Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Consumer Experiences & Books

I went to the Houston Zoo recently.  Nice place. None of you care that I saw chimpanzees, giraffes, and fish.  What I think is of interest is the zoo’s approach to the consumer.  First, they sell “family” memberships for the year, so they ensure a certain level of support for their program.  Second, by making it “free” to return, you may end up going more often than you would have planned for, leading you to come and buy overpriced concessions and gifts. Third, when you first walk in, they take your photo.  You may conclude you’re not buying it, but before you leave you may end up looking at it and falling in love.  It’s 16 bucks for a photo that costs them under a buck to print.  Everyone likes to buy themselves a present.  A photo of yourself is a perfect appeal to the consumer’s ego.

What’s done at the Houston Zoo is done at other zoos and attractions across the country.  I don’t fault them for it. I marvel at their practices.  Oh, and I forgot they charged five bucks to feed three pieces of lettuce to a giraffe that they’d otherwise have to pay a person to feed.  Imagine that – they made it so we pay them for what they’d otherwise have to do.  It’d be like the consumer paying extra to bind his own book or cook his own food in a restaurant or sew her own clothes in a department store.

On my recent visit to Houston, I also went to Kemah, a small waterside amusement park.  It features fewer than a dozen rides.  Each one is about $4 to ride but they have a pay-one price unlimited one-day riding pass for $20.  So if  you think you’ll go on five rides – or on several rides several times you conclude to buy the pass.  Once you buy the pass you probably stay longer at the park than you planned – to get your money’s worth – and thus, end up buying food and toys and playing carnival games not included in the ride pass.  It’s a nice racket.

One night on my trip I went to a comedy club. Instead of saying you’ll spend at least $50 there, they break it up into pieces.  You pay a  $15 cover charge at the door.  There’s a two drink minimum, and food is separate.  When you get your bill for food and drinks you’ll have already paid the cover charge, so the final bill won’t add it all together and thus not look as big as it really is when you figure your costs in. Plus they keep you liquored up and laughing, so who’s going to have time to calculate all of this?

While on my four-day journey to Houston, I had some free time so I started to shop for the holidays.  My son, about to turn seven, wanted his first gadget.   Last year I gave him my old Netbook but he doesn’t access anything online or play games except cards on it.  This year he wants a DSi.  I went to several stores to shop on the possibilities.  I couldn’t believe how many e-toys there are out there – Xbox, Wii, and all of these handheld devices.  Each one has add-on costs. You never really know what you’re paying for until after the fact.  You end up buying various games, warranties, bigger batteries, extension cords, this and that, and your wallet shrinks to the size of a byte.

I concluded my son will potentially bore of whatever I get him. It’s only natural.  New gadgets will sprout up and as he ages, even from 7 to 9, and he’ll likely want new experiences.  So I bought a used DSi for a hundred bucks (I saved 50) and it came with a one-year warranty from Game Stop.

From all of these experiences described above I believe that perhaps the book publishing world can learn from them.  First, every industry should study the practices of other industries and see what it can copy, enhance, avoid and learn.  Second, book publishing must realize it is competing for the consumer dollar.  Part entertainment, part education, the book world will have to market and price itself with the knowledge of how Netflix, smart phones, toys, magazines, music, etc. sell their stuff.

I boarded my Continental flight back to New York making another realization.  I wanted to buy my wife a gift for allowing me to play with my friend for four days while she tended to my kids at home.  I bought a gift in the airport, which is always a mistake – selection is limited and things are overpriced.  Plus you can’t go back so easily to make a return.  But I found something I thought she’d like, a pair of earrings made by a Texas native.  I got the kids small things so they’d not think I forgot them.

Consumers are predictable. If something is sold, we buy it.  We may try to be disciplined and be smart about it, but eventually we cave in to our circumstances and justify our expenditures.  If only we can get people to buy books everywhere and anywhere.  Perhaps that’s the key to the industry – we need to make books available everywhere.  We try, to a degree.  The airport sold books.  So did the zoo gift shop.  But Game Stop did not and that’s where the dollars of young people are going.     When publishers can crack the gadget market they’ll likely prosper.

