The Reader’s Place in Publishing

Next week I have a TON of travel coming up. First, I’ll be at RomCon in Denver, CO, and if you’re going to be there, I hope you’ll introduce yourself to me. I’m the one with glasses. And I’m usually pretty loud.

Then, immediately afterward, I’m going to be in Vancouver, BC, Canada, at Simon Fraser University’s Summer Publishing Workshops giving a keynote address and leading a one-day seminar on Romance Novels.

The keynote is focused on “The Reader’s Place in the Publishing Process,” and I’ve got an hour. Think I can squeeze it all in?!  (PUN TOTALLY INTENDED.)

I am going to focus on where I think the reader’s place is right now in the eyes of the publishing industry, and where I think the reader’s place could be now and in the future. I’m going to touch on the other individuals in the publishing process (the publisher, the writer and her agent, the book seller) and the repeated absence of the reader in conversations and examinations of publishing.

Much like that motivational story about everybody, nobody, and somebody, everybody in publishing agrees the reader is important, but it’s somebody else’s job to figure out the reader’s “place.” From agency pricing and DRM on digital books to dependence on big box and chain stores and the vanishing indie bookseller, the strange and undefined status of the reader in the industry plays out in a million little ways. With the obvious exception of some stellar people working within publishing who are curious and eager to see what readers are saying, the larger policies from the publishing industry still point to a perspective that a publisher is like a wholesaler, and doesn’t really have customers. 

I’m also going to sketch out a rather optimistic future for a more involved readership, and explain how reader blogs, reviewers, and online book clubs and discussion forums are opportunities that continue to grow as readers discover communities based on specific genres or authors. I’m also going to look at how technology and portable reading has changed the way readers interact with their books and with each other. To twist Maureen Johnson‘s comments at the Book Blogger Convention, “Reading is something that you do by yourself, but not because you want to be alone.”

I’d really like, though, to ask what you think and potentially include your comments about the reader’s place in publishing. What do you think the reader’s place is in the publishing process? If it’s not where you think it ought to be, what would you like to see happen? Feel free to email me if you don’t want to leave a comment, and let me know in either case to which name I should attribute your thoughts.

Also, I’m thinking LOLCats and internet memes are a required element to this presentation, yes? Yes. Of course. Feel free to suggest some for me!

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Scrin says:

    Publishers tend to forget the readers keep them in business, even if it IS indirectly.

    How have the romance publishers handled the economy? Pretty darn well, to hear you tell it. And that’s because romance readers are still going.

    Supply and Demand. Readers supply the ultimate demand, so it really would be beneficial to publishers to learn about us.

    As a male reader, I’m weary of publishers thinking guys’re all like this:

    And, hey, a quote to appeal to the snobs in the house.

    By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece.

      G. K. Chesterton

  2. 2
    Gabi Stevens says:

    Hope to meet you in Denver, Sarah.

  3. 3
    Scrin says:

    Yes, I really just woke up. I meant to add something about the need to do some market research.

  4. 4
    EC Sheedy says:

    Oh, so close… I do wish I could ferry over and catch your presentation at Simon Fraser U, Sarah. (I’ll be at the Calgary Stampede.) It would be fun to meet the Smart Bitch and put a face to the blog I’ve been following for so long. But enjoy Vancouver, it’s a beautiful city. And give ‘em all kinds of hell at the seminar.

    As to the readers’ place in publishing going forward, I think it’s never been more exciting with an ever more direct connection between reader and writer. The only danger is that we’ll all be swamped by choice: trad publishing, self-publishing, vanity publishing, e-publishing. And choice, like anything else, can end up being too much of a good thing if it overwhelms our filtering system. We all know that *everyone* is going to write a book—someday. I guess I’m a little afraid that *everyone* will! LOL

  5. 5
    Sheila says:

    In my opinion the readers place in publishing is deceptively simple.  Readers are the consumer, the customer, the desired end result of writing and, hopefully, by extension publishing.  I’m sure there are those in the industry who don’t consider reader opinions important but how likely are they to remain in business if they do not service us, the customer? 

    Maybe publishers could consider that even in a lousy economy we still buy books, still use the libraries and at my workplace swap our paperbacks around the office.  (Currently there is a box filled with romance novels in an empty cube, available for borrowing.)  It would be great to see publishers making an effort toward keeping costs down so we can afford the books we love.

    Or if costs can’t be kept down, use recyclable materials so at least when we’re paying for a book we’re not picturing deforestation.  I buy more and more electronic books for the ease of purchase and because they are environmentally friendly.  An expansion of print ‘media’ if that’s the right word would be wonderful so we can find any author in ebooks.

