Sunday, February 11, 2007

One Book at a Time Part 1

Books are sold one at a time. To individuals.

The aren't sold to nameless, faceless masses. Each of those buyers has a name, and a face, and a reason for buying.
  • Some people buy books because they collect them.
  • Some people buy books to give as gifts.
  • Some people only buy books in certain genres.
  • Some people buy books based on reviews.
  • Some people buy books based on word-of-mouth.
  • Some people only buy books by certain authors.
  • Some people buy books because they feel obligated.
  • Some people buy books because Oprah told them to.
  • Some people buy books to read more than once.
  • Some people buy books, read them, then give them away.
  • Some people only buy books on sale.
  • Some people only buy paperbacks.
  • Some people only buy hardcovers.
  • Some people only buy large print.
  • Some people only buy audiobooks.
  • Some people only buy text downloads.
  • Some people only buy used books.
  • Some people buy for the library markets.
  • Some people buy books and never read them.
  • Some people read a lot but never buy books.
  • Some people buy books to resell them.
And so on. Different people buy books for different reasons. But unless you lecture to businesses who buy in bulk, the majority of books sold are sold one at a time, to individuals.

If you want to reach an individual, do you treat her like she's part of a group? How many individuals can you do this to before you start losing the interest of others who buy books for different reasons?

I know what you're thinking. It's impossible to personally reach thousands, let alone millions, of people. Right?

Wrong. Everyone who buys Patterson's latest thriller is doing it for a specific, individual reason. They aren't doing it because the publisher tells them to, or casts some magic spell. They aren't doing it because they're in touch with every single other Patterson reader, and all conspire, herd-like, to make him rich.

They're buying Patterson books as individuals, not en masse. But even though I write books similar to Patterson, and share some of his fanbase, he has many more fans than I do. This begs the question:

Does Patterson have the same type of fans as I do, only more? Or does Patterson have different types of fans than I do?

I believe the majority of his fans are different.

An author named Geoffrey A. Moore wrote a book called Crossing the Chasm, which is all about selling technology driven products. Moore believes that the majority of people who buy a product only do so after the 'early adopters' (15% of the buying public) embrace it. If they do, then early majority, late majority, and laggards (83% of the population) follow suit.

For the past few weeks, I've been thinking this is a pretty good model for the book biz, and explains why some books become major hits and others fail.

While books are sold one at a time, not all book buyers are created equal. There are tiers of importance.

1st Tier: The Diehards - These are the early adopters, the people who must embrace your book first before you can be a success. They include Booksellers, Librarians, Megafans (collectors, bloggers, voracious readers, people who help spread the word, family and friends) and the Media (reviewers, interviewers.) These buyers act like megaphones, offering information and recommendations to the other tiers to encourage them to try your books.

This group is targeted with advance reading copies, through book tours and library visits, through catalogs, through advertising, and through industry conventions and organizations (BEA, ABA, ALA, GLBA, etc.) A lot of time and money is spent to cultivate this group.

These are the people who the majority authors sell to. And depending on your print run, that might be enough to earn out your advance/have more than a 50% sell-through. But it won't be enough to make you rich and famous.

2nd Tier: Heavy Users - These folks account for a good portion of book buyers. They're readers who buy many books a year, and are actively looking for something new to read. They're influenced by the 1st Tier. Heavy Users usually stick to a specific genre because they know they enjoy it, and they value reading as one of their top ways to relax and be entertained.

A portion of this group attends conventions, visits bookstores, and spends time online looking for books and authors. They are targeted through advertising, conference appearances, and having a large online presence.

These are the people you need to 'break out' and have a shot at the bestseller lists.

3rd Tier: Casual Users - These also account for a good portion of book buyers, but they only buy books occasionally. These are the people who don't usually visit bookstores and don't necessarily value books as one of their main forms of entertainment. They read a few authors that they've enjoyed in the past, or they buy/receive books as gifts, or they only buy books when necessary (on vacation, at the airport, because a book was strongly recommended.)

This group is targeted with media and advertising. They aren't particularly interested in meeting authors, and they aren't online surfing writer websites. But their purchase power is necessary to have a mega bestseller.

4th Tier: Johnny Come Latelys - This is the group that only buys books after everyone else has bought them. They might not even read the books, but they don't want to miss out. These are the folks that make Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code into monster bestsellers.

In my next blog entry, I'll try to explain what authors and publishers should be doing to effectively reach each of these groups.

21 comments:

KingM said...

Hmm, I don't know. I think the market is much more complex than this.

Also making up numbers as I go, that 15% of the book buying public is probably more like 2% and probably buy 30-40 times as many books as your casual readers. Your "Johnny Come Latelys" who almost never buy books is a huge group. Certainly more than 1/3 either in absolute number or the percentage of buyers of Harry Potter or the DaVinci Code.

And most of the people I know who buy 30-40 books a year don't buy Patterson or Evanovich or any one writer. Their book buying is all over the place. One might buy everything that Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, or Lois McMaster Bujold writes, while another may buy a random sampling of mysteries. Still another buys only non-fiction. Some voracious readers I know actually avoid the biggest bestsellers because their motivations are the opposite of those who want to get on the bandwagon.

