Wednesday, July 09, 2008

2006 – My Great Publishing Adventure – Part 3 of 3

Note: This is the last of a three part series describing my adventures in the publishing industry. Here are links to the first two parts:

2006 - My Great Publishing Adventure - Part 1 of 3

2006 - My Great Publishing Adventure - Part 2 of 3

Part 3:

So I got my book printed. Now what? Now comes the part you can't control, which includes getting reviewers to review your book, getting bookstores to carry it, getting people to visit your web site, and getting people to buy your book. By comparison, the steps up to this point are easy.

- Book reviews. There are four major book review publications that everyone in the industry pays attention to: Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, ForeWord and Booklist, from the American Library Association (ALA). Here's the catch with these big reviewers: they only review books before publication. Therefore, you need Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) to send to these reviewers, and others. What is your publication date? If you are the publisher, you get to choose. Your book is golden in the months just prior to its official release date because it is new and it doesn't have a track record. I chose a date that was about one month after printing was complete. That allowed time for the books to work their way through distribution channels to the warehouses of the wholesalers. Another consideration is that the reviews of the four big reviewers need to show up in the databases of the wholesalers, Ingram and Baker & Taylor. That way, a bookstore person or a librarian doing a query on your book will see the reviews. Even a slightly negative review from a big reviewer is more impressive than no review at all.

Unfortunately, the four big reviewers only review a fraction of the books they receive. None of them reviewed my book, nor did the major newspaper book sections. I received nice reviews in my local papers and a paragraph in the Seattle Times, plus reviews in several small papers around the country. I was very concerned about the wholesaler databases not having anything, so I decided to purchase a review. Yes, both Kirkus and ForeWord offer a review-for-fee service. It doesn't mean you get a good review, it just means the book gets reviewed. I purchased a review from ForeWord for about $300 just so I would have something. It turns out that the person hired to do the review was from the Puget Sound region, which is where my book is based, and she loved it. I got a very good review. Later, ForeWord Magazine selected my book as a Beach Read Selection in July of 2006.

- Book fairs. As a publisher, I was able to attend two large book fairs in 2006: Book Expo America (BEA), which was held in Washington, D.C., and the ALA Annual Conference, which was held in New Orleans. These events are not open to the public; you must be "in the biz" either as a bookstore employee, librarian, publishing company employee, literary agent, author sponsored by a publisher, or an established book industry participant of some kind. That adds up to a lot of people and there are tens of thousands in attendance at these large events.

Most publishers rent a table, or many tables, starting at around $1,200 for a small one. They display their books and usually some kind of artwork or gimmick to get passersby to stop and browse. Nothing is being sold, but lots of books and trinkets are given away. The idea is that a bookstore owner or librarian will take a book home and fall in love with it and order copies of it.

I did not want to shell out $1,200 just to display one book, so I joined a trade association for small publishers, called Independent Book Publishers Association (IPBA). This group rents a large booth at major book fairs and displays books offered by its members. I was able to attend the fairs at no cost, other than getting there, by volunteering to staff the IPBA booth. In addition, members can purchase time slots at a small table at the end of the IPBA booth where they can feature their books and offer signed copies, flyers, business cards and other goodies. When it was my turn I put out a bowl of chocolate covered almonds and that got people to stop so I could pitch my book. Since I happened to also be the author of my book I was able to give away signed copies, which proved very popular. However, I have no idea how many sales resulted from that exposure.

- Readings and appearances. The single most effective way that an author can get the word out about his or her book is to schedule a reading at a bookstore or some other venue and invite people to attend. My most successful reading event was at my local independent bookstore, and that is where any author should begin. By building on that event I was able to get invitations to speak at other regional bookstores. Here's a very important lesson: bookstores want your book to be "in distribution" through wholesalers before they will schedule a reading. That is so they can order returnable copies, a point I made earlier in my discussion of book distribution. After the reading, the store will usually stock your book for as long as people buy it; therefore readings are also a way of getting your book onto shelves.

The great thing about a reading is that, for an hour or so, you have a group of people listening to you talk about your book. When you consider the number of entertainment options out there competing for attention, breaking through that marketing noise with a single novel has become nearly impossible. A reading is face to face, it's personal, and even if people don't buy the book they may mention it to others or they may buy it later as a gift.

A reading event will usually be announced in the local newspaper. However, getting people to attend is your job. I personally invited people to my readings, and I asked them to bring a friend, and I went around in advance and put up posters.

Important caveat: many bookstores, even some independent ones, will not host readings by self-published authors. This is one case where starting your own publishing company in order to publish your book is basically the same as self-publishing, as far as these stores are concerned. The lesson here is to simply call or write to lots and lots of bookstores and see which ones accept you. It also helps to be willing to travel.

- Advertising. In an effort to increase online awareness of my book I contracted with a book promoter who reads, or looks at, your book and then chooses a dozen web sites on which to place a display ad that is linked to your Amazon book page. This cost about $900, and it resulted in some "click throughs" to my Amazon page, but I didn't detect any significant jump in sales. I also ran some Google search ads. For these, you bid an amount for placement on a page, but you don't pay unless someone clicks on the ad. Again, I got some traffic to my book page but I didn't really see any sales.

