Abracadabra: Books are Magazines

The Magician stands on stage and invites a volunteer from the audience to lend him something. Not a piece of jewelry, or a dollar bill, but a book. The volunteer—an author—hands him a copy of his latest tome. The Magician places it on a stand and waves a hand at it. “Behold, a book.” He then drapes a scarlet silk over it. He waves his wand, utters the word, “Abracadabra,” with great solemnity, and whisks the silk away.

“Behold,” he says with a smile, “a magazine!”

The audience applauds, but the author is stunned. That’s not a magazine, that’s a book! There’s no magic there, there was no trick. It’s a book, and a book is a book, right?

Alas, a book becomes a magazine when it’s marketed as a magazine. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s important enough to break it down completely:

1) Borders is gone. You may have heard that. It was in the papers (and blogs). Retail book shelf space in the United States dropped by at least a third.

2) Barnes & Noble has stripped out retail book shelf space for their Nook Boutiques. They’re pushing their reading machines hard, offering special deals if you bring the devices into the store to buy things.

3) The reduced shelf-space means that backlist titles are not being stocked in any depth. There are many authors, myself included, who used to have a foot or more of shelf-space in stores, but who can’t even find their most recent books in stores. New books get a month or two, if the author sells. If not, *poof* gone. (This latter situation is not unusual and hasn’t been for years.)

4) The reduced shelf-space in Barnes & Noble results in an interesting situation. You go into the store to get a book that came out two months ago. It’s not on the shelf. You ask a staffer and get told, “Well, I can order it for you from our warehouse and you’ll have it in a week, or you can order it right now for your Nook.” (You get to choose, they win either way, but the immediacy of ebook delivery is a huge plus.)

5) This shift in economics breaks out this way for physical book sales. Publishers are not going to be going back to press for books unless the sales in the first two weeks shows they grossly underestimated the demand for physical copies. This is especially true for hardbacks and trade paperbacks, where mass market editions can be used to soak up any physical demand. All backlist demand can be shifted to ebooks, where the customer is being charged the same price as for the physical book, but the publisher and retailer avoid production, warehousing, shipping and stocking costs. For those readers who simply must have a physical copy during this time, POD solutions will suffice.

This scenario is not a “someday” thing: it’s here. Expect to see the window for mass market editions of books to start creeping forward, closing that customary year gap. Barnes & Noble is fully invested in the Nook and ebooks, so their motivation is to push the format which saves them money and tethers readers to their online store through their devices.

What does this mean for authors?

Well, that dream of seeing a dump display filled with your books is pretty much dead. Finding a single copy of your books on a shelf will be a welcome surprise, not an event to be dreaded. Being able to walk into a bookstore and pointing to your books to prove you’re an author is no longer going to be possible. That won’t matter, though. Folks will just look you up on their readers or smartphones.

This is not a dreary picture for authors. Not at all. In fact, it’s great. We have publishers and book retailers training readers to go to the Internet or an App to look for our books. A simple search will find you, and it will also provide a long list of your other books. Readers, as we know, will buy most everything by an author if they like her work. The new model is pointing readers to all of the books you have listed in online stores—no matter who publishes it.

This means the books you sell yourself get listed there side by side with everything else. This means readers have the opportunity to buy the books you’re self-publishing instantly. Book retailers and publishers are pointing customers directly at you, customers who have money burning a hole in their pockets, customers who love your work. I’m liking being tossed in that brier patch.

So, how do writers screw this up?

Simple: they refuse to play. Writers screw it up by leaving their backlist in a file box and not making it available.

Books are magazines. I know some folks will resist this idea—primarily those who are wholly invested in the status quo. Above I’ve pointed out my reasons for my conclusion, and authors are welcome to check my reasoning for themselves. I heartily recommend you have royalty statements handy when you do so. (And a bottle of Pepto.) The details get ugly, and the conclusion is undeniable. (If you want to be really depressed, do the checking at a B&N, in the coffee salon, right behind the Nook Emporium, which is usually left of the gift shop, right there, up front, before you actually get to any books.)

If you pretend the old market system still exists, you prevent yourself from making a living in the new world. It’s a choice, not a wise one, but a choice. It’s a choice based in fear, and if you’re inclined toward making it, do yourself the favor of considering the following: Which frightens you more, having to learn new things so you can cope with the future, or having your dreams of having your writing bought, read and appreciated die? Every writer I know is smart enough to learn new things, and rightfully dreads the the latter scenario.

As the market changes, and as methods by which our books are sold changes, we have to be smart and take responsibility for securing our own future. Books as magazines has one huge advantage: readers will get more volume and since traditional publishers are not built to handle the increased volume we can all generate, authors win.

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