A Little Cannibalization Doesn’t Hurt

Like many of you, I grew up in a household that valued reading. My parents were both avid readers–Mom still is. They read to me every day until I could read to myself. Even then, they’d read me bedtime stories until I became “too old” for it. It wasn’t unusual to find us sitting around in the evenings, book in hand or talking about something we’d been reading. Part of that ritual revolved around the Doubleday Book of the Month Club (or whatever it was called depending on what year/decade it was). For those of you not familiar with it or with “clubs” like it, once a month you received a couple of books in the mail with a little booklet describing the featured books for the next month and other books you could get. It was a way to buy hardcover books at a fraction of the cost, even new releases and it was wonderful.

These books came at a discount. New releases might be 20% or so off list price. Older books were often pennies on the dollar. It was great because it gave people like my father, who wouldn’t go to the library for whatever reason, a chance to try new authors without paying full price for the book. It also gave our family and so many others like us the chance to buy more books with our limited funds. For a family of avid readers, it was heaven in a monthly delivery.

I’ll be honest, I hadn’t thought about those book club deliveries for a while. After all, most of those companies have gone the way of the dodo. They’ve either completely disappeared or their offerings have become too limited or their prices no longer competetive, especially when you have the convenience of Amazon where you can order a book today and have it in your mailbox by the next day.

Then I read an article over at The Passive Voice about similar “book clubs” and how parts of the publishing industry didn’t like them because they were “cannibalizing” the industry. After all, selling a book for less than the cover price would hurt. It would make people think books were priced too high and they might–gasp–want lower prices. How dare they!

Mind you, there were a few voices in the wilderness who recognized that a little cannibalization is good. These voices, like Jim Baen before e-books became a legitimate form of reading, recognized that sometimes you needed to give the reader a taste to get them hooked. In other words, you baited them in and then captured them as readers. With book clubs, you did that by offering books are a lower price than in the stores, hoping then to get the impulse buy from these readers when they were in a physical bookstore. With Jim Baen, it was giving them a free book e-book, often book one in a series, to hook the reader into buying subsequent books in the series and–gasp–other books written by that author..

But traditional publishing didn’t like the idea of one penny less than list price going into their pockets. They forgot the importance of samples to entice a reader. Hell, many of them probably haven’t been to a Costco or grocery store in so long that they’ve forgotten about the vendors handing out samples of food and how those samples will convince you to buy something not on your list. They’ve forgotten the most fundamental of basics when it comes to marketing a product–you have to get a potential buyer interested before they will buy. With books, you do that by offering sample chapters or lowering prices.

Yes, you cannibalize a portion of your profits to make even more money in the long run.

I found so many authors through these mail to your home book clubs. Some of them stayed on my must buy list (even after the book club no longer offered the lowest prices or best selections and I turned elsewhere for my fix). Mysteries and romances, science fiction and fantasy, all were delivered to my home and some still have places on my bookshelves. Others have been replaced with digital copies and reside on my e-reader.

Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Issac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, Agatha Christie and others. Some introduced to me by my parents and their book club subscriptions and others found on my own as I tried out other book clubs and paid with my own money.

As I remember those days, I find myself also thinking about how publishers reacted to Amazon as it gained traction in our changing world. They had the same basic reaction to it, especially when it comes to e-books, as it did to these monthly book clubs. How dare they offer our titles for less than cover price! Anecdotal proof at the very least that publishing execs are of a never-changing mindset, one that has continued to cost them sales over the years, because they fail to look at the long-term bottom line, only the next quarter’s profits.

It is like a bad record repeating itself.

I would give anything to turn the clock back a couple of decades (or more) for just one of those nights when Mom, Dad and I sat around the den reading and talking about books. Or that joy I felt as a kid to open the mailbox and see the brown box from the book club and know there were two or three, sometimes more, new books inside. New chacters to become my friends and new worlds to explore. It was like Christmas every month because my folks always surprised me, never telling me what they ordered.

Okay, part of that was because for a few years they didn’t know I was reading the books as soon as they finished them. Then it became a game. We’d talk about the upcoming selections but they wouldn’t tell me what they decided on. Instead, they’d offer clues and I had to guess. As a marketing scheme to make me want to read, it was great. I’ll admit, sometimes the game was better than the book. But it helped nurture my love of reading, something I have to this day and something I’ve passed on to my son.

So, yeah, a little cannibalization is good–if done right. Unfortunately, traditional publishing has never learned that lesson and is suffering because of it. As a reader, I’m thrilled others have learned it and we now have a thriving small press and indie publishing alternative we can turn to.

Now for a bit of promotion. Rogue’s Magic, Book 3 of the Eerie Side of the Tracks series, is now available for pre-order. Release date is August 18th.

Trouble comes to Mossy Creek.

Jaqueline “Jax” Powell left town after high school, wanting to put as many miles between small town Texas and herself as possible. Mossy Creek, however, isn’t your normal small town and once it gets its hooks in you, you never really escape. It has already brought home two of its wayward children. Will Jax be the third?

