Finding fiction


The New York band Finding Fiction

In a recent post I may have been somewhat glib about the traditional marketing tactics deployed by publishers. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea here. Publishers work incredibly hard to make their books work and their tactics have been, to varying degrees, successful in the past. My point is that they are no longer enough.

The objective of publisher marketing has always been to make the book as discoverable to its market as possible. This has been done by educating, inspiring and occasionally cajoling the book trade to stock, support and sell the book. When done well, this achieves a virtuous circle, bookshops fall in love with and ‘hand-sell’ the product. The bookshop ‘community,’ if you will, adopts the book and takes on the role of telling the story of the story to readers.

Digital changes all of this. It does away with the element of a well-prepared trade.  There is no showroom for the customer to hold and sample the book, no bookseller to influence and advise, no context in which to measure the book easily against others. In short publishers have no-one to tell the story of the story to readers.

In its place we have is a search engine. Now this can work quite well with non-fiction about which we often have a clearer idea of what we are after. If I want a book on the French Revolution and Simon Schama’s Citizens pops up, then my mission is accomplished and my need sated. If I need a book on Tatting, then Google is unquestionably my friend.

But we buy fiction in a different way and for reasons that are much more speculative in nature. What if I’m in the mood for, say, a love story? How does Google interrogate my desire further? What context or experience can it apply to help me sate that rather nebulous desire? Most importantly how do I get an authoritative enough recommendation to part me from my cash?

At the moment the answer relies largely on the accuracy of meta-data but if we are to keep breaking new voices into the fiction market then surely we will need to build new and effective recommendation synapses into our new digital environment? Some might argue that these already exist in various online communities but as yet I don’t see much evidence of them penetrating into the mainstream world of the general reader over and above the blunt instrument of Amazon’s suggestions.

Maybe the reading and recommendation of fiction will become a matter of niche online communities or reliance perhaps on already dominant ‘brand name’ authors. But what will this do to our reading culture? Might we find that an activity already beginning to struggle in reaching segments of the population, loses even more relevance.

If you change the supply chain, it’s not just a change of reading format, it’s a change in the way people find and propagate their experience of story. Inevitably publishers will have to adapt but if they don’t do this quickly or adroitly enough, will people simply go someplace else to get their narrative fix?

Publishers don’t just need to master the supply chain of e-publishing, they need to find a new way of connecting that chain to readers. They need to find a new way of telling the story of the story.

P.S. Amazing what you can find just googling words and there is a certain relevance to what the band are doing. The great Simon Reynolds gave this interview at the weekend on the Kim Hill show. Fascinating for all sorts of reasons but not least because of his insight into the need for music to be not just a private, iPod-only experience but a public one. More to say on this insight regarding books.
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4 thoughts on “Finding fiction

  1. i would argue that the publishers are already badly failing at this and the early adapters have created their own digital ways to take care of it. http://www.goodreads.com/ being the most prominent. you’re right that they aren’t in the general public quite, but i’d argue that neither is the ereader. the digital age and the plethora of, well, everything, have made word of mouth a powerful tool, and digital means to solidify the word of mouth v. valuable.

    also, book trailers are the new black. a couple of our authors at the upcoming fest have a great ones that are getting a lot of buzz
    http://www.avclub.com/articles/check-out-this-exclusive-animated-trailer-for-coli,59474/
    and
    http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/7874/wire-to-wire-the-trailer.html
    both by the publishers i believe.

    as a caveat, i am not sure google is my friend for nonfiction. i’d be much more likely to use somewhere like amazon so i could see if it was a worthwhile book on tatting since there are a plethora.

    yikes, did not mean to be quite so argumentative and surly. yeash.

  2. OK, first of all, Kindles don’t emit any light, green or otherwise, so I suspect you aren’t an ereader fan. Second, really this discussion applies to how books are sold, as much as anything. The fact that the books are digital is kind of beside the point. Selling print books online also bypasses the corner bookstore.

    I think you are leaving out one important element. With digital selling (whether of ebooks or print) the vendor always know who the buyer is and how to contact him/her. I get emails from Amazon and Barnes & Noble all the time suggesting books to me based on what I have bought in the past.

    I agree with you on publishers and the digital supply chain. The thing publishers need to do right away is to realize their real customers are not the bookstores but the readers. Right now they have no idea who those folks are.

    • Thank you Carmen and lea for commenting. As much as anything else it helps clarify my thoughts and this blog is, in part, a ‘thinking out loud’ exercise for me.

      In answer to your comment Carmen, I’m neither fan nor enemy of ereaders, I have one and I use it considerably but not exclusively. Ultimately I am a fan of reading and the platform is whatever is most convenient.

      You’re absolutely right about print books and digital selling, indeed I think without digital selling of print books, the ebook would never have got traction. My point though was perhaps pitched slightly further into the future and envisions a much more unstable book market that has lost most, if not quite all of its print bookstores and the impact that this could have on the wider publishing ecology.

      I also take your point about the direct connection between the digital vendor and the consumer. I’m certain you’re right about its importance in terms of sales now and in the future, I’m just not sure that its quite deep or effective enough yet as a tool and its much much tougher for publishers to break new talent with.

      That said, the future may well be such as you illustrate lea, with Booklamp. I’ll give that a good look. I’ve spent a bit of time playing around with a site called hunch.com that has an eerie ability to recommend things that I like based on a slightly infectious question session.

      As to the green light, I know a Kindle doesn’t have one, but it’s really tough to connect The Great Gatsby and the digital book future and it was the best joke I could come up with at short notice.

      Once again thanks for the comments, I really appreciate it.

  3. i totally agree with what the other commenter said and have to say that much of what i said pertains to digital selling of hard copy books as well. most especially the book trailers (though i’ve seen them for ebooks, too.

    all that said, i’m commenting again to say this:

    http://booklamp.org/

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