Tuesday, February 20, 2007

First Three Weeks

The first few weeks after your book is released, you won't be sleeping much.

Part of that will be worry. But most if it will be hustle.

If you (or your publicist, or both of you) laid the groundwork prior to your release, you'll have several weeks of traveling, speaking, and interviews. Your editor and agent will be sending you reviews. Your emails will triple. You'll be running around frantically trying to stay on top of everything.

Your publisher wants you to push as hard as you can, because they believe the first few weeks in a book's life are the most important. They want to get you on the bestseller list. They want the coop placement they bought to earn out.

While that's understandable, I also believe it is short-sighted. Here are the reasons why:

1. Slow and steady wins the race. Sure, selling a lot of books the first few weeks looks good. And that's what the marketing dollars are used for. But building a readership is a marathon, and you can't sprint the first mile and hope to keep up that pace. Word of mouth takes time to build.

When your new book comes out, you're trying to remind your previous fans to buy it, and you're trying to find new fans. How many new fans do you think you will find you during the three weeks your book is being pushed, vs. the forty-nine weeks that your book has no coop?

I'm voting that you have the potential to find more fans in those forty-nine weeks, with your backlist, your appearances, and your internet presence. You also have the potential to sell more books in those forty-nine weeks than in the first three.

I can understand why your publisher only pushes for three weeks--it's a monetary decision. But they shouldn't stop caring the rest of the year, or be disappointed if your book has a slow start. A sale is a sale, no matter when it comes. Wanting your sales to be top-loaded for the first few weeks causes a lot of undue stress and unrealistic expectations.

2. You can't make a difference anyway. Let's say your publisher is hoping for a shot at the NYT List. So they send you to a new city every day for 21 days. The tour is hectic and expensive, and what's the most they could hope for?

Even if you're a bestseller already, moving 200 hardcovers per event is a huge amount. Chances are you'll sell under 50. But even if you sell 200, in a week's worth of tremendous effort you only managed to sell 2100 books.

Yes, 1400 is a lot, but I doubt it will be the tipping point to get you on the Times list. First of all, that assumes everyone who buys a book at a signing is a brand new fan who wouldn't have bought it otherwise (if they would have bought it anyway, why waste the time and money?) Second, that extra 1400 probably won't be the difference between making the list and missing the list. The numbers needed to make the NYT List are very high, and an extra thousand books probably won't be enough. Patterson sells 60,000 of his new hardcover a week.

3. It's not this year that counts. Actually, how well your new book does has less to do with your current promotion and more to do with your prior promotion. If you spent the previous forty-nine weeks accruing and prepping a readership, then you can announce a new book during your three week sprint and sell X number of copies, because you have a group that already knows you. Running around for three weeks trying to find new readers is much harder to do, and not very effective unless you have a huge media buzz.

4. The numbers game. Publishers care about numbers. But it seems that everyone is looking at the first numbers, and if they don't meet expectations they give up hope.

Why is it that important things like a second printing, or consistent sales, or earning out an advance, aren't even mentioned to the author? We hear it immediately if we get a review or make a bestseller list, but isn't your paperback going back to press for the third time also a cause for celebration? When your book finally begins to earn royalties, isn't that even more important than being on some bestseller list? But no one tells you this when it happens.

It seems that the numbers have to be front-loaded to be impressive.

This is the Hollywood blockbuster mentality, where you spend 150 million and hope to make 200 million. Doesn't it make more sense to spend 50 thousand and make 100 thousand? Do books have to sell millions of copies in order to be successful? Isn't the publisher making a profit more important than them making a killing? Especially since so many of these blockbusters lose money?

I recognize the importance of the first three weeks. But I don't believe that's where all the emphasis should be. Winning teams usually aren't created overnight. It takes years of training, fine-tuning, coaching, and adjusting to get a winning ball team. Sports owners know this. I wonder why publishers don't seem to.


Anonymous said...

Yet another good post. I have to adapt your advice to my situation because (a) my book is science fiction; and (b) it's my first novel. So 1400 new readers would make a big difference for me. The best seller list is out of the question, but the "hey, this guy didn't do so bad, let's buy another novel from him" list is within my grasp.

