The Business Rusch: When The Old Ways Work (Discoverability Part 13)
Yeah, yeah, I was pretty disparaging of the old ways to promote books back fifteen weeks ago, when I was just digging into this series. And there’s a good reason to disparage the way Things Have Always Been Done.
But here’s the catch: The old ways work.
When done right.
They usually aren’t done right. In fact, most places—including traditional publishers—use all the old methods because that’s what they’ve always done, not because it’s good business.
What are the old ways?
Reviews in major publications. Prominent placement in catalogs. Advertising. Display advertising (risers, book dumps). Billboards or signage in subways or on buses. Banner ads, Bestseller lists. Library placement. Paid placement in bookstores. Interviews with major publications, websites, and radio personalities.
All of those things cost time and money. All of those things are things you as a small publisher—an indie publisher—can do, given the time, the planning, and the willingness to work hard on your publishing business.
These things do not work if you’re ebook only. Nor do they work if you’re one-person publishing house. You’ll need a receptionist/secretary/assistant, just for starters. And you’ll need an actual publishing company, with a different name from yours, real ISBNs (as opposed to those that say CreateSpace), a different address for the business, a different phone number, and different e-mail addresses. A website for the business itself, with a good design.
In other words, you’ll need to be running at least two businesses if you want to use the old ways—your writing business and your publishing business. You’ll need contracts between your writing business and your publishing business. You’ll need different bank accounts. You’ll need to think like a publisher when you’ve got your publishing hat on and like a writer when you’re creating.
It’s a lot of work.
Why in heaven’s name would I tell you to do all this? Because having a publishing company pays huge dividends in the long run. If you’re successful, having a company other than your writing business allows you to spread out your pre-tax dollars (you Americans), gives you the opportunity to participate in things that are for publishers only, and gives you the legitimacy your writer-owned business will never achieve.
But it will take time to set up properly, it will take some business savvy (which you can learn. If I did, anyone can), and it will take a willingness to take the long view of your work, rather than a short-term I want it now! view.
Because if you take the long view, you’ll make more money, you’ll have two solid businesses, and you’ll have something that will definitely live beyond you—particularly if you set up your estate properly.
Okay, that’s all a very short way of dealing with a huge topic. If you want to run a business like a publishing company, here are some books I would recommend: My Freelancer’s Survival Guide covers everything you need to think about to run a small business (it also applies to writing alone). Dean Wesley Smith’s Think Like a Publisher. The Copyright Handbook from Nolo Press, so that you understand exactly what you’re marketing and why. (I’m picking up a few other books to see if I can recommend them, but right now, these are the ones I’m sure of.)
Business-focused books, not writing-focused books, will help you the most.
But that’s not the point of this blog post. The point? You’ll need a real publishing company to do this.
I’ve started two publishing companies, and advised several others. It’s not as hard as it sounds. It is more work than you might think, however. And the learning curve is always there, because the industry is changing.
Why would you want to do all that work?
Depending on who you listen to and which statistics you believe, ebooks are now 20 to 30% of all book purchases in the United States.
What that means is this: 70 to 80% of all book purchases are still in paper.
This is where traditional publishing gets its hooks into indie writers, by telling them that their books can’t reach bookstores without a traditional publisher’s imprint. And that’s just not true. Dean has done a very important post on this very topic this week. Please read it, and definitely read it before you comment on this post here.
As I mention below in the assumptions below, if you price your books correctly, they will get into bookstores without you contacting the stores at all. But the books might not be noticed.
And this series is about discoverability.
How do bookstores “discover” books?
Using the old ways.
Sure, booksellers look online. Booksellers have their favorite writers too, and booksellers keep up on what those writers are doing. Not all of those favorite writers are bestsellers. Many are midlist writers the bookseller discovered on their own and/or writers whose work the bookseller encountered in other ways.
All of those discovery tools we talked about in the previous posts work with booksellers. But the best way, the very best way, to get a bookseller interested in your book is to use the old methods.
Yes, booksellers order books when a customer requests them.
But you want the bookseller to order your book as soon as the book sees print. The only way to do that is using the old methods.
What can you do?
First, let me tell you what not to do. Don’t contact the bookseller directly unless the bookseller is a friend.
Because of the way that publishing has worked over the last fifty years, the only writers who contacted booksellers directly were vanity press writers and clueless newbies. You want to know why booksellers ignore you when you come into the store, offering to “let” the bookseller carry your book?
Because 99% of the writers who asked this before you—from about 1960 onward—were total blithering idiots who couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag. Seriously. And they were the kind of idiot who never took no for an answer.
You want to put yourself in a box with those people, be my guest. But if you really want to be taken seriously as a writer, then stop going to bookstores with your cartons of books and begging the bookseller to carry a few copies.
