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August 03, 2006

An Ancillary Tail

"We'd like some ancillary material for the spring paperback edition," said my editor, who really should be on a beach somewhere, taking a vacation.

Uh, Nancy thinks.  Come again?

Turns out, "ancillary material" is a new-to-me phrase for an age-old concept.  As a kid, I really wanted the toy in the box of Cracker Jack. (Maybe because the popcorn tended to get unattractively stuck in my braces.) The kid next door bought bubble gum by the case--to get his hands on the baseball cards inside. The Sinclair station in my hometown rewarded my mother with sets of glassware when she bought gasoline for her Corvair.

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When I wrote for various romance publishers years ago, we had coupons and teasers for other books tucked into the back pages of our new releases. We had scratch-off contests, perfume samples, jewelry giveaways, drawings for prizes--you name it.

Are those strategies to reward readers for brand loyalty? Or desperate attempts to sell books?

Hey, these days we're all looking for ways to sell more copies of our babies.  There's Mr. Konrath's ballyhooed summer road trip.  Boxloads of books being given away on DorothyL. And plenty of writers are--ahem--blogging their hearts out to attract more readers. (Oh, admit it.  Do you really blog to share your cherished memories of growing up in Brooklyn, or are you trying to sell your next suspense novel?)

So when my editor asked if I would write up some kind of "ancillary material" for the back pages of the paperback edition of HAVE YOUR CAKE AND KILL HIM TOO, I said, "Sure, why not?" Some writers include recipes or book club questions. There are maps of imaginary towns and mythical family trees--just about anything a writer can dream up. We'd be fools not to do it.

But is ancillary material going to sell more books in this age of the Long Tail? I dunno.

MTV celebrated its 25th year this week. (I can still hear Mick Jagger yelling, "I want my MTV!" as I nursed one of my babies.  How's that for sharing a cherished memory, folks?) We can all agree that MTV changed the way music was marketed, right? I'm thinking we need some kind of equally revolutionary change in the book biz about now.

With so many books getting published and the business of selling books consolidating, booksellers are scrambling to either streamline or beef up their inventory depending on their niche---and of course, with the intense competition for entertainment dollars from so many other directions--it seems that one result is that readers are . . . well, overwhelmed. Does anybody read newspaper book reviews anymore? Or is it easier to snatch a "bestseller" off the rack (along with our copy of In-Touch magazine) as we rush through the grocery story checkout in Stone Harbor? Who has time to make a special trip to a bookstore so a genuinely well-read bookseller can bend our ears for an hour? A dwindling number of Americans. 

Which means the bestsellers sell even better, and the books by lesser authors (those who aren't regularly stocked in that golden real estate in the front of the chain bookstores) start to "lose market share." It seems we're headed into one of those eras in which the bestsellers get bigger, and other writers must be satisfied with those heart-breaking $5000 advances. Those of us who have thrived a little further up the food chain in the midlist? We're in trouble. This summer, a daunting number of our colleagues have been cancelled or asked to write under a different name or invited to try a totally new genre just to see if lightning strikes. To a certain extent, it's the natural ebb and flow of the marketplace. But also . . . not.

More and more consumers shop in the comfort of our blessedly air-conditioned homes. Hey, we're fast putting Blockbuster Video out of business in favor of that modern wonder, Netflix. And before slogging outside in the 95+ degree heat to buy our beach reads, a lot of us go online to look at all the information Amazon presents so well. You must admit those Amazon reviews, automated recommendations fan lists and even the dialogue boxes are tremendous resources. Whether you actually buy from Amazon or not depends on your political views (BUY LOCAL!) but we all certainly do our trolling for info at The Evil Empire of Amazon because that info is so damn good! Yes, Virginia, technology is grand!

Long tail bookselling means--and somebody correct me if you think I'm wrong---putting better information into the hands of readers so they can make more personalized choices, and then making it easier on them when they actually take the trouble to buy books instead of video games.  If readers know where to look, they can find books that will please any and every taste. (Netflix claims they actually have increased the circulation of obscure movies, not just the current Top Ten.) 