Also, being in science fiction, I don't find the audience at bookstores but at conventions. I went to Boskone this last weekend and I think I did a pretty decent job of linking my name with a positive vibe. I also got to meet the art director in charge of the appearance of my book's cover. So far it's looking good.

My book comes out in August. I've got two (or maybe three) conventions before the launch, and about 5 scheduled after. It's going to be a busy second half of the year for me. (Of course if I'd never found this site and read your advice, it wouldn't be so busy for me at all, but then again I probably wouldn't sell many book either.)

Anonymous said...

Like Seth Godin says (I'm paraphrasing here):

If your launch's success is dependent upon hitting a home run then something's wrong with the plan. Or worse... it means something's wrong with your product.

Stacey Cochran said...

I wrote a comment regarding the current business model of traditional publishers on Sarah Weinman's blog, and she found it offensive and deleted it.

It's remarkable, though, because you've touched on some of the exact same things I addressed in that comment.

Essentially what I was saying was that traditional publishing places too much emphasis on its leading authors, and the advent of digital publishing has created a new business model for publishing.

Because books can stay in print literally forever with a POD model, we're seeing certain publishers (mostly self-publishers at this point) emphasizing volume of authors, rather than a handful of standouts.

A publisher is going to make more money from 1,000,000 authors who sell 50 books, than 100 authors who sell 50,000 books.

Companies like Lulu have already begun to realize that its profits are not in a frontlist, but are in the midlist (because there are so many of them). And because there's not a cost for warehousing POD titles, there's no expense in keeping a million authors in print, who would otherwise be out of print.

Midlist authors are going to get their due, purely from a business/profits standpoint with the continued growth of digital publishing.

It's a great article, Joe. Very insightful.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Joe. And I also agree with Stacey. I like the fact that I don't have to be an overnight success to be a success. I am slowly attracting more fans to my writing, via my website.

Lulu is great except for one major problem: they forced me to give too large a discount: 50% to the distributors/booksellers. I realize that the standard is 55%, but let's face it, that's really for brick and mortar stores. Amazon and other online booksellers don't need that much. And nobody is going to stock my books in a walk-in store anyway - they're PODs. All sales will be online.

When I realized that I couldn't possibly set a reasonable retail price with Lulu's formula: retail = (cost + royalty) x 2, I started looking elsewhere. And I'm very pleased with what I found. I have switched to Diggory Press/Exposure Publishing. They are based in England, and also will soon have an office in Arizona. With them, I only give a 25% discount. This enables me to set a reasonable retail price and still make some royalty.

So, it's great to know that all the novels I write can be in print as long as I want them to be.

Speaking of which, time to get back to writing the current novel.

Anonymous said...

P.S. If you want to learn more about Diggory/Exposure, click here

Robert Burton Robinson

Mark Terry said...

An interesting post, Joe. Do I detect a change in attitude? Hmmm.

"Second, that extra 1400 probably won't be the difference between making the list and missing the list. The numbers needed to make the NYT List are very high, and an extra thousand books probably won't be enough. Patterson sells 60,000 of his new hardcover a week."

Yeah, really. I interviewed Vince Flynn a while back and he commented that Barnes & Noble sold 5,000 copies of his latest novel IN THE FIRST DAY!

If you're selling like that, all the media attention etc. probably really helps, but if you're selling 5000 copies (period) or even 15,000 total, then all the emphasis on the first three weeks, although it won't hurt you, may be wasted energy when you need to spread it out over time.

Mark Terry

The Dark Scribe said...

Great post. Interesting point, too, that publishers push so hard for the first few weeks. As a bookseller, I'm particularly familiar with this phenomenon. Publishers buy co-op space for a week, maybe two, then the book is off the front table and banished to the New in Fiction Bay toward the back of the store. So if you're looking at numbers, it makes sense that the publisher wants results in those first few weeks.

It doesn't mean their strategy isn't flawed, however.

