I just returned from the Unbound conference in New York. Google flew me in first class, set me up at a nice hotel, and plied me with liquor, all so I could deliver eight minutes of my thoughts on the internet and the future of publishing to more than five hundred publishers.
I didn't pull punches.
Other speakers included Tim O'Reilly, who was smart, Cory Doctorow, who was great, and Seth Godin, who was both smart and great. Another big name was also there, but I missed his speech. It may have had to do with a chat we had backstage, where I revealed that I visited 612 bookstores last summer and he replied, "Apparently you place a zero value on your time." I smiled and explained that my time spent touring was an investment in my future career, and that I was a recruiting a nation wide sales force.
"Talk to booksellers?" he replied. "I never considered that."
Some people don't get it. Or they don't want to get it, because it implies they might be doing less. No biggie. I wish him much success.
The speakers on my panel were the delightful Josh Kilmer-Purcell, and the surprisingly down-to-earth Stephen J. Dubner, who--even though he's got to be a gazillionaire from Freakonomics--still signs 5000 bookplates for fans every month. He is now my new hero.
Here's what I said to the publishing world, fleshed out a little bit (I had to make some cuts for time) and minus the jokes (which involved the NY subway, Powerpoint pie graphs, and Hollywood---trust me, you aren't missing anything.)
--JA's Speech to the Publishing World--
I write about a police officer named Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels. The books are a cross between the scares of Patterson and the laughs of Evanovich. But most of my professional time isn't spend writing, it's spent trying to spread the word about what I write to potential readers.
Publishers try to do this by advertising. Two generally accepted ways to approach advertising are top down and bottom up.
Top down advertising includes billboards, print ads, TV commercials, and internet banner ads. It's casting a wide net, hoping that a potential customer will see the ad and seek out the product. It works, but isn't cost-effective;the amount of time and money spent doesn't justify the few sales the ads generate.
Plus, no one enjoys being sold. And people natural distrust ads. Readers already have a pretty good idea of what they like and don't like. And they seek out what they like, and are constantly looking for information about things that might fit their tastes.
Bottom up advertising uses a different approach. Instead of treating customers like a huge group and hoping the ad reaches some specific people, it targets specific people.
Advertisers crow about the importance of name recognition, but how many authors do you know by name? Does that mean you buy their books? I can name a few hundred, but only buy a few dozen of them.
That's because name recognition doesn't mean anything, unless it has a positive experience attached to it.
Last summer, for my book Rusty Nail, I visited 612 bookstores. I met over 1400 booksellers, gave them free books, and signed coasters, and told them about my series. I also thanked them--every one of them--in the acknowledgments of my fourth book, Dirty Martini, coming out this summer.
Basically, I recruited a sales force by trying to turn the people selling my books into fans, or at least make them knowledgeable about my brand, which is significant considering there are 150k titles in an average bookstore.
That's bottom up; targeting individuals, providing them with entertainment and information so they can decide if my books are right for them, or in this case, their customers. So when someone comes into a bookstore looking for a specific type of book, these booksellers can pass along the information and make recommendations. I gave them more than a free signed book. I gave them a positive experience. And that, plus name recognition, equals branding.
How can this be applied to the world wide web?
The Internet, like those booksellers, can make recommendations. It can inform, and entertain, and be a positive experience that reinforces a brand. .
I've used the net to target my audience. When you're targeting potential customers, it isn't about what you have to sell. It's about what you have to offer. And if you have a smart web presence, you don't even have to target individuals---they'll find you.
I recently got on MySpace, and realized it is a publisher's wet dream. People with MySpace pages list the things that they like, to tell others about themselves. Many people list books. Think about this--books are so important to these people that they use author names and titles to define who they are. It's very easy to find fans of Evanovich, Patterson, and Coben. And it's very easy to invite fans of those authors to be MySpace friends, if you write similar books.
I have a blog called A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. It's based on the principal that it isn't what you have to sell, it's what you have to offer. I offer content, in the form of information and opinion about the publishing industry. I've had over two hundred blog posts, and each one of them becomes a permanent road on the net that leads to me. I get Google hits on posts I made 2 years ago, and the threads don't die--people keep adding comments.
My website isn't set up to be an ad for my books. It's set up to be entertaining, and informative. You can download free novels, short stories, and book and audio excerpts, along with an ebook about how to find an agent. I have over a hundred pages of content for fans and newbie authors looking for advice, and even though I don't update as often as I should, I still get close to 1000 unique visitors a day.
On my website, I make it easy for people to stay in touch. I have a newsletter that more than 10,000 people have signed up for, and one click Paypal buying so people who can't find autographed copies of my books can get them from me directly, inscribed and with free shipping.
While publishers worry about finding readers, and go about it as effectively as using a sledgehammer to kill a gnat, readers are actively looking for books to read. But they need more than slick ads to persuade them. They need a positive experience to link with a name. That's 99% of what I'm trying to do--provide a positive experience, for the people looking for me, and the people discovering me by surfing.
The bigger web presence you have, the more people will discover you.
How does this apply to the future of publishing?
An entire generation is learning how to read by using computers. More and more people are getting their information and entertainment on the web. And they aren't being passive about it--they're seeking it out.
On the subway today, I counted 7 people with PDAs, Blackberrys, and Palms, and two more with mp3 players. People need their media so much they're taking it with them when they leave their desks. Only three people on that train were reading newspapers. What does that say about the future of print media?
People read online all the time. It's up to the publishers to teach them how to read books online.
There's no reason why books can't be packaged with a CD. It could contain various downloadable text AND audio formats, so people can read it on their PDA or listen to it on their mp3 player. It can include pictures, video interviews, deleted chapters and extra short stories. It could be popped into a computer and take the reader to a webpage where they can chat with other fans, and the author, and leave messages and comments and questions.
And publishers should also approach it from the other end. Each book could have a dedicated website, just like movies. And it could offer the same things; downloads, previews, screen savers, and forums for fans to meet. It should also provide links to buying the book, both as a download, and as a print copy.
Why stop there? Take a cue from the DVD and music industries, that package whole season sets of shows and full discographies of bands. Do you want people to embrace ebooks? (You should--no shipping, no returns, no printing, no distributor, no waste, higher profit margin.) Then package 20 Stephen King books on a Sandisk card for $40. Steve gets the 60 cent per book royalty he would have gotten from a paperback sale, and the buyer changes his reading habits.
We switched from LPs to CDs, and VHS to DVD. We can convert some people from print to online leisure reading---especially since everyone reads online anyway.
You can spend a fortune hunting mice. You can mount expeditions, buy expensive mouse hunting equipment, tour the world, and devote all of your time to tracking those little suckers down.
Or you can toss some cheese in the corner and wait.
The choice yours.