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?


Stacey Cochran said...



Simon Haynes said...

I've been having an argument on a mailing list about bookmarks vs postcards. We're going to do one or the other ... that's not the issue. The issue is which.

I say bookmarks have a use, even if it's temporary, and my publisher also told me bookstores weren't interested in postcards but would put bookmarks on the counter.

That made it a pretty easy choice for me.

Joe Wikert said...

Well said. As a publisher myself and someone who has been in this business for far too many years, I couldn't agree more with the notion that you build success one book at a time. Leveraging your network, and in turn, your network's network, if you will, is also critical. I've seen plenty of authors who have built longterm success by mobilizing their followers and getting them to become evangelists on all fronts.

Mark Terry said...

"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.)"

It took you 4 years to figure this out?!!!

Of course it is. But isn't it cost-ineffective in most businesses? There's an old saying about how 50 cents of every dollar spent on marketing is wasted, but since you don't know which 50 cents it is, you spend the wh ole dollar anyway.

I also think the whole thing is like Chinese water torture. Drop a book at a time on the head of readers and if your publisher hangs in there with you, eventually the marketplace will notice you.

Mark Terry

Anonymous said...

For my Barnes & Noble reading in Manhattan, I had T-shirts made with the cover of my book on the front. I gave them to all the bookstore staff, on the theory that if they needed a clean shirt to wear to work and chose mine, they'd be walking ads. Plus, it seemed like a nice thing to do.

JA Konrath said...

It took you 4 years to figure this out?!!!

It took me four years to try just about everything, first-hand. So my statement is based on fact, not assumption.

But isn't it cost-ineffective in most businesses?

Most businesses don't involve the inventor of the product pounding the pavement to sell it.

Anonymous said...

"Most businesses don't involve the inventor of the product pounding the pavement to sell it."

No? What business---especially one started by a single person---has the luxury of simply opening the doors and watching customers flow in?

Mark Terry said...

It took me four years to try just about everything, first-hand. So my statement is based on fact, not assumption.

I don't doubt it and I applaud your energy.

It seems to me that different things work some of the time but not all of the time, some for some people but not all people, and to make matters worse, not in the same way. So we muddle on, I guess.

PJ Parrish said...

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 think the above statement is the most important thing in your post, Joe. With only a few quirky exceptions, success in this business is hard-won and long-time-coming. Most the bestselling authors I know were 7,8...10 books into their careers before hitting it big. Some had previous careers in romance and brought along a nascent audience.

Maybe I'm a pollyanna, but I still believe the best use of my energy is to write the best damn book I can, be true to the books I need to write while being smart about what seems to work in the market in relation to whatever I am doing. (ie: when is the timing right for a standalone? Is trade smarter for me than HC?) Oh yeah, and you need to make each book you produce better than the last.

It's a marathon, not a sprint.

Anonymous said...

How well a book will be received by the marketplace, and will sell in the marketplace, is determined long before the book ever hits the shelves. The best thing that can happen to a book is that it gets reviewed by Kirkus, PW, ALA, LJ, etc. Libraries and booksellers across the nation pay hyper attention to these review organizations.

The best thing that an author can do to “market” his/her book is to write a killer book in the first place. This will produce many more ultimate sales than writing a mediocre book and then spending a gazillion hours trying to promote it.

So, I agree with PJ Parish that the best way an author can spend his/her time is to write a really good book in the first place. If this happens, people in the industry will notice and sales will tend to take care of themselves.


JA Konrath said...

What business---especially one started by a single person---has the luxury of simply opening the doors and watching customers flow in?

Hi Rob!

Surely you're not comparing the business model for books with the business model for cars or soft drinks?

Does the inventor of Coke have to tour? Does the inventor of the Prius have to make sure people buy the car he designed?

No. The manufacturer does that.

Authors have been griping for years that it is the publisher's job to sell books.

But when that happens, 4 out of 5 books fail.

How well a book will be received by the marketplace, and will sell in the marketplace, is determined long before the book ever hits the shelves.

I disagree. There's a book out now, and the author got a huge advance and huge press. So far, it hasn't made the bestseller lists.

There are also many books that catch on eventually, rather than immediately. There can be a cumulative effect, after years of publishing.

Writing a wonderful book doesn't guarantee anything. That's why self-promote.

Self-promotion does guarantee you'll sell more books. You might not sell enough to become a success, but each book you sell gets you a little bit closer.

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Anonymous said...

Instead of being the inventor of Coke/Prius, I'd equate the business model for books to opening a new restaurant.

