What Ails the Publishing Industry?

It’s just like dominos. One after another the news comes declaring cutbacks.

First, Munce announced at the beginning of the year that they were canceling their West Coast CPE show. Then CBA announced that they were shortening their International Christian Retail Show (ICRS), held each year in July, by one day. Next Book Expo Canada announced that they would cancel all further book shows in Canada commencing immediately. This came on the heels of CBA Canada canceling their regional Christian book shows a couple of years ago. Next Book Expo American announced that they would also be shortening their show by one day starting next year. Most recently, Thomas Nelson decided to cut their annual open house this year and make it a bi-annual tradition rather than a yearly occasion (after they decided to no longer exhibit at ICRS beginning last year to reportedly focus on their open house).

Has the economy rapidly caused these drastic measures, or are we seeing the culmination of a slide that began years ago? I would assert the later; especially in regards to the Christian publishing industry.

I believe it all boils down to dwindling attendance at tradeshows. I believe the reasons for the dwindling attendance are fourfold:

  1. Consolidation. In its heyday of the 1980s to mid-1990s, Christian publishing and retail sales were dominated by small Mom and Pop shops. Soon, savvy business people began to notice that there was money to be made in Christian products. Thus Christian chain bookstores began to appear and buy up the small independents. In the same fashion, large publishing houses began to purchase the smaller Christian publishers and make them imprints. Now in the 21st Century there are fewer exhibitors and fewer retailers to attend shows. Chain bookstores don’t send every store manager to a tradeshow, only their key buyers. Likewise, where three or four publishers may have had exhibits at a tradeshow, there is now just one publisher due to consolidation.
  2. Mainstreaming of Christian Products. When business people began to see that there was money to be made in Christian products, they started pushing these products into general market stores, especially the big-box stores such as Walmart, Kmart, and Target. With this shift, Christians could pick up their Christian books while shopping for other items. They no longer needed to make an extra stop or go out of their way to frequent a Christian bookstore. Christian publishers now had more than one channel to sell their books to, so the Christian tradeshows were not their only marketing avenue. Retailers began to struggle to stay afloat in the competition. Tradeshows became less important in the scope of business.
  3. The Graying of the Industry. The first time I attended a CBA tradeshow, I was still in my 30s. I was quite surprised to see that the vast majority of the retailers at the tradeshow had gray hair. I know that it is possible for people to have gray hair in their twenties and thirties, but it is fairly uncommon and not any more common in Christian circles than in secular circles. At one tradeshow I attended, a young mother with a baby was accompanying an older, gray-haired retailer. The young mother in her 20s took a look at some children’s books at my booth and exclaimed that the retailer needed to purchase them for her store, that they were perfect for babies. The retailer merely shook her head and responded that they wouldn’t sell. Looking back on all this, I must conclude that part of the industry’s problem is that the retailers have not stayed in touch with the needs of the younger generations and this has led to both a struggle with sales and a lack of vital energy at the tradeshows. Energy leads to synergy which is important in sustaining and growing an industry event.
  4. Times are a-Changing. Technology is changing the world. The fact that Amazon had its best holiday sales ever while most of the rest of the retail industry is shriveling up shouts to us that the Internet is becoming a way of life. People can now connect on the Internet without having to spend money to travel. Retailers can take online seminars to improve their business without having to take a few days off work to attend an event. Consumers can purchase products online often cheaper than in a Christian bookstore. The Internet is changing the way that the world does business and the bottom line is that business has to change with the technology to stay viable.

What is left to be seen is how the world of publishing and retailing will continue to meet and intersect to conduct business. Whatever the new business model looks like, you can be confident it will involve more and more virtual interactions.

What changes do you foresee in the Christian publishing industry?

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Buyer Beware!

The majority of complaints I receive from publishers are usually about a business that they hired that did not give them what they promised. These complaints range from press release services that did not actually send out releases, printers whose books were of inferior quality, to publicists who asked for payment up front but gave no guarantees of performance and did nothing.

I always ask each publisher or author the same question, “Did you check references or ask for referrals from the company?” Almost always, the response is, “No.”

