The Keynote Address at this year’s Romance Writers of America (RWA) Annual Conference was unusual. Instead of sharing an inspirational or funny story about her trudge to success, Stephanie Laurens essentially gave a lunchtime workshop about the publishing industry, complete with a PowerPoint presentation.
Some were disappointed or bored and left early. I thought she was brilliant.
In the debate about self-publishing versus traditional publishing, many authors have focused on the percentage of readers who choose ebooks versus print. The typical thinking is that if most of their readers are still buying print books, authors need to stick with traditional publishing.
One of the drumbeats of traditional publishing is that publishers can get our books into bookstores more easily. That’s true (for now). The problem is that most people think “bookstores” and “print” are synonymous.
The thinking goes: if our readers buy our stories in a printed format, we need to have our books placed in bookstores. And therefore, we need a traditional publisher.
“Print” does not equal “bookstore.” Think of how many print books we buy online, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. We should focus on how readers are finding our books, not the format.
As Stephanie said:
“[W]hile the shift from print to digital consumption is a major driver contributing to the critical transition that’s causing the upheaval in our business, it’s not the critical transition itself – which is the migration of readers from buying offline to buying online. Whether they buy print or digital doesn’t matter – it’s the fact that readers access our works online that’s key, because once a reader is buying online, the author can reach that reader directly, and that alters one critical segment of our business irreversibly.”
In other words, we’re comparing the wrong numbers. And we’re using those irrelevant numbers to make business decisions. Bad us.
I’ve seen the breakdown of x percentage of readers buying ebook and y percentage buying print. I’ve also seen many authors look at those numbers and think they’d lose all those print readers by self-publishing. Not true.
Self-published authors have the ability to offer their stories in print form using POD (print on demand) on many of the online retailer sites, like Amazon. So the issue isn’t ebook versus print.
As Stephanie pointed out, once readers are at an online retailer, if they want a print book, they won’t pay attention to whether the book already exists in a warehouse somewhere, waiting to be shipped, or if a book will be printed and shipped when they order it. All print readers care about is whether they can get a printed book that appeals to them at a fair price from their retailer of choice.
So when we’re analyzing the value a traditional publisher offers us, the numbers of print readers versus ebook readers don’t matter beyond royalty percentage concerns. Instead, we should focus on the breakdown of readers buying books offline (like at a brick-and-mortar bookstore) versus buying books online (like at Amazon or barnesandnoble.com).
Unfortunately, I have yet to see those percentages published anywhere.
We already know ebook sales are gaining ground. If we included print sales made at online retailers, what would we see? Do those numbers change for casual readers (i.e., those we’d like to reach out to for “bestseller” status)?
By no means am I slamming brick-and-mortar bookstores here. I feel the urge to genuflect every time I pass the gorgeously huge, two-story Barnes & Noble near my house. I love bookstores.
Rather, I’m pointing out that our business decisions regarding our publishing options should not be based on our percentage of print readers, but on our percentage of readers who buy offline. There is a difference, and I hope we find a way to track down those numbers. Stephanie believes more than 50% of romance books are sold online, but other genres will have their own numbers.
Just to add more confusion to the mix, those numbers are likely to be different for each sub-genre. Jody Hedlund’s readership for her inspirational romances is probably different from the readership of Kresley Cole’s paranormal romances. Jody knows her readership includes large numbers of women who don’t even own a computer, much less use one for shopping.
Regardless of any numbers relevant to our situation, some of us prioritize publishing options that give us access to bookstores just because we love the idea of seeing our books on the shelf. There’s nothing wrong with that.
I was one of those who saw the ebook vs. print numbers and thought they were the only relevant figures, so I know how much Stephanie’s point can change our thinking. At what percentage of sales should we change our approach? Or do we want to be in stores so much that even the smallest percentage of sales is worth going traditional?
There’s no right or wrong answer. My point is that we should be aware of the real issues behind our decisions so we’re making the best choice for us. And more importantly, that we’re not making decisions based on a feeling that we don’t have a choice if we want to see our books in print.
(And come back next Tuesday for a more detailed look at how the shift to online buying affects authors.)
Have you ever seen a breakdown of offline versus online book purchases? (If so, share!) What do you think is more important to our decision-making—print vs. ebook or offline vs. online? How important to you is seeing your book on a bookstore shelf? Would you be willing to take a royalty rate “pay cut” to make that happen?Pin It