And the range from top to bottom is enormous. Even Patterson, King, or Evanovich might only sell 10% of the copies that Rowlings does. Her last book sold 6.9 million hardcovers in the first 24 hours of release. That's largely pre-orders, but still...

Rob Gregory Browne said...

While I agree with some of what you've said, Joe, I think it's pointless to try to figure this stuff out. It's certainly fascinating in its own way, but attempting to boil this down to some kind of formula is, I believe, an exercise in futility.

The groups you mention make sense, but at any given time, I could be a member of any of them. It depends on mood, time of year, income, and desire -- all of which can change from month to month.

I've gradually come to the conclusion that it does us no good to try to figure out what makes one book sell better than another. Our job as writers is simply to write the best book we can and hope the public responds to it.

Libby Hellmann said...

Hi, Joe. This might be the first time I've ever commented on your blog, although I read you regularly.

You are right on with this analysis... as a former PR person myself, I've always said the biggest challenge in promoting books is that, unlike a hundred-thousand dollar PR program for GM or Kraft, we promote our books one book at a time. It makes a huge difference in tactics, energy, and expectations. And keeps us alternately broke and/or frazzled.

Can't wait for Part Two... it could well become the template for marketing my next book.

btw, are you working on my short story? :)

Stacey Cochran said...

I agree with your assessment. And to clarify, it's Group 1 & 2 that you can personally cultivate by shaking hands, touring, and working your ass off.

Groups 3 & 4, it seems to me, buy books because they're "mainstream" and have kick-ass distribution.

They like their protagonists to be named "Alex" or "Mitch" or "Robert," their humor to be minimal (or very dry and unobtrusive), and their plots to be firmly set in the real world.

If you have a chip on your shoulder, Groups 3 & 4 will not buy your book.

You must be as mainstream as Nicolas Sparks or Carrie Underwood. You must look like the guy (or gal) who they would have voted for class president in high school.

Stacey
www.staceycochran.com

Anonymous said...

Quincy Jones says it best, and I'm paraphrasing him here, "You can't produce success, all you can do is wait for God to walk into the room."

Stacey Cochran said...

Amen, anon.

Mark said...

Actually, as a writer of business and technical reports that depend on a fair amount of statistics and data, I want to know if your percentages here are based on anything or if they're merely wild-assed guesses on your part.

The Dark Scribe said...

Interesting adaptation of a developed mass-media concept, Joe. I think I'd tend to agree with some of the commenters here, though--so many consumers fall into so many categories that you would find yourself spending a great deal of time with a great deal of incomprehensible data, were you to attempt to break this down scientifically.

On the surface, however, it makes sense. As a bookseller, I can attest to the buying habits of members of the groups you've delineated here...BUT, I'd argue that you could only "label" somewhere around 40-50 percent of the total book-buying population. The rest of the consumers have fickle, shifting motivations for purchasing our books, and as Rob said, so much depends on mood, income, current entertainment needs, etc.

Anyway, I think it's important to understand the buying habits of consumers (although it can also be maddening to try to figure out), and you're taking a very pro-active approach. Which is good. Keep it up.

JA Konrath said...

Mark--

Those are the percentage stats from "Crossing the Chasm." I have no idea how well they apply here, but I'll try to take a few shots at it next blog.

Jude Hardin said...

*To write a breakout novel is to run free of the pack. It is to delve deeper, think harder, revise more, and commit to creating characters and plot that surpass one's previous accomplishments. It is to say "no" to merely being good enough to be published...A true breakout is not an imitation but a breakthrough to a more profound individual expression. It demands an author reach deep inside to find what is truthful, original, important and inspiring in his own world view....*
--Donald Maass

I think Writing The Breakout Novel is a great resource for unpublished novelists, on up to midlisters.


James Patterson's Along Came a Spider.

Tess Gerritsen's Harvest.

Dennis Lehane's Mystic River.

Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs.

Etc.

Books don't breakout because of a sales formula. They breakout because they strike a nerve, and then word of mouth takes over. And, of course, you have to add a bit of luck to the equation.

I just don't think it's possible to force a book or series of books into bestsellerdom by obsessing over sales models.

Better to take Maass's advice, IMO, and break free from the pack.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

I think if you combine Quincy Jones's and Donald Maass's ideas, you might have something.

Jim said...

Joe: Very good analysis. I'm looking forward to Part II on how to effectively reach these groups. Jim (JimHansenBooks.Blogspot.com)

PJ Parrish said...

I agree with Joe that there's something in breaking down the different audiences of genre fiction. I think of them in two groups: The Cognescenti (the conference fans, the DLers, the book group folks, the subscribers to Mystery Guild and the magazines, etc). They are plugged-in to what's out there, more willing to kick over the rocks and find the fresh new stuff. But then there is what I've come to think of as "Just Readers." (And I don't mean that with any irony or condescension). These folks get their reading at Walmarts, Books-a-Million, Amazon, or the library shelf. They buy by habit, in the airport en route to Omaha, on the recommendation of a friend (there's that old word of mouth!) or on the whim of a seductive cover or backcopy. They may be unadventurous (so they stick with the known quantity ie Patterson) or they may be wildly catholic in taste and willing to try a new author every book. It's nuts to try to pidgeohole them.

