Thursday, March 09, 2006

Publishing in the 21st Century (Part 4)

It's beyond question that the Internet has radically transformed this writing trade. As recently as 12 years ago it was the rare reader who took the time and trouble to write and mail an actual letter to an author, and the even rarer editor who used email for business purposes. (And at 1200 baud, who in their right mind would want to send a 100,000-word manuscript by modem, anyway?) Now, thanks to the Internet, writers can have almost overwhelming contact with their fans (as witnessed by the "My Blog Ate My Writing Career!" phenomenon), and immediate and nearly constant contact with their editors, which as far as I can tell only means that instead of waiting weeks or months to begin the "The Check Is In The Mail" dance, you can begin it almost instantly. No publisher I know of pays their authors using PayPal.

More importantly, thanks to the Internet, no book ever really goes out of print, at least in the sense of being utterly unavailable for the sufficiently motivated and fiscally empowered buyer. Want to find a copy of any one of the more than three million books currently or recently in print in the U.S.? Search's practically infinite backlist. Need a copy right now of Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class? While there are plenty of used copies for sale on Amazon, you'll get it faster by downloading it for free from Project Gutenberg. Looking for a book that was only published once, in Italian, in the early 17th century? At this exact moment there are 151 such items matching that description on the Italian ebay site.

If the Necronomicon ex Mortis actually existed, it would no longer be necessary to brave the unearthly terrors of the Forbidden Forest and fight your way through the Army of the Dead in order to get it. You'd just have to wait long enough and sooner or later it would show up on ebay.

Better|worse, the whole idea of "North American" and "Foreign" rights is becoming close to irrelevant. In the good old days buying a book that was available only in a foreign edition meant going to your local bookstore, asking them to order it, plunking down a lot of money in advance, waiting months for the book to arrive, and hoping it was still in readable condition when it finally did. Now, if you want to read Tom Holt's latest, You Don't Have To Be Evil To Work Here, But It Helps, you can just pop over to and have it in your hot little hands by this time next week. Ditto for the latest hot manga at (Although I cannot for the life of me explain why "Lizzie McGuire: Fashionably Lizzie," is the hottest selling foreign video in Japan right now, so don't even ask me to try.)

What makes this "worse" is that I used to derive a significant portion of my writing income from selling foreign publication and translation rights to fiction first published in North America. What makes this "better" is that my next book will probably be published in the U.K. only, and it's nice to know my American readers will still be able to obtain it.


But all of the foregoing commentary applies only to motivated buyers who know which book they're looking for! According to a Borders marketing study, roughly two-thirds of the people who walk into their bookstores don't know what book they're going to buy, they're just in the mood to buy a book that day. (And half of them are looking to buy a book, not to read, but to give to someone else.)

So we're back to the fundamental question: how do you motivate book buyers?

To be continued...