Random Thoughts – Randocity!

How do I make my book a bestseller?

Posted in Amazon, author, best practices, novels by commorancy on September 12, 2019

teddy-bear-book-readAh, that age old question. How do you get anything to sell like wildfire? The answer is, it’s a complicated answer. This article assumes a first time published author. Let’s explore.

Going Viral

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Much of the reason anything becomes a hot seller is ultimately out of the control of the seller. If it’s a book, as suggested by the title, then there are a lot of situations at play.

Sure, the content within the book can make or break a book, but even if the book is the best written, best conceived story and offers entirely fresh ideas, that doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, nothing guarantees success of a book. What makes a book successful is luck (and lots of it) and being in the right place at the right time. You can control your words in the book. You can control where the book is sold. You can control lots of aspects of distribution, paper types (if printed) and so on. But, what you can’t control is how people will receive the book and, ultimately, how many will buy into it. That is a matter of luck.

There are some books that simply become ubiquitous in pop culture. There are others that simply fade into obscurity. There’s no way to know if your book will light the proverbial fire or be eclipsed by someone else’s book. You simply can’t know.

Planning and Control

When considering authoring a novel, there are formulas involved. Such formulas include how many words should be in the book, what genre the book belongs in, how many copies that you can print, how big the font should be in the book and so on. These physical book attributes are within your control. However, it’s doubtful that these physical attributes will play a part in whether book becomes wildfire. Oh, they play a part to be sure, but the biggest factor is still luck. Luck, for example, is entirely out of your control. You can’t force luck, you can only hope that lady luck looks down upon you and smiles.

Your book’s content does play a role in being a bestseller. Meaning, a poorly written, badly conceived novel has no chance of becoming a bestseller. The book content, as I said above, is within your control. What that means is that you need to write your book to the best of your ability and get help whenever your story goes beyond your means of control.

In other words, you need to write your book so that it at least matches the quality of most other bestsellers. No better, no worse. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be of a quality that at least gives it a fighting chance at becoming a bestseller. However, with that said, the pieces within your control do not at all guarantee (even if your novel is excellently crafted and written) success. Success of your novel is predicated on whether readers find pleasure in reading your novel and, more importantly, it resonates with enough people to start the viral wildfire.

Viral Wildfires

These types of wildfires can start anywhere. It could be as simple as Oprah Winfrey reading your novel and inexplicably plugging it on her show. It could be helped by having a 10 million viewer YouTube channel mention and review your novel on their channel. It could be a Twitter account with a huge following who incidentally reads and plugs your book on their channel. It could be all of the above.

With that said, you can’t force any of these viral situations. You can only hope they come to pass. They might, they might not. It all depends on your content choice, the situations and if your content resonates with the right set of people at the right moment in time.

However, you can’t write your content with that audience or set of circumstances in mind. There’s no way to know if your novel will be read by someone famous and plugged. Yes, it can happen, but you can’t be guaranteed this outcome.

Book Topics

If you’ve not yet written a book and you’re looking to do so, you should solidify a list of topics that you think you can spend many hours writing about. You have to like your characters for you to remain interested in spending many hours involved in crafting a tale around them.

Write what you know

In addition to writing about likeable characters, you should write about the things where you have knowledge. Sure, if your novel is about space travel, you might need to research such topics as the vacuum of space, exactly how cold space is and how fast it freezes objects solid, but you might also need to research the latest theories on space travel ideas. Of course, you can craft fanciful new propulsion systems that have never before been dreamed, but you might want to ground those systems in at least some measure of Earth physics. Bringing fanciful ideas back to the real is the way to make them seem genuine to the reader.

You’ll also want to determine your books genre, such as romance, fiction, non-fiction, historical, drama, comedy, etc. You can even write a memoir if you think it has some social significance to other people.

Audience

When crafting your manuscript, you’ll want to always keep your audience in mind. Don’t switch audiences in the middle of your book. If you begin the book assuming a general level of adult intelligence, stick with that. For example, if you’re using “big” words and phrases to describe your situations, don’t change halfway through the novel and start using smaller words and phrases. Your readers will notice. Stick to the formula in which the novel began. If you assume a certain level of adult reader intelligence at the open of the novel, stick through this all the way through to the end. Be consistent.

If your character is from the south with a southern drawl, maintain that character’s drawl throughout the novel. Don’t drop the drawl partway through and assume your readers won’t notice. Consistency in writing is the key to keeping the novel thoroughly readable throughout. It’s all about consistency. If you break consistency, it can break the suspension of disbelief and have readers walk away leaving half of the book unread.

How many words?

This is a question many new authors ask. How many words required for a novel is really all dependent on the chosen genre and how much it takes to tell a story.

If you’re writing a novel with 4 short stories, then your short story lengths will be far shorter than a full novel. A short story might contain as few as 7,500 words up to 40,000 words (on the very high side).

A Young Adult fiction genre novel can get away with as few as 45,000 to 55,000 words. However, a fiction novel targeted at an adult audience should contain at least 80,000 words up to 110,000 words. These are, of course, guidelines. Your novel could be much longer than this if you so choose. However, longer novels may turn off some readers (and publishers). Instead, you might want to break it into a multipart series and cap the words per novel. Then, begin writing a new novel in your series with any remaining story ideas that you have.

For children’s books (aged 7 to 12), the maximum number of words is 15,000 to 30,000. These books should be shorter.