You have to do more up-front promotion to drive customers to sample your menu. Just opening your doors isn't good enough -- not enough people will walk into an unknown restaurant to make it profitable.

Most restaurants lose money for a couple of years while generating a fan base.

But if the food is good enough, the menu doesn't radically change, established restaurants don't need to heavily advertise to fill their tables... they've got word of mouth and repeat customers.

I don't believe that just writing a great book will lead to success. There's plenty of great books (and restaurants, and TV shows, and movies) that fail because not enough people sampled the product for it to 'stick.'

JA, this has been a great pair of posts. Breaking down readers into 'die-hards,' 'casual users,' etc. -- and discussing what marketing efforts work best for each segment -- is valuable food for thought.

JA Konrath said...

I'd equate the business model for books to opening a new restaurant.

That's a better analogy.

Word of mouth and some good reviews can make both a book and a resturant. And location (a busy street, or coop new release table space) is also hugely important.

JA Konrath said...

I still believe the best use of my energy is to write the best damn book I can.

I agree, but I think this is needless to say. I've never met an author who thinks, "I can write crap, then promote the hell out of it and I'll become rich."

But after writing a good book, I believe the best use of the author's time is to make as big a splash as possible.

Anonymous said...

"I'd equate the business model for books to opening a new restaurant."

Which is what I was driving at. But, really, you can plug in any number of small businesses here and the analogy works.

I suppose, Joe, that I misunderstood you because you said "most businesses..."

Truth is, most businesses are small businesses. That means those owners bootstrap their asses off during their first five or six years---if not longer---just to survive. (Sound like someone you know?)

PJ Parrish said...

Gregory wrote: I don't believe that just writing a great book will lead to success.

The operative word is "just." I never said that; I said I believed the best use of my energy was to write the best book I could. It would be great if we could all "just" write our books, but the publishing model doesn't allow that anymore.

Which is why I have spent the last two days personally calling indie bookstores in Michigan because that's where my new book takes place. And today, I am mailing them all ARCs. Because I know my publisher won't target these folks, and I need their support.

Tomorrow, I do my newsletter. The next day, it's prepare for a panel I am moderating and a writers workshop I am teaching at SleuthFest. And next week, I've got two library appearances. And some time soon I have to start mapping out a Michigan tour. (which will be on my own dime).

I do this because I'd be a fool not to, and because Joe is right that it's one book (and reader) at a time.

Sorry if I sound crabby, but I have been stuck on chapter 2 of the NEXT book for two weeks. And I would rather be working on it.

And here I am wasting time reading this damn blog! It's all your fault, Konrath...

tess gerritsen said...

Good food for thought as always, Joe.

The thing about ads, though: the author doesn't pay for them. The publisher does. So that's why we should love them!

Ellen said...

*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.

That's worth remembering. Thanks, Joe.

Anonymous said...

I picked up your first book because of the color of the cover, then realized I'd read your article in Writer's Digest. I bought the book. Then I came here. I keep buying your books because I like you. They're not really my genre, but I like you. So I buy your books--and I enjoy them.

Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Best post on the subject yet, Joe. I've been making the rounds these last few weeks since the book came out, but I have no idea what works and what doesn't. It's all a crap shoot as far as I can tell, but you can't win if you don't roll the dice.

Jeff Savage said...


I know you understand this because you've talked about it before, but no event, mailing, conference, etc can be judged on the number of books you sell that day.

Let's assume you're writing books good enough that people can be hooked by book one and move on to book two (or book five to book one.)

You go to a bookstore signing and sell 10 books. You also schmooze with the employees and they sell an extra thirty copies of your book over the next month before they get schmoozed by someone else.

Bottom line an extra $40 for you and maybe an extra $200 for the publisher. Not profitable right?

Now you have to do the harder math. Of those 40 books, hopefully you'll pick up 10-15 die hard fans who will buy your next five books.

So now we are up to somewhere in the range of 100 of your books in circulation. If they like your book, they share it with friends and family.

So now we have maybe 150-200 people who have read at least one of your books.

Do that at 10 stores and you have added an extra 1500-2000 readers. It's not an overnight success and it may not land you a spot in the NYT, but it is enough to steadily increase your sales to what you call the tipping point.

Sometimes we authors get so focused on hitting a homerun, we forget to just get on base. We look at the successful authors the way my teenage kids look at my house and car and think they should have everything I have right away.

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Anonymous said...

"We look at the successful authors the way my teenage kids look at my house and car and think they should have everything I have right away."

Good point (as one who has a teenager who is JUST. LIKE. THAT. LOL)

Bookmarking this one. Thanks!

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