You're absolutely right about word-of-mouth. I would go so far as to suggest that word-of-mouth is the single-most influential reason consumers purchase certain titles. The irony is that it's the same across all media entertainment--movies, television shows, music, books. Some of the highest grossing films/books/cds of all time started extremely slow, then word-of-mouth kicked in, and sales grew exponentially. Every person who purchased it told all of his/her friends to buy it, and on and on.

Anyway, if publishers subscribe to the Blockbuster approach to book sales, you'd think they'd have figured out that the steadily increasing sales figures (the whole, give me a penny the first day then double it every subsequent day) will be more profitable than the crazed three-week push (for lack of a better analogy, the six-hump chump approach).e

Michael Carr - Veritas Literary said...

Nice post. I especially like this:

Winning teams usually aren't created overnight. It takes years of training, fine-tuning, coaching, and adjusting to get a winning ball team. Sports owners know this. I wonder why publishers don't seem to.

Unfortunately, I have a friend who suffers from the same malady. He is a fine writer and his books have sold well for their genre, albeit not spectacularly well. But he has moved all over the place over the last fifteen years, including changing his name, writing in different genres, etc. I think he'd have done better to keep going in one direction and have faith in his ability to build an audience to last a career.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Joe. Especially since KISS HER GOODBYE came out on the 6th and I'm currently in the middle of that first three weeks and barely have time to concentrate.

But I'm not really feeling the pressure you speak of. I've decided not to sweat the numbers (whatever they might be) and simply enjoy the ride.

What's the worst that can happen? The way I look at it, I can't be unpublished. I've already done what I've wanted to do all my life -- so the rest is gravy.

Jim said...

Joe: The big push at the beginning of a book’s life makes perfect sense and here’s why.

First, the chains want to know the promotion plans and will use this information in making their determinations on whether to carry the book in-store in the first place, and in what quantities, and in what states, etc. A book that will be well promoted will be bought in greater volumes, and in more locations, by bookstores to begin with.

Second, although a tour doesn’t make financial sense when you only look at the income derived from direct book sales to people attending the events, there are lots of indirect sales that take place as a result of tour publicity (e.g. local papers reviewing the book and interviewing the author, radio spots, etc.). These sales are intangible, but nevertheless real.

Third, almost all books that don’t make a bestseller list are off the tables in 2-4 weeks. They get reduced to a small number, get moved to stacks (spine out) and then eventually get returned to the publisher.

The bottom line is that publishers who push for a book in the first month and then back off are spending there money when and where it counts.

Jason Pinter said...

Few clarifications:

For an author with a strong backist with multiple titles, many publishers run backlist promotions (offering deals, risers, etc...). In bookings sheets and catalogues, publishers are constantly encouraging bookstores to stock up on an author's backlist. Publishers don't merely sleep during those 49 other weeks, they're trying to build up your other books. Many authors thrive on their backlist, but obviously the hope is, in the long run, those paperback buyers turn into hardcover buyers.

Tours aren't only about books sold at events. It's getting press in local papers and radio shows (i.e. selling copies outside the event) and cultivating a fanbase all over the country.

1,400 copies can absolutely make the difference between hitting the list and not hitting the list. Maybe not in the top 10 or top 15, but definitely on the extended list. In fact sometimes you need only sell 1,400 copies to MAKE the list (sometimes on the paperback non-fiction side, the numbers in fiction, especially paperback, are much higher).

Patterson sells 150,000+ of a new hardcover in its first week, not 60,000.

Yes, earning out is a wonderful thing, but it's a lot nicer (and more promotable) to put "New York Times Bestselling Author" on a book jacket than "earner of $2,496.27 in royalties."

Not all the emphasis is on the first three weeks, but the simple fact is the majority of hardcover sales occur in the first two months. The other 10 months are spent gearing up for that, watering the backlist, and building profile. It's not short-sighted to focus on the first few weeks, only short-sighted to ignore everything done the rest of the time.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Hi Joe,

Great post, and you discussion about this subject at LIM was a huge help to me as well. I have a new series coming out in December. I'm working to keep the readers of my current series interested in the new book as well as enticing new readers for the new series. I agree, slow and steady wins the race.