For non-fiction adult genre novels, the number of words start with at least 60,000 words and go up from there.

To be considered by a publisher, your novel should have these numbers of words, depending on genre. If you’re unsure and you have an open dialog going with one or more publishers, simply ask them if the length is sufficient to consider publishing. If you get a rejection letter, you should read that carefully to understand what, if any, reasons for rejection are included. However, the publisher may not include any solid reasons.

Planning your Novel

It’s probably not a good idea to go into the act of actually writing a novel before you have story ideas and story progressions fleshed out. This means writing down your ideas, character names, situations and story arcs. You’ll also want to flesh out how you want your characters to grow, learn and what the ultimate goal is for your character. Are they on a path of self-enlightenment? Do they need to be taught a lesson? Do they need emotional guidance? How is their story going to progress?

Stories that are character driven are the most likeable and the most likely to go viral. Use your characters to drive the story forward. They are the ones who hold your story’s keys and who can unlock the story progression. Use characters to drive your story forward.

Imagination is part of this process, but part of it is using characters in ways to logically progress a story. For example, if your main character is a cop who upholds the law, it wouldn’t make sense for them to continually break the law at every turn and not feel remorse or guilt about doing so. Of course, rules are made to be broken, so perhaps that’s your twist?

Speaking of twists. Does every story need to have a twist? No. Stories can be told with or without a twist. A twist is great if it makes sense during a particularly revealing section, but it’s not required. The problem with twists is foreshadowing… which is a very subtle art. If you foreshadow too hard about events to come, people will see your twist(s) coming way in advance, which ruins the setup. If you fail to foreshadow at all, the twist may not have enough impact and may even seem confusing. Planning your novel for a revealing twist can be difficult. Planning is important here. But, so is….

Feedback

It is important to get feedback on your novel. Let someone read your novel and give honest criticism and feedback. If you include a twist, understand your advanced reader’s comments about that twist. You’ll want to know if they guessed it way in advance and, if they did, what you might do to tone down what led them to that conclusion early.

You want to remain in control of your reader’s thoughts about the characters and story all along the way. You don’t want them jumping to conclusions about your story in advance. Have the reader unfold the story as it’s written and don’t give them too much information that could lead their thinking astray or draw early conclusions. If you’re writing a mystery novel, you always want to keep your reader guessing throughout. In fact, you might want to squash any conclusions they might reach too quickly. That way, if your reader jumped to an incorrect conclusion, you can unfold the story and immediately tell them that their conclusion is wrong. Basically, keep the reader on their toes. Don’t let them second guess your novel’s conclusion halfway through the book.

Feedback is your answer. Let people read your novel in advance and be prepared to edit your novel in ways that reduce such conclusion jumping and improve the overall storytelling.

Wildfires and Bestsellers

Let’s return to original question that began this article. Luck is ultimately your answer. While you can write your best novel with your best situations, the novel may still fall flat with readers. Publishers understand this. Authors, likewise, need to understand this. You can’t know how the public (or critics) will respond to your novel.

Some of the best series didn’t start out as bestsellers. It took time for the wildfire to grow. The Harry Potter series is a good example. The first two novels did respectable sales, but it wasn’t really until the third novel released that the viral wildfire started. At that point, her books flew out of the stores with each successive release. It might take two or three entries into a novel series before such wildfires begin. Even still, there are plenty of novel series that do not get that level of attention. They do respectable novel sales, but they don’t get anywhere close to the magic of Harry Potter.

Don’t go into a writing a novel expecting a wildfire. Go into writing a novel to tell your story… to let other people read about your characters and situations. If it grows into a wildfire and becomes a bestseller, then all the better. But, don’t go in expecting this outcome. Instead, focus on the novel and in low expectations of sales. If it does better than you expect, great. If it doesn’t, you aren’t disappointed. You can’t force luck. It either strikes your novel series or it doesn’t. Because such luck is extremely rare and fickle, you can’t expect it. You can hope for it, a little… but with tempered prudence. Again, don’t go into your novel’s release expecting viral things to happen.

Amazon

A discussion about writing and selling books wouldn’t be complete without discussing Amazon. Sure, Barnes and Noble still exists as a brick-and-mortar book retailer. And, there are other physical book sellers to consider. But, Amazon can ultimately make or break your book single-handedly. It is such a large seller of books today that if you don’t leverage Amazon to sell your book, you can’t really make your book a success. Amazon is, in fact, critical to your book’s success. And, so is Amazon’s review system. Amazon’s review system drives its recommendation engine. You’ll want to encourage your readers to review your book on Amazon. Many avid readers need little prompting, but by getting more and more reviews, Amazon is more likely to recommend your book to its customers.

Apple is also a digital book seller, so you may want to leverage them, but to a much lesser degree. They aren’t nearly as big as Amazon, but your publisher should ensure all such digital book sellers like Google Books, Apple, Kobo (the remnants of Borders) and several other smaller digital sellers are supplied with digital copies to sell.

Having a publisher on your side is critical to ensure that your book is distributed as widely as possible. Only a publisher can ensure your novel gets the wide treatment that’s required for it to become a bestseller. Trying to self-publish, you simply don’t have the level of resources needed to make this a reality. A publisher does. This is why a publisher is important to your success.

A publisher will ensure your book is distributed not only through Amazon, but through all other necessary book outlets to ensure your book has the widest exposure and distribution possible to help your book achieve that coveted bestseller ranking.

Publisher?

