Another Indication the Industry is Behind the Times

Let’s face it. The last two-plus months has impacted the publishing industry unlike anything else in a very long time. Oh, we’ve heard the noises from some of the Big 5 that their numbers are up, but a close look at the numbers and you see something doesn’t add up. For one, the numbers they are touting can’t include returns because bookstores aren’t open. They also, if true, put the lie to the old formula publishing continues to push–that they need brick and mortar stores to survive. Those stores they’ve said must continue have been closed. Customers have, at best, been able to order a book and drive up to the curb to have it delivered to their car. There has been no browsing the stacks, no impulse buying. Even so, don’t expect a change in the business model when we are no longer being told by the nanny state that we have to stay home and our businesses can’t open. Publishing has proven over the last several decades that it is perfectly happy living in the past and has no desire to change things just because our lifestyles and reading habits are changing.

It was a post on The Passive Voice that got me thinking about the industry this morning. Mind you, the original story comes from England. But still, telling me that in this day and age of Covid-19, book prizes matter more than ever leaves me scratching my head and wondering what the original post’s author was smoking.

Let’s face it, if the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that book prizes have little to do with what the average reader wants to read. Most of us couldn’t name the latest winner of the Pulitzer for literature or the Hugo or even the Dragon (or any other award for that matter). Part of it is because we had to read too many prize winners in school and hated them. So we have been taught to avoid prize winners with a passion. Part of it is because we’ve grown tired of having politics and social agendas determine who win and who doesn’t. Part of it is because we want to read something that interests us or entertains us. We don’t want to be lectured to.

Mind you, not all prize winners fall into those categories. But we’ve gotten such a bad taste in our mouths from those that do we aren’t willing to risk it yet again.

so why, in the name of all that is holy, would book prizes matter more now than ever?

That’s a question the article really doesn’t answer in any great detail. Oh, we get the general spiel that the final prize lists help “book bloggers, or booksellers with online stores to consider: the same for virtual festivals that are being organised now.”

Gee, I don’t know about you, but most of the bookbloggers I know, and those with large followings, don’t blog about prize winners (except to maybe point and laugh). They blog about genre books or non-fiction books that are actually readable. As for online sellers, sure, they may be offering the prize winners. But if they want to make money, they are also selling–and probably at far greater numbers–genre books that people want to read. And don’t get me started about “virtual festivals”.

Where the author of the post really lost me was when he commented that his favorite “rite” is book signings. Now, I don’t know about England, but here in the States, book signings have been going the way of the dinosaurs for decades. There was a time when publishers paid to send their authors on signings and even the small neighborhood indie bookstore was included. That’s how I first met Anne McCaffrey. The store was smaller than my house. But there she sat, one of the grand dames of SFF, in the middle of the store, holding court with those of us who came out. She came to that small store at least twice.

Then we started seeing signings being limited to the chain stores. Then we started seeing fewer and fewer mid-list authors being sent out. Now, if we’re lucky, there is a signing every quarter at the local B&N, usually by either the “next big thing” the publishers are pushing or by a best seller. Mid-listers get signings usually only on the local level (local to them) or if they foot at least part of the bill.

But, as PG points out, the return on investment for the store, for the author and, to be honest, for the publisher, is little to none. At least if you aren’t talking about a best seller like Larry Corriea where his fans will drive hundreds of miles to see him.

Yet there are still those so attached to the old publishing business model who see this as a viable form of promotion.

And it might be if we weren’t basically limited to two major bookseller chains in the US.

As for seeing the return of such events in a post-Covid world is iffy at best. Publishers are going to have to find ways to cut costs and, as they have proven in the past, they will cut in ways that will hurt authors before cutting out the fat on the upper management level.

As for this particular article, all I can say is either things are very different in Great Britain when it comes to publishing or this author is one of those who really, really doesn’t get what readers want and doesn’t understand that Covid-19 is showing the weaknesses in traditional publishing and its market chain. The next year is going to be interesting as we see the fall-out from the months of no bookstores and only on-line sales. How many publishers will close their doors or merge? What will B&N look like when this is over? Inquiring minds want to know.

Featured Image by Yerson Retamal from Pixabay

15 comments

  1. I can think of two authors who do book signings on a pretty regular basis out here. They are both locals who became international best sellers, and one writes children’s books (John Erickson). People will drive their kids a hundred miles and more to meet him. Otherwise? Nah.

    I’ve given museum talks, and then signed non-fiction books afterwards. However, that’s a very different audience and genre from what the Big 5 focus on.

    1. We have a couple of locals who do the same. The problem is, if they aren’t “best sellers’, the B&N usually won’t give authors the time of day, Indie booksellers are more likely to do signings but don’t usually get the big names so sales aren’t great enough to do many signings per year.

