A Publisher's Conversation with Authors: The Unique Life Cycle of a 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 a look at the life cycle of books -- how they differ, how do you define "success" and "failure," and what authors can expect over a lifetime.

Here at MSI Press, we have seen a variety of paths taken by successful books (and ones that have not fared as well). For lack of better nomenclature, I would say that we have hares, tortoises, dogs, cats, and mountain goats. 

  • Hares
    • As in the fable, the hares start out fast. These books have strong launches, sell hundreds of books in the first few weeks (from a larger press, these might show up as thousands of sales) and then, quite suddenly sales seem to dry up. The hare has gone to sleep.
    • This is, by far, the most common situation we see, especially with books by first-time authors without strong platforms. Generally, the authors exploit what platform they do have, in a one-time big push, and then do not know what to do next and provide little upon which a publisher can build.
    • What should they do?
      • Hire a publicist for the long term. (Some hares do have publicists for the launch but end the relationship after that, often because of cost that has not been a good return on investment.)
      • Build their platform. Hares are going to sleep until they have a platform from which they can continue to leap. That means regular (at least weekly) interaction with readers and potential readers). That means responding to others' platforms -- follow and interact on blogs, Twitter, Pinterest, Face Book, etc., social media events on the topics of their books.
      • Build a mailing list -- and send out weekly e-blasts or at least monthly newsletters, providing insights into their topic.
      • Write articles in which they credit their book as the source for their credibility in writing the article.
      • Check out this blog post: So, Your Book Is Not Selling
  • Tortoises
    • As in the fable, the tortoises start out slowly and continue to plod along. They plod, and plod, and plod -- and win the race through persistence.
    • These are the authors who continue to promote their book at every opportunity, with their eyes trained on the long goal post, not the short one. Perhaps they do not even look for the goal post but keep putting one foot after another, getting one review after another, getting one interview after another, talking one mom-and-pop store after another into selling their book (perhaps even on consignment), talking one library after another into shelving their book, and so on. Plod, plod, plod, win.
    • An example of one of our tortoises is a book we published about four years ago:
      • The first year the book sold the normal quantity expected for a first year -- not inspiring, but not embarrassing.
      • The second year the book doubled in sales, thanks to specialty stores ordering in bulk.
      • The third year the book sextupled in sales; it had won several awards and likely gained a fair amount of attention that way; the specialty stores were charmed, and the online retail market for paperbacks flourished, as did the Kindle market for this book; the author could pocket some money to supplement his retirement income.
      • The fourth year, currently under way, points to the possibility that the book may become a source of solid income for the author. Helping out that possibility is a second book on a similar topic that the author wrote. The second book is not selling at the same rate as the first book, but it has time; the tortoise is still plodding along. 
    • What should tortoises be doing?
      • First, they should be doing exactly what they are doing: keeping at it day after day. 
      • If they want to pick up the pace, they could consider doing more of what they are already doing: appear for more interviews, enter more competitions, show up at more exhibits, send the book out for more reviews.
      • They could also hire a publicist who might be able to find new angles for promotion or have contacts that they do not have.
  • Dogs 
    • Dogs are unpredictable. They get excited and dash around, and they need to rest.
    • Book sales of dogs are very erratic. One week they are up, and one week they are down. One year they sell hundreds, one year they sell thousands, one year they sell dozens. Over time, they may do well, but the pattern and reason for sales is hard to figure out sometimes, making it difficult to know where to place effort and resources.
    • What should dogs do?
      • Analyze their book sales and lack of sales. Is the SEO up to snuff? Is the book showing up when Googled? Is the price affordable, and does it say that the book has value? How does it stack up with the price of similar books? 
      • Chart when and where sales do occur -- can that be replicated or can you put your efforts into these times and places.
      • If the chart is daunting, find a consultant or publicist to help you; sometimes, a publisher will help out if its database aligns well with the chart.
  • Cats
    • Cats are sleepy little critters, aren't they? These books, alas, do not launch well and never take off -- not the first day, first month, first year, or first decade. They just gather dust on the publisher's shelf. This often happens when authors are not fully involved with the promotion of their books; they assume that writing the book is enough, but, of course, it is not.
    • Cats also like to have staff (unlike dogs who have owners). They expect everything to be done for them. Some authors are that way. They assume a publisher is going to handle all the marketing, promotion, and interaction with readers and pass along immense royalties. This attitude is unfortunate because readers expect authors to be involved with them; they couldn't care less about publishers.
    • I wish we had only one book in this category. Unfortunately, we have found and published a few really good books by authors who never really wanted to share their content. They just wanted an ego boost: a book to brag about and put on their shelf.
    • What can cats do?
      • Wake up. Without personal involvement by authors, books are not going to sell.
      • Look past the staff to see what you can do. Publishers are not agents or publicists for authors. If you need a publicist, figure out how to get one.
      • Change your attitude. Why would just having a book to show off and sit on your shelf be enough? After all, you spent a lot of time writing the book; spend an equal amount of time sharing that book with the world.
      • Check out this article: What To Do When Your Book Launch Fails
  • Mountain goats
    • Mountain goats are hard to see and hard to find even when you are looking for them. Some books are this way, too. Great, even brilliant, content, but somehow no one, even with advertising, seems to find these books. Then, one day, they do! The book is discovered, typically by an influencer, and sales soar. But, they often are only seen by that one influencer and subsequently fade back into the rocks and lose their visibility.
    • An example of a mountain goat is a foreign language book that we published initially in 2003. 
      • From 2003 to 2013, the book was "out there" but not selling much -- just enough to keep it from being backlisted and to make it worthwhile to update the content in a second edition circa 2009.
      • In 2013, some of the material became dated, and we put out a third edition in spite of sickly sales. The third edition surged to become our best seller for several months; it had been discovered by an influencer, and everyone seemed to want a copy.
      • In 2014, we passed the book on to another publisher, only because that publisher had acquired our foreign language line. That publisher did very well with some of the acquired foreign language books, but this one, now in its fourth edition, pulled back into lackluster status.
      • In 2020, that publisher returned all our foreign language titles to us, and we put out a fifth edition of the book, which hung around, not doing much, though it seemed that it was far more visible now. Then, a big influencer fell in love with the book and got his followers to buy copies and compete with each other in how they would implement the suggestions in the book. Book sales exploded, then settled down to 20-30 copies a day. For a foreign language book by a small publisher, that is tremendous. 
      • Sales are now declining but are still acceptable. 
      • One note of irony: the author died in 2017! Yet, the book has lived on. 
    • What should mountain goats do?
      • Even though they will get discovered at some point, mountain goats can invest time and effort into making their books discoverable earlier, perhaps with the help of a publicist or with an expanded platform or plodding along like the tortoise with weekly e-blasts and growing mailing lists until they hit the right person.
      • They need to invest the effort to find an influencer. Read the posts of influencers in their topical area and interact in any and every way possible with these people, short of becoming a nuisance.
      • Work with the publisher to run sales to help get the word out by people who will actually read the book because they could afford to buy it (or got it for free).

The bottom line is that every book is different, though any one book is likely to fall into one of the five categories listed above. Each book cycle, whether the book is successful or not, differs from the cycle of every other book (including other books you write). Understand how your book's cycle works, what category it falls into, what is prompting sales or keeping them from happening, and you will be a lot closer to having a successful book.

Lesson for today's Tuesday talk: Don't lose hope. Just like people, books will follow their own paths through life. Some are late bloomers. Those that are early bloomers can be kept in flower much longer with the right actions.

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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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