A Publisher's Conversation with Authors: Hard Truths about Getting People to Buy Your Book


It is Tuesday. Time to tall turkey. Monday's madness is over, and Wednesday will take us over the hump, so Tuesday it is--for some serious discussion with authors. Tuesday talks mean to address authors in waiting and self-published authors who would like to go a more traditional route or who would at least like to take their steps with a publisher by their side.

Today's topic addresses how authors can sell their books. After all, it makes no sense to put all the effort into writing a book, self-publishing it or getting it published, and then having it sit on a shelf for ever, with no opportunity for it to share its message. Unfortunately, many, if not most new authors, in our experience, never think beyond the day their book appears in print (or, in some cases, beyond their first month of book launch activities). They assume that, of course, they did the work of writing the book, and the publisher will do the work of marketing the book. It does not work that way, and marketing requires as much effort from authors as does writing the book in the first place, particularly in the area of book promotion. (If you do not understand the difference between marketing and promotion, check out this post.)

When we were little, my mother used to tell her children that in order to get a room adequately clean, they needed elbow grease. I remember once taking off to the store with my sister to try to buy some elbow grease--and discovered that, ugh, we could not buy it, we actually had to do the hard work. The same is true in the book industry. 

So, why can the publisher not do all the marketing?

  • Effective marketing (advertising, whether in print or via social media, listing in catalogues, email blasts, tweaking SEO and following results, holding sales, and the like) depends upon effective promotion (presentations, talk shows, articles, awards. Publishers usually do take on most, or all, of the marketing, except in cases of hybrid publication, where the publisher and author split the marketing efforts and costs. Authors are g
  • Author are enerally responsible for book promotion (fully so for self-published books) although, of course, every publisher will help with promotion as feasible, and would be expected to in the case of hybrid publications.
    • The publisher and likely will do all the marketing if your name is Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump, but have you ever noticed how extensively Clinton and Trump actually promote their books? So, their publishers are not going it alone even with big names and ready audiences.
    • An author's platform is the reason a publisher takes on a book in the first place. Some publishers, like MSI Press LLC, will take on inexperienced authors with writing talent and good content and guide them in the development of their platform, book promotion, and marketing activities, but most will not. 
    • Clinton and Trump DO have a platform: it is their name; because of their name, people are eager to buy their book. Nonetheless, they actively promote their books. They definitely apply immense amounts of elbow grease to their promotion activities. Because without the promotion, the sales will only be a fraction of what they could be. If Clinton says, "please, read my book," her fans and likely many of her opponents, as well as news media people, will read it. Ditto for Trump. Ditto for anyone with an equal level of recognition among the general population. Just producing the book is not enough -- even for them. Just having a big publisher with a big advertising budget is not enough -- even for them. Publishers can build a lot of their marketing around these authors' promotional activities.
    • Lesser known, but generally publicly popular figures, like Dog the Bounty Hunter, can also sell books based on their name, but not likely through mere placement online or in a bookstore. They get involved through book tours (makes sense for someone with some renown but not for those without it) and other promotional activities, and, of course, word-of-mouth. Publishers can build a lot of their marketing around these authors' promotional activities.
    • Brand-new authors who have a platform of some sort (social presence, academic connections, professional networks) can use their platforms to promote their books, and publishers will support those efforts where they can.
    • Brand-new authors without a platform and who expect publishers to do it all can plan on very few sales because it is not realistic to expect publishers to do it all.
    • What publishers can, will, and do do, nearly across the board for any author, include things that authors would not be able to or would find it more difficult to do (which is part of what explains greater sales for hybrid and traditional publications than for self-publications), e.g., 
      • SEO for your book on the publisher's website
      • Inclusion on the publisher's website and in the webstore
      • E-blasts perceived as credible to book buyers, libraries, and booksellers.
      • Inclusion in distribution catalogues
      • Inclusion in promotional literature - this is a marketing effort
      • Sending book copies to reviewers and award competitions that accept entries only from publishers (expected of authors, too) - this is more of a promotional opportunity than marketing
      • Exhibiting books (a promotional, not marketing, activity) where it makes sense strategically, or, with hybrid publication, sharing that opportunity with authors to make it feaisble
      • Advertise in accordance with their policies, whether a reasonable return on investment can be expected, and the status of the book (front list or back list, selling or not selling). 
  • Marketing is very expensive, and the return on investment has become increasingly poor in recent years. 
    • Most publishers will begin with a standard set of marketing activities and adjust them depending upon how effective they are at gaining sells for any particular book.
    • More and more publishers are turning to social media rather than print media as a more effective form of marketing; authors can help a lot here but retweeting, sharing, forwarding, and the like; those authors who do generally have better sales, and publishers are likely to concentrate their efforts, bound by time and resources, to those authors who, over time, show that they are worth the effort because they actively help to multiply the effect of the publisher's efforts.
    • Hybrid publishing has an advantage here; hybrid publishers can share advertising expenses (which are quite high nearly anywhere) with authors and make the advertising affordable for everyone.
    • Setting up marketing/advertising through click-through ads in places like Face Book is quite cumbersome and while more affordable than print advertising can be out of the reach of publishers because of sheer volume of books and the human time involved; this is definitely the better jurisdiction of the author, who only has one (or at least, just a few) books to manage in this way.
  • Mathematical reality precludes (or recommends against) direct advertising though big publishers with large pockets can and do do it, and the law of averages works in their favor to cover their costs and make money. Not so for small publishers.
    • To cover the cost of a half-page ad in a typical magazine for book buyers (estimate is $2K as a mean across such publications), that one advertisement would have to sell at least 1000 books.
      • This is an extraordinarily high number for an author who has published through a small traditional publisher. 
      • With hybrid publishers, the math changes; it the publisher and author split the cost, only 500 books would have to sell to break even -- still a loft goal. 
      • If the ad is repeated several times or regularly, more books will sell, and perhaps the advertising cost will be less for each of the multiple iterations, but still the goal is lofty in terms of the advertising paying for itself. 
      • While self-published authors can throw whatever amount of money they wish into advertising (which, given the law of supply and demand, has raised the cost of advertising in the past few years), small publishers cannot.
    • The return on investment of direct mailing is more predictable but no more happy. Generally, there is a 1% return on a mailing. 
      • To sell 300 books, the mailing would need to go to 30,000 households; that includes the cost of mailing the printed literature and the cost of design and printing the literature. This is not a successful model for most publishers.
      • If a publisher can cut corners, such as in-house production of print materials, direct mail may pay off.
      • Most important, if a publisher can beat the 1% limit by laser focus on potential buyers only (smaller mailing list but more fertile one), direct mail pay off. (When we target university and high school foreign language departments for our language learning materials, we have gotten a 5% or higher return on investment.
      • One should note, however, that email blasts do not have a discernible cost, except for time, and the return is about the same; for that reason, we prefer to use e-blasts rather than direct mail.
  • Marketing by placing books in bookstores is passive marketing and, while most publishers, including small ones, will indeed, make their books available to bookstores, some do so at their own peril. 
    • Orientation on bookstore sales is not generally an effective marketing strategy -- with the exception of a book that is already successful through other venues, in which case, the book must be in the bookstore because readers will expect to buy it there. (Neither, for that matter, is listing a book with an online seller, but generally the cost is minimal, and, of course, buyers expect to find them online. Virtually, all publishers do this kind of online marketing.) 
    • Maybe someone will come along and pick up the book, and maybe no one will. There needs to be an impetus more than a great cover for a reader to pick up a book. (Often, the bookstore will place the book with spine out -- no cover visual is available in those cases to attract a reader.
    • Bookstores expect to return unsold books. This can cause a major financial crisis for small publishers. 

