I’m in the homestretch of writing a new book, and I’m having an exceptionally good time with this one. It’s one of those cases where I can’t wait to start writing every day. I don’t want to give too many details, but as a little teaser, these are the images that keep running through my brain.
I want to be perfectly clear about this. I do not sell tens of thousands of books (yet) every year. I haven’t spent any marketing dollars since January of 2010 on any of my books. I’ve never launched a major coordinated advertising campaign for any of my books. I would say 90% of my marketing (or more accurately branding) takes place on this blog and my relentless (almost annoying) presence on various social networks. So, if you’re looking to me to help you unlock the secrets to sell a million books, you’re likely to be very disappointed. Trust me, when I figure that out, I’ll be on this blog discussing every detail of the trek.
My books sales hover in the thousands. Not a blistering number of sales on the surface, but here’s the thing, I have increased sales every year. Granted, I usually add a book to my arsenal every year, but even accounting for that, each title sells more copies year over year, and it all starts with my anchor book, The Takers.
Comparing 2010 sales of The Takers to 2009 sales to The Takers, I increased sales by 29% on just that title alone. Taking all books into account, I increased sales 45% over that same time period. I’m only counting print sales for our purposes here, but I’ve increased sales on the Kindle side of things, too.
So, how did I increase my sales so dramatically? After all, I’m a self-published author. Mainstream media wouldn’t know me if I sat down in front of them and pitched my books to them. I’m not opposed to spending more money on marketing, but to this point, I’ve shelled out only about $1,500 since I first published in 2005. I am not a household name. To top things off, the publishing industry as a whole has struggled to increase sales since I entered the market. This is not the golden age of publishing. So, what did I do to sell more books this year than last year? Here’s the list of things that I’m confident attributed to my increased sales.
1. Word of mouth – My books have a small fan base, but they are extremely engaged. I have a handful I hear from all the time via email, this blog and my social network accounts. They are champions at spreading the word. More than a few of them are teachers, and they introduce my books to a new crop of students every year, to which I am extremely grateful.
2. Price reduction – I dropped my base price for my books from $15.99 to $9.99. I never liked the higher price, but I didn’t have any flexibility in changing it until my POD provider (CreateSpace) had an overhaul in policy and created flex pricing. I immediately jumped on the new policy and brought my pricing more in line with publishing industry standards. It made me more competitive, and eliminated a huge sales hurdle for me.
3. This blog, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube – I’m fortunate to be a one-man shop in publishing in a time when I have access to the same tools bigger publishers use to brand their authors and sell their library of books. Every day I use these resources at my fingertips, the more my brand gets out. The world of publishing only looks like a sedentary lifestyle. And in as far as the day-to-day routine is done primarily sitting on one’s ass, it is, but it is also a frenetic occupation. Your mind is constantly in motion creating and looking for opportunities to get your name out there. And, we’re not counting the time you spend writing, rewriting and everything else that goes into creating a book.
4. Evergreen mentality – I don’t look at my books as having an expiration date. Just because I’ve written and published a new book, doesn’t mean my previous books are no longer relevant. I look at all my books as having equal value regardless of the date they were published.
5. Publishing every year – One way I’ve kept my fan base engaged is to provide them something new to talk about every year. I’ve made it a personal goal to publish a new title every year. Initially, I did it to keep myself sharp and hone my craft. But, the unforeseen benefit of the practice is having those early readers returning over and over again to read (and buy) my next book. One and done is hard to pull off unless your Harper Lee or Ralph Ellison.
6. An insane belief in the improbable – The odds are against a book doing well in the market. Statistically, more people want to write a book than read one. The odds are even worse for a self-published book. If you take new books, and royalty-free republished books, more than one million books were published last year. In 2005, when I first published, that number was around 270,000. I’ve had to find my spot in an ever-expanding pool of offerings. It would have been easy to give up a long time ago, and chalk up my exit to too many things stacked up against me. But dreams are a funny thing. They are easy to conceive, but nearly impossible catch. And as Dr. Robert Sapolsky put it, the more impossible something is the greater the moral imperative that it must be done.
