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A Publisher's Conversation with Authors: Anatomy of a Successful 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 is the anatomy of a successful book. We are talking here about books by small presses, micro presses, and self-published authors. Large presses have a different sales volume and a different approach to marketing and sales not typically available to those without their big pockets.

The image of a successful book is a high volume of sales from the get-go (and maybe even from pre-orders) that either steadily builds or starts big and stays there on a flat trajectory. Conversely, if a book starts slowly, stumbles, and has a long spell of poor sales, one often assumes that the book is and always will be a poor seller. That is not always true. To take a more realistic look, here is the trajectory of one of our successful books.

The book

  • Genre: foreign language
  • Size: 5x8, 108 pages
  • Retail price: $14.95
  • Current sales volume: 30 copies per day, average
  • Amazon bestselling rank: top .01% 

The sales trajectory

  • The first edition had ups and downs and nothing startling. It was published at the request of an organization to which the author belonged and was featured by the organization at its conferences. For the first couple of years it sold as one would want from a small press, a few hundred a year, mostly at the conferences, following the conferences, or to academic institutions associated with the organization or in attendance at the conference. 
  • Then, the book went dormant, selling only a handful of books over the next couple of years.
  • The author proposed some relatively minor changes for a second edition, and we published that; at the same time. He started a website and began consulting for big-time, international organizations with language needs; the book started selling fairly well for perhaps a year. 
  • Then, sales went flat for years.
  • After a proposed third edition was published approximately ten years after the first edition, sales shot off the scale, with 600 copies a month selling for a few months. A third edition that was not significantly different from earlier editions could not explain the sudden jump. Nor could any consulting increase. We happened across the reason for the jump a few months later: a scammer had taken pictures of the book pages and put them online for free. We were unsuccessful in getting the book removed from the site but, as it turns out, the copy was nearly unreadable but intriguing enough that many of those trying to get it for free decided they wanted it badly enough to buy it. It all just coincidentally happened concurrently with the third edition. (One sometimes has to look beyond the obvious.)
  • Then, unfortunately, the author became very ill with cancer, retired, entered into long-term chemotherapy, and died. The book went dormant during those years, and a collaborating publisher picked it up as a fourth edition but the sales were never there. 
  • The collaborating press gave us back the rights in early 2021. Enter INFLUENCER. A powerhouse youtuber polyglot fell in love with the book—found the third edition on his own (this is where serendipity over time comes in, bolstered by the author’s earlier promotion), did a book review on Youtube last fall followed by two more specific episodes about the book (did not even need to bring in the author—and could not have, anyway, because the author was deceased), garnered nearly 10,000 views within a day (not hard when you have 2M followers), and posed a challenge to his followers: try out the suggestions in the book and post their experiences on his Youtube site. Many of them started to do that. The book shot up to #2 on Amazon in the language instruction category and #3400 among all books, a really, really strong ranking for books published by a small press and for that particular topic. 
  • Sales have now settled down to about 20-30 copies a day, again a very strong sales record for a small press. 

Lessons learned

  • Even great books may go through periods of ailment for a variety of reasons.
  • One can almost always “re-start” a book for better performance, and ups and downs are the norm. The key is to ride the surf and when you reach a shoreline, go on back out and find some new waves. Don’t assume because time has passed your book has also passed (except, perhaps, for our pandemic books which were meant to meet a special need at a particular moment).
  • You do not have to be among the living to have good book sales record.
  • An influencer—a good one, with millions of followers—counts more than reviews (this book has only had two Amazon reviews in 15 years [both 5 stars] though there are lots of reviews by readers on the influencer’s site and likely elsewhere), more than exhibitions (the author has had none), more than awards (the author entered no competitions), and even more than publicists (the author self-promoted only, but, of course, publicists do help and the good ones seek out the influencers).  Without an influencer, all those other things will be come highly important, i.e. books can and do sell well without an influencer, but, man, does an influencer help!

The bottom line is that book sales, even for successful books, do not follow straight trajectories. They can start with a bang or with a whimper. They can pick up steam later. They can sputter for a while. Finding an influencer will help tremendously, but there are other means available to promote a book as well, including reviews, exhibits, competitions, ads, and social media. And influencers often come across books from these other sources.

Lesson for today's Tuesday talk: Don't lost hope. Just like people, books will follow their own paths through life. Some are late bloomers.

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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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