Each time I have one of these calls or emails, my heart goes out to the individual who has been ripped off. I feel bad for them and their loss of funds, time, and energies. However, my brain knows that the individual I am speaking to is partly at fault for not doing due diligence in checking out the service before handing over a large sum of money.

I wish that I could say that these instances are just limited to general market companies where the people are probably not Christians. However, this is not the case. The vast majority of publicists and companies I hear complaints against claim to be Christian.

Here is my advice for authors and publishers who are employing help in any aspect of their book production or marketing: Do each of the following steps before hiring a service. Don’t skip any!

1. Google™ (or use another search engine) the name of the organization or person you wish to employ. Check the sites that come up to see if there are any complaints against the company or person listed on the Internet.

2. Ask other publishers and authors if they have used the service and what their experience was. This is where belonging to online discussion groups of like-minded individuals engaged in the same pursuits can be a goldmine that you do not have to pay for.

3. Ask for references from the company you are thinking about employing. CALL the references. Simply being given the references is not enough. Call them and ask them questions about their experience with the company and their services.

4. Ask to see copies of the work the company has completed for others. If you are hiring a company to print your book, they should send you samples of other books they have printed so you can inspect the quality.

5. Pray over your decision before proceeding. God will give you direction. Just as Isaiah 30:21 says, Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” God can direct you. If you have a check in your spirit, don’t use the service.

We are all busy. It is tempting to skip some of these steps to save time. Remember the little saying that goes “a stitch in time saves nine.” In this case it means a little time early on may save you lots of money and heartache later.

Have you ever failed to do due diligence with a company that resulted in a bad experience?

The Grammar Gestapo

I live with the grammar Gestapo. It’s my husband. I alternately admire and hate his grammar skills and word crafting. I admire his gift as a word smith and his grasp of the English language with all the complex rules that govern it. I hate it when it is directed at me and my writing because it illuminates my lack.

I have no good excuse for my abysmal grammar skills. They are the result of a mediocre public education and a lackadaisical college career. However, I fear the more people are like me than my husband, which means that word crafting is becoming an ancient skill.

I am in the process of reading Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer to my daughter. What a word smith he was! It is not surprising that this book has survived and thrived for so many years even though it has many politically incorrect sentiments. Few authors today have the grasp of the English language that Twain had.

I shudder to think of what texting is doing to the younger generations’ ability with the English language. Teachers and employers have begun to complain that many in the younger generation are beginning to use text spelling for everyday use; such as you becoming u in school papers and letters. One can even find books written in text. Last year, a novel was published in Finland where the entire narrative consisted of mobile phone text messages (see http://www.usatoday.com/news/offbeat/2007-01-24-textmessagenovel_x.htm).

If we write for God, then we should work at our writing with all our hearts as though writing directly for Him and not for man (Colossians 3:23). This includes our prose.

I am not saying that books that don’t measure up to the word genius of Mark Twain’s works won’t have an impact for the Kingdom of God. What I am saying is that nothing trips up a great message faster than a poor delivery. If we constantly try to improve our word crafting our books will have a greater influence for the Kingdom and touch more lives. Yes, God can take any book and use it for His purposes, but I believe the he wants us to put our whole hearts and minds into the things that he calls us to do. This includes crafting prose that shines reaching deep into the hearts of our readers.

I keep telling myself that I am going to read a good grammar book to improve my grammar skills. The two books on my list are Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss and Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Connor. Hopefully, I will accomplish this goal this year so that my writing can begin to really shine for God.

What resources have you found helpful for improving your grammar and writing skills?

Free Publicity

Free publicity. It’s what every author looks to secure. The ultimate is free publicity on a major television talk show like Oprah. But, let’s face it, with about 25,000 Christian books published each year in the United States, an author’s chance of scoring face time on a major television talk show is fairly slim. However, free publicity itself is not elusive.

When I was doing fundraising for a small nonprofit organization, we used to say that the size of the donation was not important. What was more important was the quantity of people giving. Yes, every fundraiser likes to chase that big-time donation but in reality the bulk of donations generally came from individuals who were giving $20 to $100.

The same principle holds true for free book and author publicity, especially on the Internet. Yes, every author would love to have their book splashed across the websites that generate the most traffic. Yet, having your book and author name listed in a number of regular websites can add up to the one large publicity stunt.