Well, okay, then, a book's success depends as much on an author's efforts as the publisher's. What must I do to help my book become successful? 

  • While you may not be able to market the book in ways that publishers do, you must be willing to promote the book. The publisher relies on you for this!
    • To promote a book, you need a platform. This can be one or a combination of any of the following or something similar:
      • a well-known name in the field of your book's content; that means you will need to stay well known through frequent professional activities (writing, conferences, working with colleagues on projects, professional associations and networks, etc.)
      • some format of social media (Face Book, blog, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc.); don't try to be everywhere; pick the one or ones that work best with your style, personality, resources, and time available
      • regular access to potential readers (if social media is not your thing, try writing a regular column for a local paper or magazine -- or to a regional or national 
      • places to showcase your book (could be at a local restaurant or cafe, business associated with the topic, or local library)
      • use some promotional tools, e.g., provide free bookmarks to a bookstore that is selling your book or supporting a book signing, offering free bookmarks anywhere you can
      • take advantage of regular community events where you live (get a table at the county fair, offer copies of your book in church and other raffles)
    • To promote a book, you need consistency. 
      • A series of one-time events (book club reading & discussion, book signing, etc.) helps a little, but not a lot.
      • Consistently seeing the name of your book is what prompts people to buy
        • Consistency is what your platform allows you to provide
          • Consistency is platform-dependent: some social media platforms (like blogs) require more time, others (like Instagram) less time. A good rule of thumb is to put up something on Instagram every day or every other day (ditto for tweeting); blogging weekly is sufficient; regularity of columns will be determined by the newspaper; community events will depend upon when they happen but be sure to always be there if this is to be your platform.
          • It is important not to miss a regular blog post or other platform event or activity; if your activity is irregular, your fans and followers -- and potential book buyers -- will tend to forget about you.
        • Yes, you can buy this level of exposure, but one ad will not do it; you will need to have ongoing ads -- and that is expensive (better to apply elbow grease).
    • To promote a book, you need to remember you wrote one wherever you are. I have met far too many authors, including some we have published, who forget that they ever wrote a book once they have a printed copy in hand. Those books never pay for themselves, and whatever time the author put into writing them has been wasted effort (except for an ego boost). Don't be an ego writer; write for a purpose, and never forget that you did.
  • Word of mouth advertising has proved itself to be the most effective. Word of mouth starts with you!

The bottom line is that no book will succeed without a lot of elbow grease applied to post-publication activities by authors. Publishers cannot do all that needs to be done to make a book successful. They need you, their partner, to do your job, too. And it is a hard job, but, if successful, will be rewarding.

Lesson for today's Tuesday talk: You cannot buy elbow grease; you just have to do the hard work. The success of your book will not take care of itself. Neither will your publisher be able to take care of it all alone. You must help -- but that can be very rewarding and will spread your message much further and wider.

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 (Publishing for Smarties: How to Find a Publisher available from MSI Press LLC; discount of 25% with coupon code FF25; currently on sale for $5, but that offer will not last forever).







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