Posts Tagged how to sell books

When book sales are slow… how to keep motivated

hare tortoiseThis morning I was scratching my head for a post to write, so I asked on Facebook for ideas. Immediately, Vivienne Tuffnell volunteered this great question: ‘How do you keep motivated when your books aren’t flying off the shelves?’

Before I could even type a reply, