An Ode to Print Books

I recently bought a handmade blank book from a local artist, who uses Japanese papers to create one-of-a-kind journals. They are just beautiful and bring together many of the elements I love about print books.

And that got me to thinking. We’re a day early for Wild West Thursday, but let’s talk about print books and why (if) we love them. I adore print books. I always have. And now that they’re diminishing in numbers and availability, I have to hope that they’re not facing extinction. I love print books so much that I can’t imagine reading only in a digital format. I also love print books enough that I am aware of the limitations of print-on-demand technology.

Let’s talk about why.

First off, there’s the tactile experience of a physical book. I love the smell of print books. The glue from the binding has a particular scent, as does the paper. I love the sound a hardcover book makes when it’s cracked open the first time, and the feel of a cover under my fingertips. I love matte paper covers on trade paperbacks, foil stamping and raised type, gloss varnish images that you only see when you hold the book at the right angle. I love rag edges on the pages of hard cover books, marbled end papers (or illustrated end papers), leather covers with tooling and gold embossing. The paper can be smooth or have more tooth; it can be creamy or it can be stark white; it can be trimmed with precision or have rag edges. There’s something magical about a book that needs to have its galleys carefully cut open with a knife before it can be read, like it has secrets to reveal only to you. I love all those printing and production tricks that make print books into tactile treasure chests. Some people call this “book as object” or “book as treasure”. The physical book in itself is a prize.

Possibly because I learned to read print books, I associate all of those physical clues with the thrill of discovering a new story. We had the entire set of My Book House when I was a kid, a twelve volume hard cover collection of children’s stories that become progressively more advanced with each addition. (I still have them.) I remember opening those books to read—or be read to—and the thrill of moving on to the next volume in the series very well. Holding a print book in my hands gives me a sense of anticipation, an awareness that I’m about to embark on an adventure.

I also love illustrations in books. These tend to be few and far between in digital books. My Book House had wonderful line drawings, and perhaps my affection for them came from that. The illustrations were well chosen to highlight the story in question and often took the imagination in new paths, or brought some previously-unnoticed element of the story to the fore. Sometimes poems were typeset to flow around the illustration or echo its composition, which looked like magic to me. I recently read a new book (in print) that had title pages for each section with line drawings, and they made the book so beautiful that I wanted to put it on the shelf and keep it forever. (I did.) I love drop caps and illuminated caps, the kind that you see in fairy tales. Those illuminated caps often have an entire story hidden within them, or they hint at one. When I began to study medieval stories, I was enchanted by the illustrations in the margins and caps of those old manuscripts, probably the forebears of illuminated caps. I also appreciate when someone takes the time to choose the perfect symbol or dingbat to use as a scene break or chapter break. That’s another illustration, another way to explore the core ideas of the book in images. These little touches take a specific title beyond the ordinary.

I’m not sure whether I was a typesetter because I loved the way type could convey mood (maybe it was those poems flowing around the illustrations!), or whether I learned more about type conveying mood because I set type for a while. Fonts in themselves are evocative, and the composition of the page in a print book gives the reader a powerful impression even before he or she begins to read. Most people don’t think about type, or white space, or the density of the lines, but all of those variables and more can combine together to enhance the experience of the book. Most mass market paperbacks aren’t designed, per se, but the copy is pushed through a template, maybe with some tweaks. It was in my trade paperback editions that I saw the art of book designers—trade is considered a “boutique” product in traditional publishing, so it gets more attention from the production side of the house. Doubtless hard cover does, too. (Although large print hard covers would be an exception to that.)

Digital books give the end user the flexibility of setting the font, color and size of the type, much like a website does (and EPUB is really a variant of HTML). That means that the art of the book designer is irrelevant. If you compare the layout of a digital book “page” on your e-reader with the page of a well-designed print book, you’ll see what I mean. The e-reader gets the job done. You can read the story. It’s functional, but it’s probably not beautiful.

And this all makes me wonder about the future or not just books but interior design of books. Will print books go away? Will digital books integrate some of these elements in the future? I can’t see the user control of font going away, but maybe we’ll get more illustrations or just better dingbats. Maybe there will be a default to the layout—”author’s choice” or something—that incorporates these elements but which the user can over-ride.

One thing I intend to do is think more seriously about my print-on-demand editions in future. It may be possible to add line drawings or other elements into those books to make them richer and move them beyond functionality.

What do you think? Do you love print books? Or do you prefer digital books? Tell me your preference and your reasons for it.

The New Curators

I’ve been talking about the explosion of new content in the book market and how it affects reading, as well as how this market differs from the book market of the past. To catch up on the discussion, you might want to check out the first post, Reconsidering Gatekeepers, and the second post, Curating Books. As you’ll see today, I have no absolute answers – maybe no firm answers at all! – but lots of interesting questions.

Who will curate the future book market?

Maybe you think the book market shouldn’t be curated at all, but that the widest array of titles possible is the best choice for readers and writers alike.

Maybe you believe that the market will decide which books succeed and which books don’t in a crowded marketplace. In a way, that’s always been the case and remains so – the difference in this market is the magnitude of the problem of discoverability. How does a book become visible to enough readers to get its shot at success? That could prompt an entirely new series of discussions. In a market with as many available titles as ours, the vast majority of books are languishing in obscurity – if they aren’t read, then they aren’t being curated, rated, reviewed, or given their chance to find an audience.

(I’m not going to talk about advertising, because the only qualifier for an ad for any book to exist is someone to pay the price of the ad. There’s no curatorial process happening there. It’s a cash transaction. And I believe that when we as readers see ads for books (whether they’re on billboards, buses, online portals or in email newsletters) we self-curate, and decide immediately whether we are interested in the book or not. The mechanism at work is not curation, although certainly advertising may make a book more visible and draw it out of obscurity.)

I think there will be curators, whether we individually want them or not. A large unsorted mass of titles invites someone (anyone) to wade in and make sense of it all for the rest of us. What’s different about this market is how curators can be chosen – there are no default curators, who get the job automatically because of their role in the publishing process.

Let’s talk about that a bit more.

Agents and editors have traditionally been the curators of the book market. They will continue to curate as they have done before – except that they will curate a much smaller segment of the total book market than has ever been the case. That means that the range of their influence is shrinking. How much? It’s hard to know for sure, and such stats are always reliant upon how the terms are defined. I’d guess (and this is a ballpark impression) that agents and editors involved in traditional publishing are curating a single digit percentage of all books currently available to readers. Maybe 1% or less – but remember that the vast majority of self-published titles don’t sell at all. There is just so much content out there. It’s hard to even get a raw sense of how much content is out there.

If we look in terms of revenue – or the books that are actually selling – I’ll guess that agents and editors are directly curating 30 – 50% of the book market, in terms of revenue. That’s going to fluctuate within different niches and different territories. Interestingly, they might be indirectly influencing another increment of the market – maybe 20% – by having taught authors who used to be traditionally published how curation is done. Let’s talk about that next.

Authors are the next obvious choice of curators for books, at least for their own books. Do authors curate their own work? Can they dispassionately assess the merit of competing ideas, when those ideas are their own? I think some authors are better at this than others, but I suspect that many authors are good at choosing the most currently marketable idea from an array of options, even when those are their own ideas. They might not be choosing the idea that contributes to the cultural landscape or advances their creative career – they might choose instead to mark time and repeat successes. They might take big risks or no risks, but on some level, I believe that most authors are doing some curation of their own work. The authors who are best at this might very well be the ones who have industry experience – authors like me have watched our own books be curated so many times that we can understand the process. Maybe we even see the point of it. Maybe we curate our ideas on purpose, or maybe it’s a learned response – to increase the chances of making a deal, for example – but this is where the influence of editors and agents casts its shadow. A great many authors doing well in digital self-publishing have traditional publishing experience. How much that experience is influencing their choices will depend upon the individual author.

(The intriguing question for me is whether editors and agents were right in their curatorial decisions. I mentioned this last week – in recent years, there’s been a trend to be very cautious (or even lazy) curatorially, to insist upon an author repeating successes and remaining in place, as well as a determination to not diversify author brands because that’s perceived to be risky. I’m noticing areas where the market (i.e. readers) reinforce those decisions and where the market challenges them. There’s another sequence of discussions that can hang upon those questions so let’s leave it there for today.)

Portals are a curator that most people don’t expect to be active, but that’s not been the case. In the past two years, we have seen multiple instances in which the digital sales portal (or publishing platform) has curated the list of books for sale on its web site. This decision tends to revolve around the inclusion of explicit sexual content. Many of these portals have few restrictions about content in their Terms of Service agreement, so there is a line between intellectual freedom and trafficking in pornography. Without curators, some really racy stuff becomes available. Many of these portals are interested in marketing content to minors, so managing the visibility of such content (or even its inclusion) can become an issue. The first instance I noticed was the situation between Paypal and Smashwords about explicit content, then Amazon changed the presentation and visibility of erotic and explicit content last March. Around the same time, Apple added a longer review process for erotic content, and most recently Kobo delisted everything in order to sort out explicit content for one of their portals, WHSmith. The challenge, of course, is that we’re in a market in which sexually explicit content sells very well – no one wants to kill the golden goose, but at the same time, there’s a balance to be struck. That balance will be defined by each portal, probably on an ongoing basis.

Reviewers were once much more powerful than they are now. There were fewer reviewers and fewer reputable review publications, so reviews in the big review organs like NYT, Booklist, PW etc., or even a genre-specific magazine like RT were far from guaranteed for each title. Books had to compete for the opportunity to be reviewed, so even the chance of a review was curated. There was a persistent idea that those books which made the cut had already been designated for great things – certainly there was a whiff that reviews were not always impartial or objective. The reviews that were published helped readers and booksellers to curate new titles. Book bloggers changed the landscape radically in this niche, because – unlike traditional reviewing – there is no barrier to entry to blogging. Anybody can set up a blog and review books. Bloggers were outside of the publishing industry so they were often brutally honest, which gave them credibility with readers – we really saw the influence of these reviewers in the emerging YA market. That came full circle when publicity departments at big publishers actively cultivated such bloggers and sent them free books in the hopes of good reviews. This devolved again in recent years to individual readers reviewing books, with or without maintaining a book blog.

