Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The End of the Bestseller

Blake Crouch and I interview each other in the latest issue of Crimespree Magazine.

I've given up doing interviews, because I get a lot of requests and they all ask the same questions. While it's flattering, I hate taking time away from my writing, and I'm making enough money to stop doing things that I dislike.

That said, I did do a quick interview with Kirkus for Shaken, which is being released in print on February 22.

Some folks may be thinking, "But Joe, interviews are free publicity. If you stay out of the public eye, they'll forget you and stop buying your ebooks. Aren't you shooting yourself in the foot?"

I don't think so. Lots of authors shy away from the spotlight but still sell well. And I'm 99% convinced that name-recognition isn't what drives sales.

So what does?

In the print world, distribution is the Number 1 factor in sales. The more places your book is for sale, the more books you'll sell. It's very much a self-fulfilling prophecy that goes like this:

1. Publisher prints a shitload of books, gets them into as many retail outlets as possible.

2. Publisher buys coop in bookstores and big box stores, offering steep discounts for multiple copies, so the books can be sold for under the cover price.

3. Readers buy these books because they have little choice in places like drug stores, supermarkets, airports, etc, and because in bookstores it is the first thing they see when they walk in; big stacks of discounted books by familiar, safe names.

I don't believe an author becomes a bestseller, and then becomes available everywhere. I believe an author is available everywhere, and that's why they're a bestseller.

If you look at the Kindle bestseller lists, a lot of the ebooks selling well mirror their print counterparts. But more and more, self-published ebooks are creeping onto these lists, displacing traditionally published ebooks.

Obviously, distribution and coop don't play a part in ebook sales, because indie ebooks don't have any.

This allows me to make a rather startling prediction about the future.

The current print bestsellers dominate because they're available everywhere. Readers are creatures of habit. Used to buying Patterson in print, many of them will buy Patterson in ebook form because he is safe and familiar.

So let's do a thought experiment. Let's imagine that every place Patterson has a print book for sale, I also have an equal number of print books for sale. But whereas Patterson's paperbacks are $8.99, my paperbacks are $2.99.

Do you think he'd still outsell me in print?

Remember, for every book he has on the shelf, I have one that is equally displayed. Though he enjoys a much larger fanbase and name-recognition, if there were displays touting my price, I think I could outsell him.

A pipe dream? Hardly.

Because I DO outsell Patterson on many of the Kindle bestseller lists, simply because I have a lower price.

Now, if we take away Patterson's print sales (or at least reduce them when ebooks sales overtake print) it is simple to predict what will happen.

Ebooks are all equally distributed. They have an infinite shelf-life, and infinite shelf-space. Everywhere Patterson has an ebook, I have an ebook. And I can beat him on price, so I can beat him in sales.

Kindle readers are still buying overpriced bestsellers because that's how they're used to shopping. However, the many of the ereader owners I've spoken with are changing their buying habits.

At one time, the majority of readers bought what was widely distributed.

But with ereader owners, price is often a major factor in a purchase.

The Big 6 can't publish ebooks priced low enough to compete with me. They have fancy NY offices, lots of employees with benefits and expense accounts, and a whole industry to support.

With print, they know how to create a bestseller. They buy it.

They buy the real estate. They buy the advertising. They buy the discounts.

But in an ebook world, their money offers no advantage. They can't get more shelf space or a longer shelf life than I can, and they can't discount for less than I can.

Now certainly bestselling authors will still have fans when the print industry collapses, and those fans will have no choice but to switch to ebooks.

So far, those fans have been willing to put up with $9.99 and $12.99 prices.

I don't see this happening forever. Right now, we're in a transitional period. The stranglehold NY publishing has had on the US, forcing people to read what they decide to make available, is loosening up. When given a choice, readers will buy books other than those vetted by NY. The Kindle bestseller lists prove this. My sales prove this.

In the future, coop and distribution won't be the main reason a book sells. Price and content will be.

In said future, will Patterson be happy with 25% royalties on a $9.99 ebook when he could make more money self-pubbing a $2.99 ebook which would sell ten times as many copies?

I think not.

"But Joe," you may say, "When Patterson is self-pubbing at $2.99, how will you compete?"

That's the beauty of ebooks. There is no competition.

When I used to buy music, I was limited by price, by space, by the physicality of the object, and by the places it was available.

Price was prohibitive. A $15 CD meant I had to be picky and choosy when buying, lest I run out of money.

Space was prohibitive. After you buy a few hundred albums, you run out of places to put them.

The tangibility of a CD gave it weight, both physically and psychologically. It was an object that existed, which gave it value and permanence. Buying something valuable and permanent meant actually thinking about whether or not to make the purchase.

Often, I had to visit different stores to find the CD I wanted. This process took time, and effort.

Then iTunes came along.

Price was no longer prohibitive. I could cheaply buy whatever I wanted.

I didn't have to take up a shelf when I bought the music--it fit right on my hard drive.

Because it was one-click buying, I was more apt to download something than buy a tangible object. Which meant it required less thought. Ask any Kindle owner if they buy more books now that they own an ereader, and the overwhelming majority will say yes. Especially since the don't need to leave their house, or their sofa, to do so.

So let's apply this to books.

In the past, a reader would have to physically visit a store, then decide to buy Patterson's new hardcover for $15.99 or my new hardcover for $24.99 (if mine was even available there). To make this decision, the reader had to come to grips with the fact that they were buying an expensive, permanent object, that once purchased will take up space in the home.

Making decisions is tough. Especially when it comes to your entertainment dollar. Why take a chance on an unknown author for $25 when NY publishers make it easy to get a sure thing for $16?

So Patterson has vastly outsold me in print.

But with ebooks, it is much easier to make decisions. Cheap, intangible downloads don't require as much thought. Las Vegas has proven that once you take away cash and credit cards and replace them with chips and tokens, people are freer with their spending. The same thing applies to clicking a BUY NOW button on a computer or Kindle that is hooked up to your account.

So I'm no longer competing with Patterson. If he's $2.99 and I'm $2.99, readers won't hesitate to buy both of us.

In fact, once he and all the other bestselling authors start self-publishing and come down in price, that will leave more money in readers' pockets to spend on unknowns like me.

The next obvious question involves time. If every ebook is cheap, and readers pig out on them like we do at an all-you-can-eat buffet, where will anyone find the time to read all of those ebooks?

Answer: they won't.

Admit it, you've bought books before but haven't gotten around to reading them yet. Just like you've rented movies you didn't watch, bought music you haven't listened to, and bought a DVD set of some TV show that still has two discs you haven't gotten to yet.

We all have to-be-read piles. The Kindle has just made them bigger, cheaper, and easier to attain.

There is a lot of allure to pressing a button, getting an ebook download, and having it on your device to be read later. It's like a squirrel storing up nuts for winter. It gives us comfort knowing we have it.

Conclusions?

In the future, we will no longer have the same bestsellers we have now. People will be buying more books, but more of them will be going unread. There won't be competition, because no one goes to a buffet and gets the pizza or the lasagna--they get the pizza AND the lasagna, even if they don't eat one of them.

Ebooks will continue to gobble up market share once held by print books. Chain bookstores will close. Publishers will have to downsize or go bankrupt. Big name authors will self-publish, making less money than they did before, but having more control and getting a larger percentage of royalties. The playing field will truly be even, readers will find what they want to read without having it crammed down their throats by NY, and the cream will rise to the top.

And that, my friends, is a fairy tale ending in every sense of the term.