The exclusivity effect
How the rise of special editions and bonus material have reshaped the book world
Before I dig in, I wanted to say a quick hello and thank you to all the new subscribers who signed up recently. My dear friendlinked to my newsletter last week, and I think many of you have come over from her Substack to give me a follow. So thank you, Sooz. And hello and thank you, new subscribers!
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Two weeks ago, I reflected on a decade as a published author. One of the things that I touched on was how different traditional publishing is today compared to the industry it was when I debuted. I also spoke about how no one seems to know what “works” anymore when it comes to promo/marketing efforts—not publishers or authors.
I visited Sooz last week—first time in person in over SIX years, gah, so overdue!—and we discussed these topics a lot. What, exactly, has changed? And why are things that used to work no longer working?
The conclusions we came to are really interesting, so I want to share them here. These conclusions, I should add, are based on personal experiences, anecdotal stories, and opinion. In short: none of the below is proven by science or formal studies. It’s just a theory, my thoughts… And sure, I’m biased, but I think there’s some merit here.
Okay. Let’s dig in…
The rise of exclusive stuff
Over the past decade, the book world has evolved to provide readers with more exclusive, special content. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. It is wise to think about what readers want and fantastic to work toward fulfilling their wishes.
Authors started tapping into this by running their own preorder campaigns. (Publishers sometimes run these for the lead titles they are really pushing, but not always, and so many authors take it upon themselves to organize, fund, and run their own.) A preorder campaign was (is) a way to give an exclusive goodie to the reader as a ‘thank you’ for purchasing the book. I started seeing these campaigns flooding the book world in the mid-to-late 2010s. Within a few years, special swag—from bookmarks to tote bags to apparel to digital extras like novellas and deleted scenes—was suddenly everywhere.
Subscription boxes also cash in on the exclusivity offer. What’s a book sub box? A monthly package mailed to the subscriber that features a hand-selected book (often a new release), many times packed with extra swag. Sometimes that swag was themed to match the title in the box. Other times it was simply swag from popular fandoms.
Book of the Month is America’s oldest subscription book box. (Yes, really, founded in 1926.) It is the variety that features solely books. But successful themed boxes like OwlCrate and Illumicrate cropped up in 2015. These were packed with swag and often a note from the author. Other companies followed suit. At one point in the late 2010s, it seemed like a new sub box was popping up every other week.
The rise of special editions
To differentiate themselves from other sub boxes, some services offered the most exclusive thing of all: an edition of a book with a special cover. Not just a little flag on the jacket like BotM does, but fresh color palettes or better yet, entirely original cover art. OwlCrate and Illumicrate, for example, became known for their stunning alternate cover editions. Fans would race to collect this new, special edition version of the book.
Sometimes the novel in these boxes was also signed by the author—either via bookplate or tip-ins. Bookplates are essentially stickers. The author signed the stickers and the sub box put the sticker in the box while packing up the orders. The reader can then stick said bookplate onto the title page. It’s almost like the author signed it!
Tip-ins go a step farther. The publisher sends the author individual pages to sign and those pages are then manually placed (or tipped-in) to the manuscript before binding the novel. The end result is a bound book with a signature already on page. Sub boxes started working with authors and publishers to coordinate this.
Not to be left out of the “exclusive edition” game, Barnes & Noble joined the fun. The chain doesn’t run a sub box service, but exclusive and signed editions are popular on their shelves today. They often have signed editions from big name authors (thanks tip-ins!). And they also have book club and monthly pick selections. If a title is selected for one of these programs, it usually gets an exclusive B&N edition packed with bonus content—deleted scenes or readers guides or other “goodies” at the back. Certain books might have both signature and the bonus content.
Other bookstores and chains have followed suit. Blockbuster novels may get a Target edition, for example, or a Waterstones edition overseas. Somewhere between bookstore editions and sub boxes is what I’m calling “tastemaker picks”—Reading clubs like Reese’s Book Club or Oprah’s Book Club. If a title is selected for one of these programs, there’s often another exclusive edition, complete with fancy sticker/flag on the cover and potentially more bonus content within.
Either way, special editions mean there is a unique version of the novel in the world, sometimes only available via a very specific avenue: A sub box, a certain store, etc.
The decline(?) of preorder campaigns
As a result of all these special editions, some readers became hesitant to preorder titles. I specify “some” because there is a unique subset of readers who want ALL the editions of their favorite books. They don’t mind preordering a title from one place and later discovering that one of their sub boxes is also featuring the book.
But for readers on tighter budgets, or readers not as influenced by the gaming mechanics of owning a “complete set” of editions… Well, these readers will wait to preorder. They’ll try to predict which sub boxes might feature which titles, and are anxious to see what type of bonus content may exist in a B&N edition vs a Target edition vs a Waterstones edition. Then they shop accordingly.
As a result, the preorder campaigns that authors would run to try to drum up early buzz and interest, thereby proving to their publishers that a readership was excited and invested in the upcoming story, became less effective.
I put a question mark after “decline” in the sub-header above because it’s not that authors and publishers aren’t running preorder campaigns anymore. I think they are just as common as ever. It’s simply that they’ve become, in my opinion, less effective. They are a lot of work for wayyy less payoff than they used to deliver.
The decline of attendance at book events
As if preorder campaigns being less effective wasn’t tough enough on authors, in-person attendance at book events seems to be down too.
