My guest blogger today is Dale Cozort, author of American Indian Victories. This is the second in a three part series discussing the future of books. Normally I don’t post such long articles, but I thought Cozort’s analysis was too important to edit down. Cozort writes:
Part one looked at how the filters that keep readers from having to sort through a glut of really bad writing are breaking down. This section will look at how authors and readers can adapt to a world where the traditional filters are less useful. Part three will look at how publishers might react to reestablish their role in filtering.
New Types of “Brand Names”: With the glut of books, readers are looking for ways of to be sure they are getting good quality reading material. In that environment, “brand names”-names that readers have heard of-sell books, even if the names have little to do with publishing. Celebrity is its own brand name. Oprah’s book selections come to mind. Fortunately or unfortunately, talk show hosts with the ability to attract readers are scarce. We probably won’t see book recommendations from say Jerry Springer. (Shudder)
We will probably see celebrities of other kinds acting as filters in various ways though. Politicians like Newt Gingrich and actors like William Shatner have gotten into the book business. Celebrity “bookshelves” or endorsements on Amazon.com and the like would sell books too, but would probably be too expensive in most cases, though actors and celebrities in certain niches might find that it’s a good way to keep their names in the public eye. Would you be more willing to try a book from someone you’ve never heard of if it was on an Amazon bookshelf from say Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, Angel and Firefly) or one of the actors from his shows? If you loved those shows you might, and if the quality was high, you might try others from his shelf (assuming that he had one). Popular bloggers sometimes get into the book filtering business too, recommending books and sometimes writing their own books.
Popular writers can act as filters too. Authors do recommend promising new writers to agents and publishers. They sometimes offer blurbs to promising young authors or recommend them in their blogs. Some popular authors near the end of their careers as writers have taken to being “co-authors” with a collection of promising young authors, basically lending their name (and probably some polish) to books written mainly by the younger or lesser known author. The popular author’s name on the book attracts readers, acting as kind of a filter while pointing fans to good new authors.
I could see aging but still popular and intellectually active science fiction authors like Jerry Pournelle or Robert Silverberg doing virtual bookshelves of promising new science fiction on Amazon in exchange for a share of the revenue from any traffic driven to the books on their shelves. Another possibility: publishers could set up boutique brands of “X-famous author Recommends” books, letting the author act as screener and to some extent putting his status as a brand name on the line. That might also be a way for an up and coming independent press to differentiate itself, though the cost of bringing a big name in may be prohibitive.
Data Mining: In a world with a glut of choices in books, figuring out reader preferences and directing them to books they’ll like can be great for both authors and readers. Amazon is often very good at this. Their recommendations based on previous purchases can be extremely well targeted. To some extent their data mining replaces the old bookstore owner who knew the customers tastes and could direct them to good new authors.
From a reader’s point of view, sites like Goodreads or Shelfari can do some of the same things. If I see a reader with ten or twenty percent of their Goodreads library in common with mine I know that there is a good chance I’ll like the other books they’re reading too. Sites like that would be even more helpful for finding new books to read if readers could sort other readers by percentage of books in common. Goodreads is to some extent an amplified word of mouth.
Word of mouth/social networking: Speaking of word of mouth, it can be important as a filter too, but for some reason doesn’t seem to work as well for books as it does for movies. Part of the problem is our diversity of tastes in books. Social networking may amplify the role of word of mouth, but so many aspiring authors are trying to manipulate it in various ways that it may not be particularly effective.
Websites/blogs: Author websites and blogs may give readers some idea if they are going to like an author or not. From a reader’s point of view it’s probably a good idea to look for an author’s blog or website if you’re not sure you want to take a chance on a book. If the blog or website is not professional the book may not be either. If you don’t like the writing style on the blog, that’s a good sign you won’t like the writing in the book either. The flip side of that is that authors need to make sure their websites look professional and make a good impression. That’s a do as I say not as I do thing. My website badly needs remodeling.
“The Wisdom of Crowds”: A couple of years ago someone at social networking website Gather.com had what seemed to be a brilliant idea: Stage an American Idol-style contest for unpublished authors. The winner would get a publishing contract with Simon and Schuster and a big boost in sales from their exposure during the competition. It would be democracy in action. Readers would choose who got published. Well, for a variety of reasons it didn’t work out that way, though two reasonably worthy winners did eventually emerge.
The concept has been tried a few times since then, both by Gather and by Amazon.com, but in both cases the ‘popular vote’ element has been toned down. In both of the subsequent Gather contests, the eventual winner received little popular attention during the contest and little advertising boost from the victory. I still think there’s potential in the approach, but nobody seems to have found the right formula yet. All of the contests so far have suffered from a common problem: not enough impartial readers participating. There is also an inherent problem with the approach. If a publisher’s marketing people don’t like a book or understand its appeal that makes it hard for them to market that book effectively.
Web forums: As an author, it’s a good idea to have some presence on various on-line forums related to your subject matter, but you’ve got to be careful not to let them eat up too much of your writing time. You’ll also need to learn how to avoid trolls, flame wars and the usual Internet hazards. If a major hunk of your potential audience decides you’re a jerk, then you probably aren’t helping yourself. If you get a good reputation on the forums but don’t get stuff written you’ve defeated the purpose of the exercise. Also, be aware that a good reputation in an Internet forum is a very transient thing, as are boosts from blogging and web posts. If you don’t maintain a consistent presence any impression you have made will quickly be forgotten.
Free samples: Baen Books, a science fiction publisher, has a program where people can download free e-books of some of their authors’ older books. The idea is that readers will get hooked on the free samples and then go out and buy the newer books from those authors. Apparently that has worked fairly well. The key here though is that these are books that have already been through the filtering process at a traditional publisher, and the authors have other books that have also been through that process. Giving away e-books is probably not going to work for most aspiring authors, though some other kinds of free samples may.
New technology: The first few good writers who hop on a new technology that takes off can often establish a good readership. In the early days of the World Wide Web it was relatively easy to establish a good-sized niche readership if you consistently had something interesting to say. Good writers who jumped into blogging early and consistently did well. Those niches fill up quickly though, and it becomes more and more difficult to attract readers. Technology advances will undoubtedly open up more niches like that. The key for aspiring authors is to recognize technologies that are likely to take off and get into them early. That’s much easier said than done. You can waste a lot of time on things that look promising but never really amount to much.
So, do I have a magic key to solving the filtering problem and getting authors together with their audiences? Yes, but I’m going to keep it a secret and use it to become fabulously rich. Just kidding. I don’t think any one thing is going to fix the problems or even that all of the things I’ve mentioned are going to solve the problems. Readers, authors and publishers are going to be living in an environment where many times readers never find authors that they would love, where good authors often never find their audience, and where publishers never find authors the public would love. At the same time we’ll be living in an environment where readers have more choice in their reading than ever before. They’ll have to work harder to exercise it, but it will be there.
Finally, if you’re an aspiring writer be a reader too. Go out and do what you have to do to find good books from authors you’ve never heard of before and from publishers you’ve never heard of before. You’ll find some “bad karaoke” writing, but you’ll also find some gems and reading those gems will make you a better writer. When you find good writing tell your friends about it.
Dale Cozort is author of American Indian Victories. Visit his website at www.DaleCozort.com