In the Long Tail scheme of things, it strikes me that we in the book biz must first provide better information. Genre readers especially need help choosing from crowded shelves. Remember the flood of post-Bridget Jones wannabes that came to be called chick-lit? How to choose from among so many books that seemed so similar? Genres that are perceived as popular swell up fast with hundreds of lookalike titles that can't possibly sell with the same velocity as the original hits, and then the whole genre deflates like a balloon. It happened to the category romance genre in the 90s, and by many reports it's happening to chick-lit now. (Let's see if it happens to the thriller genre in the next three years.)

Publishers are begging authors to do more to find our readers and tell them about our books. So even those of us with no salesmanship skills are dutifully creating better websites, joining forces to blog as entertainingly as possible, doing peppy radio interviews with the likes of Bubba in Oklahoma after he delivers the farm report, joining MySpace and collecting teenage "friends" by the boatload. But we also use the Old School techniques like talking at libraries because librarians influence readers. We max-out our credit cards on do-it-ourselves book tours and independent publicists and bookmarks and little gewgaws to distribute at genre conventions.

The organizer of a women's expo called me this afternoon to ask if I'd like to spend $600 to stand in a convention center booth and hand-sell my books for 3 days. (She says they'll have 3500 women stroll past me that weekend. Should I do it? Is 3 days of personal contact going to sell enough books to make a difference? Even if I were to sell a book to every attendee, that's only 3500 books. Somebody do the math and tell me if that's even cost effective. Because in the midlist, 3500 isn't enough books to guarantee the future of my series.) I'm considering it, just because it's something new.

Our publishers aren't standing idily by, of course. Co-op space, underwriting tours, advertising and ARCs are fodder for another blog, however.

We need to find new ways to sell books the way Netflix is distributing movies. A cousin of MTV, maybe. Or a new kind of MySpace. Or some technological invention that helps readers define and refine their own taste and find easy ways to indulge it. Maybe the big 5 publishers need to band together to finance something really big. Mr. Gates? Steve Jobs? Who's the next MIT drop-out whiz kid who can invent such a thing for the publishing industry? And fast? Because this summer, some of us are swimming as hard as we know how, but the riptide is pulling us in the wrong direction.

Can we make a wish list?  What we'd like this new invention to do? How about some creative ideas?  The first step in realizing a dream is to decide what we want, after all.

      

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Comments

You do realize that Netflix is RENTING DVDs, not SELLING them, right? You would be running into the libraries vs. buying books arguments. Only instead of hundreds of local libraries making individual buying decisions, you'd have one regional (i.e. Netflix has one distribution center for New England) entity buying one copy of non-bestsellers for that region.

One good lesson that I learned from the owner of a yarn shop where I used to work is that, in the end, your limit on what you can sell to somebody is the amount of leisure time they have available. At a certain point, people will realize that they have more yarn than they have time to knit, more books than they can ever read, etc. DVDs are different in a way, because they are a shared experience for most people. You sit with your family, laugh together, learn a bit about each other.

The best thing authors could do is fight against the encroachment on the forty hour work week and for a living wage. When leisure hours are limited, people are just not going to have time to read a book.

Way to go, Nancy! Having both done the Netflix thing (loved it) and used Amazon.com to narrow down my book choices before buying local, here's what I'd like:

1. Both reader and "traditional" reviews of books; I find I get different, but equally important, information from both. It would also be cool to have blurbs by the authors themselves (or links to short essays or whatever).

2. For series, I want the titles clearly numbered (I hate starting them in the middle) -- the wondeful folks at Mystery Lovers do a great job of this. If early titles are no longer in print, I still want them identified (and identified as out of print) so I can prowl the used bookstores for them. Links to likely used bookstores would be good, too.

