UPDATE: The winner of The Edge of Maybe contest is …
It was a tough decision for Ericka, so she took her top six choices and randomized them. Kristan, please email me your latest address, so I can forward it to Ericka. And everyone else, if you’re in the Bay Area, don’t miss Ericka’s book launch tonight: A Night On The Edge. I’ll be there!
And now back to our regularly scheduled blog post:
One of the advantages of working out of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto is all the wonderful conversations—about writing, about publishing, and about marketing—that take place over lunch and on our listserv. Last month, a blog post by Joe Konrath titled “The Value of Publicity” and another by Michael Ellsberg, titled “The Tim Ferriss Effect”, sparked an e-mail thread about what sells books. According to Konrath, the publicity he got in the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the LA Times, etc. did nothing to increase his book sales. According to Ellsberg, a spot on prime-time CNN and an editorial he wrote for the New York Times did little to increase his book sales. So, if publicity doesn’t sell books, what does?
According to Konrath, good writing, an extensive backlist and proper positioning on Amazon are the keys to his success: “[M]y fame and my past have little to do with my current success. … The majority of my sales come from Amazon and my ability to use the tools they provide.”
According to Ellsberg, coverage on a popular single-author blog with a wide sphere of influence is what put his book on the map. (By the way, there is a distinction between publicity and marketing. Publicity means spots on radio and television shows, advertising, and articles and book reviews in newspapers and magazines. While publicity is short-lived—the biggest push done within the first month that a book is out—marketing is an ongoing effort that can last months, even years.)
Grotto writers chimed in with their own thoughts about what sells books and, with their permission, I’ve reprinted their comments here:
Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, author of Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Tale of Life and Death, agrees with Konrath and Ellsberg: “I certainly found that mentions in The New York Times, excerpts in O magazine, and getting reviewed in People did almost nothing in terms of my sales. And all that endless social media? Not so much …”
Heather Donahue, author of Growgirl: How My Life After the Blair Witch Project Went to Pot emphasizes the importance of “knowing your core audience, knowing that books are a niche business, and having a laser focus on the top 500 individual readers. Finding them. Knowing your tribe and building from there.”
“Having pieces in Slate, The Awl, and The Nervous Breakdown worked every bit as good as being on The View because you want to sell books to people who read them,” Donahue said in an interview. In addition to a Q&A in The Awl/The Hairpin, which The Rumpus cross-posted, and 21 Questions in The Nervous Breakdown, Donahue had an interview in Bust, two pages in Entertainment Weekly, and a healthy response from Facebook, where she has 1286 friends and 549 likes on her professional page. Donahue says that because her book came out quickly, she didn’t have time to build a large following on Twitter, but she thinks the cumulative effect of the marketing she did was every bit as important as the publicity garnered by her publicists—both the in-house publicist her publisher assigned her and the one she hired on her own. Would she still hire a publicist next time? Yes, if she goes with a traditional publisher next time. Donahue spent so much time marketing her book that she would liked to have seen a larger cut of the profits. “I’d rather find a middle ground partner. Someone who could handle some of the design stuff and do more of a 50/50 split on royalties, to share some of the outgoing publication costs but also share on the incoming profits.”
Janis Cooke Newman, author of The Russian Word for Snow: A True Story of Adoption and Mary, a novel about Mary Todd Lincoln, agrees that knowing your tribe is key. “While we like to think that everybody is going to find our books fascinating, the truth is that it is a niche business. One email blast to an online chat group of people interested in adopting from Eastern Europe put my memoir at number 200 on Amazon—at least for a couple of hours—and practically sold out the admittedly meager first printing. And at a recent appearance at a Civil War literary conference, the local bookseller ran out of my novel. National TV is cool, but finding your niche readers and making it easy for them to buy your book—even years after publication—seems to be the best way to keep those royalty checks coming.”
Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax and the forthcoming Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, echoes Donahue and Newman’s sentiments. “Have a really sharp, really defined sense of who your reader is (emphasis on the “read”) and/or who would buy your book and then think really hard about how to get to that person, how to let that person know your book is out there. … Being in The New Yorker is highly cool, but again, does it put your name on the radar or does it sell books? Are New Yorker readers the ones who will BUY your book and READ your book and then TELL their friends to buy your book?”
