Time doesn’t matter

by Jane

So, this week I talked with a number of editors in our business who are complaining about recent poor bookstore sales and it caused me to consider again how our industry is changing and how I wish publishers would begin to “rethink.”

Traditionally, books are launched and shipped in a certain season and then, in subsequent seasons, these books are considered “backlist” and hopefully continue to sell (with virtually no support from the publishers). So, if the book doesn’t “take off” in its first few weeks, the publisher literally abandons it and moves on to the next one.

The beauty of this new “electronic publishing age” is that books are always there and available. And they can easily continue to be publicized and promoted during the course of the year with very little additional cost and effort. Publishers, in the acquisitions process especially, are totally losing sight of this phenomenon and they certainly aren’t taking advantage of it.

If a novel, say, which contains a story line about breast cancer and also takes place in a highly trafficked summer vacation area is published in March, there is the initial publicity for the book. But then there can be a solid push in May or June because of the location of the story and then again in October for Breast Cancer Awareness month. And this can go on year after year. The novel doesn’t just have one season.

I am currently trying to sell a book with a graduation market; but it is also a great gift title. Publishers are passing because they say that there are too many books aimed at the high school or college graduate, but to my mind that is limited thinking. Why not take advantage of the enormous marketing ability of the internet and not only publish this for that graduation market but also for September when kids leave for school and for Christmas? And what about birthdays? Why just limit the publication to a single event?

Time simply doesn’t matter any more in our business. Backlist can become front list again at a moment’s notice. If only publishers would realize this. I think they simply don’t take the time to consider the inherent possibilities that electronic publishing affords and that, I’m afraid, does matter.

What do you think?

13 Responses to Time doesn’t matter

  1. Anne R. Allen says:

    Thanks for this insight, Jane. Speaking of time–it looks as if the big publishers aren't aware of its passage. They're still partying like it's 1999. I have a feeling that learning to be nimble is going to be essential to survival in this new e-book age.

  2. Oliver says:

    Until they can see past the numbers, nothing about the eBook is a benefit. It's like watching that scene in Animal House when the marching band is lead into a dead-end alley. It will take one person from the band to show everyone else how to back out and get back on the road. Unfortunately, so far, it looks like its Amazon leading that path and this in itself is causing this paralyzing effect.

  3. Kellye says:

    Really interesting post, Jane, and great marketing ideas!

  4. Anonymous says:

    You make an excellent point about the marketing possibilities in the electronic publishing age. I do think, though, that it isn't necessarily a matter of this never occurring to publishers – I think it could be more a matter of them not having the time, resources, or manpower to continue promoting all of their backlist titles. When you have a small marketing department and 20-30 new frontlist titles you're working on, sometimes going back to backlist titles falls to the bottom of the to-do list, unfortunately.

  5. Kristina Holmes says:

    I think publishers need more (talented) folks working in their marketing/publicity/digital promotion departments. I'm always amazed when I hear that a single publicist is working on 15 or 20 different books at a time. How is it possible to do a good job with that kind of load, no matter how talented you are? And why go to all the trouble of publishing a book if you're not going to support the author's efforts to promote it (meaningfully, not just superficially)? Filling out in-house promotion-related departments would be an investment well worth making.

    I agree that publishers need to see books in a new way given recent tech developments. In-house promotion must accompany that. It seems to me that we're doing a whole lot of work to publish a book, only to shortchange such a critical piece to making a book successful.

  6. Amber Argyle says:

    I can see this working for nonfiction, but what about fiction?

  7. Kristin Laughtin says:

    I agree. With so many books moving online, nothing has to go out of print anymore! And if a book has potential to be relevant and desired at multiple points, why wouldn't publishers want to support that? They'd have to do some moving around as far as publicity dollars, I'm sure, but my impression was that they were in the business of supporting whatever's likely to make them money anyway…

  8. Sharon Bially says:

    I have been thinking about this a lot recently, and could not have said it better. You articulated it perfectly. Thanks.

  9. Sharon Bially says:

    One more thought: what a strange contradiction that something that takes years to produce and has an infinite shelf life would even be considered a short-term product. Are books nothing more than merchandise?

  10. Anne R. Allen says:

    Sharon–alas, it's true. A wonderful writer named Jean Brodie told me over a decade ago that a published book has a shelf life somewhere between fresh milk and yogurt.

  11. DGLM says:

    Thank you for your comments. This can work for non fiction and for fiction as well. Publishers should be able to take themes from novels and repromote the fiction at different times of the year. I just wish that publishers would see that this is in everyone's best interest — besides which, it's good business.

  12. J. Nelson Leith says:

    This is a spot-on critique. It seems like publishers are using an attrition strategy: just throw books at readers and whatever fails to click right away gets buried.

    But, as military theorists would be quick to point out, attrition isn't so much a strategy as a complete lack of a strategy. What you're proposing is far more professional, and would likely reduce the work load of publicists and booksellers, and certainly that of editors and agents.

    The only downside I can see is that it would make it slightly more difficult for new authors to break in.

  13. GhostFolk.com says:

    I try real hard not to comment… but, wow, I agree 100% with every word of this. The only caveat on the topic about backlist becoming frontlist is that it can't be done at all without the publisher AT LEAST keeping the book(s) in print down the road a year or two in the first place.

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