Business Musings: Book Birth Days
Recently, a couple of my writer friends announced their “book birthdays”—the day their book got published and/or became widely available. I love that phrase “book birthday,” because it is so appropriate to the way we should be thinking about a book release in the modern publishing era. In fact, we should call it a book “birth day,” because that’s the day the book starts its journey in the world.
Let’s think about that for a moment.
If you look at the day a book gets published as the day the book starts its public life, then you’ll be a lot calmer about sales and the book’s future.
After all, no one expects an infant to arrive fully formed, to be able to negotiate the big tough world, to charm and attract thousands in its first month. Yes, an infant does charm and attract—they’re designed that way. They’re cute and endlessly fascinating, and not even that smelly, considering. But they only fascinate those who come in immediate contact with them.
The wider world awaits them. They’ll interact with it as they age.
Granted, some babies become famous pretty fast. Some become famous because they have famous parents (who don’t protect them properly from the curious world). Some become famous in part—such as their image or their smile. From my generation, that’s the Gerber Baby, whose real name I could Google, but I won’t, because the Gerber Baby’s name isn’t important. That baby was a brand symbol and might still be today.
Then there are the actor babies—usually twins—who play infants on TV shows and in the movies. Most actor babies don’t grow up to be actual actors (with the exception of the Olsen twins). Most “retire” when their chubby little faces become less representative of a notion and more individual.
And finally, there are the babies who break our hearts, who become famous in a moment because they become part of an iconic photo of an event. I tear up even now thinking of those children, whom I saw too many of in my study of history and while I was an acting journalist. They too are famous, but they were never meant to be. They were meant to grow up, have long lives and babies of their own. Instead, they became representatives of a moment.
I’m sure their parents would have preferred to have all the trials and tribulations you get when you nurture a child to adulthood, rather than having their child—or their child’s image—become the representatives of a moment.
If you step back and think about babies as books, you’ll see that in the modern era, books can have similar lives. They can develop slowly, and naturally, finding their own way and their own audience, often years after their birth. Or their parents can force them onto the world stage.
Sometimes the parents force the book-baby onto the world stage too early, and after that early flood of publicity, the book-baby returns to its natural growth level. Stage parents get worried about this, and many of them micromanage their book-baby, forcing it into earn its way too early and maybe, just maybe, warping it the way that kid actors get warped—unable to cope with real life unless they know that a built-in audience is already there.
Then there are the book-babies that are part of the cultural zeitgeist, like kids of famous people. These book-babies get their start from a completely different platform than other book-babies. Their parents might be already-famous authors, so there’s a built-in audience. Or their parents might be already-famous people who have ghost writers, and again, they have (or hope to have) a built-in audience.
Or those cultural zeitgeist book-babies might be lucky enough to catch a wave—a trend, maybe, or a hunger for another book “just like” someone else’s already famous book. A lot of nonfiction falls into this category, books about current events, books that have some relevance to the moment, but might not be that interesting to anyone except historians two or three decades from now.
(I have dozens of those books in my research library from the 1960s and 1970s for my Smokey Dalton novels. I didn’t find those books in libraries, because libraries culled the books. I found them in old used bookstores or online from services like Bookfinder.com, and usually found reference to them before that in some other book of the time, listing them as a resource. Those current events books often don’t age well at all. But they do have a lucrative moment in the sun, filled with both fame and fortune.)
Finally, there are the tragedy book-babies, the ones that become bestsellers because of something hideous, that makes them the books of the moment—the book we needed to explain that particular time and/or to help us through that period of time. I don’t think it’s an accident that the dystopian YA fiction became hot hot hot in the U.S. in the past decade or so, when you consider that its target audience grew up in a post-9/11 world. To those readers, the world was already grim and dark, so they gravitated to stories about strong people who help them survive those grim and dark landscapes.
But the majority of book-babies grow slowly, just like human babies do. Their audience slowly expands, from family and friends and those in the know, to people their parents never met, to people they couldn’t have known as young book-babies, to people they’ve never met, to people they will never meet, to people who will outlive them.
Traditional publishing truncated the majority of the lives of book-babies, making it impossible for them to naturally grow an audience.
Traditional publishing introduced some book-babies as if they were ready-made stars—and to be fair, some of them were. They were born to the right writer-parent or they were in the cultural zeitgeist, or they had an editor-relative who decided this this book-baby will be famous and will work hard to make it so.
But the majority of traditionally published book-babies never made it past their toddling years. In the past, those toddlers used to go out of print before they made it to childhood. Now they’re priced too high to sell much more than a few copies here and there after their initial launch.
And now we’ve come to the concept that inspired all of this: The Launch.
