Like everything else, it used to be easier. "We'd be guaranteed placement upfront in stores for our print books if we paid a certain amount," Kim McArthur, owner of McArthur & Company and former head of Little, Brown in Canada, says about selling regular books in regular bookstores. It took $20,000 to ensure a block of Maeve Binchy books by the door then. (Displays of chocolate truffles are there now.)
While print-book sales continue to slide, all measures seem to indicate that e-book sales will continue shooting skyward.
E-books present a new, complicated challenge. They're selling, fast and cheap, and might/have to be the saving grace of the failing (or transitioning?) book business, especially in a limited market such as Canada.
Still, what is "good" for publishing is either unknown or simply being ignored. E-books – released alongside print editions, or as e-only books, or shorter forms like Kindle Singles – remain just outside the traditional books business, sharing Venn Diagram circles with the suspicious kingdoms of Apple, Google, Amazon (which makes the Kindle) and Indigo (which still sells books along with those candies and coffee mugs, and launched the e-reader Kobo).
Simultaneously a corporate-driven, profit-maximizing threat and a big possibility for new sales strategies (and new kinds of authors and works), e-books are currently being marketed and promoted … badly.
Selling such an ephemeral product to buyers with disconnected and disparate retailers and without traditional infrastructure, not to mention budgets or precedents, is an inevitable problem of change, and a book summit called The Page and Persuasion at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre on June 21 is aimed at addressing the quickly changing business. It's no different than when magazines and newspapers underwent trial by Internet-and-technology fire and spent years in denial while their industry fell. Readers want to buy e-books – obviously, the numbers show – but aren't always given the opportunity. (I found out that one of my favourite authors had released an e-book only because I happened to see a single, boring 140-character tweet about it.)
It follows that "discoverability" is the first challenge of marketing e-books. Tracey Turriff, senior vice-president of marketing at Random House, says, "There are fewer 'in-store merchandising' opportunities. … Readers often find [print]books when browsing in a physical bookstore."
And while those bookstores dedicate that important floor space to housewares and food, McArthur says this is also true of the bookstores' catalogues, the content of which is now chosen by marketing teams. "Holiday brochures are just as likely to feature blankets, teapots, owl bottle openers," she says. "Last year's holiday catalogue only had one book in it, Taschen's Paul McCartney photographs by Linda."
Online book-buying is not much better. Turriff says the large number of self-published e-titles available makes for "a wonderful amount of choice, but can make it difficult for readers to find what they're looking for, or to make books stand out."
It seems that, as usual, the medium is the message. Evan Munday, publicist for Coach House Books, says, "We pay greater attention than ever before to how our books are listed and appear online and in e-retailing stores, as it's now a necessity."
Social media, when used effectively (which shouldn't include the non-strategy of random tweeting), can be wildly useful for selling e-books, especially those without an enormous built-in readership. Emily Gould, a former Gawker blogger and the author of And The Heart Says Whatever, is now the founder of an e-book subscription series ("an indi[e]bookstore") called Emily Books. "Traditional advertising did nothing for us … absolutely zilch," she says. "But when I tweet a line from the book or we post a three-paragraph excerpt on our Tumblr, people buy the books just because they want to read more, immediately."
When art critic and now author David Balzer began promoting his short-stories e-book Contrivances, which is on the Joyland imprint, he also used Tumblr, the blog-based social networking site that runs on sharing images and content. "The idea is not just to plug the book, but to be conscious of the Tumblr aesthetic," he says. "I do think that if you're marketing an e-book, you have to think a lot in terms of [Internet]memes. I mean, I don't know how well this will work, but you have to somehow replicate that experience of stumbling upon a book in a bookstore. You have to engage the literary person online through kind of surreptitious means." (This is especially true for e-books with smaller budgets. Gould's company was formed at least in part because of the antipathy for e-books demonstrated by independent booksellers, despite the fact that they are, as David Balzer says, "fighting the same fight.")
Gould, who is definitely representative of a consumer generation with more interest in online everything than bricks-and-mortar anything, says, "Social media is really good for recommending books in a way that makes people hit the buy button."
A true phenomenon like Fifty Shades of Grey – the sort-of-racy book that sold well partly because shy commuters could load it onto their e-readers – confirms the realness and big business of e-books. And yet, there remains an inalienable, stubborn illegitimacy attached to them, which has to do with the ruined dream of a book, for their authors, the publishers who remember pre-Amazon hardcover prices and independent stores, readers who like having their copies signed on book tours, and anyone who wants the distinct synesthetic effect of a real book.
And for new and less established writers, critical and media coverage is less likely to extend to an untested author without the credibility of an expensive print run. So, while the twin immediacy and accessibility of e-books are ideal for readers who are ready to buy, the very same thing complicates every other aspect of selling – and finding – a great book.
Kate Carraway is a Toronto-based writer. Follow her on Twitter @KateCarraway .