- Media and publicity. Another great way to get the word out about your book is to try to get the media to do stories about you. This is free advertising, but you need to have an angle that attracts media attention. The fact that you wrote a book is not interesting. There must be a "story behind the story" if it is going to be newsworthy. Fortunately, I had one, and that was Hurricane Katrina, which is a small but important part of the story line in my novel. I also happen to be from New Orleans and was there when Katrina landed. I placed a quarter-page announcement in a publication called Radio-TV Interview Report (RTIR), which is a catalog of people who are available for radio and TV interviews. Once I paid for the ad, an RTIR copy editor talked to me on the phone and helped me craft an attention getting announcement. The headline read:

"A Native of New Orleans Reveals: Why the City I Know May Already Be Gone"

I thought it was a bit over the top, but when it ran in August of 2006, as the one-year anniversary of Katrina approached, my phone started ringing. I ended up doing more than a dozen live on-air radio interviews with stations all over the country and in Canada (but, surprisingly, none from Louisiana or anywhere in the Deep South). I did these interviews from my home phone, usually at some odd hour. In addition, I had one television appearance on the morning news in Seattle on the day of the Katrina anniversary, which was August 29. All of the interviews generally went very well, and they were fun, but I did not see a huge bump in book sales from any of these appearances.

- Selling books. So now we come to the point of the whole enterprise: selling books. Of the five thousand that I printed, I sold about fifteen hundred. Almost all of these were during the first six months after the book was officially launched in July 2006. While I was actively promoting the book using all of the techniques I've mentioned—plus some that I didn't mention, such as my email newsletter and blogging activities—people were buying books. However, I eventually had to face the reality of paying bills. I had been surviving off savings for several months and finally, in the fall of 2006, I had to return to the work force as a software engineer, which has been my profession since 1992. Once I had a day job my book promoting trailed off to almost zero, and book sales followed the same route. I kept the book in distribution for as long as I could, but it was getting expensive and I was not selling books, so I canceled the distribution in the summer of 2007 and took delivery of the remaining books, which are now at my house. It took a long time to cancel the distribution agreement, since by contract they must hold the account open so that wholesalers can return unsold books, and the wholesalers must allow bookstores to send back unsold books. In all it was about nine or ten months before I could finally stop paying the distributor to hold the account open.

It's important to consider what happens when it goes the other way and a book takes off and becomes a big seller. Guess what? The publisher must print those books and pay for the printing before the books leave the warehouse. This can be a significant up front investment if the book sells in the hundreds of thousands of copies. Furthermore, it takes a long time to get paid. That's because the distributor holds a large percentage of the revenues against future returns. In the typical arrangement the small publisher gets something like 30 percent of revenues starting about 90 days after a book is introduced. This means you cannot realistically finance the printing of additional books with proceeds from the early print runs. The money doesn't come back to you fast enough. The reality is, to sell big, you need to start with a very large investment. When you do the math you can see that book publishers take on enormous risk. This is why book publishing has gotten to the state it is in, where you see large publishing houses scrambling for the next blockbuster title that pays for all the other titles that sell in low numbers.

Will I self-publish my next book? Probably not. In the end, I feel there are too many disadvantages to publishing your own book, especially a novel. That said, the publishing business itself is fascinating in many ways, and I think it would be a thrill to bring out books by other authors, especially those gems that most readers will never see in today's publishing environment. But this takes a big investment, and I haven't figured out how to make a living at it, at least not unless I operate for many years and build up a stable of modest-selling titles. Therefore, unless I win the lottery (which is unlikely since I don't even play the lottery), I won't be actively running a small press again any time soon.

For my next novel I plan to follow the traditional publishing route. I will shop for an agent and hope the book gets sold to a publisher. Even then, I know my job will not stop there. I will need to make appearances, maintain a blog, contact all my friends and acquaintances, and do everything I can to get people to buy the book. Why do all of these things? Because these days the publisher can't do it for you. You are the main seller of your book. Your publisher might pay some of your expenses, and arrange a little publicity, but if you are going to give a reading in, say, Denver, you'd better write to all of your friends in Denver and beg them to go and, while they're at it, bring others with them.

What regular publishers give you that you can't buy is credibility. When Penguin sends your book to Publisher's Weekly it will probably get reviewed, even if you are a debut author. The large newspaper book sections will most likely take notice. Many bookstores may gamble on some shelf space, maybe even near the entrance if you have been billed as a "hot new literary phenomenon." In other words, the odds of your book becoming a hit really goes up if you have the book industry behind you. But, and this is the sad truth, if your book doesn't take off in three or four months, certainly no more than six months, then the "buzz" will stop and most copies will be returned to the publisher to be recycled. Yes, what doesn't sell gets turned into mush to make new paper to print new books. This is called pulping. But look at it this way, if your book ends up in the pulp room, then it means it never really caught on with readers. If you had self-published you would have made the same discovery at your own expense.

Sea Changes, my novel, published by One Sock Press

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