Saturday, April 15, 2006

Property Values and Writing

Publishing is really all about real estate.

Your in-house publicist works with sales (the reps who sell to 5 main buyers--libraries, chains, indies, department stores, convenience stores/airports) and marketing (advertising, event planning, appearances, touring, media, coop) to coordinate the amount of money spent to promote your book. A publicist usually doesn't have any power--sales and marketing do--and major decisions are made above her head.

The amount of money a book receives for publicity depends on many things, such as print run, competing titles in the catalog, previous sales, and in-house enthusiasm. I've been told that each book released in a quarter receives a pro rata share of the promo money, depending on how big the print run is.

Print runs are determined by orders. I've heard that a publisher takes orders, then doubles the figure, and that's the print run. That doesn't make much sense, but it would explain why 50% is considered an acceptable sell-through.

Writing a book in and of itself isn't going to generate any media. The author, much like the book, needs a hook.

I've done many alcohol-related events, to tie in to my book titles. I'm visiting 500 bookstores this summer, which will help generate some buzz.

My publisher has done many things for me. Lots of ARCs, big pushes at BEA, tours, awards dinners, library and bookselling conventions, point of sales stuff (free whiskey sour mix shipped witht he first ARC). They did a booklaunch party for me that went very well. They've done several ads in NYTBR, Bookpage, PW, and some mystery publications. Most importantly, they've always kept me in the loop, and have encouraged my participation in coming up with ideas.

For my part, I've gotten over forty interviews, sold over thirty short stories (which is the best advertising), visited a few dozen conventions, signed at several hundred bookstores, and tried to get my name out in cyberspace through my website, blog, and generally being a loudmouth.

My sales are decent, but not spectacular. This summer, I'll have about 170k books in print with three titles, HB and PB.

I've gotten some big reviews (PW, Kirkus, Booklist, LJ), but no huge ones (ET, People, NYT) and very few smaller (towns of less than 1 mil) reviews. That's where I'd like to see a bigger push made, because I think that people in the smaller review markets have a greater percentage of readers per capita, and I am pursuing this angle with the new book, sending out ARCs myself.

If the point of this is to sell books, where does real estate come in?

I'll get to that in a moment. First, let's talk about branding.

The word "branding" has been used a lot in publishing. So has "name-recognition." These basically mean that we want "JA Konrath" to be the same as "Coke." People see the bright covers, see the drink title, and automatically know they'll have a few laughs and a few scares reading it.

This happens in three steps.

1. People pick up my books out of curiosity--they've never heard of me before. Or they've heard of my through word-of-mouth or publicity.

2. People pick up my books because they've read me before.

3. My books become an automatic purchase as they are released.

The majority of my sales are still 1 & 2. The secret to 3, I'm convinced, is simply surviving long enough, with a backlist still available, to amass large numbers of books in print. The more books out there, the more chances for people to find them.

Allison Brennan's publisher released three PBOs in three consecutive months, and this strategy was a double-edged sword---along with getting a lot of books in print at once, it also capitalized on the publicity of a trilogy being released so quickly. Win-win. Of course, it could have backfired. if the first book wasn't any good, no amount of publicity would get readers to buy #2. Since the first book was good, each successive book has debuted higher on the NYT list.

Many bestsellers can become self-fulfilling prophesies. A publisher believes it has a big book, so the reps tell the buyers that this one is getting a large print run and a large push. The buyers anticipate demand from the publicity, and order many copies and are told to sell them word of mouth.

This sometimes backfires. I remember seeing huge stacks of Tom Wolfe and Salman Rushdie books in stores, and bookseller friends have told me the copies sold vs. shipped was ridiculously low.

But the primary factor in book sales, and the point of publicity and marketing, is ultimately real estate.

The more space you take up on a bookshelf, the better store position, the more books you have in stores, the more stores you're in, the likelier you are to sell. It's like Monopoly. Prime property, and ultimately the most property, wins the game.

The goal is to reach the point where you aren't only stocked, but restocked. You want to have permanent space on those shelves. You want to be there when someone goes looking for you, or if someone is just browsing. It's like tenure. That's what branding really does for you.

