The Business Rusch: Binge Reading
Agatha ChristieAlexander DumasAndre NortonArrowDownton AbbeyEdgar Rice BurroughsHBOHollywood Radio and Television SocietyHouse of CardsHydraIan FlemingJD RobbJohn ScalziMarie ForceMary BaloghNCISNetflixNielsenNora RobertsRandom HouseShanora WilliamsStephen KingSupernaturaltelevisiontelevision ratingsThe LA TimesThe New York Times Bestseller listThe USA Today bestseller listthe Wall Street Journal bestseller listVictoria Holt
On a day when most of the publishing blogosphere is dealing with Random House’s horrible Hydra publishing line, I figured I’d talk about something else. First of all, if you haven’t heard about Hydra and what it wants to do to writers who know nothing about business, check out John Scalzi’s blog. In fact, check out John Scalzi’s blog to see why so many writers choose to remain in traditional publishing without become hybrid writers at all. Also note (apropos of last week’s blog) that John now has an escape route in the back of his mind, should traditional book publishing turn on him the way it has turned on so many of us.
And let me add that many of you expressed surprise at my interchangeable widgets comment last week. Here’s what I said: Traditional publishers know that when one writer goes away, another will step into her place. You’re a rotating group of widgets that might make the publisher some money. If you don’t make the publisher money, then they’ll find someone who will.
Now, thanks to Hydra, you can see that attitude in action.
But, let’s move on to my own pleasant surprise of last week. It came in the comment section of my blog. Marie Force mentioned that her self-published book, Waiting For Love, hit the New York Times bestseller list at number 6 for e-books and number 11 overall, the USA Today bestseller list at number 15 and the Wall Street Journal bestseller list at number 6 for e-books.
I’ve been turning that news over and over in my mind since last week. Marie Force isn’t the first self-published writer (even though I prefer the term indie, which I will now use) to hit the New York Times list, and she certainly won’t be the last. But it’s refreshing to see it in action. (Congrats again, Marie!)
Journalist that I used to be, though, I wasn’t going to blog about this until I made certain I saw the actual lists. And Marie linked to all three in her post. As I scanned through the Times list for Marie’s name, I noticed something else. Let me explain how.
The list is formatted this way:
6. Waiting For Love, by Marie Force (Marie Force)
If you look at the number one book on the list, you see this:
1. Alex Cross, Run, by James Patterson (Little, Brown & Company)
In other words, the publisher comes after the author’s name, something we’re all used to. But I’m not used—even now—to seeing the author’s name as the publisher. As I was scanning this list—the e-book bestseller’s list for the week of March 10, 2013—I noticed that same phenomenon six times in the top twenty-five. In other words, self-published authors comprise 24% of the New York Times e-book list for the week of March 10.
Wowza. Nifty. Cool.
So much for that added value traditional publishers bring. Guess what, y’all? Even hitting a bestseller list is no longer reserved for traditionally published writers only. Back when just one or two writers were making the lists, I wasn’t so sure it would happen, but now—I’m thrilled and amazed, and the traditional writer in me is surprised.
The business woman isn’t.
Now that the distribution model for books has expanded so that it’s easy for writers to get their books in front of readers, of course readers drive sales. Readers don’t care if Marie Force was published by Marie Force or by Little, Brown & Company, so long as the readers can get the books.
Getting on the bestseller list, then, has to do with word of mouth and demand, not on availability on bookstore shelves.
Remember, bestseller lists are based on velocity as well as number of copies sold. In other words, if you sell 5,000 books in the first week of publication and only 1,000 more books in the next 51 weeks, you might hit a bestseller list. But if you sell 1,000 books for 52 weeks out of the year, you won’t hit a bestseller list—even though you’ve sold 46,000 more copies of your book than the so-called bestseller did. If you don’t believe me, look at this article in The Wall Street Journal, exposing a marketing firm that buys its clients onto the WSJ bestseller list.
