Widening the Net—Ebooks

It’s not often that an ad makes me realize how much the world has changed, but there it was on the back cover of Outside Magazine: the full back cover, the most prominent advertising space in the entire magazine…featuring the Kindle ebook reader, touting its light weight, long battery life, and storage capacity for thousands of books.

Now, an ad for the Kindle isn’t such an extraordinary thing, but seeing it in a magazine devoted to hiking, backpacking, and the outdoors is what gave me pause.  Somebody was thinking.  It makes perfect sense: anyone on a days-long camping or backpacking trip would love to carry a lightweight, portable electronic reading device loaded with plenty of books, even powered with a tiny light, if you wish.  (And that’s no insignificant thing, believe me, as a guy who has huddled inside a tent next to a Coleman lantern trying to read a battered old paperback and then tearing out the pages as I finished and feeding them into a campfire, just to reduce the weight in my backpack.)  Pitching an electronic reader to hikers, campers, and backpackers is extraordinarily appropriate—and it’s the type of thinking outside the box that I don’t see traditional publishers or booksellers doing to market books.

For more than a decade I’ve been frustrated to watch publishers devote all of their marketing efforts solely to already-established book buyers.  It’s like plowing, planting, and harvesting the same patch of land over and over and over again without looking at the rest of the landscape.  Dedicated readers will go into their local bricks-and-mortar bookstore, browse the shelves, and buy something new to read, But the people who see a display in a major bookstore or read an ad in a book-review magazine, are only a tiny fraction of the potential readers out there.

Three out of four Americans read books.  They may not be voracious readers, possibly only a book or two per year; they don’t read Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, or the New York Times Book Review. But they do enjoy reading a book as an entertainment option, along with watching TV or movies or playing games.  It’s a huge pool of customers.

Those are the people ignored by a publisher’s traditional marketing plans.

Let’s look at the Dune novels, for example.  Frank Herbert’s Dune is the best-selling science-fiction novel of all time, spawning a major motion picture and two highly sucessful television miniseries, as well as three computer games, a trading card game, board game, role-playing game, action figures, and more. Frank Herbert wrote five sequels to Dune, and Brian Herbert and myself have released 11 more books in the series, all of which were international bestsellers.  And so Dune is certainly in the public consciousness, an audience that goes well beyond the fanbase that hovers around the SF section in bookstores.

Marketing efforts for the Dune books, however, focused primarily on the hardcore science fiction audience, with ads running in the major SF magazines and Locus (many of you may never have heard of Locus; it’s a science fiction news magazine with a relatively small circulation of a few thousand copies). Currently, the various Dune books have three different US publishers and any number of foreign publishers; I’m not picking on any particular company here.

Now, since the Dune novels were among the biggest genre releases for the entire year, the dedicated fan base already knew about them. By advertising only in the core science fiction magazines, the promotion basically preached to the choir.  But Dune’s audience extends far beyond self-identified genre fans.  Dune is to science fiction what the Lord of the Rings is to fantasy; it appeals to those interested in ecological issues, politics, and religion.  Instead of limiting promotion to SF magazines, why not cast a wider net?  Perhaps an ad in Entertainment Weekly? Or gaming magazines? Pop culture venues such as Rolling Stone, Wired, Maxim … or even Outside Magazine?  In other words, try to target an audience that doesn’t already know the book exists.

Much of my career success has been in writing media tie-in novels based on popular movie or television properties such as Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Files, or DC Comics.  Publishers license these tie-in novels because of the large existing fan base—yet when releasing the books, they do not cast the net widely enough to encompass the majority of the fan base.  They target only a tiny fraction of the potential customers.

When a major new home-video release of the Star Wars movies appears with great fanfare, including large displays prominent in Borders and Barnes & Noble stores all across the country, wouldn’t it be a good idea to place a companion display of Star Wars novels next to the display of Star Wars DVDs? Obviously, the people who will buy Star Wars books are the people interested in Star Wars …but only a fraction of the huge movie fanbase reads the further adventures of their favorite characters (or, frankly, even knows about them). Now, the bookstores promoting the DVDs already carry the line of books in their science fiction section…so why not display them side-by-side with the DVDs?  Cast a wider net for more crossover, more sales.

When I asked about this, several bookstore managers told me, “We can’t do that—books and movies are two different departments.”

Several years ago, I wrote the novelization to the Jude Law/Gwyneth Paltrow pulp adventure film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.  When walking into a Barnes & Noble or a Borders, customers would find the Sky Captain paperback in the book section, the Sky Captain DVD in the movie section, and the Sky Captain movie soundtrack in the music section…and there was no attempt whatsoever to cross promote.  Doesn’t it make sense that the target audience for the Sky Captain novel and the Sky Captain soundtrack would be the same group of people who also like the Sky Captain movie?  What principle of effective marketing advises sending customers on a scavenger hunt throughout the store to find related items they might not even know about?

