Publishing Books in Times of Economic Uncertainty

Even when consumer spending goes down, it is possible for book publishers not only to survive but thrive. Previous economic downturns have shown that people continue to spend on entertainment. In fact, movie attendance actually spiked during the Great Depression. Some have attributed this to the need to escape bleak reality, and what’s better escapism than spending a few hours with a book?

With the world economy and consumer confidence bouncing unpredictably, both companies and consumers are becoming more aware, and more wary, about where their money goes.

Still, even with reduced consumer spending, I believe it is possible for book publishers not only to survive but thrive in harsh economic times. Previous economic downturns have shown that people continue to spend on entertainment. In fact, movie attendance actually spiked during the Great Depression. Some have attributed this to the need to escape bleak reality, and what's better escapism than spending a few hours with a book?

Here are a few tips for staying solvent as the economy crumbles:

  • Insert yourself into the marketing conversation at all levels, down to the end user.

    Don't leave the end user contact to the bookstores. Don't leave bookstore contacts to the distributor. Know who the category buyers are in the chains and independent bookstores. Talk to them! Find out what's working for them, what's selling for them, and what they'd like to see more of from you.

    Claim your readers! Use your Web site and your author's web sites to get in touch with readers of your books. Get their contact information and use it often. Keep them in the loop about new projects. Ask their opinions on cover designs. Offer them freebies, contests, sample chapters, and exclusive content. Make them feel like your imprint or author 'belongs' to them.

  • Keep doing what you do best

    If you know how to sell to business people, treehuggers, vegetarians, motorbikers, treasure hunters or any other market niche, stick with it. Use your knowledge of the market, the consumers, and the store book buyers to expand in those areas you know how to service best.

    Breaking into a new niche during tough times might be harder than usual. Consumers will want to stick to what they know and trust, and if they don't know you, you might want to tap into the name and reputation of someone they do know -- an endorsement or foreword by a celebrity or guru of the niche, for example. Breaking new ground in a recession can be done, but don't gamble more than you're willing to lose.

  • Don't be afraid of going digital

    Digital piracy scares the bejeebers out of most publishers, but refusing to offer digital editions because someone might copy them is almost as crazy as not publishing in print because someone might scan it and put it online.

    The future of publishing is digital. Paper isn't going to disappear, but as devices get better and more abundant, ebook sales are going to make up a larger and larger percentage of total book sales. If you don't believe me, take a bus in a major city for a few days, and you'll see people reading from cellphones, ipods, PDAs and dedicated book readers. A few months ago when I last flew on a commercial airline, I saw three ebook readers, and two people reading from PDAs or ipod type devices on a plane with about 100 passengers. Even as little as a year ago, I was often the only person reading an electronic copy of anything on a typical flight.

    The Kindle platform is a great opportunity, and a wonderful place to start. But don't forget about the Kobo, Apple iBooks, and other dedicated ebook hardware. The two things you absolutely know about Kindle and other ebook reader owners is that 1) they're dedicated readers and 2) they're frequent book buyers, because they wouldn't buy a $300 piece of hardware if they weren't really into reading.

  • Use the Web and social networking sites to your advantage

    This is a great time to be a publisher on the Web. People are connecting and interconnecting in record numbers with tools like Twitter, MySpace and Facebook. As authors and publishers, you have worthwhile things to say. As long as you work these sites conversationally and personally, the crowds are gonna love you.

    Podcasts are becoming mainstream, blogs are becoming influential, book tours are going virtual, and a top 100 Amazon reviewer can make a huge difference in sales. Don't stick your head in the sand when it comes to online marketing. It may not be 'what you've always done', but it's cost effective, and the results can be measured much easier than an ad in the New York Times.

Wendy Woudstra

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