Readers are the ultimate curators, of course. The question is how readers will make sense of such an enormous array of options – or whether they will. What’s interesting is the evolution of tools for individual readers to make recommendations of books. We love to have trusted book curators (i.e. readers whose tastes echo our own) recommend reads to us. Once upon a time, this happened at the bookstore, if you were so lucky to have a bookstore with an employee or owner who read avidly in your genre of choice.

The thing is that once you had validated a curator’s taste against your own – yours might exactly coincide, vary in certain niches, or always oppose the curator’s suggestions – you could use that person’s comments as a curatorial guide, whether he or she loved or hated an individual book. This is something writers often forget when they see bad reviews on their books. A bad review is as valuable as a good one, as it still provides curatorial data for other readers. We used to get a newspaper and I read the arts reviews: if their Theatre reviewer loved a play, I knew I would, too, and we’d go to see it. The Movie reviewer, OTOH, hated everything I loved and loved everything I hated. I went to see the movies he despised and avoided the ones he raved about.

How do we use the same mechanism of validated referrals in our current market?

• Portals promote this kind of discussion by encouraging reader-customers to rank and review the books they’ve read. Amazon even offers discussion boards for readers. The change here that’s important for our discussion of curation was the necessity of readers creating an identity or account, which would be used for all of their reviews. This means that a reader can discover that she agrees with Minneapolis57‘s review of a specific title, then can read all of Minneapolis57‘s other reviews to find new reads. The reviewer Minneapolis57, who is a reader and a customer, effectively becomes a curator, for at least one other reader. There’s even less barrier to entry than for a book blogger.

• Further along that line, social media sites for readers like Goodreads encourage readers to curate their own bookshelves, then allow other readers to browse those shelves. You can find a reader whose taste echoes your own (and he or she can be anywhere in the world), become friends and recommend books to each other.

• Book clubs, both real and virtual, are another way for readers to connect, curate and recommend books to each other. Goodreads hosts a number of online bookclubs with monthly reading selections, for example, or you might have a book club that meets physically in your neighborhood.

• Portals also curate for reader/customers by analyzing each customer’s previous sales data. Amazon’s algorithm is the most sophisticated in this arena, although all online portals try to replicate the bookseller’s advice “if you liked A, you’ll like B.” Not only will customers of a portal receive periodic emails advertising Books You Might Like, but the display presented to the customer when surfing on the portal itself will put that customer’s sales history to work. You might see a side banner or pop up window Recommended For You, or you might be reminded of what books you looked at most recently (but didn’t buy). You might see Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought These Titles, or you might be offered a Better Together offer of adding a second linked book at a discounted price. There are dozens of ways for this information to be presented to you by the portal in an effort to curate books to your taste — and convince you to buy more books.

You can see that I think curating is going to happen, whether we specifically plan for it or not. You can also see a steady devolution happening here, the same one that Mr. Math loves to call “the democratization of popular culture”. Instead of being told what we should read – or being presented with a selection of choices deemed to be appropriate reading material – we have an enormous range of options. Further, we’re reliant upon each other to make sense of this vast array of books. In a curious way, the explosion of content and he connection of billions of people makes those individual connections even more important.

Do you review the books you’ve read? Do you use any of these tools or resources to decide what you should read next? What’s the most important way that you find new books or new authors? How is this different from the way you discovered new books and authors ten years ago? Or is it?

Fallen

Fallen, an urban fantasy romance by Claire Delacroix

Fallen, the first of my Prometheus Project series of urban fantasy romances (set in a dystopian future and featuring fallen angel heroes) has gone off to be formatted. Phew! it’s also formatted for print now, and the print edition is waiting on its cover.

Having these books re-edited has proven to be quite the adventure. My editor found far more than I anticipated, so we’ve been working on the entire trilogy at once. On the upside, though, I’m much happier with the book. There have been some changes and corrections, plus there’s bonus content in this edition. I should be able to give you buy links for Fallen soon.

And tomorrow, I’ll work on finalizing Guardian!

September & Scottish-set Romances

September always makes me think of Scotland, possibly because my husband and I were married in September and had our honeymoon in Scotland. The first books in a couple of my linked series are available at discounted prices this month, in celebration of romance and Scotland!

The Countess, book #1 in the Bride Quest II trilogy of Scottish medieval romances, by Claire DelacroixThe Countess is the first book in my Scottish medieval Bride Quest II trilogy. Right now, the digital edition is available for $2.99.The Rogue, book #1 in the Rogues of Ravensmuir trilogy of medieval romances by Claire DelacroixThe Rogue is the first book in my Scottish medieval Rogues of Ravensmuir trilogy. The digital edition is now just $2.99.

The Beauty Bride by Claire Delacroix, first in the bestselling trilogy of medieval romances The Jewels of Kinfairlie.The Beauty Bride is the first book in my medieval Scottish Jewels of Kinfairlie trilogy. The digital edition is now available for just $2.99.

The Last Highlander, a Scottish time travel romance by Claire Delacroix (writing as Claire Cross)The Last Highlander isn’t the first of my time travel romances, but it’s a Scottish one (which keeps the pattern) and is one I really like. The digital edition is just $2.99 right now.

Here’s a chance for a little armchair traveling to Scotland!

