Business Musings: If Not Big Names, Then What?

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I opened a can of worms in my own head when I wrote last week’s blog which I titled “Stars.” The post deals with the fact that there are no big names in entertainment any longer, except for legacy names, like Harrison Ford in movies and Stephen King in fiction. A source I quoted from The Hollywood Reporter believed that there were no new stars created in the movies since about 2008, which he blamed on the collapse of the DVD market.

Although he had his finger on part of the problem, I don’t think he saw all of it.

(And, if you can’t tell, you should go back and read that post before reading this one.)

What happened in movies in 2008? The same thing that happened to books at the turn of the century. Part of their distribution system collapsed.

The music industry started dealing with this in the 1990s as well, as the record stores vanished and iTunes took over. I don’t know if any of you have looked at iTunes recently, but trying to find the latest hit single by anyone let alone someone you like requires using the search function, rather than seeing what’s happening on the home page.

The collapse of the distribution system—or rather, the changes in distribution—have had an impact on us all. One of the things the change has done is level the playing field. Now anyone with the proper equipment can enter an artistic arena with more than a snowball’s chance in hell of not only having a success but having multiple successes.

The problem is as it always was—discoverability.

I’m going to move off of the entire entertainment industry now, and look at books. As I wrote last time, books were part of a curated system, in which tastemakers (editors, publishers, publishing houses) determined what choices readers had in the books that hit the shelves.

Those shelves were limited, both in time and space. As a local bookstore owner learned back when I lived in Oregon, if you keep books on the shelves until those books sold, your store went from a store that featured “new” books to a store that featured books from years gone by. The product (books) had to be refreshed constantly or readers had no reason to browse.

Twenty years ago, the publishing industry was a B2B industry. It sold books to bookstores—business to business—and hadn’t learned any other way to do so. Traditional publishing is still a B2B operation, even though most bookstores have gone online or gone away entirely.

Indie publishers are a B2C business—Business to Consumer. It’s a much better system. We need to market to readers, not to some bookstore chain or nameless distributor somewhere.

The problem is that the book promotion shorthand is based on B2B, not B2C.

What’s the difference (besides the obvious final letter)? The owners of other businesses do not have the time to read all of the product in their stores. Back in the day of the megabookstores like Barnes & Noble once strived to be, there were literally thousands of books on the shelves, with hundreds more clamoring to get in each month.

No one can read all of that.

The local bookstore I mentioned above, the one that got stuck in amber, probably had five hundred titles in the store, and even when those titles remained on the shelf for 18 months, the employees still did not have time to read everything.

The consumer, on the other hand—who shall, from henceforth, be called the reader because it is more accurate—has one of two attitudes toward a book that floats past their eyeballs.

The first attitude is hey! I haven’t read that yet! What is it?

The second attitude is oh, yeah! I like that series and/or the previous book by that author. I’ll take a look at this one.

Then there’s the third attitude, one that doesn’t happen with a book in front of the eyes. The third attitude happens when there is no book. That attitude is Hey! Does Suzette T. Writer have a new book out? I should check.

Or that third attitude might be framed this way: Hey! Is there a new book in the AngelCat Extraordinaire Series? I should check.

Nothing in B2B marketing does more than answer the second two questions, maybe. And probably the only question it might answer is the one about Suzette T. Writer…provided Suzette T. Writer is what traditional publishing called a big name.

Readers buy stories. They want stories that will appeal to them. In addition, they want more of the same but with a surprise or two packed inside.

Traditional publishing did do one thing right in its quest for shorthand. It created genre categories. Genre categories and the subgenres within made it possible in a B2B world for readers to find the type of stories that they liked without relying on big names.

Ironically, genres weren’t created with marketing in mind. Or maybe that’s not ironic, considering how averse traditional publishing was to actual marketing. I was about to launch, yet again, into the history of traditional publishing marketing which I’ve written maybe a dozen times. I plucked history out of a past post and put it up on my Patreon page for everyone to read. I suggest you go there, so you understand how the marketing for traditional publishing evolved.

Anyway, genre and subgenre categories were the only thing that made life easier for the reader. The rest of what traditional publishing did made life easier for the distributors and the bookstores, by freeing up shelf space. This is why book series would often stop in the middle with no hope of finishing the saga or why an author would completely vanish from the shelves.

In today’s market, a writer can publish as many books as they want in their series. Just this week, I published the seventeenth official book in my Diving series. (There are unofficial books, like Diving Pairs and Notebooks.) Unless I had been a super-dooper big name in traditional publishing, I could not have done that in the B2B system of the past.

I love doing that. It gives me a lot of freedom.