On a panel at 20Books—maybe even one of the panels you can view on line—I got snipped at by an indie writer for mentioning the way traditional publishing did something. I started to explain how trad pub was still launching books and the indie writer told me that was irrelevant to 20Books.
I talked over him—unafraid former broadcaster here—and said that the problem with indies is that they’ve taken almost all of the bad traditional publishing habits and adopted those habits into indie.
The book launch is one of them.
Everything the writer-publisher does is geared toward that launch week. Book parties, newsletter mailings, Amazon ads, virtual flyers to bookstores—the indie writers do those things and more. They spend the month pre-launch sending out review copies and booking podcast interviews and setting up their “launch campaign.”
Some actually give their books Facebook pages and spend hundreds of dollars on giveaways for the first 50 people to buy and review the book. They spend the month post-launch on advertising schemes recommended by the current guru, schemes that might have worked for the guru’s book, although “worked” might be subjective. (I’ll get to that below.)
Here’s where indie differs from traditional publishing. In indie, the numbers come in daily. The writer has an idea as to what success is for that book-baby —and success might be based on past performance of previous books in the series or a previous book or on what that current guru says is a good number.
If the book isn’t selling 5 or 10 or 50 copies per day, the writer becomes despondent. Their book-baby is a month old and is already a failure. All that time, all that money, wasted.
I think of that attitude like those delusional exceedingly rich helicopter parents you read about, the ones who sign their kid up for the Right Preschool while the woman is still pregnant, the ones who pay exorbitant fees to lock in their child’s position in some high-end school before the child has even gotten their first tooth.
Those parents have no idea what that child is going to be, what the child’s interests are, how well it does on standard tests, whether it will have some learning disabilities, whether it would rather play soccer than study or study math instead of English or whatever. Yet that kid’s future is determined from conception forward.
I actually know a few parents who (still) bemoan the fact that their child didn’t get into the Right Preschool, even though the fees were paid and the position on the waiting list secure. The problem was that the kid was on a waiting list, and sometimes the waiting list never gets activated.
Books are similar. Just because your book-baby is a YA dystopian novel and first readers say it’s better than any other dystopian novel, that doesn’t mean you’ll hit the zeitgeist. The dystopian generation is in college right now, and buying textbooks. Your sales will be down for a while, until those kids get out of school and start buying fiction again.
Just because you spent a ton of money on ads doesn’t mean the right readers saw those ads. Or maybe, just maybe, you didn’t have the right follow-up novel. Or you’re in the middle of a trilogy and readers are waiting for you to finish.
I saw a very sad tweet from a traditionally published writer just last week. She was urging readers to buy mid-series books by traditional writers because, she wrote, “the rest of the series won’t be published if you don’t buy it now.”
Then she went on in a tweet thread to talk about the readers who wait until a series is finished before buying the first book, and to excoriate them. She tweeted something like this: “You’re ruining that writer’s career by waiting.”
Um, no. That writer chose to sell an unfinished trilogy to a traditional publisher rather than go indie. That writer chose to publish a book before the series was finished.
There have always been readers who wait until the story arc is finished before buying the first book. I’m one of them. If I know that the series isn’t open-ended, or that book one doesn’t end and just stops, I will wait until the last book is published before trying the series. Life is too short and I have too much to read.
If the series is open-ended, though, like mystery novels with the same detective or sf series set in the same universe, but with different stories, I will buy that series and happily pick up the next book the moment it is published.
In trad pub right now, readers are even more leery of starting a trilogy or a single story-arc series because of George R.R. Martin. He has made international news because he’s not done with his Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones). So readers are even more aware of this problem than they were years ago.
All the book launches in the world won’t force those readers to buy the second book of a trilogy. Nor will begging and pleading, like that writer did on Twitter.
The best thing a writer of a series can do, particularly a series with a single storyline, is finish the books and do some form of a rapid release so that the readers can binge if they choose or take years to read the series if they choose.
Leave it up to the readers to figure out how they want to read.
The book launch implies that the book will vanish after a short period of time, that you have to buy the book now or…what? There’s an actual threat in traditional publishing. The writer will not get another book contract, or they might have their contract canceled.
But that means nothing to the reader. The reader doesn’t care how the book gets published, just as long as it does. And if it doesn’t, the reader now expects the writer to figure out a solution and get that book in print somehow.
Book launches are extremely old-school. And they’re misused. That writer I mentioned above, the one who spent a month pre-launch and then a month and a ton of money post-launch? That writer is trying to make their book-baby into a star. That writer is the equivalent of a stage parent, pushing the kid forward whether the kid is ready or not.
And the writer loses both time and money doing it. At our Business Master classes we always invite at least one writer who does a coordinated big launch on their books. It’s rarely the same writer, because we want to expose attendees to different ways of promoting books.