To Do Lists

Every time I go to a conference, I come home with a To Do list. This has always been the case, but my lists have become longer with conferences in the past year or so. RWA Atlanta was no different – and I still have list items from BEA in May and even Novelists’ Ink last October. I’m halfway wondering if I should stay home for a year, just to catch up on my To Do lists!

The reality isn’t that I’m inefficient. We’re in a strange market in which everything is changing very quickly – and those who are nimble and take advantage of new opportunities quickly see the biggest results. Also, being indie-published means everything is my own responsibility. While I have a team (a beta reader, an editor, a cover designer, a formatter, etc.) everything stops at my desk. This is the challenge of indie-publishing – being completely in charge and fully responsible – which not every writer welcomes. There is something enticing about the idea of having someone else (like the publisher) do all of the nitty gritty while the writer just writes: the problem is that, in my experience, it doesn’t work out that way very much of the time. As I said many times at RWA this year, my publishers over the past 20 years – by offloading jobs to me – have done an excellent job of training me to publish my own books.

So, what’s on my updated list this time? RWA for me was about opportunity and networking. There are a lot of interesting ideas and possibilities out there, so many that I’ll have to pick and choose. (Sadly, my days still have only 24 hours. Boo.) Kim Killion had a fabulous idea for Thorolf’s cover which I’m hoping works out well. It would be a whole new adventure for me, which is exciting. I’ll let you know more about that when/if the details come together.

Overall, though, my plan for the next year is to write, and all the other stuff will have to fit around the perimeter of that. I’m ready to finish up my existing series and dive into a new project (and there are lost of candidates in my office.) There are two more paranormal romances  to finish the Dragonfire series (Thorolf and Sloane) and two more medievals (Malcolm and Elizabeth) to finish The True Love Brides series. I suspect Drake and Ross will get novellas of their own to conclude both series. (In an ideal universe, they will be Christmas 2014 novellas.) I’ll spend the next year researching other story ideas and developing them, maybe even launching something new soon.

These are exciting times. Stay tuned!

Great Way to Start the Day

The Renegade's Heart, first in the True Love Brides series of medieval romances by Claire Delacroix

My sale has already had results! This morning, The Renegade’s Heart is #338 Paid in Kindle Store and on three lists:

  • #3 in Books > Romance > Historical
  • #8 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Romance > Historical Romance
  • #15 in Books > Romance > Fantasy & Futuristic

Now, that’s a nice way to start the day!

The sale will actually last three days, because I messed up the dates in booking my advertising. The eReader News Today ad runs today, advertising the discounted price for today and tomorrow. I’m wondering now if Isabella and Malcolm’s book might make it to #1 in historical romance on Amazon. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

Thanks to all of you who bought a copy of either or both books! 🙂

What’s In A Name?

Last week, we started to talk about what lessons and practices can be carried from traditional print publishing and which ones are less useful in a digital publishing environment. I saved the topic of author brands—i.e. the name an author uses on his or her work—for its own post this week, because it’s such a nice chewy topic.

First of all, when we talk about author brands, we’re talking about marketing. An author brand isn’t very different from any other kind of marketing brand—it’s a shorthand, telling the potential reader what to expect from the book before he or she reads it or even reads the copy.

Authors and pseudonyms
Many fiction authors don’t write under their legal names. There can be a lot of reasons for this, so here are a few that I’ve heard over the years. This list is long, but not exhaustive:
• The author’s name is hard to spell or pronounce, therefore potentially hard to remember.
• The author’s name is long, so it will appear smaller on the book cover than a shorter name.
• The author wishes to protect his or her privacy by writing under a pseudonym.
• The author is actually more than one person, and the partners think it would be simpler for branding if their work was published under a single author name.
• The work is work-for-hire, contracted by a legal estate specifically to be published under an existing author brand (like the V.C. Andrews novels published after that author’s death) or by a publisher to create a brand or series to which the house holds ownership of the author name. (Like the Nancy Drew series. There is no Carolyn Keene, although initially the series was written pseudonymously by Edward Stratemeyer.)
• The author’s name is too similar to that of an existing published author (presumably a successful one) or a famous individual.
• The publishing house contractually required the author to use a pseudonym.
• The author is too prolific for the publisher’s expectations, so is published under multiple names.
• A published author is writing a new kind of work in a different genre or subgenre, or relaunching his or her career.

This last point is the one we’ll focus on today and it falls into two neat divisions.

1. Splitting the brand
As mentioned above, author brands are just like other marketing brands, in that they tell potential consumers what to expect before they buy. What happens when what the author is writing has changed? There are two schools of thought on this: one is that the author should consolidate all work under the name author name or brand, and the other is that different categories or kinds of work should be delineated by different author brands. There are pros and cons to both of these strategies and they go in and out of fashion as a result. Right now, there is a greater tendency to use one brand for all work, whereas 10 to 15 years ago, the tendency was to “split the brand”.

Splitting the brand means that I write historical romance as Claire Delacroix and contemporary romance as Deborah Cooke. Each name is believed to be more evocative of the era (Delacroix sounds historical while Cooke sounds contemporary) and represents a certain area of my work. As I have tended to write for two different publishers simultaneously, it also has made contract clauses easy because the divisions between the two houses were about different kinds of work. Each house could build a graphical branding for my work that was evocative of the contents, without worrying about what the other house was up to. The lines of division were clear, which meant the two brands could be well-managed. That’s one big advantage of splitting the brand, even if it’s split under the jurisdiction of the same publisher.