If you don't sell well, your books will go out of print, and your patch of real estate gets smaller. Smaller space=less sales, and the death spiral has begun.

Slow and steady used to win the race, with publishers carrying midlist authors for many books before the broke out and began selling in large numbers.

These days, there's more competition for space. More books are being published, and they're given less time on the shelves.

Which is why, as authors, we must do everything we can to fight for real estate.

The chains tell their stores when to pull books from the shelves and return them. But there's a loophole. The stores aren't run by computers--they're run by people. If people like your books, they'll keep them on the shelf, even when they are told to return them.

Which is why I'm visiting 500 bookstores this summer. To meet the people. To secure the real estate.

Time will tell if I'm right or wrong.

26 comments:

Mark Terry said...

An interesting post Joe, and certainly a reasonable pov.

"These days, there's more competition for space. More books are being published, and they're given less time on the shelves."

So we're told. But I wonder: maybe the truth is, the real competition space is within the co-op space, the end caps, the "new books" the front table.

Stand for a moment in the entrance of a Borders or Barnes & Noble ask yourself--is there really competition for all this space?

Or is the bookstore stuck trying to fill it?

I don't actually disagree with your point, but clearly there are authors who stay on the shelf for a long time with their backlist, and others who don't, and I'm not entirely sure sales points explains it as much as store inefficiency, name recognition and just dumb luck.

Pat Mullan said...

Joe,

Yeah -when I walk into Easons in Galway (or Borders when I'm in the States) and I watch a huge boxoffice name move from the front window and high focused marketing posters, etc in the space of a few days to the genre shelves and in a few weeks to 'missing entirely' - and I'm talking about bestselllers here ....

..I begin to wonder: why do I even try?

And then Cecilia Ahern, the 21 year old daughter of our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) gets $1 million for her chiclit novel, PS I love You, followed by another $3 million for the movie rights - and my fellow Irishman, Darren Shan (actually his name's O'Shaughnessy) lands a multi million dollar deal - and, of course another fellow Irishman, Eoin Colfer(with whom I share DUBLIN NOIR) who writes the fantasy books about Artemis Fowl gets mega-million deals without even leaving the environs of Limerick..he's never done 500 bookstores in a season!

So -talk to me about shelf space again!

Seems to me that it's just like the days when I searched for an apartment in the Bronx while my fellow countryman Tom Flately was buying Boston block by block ....

JA Konrath said...

Mark--

Coop has no competition. If the publisher pays, the bookstore will find the space. It's a question of getting the publisher to cough up the dough.

I'm not sure if it is the same with backlists, but I'm guessing it is in some cases. In other cases, stores are told what to stock by the corporate office, based on sales figures and predictions and deals with publishers and distributors.

Corporate also tells the stores when to get rid of books.

Like any other store, a bookstore wants space for products that sell. If a product is languishing, that's lost money. Which is why the time books are on the shelf is shorter and shorter.

J. Carson Black said...

Great post, Joe, and lots to think about.

There is great power in the backlist. Just go in any store and look at JA Jance's backlist. It's astounding! That, in the long run, is where the real money is.

Stacey Cochran said...

As always, I would just like to get any of the eight novels/million + words I've written actually published.

As always, great post, Joe! Particularly about your five main markets and about the info on the in-house power.

Stacey

Jude Hardin said...

Great post, Joe, both for the published and for those of us still trying to break in.

How far is too far regarding promotion?

Google "Feldman Myduke." The first site to come up will be Staugustine.com. Then click on cached.

Steve said...

You're 100% right Joe. The key to combating the quick turnaround on shelf space is making relationships with booksellers.

And beer. Beer is always good.

M. G. Tarquini said...

Maybe sometime you could take us all back to early days, when you debuted, what obstacles you encountered, and what you did to help launch your career.

I watched your book store tour last year. It will be interesting to watch it again this year.

Sandra Ruttan said...

This is a great post, and as much as the tour sounds intense, you're doing the right thing.

I recently had an opportunity to put questions to some local booksellers (owner of an independent, and a manager of an independent) and what they had to say was fascinating. Part of the reason here that the big chain bookstores are turning profits now is because they're selling fewer and fewer books and more gift merchandise.

