Here’s the great thing about writing this nonfiction series in public: you folks let me know when I’m not being clear or if there’s something I need to explain. I’ve worked in so many aspects of business, and owned so many different kinds of companies, that some of the knowledge I have which I take for granted most people don’t understand at all.
This past week, with the pricing discussion, I realized that a bunch of assumptions about price—well known in retail—are completely new to publishing. Traditional publishers are so lazy about their pricing and discoverability strategies that they rarely think about what they’re actually doing. They just work reflexively—and indie writers have mimicked that.
So I need to go back and explain something we all understand. This is less about pricing and branding than it is about what’s coming in future posts. ( I suspect this is one of those introductory posts I should have had in the beginning. Since I do write out of order, one thing this experience has convinced me of is this: I’m never putting up a novel in progress. Imagine me writing a scene where a character rushes in to save the day, and I haven’t even introduced that character yet. Oh, yeah, I’d say. You guys have to trust me. I’ll write a new chapter 2, move the current chapter 2 to chapter 3 and….arrrrrgh!)
As writers, we have been “raised” in the business to believe that readers are one gigantic mass of creatures, all the same. Yet as readers, we know that’s not true. Just because Gillian Flynn’s book Gone Girl spent weeks on The New York Times bestseller list doesn’t mean all of us will like the book. Some of us will love it and some of us will wonder what everyone else saw in it, even if we bought it. Some of us will look at it and wonder who the heck would buy it at all. Some of us will buy the book after the movie comes out in October because we hadn’t heard of this major bestseller until New Regency Films started advertising the movie. (Because, y’know, traditional publishers don’t spend money on TV advertising. That would be so…last century.)
We readers know that’s how it works. We writers forget it.
And traditional publishers never think about it at all.
They treat all books by advance level. The amount of marketing dollars put into books varies according to the advance paid to the author, not how many fans the author has. In theory, advance and fans should correlate, but in reality, they don’t.
Traditional publishers don’t really pay attention to a fan base. Publishers sell books to distributors and bookstores, remember, and so target their advertising to those companies. When the chain bookstores took over the business, traditional publishers only had to convince a handful of book buyers to take tens of thousands of copies of certain books, based not on the author’s sales record, but on what was “hot” or a “great cover” or a “new concept.”
Independent booksellers bought what their customers wanted, but independent booksellers, who do not buy in bulk, have very little clout with traditional publishers.
So when you’re thinking of marketing for books, realize the model you’ve seen for it (traditional publishing) aren’t based on attracting readers. They’re based on attracting book buyers for major corporations, a hidden little industry that most of you have never ever seen.
As a result, no one has broken down the retail side of the business with the idea of targeting the advertising toward the actual final customer—the reader.
No one has except, of course, the romance writers.
A bit of history here.
The romance genre is a “young” one in terms of existing as a stand-alone genre. Yes, romances have been around since the dawn of time, but marketing books under the genre title “romance” has only happened since the 1970s. Before that the books were broken into categories like “love stories” and “Gothic.” Genre is a fashion, folks, not an absolute.
Because most of the romance genre is mostly written by women and sold mostly to women, the notoriously sexist publishing industry of the 1970s and 1980s did not believe those books sold. Remember, publishing would target booksellers, not actual readers, and many bookstore owners refused to carry “that stuff” in their stores. I bought my romances back in the day at drug stores and through Harlequin’s subscription service.
It wasn’t until 1982 or so that romance began to make an impact, and that was because the romance writers started banding together and proved to the industry that their books sold. Romance Writers of America was founded in 1980 with this kind of advocacy in mind.
And because bookstores refused to carry many of these books, romance writers were the ones who developed all kinds of marketing techniques that many of you still believe you need to use now. Some of the techniques are absolutely valuable, and we’ll be discussing them in the future, like newsletters and fan-based activities. Some have seen their day, like bookmarks and flyers, and we’ll discuss those too.
But what you need to know, what’s important to know, is that the romance writers are the only ones who have ever done a reader survey for the point of marketing books.
