Publishers, authors, literary agents, book marketers, publicists, stores, packagers, wholesalers, sales reps, book doctors, and everyone connected to the sale of a book take educated guesses as to what will sell and why. Here are some of the beliefs as to why a particular book will sell:
1. The author’s got a great platform of contacts and followers.
2. There’s a big publicity campaign behind the book.
3. The timing of the book’s release coincides with a relevant, significant event (i.e. Mother’s Day).
4. The book is newsy or shocking or controversial.
5. The book’s genre is very strong.
6. The title is catchy.
7. The cover draws you in.
8. It’s underpriced.
9. It includes a bonus—CD or DVD or code to download a free e-book.
10. The author has a track record in generating solid book sales.
11. Speaking engagements by the author to targeted groups are in place.
12. The author is well-positioned as the leading expert on what he or she writes about.
The list can go on. Some books are green-lighted for just one of the above reasons. Often, books are published based on ego, a misreading of the marketplace, the belief that the book has no competition (all books have competition from all other things one can purchase), or because of an editor’s pet preference, or because someone’s cashing in a favor. Of course, hundreds of thousands of books are published without any approval or judgment process, as those who self-publish only need to say yes to themselves.
Still, however a book came to be is not as relevant as: What will drive the sale of that book?
There is no exact formula for this, but certainly there are guidelines. Here are some of them:
1. Although I’d like to say for a book to sell it must be very good and well-written, it just isn’t true. People make a decision to buy on things like availability (found it in a store), impulse, attraction to a cool cover, book jacket copy that lures you in, and the subject matter. They won’t know if it’s well-written until they read it.
2. While some pay attention to an author’s credentials, especially for non-fiction, or the publishing label, many do not. There is a herd mentality though when it comes to best-sellers. People are more apt to buy a book that they are told is popular, equating popularity with quality.
3. People are driven to buy a book if they read a favorable review from a reliable source or if they heard the author on a radio or TV interview. The media legitimizes a book. Good PR gets books sold and then those readers will spread the word-of-mouth recommendation if the book is any good.
4. People buy on recommendations from people they know, trust, and respect. This is where the book being very good comes into play. In order to get a second wave of people to buy the book it will need to be very good so that others will feel compelled to tell family, friends and colleagues about it.
5. People factor in price, but only to a degree. If a book is similarly priced to competing titles, a difference of two dollars likely won’t matter. When the spread is $5 or more, consumers will scrutinize his or her choices more, but even then, most will pay for perceived value. So if they are convinced your book will deliver what they want or need, they may even pay double the price difference. A book can cost a buck and no one will buy it if the consumer believes he or she would be investing their time in something useless. Price does matter but it doesn’t significantly dictate sales of books as much as money is a factor for other products.
6. If a genre is strong it’s because a lot of books are being sold but that doesn’t mean every title in a crowded genre is selling well. So don’t use genre strength as a measure of success anticipated for your book.
7. For fiction, the consumer needs to be convinced they will be taken on an adventure, exposed to new ideas and dream worlds, to a place they wish to be in but at the same time are glad to not permanently live in. Only good cover copy can do that.
8. Testimonials alone don’t sell books but their absence makes some consumers wonder why the usual praise is not slapped onto the cover. Don’t print a book without testimonials.
9. Your book, if non-fiction should have a great table of contents. The chapter headings need to uniquely state something of interest, otherwise you need a sentence to summarize each chapter. For fiction, your title is very important—it must challenge, shock, invite, or touch a nerve.
10. The book should be skimmable. People like to thumb through to see if a random passage excites them, if the layout and font are pleasing to the eye, if the book’s too short or too long, and if the voice in which it’s written resonates with them.
Books sell when a consistent push is made with savvy book publicity, guerrilla marketing, strategic advertising… and luck. That last one perplexes the industry. So many books sell beyond expectations and no one really knows why. Conversely, there are many books that are published with high expectations and underperform, even flop. It’s luck in reverse.
Don’t get me wrong—there is an art to selling books. The process is not so random but it’s not one that’s exact either. That’s what makes it all so interesting. Perhaps we should ask consumers why they buy the books that they do. They’re the only experts to whom we should listen.