Hale cautions, however, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to zeroing in on your audience. “Every book is different. My readers are writers who want to write better, so I have taught anywhere that gets the title of the book on a course catalog (reaching tens of thousands of people), I have led countless workshops at countless writers conferences, I have given workshops in bookstores, I have worked on tags and SEO on my Web site, I’ve built modest but loyal FB and Twitter and mailing-list followings, and I give out teachers lessons plans for free. I put my book title in every bio I write. I accept all offers for any kind of publicity: I get up for drive-time radio, I write articles for free if I know it gets to my readers. I work closely with the publisher’s publicity people and I hire my own publicist to help me strategize. Not strategize how to get famous. Strategize about how to reach my readers/buyers.
“It’s a one-two punch. Publicity gets your name and your book on the radar,
maybe helps you build cred. … Marketing identifies your
market/tribe/reader/buyer and focuses aggressively to let those people know
about the book and to make them want to buy it. Publicity lasts for a month. Sometimes you strike gold right away and get an instant bestseller. Marketing
continues for years and can build slowly.”
Speaking from the perspective of a self-proclaimed “readaholic,” Jason Roberts, author of A Sense of The World, says the problem with some publicity is that it breeds familiarity with a book, not intrigue. You know those movie trailers that make you feel like you’ve already seen the movie? That happens with books, too. “Sometimes, a book has fallen off my To Buy list because of one article, one interview, one TV appearance too many. … If I had my druthers, I’d prefer a PR campaign that focused not so much on the book as a quantum of content, but as an experience. How will it surprise me, enlighten me, draw me in? Will it subvert my expectations, shed light on mysteries, go behind the scenes or between the lines? Is it, simply put, not only a book but a story? … Sell the experience, not just the facts. (And don’t sit around waiting for reviewers to tell you what that experience is; decide for yourself, and market accordingly).”
Gerard Jones, author of Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, reminds writers that although book sales are nice, they are not the only way for authors to make money. “I’ve gotten a lot of paying gigs talking to colleges and other institutions, and those can keep rolling in long after the shelf-life of the book. … In terms of perceptible Amazon up-ticks, the only broadcast media that ever helped were NPR interviews where I got to talk about the content of the book at some length (Fresh Air helped, but the biggest jump was after Talk of the Nation). Mass-audience radio never did squat, not even Howard Stern in his pre-satellite days, nor did TV. But a speaking agency picked me up and landed me a series of public debates after I appeared on the Today Show, which in turn led to other stuff. I also had a university events programmer tell me he was already interested in bringing me in but didn’t really decide until he saw that I’d been on Bill O’Reilly’s show. I’ve also picked up quite a few article- and editorial-writing gigs off my books, at least some of which were helped along by publicity. A BBC appearance got me an offer from the Guardian to write something, and I think that may be why the Times of London asked me for something soon after. I think it just looks better in the pitch if you can list a bunch of high-profile appearances too. I’ve found that initial sales usually don’t matter that much; publication is usually the beginning of a long trudge. But the rewards of the trudge can be a lot more rewarding than you think they might be while you’re still processing the realization that you’re not going to soar onto the NYT bestseller list. … And the publicity that seems not to be doing a damned bit of good in the moment can pay off down that road.”
Although there are a number of authors who have launched bestsellers after strategically and methodically (as Hale puts it) building an online presence like Rebecca Skloot , author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, and Ferriss himself, T.J. Stiles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, cautions that no one really knows what makes a book successful. “When a book DOES succeed, publicity is usually an element,” Stiles says. “What makes a book succeed? If anyone could figure out a formula for that, then publishers wouldn’t lose money (or just break even) on 70% of the books they release. Only about 30% make money. Everyone’s in the dark—not when it comes to what makes a good book, but what makes a commercially successful one. So many great books don’t make money. … as William Goldman said about Hollywood, ‘Nobody knows anything.’”