How to Sell Books That Are Good Enough to Steal
How do you know if what you’ve created is worthwhile? In my experience, it has to pass the “good enough to steal test.”
Business owners, authors, artists, and musicians don’t like to hear this, but it’s true. The fact is the majority of goods and services produced do not actually meet this benchmark of success.
Let me share an amusing personal example when I managed a bookstore in Boston. We were open late every night and at closing time it was my job to bring in the bench of books on the sidewalk out front and put the metal grate over the window. You know, to make sure street bums didn’t bust the window in search of How to Be a Millionaire or Martha Stewart’s 101 Cake Decorating Tips.
One late night, after too much chaos in the store, I forgot to bring in the bench. The next morning I was stunned to discover this oversight, but relieved to see all the books still there. An entire night had passed, with new hardcovers and art books out on the city streets, untouched. Unstolen.
What to do? What else? I put a sign on the bench saying: “Books Not Good Enough to Steal.” It was truth in advertising and what do you know, it worked. Many of the people wandering the streets stopped to read the sign, smiled, and bought a book or two.
Now, as I make my way around the streets of our times, I observe this “not good enough to steal” phenomenon in action all the time. At the neighborhood bar, the bartender mistakenly hears “pale ale” instead of “just outta jail” and has to take the IPA back in exchange for a shot of whiskey. She offers the pale ale for free to a hipster seated at the bar who refuses, only drinking DogButt Dark. Free is not good enough for him. (So I gladly take it. Beggars can’t be choosers.)
At the supermarket, a woman is offering free samples of a new curried salsa dip with rosemary-infused cheese butter. People are politely refusing, trying to pass by unnoticed. Curious, I try a bite and wander off nodding in search of a napkin for a hasty disposal. I should have rejected the free sample like the others.
In the gutter outside the bookstore, a new paperback lies on the sidewalk, receipt still inside, apparently dropped by accident. It’s by a well-known author, someone I really like. A book I have already read. I take it into the store and ask if they know who bought it. They do not. I ask if they want it back. They do not. I walk outside and offer it to people as they pass. They look at me like I’m nuts. “Thanks, too busy now.” “Don’t have time to read books anymore.” “Would you happen to have something about the Kardashians?” What…do I look like a book pimp? I end up donating it to the library. I want to add a sticker: “Not Good Enough to Steal” but they disapprove. It’s a classy library.
So, dear reader, what in tarnation does this have to do with anything anyone in the book industry might possibly care about? It has to do with DRM and how publishers can now lock down their ebooks that are “good enough to steal” in ways they cannot with print.
Let’s start with how pervasive free print books are already. I once read that a classic novel or a very popular book is bought once and read an average of 77 times. Let’s assume that book cost $10 originally, so divided by 77 readers means the book fetched $0.13 per reader. Let’s also assume this very popular backlist title sold one million print copies over its lifetime. The author earned an average royalty of $1.00 per copy or $1,000,000. Sweet!
But what if the true population of readers was 77 times bigger, so 77 million people actually read the book, even though only one million paid. What if just one more of those freebie 76 readers paid the $10, extrapolated across the full readership? Instead of one million copies sold suddenly we are at two million, simply by getting paid from one more consumer of the product from every group of “book thieves.”
In the above example, the book was actually good enough to be stolen! You might prefer “borrowed.” I’m sticking with big-time stolen.
What does this have to with DRM? Digital brings to books what it brought to software: the ability to finally get paid by each user of your product using a license key. Sure, some software is shared illegally, but most is locked down or offered as trial editions then requiring you to pay. The trick in software is to get a lot of trial editions into circulation, which widens the pipeline of knowledgeable prospects, and then converting a reasonable amount into sales.
Books in some ways are even better suited than software for this methodology. Start reading (which of course you can do with a paper edition standing in the store or as a sample ebook section online), and then if you want to keep reading, pay the asking price. But the majority of these samples are too short to make a decision about. I need a bigger taste of that curry salsa dip. Right.
Martin Hensel, over at TextCafe, has developed a social media shareable book sample for which the publisher determines the sample size, and then links to the various places the book can be purchased. This is trial software knowledge brought to book publishing. He makes it easy for publishers to try his service, offering — you got it — a trial edition. Along with TextCafe’s service Bublish, Aerbook, and Readbox also offer ebook sampling and sample sharing, and I anticipate we will see many more try-and-buy ebook systems forthcoming.
So if you have titles worthy of being stolen, congratulations to you. You have probably seen millions if not billions of dollars stolen from you over the illustrious history of your print publishing firm, stretching back well before your time. And this is the print model that many publishers want to protect?
Sure, there is a balance between the print business of today and the unknown ebook business of tomorrow. But the fact that ebooks can be locked down like software seems to offer a greater longer term potential beyond the present reality. Could it be non-publishers will be the ones to most reap these new benefits? This is what I saw in the photo industry, no doubt.
In conclusion, why then are publishers so happy they have protected their print business when for years they have been robbed over and over offering print content that wasn’t locked down the way ebooks can be? Scratching my head here.
Caleb Mason is the founder and publisher of Publerati, a hybrid ebook publisher and literary agency start-up, which employs a unique socially-responsible business model aimed at using ebooks to help spread literacy. Caleb also writes fiction under the pen name Don Trowden, author site here.
Earlier in his career, after working in bookstores, and at Little, Brown, and then co-founding Salem House publishers, Caleb left publishing for several other industries disrupted by change. These include the photo industry and map/GPS industry. Having experienced those shifts, Mason has formed a unique perspective on the digital changes ongoing in the book industry. He shares that perspective in his blog "Outsights on Publishing."