(A sidebar here: it was an education for me to Google every term I could think of for reader statistics/reader surveys. Because I found a million of them. For e-reading devices. For various magazines and online nonfiction publications. For schools and libraries, to see if kids are learning. But for book publishers????? Nada.)
The last RWA survey that I found, which is on their website, comes from a couple of years ago. I’m going to cherry pick some of the information there over the next few posts, because it’s evergreen. Some of the information is probably dated, particularly the social media and ebook stuff. Still, I think you should look at it, especially if you’re targeting readers.
The survey labels readers like this:
Avid readers who are always reading a romance novel
Frequent readers who read quite a few romances.
Occasional readers who read romances on and off.
Remember, this is romance focused only. And for romance, the statistics go like this (or at least they did three years ago):
Avid readers of romance: 31% of respondents
Frequent readers of romance: 44%
Occasional readers of romance: 25%
And here—my friends—is where it gets interesting. Looking just at me, Kris Rusch The Reader, I am a frequent reader, according to this survey.
However, if you look at my habits and bring in all books, all genres (including nonfiction), I am an avid reader. Right now, I’m reading four different books—two nonfiction (one history, one goofy) and two fiction (one mystery, one YA). I’m also in the middle of an Entertainment Weekly, a New Yorker, and an alumni magazine. Not counting the online reading I do or the two newspapers I read cover-to-cover daily. Or the manuscripts I read for Fiction River and when Dean finishes something.
I would call myself a voracious reader. I read all the time, if I possibly can.
Readers are clearly not one big mass of similarity. As you can see from my example above, I’m a different kind of reader if you break the questions down by genre, or by subgenre. Or by author. By whether or not I know the author or if I don’t.
That RWA survey looks at reading habits.
But let’s look at the types of consumers readers are.
A lot has been written about the true fan in the past few years, but let me quote former Wired editor and (as John Scalzi calls him) Web Thinker, Kevin Kelly, who, so far as I can tell, started this meme in 2008 or so:
A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.
This person has been reading your work for years and will buy your work when they’re ready to. They are, in the words of the retail market, Brand-Loyal customers. You the consumer can choose between Skippy Peanut Butter or Jif Peanut Butter, but you’re a choosy father, not a choosy mother, so you choose Skippy whenever you can. It’s automatic. You need peanut butter, you buy Skippy. You need a book and the latest Neil Gaiman is out, so you buy Neil’s book. But you don’t go to signings, you don’t buy the book immediately, and you don’t stand in line to get the limited edition version of whatever, although you might be happy if your spouse got it for you for Christmas.
The key point: long-time fans have bought your work for years, sometimes for decades.
These fans like a writer’s work, but doesn’t go out of their way to buy it immediately. Like the long-time fan, this fan is a brand-loyal customer. The only difference? They might not have been a fan for more than a few months, even if the writer has been published for decades. These fans would not call themselves long-time fans, but they will pick up the work when they’re ready.
The name says it all. This reader loves a certain aspect of a writer’s work, but doesn’t like other parts. I’m a sometimes-fan of Nora Roberts. I like her romantic suspense novels and will buy those when they appear. I occasionally like her contemporaries, and her paranormals I don’t buy at all. (And I have a completely different take on her pen name J.D. Robb. See below.)
The sometimes fan knows her own taste. She might like Skippy Peanut Butter, but not all types of Skippy. Just creamy, not chunky. And not low-fat. Brand loyalty isn’t here. It’s product loyalty within the brand.
The romance survey found these people, and called them avid readers of romance. When these readers have finished their most recent historical romance novel, they look for another one by a favorite author. When they can’t find that, they go for something similar. Both surveys that RWA commissioned in 2011 and 2012 found this breakdown for purchasers of romance, and the genre/subgenre fans are at the top of the list.
Top overall decision factors when deciding on a romance:
- The story
- The author
- It’s part of a series
- Back cover copy
Note that my preferences for Nora Roberts books, above, does not reflect my genre/subgenre fan preferences. I like paranormal romance more than I like contemporary romance. I just don’t like Nora’s paranormals. Your reader tastes are this nuanced. You know that. Think it through.