When her best friend and “sister from another mister”, Annie Caldwell, is attacked and left for dead, Jax wastes no time in returning home. But is Mossy Creek ready for her return? Before long, everyone will remember why she’d been called “the rogue” growing up. An Earth Elemental, she will join with Wind and Fire to protect those they love.

As storm clouds gather over the small town, danger grows. Jax will have to use all her gifts as an Other to keep her friends safe.

But will it be enough?

 

34 comments

  1. “Valued” reading is probably too mild for my family. We had books everywhere. Literally everywhere. It wasn’t quite worth your life to lose someone else’s place in their book (aka the book they were currently reading), but it was close.

    All 5 of us kids still read, although our tastes vary widely.

    And I will always cherish the memory of Dad’s shouts of “Where’s my book! I’m busting!” (Yeah – he would _not_ use the loo without having his current book with him. Me, I learned early that if I took a book with me, I’d be there until I’d finished the book. It’s the only room in my house that doesn’t have books.)

    1. Heh. I remember getting hollered at as a kid because I was taking too long in the bathroom (because I had a book).

      Not actually in trouble, though–because I’d learned it from my parents, who also took books to the bathroom. Just “Okay, we KNOW YOU’RE READING IN THERE but you really need to get out and come do the dishes, then we’ll leave you alone.”

      The worst punishment for me as a kid would have been to ground me from reading…which I think my parents eyed ONCE and realized it wouldn’t work. They wouldn’t be able to enforce it 😀

      1. My parents tried that on me exactly once. When I stopped reading anything and informed the school that my parents had told me I couldn’t, the parent teacher conference got that dropped fast. Especially since my dad hated being embarrassed worse than anything else.

  2. — Yes, you cannibalize a portion of your profits to make even more money in the long run. —

    Other industries have cheerfully, even enthusiastically embraced the tactic. The “loss leader” is a well known phenomenon in music promotion especially. (Warner Reprise Records made them relatively famous.) But publishing? Embrace a retailing tactic being used by the makers of kitchen fixtures? Forbid it, Almighty God! (:-)

    If memory serves, the hardback publishers weren’t exactly welcoming toward the emergence of the mass-market paperback, either.

  3. Amazing, how many indie and small press writers have the first book in the series either at $.99 or on perma-free . . . As if they looked at Jim Baen’s ideas, looked at what the Big 5 were doing, and decided to follow Baen. (Or like a certain MD I know, who firmly believes in doing the opposite of whatever [famous professional journal] recommends, within limits. She’s had excellent success thus far.)

    1. Ah, another who has learned to read the JAMA with a skeptical eye, noting the many times when the data all leans one way but the conclusion finds “no correlation” (because nothing in JAMA bucks conventional wisdom).

      1. Theodore Dalrymple came out with False Positive: A Year of Error, Omission and Political Correctness in the New England Journal of Medicine recently.

    2. I wonder if someone could do a modernized, “e-book” club?

      There is value in having real people, who love the field, pick products. For example, I love listening to KDFC, San Francisco’s classical music station, because in additional to the standards, I get to listen to music I’ve never heard, chosen by people who love classical music, well presented, with no politics. (The local non-profit jazz station, KCSM, is similar, and highly recommended if you like jazz – but I only like about 20% of jazz).

      1. If you can stream when you’d want classic, “Classic King FM” out of Seattle is also by and for music lovers– it’s the folks who listened to NPR and when it stopped doing much music, made their own station.

        1. I’m familiar with Classical King, All Classical (Portland), and KUSC (LA, USC=University of Southern California). All Classical and KDFC both have repeater stations; all but King are available via Reciva (and thus Grace Digital internet radios). King used to be on Reciva, but if they still are, it’s under a different name.

          KDFC is definitely our family favorite (yeah, we might be a little biased, but they do an excellent job of playing a broad variety of music, and the now-retired Hoyt Smith was the perfect host).

          KDFC was the last commercial classical station in the US; honestly, they’re better as member supported. They also have a tie-in with KUSC. BTW, on the jazz side, KCSM = College of San Mateo. I’ll end with noting that I find member-supported radio about 100x more interesting than commercial.

          1. KLEF out of Anchorage, AK is a commercial classical station. I miss them! All the ads were spoken in the same soft announcer voice, so it wasn’t a major interruption to know what’s on sale at New Sagaya this week.

  4. They see themselves as selling a luxury good. (Or worse, experience.)
    They’re concerned about diluting their cachet.
    You won’t see a Hermes sack at Ross, or a Ferrari at a Chevy dealer. That would rob them of their mystique, and make people wonder exactly what they were paying for.
    Having the proper art book on your coffee table, or the “right” ones in a bookcase behind you in a picture or interview, isn’t about the communication of ideas or story. It’s about the declaration of status.
    The physical object and the abstracts captured within it are secondary (at best) to being seen as a serious, intelligent person.
    That’s their preferred market: poseurs.

  5. Heck, half the sci-fi/fantasy authors I still love today came about because my parents were, for a time in the 1980s, members of the scifi book club!!

  6. Speaking of cannibalizing, you know how I’m always droning on and on about backups? Well, due to insufficiently paying attention and being rushed, I managed to delete my entire hard drive off my work PC today. And I pushed every button myself, thinking I was deleting it off the PC I was working on, but really it was over the network.