I wrote a novel for DC Comics, The Last Days of Krypton, about the fall and destruction of Superman’s home planet, Krypton.  At the same time, DC/Warner released a DVD animated movie, Superman: Doomsday about the death of Superman.  The original movie got a lot of advertising and distribution, and I thought it would be an excellent and absolutely appropriate cross-marketing effort to include a small ad sheet for The Last Days of Krypton along with the DVD of Superman: Doomsday—and vice versa, advertise the new movie at the back of the novel.  The origin of Superman, the death of Superman: It’s a natural.  DC Comics and Warner video are owned by the same parent company, so it should have been easy.

When I asked about it though, I was told “We can’t do that, they’re two different departments.”

Even more obvious, why not advertise The Last Days of Krypton in the monthly issues of the Superman comics, since the comics have a much wider circulation. You couldn’t get a more obviously targeted audience.  Didn’t happen.  I saw ads for Starburst Fruit Chews and Pokemon gameboy games, but no ads for a Superman novel in the Superman comics.

When the three seasons of the original Star Trek were re-released on DVD, with impressive packaging and new material, it seemed like a no-brainer to insert a booklet featuring the numerous Star Trek novels, or even an ad card saying “If you enjoy Star Trek, have you read the novels?” Only a tiny subset of the huge Star Trek fan base reads the books. Why not widen the net? Why not try to appeal to a larger portion of the audience? Didn’t happen.

The X-Files was one of the most popular shows on television during the time I wrote three novels based on the series.  Back then, millions and millions of people were buying TV Guide Magazine every week to look at the program listings for upcoming episodes.  The publisher came up with an innovative idea of running an ad for my original X-Files novels on the TV Guide page that featured that week’s episode of the X-Files show.  Although my books sold well over a hundred thousand copies in hardcover and became international bestsellers, the audience that watched the show every week—in other words, the exact group of people who might be interested in buying an X-Files novel—exceeded 18 million viewers.  My novels might have been bestsellers, but we were reaching only about one percent of the X-Files audience.  Why not go after the other 99 percent who weren’t yet buying the books (possibly weren’t even aware of them)?  Even if casting a wider net captured only an additional 1% of the X-Files audience, we would have doubled our sales.

In the end, the publisher decided not to run the ads—too expensive.

How is the book industry to survive if they target only the customers they already have, rather than widening the net to attract the much larger pool of book buyers out there? Why not look for ways to cross-market to other potential readers who are entirely missed by the Usual Marketing Plan?

I recently completed an ambitious new fantasy trilogy, Terra Incognita, about sailing ships, sea monsters, and the crusades. There are plenty of fantasy trilogies on the bookshelves, and I felt confident the hardcore fantasy readership would find Terra Incognita among them. I was hoping to cast a wider net.

I know that the listeners of progressive-rock are very interested in fantasy and science fiction, by the very nature of the music; many of those are—or could be—book buyers, but they had no reason to pay attention to Terra Incognita rather than any other fantasy novel in the store. So, my wife and I wrote and produced two crossover Terra Incognita rock CDs released by ProgRock Records. Not only did this get my trilogy a lot of coverage in music magazines and pop-culture venues, it also gave prog-rock fans—an audience completely untouched by normal book-marketing methods—a reason to look for the books.

Going one step further, I am working with the record label that released the CDs—which already has a wide network for online distribution of their music titles—to make my ebook downloads available as well.  An entirely different readership that might not currently be buying ebooks.

Today, if you walk into any Barnes & Noble or Borders, one of the first things you see is a large display and a helpful Customer Service person who wants to show off the nook or kobo e-reader.  It makes perfect sense for the big chains to lock in their customers with their proprietary devices.  But again, by talking just to the people who have already set foot in the store, they are not reaching beyond their existing customer base.

Selling ebooks only to the people who already buy traditional books demonstrates very narrow tunnel vision. This is a problem both for booksellers and for publishers.

And that’s why I was so interested to see the ad on the back of Outside Magazine.  E-readers present an opportunity to sell books—electronic books, yes, but books nevertheless—to a much wider audience who might not walk into a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, or even take the time to shop for books online.

The business is in such turmoil, reports vary widely from week to week.  According to some statistics, as many as 15,000 new e-readers are being activated each and every day—that’s 15,000 potential new customers ready to download an author’s books.  And that number includes only those people who have bought a specific reading device.  Let’s not forget that every person who purchased an iPad for other uses is also in possession of an e-reading device.

But wait, let’s go a step further and cast a net thousands of times wider.  Every person with an iPhone, or Droid, or any other model of smartphone now owns an e-book reader.  Why not dangle a carrot, try to interest them in reading a book for a while instead of playing Angry Birds?  Maybe only 1% of them will do it…and that’s still millions upon millions of new customers. Why not partner with AT&T or Verizon, offer two free e-book downloads with every new phone activation, just to get the customer hooked?

The potential book-buying audience has suddenly increased by orders of magnitude.  Is that opportunity slipping through the fingers of publishers and booksellers?

I’ve heard pundits say that the entire publishing industry is doomed due to changing times and technology.  But that couldn’t be farther from the truth—if they learned to cast a wider net.

I have made a selection of my own novels and short stories available as ebooks for all electronic reader formats.  You can browse the titles at wordfire.com