In fact, an author event in those venues is almost redundant. They don't typically have author readings, formal book launches. Just stick an author at a table and leave them alone.

One of the main short story magazines up here also pulled distribution through the big chains because they said they were being forced to discount the cost so much that they were losing money on every issue sold.

It's all opinion being given to me that I can't factually substantiate myself, but I find it interesting. If I want to find certain books - most of the books I want to read anymore - I have to go to independents. I was at a chain today - couldn't find Al Guthrie, Kate Atkinson, Zoe Sharp, Duane Swierczynski (God help me, I'm sure I spelled it wrong) or Terrenoire or loads of others.

But they had a lot of cute teddy bears.

And they don't even have the new Val McDermid available for order online. So more and more people are naturally turning to amazon or independents, where they can actually get the books they want.

Side issue, but it goes to the heart of fighting for that shelving space. It seems to me that the people who win are the ones with publishers that push them hard.

Getting to know booksellers is very important though, and I'm sure there will be times your book gets ordered in above another because you've made a good impression.

Assuming you're leaving the pitchfork at home and filing the horns down before the tour.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Mindy, I have an interview with Joe on the early days - "Let's Make A Deal" by J.A. Konrath.

My husband kept telling me to read it but I was scared of the photo, so he read it to me.

JA Konrath said...

The early days? I debuted in 2004.

And let me tell you, things were a lot harder back then. When I finished a book, I took the horse and buggy to good old Gutenberg, and we spent a whole month typesetting on his press...

Jude Hardin said...

That's funny, Joe.

Hey, I can remember back when the IBM Selectric was the state-of-the-art tool for writers. It's hard to imagine how anybody got anything done.

BTW, what are you doing up at 3AM, Joe? Burning the midnight oil, or just getting in from the bars? Did you hit Whitey's on the way home?

Mary Stella said...

Word of mouth, or word of blog promotion definitely works. I found my way here via Beth Ciotta's blog. I recently bought Whiskey Sour because you stirred my interest. (Bad pun.) The book itself will push me to make you an auto-buy. (I'm part of the way through. Gotta tell you, the detailed description of candy-doctoring seriously creeped me out. However, while my gut cringed, my mind said, Jeezus, this is great writing.)

M. G. Tarquini said...

Heh heh. You've come a long way in two years, Joe. I started reading your blog about nine months ago, when you started a bookstore tour, an experiment to see how it would drum up business. That was when I was still working out the conundrum of the query letter. The idea I'd have to walk into bookstores myself and sign my books was too frightening to contemplate.

So - I'm interested in what it was like when your book came out. After you got through the Holy Sh*t! That's my book! moment. Sandra's sending me that interview. I'm hoping it's in there.

JA Konrath said...

Mindy--

I related the whole story on my website. It's in the TIPS section. How I got my deal, and what happened afterward.

PJ Parrish said...

It's easy to get discouraged because so much is out of your control as a writer. And while it's wrong to obsess about this stuff, you ignore it at your own peril. You have to find a healthy balance between being an educated business person and being so bummed by the whole insane process that you are paralyzed as a writer.

I'm seven books into a series and I have only recently begun to appreciate the power of the backlist. If you hook a new reader with your latest and your quality is consistent, they will usually seek out what came before. That is how you build an audience, your brand name and "product" loyalty. That much IS under your control. New books help sell old ones and vice versa.

But what if readers can't find your old books at the local Big Book Store? I wonder how many bother to order thru Amazon or how many just give up and pick up someone else?

First "trick:" HAVE an active, attractive backlist. (ie your pub has to keep it in print)

Second "trick:" Get your back titles stocked in enough stores to matter so folks can find you easily.

Third "trick:" Have your backlist on "automatic reorder." Which means that if someone buys your old stuff, the computer automatically orders a replacement copy.

Of course, none of these "tricks" are in the writer's hand -- except the first one -- produce really good books to start with.

There is always another hoop to jump through, another higher bar to be cleared. I try very hard to remember Jan Burke's advice to me when I was just starting out: Keep your head down and write the best damn books you can.

I'm such a pollyanna...!

