snodgrass, David Butler, Christopher Husberg, Mark Gardner, Kevin Ikenberry, Amity Green, and Brian Lee Durfee – an array of writers ranging from old-timers to rising young authors.

So why were all of us at a “comic fest”?

Because of the dramatic change in the publishing world. Twenty to twenty five years ago, Tor –and other publishers – used to tour quite a few authors fairly often, and I was one of those toured. I was on the low-budget tour. Tor would fly me to a city, give me a formal signing or two each day, and I’d use the rental car to visit every bookstore I could get to where I wasn’t doing a formal signing so that I could talk to the staff and sign whatever stock they had of my books. I’d also leave a bound bookstore/press packet with glossy photos of covers of most of my books with a brief description, as well as other information that the bookstore would find useful. There were times when I’d visit ten to fifteen bookstores in a day, in addition to the formal signing. It worked fairly well back then.

It doesn’t work now… not unless the author is literally selling at least a few hundred thousand copies of a book, and it doesn’t because: (1) the number of bookstores has dwindled drastically; (2) e-books have grown considerably; and (3) despite what everyone contends, electronic book piracy has reduced paying sales without increasing overall sales. In addition to that, tours and book signings offered a venue where authors could meet readers and interest them in books and authors they hadn’t previously read. But because tours are no longer even remotely close to break-even exercises, except for high best-selling authors, publishers don’t tour nearly as many of their authors as they once used to do.

So… how do authors get new readers? Some invest heavily, both in time and money, in social media and an online presence. But as several newer authors I know have discovered, sometimes a huge social media presence doesn’t translate into sales. In fact, on a percentage basis, success through a social media presence is relatively infrequent [but, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that only a small percentage of would-be writers ever turn out to be commercially successful]. At a comic-con or a comic fest, however, there are thousands of people, many of whom are readers, and there’s a good chance to meet some potential new readers… and right now, it’s one of the few person-to-person venues left open to authors… which is why I – and other notable authors – appear at them.

The market’s changed, and if we don’t adapt with it, in some fashion, we’ll become less relevant. Besides, I had a good time talking to those readers, even when they didn’t buy my books.

15 thoughts on “The Change in Publishing/Book Marketing”

  1. Brian says:

    I have a really hard time with the reasoning here. I have been buying and reading your books since I was a teenager (I’m 40 now). However, with the rise of the Kindle I buy fewer and fewer books from the big publishers because they are priced so ridiculously! I just hate to read real paper books anymore because they are heavy and require an external light source (which keeps my wife up). The kindle has a nice, internal, brightness-adjustable light. But why should I pay $14.99 or even $9.99 when the paperback is selling for $6.99 or less? I can’t loan the book out, I can’t give it to my brother if it’s one I don’t want to keep, I can’t donate it to the library or even sell it for $1.00 at my next garage sale. Most e-books I buy are one-time reads and they have much less value than a “real” book.

    The big publishers are pricing themselves out of the market. It’s difficult, but I’ve been finding great gems among the self-published authors and their books are .99 to $4.99 and once I find an author I like, I just keep buying their books. Judging by the number of reviews and the sales ranks, it seems like these little guys are having success getting their books into the hands of more people, and they’re releasing more material more often, and they’re probably keeping a larger percentage of the sales price.

    Obviously I don’t understand the economics behind it all but as a customer I get really frustrated when I see an overpriced e-book with “price set by seller.” I’m an avid reader but I’m less likely to buy it.

    I do, and have been, buying all your books in hardback for decades, as I do with a select few authors. I’m gagging just saying this, but I wish you would take after the music/movie industry and include a “digital download” with each physical copy. (Amazon does this with “autorip” for music CDs and the movie studios have UltraViolet when you buy a DVD.)

    1. Franklyn Hamsher says:

      Just to provide an alternate perspective to Brian

      I live in Australia but am an American ex-pat who has read Lee’s books for the last 30 odd years, only discovering him after I moved to the land of Oz. My principle source for Lee’s books was the Public Library system here, quite similar to the US system with libraries in small towns and big. Before e-books I was a regular visitor to used book stores as the price of new hardbacks and trade paperbacks is quite high (AU$ 40 – 50 for many hardbacks and AU$ 20 for new paperbacks when you can find them.)

      Just as in the states there are no local bookstores with the few chains that are left stocking very little.

      The cost of Lee’s books in used bookstores (AU$12-15 paperback, AU$ 25.00)

      Another factor here in OZ is the huge distances between towns and cities. For years I lived near a town of about 35,000 people. The nearest big bookstore with any real stock (either new or used was over 250 miles away and a 4+ hour drive, dodging kangaroos all the way (and a big boomer is no joke – can total a car in an instant!)

