They read blogs and articles, which tell them the best thing to do. Or, they mimic what they’ve seen other authors do. Or, they try to act like big traditional publishers, by funding their own book tours and doing signings.
I’d say that’s no way to run a business, but honestly, that’s how traditional publishers have run their businesses for a long time.
A lot of traditional publishing is based on “we always do it that way.” That was one reason why, in 1993, a relatively unknown Edgar-award winning author spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money producing a television ad for his book. He did so because he had the money, and his publisher refused to do the kind of support the author believed would make the book sell.
This author wasn’t a guy who simply believed in himself: he was one of the top ad executives in the nation. And he had worked his way into that position from the ground up. In other words: he knew his stuff.
That man? Not unknown any longer, and certainly not known only as an Edgar-winner. You know him as one of the bestselling authors in the world, James Patterson.
Am I recommending that you buy your own TV ads? No. I’m telling you to start thinking outside the box. Patterson did, back in the days before indie publishing was easy or cheap. He started using Little, Brown, his traditional publishing company, as if it were his own personal publishing company. Now, Michael Pietsch, the publisher of Little, Brown, says, “Jim is at the very least co-publisher of his own books.”
And it all started with that book, the one he advertised on his own.
Publishing is an inherently conservative business. Patterson repeatedly challenged industry convention, sometimes over the objections of his own publisher. When Little, Brown was preparing to release “Along Came a Spider,” Patterson tried to persuade his publisher that the best way to get the book onto best-seller lists was to advertise aggressively on television. Little, Brown initially balked. Bookstores typically base their stocking decisions on the sales of an author’s previous books, and Patterson’s had not done particularly well….What’s more, large-scale TV advertising was rare in publishing, not only because of the prohibitive cost but also for cultural reasons. The thinking was that selling a book as if it were a lawn-care product could very well backfire by turning off potential readers.
Patterson wrote, produced and paid for a commercial himself. It opened with a spider dropping down the screen and closed with a voice-over: “You can stop waiting for the next ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ ” Once Little, Brown saw the ad, it agreed to share the cost of rolling it out over the course of several weeks in three particularly strong thriller markets — New York, Chicago and Washington. “Along Came a Spider” made its debut at No. 9 on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list, ensuring it favorable placement near the entrance of bookstores, probably the single biggest driver of book sales. It rose to No. 2 in paperback and remains Patterson’s most successful book, with more than five million copies in print.
Traditional publishing still doesn’t allow much TV advertising on its books, preferring to use its ad money on things like magazine pages and book supplements (if anyone can find them). Why? Because that’s how it was always done.
I’m currently reading Hothouse by Boris Kachka, a history of Farrar Straus Giroux, and in passing on page 211, he mentions that founder Roger Straus’s son, young Rog as he was called, worked with the Association of American Publishers in the 1970s to run some general book ads on television. Even though the ads showed positive results, the publishers were not interested in following up.
Young Rog wanted to grow the readership base, but the powers that be in traditional publishing held him back.
Traditional publishing often balks at bringing in new readers, claiming it doesn’t want readers of that sort or that readers don’t buy books that way. All the while, the publishers refuse to commission studies on how readers actually buy books, leaving that to government agencies or booksellers, most of whom don’t have the money to commission studies either.
Remember now, traditional publishing’s business model is based on velocity, and no long-term thinking at all. All of its marketing is geared toward that fierce urgency of now which I mentioned last week, because to traditional publishers, books spoil. They leave the shelf within a few weeks or a few months and then become (smelly) backlist titles that are taking up warehouse space. It’s tough for traditional publishers to realize that e-books never spoil; it’s hard for publishers to change their thinking.
Just like it’s hard for writers. So many have dreamed of the “star” writer treatment.
What is that, exactly? A book tour, lots of interviews on local radio and with local newspapers (rarely local television, partly because local newscasts don’t care about writers and partly because writers usually make for bad television). Long lines at book signings, adoring fans, and lots of public speaking engagements. A writer hand-selling her books at flagship stores because so many people have come to see her.
Ads in major markets. Books in every single brick-and-mortar store in the nation. Pallets of hardcovers littering the floor of airports and commuter train hubs all over the nation. Billboard ads of the book on the back of buses and on the escalators leading out of the subway (or, even more likely, the Underground). Reviews everywhere.
Everyone who reads, everyone who is worthwhile, talking about that one book. Your book.
I love that dream. I’ve achieved that dream on some of my titles overseas. It’s been wonderful and discouraging at the same time.