Here’s what you actually do—after (and only after) you set up a real traditional publishing company of your own.
First, you pick a publication date. It must be at least five months away from the actual date the book is completed. Why? Because you’ll need reviews—and reviews in the big venues, not on a blogging site.
You will need to produce an advance reading copy (ARC) —in paper, because many review publications still want paper copies. That advance reading copy had better look like one produced out of New York. That means you’ll need to find some advance reading copies and look at them. How do you find some?
If you know reviewers, get them to show you a few recent advanced reading copies. If you are friends with booksellers, have them share some with you.
If you lack those connections, go to eBay. Even though ARCs are marked Not For Sale, booksellers and reviewers sell them all the time. (Traditional publishers cut them off if they get caught selling the ARC before the book comes out. That still doesn’t stop people.) Put Advance Reading Copy in the search engine, and you’ll be surprised at what you find. Buy a few that are from 2013/2014, so you can see how it’s done. Then copy that format on your own ARC. Make sure you understand the jargon of the ARC, what kind of promotions are listed and what the jargon words mean, before you say that you will be doing such things.
Write a cover letter to go with the ARC that is all sales material. Reviewers will crib off that letter, so make sure the letter is positive and accurate. Have your assistant sign the letter, not you.
The letter needs to come from your publishing company—you need a street address on it, a publisher e-mail, and a publisher phone number. Some traditional review sites will call those numbers, so make certain that your traditional publishing company has a professional voice mail and a trained person answering the phone.
Follow the rules that each publication has for review copies. If you don’t follow the rules, all your money and time will be wasted. They will toss out your ARC.
Some places want paper ARCs. Some want e-ARCs. Some want paper ARCs for certain genres, and e-ARCs for other genres. Follow the rules to the letter.
Particularly pay attention to the rules governing how far in advance the publication needs the ARC. RT Book Reviews needs its copy six months ahead. Publisher’s Weekly needs its copy a little over four months ahead. Other publications have different rules.
Just because you send an ARC doesn’t mean your book will be reviewed. And just because you send an ARC doesn’t mean your book will get a good review. Take your writer hat off, and put your publisher hat on. You’re doing the reviews in traditional publications to let booksellers know that the book exists. Most booksellers don’t care if the book got a starred review from Booklist. Booksellers are notoriously opinionated people, like most readers, and will make up their own minds. However, they will use the reviews to figure out which books to order for the storefront, not just to have on their website.
Three other caveats. First, if you’re going to all the trouble to send out ARCs, then make sure your publisher website lists all your books. Make sure that the publisher website also has dealer discounts for booksellers. Look at WMG Publishing’s dealer discounts to give you an idea what I mean.
The booksellers will probably never order direct from your publisher, but they want the option. Besides, they’ll also want to know that the publisher is legit—and to them, the publisher is not legit unless it offers booksellers a way to order direct.
The second caveat deals with the traditional sites themselves. RT will review books, provided the publisher takes out an ad in the magazine at least once per year. This has been RT’s policy for more than thirty years, and is one reason the publication still exists. An ad does not guarantee a review, nor does it guarantee a good review. But you have no hope of getting a review at all without buying an ad.
(I told you this week would cost you money.)
Buy a publisher’s ad, not a writer ad, with them. Because…you’ve got a publishing company, remember?
If you’ve set up a traditional publishing company, don’t send your ARCs or e-ARCs to Publisher’s Weekly Select or the other review sites that traditional review publications have set up for e-books.
Why? Well, you’re trying to get into bookstores with your paper books. Booksellers don’t read Select and those other publications because they’re not for paper books. (And they’ve got a whiff of that vanity press thing. Booksellers are very snobby about that.)
So if you’re trying for booksellers, spend your advertising/discovery dollars where the booksellers actually look to discover books.
The final caveat is this: there are services like NetGalley that will, for a large fee, make your e-ARC available to people who are a “reviewer, blogger, journalist, librarian, bookseller, educator, or in the media.” Traditional publishers use NetGalley (and other services like it) but never on the books they really want reviewed or covered. This is a place that traditional publishers use as an afterthought. If you see an ARC from a traditional publisher and it says “ARCs available through NetGalley,” it usually means that’s all the promotion the traditional publisher is doing on that title.
Do what the Big Boys do. Go direct.
Review and review copies are the cheapest thing I’m going to mention in this post. The other things are expensive and only available to traditional publishers.
One of those other things is the American Booksellers Association.
To join the ABA as a “publishing partner,” your publishing company needs to have “at least five titles currently in print [in paper] and readily available for booksellers to order either direct [from the publisher] or from wholesalers [like Ingrams or Baker & Taylor].”
If you meet those qualifications, then you must pay the $350 annual fee (with a $25 handling fee) to join. What do you get if you join?