The weakness in the strategy of splitting the brand is shown in the passage of time and the evolution of certain market niches. What we read also goes in and out of style. In about 2003, the historical romance market, which had previously been very robust, shrank dramatically. The survivor in that niche was sexy Regency historicals and very little else sold well. When a brand has been closely defined and tightly managed, it’s not very resilient to these kinds of changes. I had wanted for years to write historicals even in other periods but couldn’t place them as I was perceived to be a medieval romance author. Medieval romance was my brand. When my niche disappeared, so did my ability to sell my work.

This is a bit of a subjective call, and so Tor was open to the possibility of my writing urban fantasy romance as Claire Delacroix. Their thinking was that the sensuality and worldbuilding was similar to my medievals (and maybe the grit, too!) and that the books were set in a not-now time. They perceived my fallen angel series to be consistent with my brand. They did graphically brand the series differently to show even my established readers that these books weren’t medievals.

I actually saw Dragonfire as being more consistent with my existing brand, but NAL didn’t want to publish those books as Claire Delacroix titles and asked me if I’d use another author brand on them. I knew NAL would do a good job of publishing them (they publish a lot of paranormal romance) so I trusted their call and agreed. Dragonfire became Deborah Cooke books.

Behind all of this is the risk of “tainting the author brand”. This usually means that an attempt to diversify goes badly wrong and leaves the reader uncertain what to expect from an author. The author’s sales often  plummet as a result—even if readers like one niche of the author’s work, they may be cautious in reading more if they’ve been disappointed even once. A diversified brand is more robust, though, so there’s a balance to be struck.

2. Starting over
Because of the way the print publishing machine works, it’s pretty common for an author to end up with less-than-compelling sales numbers. The author could have been unlucky in terms of cover art, competing titles, distribution errors, on-sale dates that coincide with major world events (wars tend to keep people from buying books.) He or she could also have tainted the brand, as noted above. Actually, when you look at all the things that can go wrong, it’s amazing that any books succeed at all. There are a lot of variables that affect the sales of a given book, but when things go awry, it’s often perceived to be easier to start fresh than to try to save or rebuild the existing author brand.

We all like new shiny things, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that publishers and booksellers are no different. In the publishing industry, there is special attention given to debut authors, and even though “you can’t be a virgin again” as one editor once memorably put it, an author can have a rebirth in the marketplace by using a new author brand. This is a strategy that has to be employed with care to work well in our digital age, with so much information online and accessible. Readers can feel tricked if they subsequently discover the original identity of the author and there can be a backlash. One of the first great backfires of this strategy was the launch of Josie Litton by Bantam, who turned out to be Maura Seger with a new author brand.

Then and Now
As mentioned above, it’s more common now for authors to put everything under a single author brand, using the graphics and imagery on the cover to distinguish the genres of their work. Those of us who have multiple author brands spend a good deal of time trying to get readers to connect the two. But there’s still a place for dividing the brand, and it’s one that’s getting a lot of action in our current marketplace. What’s interesting to me is that it’s authors doing it by choice. Authors are acting like publishers, using author brand for the same reasons as publishers, and also using it for a new reason.

Tainting a brand is still a very real concern. Depending what the author writes, his or her brand may be more open to diversification in certain directions, or not. As authors take control of their author brands, they’re looking at their market as publishers and making strategic choices about managing brands.

Let’s look at the four possible scenarios, although there are probably dozens:

Author A is a multi-published high fantasy author, who has always wanted to publish paranormal romance. She’s well-respected in her genre, but knows that her audience won’t follow her to the romance section. There is seldom explicit sex in fantasy novels, but often a good bit of it in a paranormal romance. Still, for creative (or maybe financial) reasons, Author A wants to give romance a try. If she chooses to use a different author name on her paranormal romances, she will be deliberately dividing her brand.

Author B has always written very sweet romances. Although she has published a number of books, the marketing support from the house has been tepid, at best, and she’s had some bad luck with cover art and distribution. On the one hand, editors tell her that the market requires more spicy romances; on the other, no one will buy one from her because “it’s not her brand”. Author B has chosen to write a 50 Shades variation that is edgy and gritty, partly to push herself and partly to show what she can do. She will choose a new author name because she’s essentially starting over: there will be no crossover of her previous readership to this new series.

Author C is well-established, multi-published and maybe writing actively for a publishing house. He wants to understand the digital book market and how to indie-publish,so he can make better choices about his future. He decides to publish new work under a new and different author brand. That way there’s no risk of Author C messing up the good thing he has going, but he can still gather information. The work in question might be in a different genre, but chances are good that it’s in the same genre in which he’s currently published. He might be testing the waters for an idea his publisher thinks is too risky, or marketing works in a slightly different niche, or marketing works of a different length. He might be indie-publishing a series that his publisher declined to acquire. He’s experimenting. He might be doing this with the awareness of his house and representation, or um, not. It’s possible that he will ultimately be able to improve his digital sales of his traditionally published books, by applying what he’s learned to his existing book list. It’s also possible that he will prove his idea to be marketable and viable—that might feed the interest of the house in this different work or alternatively, convince him to take all of his work indie. It’s an information-gathering mission, and even if it fails, he will have learned something from it.