Something else: We forget sometimes there are whole great swatches of the reading public that don't even have access to bookstores, libraries or even a Walmart. They can't find your latest title let alone get your backlist. Their reading habits are limited by supply. (ie 20 titles in Walmart vs 250,000 in B&N)

If you work hard and are lucky, you can have a pretty good career with the first group of readers alone. You get reviewed, maybe win awards, and get nice panels at conventions. But to be a bestseller? You need that second group and that mysterious "something else." And no one will ever convince me it is only promotional effort by either the author or the publisher.

Yeah, it's luck and hard work. But
I think Jude is onto it when he says, "They breakout because they strike a nerve, and then word of mouth takes over." And I don't think you have to dumb-down your work to reach this nerve. There is something very elemental, very "heart-direct" about books that succeed at the high levels. (Until you become a machine at which time anything you publish sells).

The problem is, this kind of breakout success is becoming harder to achieve. The authors and books Jude cited:

Patterson's Along Came a Spider.
Tess Gerritsen's Harvest.
Harris's Silence of the Lambs.

These are all products of the Eighties or early Nineties. The market has changed in so many ways (ie. more mysteries now competing for shrinking shelf space and attention). I sometimes wonder if we in publishing aren't looking at the same phenomenon that is happening in the concert music business: Dominance of the name-brand mega-acts like the Rolling Stones and U2 while countless fresh new bands struggle to find stages, radio play and distribution in an increasingly fractured market. Sure they find success, they are downloaded onto IPods, but will they find audiences in big enough numbers to break Billboard's Top 5 or fill arenas?

Well, now that I have thoroughly depressed myself, I am going back to reading my galleys....

PJ Parrish said...

I agree with Joe that there's something in breaking down the different audiences of genre fiction. I think of them in two groups: The Cognescenti (the conference fans, the DLers, the book group folks, the subscribers to Mystery Guild and the magazines, etc). They are plugged-in to what's out there, more willing to kick over the rocks and find the fresh new stuff. But then there is what I've come to think of as "Just Readers." (And I don't mean that with any irony or condescension). These folks get their reading at Walmarts, Books-a-Million, Amazon, or the library shelf. They buy by habit, in the airport en route to Omaha, on the recommendation of a friend (there's that old word of mouth!) or on the whim of a seductive cover or backcopy. They may be unadventurous (so they stick with the known quantity ie Patterson) or they may be wildly catholic in taste and willing to try a new author every book. It's nuts to try to pidgeohole them.

Something else: We forget sometimes there are whole great swatches of the reading public that don't even have access to bookstores, libraries or even a Walmart. They can't find your latest title let alone get your backlist. Their reading habits are limited by supply. (ie 20 titles in Walmart vs 250,000 in B&N)

If you work hard and are lucky, you can have a pretty good career with the first group of readers alone. You get reviewed, maybe win awards, and get nice panels at conventions. But to be a bestseller? You need that second group and that mysterious "something else." And no one will ever convince me it is only promotional effort by either the author or the publisher.

Yeah, it's luck and hard work. But
I think Jude is onto it when he says, "They breakout because they strike a nerve, and then word of mouth takes over." And I don't think you have to dumb-down your work to reach this nerve. There is something very elemental, very "heart-direct" about books that succeed at the high levels. (Until you become a machine at which time anything you publish sells).

The problem is, this kind of breakout success is becoming harder to achieve. The authors and books Jude cited:

Patterson's Along Came a Spider.
Tess Gerritsen's Harvest.
Harris's Silence of the Lambs.

These are all products of the Eighties or early Nineties. The market has changed in so many ways (ie. more mysteries now competing for shrinking shelf space and attention). I sometimes wonder if we in publishing aren't looking at the same phenomenon that is happening in the concert music business: Dominance of the name-brand mega-acts like the Rolling Stones and U2 while countless fresh new bands struggle to find stages, radio play and distribution in an increasingly fractured market. Sure they find success, they are downloaded onto IPods, but will they find audiences in big enough numbers to break Billboard's Top 5 or fill arenas?

Well, now that I have thoroughly depressed myself, I am going back to reading my galleys....

Stacey said...

Anybody ever use the American Booksellers Association's Advance Access Program?

Dee Savoy said...

As a former marketing major (let's not talk about how long ago) I have to agree with you Joe on many points, particularly on the identity and role of different types of consumers.

I'm waiting patiently to see what you come up with for the next part.

All the best,
Dee

Cornelia Read said...

Great post, Joe, and thank you. Looking forward to part deux....

Khylan Seriphyn said...

Hmmm. If book buying trends are set on an individual basis, that is a very hard trend to market.

In all honesty, I think most buyers fall into the 2nd and 4th tiers.

I know a few people who only brought the Alex Rider books because it was a movie first. Isn't that terrible?

Marti said...

Sorry for vanishing for a while - death and disease take their toll on blogging.

I ordered several copies of my novel to send out to friends. Would you like one?

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