  6. 6
    Sarah W says:

    This reminds me of a discussion some friends and I had about fanfiction.  However you feel about fanfiction, the sites are a sort of microcosm of the potential of e-publishing (although obviously without the financial aspects).

    On a typical fanfic site, readers can filter their searches for the types of stories they like to read (romance, adventure, family, etc.), the specific characters they want to read about, the length they like to read, etc. 

    But readers are also encouraged to make comments, give reviews, and recommend lists of their favorite stories and writers—-there’s a lot of networking and instant messaging.

    And because of this feedback and networking, the writers get a better sense of their audience and the readers in turn get more (and better) stories that they want to read.

    Couldn’t a subscription e-publishing system for original books and shorts work this way?  Or am I just an ignorant hippie?

  7. 7
    EC Sheedy says:

    I get a little antsy when the term *publishers” or *publishing* is used as a universal. My family is in publishing (a strong regional publisher of local history, memoir, and mystery fiction), and I can tell you that they work very hard to put out books readers want/enjoy and will buy. If they didn’t they wouldn’t have been in business as long as they have. They are working extra hard right now, trying to keep up with the accelerating rate of change in publishing. Obviously, they want to get new readers and keep the readers they have coming back for more. Are they embracing new media? Yes, at the fastest pace they can afford to.

    I’m not exactly sure what I’m saying here, other than I think *most* publishers care very much about the reader, for either reasons of pride in what they do or pure financial gain; good publishers, of course, strive for both. I just think we need to be careful with our generalities. (All publishers are not hard-shoe, stiff-suited bean counters.)

    EC (who’s probably wildly off topic :-)

  8. 8
    SB Sarah says:

    EC I don’t think you’re off-topic at all. I think by “publishing” in broad general terms I’m thinking of the publishers of the books which I consume most: romance novels, in paperback form. I obviously can’t speak to the mystery publisher or the nonfiction memoir publisher because that’s not what I know the most about, and that’s not the readership I talk to every day. But you’re right, I do need to define “publisher” more concretely – am totally adding that in. Thank you.

  9. 9
    Okie says:

    Sounds like a great keynote.  I’ll keep an eye out for the post-presentation notes.

  10. 10
    Elizabeth L says:

    Can’t wait for RomCon next week.  Are you going to be at the Blogger thing on Friday night, Sarah?

  11. 11
    EC Sheedy says:

    And a quick addition to the comments, then I’ll shut up. :-)

    I think it’s still rather new to many publishers to actually *hear* from readers on what they like and what they don’t like. (No doubt many publishers are saying, “Gawd, who are all these people?!) The internet and blogs like these have allowed the reader voice to be heard. And that is one hell of a good thing. Really, just a few years ago, the books were bought, sold, and shipped into a void. Left with *only* numbers to crunch, the crunchers ran amok. Heart was lost, and books are nothing without heart.

    Back then, readers rarely added a voice to their purchase by writing a letter or otherwise getting in touch with either the creator or the publishers to offer their opinions. But in the last few years—really not that many—reader voices have become smart, demanding, and accessible to the publisher. Indeed, at times those voices have roared loud enough to debarnacle a whale. :-) This is so-o such a great development for everyone who loves books.

    Okay, I’m gone. Enjoy Vancouver, Sarah.

  12. 12
    Lotta says:

    EC, I love that you believe that publishers actually hear the readers, and might actually forward my standard gripe about “Canadian” publishers publishing for Canadian readers with American spellings.  It’s as unsettling for us reading favor instead of favour as it is for you hearing zed instead of zee.  More so for children when they read the word ‘color’ in a book and are penalized for repeating it faithfully on a spelling test.  I’m now on a mission!  As it turns out Sarah, I’ll miss you when you come to Vancouver as I’ll be in the Yukon territory catching me some midnight sun that week.  Sad for me.

  13. 13
    Deb Kinnard says:

    The reader is king. Or in our case, queen, probably. I wish there were many, many more ways to connect directly with readers…I’d eagerly embrace additional connection-nodes. Instead it all seems fragmented—this review site, that newspaper, yonder blog.

    Not sure if I’m even coherent, but it’d be great if a reader could have one central location where s/he could “graze” and filter his or her ideal fiction offering from the multitude of choices out there. ACFW’s “fiction finder” is one such, but not mature as yet.

    Any other thoughts about pastures for readers?

  14. 14
    Castiron says:

    Deb—I sorely miss Alexandra Digital Literature and its book recommender Hypatia.  It was an awesome program that took your ratings of various books, compared them with other folks, figured out whose tastes best matched yours, and gave you recommendations based on that; I found a ton of wonderful reading that way.  (And I wish the programmer would license Hypatia to someone like Goodreader or LibraryThing or even Google; I’d love to see what it’d give me with a fuller catalog and more computational power.)