Great blog you have here! Thanks

Anonymous said...

RE: "A publisher is going to make more money from 1,000,000 authors who sell 50 books, than 100 authors who sell 50,000 books."

Stacey, no offensive, but your math is totally wrong. Every book has a fixed production cost for typesetting, proofreading, cover art, design, the indexer's fee, and the staff time of the editor and marketing people.

Let's say an average book costs $5,000 in pre-press costs (a conservative estimate for a professional-quality book). And let's say the cover price is $30 -- a typical amount for a hardback. The publisher would get about $20/copy from the retailer, so if each book sells 50 copies, the publisher's net is $1,000 -- which means you've lost $4,000 on each book. Do this a million times, and your publishing company has lost $4,000,000,000!

In contrast, let's look at the publishing house with 100 authoers who sell 50,000 each. Let's say the books have the same $30 cover price and the retailers pay the same $20/copy. That means the publisher nets a million dollars on each book. Subtract the $5,000 production cost, and each book makes a profit of $995,000. Multiply this by 100 (for 100 authors) and your profit is $9,950,000.

If I were a publisher, I know which business model I'd prefer!

And yes, I know that some POD books cost less than $5,000 to produce, because they don't bother with professional designers, proofreaders, editing, etc., but I'd hate to think that's the future of publishing. As an author, I don't know how I'd support myself on 50 sales of a book that took me a year to write.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Sorry for all the type-os in my post above. Apparently I can't spell and do math at the same time.

Stacey Cochran said...


Thanks for the thoughtful reply. You've raised some good points.

Two points I'd like to make:

1) Millions of books that are currently out of print can be scanned for POD production at virtually no cost. These books already have covers and have been formatted, edited, proofread, etc. This is an instant way to generate millions of dollars, and to bring books back into print that have sadly been forgotten.

There is no excuse for a book ever going out of print in this era, the era of POD.

2) The second point, which is a little bit more touchy, would be for publishers to adopt a Lulu-type beginners program for writers. One of the biggest challenges facing modern publishers is finding new talent. With the death of the pulps in the 1960s, the venues for newbie writers to cut their teeth dwindled.

By the mid 1990s, there was virtually no system -- no place -- for new writers to cut their teeth on low-production-cost books. The primary place to learn became MFA Creative Writing programs, but these programs don't teach how to make a living as a writer. They teach craft.

What Lulu provides is a system for writers to learn the basics of book distribution, marketing, and sales. There's no cost of production for Lulu Inc., and the cost to the writers is minimal (anywhere from free-$150; certainly not $5000, though).

I think it would be in the best interest of a Harper-Collins or a Warner Books or Simon & Schuster, etc., to create an imprint that does essentially what Lulu does. User-created books from the ground up.

Sure a lot of sub-standard crap gets published, but at the same time, a lot of rising talent gets noticed and learns how to build a readership. This would serve the publisher well, when they're ready to take that next step and give a writer a 30,000-book print run.

There's not something currently like this in place in traditional publishing, but if there were, I guarantee you'd see that publisher developing the finest crop of writers in the business over the next 5-20-year period.


Anonymous said...

I'm all for out-of-print books being available. I think the Back-in-Print program is fantastic.

But I don't see this being a leg-up for new writers. Major bookstores won't stock -- and customers won't buy -- books with amateurish covers. You see this even with major-publisher books -- crappy cover equals crappy sales. Also, if I'm skimming a book at a bookstore and see errors, I immediately put it back. It's too annoying to read a book that doesn't have clean copy. You can't buy proofreading, good cover art, and design for $150. And you can't charge a real price for a book that doesn't have these elements (not consistently, anyway.)

And one big thing you're leaving out of the start-up costs is the author's advance -- and that ought to be AT LEAST $5,000. I used the advance of my first book to quit my job and spend a year writing. What would Lulu be willing to pay me?

I'd hate for publishers to start thinking they can get away with offering us nothing for the privilege of being published.

We writers are creating a salable product that big corporations make money on. It's not a hobby.

Anonymous said...