If you understand business and you understand velocity versus total sales, you can manipulate some lists. But you can’t manipulate three of them in the same week. That’s because the lists that Marie hit (and several other of those authors as well) use different algorithms to compute their bestseller lists. The USA Today list is the most impressive to me because it computes actual sales of total books, comparing the sales of business books to the sales of romance novels to the sales of e-books to the sales of trade paper. To hit that list is hard (and, quite frankly, more of an achievement, imho, than hitting the Times list).
How did these indie authors hit the lists? I don’t know. I’m sure some of them would tell you they promoted to death or they blogged a lot. And I know those things had no real impact at all. Writers never believe that they got on a bestseller list because they wrote a good book.
Here’s what I do know: each of the six indie authors on the New York Times list has published more than one book. The author with the fewest titles, Shanora Williams, published three titles since the end of November.
The other authors (and the two on the extended New York Times list) published at least four books last year. Some are indie-only authors, and others, like Marie, are hybrid writers, with books from traditional publishers as well as indie publishing their own titles. Some are newer writers who have just signed a traditional book deal (and I hope to hell their contracts are good).
What this shows is what those of us who have been in the business a long time already know: write a lot of books and readers will find you. In fact, if you’re a good storyteller, then readers will anxiously wait for your next book.
In the Amazon reviews for one of these Times bestsellers lurk a lot of complaints about copy editing or the lack thereof. Those reviews are mixed in with demands from readers for the next book in the series. As I said with the early Amanda Hocking books, copy editing matters, but if you’re a good storyteller, then many readers will forgive the misuse of commas to get to your story. (Many won’t, however, which is why I insist that you indie writers pay for a copy editor of some kind. Increase your sales even more with proper punctuation!)
Traditional publishers have long limited their authors to one or two books per year. Stephen King even made that a plot point in Bag of Bones. Even he, who made a profit for the publisher on every book he wrote, was restricted to two books per year for his publisher in those dark days.
The romance genre broke that mold—and got dismissed for it. Harlequin liked authors who could write six or more books per year for its category romances (generally, those books run 50-60,000 words, about half to a third the length of a standard novel). Nora Roberts continued that practice after she left the categories, and early on, she took on a pen name for her J.D. Robb series, since her publisher and agent were afraid that slight departure from her romance novels would tank her sales. It didn’t. It just brought in new readers.
It was news when historical romance writer Mary Balogh published four books in the same season. Three were paperback originals, and the fourth was a hardcover. The experiment, according to the traditional publisher, was to see if the readers would spend even more for the last book in a four-book series or if they would wait until the mass market paperback got released.
Some readers waited, of course. But most bought all four books in the same season, without a lot of qualms.
Traditional publishers sometimes released three books in three months, usually to promote a new writer (or a new-to-the-publisher writer) with a series of books. Often that publisher had invested a lot of money in the writer or was going to build that writer into a bestseller.
Sometimes the experiment flopped; most often it worked, and is being used more and more now.
The problem that traditional publishers have is this: it costs a lot of money to publish a book. The publisher must put all the money out up front for everything from content to editorial to production to distribution. Books go from being a proposal from a writer to being a paper edition in stores, at thousands of copies, all before the publisher sees a dime (this, of course, doesn’t count Random’s grabby e-publishing lines). The average cost for a mass market original is about $250,000 (with a $5,000 advance to the author factored in), so if the publisher is going to publish three books by that author in one year, that author had better justify the publisher’s $750,000 investment.
See why traditional publishers slow writers down?
But indie writers, handling their own publishing schedule, don’t need to slow down. They can publish something when it’s done, with minimal financial outlay. If you figure that when the indie writer spends money on a cover and copy edits—and doesn’t count her time—she can publish her book for the cost of a expensive four-person dinner in Manhattan, the kind that editors put on their expense accounts.
With that kind of outlay, publishing 12 books per year, provided the writer can write that many, is doable. Publishing 4-6 is definitely possible. If the writer has existing backlist, then publishing even more can happen.
Velocity happens to indie and traditionally published writers alike when they’re publishing the next book in a well-loved series. About half of those indie books on the Times list are in a series, so clearly the readers were waiting for the next book.
Most online bookstores have some kind of algorithm that notifies a customer when a favorite author has published a new book. Even if the indie authors can’t do preorders yet, the algorithm more than makes up for it. The fans will buy the book day one if they want it.