Lots of direct opportunity to contact ABA member bookstores. Here’s the link. I suggest you look at it, and think about the direct mail opportunities presented here.
Let me give you two examples, though. The Red Box (which is actually a white box with a red sticker) goes to 1100 member bookstores. Publishers can include catalogs, notifications of special books, flyers, posters, all kinds of promotional material for a particular book—except the ARC. To include these items costs an additional fee, and you have to follow certain rules. But the ABA sends out 12 of these boxes every year, and booksellers do comb through them.
The White Box goes to 750 select bookstores (following ABA rules) and includes galleys, ARCs, and finished paper copies of a book. It costs anywhere from $1.50 to $2.50 per item to be included (minimum 450 items) so it can cost you as little as $675 or as much as $1875 (not counting your production cost for each book).
Booksellers do read the books or at least look at them. If your book is badly produced—or if you send a romance novel to a noir mystery store—then the bookseller will give the book away or toss it.
Just like everyone does with advertising. We only look at the stuff we’re interested in.
There are other great advertising programs through the ABA. The best part about these? They’re legitimate, unlike schlepping your books to a store and having the owner think you’re an idiot for even trying. You get to reach booksellers the way that writers/publishers always have, using direct methods.
Here’s the secret, folks. If you set up a traditional publishing company, you can do everything that the Big Five can do. Everything. What does it take? Money and know-how.
You can buy ads in book-oriented publications like The New York Times Book Review or The Los Angeles Times Book Section. (Booksellers read those.) You can send your employees to trade shows like Book Expo in New York or the dozens of local book-oriented trade shows across the country. (There are huge trade shows worldwide: you can send your employees to those too, if you have money to burn.)
You, the writer, should never man that table because you’re “the talent.” (Although you can be on panels.) Like anything else to do with discoverability at this level, just because you spent the money doesn’t mean you’ll get a good return. You can give away hundreds of free copies at the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association meeting next fall, but that doesn’t mean the booksellers who get the copies will read them or order them for their stores.
It’s a risk. Like all advertising is. Next week, we’ll talk about how to think about what you’re doing, but right now, I’m just giving you options that will put you in front of paper book buyers—and booksellers.
The ABA isn’t the only group that will put you directly in front of a bookseller or librarian. Baker & Taylor will as well. They have huge publisher participation programs, with an entire downloadable flyer that explains all of their services—kinda. Many of these promotion services start at $10,000 and go up from there. Big publishers use these things all the time.
I suggest you thumb through the offerings, just to see what kind of things are available. Some of the things are things you’ll never see in a catalog like this. You’ll have to talk to a rep directly—and even then, after you’ve spent some time and money.
These programs exist on all levels of retail. How do you think certain products get placed up front in a grocery store? The supplier pays for that position.
When you’re dealing with books, book distributors, and bookstores, you’re dealing in good old-fashioned retail. And retail has a lot of paid-for positions that are advertising positions.
Do you want your book on a bestseller list? Many of those lists are purchased positions. You have to work with a distributor’s ad rep (usually) to buy—say—the #10 position for books in the Safeway grocery store chain. (No, I have no idea how much that costs. But it’s in the tens of thousands.)
Are you offended that bestseller lists like that are bought? Think it through. Bestseller list positions are always bought. Even indie writers buy their place on a list, often by reducing the price or restricting distribution to one outlet only.
To get on any paper bestseller list, a book must be widely distributed at minimum. Most of those lists (even the in-house B&N list) are paid for by the publisher. To get on the non-paid-for list, like The New York Times, takes a knowledge of velocity, the ability to distribute (and promote) the book widely, and sometimes a sideways bit of know-how. Every year or two, some reporter discovers that someone bought a place on a reputable bestseller list. This year, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg of The Wall Street Journal found a company that put at least two books on bestseller lists by gaming the system.
All that articles like this prove is that with enough money and know-how, everything in publishing can be done—with or without the Big Five.
I don’t expect you to hire a company that claims it can make your book a success. In fact, I would hope you stay away from them. Too many writers get scammed on this one thing alone. Marketing scams are the biggest business scams in existence. Don’t fall for them.
However, you can pay to have your product—a book—placed at the checkout stand of some non-bookstore like a grocery store or a discount retailer. Book publishers do that all the time. It takes money. Will that payment translate into sales? Sometimes. But not always.
The way you can tell a marketing scammer, by the way, is that they will guarantee sales. None of these other programs do. They will gladly take your money in exchange for product placement. That’s all. It’s up to the product to sell itself.
So…really, what it takes to get all of the benefits that a traditional publisher can bring you and more, in all aspects of publishing, is that you start a traditional publishing company of your own. I know. It’s easy to say, and hard to do. But all of those things that you the writer want a traditional company to do are the things your company can do for you.
