Sunday, 26 June 2011

The End of the Book (but not in a scary way)

This post is based on a talk I gave at the
Bookseller Cover Design Conference 2011, to an audience of publishing sorts.
It's quite long (15 min talk).

… and it’s not about publishing doom. It is, literally, about the end of the book; the moment when you finish reading one. A special moment, and a great opportunity for publishers.

Why is the end of the book important? Because it’s an opportunity to connect with readers.

Most publishers around the world are thinking about readers far more than they used to. How to talk to them, how to gather them, how to “own” them. And that’s because our traditional vehicles for promoting our books - chain retailers - are dwindling. We need to take responsibility for creating demand and enlisting readers.

That’s why all publishers now have a social media strategy. That’s why most imprints now have their own blogs.

But I think we can get loads more out of the book itself as a vehicle for promotion. And that’s where the end of the book plays such an important role. It’s a moment for us to leap in and actually recruit the reader, and make sure that when they’ve read one book by our author, they are as keen as possible to read the next. And that they are given every opportunity to recommend it too.

Here’s a rather breathless statement I heard a friend make recently:

“I am never more vulnerable to suggestion than when I’ve just finished a book”

That’s good! We can use that. But at the moment, we tend not to.

We tend to communicate really strongly to with the reader before they buy the book - to persuade them to buy it - but then we butt out almost completely.

If there was a badly drawn graph showing how “present” a publisher’s communication is in the mind of a reader, it would look like this:

To start with, as a potential reader is browsing, and merely considering our book, the publisher’s presence is high. What the reader experiences at this stage is directed largely by us. The finest minds in the company will have bitched at one another other over the course of many weeks to produce this cover, and it’s pumping out genre messages, gender messages … all sorts of messages that we choose.

And our presence stays high as the reader scans the blurb, or scrolls down to the product description. Is the book set in Paris in 1939? They’ll know if it is, cause the blurb will inevitably begin with - massive pet hate of mine, this - "Paris. 1939".

We, the publisher, have chosen which features of the book to highlight and that’s what the reader gets in the blurb.

Sometimes we’re still communicating a bit further into the book. We might have a few extra pages at the front to communicate to the reader: “It’s really, really, good. Everyone. Says. So.”

But then it all goes quiet.

The publisher shuts up and the book does the talking. And that’s exactly how it should be.

But then what happens when the reader come to the end?

Well, what does happen? Why not reflect on that for a minute? Remember the last truly brilliant book you finished. What did you feel? Exhilaration? A sense of achievement? But also perhaps regret that it was over? Or curiosity about the mind that produced it.

Maybe you felt weepy at the end of One Day. When you finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, were you wondering where all that scary stuff in Stieg Larsson’s head came from?

The end of a book is a very, very fertile moment. A moment in which a reader emerges from the world of the book and begins to see it in its context. As a publisher, if we’re skilled and sensitive, we can almost step back into the reader’s consciousness, to help shape that moment.

So, on the wondergraph, if there’s nothing at the end of the book, the line will go flat. If there’s something really good printed there, it’ll rocket up as our messages become much more present, and hopefully persuasive.

And what would those messages be? What might we put at the end of the book that readers would respond to?

Of course there’s no single answer, because every different genre, and author within that genre, has a slightly different readership, so there are different rules.

But what we mustn’t do - and if I have a central point, it is this - is just apply a blanket policy: a one-size-fits-all rule on first chapters and back ads and all the other bits and bobs. Even referring to all this stuff as “endmatter”, as we do, makes it sound like a dull formality. That is wasting a golden opportunity.

I would argue that we should do more than that; we should make a special case, not just of one book a season that we really care about, but most of our big books, and all of our significant brand authors.

By the way, I know this is difficult. Someone has to edit the text, someone has to design it. Someone has to make sure there are extra pages printed. That’s substantial work, and it’s all very well for me to suggest it without having to do it. There’s also the tricky question, as there is with blurb, of “who’s in charge?”

Anyway, back to what we should actually put in the back of the book. As I said, there’s no single answer, but let’s examine some of the things we give readers, and compare that to what they actually want.