So, there you have it. I know I haven’t given you any magic bullets or even gems of wisdom. Succeeding in publishing takes the same one element every profession takes, hard work. If you’re pursuing easy riches, you’re on the wrong road. Writing and publishing serves a compulsion first, and with persistence, the money will follow. So, lead with high expectations, and survive with an impenetrable sense of success despite you current struggles.
In recent weeks, the interwebs has been burning up with articles and blog posts about the demise of the traditional publishing industry. I’m not sure what sparked the current crop of death notices, but I find it fascinating that so many people now find it newsworthy. The truth is the publishing industry hasn’t been very proficient at selling books for decades now. To give you an example of this, according to bookstatistics.com, “Simon & Schuster, Random House, and Penguin Putnam wrote off at least $100 million in unearned advances in 1996.” And from the same website, “Harper-Collins lost more than $250 million in a single year just on returns.” (This is actually pulled from a March/April 2002 New York Times article).
Don’t get me wrong, I love traditional publishers. They can design the hell out of books, and the editing is as close to flawless as you can get in most traditionally published books. They even have an eye for talent (keep in mind; they’ve repeatedly turned me down). Granted, they do make a lot of bonehead moves, like signing, Jay Leno, Johnnie Cochran, Dick Morris, etc to book deals with advances so large they couldn’t possibly earn them back in sales. Statistically, traditional publishers only earn back the advances on 30% of the titles they publish. There is a Hail Mary pass mentality in traditional publishing. Meaning, they publish every book with the mentality that they only have one chance to score and win. If the Hail Mary fails, they move onto the next book. If the Hail Mary succeeds, they celebrate and get the book ready for the next phase of the marketing strategy. They invest in books that succeed. They do not invest in books to help them succeed.
In my humble opinion, in order for traditional publishing companies to survive in a time when it is increasingly easier for authors to get books to market without them, they are going to have to make the following changes:
1. Abandon mainstream media advertising now. Stop spending money on print, television, and radio. It costs too much money, and gets little to no results. I don’t care who the author is.
2 Do not sign one more author who has never had a book on the market. Whether the author has been previously traditionally published or self-published, the experience and devotion they bring to the table will far outweigh the current risk you take on writers who just have a manuscript. Let’s face it; you don’t do a very good job of developing talent. You can spot it. You just don’t know what to do with it once you have it. A publishing deal for a first time author really amounts to nothing more than on the job training that they can put to good use for their second book. It’s not a great business practice for you.
3. Hire all the editors back you’ve laid off lately. They are your greatest asset. Letting them go is kind of like an army deciding to give their soldiers guns without bullets in order to save money.
4. Stop printing large quantities of books. Forty percent of all books never sell. That’s a lot of money wasted, not to mention a lot of trees sacrificed for nothing. Here’s an idea, try cutting initial production by 40% and then shift the titles to a print-on-demand rotation.
5. End the returns program. The publishing industry adopted a strategy of taking books back from retailers no matter what during the depression in order to survive miserable economic times. The problem is they never ended the program. Retailers can send books back for a full refund or credit. It’s a policy that costs the publisher more than the cost of the book; man hours, storage, and management of the returns program all cost real dollars. In addition, it costs retailers money to send books back. No one wins in this scenario.
6. Stop trying to create news with outrageous deals. When you sign an author to a seven figure deal, you make a big deal out of it by drowning the media in press releases. And it is news for about a week. The problem is it takes you 18 months to get the book to market. The size of the advance is no longer news. The marketing value of the big paycheck is gone.
7. Decrease the size of advances on the top end, and stop paying your authors a measly 7.5% to 15% royalty. Give your authors “benchmark” royalty contracts. That’s right, reward them based on performance. Start them off at a 20% royalty for the first 10,000 books. From there, bump them up to 25% for the next 10,000 and so forth and so on until the author earns 50%. Instead of the big advance, give them a large post market bonus. When they sell 1 million books, give them a newsworthy 6 or 7 figure payment against future sales. Send out your press-releases, get your coverage and sell more books immediately.