How many books will a reader read by the same author? That question used to bother me, since I have such a huge inventory. At what point am I overwhelming my readers?
That, it turned out, was a traditional publishing question. If you think of limited shelf space and the importance of velocity in traditional publishing—there’s only so much room for new books and those books better sell—then it matters how many books you push by a certain writer. At minimum, that writer had better sell $800,000 worth of books per season to justify the capital outlay.
All of those factors make “overwhelming the reader” an issue because—unbeknownst to the reader—those books have to sell within a short time frame to make the publisher’s money back.
Now, books stay on the virtual shelves as long as the contracts and/or the writer wants them to. Writers are happy with selling (by traditional publishing standards) small numbers of books per week, because those sales add up over time. Traditional publishers still need to make their investment back, so they still need a lot of sales very fast to make supporting an author worthwhile.
In other words, if you ask a traditional publisher when a writer will overwhelm readers with content, you will get a different answer than you will if you ask readers.
Because if you ask readers the question, they’ll pause, frown, and think. Then they’ll ask you which writers you’re referring to. The reason they ask that is simple: every reader has favorite writers whose work they would buy every week if they could. And every reader has writers they like whose work they won’t buy weekly because the reader has other things to do with his time. So the reader will discriminate between favorite authors and authors he merely likes.
You do this. I know you do. Every reader does.
In fact, every consumer does this with various forms of entertainment. The thing that calmed my fears about too much content was looking at the Rolling Stones song title availability in MP3. Two thousand songs. Two thousand. And while you might not like the Stones, a lot of people do. Not everyone is going to buy all two thousand songs, but a great number of people will be disappointed if their favorite isn’t listed.
Yeah, yeah, I’m not the Rolling Stones (I’m not that old or that male, for that matter) nor am I Nora Roberts. But I have to trust my fan base to pick and choose among the things I publish to find what they want.
I know that some folks prefer my Fey fantasy series to my Retrieval Artist series, and others won’t ever read anything but the Smokey Dalton mysteries. That’s okay by me. I like having all of those books out there, and I like having as much of my work available as possible.
Slowly, the content providers are learning that consumers don’t all act in the same way. Right now, television producers are discussing this in public in two ways.
First, they’re reacting to the Netflix series, House of Cards. Netflix released the entire season at once, and a lot of viewers binge-watched. They spent the entire weekend watching all thirteen episodes back to back. (I assume these consumers took naps and ate meals, but that might be a big assumption.) Others spent the month of February watching, and others, like me, are waiting until we have time.
I binge watch series. I prefer Downton Abbey all at once. I tried to watch Season 3 “live” and gave up. I ordered the DVD the moment it became available. I watch some shows every week. I really don’t care if I see NCIS in bulk, but it’s a comforting hour on a tired night.
Netflix, which has a lot of data on the way that consumers watch, knows that consumers watch slowly and binge-watch, which is why Netflix put the entire season out at once. Other content providers will follow suit. But not everyone. A panel with cable executives at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s February luncheon had most of the panelists giving a cranky response to the question of whether or not they’d release their premiere programming in single-season dumps.
HBO’s programming president called Netflix’s move “showy,” and dismissed it out of hand. Other cable executives still wanted “water-cooler” TV. They don’t care about controlling the conversation as much as they care about controlling the purse strings. It costs a lot of money to produce an entire season of something, and to spend all of that money all at once.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
At the same time, the industry is slowly coming to grips with the fact that consumers have choices now. (As opposed to those three networks with rigid programming back in the day.) The Los Angeles Times has published article after article about the way that Nielsen measures television viewing in this country. For the five of you who don’t know, Nielsen is the company that measures television ratings. Ratings show everything from whether a program should be canceled to how much advertising should cost on that program depending on how many eyeballs actually view the ad.
And that’s the question. First, Nielsen only rated eyeballs that watched live. Then live+24 hours after air. Now it is—I think—live +7 days later, unless I missed something (which is entirely possible).