You’ve all seen writers complain that such things are a burden or aren’t what we expected. And generally, writers who haven’t experienced it write off those complaints.
I’m going to ignore the complaints, because we’re talking about discoverability here. All we need to focus on is this: Should we as writers, both indie and traditional, want the same things that every writer has had since the dawn of the bestselling novel in the late 1960s? And if so, why? If not, why not?
A few weeks ago, I looked at ad buys and how you could tell if your novel was going to get one, if you were traditionally published. Let’s now move to TV. It worked for Patterson—who spent his career as an ad executive, who wrote and produced television advertising for other companies.
In other words, he knew what he was doing, and it sold his book. The key here, though, is that he knew what he was doing.
There’s no way to stress that enough. He knew what worked in the advertising market of 1993. He didn’t take his publisher’s suggestions. You know why? Because then, as now, traditional publishers did none of the sensible things that other big businesses do.
Traditional publishers don’t measure the results of their ad buys. They don’t look at the effectiveness of a sales campaign.
For God’s sake, they don’t vary the type of ad campaign to reflect an individual product. Instead, they only vary their campaigns by a vague sense of whether or not a book will sell. Then they slot that book into a pre-established set of behaviors, which “worked for other books of the same type.”
Um…no self-respecting ad agency would ever make a Nike shoe campaign look exactly like an Adidas shoe campaign, even though they’re both advertising high-end athletic shoes. Of course, Nike and Adidas have different ad agencies. But assume they had the same agency. That agency would work very hard to make Nike’s shoes look different from Adidas’s shoes.
But one publisher of thriller bestsellers treats those novels exactly like the competition treats its thriller bestsellers. Apparently, Clive Cussler writes the exact same book as Lee Child who writes the exact same book as Dan Brown. So that’s why they get the exact same advertising treatment—even though all three of them have different publishers.
You know as well as I do those books are different from each other. You also know that with some writers, like John Grisham or Stephen King or Dean Koontz, you can’t predict from one novel to the next what type of book they’ll write.
In other words, even within the author brand, the books are wildly different and should get different marketing.
But they don’t. Because traditional publishers believe that marketing is something that is beneath them. When they do reach out and try to market something differently, they don’t hire an ad agency to do it. They don’t bring in outside experts. They don’t market test. They guess.
And when that something different fails—and generally it will—it becomes part of publishing lore. Oh, they tried that on a bestselling novel in 2002 and it failed miserably. Therefore, we know that doesn’t work.
Have you pulled your hair out yet? Because I do every time I think about this.
You shouldn’t treat your books the way that traditional publishers treats theirs. Because they run the marketing side of their business poorly doesn’t mean you should emulate them. Just because you’ve seen someone else do something doesn’t mean you should do it too.
Okay: I’m channeling every parent on the planet right now. But channeling that parental voice aside, let’s take a look at traditional book marketing and see if it’s something you should do.
First, let’s examine the thing every new writer wants and every bestselling writer wishes they never heard of:
The Book Tour
The book tour really is geared to “our sort of people.” If you remember that traditional publishing came out of the East Coast elite in this country, that Ivy-League-good-money tradition of intellectual snobbery, a lot of traditional publishing’s long-held attitudes make more sense:
Let’s have our author go to bookstores, universities, and the occasional meeting hall, where like-minded people can discuss ideas without worrying about others getting in the way.
Some of this goes all the way back to the 19th century, when Charles Dickens did several speaking tours of American and made a small fortune. His books sold thousands of copies when he did that, but Dickens never saw a profit from the book sales. Why? Because at that point, the United States was the biggest thief of copyright in the world. Dickens’ American tour made him money in appearance fees, but no money at all from book sales.
But authors started going on tours then, and their works sold after the appearances. The author tour became engrained in public life. Back in Dickens’ day, a visiting author was sometimes the only entertainment for miles. The visiting author is just one of many events now, and not one that lots of people go to.
Audiences went way down with the advent of movies, radio, and television. As the crowds diminished, the audience became purified. “Our Sort” showed up faithfully and bought books. Those books, published in the U.S., put money in a publisher’s hands. Publishers eventually realized that author appearances drove sales. The more sales that could be driven, the faster an author would rise on a bestseller list.
There is some belief among scholars that the last American tour Dickens did contributed to his early death. But his grueling tour was easier than the tours that traditional publishers put their writers on. Most writers spend a month on the road, getting up early to do radio interviews, then doing stock signings at stores that aren’t hosting an event, a morning signing, lunch on the fly usually before a local TV interview, an afternoon signing or more stock signings or an interview with some print media, then an evening event—a signing, a speech, a reading, something.