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Good post Joe! And great things to remember, although I don't know how much of it is applicable in my market.

I write christian fiction and in the longrun I'm finding that things among christian publishers and booksellers run slightly contrary to the secular market.

But like Stacey, I have yet to be published. When I get there, I'll be able to experience these spoken of differences first hand. Then I'll know where I need guidance.

Eileen said...

Really interesting post. I've got my first book coming out in Feb/07 and am already trying to figure out how I can do my part to leverage space and find readers. I've heard all kinds of advice- but what really rings true to me is the aspect of building relationships with booksellers.

How do you find the "small reviewers?"

Rob Gregory Browne said...

You continue to provide me with an education, Joe. Thanks for a great post.

It would be nice, though, to be able to hold on to the dream that my book will sell itself...

Reality bites.

Dakota Knight said...

Interesting post. But creating a good backlist means having to churn out books consistently that your audience is going to buy. It's getting to the point where the publisher is looking for at least one book a year. Now, I see some authors coming out with 2 or more books are year. Is this survival of the fittest or what?

M. G. Tarquini said...

Is this survival of the fittest or what?

of the fastest...typist.

Jeri said...

Joe (or anyone): Do pre-orders on Amazon affect publishers' print runs? Pre-orders for the imprint I write for seem to be available about five months ahead of publication. I'd love to see a discussion about the timing of reader-oriented promotion.

Neil Nyren said...

Joe --

I always enjoy reading your blog, because it's so filled with smart, common-sense advice for new (and not-so-new)writers, something often not in plentiful supply. You and Ms. Snark are among my most-recommended blogs when I'm at writers' conferences, for just that reason.

I wanted to comment on your question regarding print runs. You said it "doesn't make much sense" to take orders and then double them to produce the print run. That's because we don't. We take the orders, figure out what is likely to come between when we have to push the button and pub date, add in what the publicity department needs, and then include a slight cushion on top of all that, so that we don't get caught by surprise. The goal is never to be caught short -- and never end up with large piles of unordered stock in the warehouse.

And to answer Jeri's question, Amazon orders a quantity of copies from us just as any other account does. If, for whatever reason, it looks like its customers' pre-orders are going to outstrip it, though, they'll come back to us quickly for more, and that can potentially affect what we have in print.

Neil Nyren

JA Konrath said...

That's for the clarification, Neil!

The Gambino Crime Family said...

Joe,

Great blog. I just started reading it. This might sound like a stupid question but if you get enough name recognition, will some university MFA in Creative Programing eventually offer you a teaching spot? Or does that only happen with the non-genre, more "literary" writers?

Allison Brennan said...

Hi Joe . . . I wish I'd seen this earlier! I've been off-line more than usual because of deadlines.

You make several excellent points. Real estate is the single most important thing. The reason my first book did so well was because my publisher made sure it was everywhere. Groceries, drug stores, airports, chains, and walmart. We even had a slow start because my book came out right after Christmas and a lot of the chains didn't put it on the shelves until after the new year.

And you're 100% right . . . if my first book was weak, my second and third wouldn't have done well. Believe me, I was on pins and needles for a couple months. I couldn't write a word because I worried that everything was a fluke. It wasn't until the third book came out and did a little better than book two on the lists that I finally had the courage to get back to writing.

I admire your promotion. I want to do more, but with five kids it's almost impossible for me to get out much. I'm doing a few conferences, I blog, I keep my website current, and I've met the local booksellers and media. Over time, especially as my kids get older, I hope to do more.

I think your strategy of focusing on booksellers is right on the money. It's a relatively cheap, you make the human connection, and booksellers usually love to meet authors, especially if the author is nice and professional and polite.

Handselling is something you just can't buy. You can buy space on the new release shelf, you can buy ads, but if the bookseller doesn't know/like you, they aren't going to push your books.

Several Borders employees have contacted me saying they love my books and have pushed them heavily to both their romance readers and their mystery/suspense readers. Some stores are taking it upon themselves to cross-shelve me. My hometown Borders has a display in a prominent location still up with all three of my books. I go in there weekly, buy a book or two, chat with the employees.

Anyway, I can't wait to hear about your bookseller trip!