Last week it was reported that a particular book sold less than 11,000 copies in the first week after its release and those sales were “disappointing”. The news prompted me to recall a husband-and-wife writing team whose book sold 100,000 copies the first week and their publishing contract was subsequently cancelled because the publisher had estimated sales 50% higher.
Small to mid-size publishers and self-published authors shake their heads in disbelief, knowing they would be absolutely thrilled with anything close to those numbers. So why the disconnect? Why are expectations so high and how is that realistic? Below are a few answers.
Author “A” with less than 11,000 sold copies has an international platform that includes daily newspaper, magazine, radio and television coverage. Her Twitter following is nearly 4 million and her Facebook page has over 5 million Likes. Publishers use an author’s platform to estimate potential sales. With 11,000 in actual sales, that is .00275% of her Twitter followers—and that’s not counting Facebook, other social media or her international, mainstream media platform. One percent is usually the minimum acceptable estimate.
Authors “B” and “C”, the husband-and-wife team, had a long publishing history. Several dozen of their latest books had exceeded 100,000 copies in their first week and a few had exceeded 150,000 copies. They did not have the mainstream media platform but they did have millions of fans. The poor showing of their latest book was translated by their publishers to mean their popularity was waning.
What you can do: One of the most important things an author can do is continually grow a legitimate following. The key word here is legitimate: if you have 10,000 Twitter or Facebook followers but only 500 are potential readers, the remainder is a waste in terms of book sales. With social media, an author can study their followers to determine whether they are the right target market for their particular genre. Their platform can also contain mainstream media, whether its newspaper, magazine, radio or television—but it has to tie into the type of books that are written in order for it to translate into sales.
With plenty of pre-release hype over Author A’s book, expectations were even higher. Major publishers determine which authors they intend to heavily promote and perhaps ironically it consists of the ones that already have the largest platforms. Oftentimes the promotional campaign includes advertisements in major national magazines, often costing more than $56,000 per ad. They may also opt to advertise on television and/or radio in some markets. The cost can easily soar so they must have expectations of recouping those expenditures within a reasonable time period.
Authors have always played a major role in the promotional campaign. They are expected to participate in book signings and book-related events, which can often encompass numerous cities and states. They are also expected to participate in interviews via mainstream media—newspapers, magazines, radio and television. Only the authors at the top of the pyramid can bypass road tours and even then it’s extremely rare.
What you can do: If you are an author published by a mid-to-small publisher, the advertising budget just isn’t there. You have to fill that gap with “free” publicity—interviews on your local or state radio and television channels, newspapers and regional magazines. Online blogs, podcasts and to a certain extent, social media—can also help to fill that gap. In all cases, however, you must be reaching your target audience; otherwise, the effort and time is wasted. More on the in-person appearances below.
Major publishers have sales teams with established lines of communication with book store chains as well as major independents. They may have full color catalogs with their latest releases and in some instances the sales staff visits the buyers personally to make recommendations. They will share their sales expectations with them in an effort to get more books stocked in each store, which accounts for those tall stacks we often see just inside the main doors.
In addition to their established channels, larger publishers can afford to sell books on consignment—meaning if they do not sell, they can be returned. Often their printing costs are so low that they will instruct the store to destroy the books rather than return them. Sometimes they will ask for the title page to be ripped from the book and mailed back as proof the book has been destroyed. Other times, they will ‘remainder’ the books, meaning the publisher will resell them at a fraction of wholesale cost, which accounts for the scores of books by major authors that are deeply discounted.
In fact, it is estimated today that less than 1% of all published books will be stocked in a book store. The next time you visit a store—especially one of the chains—look at the imprints. Even those that are lesser known are most likely owned by one of the major publishers.
What you can do: The author published by a small-to-mid-size publisher or that is self-published can approach both the brick-and-click markets. Establish relationships with booksellers in your area. Independent stores are much more likely to be open to purchasing books from lesser-known authors or those outside the major publishers, but don’t rule out the chain stores. Discover who the buyers are as well as the event coordinators and make a habit of visiting them when you have a new title. Scheduling book signings and particularly talks is a great way to introduce them to your fans—and your fans to their store. The goal is to get the booksellers to recommend your books when you are not even present.
Libraries are often overlooked and they can be a tremendous resource for the self-published author or those published by smaller publishers. Approach the events coordinator at your local library—or in any area you will be visiting—and offer to give a talk. Expect to schedule this in advance to give both the library and yourself time to publicize it. Often, libraries will have budgets for promotions such as author talks and many times you will receive an honorarium. You will, however, need to supply your own books to sell; but if you have a decent discount from your publisher, you can often earn more than you would ordinarily with basic royalties.
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