      The cost of e-books through Kindle or IBooks: a US 9.99 e-book is AU$ 13.99. In most cases immediate access (though not some US publishers) and lots of back list titles. I haven’t visited a used book in the last five years and order most of my hard copy books via the internet from overseas sources.

      Lee’s books are still stocked by my local library in both hard copy and e-format.

      I agree with Brian’s comment about the downside of about not being to pass books on. iBooks allows from “family sharing” of books, so I buy through them when I want to share locally. I would be nice to be able to donate purchased e-books to the local library but this seems to be against the contract terms…

      I would be interested to hear from Lee about his view on library sales and if he has any idea what percentage of his sales volume is to libraries?

      1. The sales volume to libraries tends to be rather fixed, since the number of libraries buying books changes slowly. For my first hardcover, from what I can determine, almost 50% of the sales went to libraries, but since the first hardcover was The Magic of Recluce, which was my ninth book, that figure may be misleading. Also, as an author’s total sales go up, the percentage that are library sales go down. Currently, my library sales are likely only around ten percent of total hardcover sales.

        1. Franklyn Hamsher says:

          Thanks for the info Lee, this is something that I have wondered about for years.

    2. Derek says:

      You’re often paying for the editor, and the infrastructure that allows an author to regularly publish well-edited books according to a reasonable predetermined timeline. Good authors often have the best editors and support system, which helps guarantee a consistent quality end product.

      A self-published author does not have the same overhead, and likely does not have as much access to quality editors. They might put out a good product, maybe even consistently, but I’m willing to bet many don’t manage to do that.

  2. wumpus says:

    I’m pretty sure that TOR makes this call, and they’ve probably tried everything you can do with e-book publishing (they used to make a ton of stuff freely available, looks like it is long since gone).

    I’m surprised that they can’t at least provide a heavily DRM’ed ebook with a physical book (I’d assume that it is far easier to pirate the original book than to strip out the DRM). Personally, I’m not remotely interested in such actions. Finally, I suspect the real issue is that you would have to put some type of “scratch off sticker” on the book. While the publisher might moan and groan over cost, the real cost would be checking the sticker over and over to make sure nobody scratched it off and “stole” the e-book (you would want to restrict it to a single download to make the book less on the used book market).

    I’m also sad to hear this. I remember reading on rec.arts.sf-lovers (only saw a brief question by “lemodesitt” once asking for opinions on what we wanted, but didn’t have time to answer) how the “midlist massacre” had been going in the decades earlier.

    It appears obvious that new authors would probably do best to ignore publishers altogether, I couldn’t recommend it to the Tor crew: those are an amazing group of authors and I can only assume that it is worth sticking with the company. I just can’t imagine what it takes to crack into that company now.

    I’m at a loss for seeing how an unknown author makes a sale. The “unknown author” e-book market seems to be a lemon market (with people sticking all sorts of crap on the market), while leaving very little ways to jump from “unknown” to “known”. Webcomics seems to have given a few some “good enough” sellers (I think Randal Monroe of xkcd fame might get on the NY Times charts), but actual writing is few and far between. I’m guessing that fanfiction and erotic fiction are the two main places to find readers willing to read what is essentially “the slush pile” while you hone your skills, and then “jump to the pros” (downside, you have to keep the same pen name and it *will* become public information that you wrote at such levels).

    PS: I noticed (probably more than a decade ago) I *just* missed you showing up at a local bookstore by no more than a week. Still, I did pick up one of your books and was astonished to find I had a signed copy (I didn’t know that authors sign books on the shelf and that when I saw the sign about your schedule I should check all the Modesitt books I hadn’t yet read for signatures and grab the ones I needed).

    PPS: I finally showed up on this site and wrote long rambling replies on older topics. They don’t seem to be updating, but this is probably better (both in avoiding spam and avoiding my rambling).

  3. Lucent says:

    Sir, I know what you are saying, this is one reason why so many marketers are failing in the current day and age, the world is changing and so must we all with our approach to the world.
    I am currently working on a project to elevate independent bookstores and authors who still serve the readers of the written word. You can check out For Book Lovers Only, we are still in development but starting to reach out to authors.
    I’d like to see if you are interested in being involved and will shoot you a message on the forums with more details.
    I’m glad I swung in today and caught this post!


  4. R. Hamilton says:

    Which (if any) non-comic F&SF conventions are still worthwhile for F&SF authors short of (in volume) a JKR or the like? Worldcon/NASFiC? Boskone?