Authors can use the free opportunities to list their books and biographies online to generate awareness of their books and increase their presence on the web.

Here are six websites that offer authors the opportunity to list their books for free.

·        OpenLibrary is a database of all books published, providing one web page for every book published. The site allows authors to list a biography and a link to a webpage or blog. If your book is not listed on the site, you can add it. OpenLibrary is an open source database that anyone can edit. http://openlibrary.org

·        Filedby is a new website that is aiming to be another database of all books published. This site also allows authors to post a biography with a link to up to two websites. www.filedby.com

·        BookHitch is a free book database. It is designed as a search engine for finding books. You can have your books listed for free on the website including where they can be purchased. www.bookhitch.com.

·        BooksXYZ is an Internet bookstore. The profits from the books sold on the site are used for education. Authors can submit their books to be sold on the site. BooksXYX pays the author a portion of each sale of the book. www.booksxyz.com.

·        Best Self Published is an online database that promotes self-published books. Self-published authors can list their books for free. http://bestselfpublished.com

·        Self-Pub.net is a website that offers information and resources for self-publishing. Self-published authors can add their book to the list of self-published books on the website for free. www.self-pub.net

There are many more websites that offer authors a free place to list their books and biographies. I did not even touch on the number of new Web 2.0 social networking sites that you can use to increase your publicity (that’s another blog entry). The sites listed here are just a starting place. Start today and use these websites to increase your free publicity and exposure on the web.

Have you used a traditional website not mentioned here that is a great source for free publicity?

Summoning Blog Traffic

Now that I have started to blog and have begun to post my deeply held opinions on the subject of marketing Christian books, the challenge is to actually get lots of people to read my blog. I have, of course, already posted my blog on my websites, added it to my email signature, and announced it to people in the industry via the discussion groups I am a member of. Being the marketing professional that I am, I know that this will not drive a whole lot of new traffic to my blog. I need to generate word-of-mouth advertising to get people to read my thoughts and opinions (this of course has an inherent assumption that people will think they are worth their time to read).

Most best-selling books and products do not become best sellers through a large advertising campaign alone. At some point, word-of-mouth begins to outpace the advertising campaign to increase the popularity of a product. And word-of-mouth only takes hold if people find the product worthwhile. For example, the recent best selling Christian fiction novel’s, The Shack, success was made almost exclusively through word-of-mouth. By the time the book was well on its way to becoming a best-seller, the publisher had only spent about $300 on advertising.

On the Web, word-of-mouth promotion of a product is known as viral marketing. The buzz about a product, video, or website is picked up and spread via social networking sites and email. Of course, not every new blog or product goes viral on the Internet. However, there are a few techniques to help increase the chances of a new blog becoming viral. One technique is social book marking. Social book marking is another form of social networking. It is about placing those websites that you like on a social book marking website for the world to see. The old method was placing the websites that you liked and wanted to revisit in the “favorites” file on your own computer. This new method posts your “favorites” online so that not only you can access them, but your friends can too.

For many people, social book marking sites are taking the place of the old search engines (Google, Yahoo, etc.). People are choosing to use social book marking sites to search for information using key words, because the sites that show up on a book marking site are those sites that actual people like, not ones that have the most number of tag words or external links and the other criteria the traditional search engines use. (Did I just use the word traditional to refer to the Internet?).

So, here is the scoop. I, the author of a blog, can bookmark my blog posts on social book marking sites and tag them with key words so that they will appear when people search for those key words on the social book marking site. I have signed up with www.delicious.com and www.stumbleupon.com. There are many more social book marketing sites including www.digg.com, and www.reddit.com. However, if I alone tag my posts, they will not be very popular. I need to also invite the readers of my blog to bookmark the posts that they like and think other people derive benefit from reading.  To do this, I insert a little free widget at the end of each blog post (you can get one at www.sharethis.com or www.addtoany.com).  

If you like what you have read, I invite you to use the Share/Save widget at the end of this post to bookmark this post on one or more social bookmarking sites that you belong to. The widget makes it easy. Just try it – click and follow the directions.

Which social book marketing sites do you use?