Amazon Books? Four reasons why booksellers can remain calm

Amazon Books
From my visit at the Amazon Books location at the The Shops at Columbus Circle.

It is ironic, and for some it may seem odd, that in the midst of decades of brick-and-mortar bookstores closing their doors, a hugely successful e-tailer like Amazon would decide to venture into the concrete bookstore business with Amazon Books.  Or is it?

I have seen the demise of Borders/Waldenbooks, Joseph Beth Booksellers, and the rise and fall of Barnes & Noble stores; the feuds between the independents and the chains when wonderful stores like BookPeople in Austin, TX thought they were doomed; when Costco and other giant stores started selling large quantities of bestsellers at deep discounts, perhaps underselling the competition; and the power of e-commerce, with Amazon presiding over the field.  Every change in the book business makes the publishing community anxious. Clearly, with some businesses succeeding and others failing, there is a need to be able to roll with the punches.  But perhaps if we take a wide angle view of things we might be able to hold onto a few constants that will create paths of opportunity and assure people that although some things look different, the basic precepts of the marketplace and sales still prevail.

  1. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are not dying.  Yes, chains like Borders are long gone and Barnes & Noble may not be able to support a store every ten miles, but independents are going strong.  According to this article on Quartz, between 2009 and 2015 the number of independent bookstores increased by 35%.
  2. E-book sales are falling flat.  Many sources have been reporting that e-books are falling out of their previous favor.  Let’s face it, devices may be convenient but they have their issues.  Batteries lose their charge and if you don’t have an active WiFi connection you can’t download a new book whenever you want one.  And, if you are reading for content, it’s very difficult to highlight sections and go back to them in the same manner as you would mark or dog-ear a page you need to reference later.
  3. Selling in person is better than selling online.  I attribute this principle to the increase in the success of independents over the past several years.   Real readers, who actually support the majority of the book business front and back list, like to be able to browse and get recommendations for books.  They also like to hang out with other like-minded individuals.  The innovations in indie stores that now offer seating, coffee, parties, and more, have brought customers in and kept this business sector alive.
  4. Amazon Books, while competing in bookstore form, is not doing things like everyone else.  Amazon became a huge success online, and it makes sense that it would not try to duplicate what others have already done on the ground.  Why should it?  I recently visited one of their Amazon Books stores, and it was not like most of the ones I frequent. As a reader, I probably wouldn’t shop there on a regular basis.  The main reason was that there was a smaller number of titles available.  For indie presses and authors this was a benefit because the inventory was a more curated list that covered the usual suspects but also featured books from unknown publishers.  And, because curating titles meant that additional shelf space was available, the books were primarily face out, which can be a boon for publishers without a lot of marketing dollars to spend.  I could also forgo the other products that the store had for sale, like coffee makers and gadgets.  These things diluted the atmosphere and were a distraction.

I got the distinct impression that the Amazon Books location was trying to market to Millennials, which is a big “buzz” word for everyone in any industry these days.  The funny thing is that I meet a lot of younger people who fit this bill, and the ones I know who are real readers prefer the same traditional bookstores I’ve loved forever.  Maybe rather than believing we need to rethink everything we’ve ever known in this business because of change, we should try to anticipate, adapt, and remind people of the core elements of books and buying books that many people share.  It might eliminate some of the hysteria so we can all get back to business (and reading of course).

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Book Marketing101: 10 Things You Need To Know About Bestsellers Lists

NYT BestsellersI’ve been doing book publicity and marketing for a long time.  I keep doing it because I haven’t lost that kernel of idealism and drive that truly believes in the potential for success of a good idea, book, and/or person who has something to contribute to the conversation in the world.  Coming up with a strategy that makes these things work and makes my clients happy is immensely gratifying.  But (and you knew this was coming), I do raise a caution flag when I get into a conversation about books and bestsellers lists.  I hear all kinds of myths about the “right” way to do this and although there can be exceptions to every rule, there are certain realities we all have to know.

Amazon BestsellersAll of the lists are generated by proprietary algorithms based on quantity, rate of sale, range of sale, date, time, etc.  No one, except the people who wrote these things, knows for certain how they work, and I’ve been told that they are tweaked occasionally when it looks like someone out there is trying to be smarter than the system.  You can’t buy a thousand copies of your book the day before pub date.  You can’t tell a hundred friends to visit your book online or click through to anything.  The numbers are based on actual sales, POS (point of sale) whether online or in person at a cash register.

There are many reasons why or how a book can “list”, as the biz folks say.  If you are traditionally published here are five things you will need to have a shot at the New York Times or other national “print” bestsellers list (physical books sold).

Traditionally Published Authors:

  1. A brand name (meaning you are a known entity to a book buying or commercial audience)
  2. A marketing plan with the right jacket image; front of store placement at Barnes & Noble; and money spent on premiums on etailer sites like Amazon.
  3. Distribution across all sales channels.  This means Amazon has a bunch of copies, Barnes & Noble has a good quantity available to its stores, and the wholesalers like Ingram and Baker & Taylor have bought a solid quantity.  It would help if Target, Walmart, Costco and other “club” stores also had some, but you don’t necessarily need it if you don’t care how high you go on the list.
  4. A traditional and online publicity campaign that gets the word out about the book leading up to and during the first week of publication.
  5. A publication date that is in line with the level of author/book.  I mean that the most books are sold during October – December so if you aren’t able to compete with the titles being released in this time frame, then you don’t have a chance.  You would have to sell twice as many or more copies in order to achieve the same result you would, say, in February.  But again it does depend on the topic and your level of “celebrity” .  (See our article on when to publish.)

If you are an indie author through a small press or on your own without a nationally recognized brand on your score card, and you utilize the print-on-demand technology for your physical books, you will not jump on a bestseller list within a week or even a month of your book being available for sale.  This is an entirely different publication model when it comes to print copies because you are not distributed in stores.  However, you can achieve the coveted rank of bestseller on digital  or ebook lists, especially USA Today and different category rankings on Amazon.

Check out this list of five dos for the indie ebook:

  1. If you have a dedicated audience that is awaiting your next book you need a digital marketing plan via content and social channels that lets your audience know your book will be available for sale.
  2. If you are a new author, you need to work several months in advance at building an audience on social media or through your own personal networking channels that creates anticipation and awareness of the upcoming title.
  3. A great jacket, branding, and messaging that speaks directly to the audience that is the primary market for the book.  This is about generating a “need” for your product.
  4. Error free Amazon page for the book and “buy buttons” on your website or book page so there are no issues when it comes to making a sale.
  5. A traditional and online publicity campaign that provides opportunities for reviews and interviews and reaches your audience(s), creates awareness, and generates positive reviews that lure people to buy!

I also need to be clear and to say that all of the above is about creating the best possibile circumstances to get on a list within a couple of weeks of publication.   You can build a bestseller, but it takes time, attracting a bigger and bigger audience, getting name recognition, having a topic take hold, a news cycle item that brings your idea to the forefront of the zeitgeist, and other things that would take a lot longer to explain.

Ultimately everything is about the book itself and what’s between the covers (or on the Kindle, Nook, etc.).   I think it can be self-defeating to only look at what is on the bestsellers lists and to consider that the ultimate goal.  Does it help?  Sure, but it also can be very short-lived.  Steady sales over a longer term that show a rate of growth are way more valuable than a week on a list and a deep dive down to nearly nothing.  Grow an audience, market your book, and find every opportunity you can to let people know about it.  That is likely to be the best, most rewarding, and most lucrative path to success.

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