    1. There’s no hard and fast rule on this. For fantasy authors, an occasional attendance at World Fantasy Convention can be very helpful, but more for professional reasons, since something like two-thirds of the attendees are writers, editors, agents, authors, and artists. I’ve frankly found Worldcon less helpful, although I attend it occasionally. To attend an author’s “local” convention is almost always useful, for various reasons. Whether other conventions are useful depends more on the writer, the convention, and the timing.

  5. Arin Komins says:

    My only problem with the comic con attendance by authors is that several authors are *only* doing comic cons, as they have much higher attendance rates than sf cons do.

    As a fairly passionate sf fan and convention goer (and autograph collector), this puts me into a terrible quandry: more and more authors are skipping the sf convention scene entirely in favor of comic cons….which makes the sf conventions near pointless.

    …which just seems wrong!

    In a way; it seems like the push is on finding *new* readers all the time, and going after the most bang for the buck (which I understand economically), but as a fan I frequently feel like the constant push for new readers ignores those of us who are already on the hook, as it were.

    I’ll keep going to World Fantasy and Worldcon, but publisher support for even those has been going downhill.

    For instance, 8-10 years ago, you couldn’t not go to a Worldcon and have major “coming soon” presentations by every major publisher. Nowadays you are lucky to just get Tor! Other publisher focus seems to have changed to other markets.

    1. Arin Komins says:

      …I should say, I used to be a book dealer at sf cons as well, and there is nothing quite as disheartening as all of these fans stopping by and saying that they just don’t read!

    2. I’m doing both comic cons and F&SF conventions and plan to continue both, but one of the reasons I do the comic cons is that older F&SF readers are, frankly, dying off, and there aren’t as many younger readers going to most conventions as there once were. There are some where there are lots of young readers, but overall, that’s not what I see at most F&SF cons. Then, I might be picking the wrong conventions.

      1. Arin Komins says:

        Our local cons seem Beto be trending younger these days. The only ones that feel like they are aging, locally here in Chicagoland are the pulp cons.

    3. Ryan Jackson says:

      I would point out that anymore it’s a matter of semantics and view. A great many shows call themselves “Comic Cons” (Though less now that San Diego Comic Con is enforcing their copyright and suing other cons for using the term).

      Despite going under the label of “Comic Con” Most of these shows (Phoenix to use as an example since Mr. Modesitt has attended several times) are less Comic focused and more Pop Culture. To stick with Phoenix the show has Comic artists and writers as guests and there are comic vendors there. But there’s no more of these and sometimes less than their are TV and Movie Actors, directors, Authors. And these people pull a LOT more attention and money than most comic artists do. (Example in 2016 Brandon Sanderson drew more people and had longer lines than any of the comic personalities, only getting dwarfed by the bigger name celebrities that were there like Dick Van Dyke)

      So while the term might seem like it’s a step away it’s more that these shows are growing to encompass and welcome all fandoms.

  6. Grayce says:

    I’m an old school fantasy fan in a world that doesn’t want to publish old school fantasy. I’ve been reading Lee’s books for decades and just took a month to plow through the entire Imager Portfolio. That said, it’s increasingly difficult to find quality stories with traditional values (or even a neutral stance) in the genre. I’ve started writing myself and gone indie in my search for new things to read because my values aren’t congruent with current cultural norms, especially at Tor where (no joke) they sent a rep to a Christian fantasy authors conference with the message that what they were looking for was basically a laundry list of the things a serious orthodox Christian couldn’t possibly condone much less write about positively. Transhumanism? Lgbtqetc? NonWestern cultures? In fantasy? My response is to give up on trying to trad pub before I even start and to stop going to bookstores at all.

    And Christian fiction is mostly pablum. Seriously.

    This rejection of traditional morality makes trad publishing a minefield that I as a fledgling writer of faith won’t bother with. I’ll work really hard to write a great story and hire editors and designers and advertise. Michael J Sullivan has done well. Alec Hutson has done well. Indie authors are rising. But because of the stances the trad publishers are taking I really am skipping the bookstores completely when I want to find new books to read. I’m actively reading indie. I read Anthony Ryan but then his work turned too dark to finish. Sanderson is more clean but I like sword and sorcery and magic and coming of age…all of the tropes that people seem to avoid these days. They’re what I want. Anyhow all of that to say…I appreciate you Lee and am afraid there’s more going on with the industry than just the disruption of e-publishing. A lot of fantasy fans read fantasy because they believe in good and evil. When publishers want to undermine the roots of the genre in an effort to reflect political agendas, everyone loses.

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