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E-books Don’t Smell (and other Revelations)

Recently, I said I was hoping to do a Goodreads giveaway as a promo for the paperback release of The Oldest Trick. I’ve got a bunch of electronic contributor copies burning a hole in my pocket at the moment and nothing much to do with them, so I thought giving them away would be pretty cool. Giveaways I’ve hosted here on this blog haven’t worked very smoothly (mostly because there isn’t a good system in place here to trade contact information, track entries, and so on), so Goodreads seemed a natural alternative. There’s just one problem: They don’t run giveaways for e-books. Bummer. Back to the drawing board.

This disappointment is just the latest in a long line of troubles facing the author who publishes only electronically. Now, don’t get me wrong – having a novel out of any stripe is pretty damned exciting and I love that there are people out there who have read and loved my books and I’m immensely grateful to Harper Voyager for publishing them. That said, I’ve found it much harder to promote and sell an e-book than I thought.

At the Writers of the Future Workshop (enter the Writers of the Future Contest, budding SF/F writers!), I had the unique privilege to listen to Tom Doherty of Tor speak about the publishing industry as it exists today. The basic theme of his talk was this: the primary difficulty for new writers and for publishers is the issue of discovery. “The Internet,” he said, “is great if you know what you’re looking for. It’s a really difficult place to discover new talent.” So, for already established authors – folks with back catalogs and name recognition – the Internet is wonderful, since people who like your work can find everything you ever wrote and buy it (a great improvement over bookstores which would only be intermittently stocked with older titles). But for the little guys (like me), I’m just one very tiny mote in an endless sea of book titles from relatively unknown authors. Many of these books are wonderful and an equal quantity are, well, not. It is very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff for anyone, editors, agents, writers, and fans all alike.

Of course, the author must promote his work. This – what you’re reading right now – is one author’s attempt at promotion (I hope that, by reading this blog, you might become curious about my work and buy it without me having to sling mindless Twitter ads at you day in and day out. I have no idea if it works). While the internet is a powerful promotional tool, the e-book is still a harder sell than a physical copy. According to Forbes, e-book sales make up 30% of the market and sales have risen sharply over the past few years while independent bookstores have dropped by more than 50% in the past twenty years. While those are harrowing numbers for print, the fact remains that 70% of books are still sold in print and, while you might not be buying it from an indie bookseller, there are good odds the book is still made of paper, no matter its place of origin. The age of the e-book is very much here, but it isn’t the lion’s share of the market by any means. And it’s worth noting that the 30% of the market that is occupied by e-books, is very much swamped with a vast array of traditional and self-published titles alike. Getting recognition from that 30% is very difficult. Print, a full 70% of the market, is somewhat more rarefied air, if you will.

This book is great, but I better keep it to myself. No one must know.

This book is great, but I better keep it to myself. No one must know.

I have tried to think of ways to effectively promote my e-books beyond simply shouting into the Twitter-Void, annoying people on facebook with ads, and writing blog posts. Here are the things I’ve tried:

  1. Blog Tours, which are the equivalent of book tours, but online. You go around and ask blogs to feature your book on their blog, interview you, or let you do a guest post. It works okay, but it is frequently impersonal and you need to be careful setting them up. The most successful ones I’ve done have been when I got writer friends of mine (in the same genre) to let me post on their blogs or asked them to feature me.
  2. Giveaways are possible, but getting an e-book to somebody as a gift is technically complex, involving codes and programs to download and passwords to submit and so-on.
  3. Getting Reviews has also been a significant part of what I do. I bug people I know have read the book to write me a review on Amazon or Goodreads or wherever. This helps my visibility, which helps me gain recognition, which helps me sell books. It is very slow, very incremental work though. A lot of people don’t want to write a review for some reason, even if they do like your stuff. Also, badgering people about it won’t get them to do it any faster. It is likely it will turn them off to doing it.

And…that’s it. I’m stumped after that.

A real book, though, still has a number of other options available to it – options that authors have been wielding effectively for years. Observe:

  1. Book Signings: People like signed books. People like meeting authors. Sit at a table with a stack of books to sign and you’ll make new friends, new fans, and so on. You won’t always be successful (my second WoTF book signing was pretty much just me sitting at an empty table talking to one guy who didn’t end up buying a book), but you’ll encounter and engage with more people you’d do otherwise.
  2. Book Readings: Yeah, you can read your e-book, but not as many people are likely to whip out their iPhone or Kindle and buy it right there. If you’ve got a stack of books and you’re reading from that book and all these people have come out to see you, odds are you’ll sell more. I’ve gone to book readings, and I feel weird if I don’t buy the book. It’s almost as though I’m insulting the author if I don’t.
  3. Book Giveaways become easier with a paperback. You just stick it in the mail and off it goes. Maybe even with a nice, personalized message or something.
  4. Impressing Guests is an underrated part of book promotion, I think. Some guy asks you what you do, you answer with writers, and he says “what have you written” and bam, there’s a book in his hands with your name on it. Your friends and family get to do the same thing – your book on their shelf. With an e-book? It’s always an explanation as to why your book is currently invisible.
  5. Bookstores, while dwindling, still sell a lot of books and are still the best places to browse for new titles. There you are, on a bookshelf alongside the greats, cover art on display.