Addendum: To be fair, I do know some small publishers who offer less than a $5,000 advance, BUT they pay for professional editing and design. They go to the Frankfurt book fair to make foreign sales. They advertise in Library Journal. They hire a freelance publicist. They pay a distributor to get their books into bookstores. And yes, some of their authors do break out and go on to 30,000 print runs at Random House. They easily spend more than $5,000 per book.

There's more to publishing a book than binding an unproofed manuscript, slapping on a public-domain cover and waiting for people to visit a MySpace page to buy it.

Do you work for Lulu, Stacey? Because otherwise, I don't understand your enthusiasm.

Stacey Cochran said...

I don't understand your enthusiasm.

Thanks for the questions. Again, I appreciate your insights.

I am enthusiastic about Lulu, and no, I don't work for them. I'd be enthusiastic about any publishing company who gives me a break and gives tens of thousands of other writers the chance to make their breaks.

Believe me, if Harper-Collins gives me a book deal, I'll say nothing but good things about them. St. Martins, Simon & Schuster, Random House, you name it, if they decide to publish me I'll work myself to the bone to make my book a success for them.

As yet, that hasn't happened.

I have been writing fulltime for twelve years, and I have written ten novels. I have not received a book deal via a traditional publisher. I do not have an agent. I have received over 2000 rejections.

I will put another 180 query letters in the mail this weekend to agents. They will most likely all be rejected.

Until Lulu came along, my work would have only been on my computer. What Lulu provides is the possibility to get your work into a book form, into distribution channels, into bookstores, and into writers conventions.

The business model that they've created is nothing short of brilliant.

These are the writers events I have coming up in the next 3 months.

This is my book.

Maybe it looks amatuerish. Maybe I suck as a writer. Maybe I should have just given up long ago. Maybe all the thousands of dollars I've spent going to writers conventions meeting these so-called wonderful traditional publishers, editors, and agents who never call back, never say yes, never act like you matter one iota -- maybe there's something to them.

I'd have to take your word, though, because there's no proof in my life that I've seen.

I truly hope that a traditional publisher comes through for me one day. I truly hope there's an agent for me. I pray every day that it will happen.

But until it happens, I don't see what's wrong with learning the business of publishing, book distribution, marketing, and sales through a company like Lulu.

The only other option that I see is to leave my work on my computer and do nothing, and that doesn't seem like much of an option to me.


Allison Brennan said...

Actually, Joe, I do think that publishers look at building careers as well as the "blockbusters." But because of the entire business model (not just publishers, but bookstores who need shelf space, the number of books published each month that compete for that limited space, etc), the first 3-6 weeks IS important. You don't have to hit the list to stay in print or on the shelf, but you DO need to have strong sales. (As an aside, I DO get excited when I hear of reprinting because that means the book is selling well. Reprints are CRUCIAL, and it is something my editor and agent get excited about.)

Stacey, I disagree that 1,000,000 authors selling 50 books makes a publisher more money than 100 authors who sell 50,000 books. The largest part of the set-up for the publisher is the pre-pub process--editing, cover design, sales, etc. All this is a HUGE upfront cost before a book even goes to press. This really struck home to me when I was talking to a majorly successful e-pub editor who said they can take a risk on the less "marketable" books (i.e. those with a niche audience) because they make a profit after 500 copies, whereas print publishers need to be selling upwards of 20,000 copies to reach a break-even point.

You mention that books should "never" go out of print because of POD. That very well could be true. I have no problem with POD, as it's a technology. But in terms of new releases, it just doesn't make sense on the macro level.

Thanks Jason for your input, wise as always :) You mention the local publicity--while a big author might sell 200+ hardcovers at a signing, there's also the huge amount of instore and local publicity BEFORE the event, generally speaking engagements at book clubs, libraries, etc., and other venues to increase name ID and public awareness that so-and-so has a new book out. That's all happening well before the release date, and often people will buy or pre-order the book simply because they've heard the author is coming to town or as a reminder that their fave author has a new release.

Anonymous said...

What you say makes perfect sense, given what you've just said about your writing.

