If you’ve been publishing for any length of time, either traditionally or independently, you know that there’s little money in books. If money’s your goal, sell real estate (but make sure you’re good at it).
So let’s agree that we’re not in this for the money. Still, we’d like to have readers. How can they find us?
The odds are against a reader simply stumbling upon your book. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and put your book up for sale on all the major platforms and see who notices.
Simple principles of supply and demand are at work here. Solid figures on titles published are hard to come by, but take two recent numbers from Bowker on US publishing alone—391,000 self-published titles in 2012, and 347,000 traditionally published print books in 2011. Do a little extrapolation and it’s not hard to validate a figure that gets tossed around quite a bit: 3,000 books published per day, worldwide.
And here’s the thing: books no longer go out of print. With e-publishing and print on demand, these books will be around forever. How can your book stand out when it’s competing with a million books this year, two million next year, three million the next year, and so on?
There are some very good reasons why the average book sells only 250 copies, and why most self-published books sell fewer than 150 copies. (For more on the numbers, check out these articles in Forbes, the New York Times, and Out:think)
My point is not to discourage anyone from writing. I believe in the power of the written word and feel privileged to have been a published author for the past seventeen years. My point is that if you want more than 150 readers, you either need to convince a traditional publisher that your book will generate sufficient corporate profits after their substantial costs of production, distribution, and marketing have been met, or you need to enter into this adventure of independent publishing with both eyes open and a strategic plan for building a readership.
This week, I’ll be moderating a panel at a statewide convention on the arts that brings together writers and also musicians to address this question of how our creative work finds its audience. Since their industry imploded/exploded a few years earlier than the shake-up in the book industry, I’m looking forward to discovering what musicians have learned about “discoverability.”
Already, in our planning session, my fellow panelists have offered these helpful thoughts on discoverability, to which I’ll add a few of my own:
· Christy NaMee Eriksen, an independent artist of the spoken word, reminds us to consider which audience really matters for a particular work. She stresses the importance of accessibility and partnering though grassroots, intentional engagement.
· Storm Gloor, once involved in music distribution and now a professor who researches how music is (and will be) distributed, notes that artists need to look at their products with the realization that what they sell is not the end-all—there are other products you can sell (workshops, appearances, for instance).
· Dave Cheezum, independent bookstore owner, reminds authors to remember that they’re part of a brand and also part of an eco-system which, despite the revolution in publishing, still includes hands-on bookselling.
· When I was selling real estate (good for the bank account, not so much for the soul), the experts used to tell us our product wasn’t a house—the product was us. That’s what branding and platform are all about: you and your relationships with your readers. This is why publishers love celebrity authors—they come with a built-in platform. My guess (since you’re reading this) is that you’re not a celebrity, but you can still build a platform, if you make an effort.
· Sales breed sales. This is truer than ever in the age of the algorithm. You may sometimes sell at a discount—that’s one of the wonderful freedoms inherent in independent publishing—but if only other discounted books show up in Amazon’s “Customers who bought this book also viewed” section of your book’s page, you haven’t reached your real audience yet. The good news: the success of an indie book isn’t tied to the launch as it is in traditional publishing. If you’re not getting the readers you want, take a hard look at the data and make adjustments where you can.
· Unless you’ve got large amounts of cash to buy a presence across media platforms, visibility depends on you as a person—a genuine, professional, engaged author, not a book-shouting machine.
· While your book may not be your end-all, it’s the one thing you control, fully and absolutely, if you’ve opted for independent publishing. It needs to be polished and professional. It needs to offer what other books don’t. It needs to be a book that readers go out of their way to recommend to other readers. “I’m buying several copies for friends,” wrote an author in her recent endorsement of my forthcoming novel. Can you imagine how pleased I was? Your book won’t be universally loved. The odds are stacked against it being a trend-setting surprise. But as sales breed sales, true fans will bring more true fans.