Here’s the thing, though, about marketing. Readers have been trained in this cramped, curated traditional publishing system to look for big names and to expect books to vanish from the shelves overnight. That created velocity—the habit of buying something when the reader saw it, not because the reader wanted it.

Slowly the buy-now, read-later part of the reader/consumer is fading, but they’re still primed to find books the old-fashioned way—at least, the older folks are. Younger people understand how to find books that appeal to them without using the old-fashioned traditional publishing shorthand.

What does that mean for indie writers who need to market their books? It means that we change our own thinking about the way we promote those books.

I was going to make this a short post hitting some highlights, but as I dug into things, I realized that this is a modern marketing series that I want to write.

However, because I promised some solutions from last week’s post, I’ll give them to you now.

The old-fashioned marketing tools are broken. As I mentioned last week, terms like New York Times Bestseller mean nothing in today’s market. I used a sales unit comparison to make my point. Nowadays, we indies sell books in a variety of markets, like Kickstarter and Storybundle and off our own websites, places that don’t count toward the “so-called” bestseller lists.

So…how do we replace the idea of the “bestseller” lists? Pretty simple. If your books are selling well—and by that I mean sales, not giveaways such as free—then declare it on the cover.

You can do it one of two ways: If you have a single book that has sold a million copies over the past decade, use that as part of your promotion. Because this is indie, you can update that promotion at any time.

Use something like this: Join the one million readers who have already enjoyed This Great Book.

But maybe you’re like most writers, and none of your books have sold that well, not even over decades. However, you might have sold a million copies of all of your books in the past five years.

Put a bug (a little design feature that looks like a star) on your cover that reads 1 million copies sold worldwide.

I have no idea what the best number is to start with, whether it’s 500,000 or even less. I suspect it depends on genre. But here’s a rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t be impressed with the number if it belonged to another writer, don’t use it as your own.

There’s a better way to do cover promotion in this indie world, though, and it will benefit you even more. Instead of adding New York Times Bestseller or Amazon bestseller (please don’t. Not ever) around your name, advertise another of your books.

For example, my Diving covers might have the phrase Author of the Retrieval Artist Series under my name.

You’ll note that we haven’t gotten there yet, because we’ve only just started discussing this change.

But the great thing about doing that is this: all readers want is something the same but different. The Retrieval Artist series is the same as the Diving series in that both are space opera with a touch of hard science fiction and both are written by me, so they will have my sensibilities.

Other than that, they’re not the same at all, and for many readers, that’s a surprise.

The cool thing about putting something like Author of This Other Series on your book cover is that when the reader finishes your book and likes it, they’ll know what to look for next without all of those back page shenanigans that many readers never even look at.

What else can indie writers do on their covers to promote their books?

Write good sales copy. Not plot-based sales copy, but concept-based sales copy. We actually offer a classic workshop on writing sales copy. If you haven’t taken it, you need to.

Finally, we all need to embrace niche marketing. One of my friends who has been publishing for decades told me that they had exhausted their existing fan base by promoting directly to them.

If that were true, then that person should have been selling hundreds of thousands of copies of each book. What they meant was that within traditional book marketing, they had exhausted the usual advertising sites.

This person had published a lot of tie-in books for a while, and rather than marketing to that fan base, they tried to hide from it. They wrote books that were similar to the tie-ins but never even tried approaching that base.

Nor did they cross-pollinate. They had a nonfiction base as well, and they never informed that base of their fiction writing.

These niches are unique to all of us and to all of our writing. Some of it we might not even think of as relevant to our writing, so versed are we in traditional B2B marketing habits.

But now we need to learn to think like consumers.

What do readers want to know?

Simple. They want to know if they’ll enjoy a new book that crosses their path…or they want to know where they can find a book that’s like the one they just finished…or they want to read the next book by their favorite author or their favorite series.

So ask yourself how you the writer could best answer those questions for you the reader. Those answers might vary depending on who you are as a reader. The answers might vary depending on what you’re marketing. And the answers might vary depending on which niche market you’re appealing to.

And yes, this means that I’m going to do a new series for the first part of the summer. It’ll be on niche marketing for 2023.

Wish me luck. I suspect I’ll need it just to keep the series under control.

*****

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“Business Musings: If Not Big Names, Then What?” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Photobuay

16 thoughts on “Business Musings: If Not Big Names, Then What?

  1. So, question from an old guy here. (I subscribed to F&SF back in college and early grad school when Kris took over as editor. I eventually let that subscription lapse because I wasn’t keeping up.). From the reader’s point of view, what’s the best way to find stuff I would probably like? If I am to be honest, the term “influencer” makes me want to go sit on my rocking chair and grumble about the kids on my lawn. I eschew most social media, and am happier since I started doing that. But, I fully agree the for people like me, publishing is better now.