This experimentation and testing of the market is the new variation. I’ll guess that the majority of the authors I know who are digitally publishing have chosen to add a new pseudonym to their list of identities.  The pseudonym in question is a test case. It might represent any of the options represented above—even Author B, who is starting over, is engaged in an experiment. Digital publishing and the portals open to authors mean that we can connect directly with readers in an effective way for the first time ever. That means that instead of taking someone’s word that a work is or isn’t marketable, we can run a test and find out. The readers hold the cards instead of the marketing department, and that’s pretty exciting stuff.

What about you? Do you have authors you’ll follow into any section of the bookstore? Do you give new authors a try? Or are you more likely to stick to your tried-and-true favourite authors?

Take It Or Leave It

Things have been quiet on Wild West Thursdays here for a while, mostly because I had my head down to finish The Highlander’s Curse. This week, though, that book is published and I’m home from RWA National. I realized that I have a number of WWT draft posts sitting here which have never been published. Here’s the first one as we re-start the discussions about the changing publishing industry.

I had an interesting discussion with Chris Almeida at our Writers Making Connections event in the spring. She noted that my industry experience in traditional publishing must help a lot in my going indie. I had to think about it for a minute, because it was a counter-intuitive conclusion. Traditional publishing is very different from indie publishing. There are a lot of assumptions I’ve learned that don’t really apply in this publishing environment. All the same, there are things I’ve learned that are useful. I thought we’d take a stab at defining what we can carry forward and what should be left behind. Some of these are sayings frequently repeated, while others are over-arching concepts and not quite so punchy.

• “Romance sells itself”
That was never really true, and it still isn’t true. It remains a fact, though, that romance readers are the most ravenous readers and the most loyal readers. It also remains true that romance books sales are a huge proportion of the new book market. Most digital portals list romance as their best-selling genre, and say that their bestselling authors are romance authors. Many also acknowledge that romance authors are the most innovative in this digital market. Mark Coker said at RWA National last week that the best practices for digital publishing that are evolving are a direct result of the work of indie romance authors. So, romance doesn’t sell itself, but a whole lot of variables come together to make romance the powerhouse of this digital book market, just as it was dominant in mass market.

• “Front list sells backlist”
The idea here is that a new release sparks interest and visibility for an author with other available titles. In traditional publishing, the sales team would sell in copies of backlist titles to support the front list (i.e. new) release. In digital, the backlist is beautifully linked by the portal, and some portals actually will suggest backlist titles by the same author to consumers who buy a front list title. This one still works, but I think its effect is somewhat diluted. Any title can surge to the visibility of front list at any given time, so the sales of backlist titles tend to remain at a more constant rate than the spike and drop that was typical of paperback sales. That’s a result of availability – digital is always available.

• “Audience is built one reader at a time”
Delivering good content and consistent content is still the cornerstone of an author’s success. This is one thing that has not changed and (I suspect) never will.

• Linked series build readership
This appears to be a more vehement trend in digital than in print – and it’s pretty strong in print. We all love to read about families and siblings, and keep track of all the characters whose stories we have read before. Linked series are huge in digital, perhaps because they lead to impulse shopping. If you’ve read my medieval The Beauty Bride, there are two more books and a short story in the Jewels of Kinfairlie series, then two more siblings’ stories published in the True Love Brides series, then the stories of the forebears of the family in the Rogues of Ravensmuir. When The Beauty Bride is on sale, I see sales increase for all of those titles, in direct proportion to how closely they are linked to TBB. The boxed sets are particularly popular with readers who are catching up. Digital also lends itself to shorter content – many authors are publishing novellas and shorts in between longer books in a series, to keep readers up to date on the character’s doings. I think that’s a terrific idea.

• The cover is part of the marketing and promotion budget for a book, and may consume all of that budget for a midlist or debut release.
Traditionally, the cover is the one thing that every potential reader sees. They might not see ads in magazines or hear radio ads. They might miss reviews and endcap displays or blog tours. But they all see the cover of the book before they purchase it, so the cover is the most important piece of marketing that exists for any given book. A publishing house will always spend money on creating a cover for a book, and often will use the entire marketing budget on it. The cover is even more critical to building sales in digital, because the cover has to communicate the tone of the book, the sensuality, the genre and subgenre, and be consistent with the author’s branding – and it has to do all that when it’s two inches high in thumbnail.

• If at first you don’t succeed, start again.
This one is really interesting. I’m referring to the established practice in traditional publishing of giving an established author a new chance in the market by branding that author’s work with a different name. This can happen because the author is moving into a new subgenre, particularly if it’s into a market niche that the publisher doesn’t feel her established readers will follow. It can also be suggested when an author’s sales are not as good as the house would like—rather than trying to build sales up again, they might find it easier to start over again with a new author name, as if the author was a debut author. (Surely you all know that all “debut authors” are not really debut authors, don’t you?) This strategy is seeing so much action in our new publishing environment that we’re going to talk about it separately next Thursday.