Interview With Author Michael Capek

  1. What do you love about writing? I think for me, one of the best things about writing is the freedom it affords me to work anywhere and anytime I darn well please. In my previous life as a public school teacher (for 27 years), I had to be in the same place at the same time everyday—discounting holidays and summers, of course. I thoroughly enjoyed the rewards and challenges of that profession, but after I retired, I never wanted to go back into the classroom. I always knew writing was what I was born to do. I only feel 100% alive when I’m doing it.

  1. What is your latest book about? The Steamboat Shuffle is a middle grade historical novel based on a true event and incident that occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio, in April 1922, when an extraordinary assemblage of old-style steamboats gathered at the public landing during a celebration of the 100th birthday of President U.S. Grant. President Warren G. Harding came to make a speech at Grant’s birthplace upriver from Cincinnati and traveled there on one of the boats. Somehow an eleven year-old boy evaded heavy security, sneaked aboard and spent the afternoon with Warren and Florence Harding. Real and fictional details mingle into a combination river adventure and coming-of-age story, with a focus on why and how the kid did what he did and how the experience changed his life.

  1. What inspired you to write it? I’m from the Greater Cincinnati area and first heard the true story of the young stowaway fifteen years ago. I was totally intrigued and wanted to know more about the real boy, his life and motives. I felt that story would make a great nonfiction book. Research revealed fascinating details about the Hardings the boats involved in the Grant Centenary celebration, and the 1920’s, particularly the years immediately after the First World War. But I found very little information about the boy stowaway himself, at least not enough to write the book I had intended. I finally decided to write the book as a novel. That freed me to invent a compelling backstory and create a realistic main character. Over the years, even while I wrote and published other books, I continued to work on the Harding stowaway story, doing draft after draft, struggling to find the right voice, to get at the heart of the book. I knew it had to paint a picture of middle America during that era through the eyes of a child—not a privileged, well-adjusted boy, but one with big dreams and problems, the kind that might drive him to try something desperate, even foolhardy, to solve them. That’s the kind of kid I always wanted to read about when I was young and the kind of character I love to write about now. Anyway, more than two dozen drafts and fifteen years later, The Steamboat Shuffle was finally published.

  1. What advice do you have for a struggling writer? It may sound strange to say, but my best advice is: Learn to love the struggle. The fact is nobody gets something for nothing. It’s true that you might just hit it big with your first book or story, or maybe your second, but most likely you won’t. You’ll have to struggle a while. Most of us pay our dues through hard work and, yes, failure. I’ve managed to get fourteen books published in about twenty years and every one of them was the final result of a struggle of some sort. In the case of Steamboat Shuffle, the battle lasted for years. But every one of those struggles taught me something new about myself and about my craft. The best thing I’ve learned is that struggling isn’t so bad—at least when viewed in retrospect, with a finished book in one’s hands. It’s no accident that one metaphor often used to describe literary creation is that of childbirth. Or, as Winston Churchill said, “Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.” He was talking about WW II, but he also could have been talking about the process of creating a baby or a book.

  1. How are you taking advantage of the new marketplace to market, promote and sell your book? Honestly, I’m not. The fact is promoting myself and marketing my work, whether in the new or the old marketplace, is not something I enjoy or am very good at. Besides, I’m old fashioned, still hooked on the sensual memory of ink and paper. Printed and bound books aren’t gone yet, but the writing’s on the wall. E-books are not just the future, they’re here, now. I also know that promoting oneself through the social media is what’s happening. I do a little Face-booking, but not much, not to the extent many writers of my acquaintance do. They also tweet, Skype, blog, write book apps, compute on “the cloud” and post video trailers for their books on YouTube. I admire them and wish them well, but I’ve resisted joining them. I do intend to publish my next book as an E-book, though. Perhaps that will finally launch me into the Digital Age, but I doubt it will make me like marketing any better.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, Planned Television Arts. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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