    2. So have I. I’ve also done local book clubs who chose one of my books as their selection – and were thrilled to bits to have the author come and discuss the book with them. But those are few and far between. For regional books and authors, there’s the Giddings Word Wrangler, yearly in September, and there may be still a big festival out in Red River County, for which my daughter and I were going to make a special road trip of it … but I honestly don’t know at this point if these events are still on.

    3. Consider that the road distance from the extreme southeast to the extreme northwest, the longest dimension of Great Britain, is about 800 miles. London to Glasgow is half that.

      The passenger rail network is just about as dense as in the Northeastern US, too – so you can practically put in quite a bit of work even if you are doing a long signing tour.

      1. The UK passenger rail network is probably even denser than that of the northeastern US.

    4. I haven’t thought about John Erickson for years… But when my seven year old son had cancer he stopped laughing for about six weeks. Someone loaned us The Incredible Priceless Corncob on tape and he laughed himself sick … I mean well … Or something. I got a new one for his trips to the doctor whenever I could. I still think of The Mopwater Files as one of the best things ever. I don’t know what I would think now if I went back and read the books…

    5. *jumps across screen to hide author’s name*

      My kids are addicted to Hank.

      There’s a couple of free books from him up on the freebie Audible.

  2. The last local book signing I saw here in Republik of Kanuckistan was some lady I never heard of selling a self-help book I never heard of. They used to have “Canadian Content” author signings at the local Chapters/Indigo. Possibly they still do, but since I never go there anymore I wouldn’t hear.

    The importance of book prizes and “virtual festivals” etc., -to the publishers-, is that they have to boost their signal. Nothing like a nice political book prize to push the things they want pushed and ignore the things they want off the table. Darlings get nominated, all others get shoved to the back.

    The importance to the reader is as Amanda said, to generate a do-not-read list.

    Lela Buis provides a valuable service on her blog, reviewing all the Hugo/Nebula/whatever award nominees. Having read her reviews for several years now, it is clear that the awards season is a political monoculture. If you’re not a member of the Kolectiv, then its a great list to ignore.

  3. I’m in the UK and don’t feel that there is anything here to make prizes or book signings more special than in the USA. Distances are shorter and the population density much higher so in theory the potential audience for a signing is greater. However, roads are more congested – plus Americans seem to have a willingness to drive for many hours for something like a signing and, by and large, Brits do not.

    Two or three literary prizes get media attention but the larger percentage pass without notice – and I often feel mainly exist to make the prize organisers (and winners) feel good. This goes not only for the “literary” prizes but for the genre ones as well. For the world as a whole it sometimes feels as if not a day passes without the winners of an SFF related prize being announced, but I can rarely be bothered to look to see what won.

    As for UK signings, if you are famous enough in the first place and already sell lots of books the fans will turn out but, to be honest, I doubt the ROI is positive as the fans would have bought the books anyway. If you are not famous it may even be an embarrassing experience, supposing you can persuade a bookshop to take you on.

    And thanks for the reminder: I’d intended to comment on PG’s posting, though my thoughts for a comment had not really got past thinking “WTF”.

    1. Yeah, the only book signing I attended was to get my already-read copy of Footfall signed by Niven and Pournelle. (Spent a brief time talking computers with Jerry…) I’m not sure when that bookstore closed; it was a largish independent in San Jose, but not where I spent most of my book money. The shopping complex it was part of got demolished around Y2K.

  4. It’s been years since we’ve had a big signing event around here. I remember the days when Barnes and Noble’s would bring in big-name authors like Terry Brooks and George RR Martin, but that was over a decade ago. When we still had bookstores in the malls, we’d occasionally see an author sitting in the front with a stack of books, often spending most of their time writing in a notebook while waiting for someone to take notice of their work.

    The library has had an annual event in October in which local authors can get table space to promote their books. However, given the current situation, it’s anyone’s guess whether it’ll happen this year.

  5. I suspect that the main purpose of book signings is to manipulate the best seller lists. If the goal is to take something that has a modest-but-enthusiastic audience and get it to debut #1 on the NYT list, what better way to do that than to send your author to “reporting stores,” ensuring that most of the sales are directed through them?

    I’ll admit that I enjoyed the one book signing I went to (Sarah and Larry for Monster Hunter Guardian), and I’d like to go to more if authors I liked were having them. But other than that one, I really haven’t run across any.

    As far as the “book prizes matter more than ever,” the impression I got was that the original poster was talking about literary novels. Given that the purpose of literary novels seems to be to impress the right people rather than to entertain that uncouth barbarian known as “the reader,” I could believe that the various awards matter to them quite a bit, especially when they’re barred from going to the right parties to pontificate.

  6. As an author I stopped doing book signings a long time ago. My publisher even wanted to pay for me to fly to do some signings and I declined. The reason is that most book signings, unless you’re Steven King, have very low turnouts. It’s not worth the energy and time you would invest to do them. Plus… it can be demoralizing when no one shows up!

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