8. Your authors should be at the forefront of the marketing efforts for their books, but they should not be the only one marketing their books. Using my plan, you’ve cut your production by 40% so that means you can cut the number of people on your sales team. I’ve also cut your advertising budget by totally eliminating mainstream media advertising. Shift some of these people and resources to create a web 2.0 branding team. Instead of begging (and paying) for space in brick & mortar stores, their job will be to manage volunteer sales forces (what used to be called fan clubs). Their sole job will be to ignite word of mouth campaigns through blogging, social media and online video. They will help the author create and maintain their brand.
9. Don’t just publish books. Produce films based on your books. Manage a speaker’s bureau for your authors. Develop video games based on your books. Create workshops and seminars for your authors. Become a packaging company. Negotiate various rights as needed with authors.
10. Make books available for sale quicker. There is no reason it should take 18 months for a book to make it to market. You can get it done in 6 months at the latest in most cases.
11. For books that don’t have time sensitive material, there is no reason to give up on them so quickly. Be in it for the long haul. Let the accumulative effect of branding take hold. Look at books as a long term investments.
12. Publish fewer books for the brick and mortar market. Physical stores are having a tough time with the inventory they have now. They don’t need more books. Reserve the brick and mortar sales channel for those authors who have proven themselves online. Go ahead and make this a benchmark, too. If they sell 30,000 books, open up the brick & mortar channel to them.
13. Train your authors in marketing, public speaking, online video production, the market place, their genre, etc. Help them help you. Distance learning is a wonderful thing. Use it to get your author’s up to speed.
There is plenty more that could be done and should be done, but this is the kind of thing that will take baby steps. Work on these 13 things, and get back to me.
Thinking about doing my next author photo bare-chested! If I’ve learned anything from this blog, it’s that people like shirtless stuff. The question is what is more important to me, my dignity or my desire to give you male nipplage? Ahhhh… morale dilemmas.
Found this awesome presentaion/video from R.R. Bowker on today’s book consumer. This will only be interesting if you have a book on the market or want to have a book on the market. It really just re-enforces the growing influence of new media marketing in the publishing industry.
This is a follow up to my post, How Books Were Made Before Magic Digital Fairies Existed! The folks at Macmillan Publishing created a video of their own on how the process works today. You can file this under “If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.” This was posted on January 12, 2009, well after the publishing industry went under a bit of an upheaval. It’s good to see that the good people at Macmillan have such a great sense of humor. What’s the sense of doing something if you’re not having fun? By watching this video, you will discover a little known fact about writers. We do supplement our income by blogging. I can tell you that I have literally made dollars from this blog. And by “literally” I mean figuratively. And by “made” I mean spent.
BTW – Macmillan did write every third word of this blog post so I am not completely responsible for its content.
BTW2 – I lied when I claimed Macmillan wrote every third word of this blog. I have to go now. I’m off to make my World of Warcraft avatar.
Making a book today is not easy. It takes a lot of time, people, fancy-schmancy machines, one or two magic digital fairies, ink, and glue to make a book. There will be a day when all we will need is the magic digital fairies, but that day is at least a week away, maybe two.
But back in the day when magic digital fairies were just plain old magic analog fairies, it used to take even more time, people, and fancy-schmancy machines to make a book. The use of ink and glue probably was much less because it was so friggin’ hard to make a book, they made fewer of them. The video below was created in 1947. It illustrates just how ridiculously complicated it used to be to make a book. You think it’s hard to get a publishing deal today? Imagine how impossible it was back then. So on that day when you finally do get that publishing deal you’ve been longing for, thank the magic digital fairies for tearing down the technical barriers that may have prevented you from getting a deal in the past. Magic digital fairies rule!