3. I like the recommendation feature of Netflix -- the one that starts with recommendations based on your selection, then lets you rate the selections you've already seen. I found that system to work pretty well and I saw some pretty fun movies that way. Do that for books.

4. Link authors to their websites and blogs, which is the best place for all that ancillary material anyway (let's save a few trees by putting the teaser chapters and recipes on-line, OK?).

5. Please, please, please find a way to use my location (perhaps a zip code keyed to my login?) to tell me where my nearest independent bookstore is so I can order locally.

6. Even better, let me assemble a wish list on the entry site while I'm browsing and click it through to my local independent for them to order for me. How cool would that be?

7. I've never tried an on-line book club (looking forward to it here, though!); that might be another good feature to add. I'm sure there are other ways to let users build communities within the site -- do them, too. That lets word-of-mouth happen, which is still a very important way to get folks reading new stuff.

That's all I can think of on this caffeine-deprived morning.

Sorry, Mary, I should have made it clearer about Netflix. I know they're renting. I think Kerry's got the idea, though.---That we could use some Netflix techniques to make books easier to acquire. Way to go, Kerry! You've thought this through! The idea of pointing a consumer directly to local stores is a really good one.

Blurbing ourselves.....y'know, that would make great ancillary material.

This is so interesting to me as a member of two book clubs that meet monthly and a reader of approximately 200 books per year (I keep a list).

My hometown no longer has an independent bookseller, only Barnes and Noble and one other that I don't even go to. I admit Amazon is easy to shop and I have bought used books (although I am reconsidering that after a recent blog entry).

I like to consider myself a thoughtful selector of books. I read seeral of the bestseller (although I avoid John Grisham and Danielle Steel like the plague). I also seek out lesser known books that sometimes even my library doesn't carry.

I rarely read book reviews in the newspaper, online or elsewhere. I am not willing to choose my books based on someone else's opinion. Usually my method is that I see a book reviewed and look it up on Amazon for a plot summary and then make my decision. I don't read the comments/reviews posted there either. I would never choose a book because of a giveaway, a free prize, an extra chapter, etc. But I do confess to always making at least one recipe from Diane Mott Davidson's books.

However, one thought crossed my mind. How much responsibility for the average author's income/book sales can the consumer reasonably accomodate? I never want to intentionally hurt the little man and do try to shop locally, etc. but at the same time is a consumer supposed to sacrifice convienence in his or her life to make sure that a local bookseller is supported? I am not sure that one can't completely argue yes to that. There are stores I deliberately shop at in my hometown even knowing that I could probably save money going to a big box or shopping on line. But the truth of the matter is customer service is declining everywhere both at large chains and at locally owned stores. Some stores are not providing good enough service that make you want to take time out of your busy day to stop in to buy something when with two clicks, it can be delivered to your door by Amazon.

I think I will make a point not to buy too many used books online anymore but selilng used goods is an important part of our economy. Everytime you buy something new, you are taking income away from a used dealer and the used books stores in my town are locally owned and operated. So who is more important? The author who is shorted one sale by me buying a used book or the local small business owner who is shorted one sale (or perhaps multiple since I rarely buy just one book there)?

Just food for thought from a reader's persepctive.

Very interesting blog, Nancy. I've thought a lot about book sales since Elaine's blog last week, and about all the issues which may or may not play a part in sales. One thing that Konrath said that has stuck in my mind, and I wonder if it's true, is that books are impulse buys. I suppose that some must be, but are most? My book purchases are never impulse, so that statement kind of struck me, and it puts a whole different light on how to market.

And If that's true, then the cover must be exceedingly important. But for me, personally, book covers are completely useless. But then, I never buy books at the grocery store. I go to the book store specifically to buy a particular book or books.

The whole issue is very interesting, and must be horribly frustrating to authors and publishers. I've learned a great deal the past week.

Ebooks are the future. I hope so anyway, because eight of my novels have been published that way. Major publishers are fighting it by charging way too much for their ebooks. Smaller publishers are selling books through internet store like fictionwise.com for less that $5 and making a profit.
Bob Liter

I'm a former MTV addict, Nancy. How time does fly!