Publishers are both a blessing and a curse. They are a necessary presence in the book industry. They help authors get their words into the hands of avid readers… readers who can then turn the book into a bestseller. Publishers help you refine your book’s content into the best that it can be, but they also ensure that your book will hit the shelves in all of the necessary places… both physical and digital.

The difficulty with publishers is not to get burned. Publishers will take a cut of your book’s profits to cover their expenses. Those expenses include their salaries, their office rents, printing of the book itself, advertising and so on. Getting a “book deal” means signing away some of your book’s profits to the publisher to help them stay in business. This means you’ll get far less profits from selling the book than you might realize. Oh, you’ll get some money for each copy sold, but don’t expect much. Most of that money goes back to the publisher to keep their lights on, offices open and staff employed. That’s the bane of using a publisher.

On the other hand, self-publishing means you get to keep 100% of the profits. But, good luck in getting your novel printed and into the physical stores like Target, Walmart and Barnes and Noble yourself. Getting that far would be difficult, if not impossible. That’s not to say you can’t self-publish, but don’t expect to get much industry consideration. Using a publisher, your novel may be considered for prestigious industry awards. Using self-publishing, those awards are almost always off of the table. Getting an industry award can help the viral wildfires burn hotter, thus getting even more copies sold. Using a publisher opens a lot of doors. Self-publishing means more profits, but less doors are opened in the industry.

Publishers are a known quantity in the industry and will do almost everything to see that your novel succeeds. For this investment reason, publishers are extremely picky on which novels and authors they are willing to represent. When they accept an author and their novel into their publishing house, they are taking a risk. That risk could mean an expensive failure. Because publishers want to reduce that risk as much as possible, they only accept limited book types and authors. What this all means is…

Expect Rejection

Publishers are rightly skittish. It’s expensive to publish, advertise and widely distribute a book throughout the country or, indeed, the world. Because of that risk, they only want the best books and the best possible prospects. This means that publisher representatives are extremely picky about what they will accept and when and how they will accept it. Randomly sending your manuscript to a publisher without advance notice, you’re sure to be rejected. In fact, they likely won’t even open the manuscript. Many times they won’t even send it back, even if you include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Instead, they’ll trash it without even opening it. They might or might not send you a rejection letter. If the manuscript was unsolicited, you may not even get a response.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to (once your novel is complete) reach out to publisher editors and determine if they’re interested in your manuscript’s content. You do this in the form of a submission letter. If a publisher’s editor shows interest, then you have an opening. This means you may be invited to send your novel in for review. It doesn’t mean they’ll accept or even read it all, but they might. Reading a full 65,000 word manuscript is not an insignificant amount of time. So, respect the editor’s time they are willing to give you. After all, they’re giving you the length of time it takes to read your book. More than likely, the publisher will reject your manuscript. Expect that you will be writing many submission letters and getting rejections. You’ll need to keep trying until you reach a publisher’s editor who takes interest.

Instead of reading your entire manuscript, an editor might request a detailed synopsis from you. A short description of your novel’s story to determine if it’s something they might have time to read and be able to add to their collection of currently published books. Do whatever the publisher’s editor requests, but don’t be willing to give away the farm. Sure, let them read your novel and give feedback, but know that they are human and as humans, they have opinions. That editor is only one opinion in among many, even if their opinion is that they don’t like your novel.

The Acceptance Rejection

If you get a bite from a publisher, take that as a small win. It doesn’t mean they’ll publish your book, yet. But, it is a hopeful sign. At least they’re talking to you.

Don’t be offended by the opinions an editor might offer you. Simply accept their advice for what it is. You may not agree with their assessment, but at least consider it. If you feel adamant that your book is already in its best possible place and changing it would ruin its current story, yet a publisher’s editor is asking you to make substantial changes in tone and story in your book, you might want to think twice. If you have conviction that your book is already the best it can be, then thank them for their time and move on to someone else. Choose a different publisher. However, you owe it to yourself to at least consider that editor’s advice.

For example, if they offer a suggestion to rework large segments to make the book have a larger emotional impact and potentially appeal to a broader audience, at least consider it. Don’t outright discard their advice. They’ve been in the business for a long amount of time, hopefully, and their advice may have some merit. But, as I said above, don’t fall into spending a large amount of time completely reworking your novel solely on the advice of a single editor… particularly if your rework of the novel doesn’t offer some level of commitment from that publisher. For example, if they’re asking you to rewrite a large section of your novel, you should ensure that the publisher will commit to publishing the book if these changes are made to their satisfaction. It’s a give and take situation. Asking for a time commitment from the author to rewrite should come with at least some strings attached to the publisher. Make sure you get those strings attached firmly.

If they give you advice and then offer no strings and expect you simply to make large changes without even the remote possibility of acceptance, you should view that request with a large amount of skepticism. This is ultimately the acceptance rejection. Instead, you should thank them for their time and suggest that if you do have time to rework the novel, you will resubmit it for review at a later date. Then, go find another publisher accepting manuscripts and submit your original manuscript there. Don’t make the changes to your novel unless you personally think that the suggestion(s) actually will improve the novel in substantial ways or that the publisher is on-the-hook to publish the novel contingent on making those changes. If you commit to making changes for them, they should commit to publishing your updated novel. Get that commitment in writing.

