Questions about publishing...

Someone on AbsoluteWrite asked some really interesting questions. And I'm going to answer them here from my perspective, as a first-time author with a small press:

If books on shelves don't sell, then why do we tell self-publishers and PA authors that they won't sell books because their books aren't on shelves?

They do sell -- people can go to the stores and browse and if they like it, they will take it. I sold a number of copies that way. If the potential buyer can't see it, they can't take it and go to the register.

Now, however, there are many factors... even if your books are on shelves, it depends on the location. Obviously, if it's right in the front of the store with a great sign saying "BEST SELLING," chances are people will take a look. If it's on a shelf in a dark corner next to, say, books about sexual diseases, um... maybe not.

But if you rely on people to check out your books on shelves, then unless you're someone like Dan Brown and you book is called, um, the Da Vinci Code, people are not likely to know where to look. They might browse the shelves, and see your book, spine out (not face out), and they're likely to skip it ("hum, never heard of the title or the author"). That's why promotion is important... if the person has heard of you or you book before (on radio, TV, or newspaper, or prior signings), they're more likely to check it out.

Now, if you're a POD author, your book will NOT get on the shelves at all.

Because books on shelves sell.

But you want them to sell BETTER, instead of just sitting on it saying "pick me, pick me." And if they're just sitting there spine out, most people would skip it.

I'll tell you -- I went to a couple of signings, and the store employees really liked me. I made an impression... and guess what? They become more willing to talk about my book to customers... and guess what else? They put my books on the shelves FACE out.

It does help.

Marketing is the umbrella term that includes everything from pricing strategy to advertising, to customer targeting, to product design--everything involving selling strategies. Yes, that includes paid advertising, too.

Correct. But within marketing, advertising, publicity, and promotion are all different things. Advertising costs money with little ROI. Publicity is free, but it doesn't really sell books. Promotion is kind of the best of both worlds.

All companies, no matter what size, can choose a pricing strategy. All companies, no matter what size, can choose cover art, font size and other design factors with a target audience in mind. These elements are part of marketing.

Yes, but these are pre-sale marketing. I think we really are talking sales marketing -- what to do once the book goes out to the market. Like I said before, books don't sell themselves. Booksellers sell them. And buyers need to know about them to consider buying them.

We see it all day long: author efforts don't generate a large number of sales. Successful self-published authors sell 5,000 books, and that's not usually fiction. That's usually non-fiction by somebody with a built-in audience and/or established, extensive credentials within his or her field.

Where do you get these figures? It takes a while for self-pub books to sell 5000 copies, and that's consider a tremendous success, and the author has to push pretty hard. The author must do work. Same with small press authors -- they have to do work to get the words out, at least at the local level.

If your book sells 50,000 copies (a pretty good success), it's not because you did a bunch of book signings. It's because your publisher invested money and worked to put it where?—on bookshelves. It’s also because your book is good.

Yes, it has to be on shelves. But people also need to know about it.

How do people know about it?

Book signings -- they might not buy your book right then and there, it's awareness. I had people going to the store and get my book AFTER I'd done my signing. Also, I'd sign the stock -- autographed books sell better.

TV and radio -- and if you go on there once in a while, it builds awareness. Again, people might not rush out to buy your book... but the next time they see it on the shelves when they go to a book store, they'll be more inclined to check it out.

Readings, local seminars, workshops, etc. -- get yourself out there, be seen, be known.

Libraries -- people try out new books from unknown authors at the libraries. If they like the book, they'll tell their friends.

Online communities -- I can't tell you exactly how many people from AW bought my book. But they're there...

If publishers don't do anything to help authors, then why use publishers?

Publishers get your books edited, formatted, printe, and distributed, all at their cost. There's not a dime you have to spend as an author. They even, God forbid, get your books in stores and libraries. They send the book out for reviews. Without the publisher's "returnable" policies, your book will not get in the stores -- at least not Barnes & Noble or Borders, that's for sure.

Distribution is the toughie for self-pub authors. You can get the books printed and priced and all that jazz, but you can't get them distributed, because distributors don't deal with individual authors. And if you can't distribute the books and get them in stores, you can only sell it from your garage.

Why doesn't everybody self-publish, all the time? Oh, that's right. Self-pubbed books can't get on shelves. Wait—I thought books being on shelves didn't matter? I’m confused.

*sigh* Read the above. Getting on shelves is important, but it's not the END. It's only half the battle. If people don't know about your books, they won't go find it. But the book has to be available so that if they do go find it, they can get it.

But then I remember that bookshelf presence really does matter. Really. If books are on shelves, they can sell. If books are not on shelves, they don't sell.

They are AVAILABLE for sale. But who's going to do the SELLING? Car dealership has dealers to SELL cars. The cars don't just sit there and sell themselves.

If you arrange frequent events to promote your books, you'll sell an additional few percentage points. Likewise, if you're actively promoting self-published books, you're better off if those books are available in bookstores.