I think there are times in a career when the big book tour is useful...but the ultimate goal is to create the broad-based bookseller recognition and future sales velocity that permits you to stay at home later on, and only tour selectively. I've watched this pattern with other writers.

When I see an author signing books in a store, I never buy one. Unless it's a close personal friend. Or a blood relative.

Of course, whenever I sign books in a bookstore, I expect every passing stranger to purchase 5 copies: one for him/her, one for the spouse, one for Aunt Martha, one for their secretary, one for the dog to chew.

The majority of my book buying is premeditated. I collect info from PW (reviews, and the spring and fall announcements issues), word of mouth or good buzz, handselling at an indie or chain (it happens!), web surfing. I like reading new authors. I've been doing that a lot more lately.

Online buying doesn't always work for me, because it takes 2 to 3 days for a book to arrive. I'm an instant gratification girl. If I pop down to the nearest indie or chain, I can usually be holding my heart's desire in my hot little hands within 25 minutes.

I don't mind if ebooks are the future, or the present, it's a great market for writers and a boon to many readers. As long as they aren't my only option. I'm desperate for print books to remain viable as a format...whatever it takes to do that, I'm cool with it.

Nancy, good luck with your ancillary material!

I like to consider myself a professional book buyer (LOL), and they are all for me...usually. I have a very large spreadsheet of most of my books that I use to keep track of my authors, what books I own and/or have read, and what is coming...all the way into next year already.

I will often check the newspapers book list to see what is interesting out there that I may not have read yet. I plan trips to the local bookstore chains AND independent (Chester County Books). I check the new table. I browse the shelves. And like this past Saturday, I chat with Joe at CCB, and he says that I have to try this new first time author (definitely will, after my current read).

Regarding series books? I also wish that they would number them also, as I am another who doesn't like reading a book and realizing that I missed something pertinant that may have happened in an earlier book. And hopefully, I don't have to buy too many to catch up, but it didn't stop me from dropping a ton of $ at B&N and CCB last week.

I belong to a large on-line book club of sorts, where nothing is sold and all of the opinions are free. We discuss favs, new authors, have get-togethers, and have fun. That is where I found out about Sarah, who introduced me to Nancy, and so on and so forth.

But, back to Nancy's topic regarding the extras and does it help? For me, the only extra that is guaranteed for me is usually a blurb for the next book as it peaks my interest and makes me aware of what I should note on my above mentioned spreadsheet. And recipes and such should only be used if they directly related to the book itself, like Sarah did in Bubbles. Then, once I am hooked an an author, I just tend to do my stalker imitation and keep track of their books and tours.

Debby ~ always willing to give book reviews whenever I can.

Nancy,
Thoughtful as usual and thanks for the Buy Local plug.
At Mystery Lovers Bookshop online we've given much thought to these issues. We get over 20,000 hits per day from over 8,000 unique visitors each day and it is the only way we're holding on to any sales increase.
Also, it is why we are going to upgrade our already fabulous website------------as noted above, we are the only place on the web where you can search for character, setting and sequence in a series. That also accounts for the high activity that doesn't result in corresponding sales, I fear.
To maintain new sales, our staff have developed the skill of hand-selling online by making recommendations on the basis of folk's selections.
However, I find there are limits. One limit seems to be the leisure time for reading-------------although any reader knows you find the time usually instead of sleeping! The other limit is the discretionary income for entertainment. I don't have to mention the out of control cost-of-living expenses we are all facing.
By the way, here's an interesting development at Netflix that came about after the information came out that they had to increase spending and were loosing market share.
Netflix released its results after the stock market closed Monday. The company's shares rose 71 cents to close at $23.76 on the Nasdaq Stock Market, then plunged $4.86, or 20.5 percent, in extended trading.

I find everyone's comments here interesting and hope more folks will chime in so I can bring ideas to our design team tomorrow! Thanks again Nancy for a thought provoking message.