First Time Publishing and Contracts

As a first time published author, however, you are at a disadvantage. In addition to being a new author, a publisher may want to see how business shrewd you are. Sure, you can put words to a page, but can you negotiate? Publishers can take advantage of first time authors simply because the author is “green”. This means because you “don’t know any better” they could ask you to jump through hoops and still not publish your book. Or, they could give you such a small pittance percentage that it doesn’t make sense. Don’t fall into traps like this. If a publisher’s editor seems to be toying with you, but not actually providing any commitments for your novel, again, thank them for their time and move on. Don’t allow them to take advantage of your supposed greenness in the publishing industry.

Instead, use Google and try to learn as much about the protocols of getting your novel published as you possibly can. If they offer you a contract, read it thoroughly and understand your commitments to it (and the publisher). You don’t want to get trapped into a contract that has exclusivity clauses, pays you a pittance or requires you write 3 books over the next 3 years. If it took you 5 years to write your original book, being able to write a book a year may not be possible for you. This is why you will need to understand contract negotiation. You would then need to either strike that verbiage from the contract or modify it to allow you more time to write any further required novels.

Don’t let your lack of knowledge in publishing and contracts blind you to what the publisher is requiring. Maybe you aren’t even seeking to write further novels? Such a contract means you would be legally bound to produce those novels. Read contracts carefully and understand what they are asking you to do. If you can’t read contracts for  yourself, hire a contract lawyer who can decipher the terms of the contract to you and use that contract lawyer to draft alternative terms that work for you. The publisher may not accept the updated terms, but you can then move on without being bound to that publisher.

Payments

Make sure that any contracts you sign stipulate payment terms. More specifically, how often they will pay you your share of the profits from the sale of your book. Is it monthly? Is it whenever the balance reaches $100? Is it yearly? Is it quarterly? Make sure your payment terms are upheld in the contract. You don’t want to be left in the dark as to when the publisher may cut you a check for your share of the profits. You also need to make sure that the contract terms stipulate the ability to audit sales records from the vendors. Make sure you can call, write or log into a site that will give you updated numbers of your book’s sales wherever it’s being sold. You don’t want to be beholden to the publisher to provide you with accurate statistics. I’m not saying publishers are deceitful, but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities. Make sure you can account for your exact sales from the stores directly and correlate those sales numbers to the amount you have been paid during that period.

Accounting errors happen and you don’t want to be on the receiving end of an accounting error in the publisher’s favor. Nor do you want to have to turn around and sue the publisher for profits they have kept as a result of an “accounting error”. If you have direct access to each store’s sales data, this transparency keeps the publisher honest. They have to provide you with what you are owed. It’s on you to periodically audit and make sure you are getting what you are owed, but the data is there for you to review if you need it.

If you can swing a deal where the stores are paying you directly without going through the publisher, all the better. Middlemen can get in the way and can dilute your payments. However, it’s more likely the publisher will end up paying you the residuals (after they take their cut). You’ll have to negotiate your payments with the publisher and this should be done contractually, not through verbal agreements.

Luck

Coming back around to the original question once again, luck is the biggest factor in whether a book becomes a bestseller. Sure, the content is important. A publisher’s editor, yes, has read many novels and they usually know what story features are most likely to resonate with readers. However, that doesn’t mean that an editor is always correct. They could think that your novel is going to be the next Pulitzer novel, but in fact it barely makes a splash in sales. No one can know what luck has in store. This means that, yes, an editor’s suggestions might be spot on, but it doesn’t guarantee success. It can put the novel on a path towards success, but it can’t guarantee success. Nothing, in fact, can guarantee success of a novel. Luck is one of those fickle things that factors into pretty much any form of entertainment. Whether it’s a movie or a music CD, a video game or a novel. These are all subject to the whims, ebbs and flows of the general population.

If a topic hits at a very salient point in time, it can take the world by storm. Such lightning strikes are rare, but they do happen. For example, Star Wars, Harry Potter and, to some degree, the Marvel universe movies. These became popular by mostly sheer luck and by landing in the marketplace at the right place and the right time. Being in the right place at the right time isn’t something you can guess. It’s a matter of luck. A publisher can help shape your novel into a something that may resemble a bestseller, but it cannot guarantee that luck or, indeed, success. That still requires a certain amount of plain old dice-rolling luck.

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What killed the LaserDisc format?

Posted in collectibles, entertainment, movies, technologies by commorancy on March 1, 2018

Laserdisc-logoThere have been a number of tech documentarian YouTubers who’ve recently posted videos regarding LaserDisc and why it never became popular and what killed it. Some have theorized that VHS had nothing to do with the failure of the LaserDisc format. I contend that LaserDisc didn’t exactly fail, but also didn’t gain much traction.

LaserDisc did have a good run between 1978 and 2002. However, it also wasn’t a resounding success for a number of reasons. While the LaserDisc format sold better in Japan than in the US, it still didn’t get that much traction even in Japan. Though, yes, VHS recorders (among other competitive technologies at the time) did play a big part in LaserDisc’s lackluster consumer acceptance. Let’s explore.

History

While I won’t go into the entire history of the LaserDisc player, let me give a quick synopsis of its history. Let’s start by what it is. LaserDisc (originally named DiscoVision in 1978) began its life as a 12″ optical disc containing analog video and analog audio mca_discovision(smaller sizes would become available later) with discs labeled as MCA DiscoVision. In 1980, Pioneer bought the rights to the LaserDisc technology and dropped the DiscoVision branding in lieu of the LaserDisc and LaserVision brands. It also wouldn’t be until the mid-90s that digital audio and digital video combined would appear on this format. A LaserDisc movie is typically dual sided and would be flipped to watch the second half of a film. They can also be produced single sided. Like VHS had SP and LP speeds that offered less or more recording time, LaserDisc had something similar in terms of content length, but offered no consumer recording capability.