One of the New York Times bestsellers who continually comes to the Business Master Class pulled me aside this year and asked why we have that side of the business at the class. I explained why. A lot of our writers want to hear it. A lot of them want to try it.
Turns out this writer (who had a long traditional career before going indie) tried it as well after first hearing about it at our class. That writer spent several thousand dollars and made several thousand on their launch. But the net profit? The amount they actually earned from all that work? About a thousand dollars.
And the writer lost two months of writing time. Which, at the writer’s minimal weekly earning rate on all of their ventures of $2500 per week, that writer lost $19,000 to gain $1000. No wonder they were annoyed.
Fortunately for them, they have a lot of licensed properties so they really didn’t lose that $19,000 right away. They lost the future earning potential of what they would have written had they continued to focus on writing and releasing at their usual rate, instead of goosing the sales at great cost.
Because that writer is analytical and does try everything, they then pinned down the writers who were doing the big launches, and asked them how much they were spending per month on advertising. Since Big Launch writers often share their gross earnings through screen shots, the writer compared the screen shots to the expenditures, and realized that their result—spending thousands to make a slim profit—was the norm. These Big Launch writers are hauling in a lot of money at the end of each month, but some of these Big Launch writers are spending it all on advertising, and other expenditures such as virtual assistants.
That’s not sustainable. And that’s another reason why we ask different Big Launch writers to come to the Business Master class. Some of the previous ones we’ve asked are no longer Big Launch writers. And some of them have disappeared completely. (Not all of the writers we list on the Business Master class as instructors are the ones we’ve asked. Some years we ask Big Launch writers (the hottest) and they turn us down.)
There are still some writing gurus out there who advocate the Big Launch, but when pressed, they’ll tell you they’ve stopped doing big launches on every book. Now they do the Big Launch “strategically.”
Yay! That’s how it should be done.
The final book in a single-story arc series deserves a Big Launch. The book your fans have been waiting for and emailing you about deserves a Big Launch. The book that actually is on-topic for the cultural zeitgeist, particularly if it’s newsworthy (as in nonfiction) deserves a Big Launch.
Most other books, naw. They need to grow like the book-babies they are.
Then you can nurture them. You can change their covers if the covers become dated. You can do a big promotion on them if the cultural zeitgeist catches up with you and whatever your book was about becomes the Really Big Thing. You can do a big promotion on the first book of an open-ended series when you publish the tenth book.
Why the first book? Because those new readers are going to be so happy to learn that there are nine more books. Readers want another book just like the one they just finished, and they would prefer that book to be by the same author who wrote the previous book.
If you nurture your book-baby and let it grow naturally, then you can tailor what you do with that book-baby to the book-baby itself. To where it fits in your oeuvre, where it fits in the culture, where it fits in your career plans.
Your books should be around for twenty or thirty years at minimum. Generally speaking, writers and writer/publishers don’t plan for that. Because we take our cues from traditional publishing, which deems a book a failure if it doesn’t take off within two months.
If you take the long view, let your book grow from a book-baby to a mature adult book with a long history (of licensing and readership and maybe related books), then you will have so many more opportunities for that book. You won’t give up on it, and you will be able to reclaim those two months of pre-launch and post-launch for writing the next book, which is what you should be doing—and what your readers want you to do.
Time to start celebrating your book’s birth. Yes, let people know. Do a birth announcement as so many of my indie friends do. Send the information to your newsletter, announce the birth on Facebook and your other social media platforms. Just like you would do when an actual baby is born.
But stop expecting your baby to come out of the womb already playing the piano and singing the Yale Fight Song and charming the entire world. Give your baby time to grow and develop. Share pictures of the toddler, the little kid, the six-year-old heading off to grade school, the beautiful teenager graduating from high school. If your book becomes a star somewhere in those years, celebrate. If not, honor that book for what it is, not for what you thought it might do before it was even finished.
Oh—and write the next book. The difference between you the writer and you the actual parent is that you can write hundreds of books. Get a body of work. Look at it as a unit, and as part of your career.
Stop thinking like traditional publishers. Start thinking like someone who will have a body of work ten years from now. A body of work—with all of those books still in print.
That’s a luxury to those of us “raised” traditionally. But it’s the norm for you indies. Celebrate that. It’s one of the best things about publishing today. And you get to do it.
As we head into 2020, Dean and I are working on what we want for the next decade as well as the next year. We have also set up some online courses about this so that we can help you figure out the decade as well as the year.
I’m excited for the 2020s. I hope you are too. And I will have several book birth days in 2020. I can’t wait. I will announce them, but I doubt I’ll launch them. You’ll see what I mean as the year progresses.
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“Business Musings: Book Birth Days,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Nejron.