    I’ve purchased a bunch of Story Bundles, because they’re good deals. I’d read some Retrieval Artist novels several years ago (starting before I knew about Story Bundle, and probably before it was a thing.). Only a year ago did I start reading the Diving novels, to discover that it is my favorite series ever. (Aside: thank you for selling on places like Smashwords. Of course I wanted to buy the ebooks that I hadn’t picked up through StoryBundle, but I try very hard to avoid buying books with DRM.)

    Where do people look now to find stuff they’ll probably like? Story Bundle has been a decent way to discover new things, though it is frustrating to find the first in a series, of an author I like, doesn’t seem too have ebooks available unencumbered by DRM.

    1. Folks, do you have an answer for him?

      I use Google a lot to find when an author has released something new. I also use also-boughts on Amazon. (If you bought this, then look at what others bought that’s similar.) That only goes so far, but it helps. I occasionally ask folks on Facebook, and I still do browse bookstore shelves. Other than that, I don’t have many tips.

      1. I ask friends. I check out book recommendations written by staff and posted on shelves of better independent book stores (a few still exist in large cities). If an author I like has a story published in an anthology or story bundle, I will look at what else was written by other authors with good stories in that anthology or story bundle. Some authors will recommend other authors’ books in their newsletters or web pages, and I check them out if any of the books look interesting. I will look at the top ~50 of Amazon best sellers in the categories Amazon lists for a book I like. Often, I’ll find a couple of authors or series I’m unfamiliar with, and then I’ll look to see if the book or first book in the series looks interesting enough to try. I’m especially likely to risk trying out a new author if the initial book is cheap (low price or KU (sorry, Kris)).

        In order not to forget old authors, I save bookmarks of Amazon pages for an author’s newest book or current series, but I prepend to the bookmark title an estimated year and month that’s my guess for when they will publish their next book, or final book in a closed-end series (plus maybe a small time buffer). I keep these bookmarks in a special browser folder. Whenever I’m looking for something new to read, I’ll check and update bookmarks in the folder with a past date.

          1. Oops, my aside comment was too ambiguous. I have read all the first books in your series, and also have bought and read all the following books in a couple of them. My comment was about your feelings about KU. I completely understand why you as a writer would strongly dislike KU. However, as a reader, I have found it’s a great way to discover new writers without being concerned about the cost of the books, as well as a great way to decide which new series to try, especially if they’re many books long. Without KU, I never would have tried a number of new writers and new series that I went on to enjoy.

              1. Absolutely. KU is a preferred way at present to discover new authors or series because it’s so economical, but as I indicated in the original reply, it’s only one way I use to get books and it would be too limiting if it was the only method I used. I’m dubious it will even still be around or be useful in a few years because I agree with your points about the increasing problems with it for writers, and I suspect Amazon’s greed will kill it.

  2. After last week’s post, about bestsellers and stars, I pulled out the movie Moneyball again.

    For a century, players were judged by scouts on ridiculous criteria like, looks, girlfriend, etc… When what was actually important was “getting on base”.

    The manager decided to try looking at the numbers rather than any of the nonsense scouts used in the past.

    – They won more games without the “Stars” than with.

    The point is, to “get on base”, i.e.:

    – Write the books. Indy publish them.

    I saw that I need to play the long game by building Story.

    BTW, I want to point out that Readers want “Story”, not more of the same but with a surprise or two packed inside. That is “Trad” thinking.

    As long as each book adds to Story, then the Reader will keep reading the next book.

    – C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series keeps adding to Story.

    – Charles Stross’ Laundry series keeps adding to Story.

    – J.K. Rowling is building Story, using limited series, books and now movies.

    She is using her limited time and resources that Trad allows her, to go direct to movies rather than write the books.

    – Stephen King does not do “series”, he is building Story with all of his books.

    – Justina Robson took her “Quantum Gravity” series too far, without adding to Story.

    Read her stuff, and you will see that she had an entire world to play in and only focused on her character, not the world(Story) she created for that character, and walked away from that incredible Story.

    But I digress.

  3. One of the ideas I’ve been toying with in my head is that of putting QR codes (for physical books) or hyperlinks into the back matter of my books as a way for readers to continue reading once they are finished with the current book. The hyperlinks are there for my ebooks, but the QR codes require a bit more work and discussing with the POD service to change some pages.

    But your post – and Dean’s last week – have put in my mind the idea of adding said QR code to the front cover of my books, maybe with the tagline “Read the FREE prologue here!” (after signing up to my mailing list of course).

    Now off to check the various TOSes whether this is actually allowed.

  4. Ever read an ebook and not recall the book title and author even when you’re in the middle of reading it? It makes it a bit hard to market subsequent titles when readers can’t recall what they’re reading when they’re reading it.