Mary Alice
who was up reading until 4AM

Like Debby, I keep a calendar too - and books are not an impulse buy for me. I'll pick up a new author if someone hand-sells it to me - whether that's in person at the Mystery Lovers, or a book club pick, or a recommendation online from a blog.

I also heartily endorse the numbers for a series. I cannot read them out of order. This sometimes bites me in the ass if a book club picks one that's 6th or 7th in the series...

Meanwhile, thank heaven for books this week, since it's too damn hot to do much of anything besides read!

Nancy, Nancy, Nancy, the answer is hidden in your very own blog. The Book Tarts need to start a BAND!!! Do a girl group/book tour! Write and sing your hits: The Blackbird Blues, Wollie's Warblings, Bubbles'...Bubblings? I'd be happy to ditch my familial duties to tag along as a roadie/groupie.

Enough with the silly. I confess that I love the ancillary stuff, but I'm the type who sometimes flips to the "About the Author" page before finishing the blurbs on the back. The extras are a perk--a freebie, if you will--but it's not why I buy a book. The first line is why I buy a book.

P.S. Back to the band...Has anyone present ever caught the Rock Bottom Remainders live? Just asking.

Oooh -- a band! Only if we all wear pink rhinestone-studded cowboy boots :)

MaryAlice: I don't know if this will help, but on my last buying expedition at ML, I used Amazon.com to get extended reviews of the books on my "long list" and used those to narrow down my choices. And I did find one listing for a book that's not in print
:( If y'all could find a way to include the out-of-print early books in a series, that would be awesome!

Another thing to consider for the long term, and that's the fact that a book takes a lot of resources to make and ship. At some point, we need to find other ways (such as e-books) to keep us in stories, authors in salaries, and trees in the forest.

I don't know who's blogging about her childhood in Brooklyn , but I can tell you why I'm blogging about mine in Baltimore -- it's because readers of my website, when queried in a most unscientific way, responded that they wanted two things from the website:

1) A place to write, and
2) A blog.

I didn't want to worry about censoring anyone, or creating a Tess Monaghan fac-fic page, so I pulled something out of my teaching gig, an exercise in which I ask students to write about their daily lives in the most concrete, tangible language possible, avoiding "feeling" words. As a teaching tool, this is meant to show that the precise use of concrete words can evoke far more emotion than the intangible words used to describe emotion. (Happy, sad, embarrassed, etc.) It was something I learned from the journals I kept over the years. Passages about feelings felt generic and indistinguishable (and embarrassingly unvariable over many, man years.) Whereas, when I read the now 24-year-old passage about sitting on my front porch at 501 W. 23rd Street in Waco, Texas, eating a Stoned Wheat Thin and watching the sunset at the end of a day in which I caught 17 rattlesnakes with Butch Hefflefinger -- well, the emotions of the day come roaring back.

Added bonus: When I wallow in the past long enough, an astonishing amount of detail comes back, which leads me to believe that memory can be improved through use.

If ever I heard a great name for a band, it's 17 Rattlesnakes! (Hey, *I* want to hear about that day!) I love your writing blog, Laura, and hope you didn't assume I was casting stones your way. What I like most is that yours totally unique, and emotionally rooted. Very sense memory.

Ramona is probably the only one here who knows that in my teens I wore my hair down to my butt, played the acoustic guitar and knew all the verses to Blowin' in the Wind. I will not reveal the name of the band. It's just too embarrassing.

Abby, I'm interested that you don't read the reviews. Am I a bad person because I immediately read the lousy reviews, but not the positive ones? I often find the complaints other readers have are things I enjoy. Weird, huh?

And nobody should feel guilty about the way they buy books. That's my view, perhaps, and not reflective of all the Tarts. Abby, I don't think you need to feel responsible for me.--But I need to find better ways of ingratiating myself (and my books) to you!

Thanks for all the comments here today, everyone. Keep 'em coming.