Conventional publishing wisdom states:

  • The first chapter of the author’s next book is a good thing.
  • A batch of adverts, either for this author’s books, or others on our list, is better than blank pages.
  • We should sell ourselves as a publisher, and push our website.
  • Reading group notes are worthwhile.
  • We should have an author biography of some sort.

Is that what readers really value?

I did one of those DIY online surveys to find out, and got responses back from 54 non-book-industry friends.

The question I asked was this:

“Imagine you’ve just finished the last page of a brilliant novel. You turn to the next page. Which of these would you be happy to find?”

  • Nothing at all
  • Reading group notes
  • Articles & reviews
  • Biography of the author
  • First chapter of the author's next book
  • Website info
  • Imprint info
  • Blurbs for books by the same author
  • Blurbs for books from the same publisher
  • Q&A with author

Respondents were encouraged to rate their reaction on a scale of “delighted”, through “happy enough” and “neutral” to “unimpressed” or even “cheesed off”. You might detect a slight lack of scientific rigour to this survey data. Sorry, these survey data. Should’ve gone to BML, I know ...

There weren’t that many surprises in the results that came back. They were “happy enough” to see most of these things at the back of a book.

Four things did stand out, though.

The most popular response to “short biography of the author” was “delighted!” And I’m assuming they didn’t take “short biography” to mean “so and so read Classics at Magdalene. He lives in Chiswick with his wife, two children and eight dogs.”

They’re actually curious about the author. I think they want to know more. Here’s a quote from the survey:

“Biography and pic – the quirkier the better! Lets me see who was fooling around with my head.”

Secondly, the first chapter of the author’s next book - the most popular response was “neutral”, but barely. In fact over half the respondents rated themselves either “neutral”, “unimpressed” or “cheesed off”.

And in the accompanying comments, first chapters provoked more anger than anything. Here’s an example:

“I have NEVER bought on the strength of that first "taster" chapter. I have felt a little cheated... how about you allow me to savour the supposedly satisfying ending of the thing I’ve just finished? I have felt a little cheapened...”

I have some very sensitive friends.

Others commented that first chapters gave you a “false ending” to a book: it ends before you think you’re at the end, because there are lots of pages left.

So this is all a bit of a nasty shock. As publishers we tend to feel quite good about ourselves if we get our shit together and put that first chapter of the next book in. A pity if folks don’t like it.

Blurbs for books by the same author were deemed perfectly alright, but blurbs for books by the same publisher - only just neutral. A lot of resistance.

For example:

“Endless pages of stuff about other books by other authors irritate me. “

Again, we tend to assume back ads for our other books are fair enough, but there’s a risk of alienating your reader with crude marketing: “wasn’t that a great book?? Now buy some more books!!”

A Q&A with the author drew the rating “delighted”, by a mile:

“I am very interested in the author’s thoughts/decisions/processes related to the novel.”

As with the “author biog”, we’re seeing huge curiosity about the author. That’s an opportunity. Are we exploiting it, I wonder?

The end of the book is an important moment, and an important opportunity. But when we do engage with it, we’re not necessarily giving the readers what they want.

Is anyone using the opportunity well?

I think some publishers are, but it’s patchy.

Some are using that opportunity to tell readers about themselves as a company or imprint, and pushing their website. That’s not really what readers expect or particularly want, but it is a strategically important objective, so you can’t blame people for giving it a shot.

And some people are doing it really well.

The Angry Robot back ad is irresistible. Everything they do has a distinct personality, and they’re really making the imprint talk to readers.

So that’s all splendid, but it’s still a one size fits all approach, and so not truly maximising that “end of the book moment”.

Some publishers focus on using the end of the book to talk about their authors, and my survey suggests that’s really worthwhile. This focus can bring in elements like good photography and design to be rather impressive.

Here’s Colm Toibin looking moody and clever, with some very nicely written - albeit short - biographical notes. Great. Though I have to say I want to know more.

Likewise Nicole Krauss (sorry about the dodgy photo). Again, a really well written short biog to accompany it. But again, we could do with more.