Think I’m spinning you a line? Think no one has tried it? People have done this from the beginning of publishing. Dean and I did it with Pulphouse Publishing before ebooks existed.
Ten years ago, author Helen A. Rich, one of the heirs to the Wrigley fortune, decided to start Medallion Publishing. It caused quite a kerfuffle in the industry. People claimed she was starting a large vanity press, that she was only doing this because she was rich. Medallion did things that big publishers did—buying the cover of Publishers Weekly to advertise books, buying expo space at BEA, and so on.
More importantly, Medallion didn’t go away. It’s still around, has a rather large staff, and has published a lot of writers. I’ve heard good and bad things about the company. I’ve never worked with them, so I have no idea how good they are to their authors (and honestly, I don’t want to know—that’s not the point of this piece).
Medallion is now a “media group” that has its fingers in publishing, music, and movies. I will tell you one thing about people and their money: they don’t keep throwing good money after bad if the experiment doesn’t work. Financially, then, Medallion is working.
Medallion is just one such publishing company that started from one person’s vision and has grown larger. Sourcebooks is another. Dominique Raccah made a $17,000 investment 17 years ago, and has grown Sourcebooks into a major player in a variety of genres.
Both of these companies, and many much smaller companies, do the advertising things I’ve mentioned, and do all the work that the Big Five publishers do to attract booksellers. These two publishers have played with the Big Boys from the beginning.
Anyone can do this, with some savvy and a willingness to spend on the right project.
You don’t have to do all of it. If you want to attract booksellers, really, you only need to do a little of it. But you need to plan how you’re going to go after this much larger world.
And that’s the topic for next week.
One thing that should be clear from all of these discoverability posts is that time is money. If you have the money, you can probably get someone else to spend the time to do things. Or if you don’t have the money, then you have to figure out how to do the things yourself. Or if these things are worthwhile.
Writing this blog takes time from my week. Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of a big project, I resent the time. Then I hear from you folks, and realize just how much I’m learning and how much I have to share.
Still, time is money, and I’m struggling to find time to complete several projects right now. So if you’re getting some value from this blog, please hit the donation button.
Thanks so much!
“The Business Rusch: When The Old Ways Work” copyright 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Please Read These Assumptions Before Commenting:
I’m going to make some assumptions in the next group of blog posts, and I’ll repeat those assumptions each week until I’m done.
Assumption #1: I’m going to assume you’ve read the previous posts, which you can find here.
Assumption #2: With only a few exceptions, we will be talking about fiction here. There are promotion techniques that work for nonfiction—even on the first book—that do not work for fiction. I don’t want to muddy the waters here. We’re discussing fiction in these posts.
Assumption #3: You have learned your craft well enough to intrigue readers. You know how to tell a good story, you have grammar, spelling, and punctuation under control, you create interesting characters, and you write what you love.
Assumption #4: If you have indie published your work, then your work has a good blurb, a great cover, and a well-designed interior. Your work is available in ebook and trade paper formats. (I also hope you have audio books, but for our purposes here, I’m not going to assume it.)
Assumption #5: If you have indie published your work, your ebooks are available in every ebook venue you can find. Your paper novels are in extended distribution on CreateSpace or Lightning Source. In other words, if a bookseller whom you don’t know and never will know wants to order your paper book, that bookseller can call up a catalogue from a major distributor (Baker & Taylor, Ingrams) and order your book at a bookseller’s discount.
Assumption #6: If you are traditionally published, your books are with a company that makes the books available in e-book and paper formats, and your books are still in print. (If they aren’t, ask for those rights back and then publish the books yourself.)
Assumption #7: You have at least a minimal web presence. You have a website that readers can easily find. You have a list of your published books somewhere, also findable. You have some passive marketing in place. (A mailing list, a social media presence, or a contact button on your website. Something.)
Assumption #8: You have published more than one book. Most of what I tell you won’t work on one novel. You’ll need several—or at least a novel and some short stories. If you’re haven’t published much, make sure you’ve done 2-7, and write the next book.
Assumption #9: You will finish this discoverability series before you decide which of the things I mention is for you. Because one of the last posts I’m going to write is how to measure success. That should have been one of the first posts I wrote, but of course, I write out of order, and so it’ll go at the end. [VBG]
Those are the assumptions.
Now, I have one big WARNING:
Everything I say here, everything, MUST take place after you’ve finished writing your story/book/novel. Do NOT take ANY of this advice into your writing office. None of it. Be an artist: write what you love. When you’re done, then worry about marketing it. This new world of publishing allows us to write whatever we want and publish it. Please take advantage of that. When you write, be an artist, be a great storyteller, not a marketer or a salesperson.
I know, I know. Lots of warnings and assumptions. But I had to be clear, because these points are extremely important. I won’t get to everything this week or even the next week. So…you need to be on the page that I’m on to understand what I’m talking about.