The "sale" is secondary. The most important thing out of these "events" is so that people know you and your book exist. That's part A of the equation. Part B of the equation is that 2 weeks later, they realize "oh, I should go get Mr. X's book" and they go to Barnes and Noble -- voila! They find it on a shelf. At this point, it doesn't really matter if the book is self-pubbed or by Random House.

ARCs cost a tiny amount of money (the shipping is the killer). A case or two of books for a signing costs a publisher tens of dollars. Ooooh.

You don't get it. It's not the actual cost of ARCs... yeah, it's less than the cost of a large pizza -- big deal. it's that reviewers like Publisher Weekly or major newspapers/magazines won't review anything POD, self-pub, or directly from the author. But if it's from a legit publisher -- even a small one -- they would be willing to consider and review it. My book, from a small publisher, got reviewed by Publisher Weekly because of that. Try to do that on your own.

And you know why a trade review is important, whether it's a good or bad review? Library sales -- libraries won't add your books to their collection (except maybe a rogue copy here and there) without reviews in at least one trade journal.

Having good reviews also sells books.

Let me ask you, Christine: estimate the sales you’ve made and compare them to the book’s sales overall. What does that percentage look like? In fact, anybody is free to answer that question. Please.

I'm not Christine and I don't want to reveal my sales here, but I can tell you that the # of books I hand-sold myself can't compare with what got sold elsewhere (either from stores or through the publisher). But because I'm with a small press, my books are getting sold because people start hearing about my books. My books are also in a few libraries.

What a real publisher does in order to sell books, because I don't see it. I see a lot of talk about what that particular person does to sell her books.

They get books on shelves. In all the stores across America. Then they may do some advertising and promotions (depending on the size of the house, and the budget allocated to that particular book/author). The rest, as Uncle Jim said, is mostly word of mouth.

Khaldi Hosseini's The Kite Runner, albert with an advance of $500,000 and a nationwide distribution, received no more publicity, advertising, etc. from the publisher. However, the word of mouth, primarily from libraries, was astounding, which pushed the book to sell more than 500,000 copies in seven months. All word of mouth (and good reviews, and a couple of literary awards help, too).

Getting on the NYT best selling list would be a good thing, too -- again, it raises awareness. People read the list, and realize, AH, there's a book called the Kite Runner, and it sounds like a good read. Maybe I should check it out.

If a single title represents .3% of a big house's annual investment and 20% of a small publisher's investment, who has a larger stake an individual book's success? I say the small publisher.

Yes. Big Houses offsets "losers" by their flagship products and brands such as Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and John Grisham. They can afford to have a hundred flops as long as JK Rowling keep them coming.

Small publishers can't afford that.

What would you rather do, as a writer?

1. Write a book, then promote the book.

2. Write a book, then write another book.

How about #3: Write a book, promote the book WHILE writing another book. That's what I'm doing now.

Option 1 increases sales by 10%. Option 2 increases sales by ~100%.

How do you suggest we do that, to increase sales by 100%?

When you sit down with a publicist, what are you talking about? I don't care if the publicist is a hospital-wing sized staff or the slush reader's other job. I'm pretty sure a publicist doesn't just ask what you plan to do and then nod.

I talked to a publicist before -- actually not much. The best publicists can get your info on the desk of major producers (TV, radio, print, etc.) which a Joe-Blow author can't. That's basically what publicists do. They may have ideas on how to get you noticed -- hey, if they can get you on Oprah, more power to them. But it's gonna cost you. Can you afford it?

My friend hired a marketing director--one of his authors who managed to sell many dozens of her own books. Maybe 300 to 400 total, by my very rough estimates.

A marketing director at a small publisher probably needs to do a few things to help the "publisher":

1. Get wide distribution for their books
2. Get libraries to buy them
3. Develop a brand strategy -- make sure stores and chain stores know who the publisher is and what they have to offer. At last count, there are more than 20,000 small presses in the US. How can a marketing director help the publisher get on the map and set themselves apart?
4. Help individual author develop their own business plan. A marketing director can't and shouldn't do the grunt work for every single author. Even at a small house, there might be 20, 50, 100 authors (Mundania Press, for example, has over 100 authors). They need to do their own promotions, etc. But a marketing director can help steer them. However, it's really up to the publisher to decide what they want the MD do?

The MD's responsibility should be first and foremost help the publisher succeed. It could be to work bottom-up by helping each individual author market and promote their books, or it could be top-down by helping the publisher develop a strategy and to get them known and accepted by big and small stores...

That's my take.


paintbrushpoet said…
Do you recommend getting an agent? At what point would you do this?
Is AW a good place to find an agent?
Ray Wong said…
Yes, I recommend getting an agent, if you really want to land that big contract. I went with a small press because of various reasons.

But the bottom line is, you want to be traditionally published -- big press, small press... just do it traditionally instead of doing the short cut by going with POD or self-publishing. That would be a mistake.

p.s. that's just weird... the verification word for this post is.. momma! LOL

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