Last week, Nielsen also sought to change the definition of a “television home” since it noted that many people, particularly younger people, no longer watch TV programming on an actual television. Here’s what the LA Times said, “Besides people cutting the cord to their pay-TV provider, many younger consumers simply never sign up in the first place, choosing instead to get content through newer platforms such as Hulu or Netflix. The traditional networks are putting more of their content online as well. If that material has advertisements in it, having a proper measurement becomes crucial.”
The change has already occurred, but Nielsen won’t have a way to properly measure all of it (if it can even be properly measured) until 2014.
Now, apply all of this to books.
Readers have long binge-read their favorite authors. My first memory of binge reading stems from my 12th summer. I read all of Agatha Christie’s books in the local library and figured out how she determined whodunit. I felt very smart. I also read all of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan books, but discovered that I couldn’t quite suspend my disbelief for Princess of Mars. (I think I wanted more princess, less Mars.) The following summer, all of Victoria Holt and all of Andre Norton. And somewhere—my sixteenth summer, maybe?—all of Alexander Dumas and all of Ian Fleming.
Binge reading is such a common phenomenon that the execs who are talking about the changing TV scene comparing the consumer’s behavior with episode availability to the consumer’s behavior with books in a series. In other words, we all do it.
The problem that traditional publishers have is the same one that television executives have—upfront financial outlay. It’s expensive to produce a lot of stuff at once. Which is why Random House is developing nasty things like the well-named Hydra imprint, why they’re holding onto as many rights as they can, and why they’re contracting for the length of the copyright.
It’s also why good writers who produce and self-publish a lot of content are hitting the bestseller lists with later titles. Readers want the next book in their favorite series. They’ll try a stand-alone book by the same author. They’ll go for the first book in a new series.
Readers want their writers to be able to write as fast as the readers read. Since very few writers can write an entire novel overnight and most readers can read one overnight, that wish will never come true. Writers will always write slower than readers can read.
But it’s good news for those of us who are prolific. We will have an audience that will grow with us, because our books remain available over time. And readers rarely discover a favorite author with the first book that author ever published. Readers hear about that author through word-of-mouth and pick up the latest title or the title with the best cover or the title that seems closer to something the reader already knows she likes.
For the mystery workshop I’m teaching in June, I’m introducing the students to authors they’ve never heard of. In the case of at least two writers, I start with a mid-series book. So if my students end up liking that book, they’ll have to go back to the author’s previous work.
It’s how we read. And finally, publishing reflects the way that readers read thanks to the digital era.
Just like television is starting to reflect how people actually watch, as opposed to the mandate from corporate on high. Water-cooler television? There will always be that. Just like there will be the Book of the Year (depending on genre). But there will also be consumers who come really late to that Book of the Year or that water-cooler TV show. I’m thinking Supernatural might be my summer binge show. Yeah, I know. I haven’t seen it yet. But the scenes at the front of the show look interesting. I’ve been watching them after I watch the episode of Arrow that I’ve stored on my DVR. Arrow is as close to appointment television as I get. I watch it a day or two later.
And I buy the Book of the Year when I hear about it, but I might read it three years later. If I do and like it, I’ll have three years of new books by that author to catch up on. If it’s an indie author, I’ll have a lot of reading.
And I like that. Very much.
I know a lot of you download this blog on your Kindle or your RSS feed and read it when you get a chance. I also get e-mails from many of you who have just discovered the blog and you’re slowly working your way back through the mountain of material I’ve managed to finish over the 134 weeks I’ve been doing the Business Rusch (not counting the year-plus I spent on The Freelancer’s Survival Guide)
While I’m amazed at how much I’ve written, I am also aware of how much time this takes from my fiction. For every writer who discovers the Business Blog, there are half a dozen fans who write to me wondering where the next book in their favorite series is. Fill in the blank as to which series. I could write 24 hours a day and still not get to the next book quick enough for someone.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying this blog must remain self-sustaining. If it stops contributing to the household’s bottom line, then I’ll take the 3K words per week that I write on this and turn it into a new novel. Economic factors exist in the Rusch household as well as in television boardrooms. (VBG) So please leave a tip on the way out.
Thanks to all of you who do support the blog with comments, forwards, links and donations. I greatly appreciate each and every one of you.
“The Business Rusch: “Binge Reading” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
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