The power of the dodo

I'm responding this morning to posts on Murder Must Advertise, a list that discusses the marketing of mysteries ( -- you'll need a yahoo id). One poster wrote that "all books read just the same" while author Jeri Westerson (whose debut novel Veil of Lies is lots of fun) wrote:

"... the original model is outdated. I think hardcovers will go the way of the dodo as just too expensive to produce, ship, and sell."

Actually, Jeri, I think that hardcovers can and should be an increasingly large part of the mystery business, at least for the foreseeable future. (Which in this era of technological revolution means what ... maybe five, ten years?)

My feeling is that there are still a lot of readers who value the feel of a book in their hands, for whom reading is a visceral experience as much as it is an emotional/intellectual one.  Clutching a book is a little like holding a teddy bear: the object itself is comforting, apart from the words inside (which can also be comforting).

That's something that's rarely talked about in discussions of where the business is going, but I think we're foolish if we forget the power of the book itself and we're foolish if this industry fails to main high standards in book design and production.  I disagree with the statement that "all books read just the same." They certainly don't sell just the same.  That's why publishers spend so much time trying to get covers right.  It's absolutely vital that we craft a package that lives up to value of the text. The look and feel of the book can be a huge impetus in getting a buyer to take that text home -- or a deterrent.  Publishers who go cheap on production values -- and there are lots who are going this route -- are not just imperiling one title's chances of success but are undermining the appeal of the book itself.

One of the reasons my publishing company's edition of Terence Faherty's In a Teapot was successful (to the limited extent that it was) was that we were able to design a book that looks and feels right.  Faherty's words are wonderful -- and earned him a Shamus Award nomination for best novel. But we also got a lot of compliments for the book itself: an attractive cover, a trim size that's neither too big nor too small, nice interior illustrations (by Robin Agnew) at the head of each chapter, etc.  This book was also a Dilys Award nominee and it won a Benjamin Franklin Award from what was then the Publishers Marketing Association.  Teapot is a great story, but I think that even the author would agree that the package helped the story achieve all this attention and recognition.

Cost-wise, there's not a big difference in producing hardcovers vs. paperbacks (if you're running traditional offset).  The only real difference is the price of the jacket; the difference in the book itself isn't significant. (That's one reason you've seen some folks experiment with jacket-less hardcovers.) Hardcovers are more expensive to ship. But once in the store, they're no more expensive to sell.  In fact, if I take 15 minutes working with a customer to find books he or she will enjoy, I'd just as soon that person buy hardcovers. The unit price is higher, and as a result the gross dollar value of the sale is higher.

(Actually, many of our regulars buy enough paperbacks at a time so that their sales add up to significant sums.  And if we're really talking about profitability, the better gross margin is in used books anyway. Really, I'm grateful for every single sale, especially in this economic environment!)

I'm not knocking e-books. There's no question that e-books are a part of our future.  We're talking about how we'll talk about e-books at Bouchercon 2009, recognizing that readers and writers need to know about what this technological shift means for the stories they love, what kind of experience we're getting with e-books. Should we even be calling an "e-book" a book?  I'd like to see us think in terms of "book" for the physical object and "text" for the words the author has written.  But that may just be me, and this is a conversation that I'd like to see us all have.

Ultimately, of course, it's the words that matter.  But text isn't all there is to the reading experience, and the form of the text has huge impact on how those words reach readers -- or whether those words will reach readers at all.