Books and Brain Busting

The phrase “post-literary” scares me.

It is a real term, bandied about by the intelligentsia, and speculates that people are not reading books these days. There is no question that the book market is a horrid place, one where the major publishers treat writers like chattel, only big names make big bucks, and where being a touring musician looks appealing by comparison (a common joke in the music business is that a touring musician is the only job that pays less than being homeless).

Which makes the book industry a wonderful model for discussing marketing of difficult products, changing channels, and general business dystopia.

Changes … bloody changes

The book market has changed, but not just because Amazon said so.

In North America and many industrialized nations, readership is falling. Pew Research said that in 2011, about 79% of the adult population had read a book – or at least part of a book – in that year. By 2015 – four short years later – it was down to 72%.

Which is odd because there are more titles being published than ever before. More to choose from, but fewer people choosing. And you must deal with those pesky writers who have longevity – Dickens, Shakespeare, God. They continue to outsell everyone.

Reading rates by country
Oddly, the people with the most time to read – older folks – are the ones reading the least. Perhaps there is a Matlock marathon on the television … all the time. Folks under 30 – who likely have yet to encounter the ultimate time-suck, namely children – read the most … A full 21% more than senior citizens.

To make matters even worse – and, yes, it gets worse – these trends shift the bulk of active readers into other countries. If you want to sell a lot of books, don’t think the United States. Think China, India, Russia … every place you have never thought of selling books.

Increasing what?

To improve sales in any industry, marketers must increase either the number of buyers or the price of the product, or both.

None of this works for books. Books were always sharable. Libraries make it their business to do so. There is a very finite upper limit to what you can charge for a book. And with more and more titles available and fewer readers, even cutting prices isn’t guaranteed to raise sales volumes.

Traditional business theory tells us that you must find new customers, up/cross/resell existing customers, improve old products or make new ones. Very little of this applies to the book biz these days.

NEW CUSTOMERS: Their numbers are shrinking, and with an insane level of content available to everyone and every smartphone, the number of book customers is not easily growable.

UP/CROSS/RESELL: Any attempt to get the limited number of increasingly apathetic readers to switch to something new is a tough project. It is nearly impossible to get them to buy a book they already own.

IMPROVE: Some books, especially of the reference variety, can be improved/updated. But most of that action is now on the Web. Seriously, when was the last time you thumbed a lexicon instead of surfing to dictionary.com?

NEW PRODUCTS: You can only horsewhip a writer so hard (I know – I’ve tried). Getting them to produce more books is limited due to their available time and set of ideas, and can only increase their reported boozing. And with eBooks and print on demand (POD) allowing anyone to publish, the thicket of competing titles grows.

The point? What is your point?

Markets change. In the book biz, the buyers have changed, the suppliers have changed, the geography of the markets has changed. Everything. And it all changed against the garden-variety North American wordsmith. It changed so much that traditional marketing moves may be useless.

What has not changed is the traditional business strategy of starting small, identifying a niche, and hammering it relentlessly until you find and romance your core audience. It is more difficult today for authors, as their core audience might be millennials in Shanghai or Bangalore. But the process of breaking a market is no different.


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