    The author/title information is not obvious once a reader is deep inside an ebook. This never happens to me with a hard copy paperback as the cover is always visible, and there are running heads throughout the book. The constant reminders make the information stickier.

    I’m sure this lack of reminders happens to others (or am I uniquely unhinged in this regard?) – though I understand newer Kindles give the option to display the book cover which may make it easier to recall the author and book title.

    I wrote an article on this here – http://shft.hk/davidairunnginghead – with a suggested solution. For ebooks at least – chapters are a good place to put a running head at the top of the ebook page… the exact opposite of a paper copy where on chapter title pages the running heads are absent. I do not suggest changing the age-old format paradigms of print books… but ebooks are not print books and a different treatment is appropriate. See the page linked to above for a screen shot of what I mean.

    For myself I created a Scrivener template that does the running head easily and automatically. I wrote to Vellum suggesting they include this feature, but the Vellum page still does not show a running head option for ebooks. A shame.

    Marketing begins with making sure the reader remembers the author and the book they’re reading. I’d be interested to know if others also experience this problem in their own reading and whether a solution like I suggest is a good idea for ebook formats.

    1. At any time on a Kindle (or even the Kindle app on iOS) you can hit the three vertical buttons on the top right corner and see “About this Book.” It gives both the title and author name. And on the app, it actually shows the book’s cover. By hitting the top of the page (on a Kindle and on the app) it immediately opens the menu and shows the title there as well. For me, who reads a lot on my Kindle, this is more than enough. Plus I’m usually in the middle of several books at once and so am often seeing the covers/titles/author etc. in my library as I switch from book to book. The same works for Vella – you can see about the book and the title with one tap, although you can only read those stories on the app or Fire and not on the other kinds of Kindles. For me, having the info literally a tap away at any given moment is enough. Having it on every chapter would seem odd and pull me out of the story simply because I’m not used to seeing the info on chapter headings. Author and title info in print disappears for me simply because it’s on every page, and because it’s never on chapter starts, it would pull my attention from the story. Just my opinion, though. And definitely wouldn’t be a deal breaker if I was into the story.

      PS Kris – I’m so excited about this new series. I just finished Discoverability and it was so, so good!

    2. Ooh, a brilliant observation, coupled with a good idea. I use Atticus, and I think I’ll adopt the practice of using a chapter subtitle to insert a running head. I already do it as a means of keeping track in short story collections, because Atticus doesn’t have an official “Collections and Anthologies” functionality yet (they will get around to it, I’m told.)
      This means I’d need to generate my ePub with the chapter subheading author/title/series reminder first. Then I’d go back and edit it out for the paperback. Yes, this can be done with a fair minimum of fuss. Thank you!
      As for the three dots on Kindle, my phone app makes me go elsewhere, and it’s generally a bit of a pain to figure out the author’s name. It really helps when writers leave a personal note with their name and other title in the back, still as a part of the last chapter.

    3. I’m late to the party, but I’ll add my comments.
      I’m a reader, not a writer. As a reader, I’m voracious and related to books quite organized, so my case is going to differ from other more chaotic readers. I’m not in KU, so all my new discoveries usually come or from also boughts in Amazon/Goodreads/Kobo/others (not many from them, I have so much to read that I usually ignore them, I don’t need to discover more books), and mainly from authors I enjoy that have newsletters where they comment books they like. I read some anthologies, but usually I enjoy more longer stories, but from time to time I add authors from a short story in an anthology, I look for him/her in Goodreads and might add a novel I find interesting to my Want to read list, or even buy a book if I find something interesting and on sale. Kris’ strategy of having the first in series on sale usually works for me to try a new author.
      When I discover a new author whose books I enjoy, I add him/her to the lists of authors to get automatic alerts with new books in Bookbub and FantasticFiction. FantasticFiction scraps this information from Amazon, and although I avoid buying from Amazon whenever possible, I get more alerts from them because it’s automatic, the author doesn’t need to run a promotion like in Bookbub, only have the book listed in Amazon, so I get more alerts from them. Having a newsletter alerting your readers of a new book also works, although to be honest I only subscribe to newsletters of authors I’m a hardcore fan.
      For other authors that I read a book from time to time, or they have such an extensive backlist that I don’t feel like buying and reading everything in one sitting (meaning I’m not going to read anything else in months/years) because I buy from different bookstores, I need to be diligent in keeping my electronic library organized in Calibre, and that software allows me to search my library, take a look at when was the last time I read something from some author of books I have in my “interested” collection, and I must say I have a good memory for authors, so even if I don’t recall what specific title I read from them or when, if I see a promotion, usually I remember and click to see if there’s something interesting (and then check if I haven’t already read that interesting thing)
      So that’s one way organized readers get their new material 🙂

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