There were two formats of LaserDiscs:

The first format is CAV. CAV stands for constant angular velocity. In short, CAV was a format where the rotational speed remained the same from beginning to end. The benefit for CAV was that it offered solid freeze frames throughout the program. Unlike VHS where freeze frames might be distorted, jump or be noisy, CAV discs offered perfect freeze frames.

It also offered a fast scrubbing speed and slowed play. Later LD players even offered a jog shuttle on the remote to reverse or forward the playback a few frames at a time to as fast as you could spin the wheel. CAV also meant that each frame of video was one rotation of the disc. Keep in mind that NTSC video is interlaced and, therefore, half of the disc ring was one half of the frame and the other half of the disc ring was the other half of the frame. It took a full rotation to create a full NTSC frame.

The NTSC format CAV disc only offered up to 30 minutes per side and a little more for PAL. A 90 minute movie would consume 3 sides or two discs. This was the first format of disc introduced during the DiscoVision days. Early content was all CAV.

The second format is CLV. CLV stands for constant linear velocity. This format reduces the rotational speed as the disc reaches the outer edge. You can even hear the motor slow as the movie progresses playback if you’re close enough to the player. I should point out that LaserDiscs read from the center of the media to the outer edge.

LaserDisc players also read from the bottom side of the disc when put into the player. It’s just the opposite of a vinyl LP that reads from the outside in and from the top. This means that the label on the center of the disc refers to the opposite side of the media. The CLV format offers no freeze frame feature. Because the rotational speed drops as the laser moves across the disc, eventually multiple video frames would be contained in a single rotation. Any attempt to freeze frame the picture would show multiple frames of motion. Not very pretty. The freeze frame feature is disabled on CLV formatted discs.

The NTSC formatted CLV disc offers up to 60 minutes of video per side and a little more for PAL. A 90 minute movie comfortably fits on one disc. After CLV was discovered to hold more content than a CAV LaserDisc, this format is how the majority of movies were sold once the DiscoVision brand disappeared. Note that many movies used CLV on side one and CAV on side two when less than 30 minutes.

The intent for LaserDisc was to sell inexpensive films forLaserVision_logo home consumption. It all started with the Magnavox Magnavision VH-8000 DiscoVision player which went on sale December 15th, 1978. This player released on this day along with several day one release movies on LaserDisc. The format, at the time, was then called DiscoVision. Because 1978 was basically the height of the disco music era, it made sense why it ended up called DiscoVision. Obviously, this naming couldn’t last when the disco music era closed.

Early Player Reliability

The first players used a visible red laser consisting of a helium-neon laser. The light output looks similar to a red laser pointer. These LD players had pop up lids. This meant you could pop the lid open while the disc was playing, lift the disc and see the red laser in action. The problem with these first players was with the helium-neon laser unit. In short, they became incredibly hot making the unit unreliable. I personally owned one of these open lid style players from Philips and can assert from personal experience that these players were lemons. If they lasted 6 months worth of use, you could count yourself lucky. At the time, when your player was broken, you had to take your player to an authorized service center to get it repaired.

These repair centers were factory authorized, but not run by Philips. Repairs could take weeks requiring constant phone calls to the repair center to get status. The repair centers always seemed overwhelmed with repairs. It just wasn’t worth the hassle of taking the unit in to be repaired once every 6 months, paying for each repair after the warranty ran out. This would have been about 1982 or so. I quickly replaced this player for a new one. I’d already invested in too many LaserDiscs to lose all of the discs that I had.

In 1983-1984 or thereabouts, the optical audio Compact Disc was introduced. These players offered solid-state non-visible lasers to read the CD optical media. As a result of the technology used to read the CD, LaserDisc players heavily benefited from this technology advance. Pioneer, the leading LaserDisc player brand at the time, jumped immediately on board with replacing the red visible laser with very similar solid state lasers being used in CD players.

Once the new laser eye was introduced, reliability increased dramatically. Players became more compact, ran cooler and became more full featured. Instead of being able to play only LaserDiscs, they could now also play CDs of all sizes. This helped push LaserDisc players into the home at a time when LaserDisc needed that kick in the pants. Though, adoption was still very slow.

1984

The year 1984 would be the year of VHS. This is the year when video rental stores would become commonplace. During this time, I helped start up a video rental department for a brand new record store. It was a time when record stores were expanding into video rentals. I don’t know how many VHS tapes I inventoried for the new store. One thing was certain. We did not rent anything other than VHS tapes. No Betamax, no LaserDisc and no CED rentals. We didn’t even stock LaserDiscs or CEDs for sale in this store location. In fact, the chain of record stores where I worked would eventually become Blockbuster and would adopt the same logo color scheme as the record store chain used. But, that wouldn’t be for a few more years.

VHS was on the verge of and would soon become the defacto format for movie rentals. Why not LaserDisc? Not enough saturation in combination with LaserDisc having the same problem that pretty much all optical media has. It’s easily scratched. Because the LaserDisc surface is handled directly by hands (it has no caddy), this means that the wear and tear on a LaserDisc meant eventually replacing the disc by the rental store. This compared to VHS tape that, so long as the tape remained intact, it could be rented over and over even if there was the occasional drop out from being played too much.

LaserDisc fared far worse on this front. Because there was no easy way to remove the scratches from a disc, once a disc was scratched it meant replacement. Even if the disc was minimally scratched, it could still be unplayable in some players, particularly the red visible laser kind. These older models were not at all tolerant of scratches.

Media Costs

While VHS tape movies cost $40 or $50 or even upwards to $70, LaserDisc movies cost $25 to $30 on average. The cost savings to buy a movie on LaserDisc was fairly substantial. However, you had to get past the sticker shock of the $800-900 you’re required to invest into Pioneer to get a CLD-900 player. This at the time when VHS recorders were $600 or thereabouts. However, VHS recorder prices would continue to drop to about $250 by 1987 (just 3 years later).

LaserDisc player prices never dropped much and always hovered around the $600-$800 price when new. They were expensive. Pioneer was particularly proud of their LaserDisc players and always charged a premium. You could find used players for lower prices, though. Because Pioneer was (ahem) the pioneer in LD equipment at that time, buying into Magnavox or other LD equipment brands meant problems down the road. If you wanted a mostly trouble free LD experience, you bought Pioneer.

Competitors

I would be remiss at not mentioning the CED disc format that showed up on the scene heavily around 1984, even though it was introduced in 1981. CED stands for Capacitance Electronic Disc. It was a then alternative format video media disc conceived in the 1960s by RCA. Unfortunately, the CED project remain stalled for 17 years in development hell at RCA.

CED uses a stylus like an LP and the disc is made of vinyl also like an LP, except you can’t handle it with your hands. This media type is housed in a caddy. To play these discs, you had to purchase a CED player and buy CED media. To play the disc, you would insert the disc caddy into the slot on the front of the unit and then pull it back out. The machine grabbed the disk out of the caddy on insertion. As soon as the caddy is removed, the disc is begins to play. The door to the caddy slot locks when the disc was in motion. Once the mechanism stops moving, the door unlocks and you can insert the caddy, then remove the disc.

Because the CED is read by a stylus, it had its own fair share of problems, not the least of which was skipping and low video quality. LaserDisc was the consumer product leader in image quality all throughout the 80s and 90s until DVD arrived. However, that didn’t stop CED from taking a bite out of the LaserDisc videodisc market. The CED format only served to dilute the idea of the videodisc and confuse consumers on which format to buy. This was, in fact, the worst of all situations for LaserDisc at a time when VHS rentals were appearing at practically any store that could devote space to set up a rental section. Even grocery stores were jumping on board to get a piece of the VHS rental action.

VHS versus LaserDisc rentals

As a result of VHS rentals, which could be found practically everywhere by 1986, renting LaserDiscs (or even CEDs) was always a challenge. Not only was it difficult to find stores to rent a LaserDisc, when you did find them, the selection was less than stellar. In fact, because VHS rentals became so huge during this time, LaserDisc pressings couldn’t compete and started falling behind the VHS releases. VHS became the format released first, then LaserDiscs would appear a short time later. This meant that if you wanted to rent the latest movie, you pretty much had to own a VHS player. If you wanted to watch the movie in higher quality, you had to wait for the LaserDisc version. Even then, you’d have to buy it rather than renting. Renting of LaserDiscs was not only rare to find, but eventually disappeared altogether leaving purchasing a LaserDisc the only option, or you rented a VHS tape.

If you weren’t into rentals and wanted to own a film, then LaserDisc was the overall better way to go. Not only were the discs less expensive, the video and audio would remain the highest home consumer quality until S-VHS arrived. Unfortunately, S-VHS had its own problems with adoption even worse than LaserDisc and this format would fail to be adopted by the general home consumer market. LaserDisc continued to dominate the videophile market for its better picture and eventually digital sound until 1997 when the DVD arrived.

Time Was Not Kind

As time progressed into the late 80s, it would become more difficult to find not only LaserDisc players to buy, but also LaserDiscs. Stores that once carried the discs would begin to clearance them out and no longer carry them. Some electronics stores just outright closed and those outlets to buy players were lost. By the 90s, the only reasonable place to purchase LaserDiscs was via mail order.

There were simply no local electronics stores in my area that carried movie discs any longer. Perhaps you could find them in NYC, but not in Houston. Because they were 12″ in size, this meant a lot of real estate was needed to store and display LaserDiscs. Other than record stores, few stores would want to continue to invest store real estate into this lackluster format, especially when VHS is booming. In a lot of ways, LaserDisc packaging looked like LP records, only with movie posters on the front. This packaging was not likely helpful to the LaserDisc. Because they were packaged almost identically to an LP, including being shrink wrapped (and using white inner sleeves), these discs could easily be confused with LP records when walking by a display of them.

Marketing was a major problem for LaserVision. While there was a kind of consortium of hardware producers that included Pioneer, Philips and Magnavox, there was no real marketing strategy to sell the LaserDisc format to the consumer. Because of this, LaserDisc fell into the niche market of videophiles. Basically, it was a small word of mouth community. This was a time before the Internet. Videophiles were some of the first folks to have a small home theater and they demanded the best video and audio experience, and were willing to shell out cash for it. Unfortunately, this market was quite a small segment. Few people were willing to jump through all of the necessary hoops just to buy an LD player, then mail order a bunch of discs. Yet, the videophiles kept buying just enough to keep this market alive.