I thought you were advocating POD as a business model for publishers. Sorry if I came across as harsh. For a writer who wants to get her work out there no matter what, you're right to go with Lulu. Best of luck with your book.

Jude Hardin said...

Not to knock Stacey's way--or anyone else's--but I want a book deal from a traditional publisher. The best way to do that, I think, is to write a good book. The best way to write a good book is to spend the hours you have working on craft and studying the writers you admire.

Let's face it. A POD title is NOT a publishing credit. There are exceptions, but for the most part self-publishing will do nothing but eat up huge chunks of time.

Time that could be spent writing, and getting better at it.

Stacey Cochran said...

I want a book deal from a traditional publisher.

These are all great comments, Allison, Anon, and Jude.

Before I self-publish anything, it has been rejected by 400-500 literary agents and between 30-50 editors. That is, before I self-publish, it has been rejected by everyone in the business.

That's where I start.

Before I even begin querying, the novel has been completed, edited dozens of times, proofread, workshopped, and parts of it usually read in public a number of times. After completing a novel, I tune it up for 6-12 months before beginning to query.

The query letter goes through 2-3 months of drafts, and I usually start with editors and agents I've met personally and whose clients I know.

I do this methodically, novel by novel.

Only after a novel has been rejected by everyone in traditional publishing, do I recommend self-publishing.

But once you self-publish, I believe you should treat it just like a traditionally published book. Set up a book tour, contact stores, libraries, get your blurbs, register for writers conventions, do everything you possibly can to market and sell the book.

Go store to store, writers group to writers group, book club to book blub. Everything.

Have fun with it, and learn.

Over the years I've learned things about this business that give me a platform to put on a national tour when the time is right and I get a traditional publisher.

And for those who have met me, you know. I actually love this shit. I really enjoy meeting people, shaking hands, and selling the hell out of mine and other people's books.


JA Konrath said...

Actually, Joe, I do think that publishers look at building careers as well as the "blockbusters."

Some may, Allison. I hope mine is one of them. :)

But I just learned of three authors I know--each with five or six books with the same publisher--who were just dropped.

Would these authors have broken out with book #7 or #8? Maybe. We'll never know. The series are pretty much dead now--no one will pick up a continuing book whent he previous sales were flat.

If your publisher informs you when there's a new printing, my experience says that you're in the minority. Most authors arent' informed when this happens, even though it is very important.

Jude Hardin said...

Stacey: You have tremendous heart and determination. I admire that.

Personally, though, if everyone in traditional publishing rejects my book, I'll lay it to rest on the old hard drive and start on something new. In fact, that's what happened with my first two novels. After a while, I realized that they just weren't good enough to be published. I truly have no problem with that. They were a valuable learning experience.

On my third book, however, the one I'm preparing to pitch now, I've gotten enough positive feedback from industry pros to think that it IS publishable. Now it's a matter of finding the right agent and the right editor, and all the luck that's involved with that process. Timing, market viability, etc. If the book--a good book, I think--still gets rejected enough times, then I just don't see the point of self-publishing. Instead of spending all that time and money promoting from the sub-minor leagues, I'd rather hunker down and write #4, knowing that with every page I get a little bit better.

Allison Brennan said...

Joe, I'll consider myself lucky! My editor has always emailed both my agent and me when there's a reprinting.

I can't speak to authors who have had their series dropped, but I can't imagine that if each book is doing better than the last--even if they haven't broken out--that they would drop them. I think this is one of the huge pitfalls of writing a SERIES (i.e. same characters.) Maybe there's a point that publishers look at (fifth books, for example) that if the book has XX sales, they dump it because it won't grow from there (in THEIR experience with SERIES) and if it has XX sales it's strong enough to keep going. This is one reason I didn't want to start writing a series--if your characters don't resonate on a broad scale, you'll never break out. I knew I needed time and experience with writing, so the trilogy format is perfect for me. Maybe down the road I'll do a series, but it'll be limited simply because I think I'd get bored with the same characters.

I've had acquaintances who were dumped, too, and it's hard. My only advice is to start a new series, or a stand alone, because if your sell through is good, you can sell something else even if it's not the same series.