These people buy books constantly or go to the library all the time. They always have a book and/or reading material close by, whether it’s on their e-reader, their computer, or their bookshelf. Voracious readers might not buy new. They might not be able to afford it. But they consider books as important as breathing.
These people—who often have young families and full-time jobs—might have called themselves voracious readers at another point in their lives. But right now, they’re too busy to read all the time. They read when they can.
Some readers have always been like this, though. Reading is just part of their entertainment diet. They might consider entertainment (TV, movies, games, music, books) as important as breathing, just not one type of entertainment.
Likes to Read
Even more than the reads occasionally people, the likes-to-read folks buy a book when the fancy strikes them. They’re the people who claim to read one novel per year. Again, they probably slide into the Reads Occasionally category, depending on life circumstance, but they would never ever say reading books is as essential to them as breathing.
Yes, they buy books. As gifts for friends. Of necessity, because they believe (rightly) that they should read to their children. But they’re still not buying for themselves, and once the kids are grown, the book purchasing stops. Many of these folks never got into the reading-for-pleasure habit, and aren’t interested in acquiring it.
Here’s the important point about readers:
Readers embody all of these traits.
For example, I buy some authors as gifts for people. I will never read some of these writers I buy for other people ever. I don’t like the subject matter or the point of view or something. I am a true fan for one or two authors, a longtime fan of many authors, and a genre/subgenre fan. I am a voracious reader for the most part, but if you break down my likes and dislikes, I am an occasional reader of some things (certain types of nonfiction) and a nonreader of others.
I’m sure you’re the same way.
So…when you target your marketing, why do you treat all readers the same even though you’re not the same reader for every writer?
Think it through.
This all-the-same marketing breaks down even farther when you talk about purchasing books rather than just reading them.
Some readers cannot afford new books. They also can’t afford e-readers, for the most part. These readers go to the library or occasionally, the used bookstore. But they can’t purchase books brand new, for whatever reason.
They are a vast and influential part of the reading public. They influence what libraries put on their shelves, what used bookstores take into their stores.
But when we writers discuss marketing our books and pricing them, as we did last week, we can’t target these people. They will see the marketing anyway, and do their own thing, but they won’t hand money over personally to buy the books.
(I’m not trying to diminish their importance. I don’t know what the statistic is—because, again, no one has done this study—but I think the underground community of readers who can’t afford books is bigger than we think.)
Note: I’m not including the collectors either (except as true fans) because I’m dealing with readers and many collectors I know want the object and don’t read it at all. (Often, though, they’ll buy a reading copy.)
So, the following categories are of people with cash in hand, people who buy books.
Yep, they show up here again, because as Kelly says, they’ll fork out tons of cash for whatever project their favorite writer does. These people might not be rich, but they spend a disproportionate amount of what money they do have on their favorite writers.
Always Buys New
These brand-loyal readers will buy a book from their favorite author when they see that book. Not when the book is released, but the moment the fan discovers it exists. They’ll pay for the hardcover if the hardcover is out, the mass market if they missed the initial release. But they want a new copy for their shelves or their digital library.
Sometimes Buys New
The category title says it all. They’ll buy new when they see the book, but they might consider the purchase before doing so. Or they’ll buy the book at a used store as readily as they will from a new bookstore. Often, the readers buy these books to read and trade back in or give to friends.
My experience with Nora Roberts’ J.D. Robb pen name fits in here. I buy those books new or used, I don’t care. Usually I buy used. Why? because I’m not a huge fan of them. I like them, and I know they’ll provide a few hours of entertainment. I tend to read them on airplanes and then leave them behind when I’m finished.
I’m not sure if my J.D. Robb purchases will end now that I can read my e-reader throughout the flight. I didn’t read a J.D. Robb on this month’s trip to Vegas, and I would have last year.
I’m sure you have books/authors that you read the same way.
Always Buys Discounted Books
These readers never pay full price for anything, whether it’s because of their own financial situation or their own financial preference. They’ll find their books in the discount bin at bookstores or they’ll watch Amazon for sales. They’ll buy a lot of titles from used bookstore.
The key to these readers? They’re usually voracious readers, but they’re loyal to price.