Laser Rot

In addition to the hassles of bad marketing, the discs ended up with a bad reputation for a severe manufacturing defect. Even some commercially pressed CDs ended up succumbing to this same fate. The problem is known as laser rot. Laser rot is when the various layers that make up a LaserDisc were sealed improperly or used non-archival adhesives during manufacture. These layers later oxidize causing pitting on the sandwiched metal surface. This oxidation pitting causes the original content pits to be lost over time ending up with snow both in audio and in video. The audio usually goes first, then the video.

Laser rot even appeared early on the earliest pressed DiscoVision media, we just wouldn’t find out until much later. This indicated that the faulty manufacturing process began when the format was born. Laser rot caused a lot of fans of the format a lot of grief when the format least needed such a pothole. This problem should have been addressed rapidly once found, but there were many discs that continued to be improperly manufactured even into the 90s after the problem was found. The defective manufacturing process was something the LaserVision consortium failed to address, which tarnished (ahem) the reputation of the LaserVision brand.

For the videophiles who had invested heavily in this format, nothing was worse than playing a disc that you know worked fine a few months ago only to find it now unplayable. It was not only disheartening, but it gave fans of the format pause to consider any future purchases.

Losing Steam

Not only were the average consumers turned off by the high prices of the players, consumers also didn’t see the benefit of owning a LaserDisc player because of its lack of recording capabilities and its lack of readily available rentals. Some videophiles and LaserDisc format advocates lost interest when they attempted to play a 3 year old disc only to find that it was unplayable. At this point, only true die-hards stayed with LaserDisc format even among the mounting disc problems and lack of marketing push.

The manufacturers never stepped up to offer replacement discs for laser rot, which they should have. The LaserVision consortium did nothing to entice new consumers into the format nor did they attempt to fix the manufacturing defect leading to laser rot. The only thing the manufacturers did is continue to churn out upgraded LaserDisc player models usually adding things that didn’t help LaserDisc format directly. Instead, they would add compatibility for media like CDV or 3″ CD formats or CD text. Features that did nothing to help LaserDisc, but were only added to help entice audiophiles into adding a LaserDisc player into their component audio system. This ploy didn’t work. Why? Because audiophiles were more interested in music selection over compatibility with video formats. What sold were the carousel CD players that would eventually hold up to 400 CDs. Though, the 5 CD changers were also wildly popular at the time.

Instead of investing the time and effort into making LaserDisc a better format, the manufacturers spent time adding unnecessary features to their players (and charging more money for them). Granted, the one feature that was added that was desperately needed was digital audio soundtracks. These would be the precursor to DVD. However, while they did add digital audio to LaserDisc by the early 90s, the video was firmly still analog. However, even digital audio on the LaserDisc didn’t kick sales up in any substantial way. This was primarily because 5.1 and 7.1 sound systems were still a ways off from becoming mainstream.

The 90s and 00s

While LaserDisc did continue through most of the 90s as the format that still produced the best NTSC picture quality and digital sound for some films, that wouldn’t last once the all digital DVD arrived in 1997. Once the DVD format arrived, LaserDisc’s days were numbered as a useful movie format. Though LaserDisc did survive into the early noughties, the last movie released in the US is ironically named End of Days with Arnold Schwarzenegger, released in 2002. It truly was the end of days for LaserDisc. Though, apparently LaserDiscs continued to be pressed in Japan and possibly for industrial use for some time after this date.

Failure to Market

The primary reason LaserDisc didn’t get the entrenched market share that it expected was primarily poor marketing. As the product never had a clearly defined reason to exist or at least one that consumers could understand, it was never readily adopted. Then VHS came along giving even less reason to adopt the format.

Most consumers had no need for the quality provided by a LaserDisc. In fact, it was plainly obvious that VHS quality was entirely sufficient to watch a movie. I’d say that this ideal still holds true today. Even though there are 4K TVs and UltraHD 4K films being sold on disc, DVDs are still the most common format for purchase and rental. A format first released in 1997. Even Redbox hasn’t yet adopted rentals of UltraHD 4K Blu-ray discs. Though Redbox does rent 1080p Blu-ray discs, they still warn you that you’re renting a Blu-ray. It’s clear, the 480p DVD is going to die a very slow death. It also says that consumers really don’t care about a high quality picture. Instead, they just want to watch the film. Considering that DVD quality is only slightly better than a LaserDisc at a time when UltraHD 4K is available, that shows that most consumers don’t care about picture quality.

This is the key piece of information that the LaserVision consortium failed to understand in the early 80s. The video quality coming out of a LaserDisc was its only real selling point. That didn’t matter to most consumers. Having to run all over town to find the discs, deal with laser rot, having to flip the discs in the middle of the film and lack of video titles available (compared to VHS), these were not worth the hassle by most consumers. It’s far simpler to run out and buy a VHS tape recorder and rent movies from one of many different rental stores, some open very late. Keep in mind that VHS rentals were far less expensive than buying a LaserDisc.

In many cases, parents found an alternative babysitter in the VHS player. With LaserDisc and rough handling by kids, parents would end up purchasing replacement discs a whole lot more frequently than a VHS tape. Scratched discs happen simply by setting them down on a coffee table. With VHS, they’re pretty rugged. Even a kid handling a VHS tape isn’t likely to damage either the tape or the unit. Though, shoving food into the VHS slot wasn’t unheard of by the children of some parents. Parents could buy (or rent) a kids flick and the kids would be entertained for hours.