This Mark Billingham approach is more mass-market and straightforward, and it doesn’t tell you much about him at all, but it shows very clearly how you can sign up to find out more.

The long running 4th Estate PS sections at their best offer fantastic material with a reading group slant: good author Q&As, journalism and reading group notes. And yet when not at their best they can seem a bit mechanical; a bit of a box-ticking exercise.

Orion give us a more tailor-made approach at the end of the Zafon novels, and I think The Passage, too. There are grey edged pages, to differentiate them from the novel itself, and walking tours with specially taken photos. Very carefully judged material, very specific to the books.

But the best endmatter in my opinion is in children’s books. I sense a real focus in the best kids' publishing on the minute detail of the reading experience. They know that kids read their favourite books in an obsessive state of mind, and that they pore over every page, absorbing everything.

Hodder Children’s How To Train Your Dragon series

... and Puffin's Roald Dahl books show a desire to reward and engage with this kind of reader attention. Is there any reason for adults' books to be any different?

So we are doing some good work at the end of the book: we’re sometimes giving readers what they want. But should we be aiming higher?

After all, we expect an enormous amount from our covers. Perhaps we’re beginning to expect more from our blurbs. We should realise that what we print inside can play a vital role in our communication with the reader too.

I think we should aim - and I acknowledge this can’t be done on all books - for bespoke, finely judged interventions. Messages that suit both the book and the mental and emotional state we’re expecting the reader to be in, and which direct the reader to take action in a way which helps us. Put crudely, we want to invite them to turn their enjoyment of finishing this book into the desire to buy another one. But not by simply by saying “buy another one”.

I’d like to end by proposing two important concepts, which can help us take a happy reader along the path to another purchase, rather than clonking them over the head with the marketing stick:

1. Action

If you strike just the right note, and turn your reader’s enthusiasm for the book they’ve just finished into some kind of action, any kind of action, then you’ve sealed their enthusiasm for it and made it more likely that they’ll react well next time they have an opportunity to buy. Essentially, you’ll be making them more loyal to your author.

To illustrate this, here’s something I’m proud of from the back of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.

It doesn’t say “Buy the next one!!”, it says “have your say”. Readers will have an opinion about this book and the debate that surrounds it. We invite them to express it. To date, several thousand of them have. They’ve taken action and gone on record as people with an opinion about James Frey. I don’t know for a scientific fact, but I strongly suspect that makes them more likely to read another one of his books.

In the back of How to Train Your Dragon, it says “draw your own dragon in this box, and send it in”. Perfect.

I would argue that inspiring action should take a higher priority than simply providing content.

So, rather than: “here are your reading group notes” you might have: “go to this Facebook page to find out what reading groups thought about this book, and tell them what you thought”. Though clearly we need to find a balance between inspiring action with giving readers what they want.

2. Advocacy

… which is related, but different. It’s the familiar idea that readers sell books to readers. Anything we can do to take an enthusiastic reader, who’s just finished a book and is feeling all energetic about it, and help them tell their friends about it will be immensely valuable.

How? Don’t know. Perhaps it’s something dead simple like “Did you love this book? Email us and we’ll send you a pack of postcards so you can tell your friends why”. Or: “tweet what you thought of this book with our hashtag; the author will follow you, and you could win some free copies to give away”. Depends on the audience.

Actually, on the hashtag topic, there’s a recent Dare 2 Comment blog about publishers creating “official hashtags” to organise readers' discussions about books on social media. Putting that at the front and the back of a book is a great idea.

So what I’d really like to close with is this: the end of the book is a special moment, and a huge opportunity for binding in readers. It deserves proper thought, and sensitive handling. Organisationally, that’s an absolute gyp. A huge effort. But then so's everything worthwhile. Just look at book covers. I’d encourage publishers to pick out even just one book you really love this autumn and really go to work on what you want the reader to experience, and what you want them to do when they finish it.

The end of the book is a direct-to-the-reader selling tool that is entirely within our control.

That has to be worth using well.