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.
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.