VHS tape recorder

Here is what a lot of people claim to be the reason for the death of the LaserDisc. Though, LaserDisc never really died… at least, not until 2002. The one reason most commonly cited was that the LaserDisc couldn’t record. No, you could not record onto a LaserDisc. It had no recordable media version available nor was there a recorder available. However, this perception was due to failure of marketing. LaserDisc wasn’t intended to be a recorder. It was intended to provide movies at reasonable prices. However, it failed to take into consideration the rental market… a market that wasn’t in existence in 1978, but soon appeared once VHS took off. It was a market that LaserDisc manufacturers couldn’t foresee and had no Plan-B ready to combat this turn of events.

However, there was no reason why you couldn’t own both a VHS recorder and a LaserDisc player. Some people did. Though together, these two units were fairly costly. Since most households only needed (and could only afford) one video type player, the VHS tape recorder won out. It not only had the huge rental infrastructure for movies, it was also capable of time shifting over the air programming. This multi-function capability of the VHS recorder lead many people to the stores to buy one. So, yes, not being able to record did hurt the LaserDisc image, but it wasn’t the reason for its death.

Stores and Availability

Around 1984-1986, VHS tape recorders were widely available from a vast array of retailers including discount stores like Target, Kmart and Sears. You could also find VHS recorders at Radio Shack and Federated and in the electronics section of Service Merchandise, JC Penney, Montgomery Wards, Foley’s and many other specialty and department stores.

You could also buy VHS units from mail order houses like J&R Music World who wrote in 1985, “We occasionally advertise a barebones model at $169… But prices have fallen significantly–15 percent in the past six months alone–and now a wide selection sells for $200 to $400.”. That’s a far cry from the $600-900 that a LaserDisc player may cost. Not only were VHS recorders and players available practically at every major department store, stores typically carried several models from which to choose. This meant you had a wide selection of VHS recorders at differing price points. While in the very early 80s VHS recorders were around $1000, the prices for VHS recorders had substantially dropped by 1985 helping fuel not only market saturation for VHS, but also the rental market.

Unlike VHS, LaserDisc never received much market traction because the LD players failed on two primary fronts:

1. They were way too pricey. The prices needed to drastically drop just like VHS machines. Instead of hovering at around the $600 mark, they needed to drop to the $150-$200 range. They never did.

2. They were difficult to find in stores. While VHS machines were available practically everywhere, even drug stores, LaserDisc players could only be found in specialty electronics stores. They could be found in the likes of Federated, Pacific Stereo and other local higher end component based electronics stores. Typically, you’d find them at stores that carried turntables, speakers and audio amplifier / receivers. While Sears may have carried Magnavox LD players for a short time, they quickly got out of that business and moved towards VHS recorders.

Because the manufacturers of LD players failed to get the players into the discount stores and they failed to price the players down to compete with those the $200-$400 VHS units, LaserDisc could gain little mass consumer traction. On top of this, the confusion over CED and LaserDisc (and even VHS) left those who were interested in disc based video in a quandary. Which to choose? CED or LaserDisc? Because CED discs and players were slightly less expensive (and inferior quality) than LaserDisc, many who might have bought LaserDisc bought into CED. This reduced LaserDisc saturation even further.

It wasn’t the videophiles who were buying into CED either. It was consumers who wanted disc media, but who also didn’t want to pay LaserDisc prices. Though, the mass consumer market went almost lock-stock-and-barrel to VHS because of what VHS offered (lower price, better selection of movies, rentals everywhere and recording capabilities).

Why Did LaserDisc Fail?

LaserDisc’s failure to gain traction was a combination of market factors including lack of marketing, poor quality media, high hardware prices, unreliable players, CED confusion, and the VHS rental market, but this was just the beginning of its downfall. At the tail end, even though LaserDisc did attempt a high definition analog format through Japan’s Hi-Vision spec using MUSE encoding, even that couldn’t withstand the birth of the DVD.

If the LaserVision consortium had had more vision to continue to innovate in the LaserDisc video space rather than trying to make a LaserDisc player an audio component, the format would have ultimately sold better. How much better? No one really knows. If the consortium had embraced MPEG and made a move towards an all digital format in the 90s, this change might have solidified LaserDisc as a comeback format which could have supported 1080p HDTV. Though there was a digital LaserDisc format called CDV and also Japan’s Hi-Vision HD format, these never gained any traction because the LaserVision consortium failed to embrace them. Hi-Vision was never properly introduced into the US or Europe and remained primarily a Japanese innovation sold primarily in Japan.

Instead, the introduction of DVD is pretty much solidified the death of what was left of LaserDisc as a useful movie storage, rental and playback medium. Though, the LaserDisc media releases would continue to limp along until 2002 with the last LaserDisc player models released sometime in 2009.

What would kill the LaserDisc format? LaserDisc would ultimately die because of 1080p 16:9 flat screen HDTVs, which the LaserDisc format didn’t properly support (other than composite low res or the short lived Hi-Vision format which was problematic). Ultimately, no one wants to watch 480i 4:3 ratio pan-and-scan analog movies via composite inputs on a brand new 16:9 1080p widescreen TV. Yes, some anamorphic widescreen films came to exist on LaserDisc, but that still utilized a 480i resolution which further degraded the picture by widening the image. Of course, you can still find LaserDisc players and discs for purchase if you really want them.

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