Saturday, February 24, 2007

One Book at a Time Part 2

This is the second part of a post I began here, all about the different types of people who buy books, and the reasons they buy.

In this entry, I'll be focusing on the things writers and publishers do to reach these groups, and how effective these things are.

1st Tier: The Diehards. They include Booksellers, Librarians, Megafans (collectors, bloggers, voracious readers, people who help spread the word, family and friends) and the Media (reviewers, interviewers.)

Here's how publishers try to reach these people:

  • Distribute advance reading copies and galleys to reviewers, booksellers, librarians, and the media.
  • Have a presence at trade shows (BEA, GLBA, ALA, ABA, etc.)
  • Through house catalogs and distribution catalogs.
  • Through their sales reps.
  • Through their publicists, sending out press releases and materials.

Here's how authors try to reach these people:

  • Though genre conventions and book fairs.
  • By visiting libraries and bookstores on tour and for drop-in signings.
  • Through targeted Internet activity, including email, message boards, MySpace, and newsletters (to those who sign up for the mailing list.)
  • By contacting local media directly with a press kit and a hook.

What works?

All of this works (though getting media coverage is hardest) because the Diehards are actively looking for books and authors. It's much easier to find someone who is already seeking you out than it is to impress someone by cold-calling.

There may not be enough Diehards to make you a huge success, but these people deserve more of your time than any other group because they are megaphones who talk about your books, helping to spread positive word of mouth, and that relates to sales in excess of their numbers. Cultivate them. Treat them well. Thank them. Reward them. You need this 1st Tier if you expect to break out.

2nd Tier: Heavy Users - These folks account for a large portion of book buyers. They're readers who buy many books a year, and are actively looking for something new to read.

Here's how publishers try to reach these people:

  • Advertising in trade and genre magazines.
  • Securing reviews.
  • Purchase coop placement in bookstores.
  • Touring authors.
  • Booking media appearances and interviews.

Here's how authors try to reach these people:

  • Touring.
  • Attending conferences and book fairs.
  • Giving away materials (chapbooks, bookmarks, free books.)
  • Mailing postcards.
  • Advertising in trade and genre magazines.
  • Public speaking.
  • Maintaining a sticky website.
  • Having a large Internet presence (responding to email, joining listservs and egroups, appearing in public forums, links, Wikipedia, Amazon Connect, MySpace, etc.)

What works?

Reviews sell books, but they are getting harder and harder to come by. Harder still is getting media coverage.

Ads may sell books (I remain skeptical) but not in proportion to what they cost---a $1000 ad that sells 20 books can be called effective, but certainly not cost-effective.

Touring is also extremely cost-ineffective. While it's important to meet booksellers and fans, official signings are usually poorly attended.

Postcards are a big waste. I've gotten dozens of postcards from authors, and never bought a single book because of one.

Public speaking, in the right forum, can sell books. Keynote speaker spots are hard to get, but worthwhile, especially if they pay you to attend.

Giving away materials while at conventions or while touring is a loss leader, but can spread goodwill and name recognition.

The Internet is the cheapest way to reach people, but it's also a time black hole, and the majority of book buyers don't really care about author websites.

Coop placement works, and is arguably the best thing that can be done for a book. But it doesn't last, and can result in big returns and poor sell-through because bookstores order more copies. It's also pretty much beyond an author's control. And it might be beyond a publisher's control as well.

Though the more books an author has in print, the better off they generally are, the amount of books that do get printed isn't up to the author, or the publisher. It's up the the accounts.

The buyers (wholesale, not retail) determine how many books get printed, by placing orders with the sales reps. If your book doesn't have a lot of pre-orders, you simply won't get coop dollars.

3rd Tier: Casual Users - These also account for a large portion of book buyers, but they only buy books occasionally. These are the folks who buy books as gifts, or only buy bestselling authors, or only read one book a year while on vacation.

Here's how publishers try to reach these people:

  • Advertising in national periodicals.
  • TV and radio spots.
  • Booking media appearances and interviews.

Here's how authors try to reach these people:

  • Large public events (LA Times Festival of Books, Chicago Printer's Row Book Fair, etc.)
  • Media coverage

What works?

Word of mouth. Of course, word of mouth works on all tiers, but the Diehards and Heavy Users are actively looking for books. The Casual Users don't read very much. Books aren't their main source of entertainment. Some don't read at all, and only go into a bookstore when looking to buy Uncle Earl something for Christmas ("He likes books about war," they'll tell the bookseller at the information desk.)

You can sell them books by meeting them in person, or you can spend gazillions of dollars on ads hoping that your name will stick in their minds that one time a year they go book shopping.

But the sad fact is, the only way to reach these people is to already be a bestseller. And since they account for a large number of books sold, newbie and midlist authors (and their publishers) should save the full page NYT ads and concentrate on finding buyers among the first two tiers.

4th Tier: Johnny Come Latelys - This is the group that only buys books after everyone else has bought them.

Here's how publishers try to reach these people:

  • Even more ads.

Here's how authors try to reach these people:

  • If an author is so successful that they are selling to this group, they are no longer trying to reach fans. They are in seclusion, hiding from fans.

What works?

Crossing your fingers and clicking your heels together. These buyers only purchase pop culture phenomenons, like HarryPotter, Stephen King, Dan Brown, and the bible.


After four years in this business, I've come to the conclusion that just about everything authors do is cost-ineffective, if you look at the direct benefits (book sales.)

But there are indirect benefits. The more people you meet and impress, the better off you are. Networking has far-reaching effects, giving you more opportunities to spread your brand.

Unfortunately, networking almost always has to be done in person, and requires a substantial time and money commitment on behalf of the author, with no guarantee of returns.

The goal is positive word-of-mouth. The author is the most effective spokesperson for a book, so the author has to bear much of the responsibility for getting out there and shaking hands with the world.

The publisher has to make sure the books are in print and distributed, and be willing to support an author until a tipping point is reached. The tipping point is when efforts are supported by sales, and there is a return on the time/money investment.

It may take years for the tipping point to come, if it ever comes at all.

I've long been against advertising, because I believe it is a lot of money spent for a tiny return.

The same can be said for touring. Or even single booksigning events. Or traveling to conventions and book fairs. It all costs a lot, and returns very little.

In fact, I'll go on the record and state that NOTHING an author can do will make an immediate, tangible difference in their career.

But the intangible benefits can add up.

The fact is, every person who meets you, and every person who reads you, has the potential to become a lifetime fan. The more people you meet, the more people you get to read you, the more potential fans you have.

You may not sell nearly enough books to cover the costs of a trip to Bouchercon, but you'll sell more books because of that than if you'd stayed home. This goes for everything you try, everything you do, to self-promote.

And let's say, after years of effort, you sold an extra 5000 books that wouldn't have sold normally. Not a lot. But those sales will lead to more sales, and the people you met will remember you when media and publicity opportunities arise, and if your publisher is smart they'll recognize your efforts and try to match them with efforts of their own.

  • Yes, it involves a lot of hard work that may never pay off.
  • Yes, luck plays a huge part.
  • Yes, it's easy to get discouraged when every single thing you do looks like a failure from a cost-effectiveness standpoint.
  • Yes, many of your peers are a lot more successful and don't do nearly as much promotion as you do.

No one said this would be fair, fun, or easy.

Your job is to write the best book you can, and then work to build an audience. There are no quick answers. Your books will sell one at a time.

How many of those one-at-a-time sales are you directly responsibly for?