All this, coupled with the fact that traditional books still control the balance of the market (I have people asking me when the print version of The Oldest Trick is coming out every day; it’s September 29th, by the way), means there is a lot to be said for the paperback, even now. Certainly, e-books are key, but they aren’t perfect yet. They don’t have that feel, that smell, that weight that makes it seem like somebody’s work and effort means something more than just the words on the page. E-books are whispers in the air; the physical book is letters on stone tablets. I, personally, cannot wait to have both at my disposal.

 

Paperback Nostalgia

A couple years back I was given a Kindle as a Christmas present. I had acquiesced to the idea of getting an e-reader when it became obvious to me just how many paperback novels I had

Just imagine me with a chair and a laptop somewhere in here and you should get the idea.

Just imagine me with a chair and a laptop somewhere in here and you should get the idea.

stashed in my parents’ attic and in my own apartment and that, when I moved, they filled a cool dozen cardboard boxes after I had jettisoned at least 60% of them to goodwill (enjoy my complete collection of Dragonlance novels, suckers!). Since then, I have purchased only e-books and hardcovers. The e-books are for reading; the hardcovers are for those really cool books I want to collect and show off. Most of my paperbacks have sat on various oddly-matched bookshelves in my office for the past couple years, collecting dust.

Fast-forward to this past weekend: I had dug out my old copy of Asimov’s Foundation to give it another read prior to discussing it in one of my classes. I’ve done this every year for a few years now, but this time I happened to get a whiff of the pages. It was that stale, dusty, library smell – a shoebox-ish odor of old paper drenched in too much sunlight. It took me on a journey.

I was fifteen. I’d come home from high school the long way (I took public transit to and from school; it taught me all the values of independence without the cost or anxiety of owning a car). I’d swing through Quincy Center and, rather than take the first bus, I’d wait on the second and wander up the street to my favorite bookstore. I say ‘favorite’ as though the quality mattered to me – it did not. They had books there and I bought them by the armload. I stuffed them in my backpack and smuggled them home, reading by metal desk lamp in the darkness of my room long after I ought to have been asleep.

Everything I bought was from the science fiction/fantasy section. I had no idea what was good – nobody I knew had any idea about this stuff and the bookstore employees were just as clueless – so I bought things more-or-less at random, based off of cover art or title. This was how I met Heinlein and Asimov, purchased by purest accident at the same time – Foundation and Starship Troopers, side-by-side, forever bookending my understanding of the genre (I wouldn’t meet Clarke until much later, in college). I got hooked on Robert Jordan from a free sample being given away at the counter – the first nine chapters of The Eye of the World, back when everybody figured there would only be six books. Jordan, in a very real sense, changed my life. He made writing as a profession seem real, and I can’t say how. Maybe I had always sought a medium to tell my stories, and Jordan’s books showed me how to do it. Maybe it was something else.

My parents were athletes of modest renown. My mother held swimming records at her college until well into the 1990s and, indeed, she still might hold a few somewhere. My father was one of those guys who could play anything pretty well. They took their kids camping, swimming, to the beach, hiking, skiing, sailing – you name the physical activity, I did it. Everytime we went to one of those places, though, I would have a paperback squirreled away in a bag somewhere. My teenage years sometimes come back to me as just one long string of people interrupting my reading. “Auston, why don’t you go swimming?” or “Auston, we’re going for a hike – put the book down.” or “I can’t believe we took you on a sailboat to an island in the middle of the ocean and you’re going to sit there and read.”

It isn’t that my parents were against reading – far from it. My father is one of the best read people I know, devouring three or four books at a time. My mother was a teacher. I just don’t think they quite understood why I had my nose buried in those space-books so much. The reasons are layered, nuanced, submerged beneath unknowable strata of my unconscious, most likely. It doesn’t really matter. I did it, I still do it (though not enough).

Picture me in an attic bedroom, curled up on a carpet under the eaves, a skylight over my head. I’m an awkward teenager of the 1990s, so I’m dressed like an idiot – poofy hair, glasses held in place by a tie-dye Oakley cord, a collared shirt with an alligator on it. I’m fit – athletic, even – but I’m nose deep in C.S. Friedman’s In Conquest Born or book four of The Death’s Gate Cycle, breathing the stale air of a room in the summer with no windows open. My mom is yelling for me from downstairs. I pretend I don’t hear her.

For as convenient as the Kindle is and, by extension, as convenient as the whole Internet is, there is something to be said for hunting down something unknown. Making informed purchases is wise, of course, but also sad. It lacks romance. Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from going and smuggling my paperbacks home today, I guess (I now have a whole new set of people I love determined to interrupt my reading). Maybe I’m getting old and I just don’t have the energy anymore, or maybe I’m just being a curmudgeonly hypocrite, but I know I won’t go back to a bookstore anytime soon. I won’t spend an afternoon in a deathly silent library, just me and the soft roar of the air conditioners and the smell of old books.

For the rest of my life, though, when I open an old paperback and breathe in that scent, I will remember.