Interview With Patricia Fry, Executive Director of SPAWN
1. Please tell us what your organization does. SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network).. was formed by Mary Embree in 1996 as a face-to-face networking organization for anyone interested in or involved in publishing. SPAWN is not a publishing company, nor do we help anyone become published. We could be considered a self-help organization, as we provide the resources and information one needs in order to make better choices with regard to their publishing projects. We offer a FREE enewsletter. SPAWNews has been produced every month for fifteen years. In each issue, we review books of interest to our subscribers, run articles on various aspects of writing, publishing and book marketing, announce member news and so forth. Subscribe here: www.spawn.org and receive a free ebooklet on marketing your books or art.
Members have access to an additional newsletter—the SPAWN Market Update. This newsletter is more hard-hitting as it reports trends and changes in the industry, provides leads and ideas for locating publishers, promoting your book, finding freelance work and more. There’s at least one job board for writers or a directory of publishers, etc. posted in almost every issue. We also have a discussion group for members. We present a teleseminar with a publishing or marketing expert almost monthly. Newsletters and teleseminars are posted at our site for members to view or listen to at any time. SPAWN has a presence at various book festivals throughout Southern California. We have participated in the huge Los Angeles Times Festival of Books practically every year since it was launched, providing members a great opportunity to promote and sell their books. We also put out a catalog of members’ books and services which we post online and print and handout at the events we attend.
2. How do you help authors and publishers to sell more books? By keeping our finger on the pulse of the industry and reporting back to our members. We frequently run articles on book cover design, new ideas and opportunities for book promotion, etc. in our newsletters. We strive to help our authors help themselves by empowering them through education and information.
3. What do you love most about being in book publishing? I became a freelance article writer in 1973. A.S. Barnes, a New York niche publisher published my first book (on horse care for the beginner) in 1978. And I established my own publishing company in 1983 in order to produce a comprehensive history of our community here in California. I currently have 34 published book and most of them relate to publishing and book promotion. My latest is “Promote Your Book, Over 250 Proven, Low-Cost Tips and Techniques for the Enterprising Author” (Allworth Press, 2011). So as you can see, I have been involved in the industry as a publisher and also having been published several times traditionally. What do I love most about this industry? It is my life—my lifeblood—it’s how I make my living and it’s what I know best.
Actually, I am a writer first. My role in publishing, over the years, has become one of teacher/mentor. While I certainly charge for editorial work and involved consultations, for example, I also give a lot to the hopeful and struggling authors who come to us at SPAWN or who come to me after having heard me speak somewhere across the US or who read one of my books or articles. So one of the things I like about the world of publishing is being in a place where I can help some of the many, many authors out there to make the best choices on behalf of their particular projects.
4. What do you see is the industry’s fate? Obviously, during my 38 years in the industry, I have seen (and experienced) many changes. Currently, the big issue we’re all dealing with involves digital books—should we go digital? Is this the wave of the future? How will we market digital books?
I don’t think we’ll be asking these questions for too much longer as solutions to our dilemmas and answers to our inquiries are coming along at an accelerated rate. There are new readers and reading apps being created lickity split. There are sites all over the Internet offering conversions to any digital form you desire. And you see more people than ever before using electronic readers in airports, doctor’s offices, commuter trains, etc. instead of reading a paperback book.
Additionally, I think the trend toward independent publishing will continue and grow. I believe that bookstores will reinvent themselves—some are already doing so. And as for the many pay-to-publish companies (they call themselves “self-publishing companies”)… I believe that, as authors become more savvy (due to columns like yours, organizations like SPAWN and books like I write), they will force the bad companies out and cause the rest of them to maintain integrity.
5. What should authors and publishers do to promote and market their books? Now you’ve asked an impossible question. Why? Because the best way to market a book depends on the book and it depends on the author. My new book, “Promote Your Book,” includes over 250 ideas, tips, techniques and resources. I also include two dozen real life stories of successful book promotion. Why so many book marketing ideas? Because one size does not fit all in promotion—or, by the way, in publishing.
So while visiting middle schools is an excellent way for an author of an age-appropriate young adult fantasy to sell thousands of copies per year, another author might get better results through book reviews, presenting workshops and selling to libraries. One must consider his or her skills, personality, availability and talents. They must also think about their audience—never lose sight of who and where your audience is and the best way to approach them.
For a business book, for example, a newsletter, an interactive website and getting the book on dozens of business college reading lists might result in high sales figures. A humorous novel might sell well at home parties where audience members dress in costume and take on a role in the story.
Authors and publishers must be creative. Just as there is no one right method of writing or publishing a book, there is no one right way of promoting it.
Authors must be proactive in becoming educated and informed BEFORE getting involved in the vast and fiercely competitive world of publishing.
Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at email@example.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.
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