    So now I’m sitting here with a stomach ache, hoping that my NAS and my backing everything up to sticks all the time actually covered me. I have verified that the latest versions of all my books are intact on a stick at least, so that’s good.

    Because I didn’t have enough stress in my life already. 😡

    Important safety tip for the future, unplug the network when deleting things.

      1. It appears that the backup is actually backed up, on further inspection (after I calmed down a bit) so all is not lost, as they say.

        Except for those liver cells of mine that died of shock earlier. Those are gone forever. Requiescat in pace, liver cells. Alas, I knew them well.

        However, as they also say, backups are nice but only restores count. That is scheduled for later, when someone smarter than me is awake and my hands stop shaking.

        Worst thing is I hate it when I’m stupid. Hate it -so- bad, oh my ghod…

        1. Oh, phew. I lost 30 some pages of a story I was writing to some inexplicable hiccup many years ago, and it was so discouraging I never have picked the story up again.

          I was shuddering to think what that would be like with full length NOVELS!

          Glad your stuff is okay!! (Burn backups to CD/DVD? That’s what I’ve started doing. Okay, still not foolproof…but I don’t trust the cloud, and hard drives crash, as I found out when I lost a huge chunk of irreplaceable music collection…)

          1. Gah. I lost a lovely chapter of my first HF, when I was writing it on a work computer (OK, it was a radio station and I was almost completely unsupervised!) and for some bizarre reason – that chapter didn’t take to whatever media I was saving it on, at the time. Managed to reconstruct, but – in the way of things, I believe my lost first version was better…

  7. I was a big book club fan. Looking at my shelves even now, a noticeable percentage of the science fiction and history books came from book clubs. I was a member of the SFBC for a couple of decades before I realized that the books they were offering each month were no longer all that interesting. Nowadays I mostly buy e-books, and most of them from indie authors who don’t expect me to pay a physical book price for electrons.

    That includes a lot of the contributors right here. Thanks, all of you, for helping me feed my habit.

    1. I seem to recall there being special “book club editions” of many books they put out. As in, they weren’t selling the bookstore version…Or maybe that was just the ones where they’d combined a trilogy or series into one set of covers…? (Pretty sure my old copy of the Dark is Rising sequence was like that. Also a collection of the Prydain novels…)

      1. SFBC did some of their own editions (often combining several shorter books into a single volume), as well as printing their own editions of publisher books.

        Note that the SFBC editions are often indistinguishable from the regular ones, except that it has a little note in the corner of the dust jacket saying it’s a book cub edition.

        Note that Ellen Asher, the editor in chief at the SFBC from 1973 through 2007, was the longest serving editor at any SF publication in the history of the field (just beating John W. Campbell’s record in Astounding/Analog, which ran from the Oct 1937 issue until his death in July 1971).

      2. Yes, there were special book club editions. Usually a cheaper cover, binding, and page cuts, which is partly why they were able to offer the books at a lower price. Some were combinations (Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy in a single volume, for example), some were cheaper editions of a single book, and sometimes (at least with some clubs) it was pretty much the same as the publisher’s edition.

  8. Chuckle Chuckle

    I was also a follower of the SFBC and one time I saw a book there that I hadn’t yet seen at the book store.

    Of I purchased it. 😀

  9. I most remember the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I never did compare one side-by-side to the uncondensed version. Oddly, I cannot now recall any particular thing I read that way, but both my parents and grandparents had tons of them and I read a lot, if not all, of them.

    1. Ah! Reader’s Digest Condensed! They were among my early introductions to adult literature. I remember three books most vividly:
      The Man with the Miraculous Hands: about the wartime deeds of Dr. Felix Kersten;
      The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant: better known these days as Damn Yankees;
      Captain Newman, M.D.: Leo Rosten’s semi-comic novel about a military psychiatrist during World War II.

      All delightful, with no loss of quality due to RD’s condensations. Yet there were — and are — people who sneered at them as “not real books.”

  10. “Trip on a dollar to save a dime”– or the Miser’s Curse.

    For a similar thing– if I could get Agatha Christy novels in ebook, for a reasonable price (ie, not the same or more than a paperback), I’d probably have bought them all by now. Even the ones that are out of copyright, or about to go.

    But no, they’d much rather charge ten bucks for the collected works, so instead I just have a mental note to keep an eye out for used and they get nothing.

    1. If they were smart, they’d do a “Complete Agatha Christie” e-book collection for a reasonable price per title…and rake in a lot more $$$ than they’re getting now.

      1. They did do it with the Miss Marple stories!

        I’ve looked considering at the Miss Marple collection, but… $70 is a big risk when I might find out they’re functionally unreadable.

        If they put the books at $4.99 and the short works collection at $6.99, or even the first one at 2.99 and the next 11 at $5.99, I’d piece-meal it, or even buy as gifts.

        1. Or wait for others’ reviews.
          One thing to try: add all the Agatha Christie e-books you’re interested in to your wish list, and let Amazon tell you when one goes on sale. I snagged the e-book version of Then There Were None for a decent price (<$3 IIRC) that way.

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