After that, the author either gets on a plane, and heads to the next venue or does so early the next morning. At the next venue, she does it all over again. Repeat for two weeks or until complete exhaustion sets in.
Such tours cost a small fortune to mount. The point of them, besides running the author ragged, is to increase a book’s velocity.
One book signing in one city won’t do it. A dozen book signings in two weeks in a dozen cities won’t do it either. But combine two dozen signings along with several speeches, twenty to thirty media appearances (mostly radio, some local television), and the book will soon hit lists. Why? Because it’s selling five copies at one signing, ten at another. A handful of people pick up the book after hearing an interview.
More than that, though, the bookstores, which are also footing part of this bill by ordering extra copies, putting on more staff, and making room for the author, are also taking out ads in local papers and circulars, maybe some radio spots of their own, and of course, sending the information to their special customers in their newsletters.
Those ads also bring in a few sales. Multiply those increased sales by 12 days, and it might equal an extra thousand to ten thousand sales in a short period of time—enough to goose a book onto a list, which then provides even more advertising.
And by a list, I don’t mean an Amazon bestseller list that’s drilled down to the tiniest sub-genre. (Mystery/mystery novels/detectives/amateur detective/cozy/series/dogs) I mean one of the big lists, like the New York Times or USA Today or Publisher’s Weekly. The lists that “Our Sort” pay attention to.
Can you do this on your own? I suppose you can try. It will take tens of thousands of dollars and somehow you’ll have to convince booksellers, media bookers, and local venues to give you some of their time and space. Chances are it won’t happen. It doesn’t always happen when a publicist from one of the Big Five publishing companies calls: if the bookseller, talk show host, theater owner doesn’t want (or hasn’t heard of) an author, they’re not going to give that author expensive time and space in their venue just because someone asked. Certainly not because the author asked.
Yes, your local bookseller(s) may hold a charity signing for you. Yes, you might even have a mutually beneficial local event. But it won’t make any real difference to your book sales, and it certainly won’t be worth your time.
Long-term booksellers know that. They know that only certain authors draw readers to a store. These booksellers are also respectful of the author’s time, realizing that well-known authors generally don’t have an afternoon to give to sitting in a bookstore. And I do mean “give.” Writers don’t get paid for those appearances, and the sales don’t make up for the lost hours of work.
Most traditionally published writers get paid a percentage of each book sold, earning as little as $2 per hardcover sale, and sometimes as little as 50 cents on each paperback sale. That money might not reach an author’s pocket for six months or more (if ever). So, sitting in a bookstore for two hours and selling even 20 hardcovers is only worth $40 to the author—six months from now. And if the writer had to drive to the signing, and had to get a hotel room (on her dime) and had to buy her own meals, well, she lost money.
Big name writers do get appearance fees for speaking at libraries and auditoriums. And many big name authors (most, in fact) donate those speaking fees (minus expenses) to charity.
But it’s still something they charge for so that they’re not running around, giving free speeches, in the hopes of boosting their book sales—like so many beginning authors do.
The book tour is geared toward velocity, not toward building an established readership. How many times have you, gentle reader, bought a book at a signing because the author looked so uncomfortable or because no one had bought a book yet and the bookseller asked you to break the ice? Have you read those books?
When should a writer go on a book tour? When it’s being paid for by someone else (preferably your traditional publisher) and it has a realistic chance of boosting book sale velocity to a bestseller list. So many of professional writers (me included) have gone on book tours only to discover the idiot Big Five publisher did not distribute the books to the bookstores. So why were the writers and booksellers wasting our time? It certainly doesn’t endear those publishers to anyone, and it shows just how haphazard traditional book marketing really is.
Are worthwhile sometimes. But not for the reasons you think. They’re not there for discoverability. I think I can probably count on one hand the number of people who bought a book of mine at a book signing because the book looked interesting. I’m sure there are many more people who bought a book because they felt sorry for me sitting there all by myself or because someone else made them buy the book.
I have watched at countless signings as writers guilt potential readers into buying a book. Unless the reader has a small budget and reads everything he buys, I can guarantee that the guilt-book never gets read, and will not create new fans.
This is why traditional publishers cringe when a writer goes on her own book-signing binge. I personally know several writers who spent thousands of dollars going on those binges, and sold a lot of guilt-books. The problem is that those sales do not repeat when the next book comes out, so the sales figures for writers who spend that money go down.