Did I miss anything? What other sayings and realities from the marketing of traditional print books do you see carrying forward – or not – to indie digital publishing?

Update!

It’s hot and humid here this week, but the construction frustrations of last winter are paying off – the new air conditioning is truly wonderful. Usually in hot weather, I get nothing done, but this week, I’m zipping along. Yay!

So, I thought I’d update you on the status of various projects.

The Highlander's Curse by NYT Bestselling author Claire Delacroix, #2 in her True Love Brides series of medieval romances.

I’m doing the final final FINAL read through of The Highlander’s Curse. It’ll go to the formatter tonight or tomorrow, so I should have it back Wednesday to upload it to various portals. It’ll go live most quickly at Smashwords and All Romance eBooks (in EPUB and MOBI at both portals) but should be available from Amazon on Thursday. (Fingers crossed.) B&N and KOBO should post it Thursday or Friday, and I hear Apple is taking about a week to process and post new book files – count on seeing it in the iTunes store by the end of next week.

My monthly newsletter will go out Thursday or Friday, depending when the Amazon link is live.

Kiss of Destiny, #3 of the Dragon Legion novellas in the Dragonfire series of paranormal romances, by Deborah Cooke

Next, I’ll write the last couple of scenes in Thad and Aura’s story, Kiss of Destiny. That’s #3 in the Dragon Legion novellas, which together are Dragonfire #9. I’ll send it off to my editor by the end of this week, and she’ll do her thing while I’m at RWA National in Atlanta next week. I’ll publish the digital novella when I return (i.e. two weeks from now), and it’ll appear on the various portals with the same kind of speed as mentioned for THC above.

The Dragon Legion Collection by Deborah Cooke

Once Kiss of Destiny is done, I’ll format the Dragon Legion Collection and publish it, initially in the trade paperback print edition. It’ll be available from Createspace and Amazon early in August (maybe very early in August) then will perk out to be listed on other portals. The timing on that distribution is hard to predict.

Abyss, an urban fantasy romance by Claire Delacroix

In August, I’ll be heading back to the Republic. I’ll be finalizing files for Fallen, Guardian and Rebel, plus doing edits for Abyss. The goal is to publish the books in order, with Abyss going on sale at the end of October.

Phew! After that, it’s Thorolf’s turn and I’ll dig in to his story. After Thorolf comes Malcolm, then Sloane, then Elizabeth.

That’s where we’re at. Now you know – and now I’m getting back to work. Stay cool, everyone!

Digital Book Sales Patterns

Last week, we reviewed the sales numbers of my two Bride Quest trilogies, one of which is still being distributed by Random House and one of which has been re-published in new editions by me. I mentioned last week the differences in sales patterns in digital books released by indie-authors as compared to those from traditional publishing houses. Today, we’ll talk about that.

The Bride Quest I Digital Bundle by Claire DelacroixWe have a perfect point of comparison here. I wrote two medieval trilogies, the Bride Quest I – to which Random House still holds the rights—and the Bride Quest II—to which I hold the rights. All six of these books were published roughly ten years ago in mass market editions and subsequently (in 2009) published in digital editions. These books are on level ground in many ways: they’re in the same sub-genre; they’re published under the same author brand; they have the same tone; they have a similar premise; they are even linked to each other; they were packaged and published similarly; they sold at very similar levels when originally published.ClaireDelacroix_BrideQuest_BoxSet_200

And here’s our point of comparison: there were digital boxed sets published for the first time last year for both trilogies. On June 25, 2012, Random House published a digital boxed set of the Bride Quest I. On March 12, 2012, I published a digital boxed set of the Bride Quest II. The sales patterns for 2012 for these two bundles present an excellent opportunity for comparison.

The results might not be what you expect. RH’s bundle was priced at $14.99. (Even more astonishing, the library edition was $71.91!) My bundle was priced at $4.99 for 2012. Raw sales units for June to December 2012 were 547 for the RH bundle and 900 for mine. Not so much difference there, but the difference that exists can probably be attributed to the price point.

What’s more surprising is the pattern of sales. First up, the sales chart for the RH bundle:

BQI

I have weekly sales data from RH, which shows the sales pattern quite clearly. A huge chunk of the sales for the RH bundle were made within two weeks of the on-sale date. Sales of the bundle spiked and dropped. This pattern is characteristic for sales of books from traditional publishing houses, regardless of format. An editor once told me that 80% of any book’s sales are made in the first 14 days that it’s available for sale. That’s why all promotional efforts are focused on the on-sale date, when the book is supposed to make a big splash. That’s why no one in bookselling cares that mass market books are stripped of their covers and removed from the stores in 2 to 4 weeks. Essentially that title’s moment in the sun is over and it’s time to move on to new releases.

This sales spike is supported by the mechanisms available through online bookstores. Because publishers like to build as big a spike in sales as possible on the on-sale date, online booksellers allow customers to pre-order books in either digital or print format. The sales that are gathered in advance are all processed on the on-sale day, counting as sales for that day even if the customer placed the order six months before. A big advantage of this system is that consumers can’t forget to buy a book when it comes out: they just order it when they think of doing that. Currently, it’s only possible for indie authors to list a book for pre-sale on KOBO and that’s a new capability. It might very well be that indie book sales would show more similar patterns to books sold by traditional publishing houses if we could set up for pre-orders—or not. We won’t know for sure until that capability is available on other portals.