    (The site still exists, but Hypatia’s been largely non-operational for years, alas.)

  15. 15
    Ridley says:

    Asking what the reader’s role in publishing is seems such an easy question, doesn’t it. But what exactly does it mean to be the consumer? What does a publisher “owe” me? Do we even have a relationship, or are the pairings between pub and retailer, author and reader? It’s a fascinating discussion, really, and I don’t have the knowledge base to answer any of those questions definitively.

    All I can really do is speak from my own experience an inclinations, and my feeling right now is that the major publishers think my custom is a nuisance. I think they find accommodating disabled readers beneath them. Something like 20% of Americans have a physical disability that limits their daily activities. That’s a big number. Paper books are a hardship for a lot of people. For most people it’s probably a matter of poor eyesight or arthritis pain. For me, I have muscle weakness and cramping that makes holding books open and turning pages quite challenging. Ebooks on an ereader let me read. I wasn’t buying paper books before because reading was painful. So this push to discourage ebooks via agency pricing doesn’t push me back to more profitable paper books, it pushes me to smaller publishers or to World of Warcraft. I haven’t bought an agency priced book yet. I used to buy 6-12 books a month from those publishers before (that’s the other side of the disability coin, no job = free time for reading.)

    So, I wish publishers paid attention to who their readers were, what sort of people buy their particular lines or formats. I get the feeling they’re running on conjecture, assuming early ebook adopters, by dint of being older and wealthier, were their hardcover readers. But I wonder how many of us just had bad hands, eyes or whatever and found the ereader to be a godsend.

    Maybe this is on point, maybe it’s not, but *I* wish publishers thought about how many disabled readers would be screwed by agency pricing. Our money is green too, you know.

  16. 16
    Ros says:

    I would *like* my place in the publishing industry to be that of a consumer.  All too often, however, I am not even allowed to be that because of geographical restrictions on the sale of ebooks.  If I am not even allowed to be a reader, I must be right at the bottom of the heap.

    In addition, I would like my place in the publishing industry to be that of a reader.  But all too often, because of DRM issues and the aforementioned geographical limitations, I’m prevented from buying the books I want to read and sometimes even prevented from reading the books I’ve already bought.  I would like not to be treated as if I am a criminal by the publishing industry.  I’d like to be a valued customer.  Or even just a customer.  Rather than the dirt under the soles of publisher’s shoes.  I’d love to say that I could take my custom elsewhere, but if I want to read a book by a particular author, there’s only one publisher who gets to decide whether I can or not.  And I would prefer to be treated by them with some respect.

    A girl can dream, anyway.

  17. 17
    ghn says:

    I totally agree with what Ros said. There are some publishers that seem utterly terrified by the concept of e-publishing, and load their products down with DRM and &@#¤ geographical restrictions. I wonder – do they get a hysterical fit at every sale of an e-book, screaming something about “another pirate has gotten one our e-books”?
    Well, _some_ publishers are saner when it comes to that sort of thing, and their e-bookstores _feel_ friendlier to me. Maybe because they do not regard me as a thief. These are the smaller publishers, mostly.

    I do not approve of pirating. I want to get my e-books legally. I also want a minimum of hassle (no extra steps before I get to read the books I have bought, and readable even if my PC has a meltdown and I have to get a new one. Well, i can dream…)
    I also want to be able to buy the books I want.
    The publishers too often don’t want these IMO simple and reasonable things.

  18. 18
    Lisa J says:

    After reaading the comments above, I find they echo my thoughts and they aremuch more eloquent than I would ever be.

    The one thing I will say, I have not purchased as many books from the Agency 5 since April.  In fact, I think I have found 2 which were reasonable in price and in the format I wanted.  Why does a publisher expect me to pay more for an e-book than I would the paper version?  Case in point, there is a Lora Leigh book out – the cover price is $7.99, Wal-Mart and Target have the book for $5.97 and $5.99 respectively.  Unfortunately for Ms. Leigh and me, I only want to purchase it in e-book, but I won’t since the price is $7.99.  Does this make sense to anyone???  (side note:  the reviews for the book – an anthology – have not been stellar and now I’m thinking I’ll skip it entirely, before I would have bought it the day it came out, long before I happened across any reviews).