I think I have found that if I read a negative book review, it ultimately colors my perception of the book. I would rather read it and make my own decision. I really resent the big best sellers being placed so predmominantly at the forn tof the store. Those aren't the only books worth reading. That is why I think that Barnes and Noble has a good idea with presenting favorite books of the staff. Those are sometimes big sellers but are often indie books.

I must confess I have a huge independent streak and just don't want to read the same book that everyone else is reading. And, one of my book clubs has an inviolate rule-never choose a book that is on Oprah's list. I resent the fact that it then becomes the latest "thing" like wearing big sunglasses or whatever to read a book jsut because Oprah supports it. On the other hand, it has created new readers which is a good thing for society.

Abby - my book group also has a No Oprah rule, but it's because we really hated the Oprah books we read.

I don't read reviews at all.

I also don't really care about the ancillary stuff. In fact, I don't usually take the time to read it, unless it's about the next book in the series.

I doubt I'm an average reader, so I'm not sure how much my opinion is worth on this subject.

Here's one of my dreams for a book store website - a personal library. That way I can check to see what I've already purchased/read/liked, etc. without having to maintain my own data base. I used Byron for awhile, but it didn't have all the books I own. So, I created my own, but it's a pain in the butt to maintain - I have to enter every new book by hand, and cross reference the series, etc.

I saw the coolest thing online, but now I can't remember where - it was one of those bar scanners that put all the details on the the book/CD/DVD directly onto a PC. Guess what I'm asking for for Christmas this year?

Nancy, I was very clear that it wasn't a cast stone, but it was an opportunity to chat. I'm a big fan of the Lipstick Chronicles.

I'm also a big fan of indirect promotion. The blog is an example of that. I've also been giving away other authors' books. And as those who see me on tour know, I often spend quite a lot of time talking about the books I love.

I *skim* reviews that come my way. I'd like to give up reading them altogether, but, as I've noted elsewhere,there are some awfully good reviewers out there who deserve to be read because they're smart and insightful about the genre. Because that's the really odd thing: Even when I've written a book and am touring, it's not about me.

A few weeks ago, a friend told me a story about a friend of hers who had behaved badly the night before her wedding. I agreed, her friend had behaved badly. But I disagreed with her conclusion: "If there was ever a time that it was okay for it to be all about me, it was my wedding weekend." There's never really a right time, ever, for it to be all about one person. Hasn't every bride had the experience of realizing SHE DIDN'T GET TO EAT A DARN THING because she was so busy socializing? That's how it should be, I think. A just-published writer is the host of a fabulous party. Make sure everyone has a drink and something good to eat. Share the floor. You can have a bite when it's over.

Thous shall not forget the human element!

"Liberties Bookstore" in Boca Raton is gone, but the owner, Vald, could promote books in for a local community. John Grisham and local artists/writers visited and did signings.

Since people read their computer more than they read books, having a fun forum like the Lipstick Blogs, Murder Mystery blogs, Vampire Blogs, self-help blogs, science fiction blogs....do much to sell books.

Books are intimate for the reader.
Blogs allow like minded people to share their views and perspective on a similiar subject. How many times have you been on mass transit during the summmer when you see another passenger reading the same book?

Those moments of book sharing create a bonding moment for complete strangers.

Oooh, Kathy, I love your idea about the on-line database. And it needs to be down-loadable, sort of like the information captured when you buy music from iTunes or import music from your CD to your iPod (I love that the function imports artist, album title, song title). Of course, I can't imagine having enough time to read enough books that I'd need such a thing, but it's nice to dream :)

For those (Kathy) who are interested, the attached link is for a thing called readerware, and is very helpful in the book (and more) buying area.

http://www.readerware.com/rwOvw.html

I haven't purchased it as I have an excel spreadsheet that I created years ago, and it works for me...for now.

However, one of these days I may cave and make the above purchase. Especially whenever I happen to get a house with lots of rooms for bookshelving my massive book collection.


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