In other words, they’ll buy Skippy or Jif, depending on which peanut butter is cheapest or on sale that week. They like peanut butter, but they don’t care what type they actually get.
They are probably more adventurous readers than the readers listed above, but they will rarely pay full price for anything. They will also bitch the loudest if prices that were traditionally low get raised.
Always Gets Free Books
These folks are the same as the discount buyers above. But for whatever reason, they don’t buy books at all, choosing only to get things available for free.
Again, these readers are loyal to price—or lack thereof, actually—rather than writer, subgenre, etc.
That sounds harsh, I know, and honestly, the 100% free folks are rare.
But again, when we’re talking purchasing strategies as reader/consumers, we each fit in all of the categories.
For example, I always buy Stephen King, Elizabeth George, Mary Balogh and several of my other very favorite authors new. Always, always, always. I already told you about J.D. Robb, whom I occasionally buy new. There are many authors that I occasionally buy new—and a lot of them are new authors, if the books sound interesting enough and they fit into my genre/subgenre preferences.
I am a discount book shopper of nonfiction in particular, when I need research material. I will occasionally try something for free if—oddly—I’d already heard of the author or book. But I will rarely get to those books first.
Those are my reader preferences on price. I’m sure yours are different, according to your circumstance.
When I was a very poor newly divorced woman, I had $10 per week I could squeeze out of my budget for books (and I did this by eating less). I shopped at used stores and rarely bought new. I went to the library weekly. My circumstances were different and so were my buying habits, but not my reading habits.
The Whys and Wherefores
Why did I tell you all of this? Because, marketing one way to all readers—whether it’s free or expensive, whether it’s one type of book or another—ignores how complex readers as consumers really are.
When I talk about marketing strategies, I’m talking from this complex model, not the traditional publishing all-readers-are-the-same model.
The moment you stop thinking like traditional publishers is the moment your writing business will take off.
A lot of the writing board comments on my pricing posts called me a failure and someone who knows nothing about marketing. These commenters looked at my e-book numbers on Kindle (mostly) and decided that because those numbers were low by their standards, I didn’t know anything. I had clearly failed at “free” promotions or I was too snobby to try them, and I didn’t know what I was talking about.
I’ve used pricing strategies throughout my career in various places, from my work at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to my various publishing companies to my retail businesses. I’ve used free and discounts, and consented to all kinds of promotions on my books even in the days before the internet.
I know the markets for my books, and honestly, I haven’t worked on growing them. That’s my 2014 plan.
Because I’m a hybrid writer, I concentrated on getting my backlist out for my fans—from the true fans to the simple fan and the occasional reader. Once I reached those markets (and I started to as of 2013), I will add the strategies for bringing in new readers.
Because I’m a long-time writer, I have a large fan base, including a very big base of true fans. I’ve cultivated it over the years, with absolutely no help from traditional publishers.
(My traditional publishing editor on the Retrieval Artist series, upon learning that I had about 10,000 true fans on that series, told me point blank: That’s not even a significant number. Of course, this was in 2007, before the 1,000 true fan meme exploded on the internet. Maybe the editor has a different opinion now.)
The rest of this series will focus on appealing to different kinds of readers.
The pricing strategies I mentioned the last two weeks and branding which I mentioned before that are really something you can do for all your works. That’s why I called it “passive” marketing.
Next week, we’ll move to “active” marketing. And part of that active marketing is figuring out who you will target with your marketing work.
During the week, think about what you know about your readers—if anything. And then figure out what you like to see from your favorite writers as a reader.
There are some clues in those things which will impact your marketing efforts and make them different from mine.
I never expected loyal readers of this blog when I started it in 2009. I was doing much of this for me, to write a book (The Freelancer’s Survival Guide) and to be accountable so that I would finish it.
I have thousands of readers who show up within hours of the blog getting posted. I’m stunned and grateful.
Several of you routinely support the blog with donations as well. Thank you! You’re the reason this blog continues
Because I’d like to be paid to take the time out of my week to write this, I ask that if you learned something or found a new way to think about something, please leave a tip on the way out.
Thanks so much!
“The Business Rusch: Marketing and Readers” copyright 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch