The Business Rusch: The Old Ways Part 2 (or Discoverability Part 4 Continued)
Last week, I wrote a blog about the way traditional publishers market bestselling books. Most writers, indie published and traditionally published, mimic what traditional publishers do for their bestsellers.
Unfortunately, traditional publishers put very little thought into their promotions. As long-time traditionally published bestseller (who happened to be a salesman before he became a writer) stated in his response to last week’s blog: Publishing is the only profession he knew of in which marketing is an entry-level position.
I’ll go one farther than that. Publishing is the only profession I know of in which the people in charge of marketing are actively told not to familiarize themselves with the product.
Anyway, in last week’s post, I discussed the various things traditional publishers do for their bestsellers and whether such things have any value—both for the traditionally published midlist writer and the indie writer. I thought I’d be able to cover everything in my usual 3,000 words.
Imagine my surprise when I hit my word limit with many things left to cover.
So, if you haven’t, please read the first part of this topic. Then return to this blog.
One thing I forgot to mention last week is an acronym that award-winning hybrid writer Scott William Carter came up with as he ventured into indie publishing. That acronym, WIBBOW, works on a variety of levels, but it especially applies to marketing.
The acronym stands for Would I Be Better Off Writing? Generally, the answer to that is yes. In this new world of publishing, where books remain in print, the best thing you can do to promote your previously published works is to write new works. I’ve said that before, and I’ll say it again as this discoverability series continues.
Remember that traditional publishers have different goals from indie published writers. Traditional publishers must sell a lot of copies of a title very fast. The faster the better, in fact, because bestseller lists don’t measure sales over a long period of time. They measure sales accrued within a week. So a book that sells well in one week and then sells no more copies might actually hit a bestseller list. A book that sells a consistent number of copies over four months (and ultimately sells more copies than that first book) might never hit a list.
Traditional publishers have a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am attitude toward books. Readers aren’t in such a hurry. They get to a book when they get to it. But traditional publishers don’t sell to readers; they sell to distributors and bookstores. That’s why so much of a traditional publisher’s marketing is invisible to the average reader.
I addressed some of this in the first post on advertising, and again last week. Then I promised I would deal with media interviews, stock signings, blog tours, and reviews, and maybe a few other things along the way.
C-SPAN has a channel called Book TV. Every time I surf past that station, I’m struck by one thing: Writers generally make for terrible television. They can’t read their own work in an interesting fashion. They’re terrified of questions. They don’t dress well. Mostly, they wait for others to help them.
For the most part, writers are introverts who should never be asked to perform in public. Yet traditional publishers have demanded that their writers do radio and television appearances to promote books in that high-stakes velocity period.
Some writers do well. They’re relaxed, they’re funny, they’re wise. George R.R. Martin gives a good interview when he feels like it. George used to work in television and isn’t intimidated by the people behind it or the lights or the fact that he’s suddenly talking to a huge audience.
Talk show host Craig Ferguson, a writer himself, can bring out the shyest writer. He calms the writer, asks questions about the work, and treats the writer like a friend.
Most television hosts haven’t read a book, let alone the book they’re doing the interview about. In fact, most people who do the booking for television shows will ask the interviewee—in this case, the writer—for questions to ask about the work.
Very few such interviews do anyone any good. I’ve known a lot of writers who are more interesting in person than their work ever is, and even more writers who are dull as dishwater in person while their work is lively as ever.
But an interview is free advertising, and a good interviewer will hold up a book for a good ten seconds or so, to promote it. Does that sell books? Who knows? Most of the television interviews you see with bestselling writers occur in the same week as the Big Release from their traditional publisher. That publisher is doing everything in its (uneducated) power to get the word out about that book.
That same week, there are book signings all over the country (or region), paid advertising, reviews, and more. It’s hard to tell which is more effective. I liken it to a movie opening. Lots of people might attend a movie on opening weekend, particularly if the film is heavily promoted. But after that, it’s up to the film’s quality to deliver the audience.
How many publishers have sponsored major tours, and signings, and events, and not seen much increase in sales at all?
The answer is more than you’d think.
Just like the fact that television interviews don’t move books. How do I know that? From writers who aren’t in the middle of a big publicity push, yet who end up on television a lot. If they do an interview, and the host holds up the book, the writers don’t usually see a blip in sales.
The key to discoverability isn’t one appearance on the Today Show. Discoverability is really about ubquitousness—those weeks when you can’t avoid the name of that book or that author. So an appearance here and there doesn’t work. It has to be in concert with everything else.
That said, having a television series made from your book, even a bad series, will increase sales. As long as your name is attached to the show. Too many writers, happy with the idea that they might have sold something to Hollywood, don’t pay attention to things like credits. “Based on the novel by” needs to be in the front of the show, along with the actors’ names and the name of the director. You don’t want your name in the end credits since, in the US at least, the end credits go by at high speed and are so tiny that they’re unreadable. That’s not marketing. That’s contractual obligation done poorly.
But you can’t guarantee a movie sale or a TV deal at the right time for your novel. And you probably can’t get a television interview with The Today Show as an indie writer—hell, most publishers can’t get their big names on television; you’re certainly not going to do it either.
Not that it matters. Television isn’t something you should do if you’re not witty and outgoing and a little bit fearless.
Radio’s a bit more forgiving. For one thing, the listeners don’t see you. Radio’s intimate as well. You’re usually in a booth with one person, having a conversation. Properly miked, any writer will sound good.
A good radio interview might sell a few copies of your book. But only a few.
Radio is primarily local, even today with satellite stations, etc. Traditional publishers get past the local stigma by forcing their writers to do a “radio tour” usually from some sound studio somewhere or barring that, on the phone, with radio stations all over the country.
The author sits and answers the same questions from different interviewers in the space of a few hours. It’s repetitive and difficult and often at the wrong time of day for wit. If you can move 5 books per interview, then that series of interviews might sell a few hundred copies of your books. Max.
And that’s if you’re a good talker. Most writers aren’t.
Very few programs move a lot of copies. One of them is Fresh Air on NPR. Terry Gross is good at making even the dullest writer interesting; she reads the books, asks hard questions, and can move a couple hundred copies all by herself.
But to get booked on Fresh Air, the book needs a hook. It’s not enough that you published it. Heck, Stephen King isn’t on every single time he releases a book. The most recent Fresh Air interviews have been Delia Ephron, Matthew Hart, Ben Bradlee Jr., and James Tobin.
Who? You might ask. Well, novelist Delia Ephron is a two-fer. Her more famous sister, Nora, died in 2012 (sob) and this fall, a collection of Nora’s works appeared, as did an autobiographical book of essays by Delia. The other three interviewees are non-fiction writers whose topics are much more interesting than they are. The topics are: South African gold and crime, Ted Williams, and FDR.
In other words, the long form interviews have a good hook, one that the listener will want to hear.
I used to book long-form radio interviews on local topics, and we turned down a lot more people than we ever brought in. The main reason? The writer was dull.
If you want to do a lot of interviews, do them because they’re fun. They won’t sell books, but they might get your name out there. Remember that traditional publishers set these interviews up as a velocity package and for every writer who gets an interview, dozens of other traditionally published bestsellers get turned down.
Also, interviews are extremely time-consuming. Apply the WIBBOW test to each and every one of them. Ask yourself why you’re doing this. If the answer is to sell books, then you’re wasting your time.
I just spoke to a dear friend who had gone on a big tour for her traditionally published novel. She was shocked that her publisher insisted on stock signings. Because, whenever she went into a bookstore, there was very little stock to sign.
Stock signings were once the heart of any book tour. Bookstores and distributors would have dozens, maybe hundreds, of copies of a writer’s book, and the writer would spend an hour or more signing those copies. Once the copies were signed, they wouldn’t be returned for credit. In fact, they would remain on the shelf with an “autographed” sticker on them.
In the 1980s, the romance writers started going to regional distributors and to meet the truckers who put out the books, and sign, usually bringing coffee and donuts as a favor to the people who took care of their books. It worked. The signed copies would go on store shelves, and the truckers would place the romance writer’s new title in a position of prominence in grocery stores and truck stops.
Regional distributors disappeared in the late 1990s and chain bookstores stopped the practice of keeping signed books about six years ago. In the last few years, the American Booksellers Association has made a concentrated effort to bring the independent bookseller into the computer age.
This means that independent booksellers generally don’t carry a lot of stock. They keep one copy on the shelf, and if the book is in high demand, one or two in the back. When a copy sells, the bookseller immediately reorders and the copy is replenished within a day or two.
That’s why my friend didn’t have copies to sign when she arrived for the publisher-scheduled stock signings. The bookstores had become efficient in their ordering. They keep very few copies in the store.
Stock signings are no longer of any importance. They don’t benefit the writer or the bookseller. It actually shows how out of touch traditional publishers’ marketing departments are when they have their poor touring writer drop in at a bookstore for a stock signing (which are usually unscheduled). Because there no longer is stock to sign.
Good, bad, or indifferent, reviews are your friend—if they’re in the right venues. If you want to be discovered, then you need to be in the tried and true venue for your genre. RT Book Reviews for genre books (particularly romance), Mystery Scene for mystery novels, Locus for science fiction, just to name a few. Industry bibles Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal inform their respective markets that novels are coming out. Good or bad, the review doesn’t matter, because it’s advertising. It tells the bookseller (or the librarian) that a book is on the way.
Is it worth your time to get into the “self-published” part of Publisher’s Weekly? No, of course not. Because Publisher’s Weekly goes to bookstores, and most bookstores don’t carry e-books.
A lot of reviews at the right time are like little ads. The result is that you’ll see an uptick in paper book orders through extended distribution in Createspace and Lightning Source if you’re indie published and mange to get a review in these venues. You probably won’t see any difference at all in e-book sales.
Traditional publishers use these venues as pre-publication advertising. The traditional publishers (the smart ones) also invite major booksellers to do their own reviews of upcoming titles. But, since every traditional publisher does this, booksellers get inundated in free books—and rarely read them.
Again, it’s not worth your time unless you know how to do it right. Doing it right often means having a real publisher behind you, a real ad budget (since some of these publications won’t review books if your publisher hasn’t placed an ad in that publication), and real advance reading copies.
However, of all the things that traditional publishers do, the one to emulate is getting reviews in traditional venues like the book publications, newspapers, magazines, and book review programs like those on NPR. (If you want to know how to set this up for yourself, we offer an online promotions class which teaches you this and other things in modern marketing.)
Decades of training have conditioned booksellers, readers, and librarians to glance at reviews and order from them. All three groups use reviews as information—not as to whether or not the book is worth their time—just as a way of knowing a book exists.
Since we’re dealing with reviews, let’s discuss “pull quotes.” Pull quotes are those bits of reviews that publishers use to entice the reader into buying a book. There are rules about pull quotes.
Don’t take the quotes out of context. If the reviewer said “A great example of how horrible a romance novel can be,” don’t pull “A great…romance novel” and attribute that quote to the reviewer/publication. You’re participating in false advertising. Believe it or not, this practice was litigated in California against (unsurprisingly) the movie companies, and the movie companies lost. You can’t change the tenor of a review.
You can pull a single sentence out so long as it represents the review as a whole.
Do reviews make a difference to readers? I don’t know. I know that I will scan pull quotes in the front of a novel to see if I’m interested. But I’m also looking at where the quotes came from. If they come from “An amazon review” or “Writer’s Family Member,” then I’m not interested. If they come from reputable sources like The New York Times or Publisher’s Weekly, I’m much more apt to buy.
I’m less apt to buy if the pull quotes come from other writers. Even if the writers are big names. A friend just recently showed me a popular history nonfiction book that both of us wouldn’t have bought even though we were interested in the subject matter. Why? Because all of the pull quotes came from talking heads who specialized in politics, in specific, politics that my friend and I disagreed with.
Had those pull quotes come from reputable historians who also doubled as talking heads, we would have been interested.
Remember, advertising can backlash. So be careful how you use it, even with something as small as pull quotes.
The other thing to remember about pull quotes? Usually they’re just a design feature. They’re put on a paper book to balance the back cover copy or to provide interest across the art. If you don’t need the design feature, you don’t need the pull quote. It’s that simple.
Book Marks, Posters, Promotional Materials
Worked for a handful of writers in the early 1990s. Debbie Macomber started this trend (and probably regrets it). When she did it, no one else was doing it. Then everyone started. Now I have so many bookmarks littering my office that I can throw a dozen of them out and still have enough for my books.
Ask yourself. Have you ever bought a book because you saw a cool bookmark? No? What about a cool poster? No? Then why the hell are you wasting your hard-earned dollars on that crap.
Particularly when bookstores and other retailers simply throw the things out. (Or give them to visiting readers, like me.)
The last part of the Old Ways includes something that I would have thought of as a New Way just a few years ago. The blog tour.
So many publishers are now forcing their writers to go on a blog tour. What is that, really? It’s writing ad copy or an article or something for a blog geared toward readers.
Old-timers like me were stunned the first time we got asked to do a blog tour. Write for free? We didn’t write for free. But that was the blog culture, and this was advertising.
I did my first blog tour for Sourcebooks several years ago, and I did it because I was new to them. I figured I’d give this tour thing a shot. I had no way to measure if it worked, but the bloggers were grateful. I put it in the same category as attending a convention on my own dime.
The next time Sourcebooks asked, I had a way to measure the blog tour’s impact. WMG had published several of my Grayson novels, and I had access to the numbers. Sourcebooks was publishing a Grayson novel as well. For a month, my blog tour articles appeared on various blogs—and didn’t cause a single blip in my sales. Not anything.
Maybe I was doing it wrong. I figured that was possible. So I asked my hybrid writer friends who also were doing traditionally publisher mandated blog tours if they saw any change in their indie numbers.
None of them did. Not a one.
Anecdotal, I know. But this is where the WIBBOW test comes in.
I continued to do the blog tour for my Sourcebooks titles because I had started the tradition, and I didn’t want to insult the bloggers. I appreciated—and still appreciate—their support.
However, on my final release from Sourcebooks, A Spy To Die For, I kept track of my word count for the blog tour.
7,500 words of free blogging. With no return at all.
That was in July.
In June, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine published the origin story for my character Skye from A Spy To Die For, “Skylight.” Asimov’s mentioned my DeLake pen name, but the story was published under Rusch.
Dozens of readers have read “Skylight” and asked me personally if A Spy To Die For continues Skye’s story. “Skylight” is 8,000 words long.
Gee, write a short story that I get paid for, and which shows results (and can be repackaged in a variety of forms, including as a stand-alone e-book) or write blog posts that can only be used once, and really do little to promote the book.
If you also remember that publications like Asimov’s charge $1000 per page for an interior ad, and a story takes up several pages, then you realize that you’re getting paid not only your word rate for the story, but $1000 per page in which that story runs. Because your story is an ad.
Not everyone can get published in the traditional magazines, primarily because most writers never try. These days, no word is wasted. If your stories don’t sell to traditional markets, then put the stories up as ebooks—which also will provide more for your book’s marketing than any blog tour ever will.
And guess what? Writing a story passes the WIBBOW test because (hello!) you are writing.
So, is some promotion worthwhile? How does a writer get discovered?
We’ll talk about all of that next week and possibly the week after that.
The old ways work for a handful of books that have a set purpose. If those books need to sell a lot of copies in a short period of time, then the old ways might work. Remember, you can’t make consumers buy something they don’t want, even if that something is advertised repeatedly.
Apply the WIBBOW test. Chances are, you’ll always be better off writing.
Someone gave me crap last week about writing this blog. It takes away from my fiction. It doesn’t pass the WIBBOW test, this person told me. Well, it does for me, because I’m learning a lot from you folks. The comments are always interesting. The e-mails you send me are informative. And the information you share is quite often information I would miss on my own.
Thank you! And thank you for supporting the blog with donations. Because, honestly, the moment this blog stops paying for itself is the moment I write a short story instead—no matter how much I learn.
So, if you learned something or like the blog, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: The Old Ways Part Two or (Discoverability Part 4 continued)” 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.