Covid had a lot to do with this. For two straight years, there were virtually no in-person book events. But even before Covid, Publishers were touring authors less frequently. And now, as people begin to travel on par with pre-pandemic levels and frequent stores as they used to, attendance at events still hasn’t rebounded.Well organized festivals and cons may be the lone exception here. I’ve heard authors share that these seem to be the last event spaces that are still pulling in readers/attendees.
Even still, the event space isn’t looking great.
The rise of social media and easy access to authors
A decade ago, the only way you got a signed book was by going to a book event. Heck, even just five years ago this was mostly true. (I’m sure there were exceptions; I’m talking for 99% of the cases.)
If you wanted your book signed, to receive a cool bookmark, and to hear a fun story about how the author researched/wrote their story…. you attended an event.
But now? Now you can get signed editions in a number of places. And most authors are so accessible in online spaces—perhaps too accessible, if I’m being honest—that readers don’t need to go to an event to ask their burning questions. Authors, in a desperate attempt to please the algorithm and remind readers about their books, are constantly sharing behind-the-scenes info on social media. “Here’s my process!” “Here’s a deleted scene.” “Here’s a whole insta story about how I cut X story line and inserted Y instead.”
Now, I’m not knocking these things. I do them often! I don’t think it’s bad to do these things. Social media has helped me connect with so many readers. I love it. But authors being readily accessible online has completely changed the landscape of author-reader relationships. Readers used to interact with authors only at events. Perhaps they would also send fan mail and maybe hear back. But today, many authors are online, their DM boxes open, their communication direct with readers.
Book events—meeting the author—used to be the “exclusive” thing. But these days, why should a busy reader bother traveling to events when they can order the signed edition somewhereand get info about the author online plus get a question answered directly via DM or online Q&As?
I’m not knocking this strategy! Truly. Money is tight for everyone. Life/work is busy. I get it. But I think this has all contributed to how the industry has shifted and why authors—even big ones—can’t always fill chairs at events.
Lastly, the shrinking midlist
When I finally paused and looked at all these changes in the industry and in readers’ mindsets, it became pretty obvious to me why the midlist continues to shrink/struggle.
The books getting signed and special editions in physical stores are often not books by midlist authors. And even with all the sub boxes out there, there are only so many slots to fill. Not every book will get exposure.
So while readers are valuing signed and exclusive editions of books more and more… not all authors can provide those things at mass scale. Pair that with low turnout for events (where smaller authors can offer said signed book) and the fact that B&N’s shifted strategy often has them stocking only one copy of many titles…. Oof. It’s just tough out there for most authors.
The other tricky thing about B&N’s new strategy is that Publishers can’t buy placement within the store (on tables and endcaps) as they used to. It’s mostly B&N exclusive editions in these promotional spaces, plus titles that individual B&N booksellers have loved and chosen to promote.
On one hand, I think it’s great that B&Ns are operating a bit more like indies, with each bookseller having the power to influence what is seen/promoted in their stores. It means everyone has a shot at being spotlighted—no more “pay to play.” That said, one bookseller loving your book means good placement in one store. Not nationally. And with B&N stocking fewer copies of most titles… it just feels like being discovered is harder than ever.
To sum up:
Author events used to be the “exclusive” offering, now it’s exclusive editions (which many authors don’t have/can’t offer)
The rise of social media made authors extremely accessible, killing some of the mystery/magic; events don’t necessarily provide something that isn’t already available online
Exclusive editions (and sub boxes) have changed shopping habits; readers sometimes hold back from preordering titles as they would have a decade ago
I don’t have solutions to any of these…conundrums. I’m purposely not calling them “problems,” because I’m not convinced they are problems.
The industry simply functions differently now than it used to. The evolution has changed how readers shop. It has changed how books are featured and supported. And authors and publishers are trying to figure out how to continue to be successful and profitable within this new landscape.
So… that’s what’s been on my mind lately.
Do you agree/disagree with anything said here? See another publishing trend or evolution that I haven’t mentioned? Have ideas for how we innovate so that the shrinking midlist still gets discovered in this steadily changing landscape?
If so, head to the comments and let’s discuss! I clearly have lots of thoughts on this topic. :)
Until next time,
I can’t imagine these are cheap for the publishers to produce, especially since the edition is then sold at bulk (discount) to the sub box. Perhaps this is probably why readers are seeing more “slightly tweaked color palette” covers in some sub boxes instead of totally new art directions…?
I’m basing this on chats with the owner of my local indie bookstore, plus anecdotal evidence from other authors. (Several of my friends, sent on tours by their publishers, have shared that audience turnout is lower than a few years ago. And even the best attended events of the tour had lower numbers than average events pre-covid. I’ve also seen similar experiences being recounted in the author Slack and Discord groups I’m a part of.)
Even smaller authors like yours truly often coordinate with an indie so that they can sign/personalize books for readers.
When I debuted in trad, it was pretty standard for B&N to take about three copies of most midlist titles, and keep the title on shelves for roughly 2-3 months. Lately? One copy stocked, and once it sells, it’s gone. It will only be restocked if a bookseller at a particular store loves it and wants more on shelf. And again, if that happens, it’s in that one store only, not everywhere.
I focused on trad publishing and didn’t even touch on changes to the indie landscape in this piece. But I’d be interested to hear from authors with lots of experience in that space.