  19. 19
    Peggy P says:

    The reader’s place in publishing you say?! Well, this reader’s place in publishing is that I’m the one who actually pays for the books I read – yeah… with real damn money! I don’t get free books unless I win some giveaway or check them out from the library (and they never have what I want!) So I actually buy 99.9% of my books and you should be way nicer to me! I hate to tell you this… but you need me! If I don’t read a great freakin’ review – I’m not buying your book and if it’s not easily available – I’m not buying your book.  I’m an e-reader so you better have it available in my format – or I’m not buying your book and oh yeah… I already own a couple thousand books so I really don’t need any “new” ones and I don’t need to buy your book. Dear publishers… you need me! I am your paying customer so why do I feel lower than whaleshit in the your big picture? Fanfic (and pirating) are starting to look really good to me … I just love the interwebznet!  (Am I angry much?  Well, just over agency pricing and gouging!)

  20. 20
    SB Sarah says:

    @Elizabeth L: I will indeed! Part on, Wayne!

    Thank you for your comments. Ridley, you’ve given me a pile to think about in terms of how to literally draw the relationships between publisher, author, bookseller and reader—and where do librarians fit into that? I’m tempted to put them in the same position as readers – not welcome and misunderstood, much of the time.

    But the positive in all this questioning is that I do know that many people within publishing are reading blogs and listening to conversations like these, and ultimately, those people (hi folks!) will get promoted (I HOPE) and get raises (Even better!) and be able to create changes based on what they know of readership. But I think it’ll be a very slow change, and I hope avid readers don’t lose patience before then.

  21. 21
    Alison says:

    Have fun in Vancouver! We finally have some good weather so pack your shades. I graduated from SFU and am constantly proud because of it’s openness to ideas like seminars on Romance Novels.

  22. 22
    DS says:


    EC, I love that you believe that publishers actually hear the readers, and might actually forward my standard gripe about “Canadian” publishers publishing for Canadian readers with American spellings.  It’s as unsettling for us reading favor instead of favour as it is for you hearing zed instead of zee.

    Funny to see this.  I gripe about US publishers making changes to books first published in English in other countries to make them appear less “foreign”.  I can handle a few extra “u”‘s.

  23. 23
    meoskop says:

    I compare it to the automobile. Let’s choose Pontiac, because they went out of business while producing one of the finest lines of their existence, thus showing it’s not exclusively product quality.

    Pontiac need to get the dealerships to order their cars, so their focus is on that. But if the dealerships can’t move the cars, then they won’t order them. So Pontiac makes an effort at highlighting why you should care about their cars, and reminding you to go to a dealership and check them out.

    For whatever reason, Pontiac folds. Some dealerships fold, some start buying other car lines. People still drive. Who is making the money by servicing the people who drive changes, but people buying cars remains intact. Suddenly, GMC realizes they love me (3rd Pontiac is a G8 GT) and is sending me free service coupons (haven’t paid to service either of my cars all year) ads for other lines they make, special offers – anything to keep me and send me over and over to their dealership in the hopes that they retain my money and are still the company providing my ride. (insert detailed conversation of the Zeta platform here, and Holden auto design)

    Readers will still read. Who is going to make the money providing us with those reads will depend on their responsiveness to the changing market. Like Pontiac, they may have the best books of the year and they may, at the last minute, realize they need to offer serious value for the dollar (insert long rant on the Sunbird and other models) but when the customer looks away, it won’t matter. The dealership will partner with whoever brings the customer in the largest numbers.

    With e-books growing so rapidly any publisher that tries to block that market or maximize short term profits with contempt for the end user is begging to be Pontiac – fondly remembered but too late to the party and expendable when the market tightens. (insert sadness that G8 GXP’s sold out 60 days before I had the cash for one)

  24. 24
    Lisa says:

    Major publishers, I think, are concerned that they are losing control of the market. It used to be that the could tell you what books you could have, when, and in what format. That’s their comfort zone, and all their risk-management strategies and profit models are based on this type of sales. Ebooks are uncharted waters, and I think they’re using pricing models in the hopes of driving customers away from books they don’t like producing and back into format they’re comfortable with. By overcharging for ebooks, I think they hope you’ll just buy the paperback, and then they can justify abandoning ebook sales. What they’re missing, of course, is that many of us won’t buy the paperback. Perhaps we’ll buy it used, or get it from the library, or buy a different book altogether.

    People also behave irrationally as far as risk-avoidance. To publishers, the worst thing in the world is the piracy of a book, and ebooks will probably always have a fixed number of pirated copies. What publishers need to realize is that if you grow the e-book market, you will make more money in legitimate e-book sales a) than you lose to piracy and b) than you would have made sticking to traditional models. It is not worth throwing away 99 legitimate sales to prevent one theft, but it’s what they want to do.