Sales of my bundle take a different pattern. Here’s my sales chart:

BQII

Now, I only keep monthly sales data, but in a way, that’s not too important. My sales don’t show those kinds of radical highs that are characteristic of traditional books being promoted on their on-sale dates. Sales are fairly consistent with little wiggles and a gradual ascent.

Let’s look more closely. There are a bunch of things happening in this chart simultaneously. First, let’s look at that initial leap in sales – it’s not a spike but the beginning of a climb, and it’s not a coincidence that it happens in June. There are two contributing factors to that jump in sales numbers. First of all, I had put The Countess into the KDP Select program at Amazon in March. That program requires a 90 day exclusive with Amazon for the title in question. As a result, the BQII boxed set (which included The Countess) could only be distributed to Amazon during those 90 days. The exclusivity period ended in the middle of June, and I immediately published the bundle to other portals. The thing is that in June of last year, I was still using Smashwords to feed to all other portals. In June, BQII was still waiting in the line for approval for that distribution and very few units sold directly through Smashwords. The extended distribution is more of a factor in the sales growth of July and August, when BQII became available for purchase at the other portals.

The main factor driving that June leap is the publication of BQI. There’s an old saying  in publishing that frontlist sells backlist. In this case, BQI acted as frontlist because it was the new release. The visibility of the new publication (such as it was) increased demand for the linked series, BQII. That makes sense.

There’s one more factor that is shaping these results: all of my medieval romances took an uptick in June of last year. Nothing happens in isolation when you have a broad and deep backlist like mine – that last factor was the promotion of another Delacroix medieval romance. The Beauty Bride, book #1 of the Jewels of Kinfairlie, was free for the first time in May. The ripple effect from that promotion is still shaping the sales of my medieval romances, but we see the uptick in both BQ’s in June, quite possibly influenced by the raw numbers of people reading TBB. It’s also possible that the publication of The Renegade’s Heart in May, my first Claire Delacroix medieval romance published since 2005, also increased visibility for both digital bundles.

Finally, let’s compare the overall sales patterns for the boxed sets.

Comparison

The top line with the red dots is sales of BQII, the one managed by me. The lower (and shorter) line with the yellow dots is BQI, managed by RH. There is a little goofiness in compiling the RH data into monthly numbers because their bundle went on sale the 25th of June – those June numbers are only for one week. If we gathered the first four weeks together (1 in June and 3 in July) instead of compiling by calendar month, the spike would be emphasized more than it is here.

We can see that the sales for indie-pubbed bundle are wavering their way to growing over time, instead of spiking and dropping. There is no similar focus on the on-sale date. The differences are interesting.

On the one hand, this is a function of online book sales. The algorithm at each online retailer learns more from every single sale of a given book. It builds data on an ongoing basis—data like “people who bought A also bought B” and “people who read Author A read Author B”—then can make better recommendations to shoppers. It takes a lot of data to find patterns and the more data there is, the more accurate the system’s recommendations will be. Because a new digital release has no data (i.e. there was no BQII boxed set available in any format before my publication of one), it’s very common for an indie release to have to rouse itself from flat-line sales. Over time, the accumulation of sales data makes the algorithm more effective. It suggests the book to more shoppers and gets it right more often. It’s common in indie publishing to see a snowball effect over time, and to see sales continue to grow for digital books. This is called long-tail marketing.

The thing is that both of these bundles were digital-only and both of them were new titles. Why did the RH one sell so differently? You can see on the chart for RH that the same pattern of increase thanks to the algorithm is asserting itself a little bit but not as vigorously as with my bundle.

With over 50 titles published traditionally, I’ve seen the spike-and-drop sales pattern 50 times. Every single book’s sales have adhered to that pattern. Sales dribble along after the drop, and usually there’s an increase when a new title in that series or under that author brand is published. The shape of the curve is completely predictable, even if the size of the original spike isn’t. On the other hand, I have about 25 titles indie-published, and their sales patterns range from steady sales for some titles to fairly erratic ups and downs on others. There are a number of sales patterns on my indie books—except for spike-and-drop. It’s the one pattern that none of my indie titles show. I think that’s weird. They also all show a gradual increase in sales over time—the gross sales may not grow month by month, but they certainly grow year by year. That’s never been what happened with my traditionally published books.

Prior to this little exercise, I had attributed the difference to the fact that my indie books are primarily digital releases, although they are simultaneously available in POD, while my traditionally published books had been primarily mass market originals, although for the past 6 years or so, they’ve been published in simultaneous digital editions. This example, though, shows that’s not the case. Both boxed sets were new releases and digital only. Certainly, the fact that indie authors don’t have the ability to set a title for pre-order is a factor in not seeing that sales spike, and another is possibly the fact that most of my indie titles are republished backlist.

I have a feeling there’s another variable, though. It could be an effect of pricing. It could be that results are being shaped by assumptions—because assumptions are determining other marketing choices. It could be something entirely separate. I’m going to keeping an eye on the sales curve for my upcoming indie original titles, to see how they shape up.

As you might have guessed, I have a Theory to test.