In indie publishing, it’s only a ding to the ego. In traditional publishing, messing up your numbers with an unsanctioned book signing tour can make the difference between selling your next novel and not selling your next novel to a publisher. Most of the writers I know who did the guilt-tour did not sell their next novel—at least not under the same name.
So when are signings worth it? They’re worthwhile if you’re already giving a speech or attending a convention. Readers who also happen to be your fans want their books signed. They often won’t buy the new books at the event. Sometimes just the cost of attending eats up the book budget. But they get to meet you and have their books personalized.
A lot of book dealers will want a signature in their books. I’ve seen authors refuse to do that, forgetting that book dealers can be your best friend. Even if the dealer never reads a word of your fiction, the dealer can hand-sell your books and often does just by mentioning that you’re a nice person.
If you’re going to do a signing, however, that will increase your reader base, however, only do mass signings. I attended two this past year: one at Bob’s Beach Books in Lincoln City, Oregon, which goes all-out at the end of the summer, with thirty some writers of all genres in attendance, and another at Powell’s Cedar Hill Crossing in Beaverton, Oregon. I sold more copies of my books at Powell’s because the event is targeted: it’s genre-specific, and none of the names are small. Everyone at the Powell’s signing either had an established fan base or was already on the bestseller list or both.
The customers who came to that signing had money to spend, and boy, did they. They bought books they hadn’t heard of, books they had always wanted, and books someone else recommended.
The amount of money I earned on book sales at Powell’s probably wasn’t worth the gas we spent to get to the event, but I wasn’t doing it for the money. I wasn’t even doing it to increase the reader base. Really, it was old home week. Of the thirty-plus attendees, twenty-five or so were friends. We didn’t get a lot of time to visit, but we could at least say hello.
So, if you do a signing, don’t do it to be discovered. Do it at a venue where your fans can get their books signed. They’re the ones who support you, after all. They’re the ones who spread news of your work to their friends. They’re the ones in charge of word of mouth.
Sign their books graciously. Your readers owe you nothing. They have given up their money and time to support your work. You can smile at them and sign the book. If that’s too much to ask of you, then don’t go out in public. Period.
Finally, a side note on signing. I sign books by mail, if the sender includes packaging and return postage. I don’t travel as much as I used to due to my health, so I’m happy to spend some time putting my signature on a page. Again, the readers support me. It takes so little of my time to give back to them.
Consider it, the next time someone asks you to sign a book.
And…whew. I have more to cover here than I expected. I’m going to split this piece in half, because there are several more old ways to cover, from media interviews to stock signings (mentioned briefly above) to blog tours to reviews to…well, you’ll see next week.
I’m always startled at the way some topics just grow as I write them. I think I can cover something in a few thousand words, then realize how much I need to explain for people less familiar with the business and/or the old ways of doing business than I am. So I’m in one of those long series now.
I’ve been getting a lot of good behind-the-scenes feedback from everyone, and some great comments. Go look at the comments section for previous posts in this series. Excellent stuff there. I haven’t had time to answer, since somehow a million deadlines have piled up these past few weeks, but I hope to at some point.
And thank you all for supporting the blog in any way you can. I greatly appreciate the e-mails, the links, the shares, and the donations. They all mean a lot.
So…if you learned something or like the blog, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: The Old Ways (Discoverability Part 4)” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
SPECIAL NOTICE: I’d like to put out a call to those of you who are traditionally published. I need to update my Deal Breakers book for 2014. I have quite a bit of material, but I would like to see what I’ve missed.
So if you received a traditional publishing contract from a major publishing house and/or an agency agreement from an agent, please black out all the personal information and send it to me. I’m particularly interested in the contract clauses you negotiated away and/or that you walked away from.
I also would like to see the clauses you’re proud of getting. The ones where you feel you triumphed in your negotiation.
I need the entire contract, because a contract is a living document, and what it says on page 13 has an impact on what it says on page 2. Please black out your name, the name of your agent, the advances, etc., and send me the file.
I promise, I will not use your name or any personal information, except that I might say something like “a first-time author” or “an author who has published novels for fifteen years” or “a bestselling author.” I won’t even use a personal pronoun to give your secret away. And I’ll be the only one who looks at this.
If you want to see how I do this, look at the Addendums post from earlier this year. (And yes, that will be in Deal Breakers 2014.)
Thank you! I appreciate all of the help.