Aspects of the Novelist’s Dilemma (5)

Blog: What's the Big Idea?

Aspects of the Novelist’s Dilemma (5)

5. From shopworn to non-perishable products.

The other thing that’s different about digital books is that—presuming the content is not time-dependent—the book itself is no longer perishable.
In the old days (also known as two years ago), books, which were still mostly print, were perishable for two reasons. First, because the longer they sat on a bookstore shelf, the more they were handled and the less “new” they became. If they didn’t sell pretty quickly, they got shopworn, diminishing their value.

Second, due to limited shelf space, the selling cycle was relatively short—often for hardcover fiction only a few months.

But in the digital world shelf space is infinite and a book may look as fresh today as it did last year. Every day is a new chance for that product to sell, yet publishers, with limited resources, cannot aggressively promote a book forever. Well, maybe they could with a different business model, but they’re certainly not in the habit of doing so.

When bookstores were the main means of distributing fiction, access to that limited shelf space was a sine qua non for success. Thus established publishers could leverage their relationships with bookstores into market power. I was at Doubleday (though not personally involved, in this case) when that house put John Grisham on the map with a huge coordinated push into chains and independents. In those days, publishers could select a couple of books from their list and really get behind them. The strategies they used didn’t always succeed, but the odds of success were quite high for awhile.
Now publishers are stuck in a love-hate relationship with the biggest ebook distributor (Amazon, of course), while the second biggest (B&N) pants to catch up. Big publishers still have power in bookstores, but bookstores are a shrinking part of the equation for fiction. And they still have some power to get a book on the front page of the big bookselling websites, but for how much longer?

Dilemma: When digital shelf space is limitless and digital books are non-perishable, will mainstream publishers adjust their attention spans for promoting novelists long term—or will authors have to do that themselves? If the author is in the marketing game for nine innings and the publisher is in it for one, does it make sense to be sharing revenue with that publisher for all nine innings?

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