    Reading the description of your experience at that conference (the “enjoy your 9.99 bestsellers” one), I feel a great deal of frustration and hostility from publishers. “Why,” they seem to say, “don’t you want to buy what I want to sell you, instead of what you want to have?” Which is, let’s face it, a pretty stupid stance for a retailer.

  25. 25
    Kilian Metcalf says:

    If they continue to ignore/abuse us, we *will* go away. It happened to the dinosaurs of the music recording industry, and it will happen to the dinosaurs of the publishing industry, too. 

    Actually, they are already dead, but the information just hasn’t reached their walnut-sized brains yet.  When it does, it will be too late.

    Smaller, quicker, more adaptable, flexible, responsive, and smarter entities will have replaced them.

    Bye-bye Big Six.  Maybe someday we will find your bones in the publishing equivalent of the La Brea Tar Pits.

  26. 26
    dick says:

    Like most readers, I’ve complained numerous times about the books being published, wondering how or why they made it.  But I’m not sure exactly how publishers can respond to readers’ complaints.  It’s my understanding, which may be incorrect, that once a book is accepted by a publisher, at least a year or more passes before the reader can buy it.  I would assume, although again I’m really guessing, that most authors need a considerable time to get a book to the point where a publisher will accept it.  So, if a publisher accepts a book the contents of which seem timely at the moment it’s purchased, by the time the readers get it, it may not be timely at all.  Also, which cadre of readers should a publisher give most attention to?  Those who are perfectly satisfied with the output of Connie Mason and Cassie Edwards?  Or those who demand books with meatier substance?

    Anything based on taste is a crapshoot in my opinion.  So, I’m not sure that I want publishers giving readers’ comments and complaints greater attention—unless, of course, that reader is me.

  27. 27

    RomCon will rock with you in the house!  Looking forward to seeing you again and meeting the other bloggers!

  28. 28
    Deb Kinnard says:

    Smaller, quicker, more adaptable, flexible, responsive, and smarter entities will have replaced them.

    Very true—possibly. Not having clairvoyance, I can’t say whether it will come to pass or not. A word, though—I’m published by two of these smaller, more flexible publishers. One’s an e-press, the other does print books.

    Readers may or may not know of my print books as they come out, because my “smaller, more flexible” press isn’t yet on their radar scopes. This is due to the fact they’re not out there in bookstores, stocked, visible, ready to march away when a reader parts with a hard-earned shekel.

    How to get my books in these readers’ hands if they cannot march into your local Book Behemoth and purchase them? That’s why I think many, many more ways for an author to connect with readers directly would be a very fine thing.

    I’ve asked publishers how best to do this—what are the most cost-effective techniques? So far, nobody seems to know. I’m not an author who has scads of shekels to waste on techniques that don’t bear fruit. If someone will tell me what does, I’ll be right there.

  29. 29
    Kilian Metcalf says:

    @Deb Kinnard – if they knew, they’d be doing it themselves, and they wouldn’t share what they know with anyone who might be competition. 

    Looking at what is happening in the music industry, I see garage bands with their own websites.  They have links where fans can buy the music directly from the musicians.  They are on Facebook and Twitter.  They have newsletters and blogs.  They belong to professional groups that are dedicated to their music genre and send their music to be reviewed in the group newsletters.  They belong to every Yahoo Group for the music genre and participate in discussions and have links to their web sites in their sig lines.  They offer free MP3 sample downloads.  They link to similar musicians and ask for reciprocity. 

    I’m sure there’s more, but that’s all that I can think of off the top of my head.

    radio55 – Yep, we’ve come long way since 1955 radio days

  30. 30
    Lotta says:

    I was glad to read your reflection on my gripe (still new here and don’t know how to quote, sorry!).  I’ve often wondered why North American publishing feels the need to protect literate Americans from the rest of the world!  My dear friends in Seattle are more than sophisticated enough to deal with the odd “centre” and I’m sure my then 8 year old enjoyed The Philosphers’ Stone as much as yours did The Sorcerers’ Stone.  And don’t even get me started oin the missing segment from “The Golden Compass”.  My imported copy of Northern Lights was fully intact as written by Philip Pullman and the verbotten passage was much more sweet for the effort we went through to own it.
    Dick, I’m not sure I believe publishers or big box book sellers re ANY publishing timeframes anymore.  I can’t relate how many times I’ve waited 12-18 months for trade paper already available elsewhere in the world.  I have literally been told by Chapters that trade wouldn’t be available for months, flown to Australia and returned with a trade copy in hand while they continued to sell hardcover at twice the price.  I move often and I love me my books – hardcovers are inconveneinet and expensive to move no matter how emotionally satisfying they are to look at and hold.  Now that we have a Pad, we’re going ebook fo sho’.

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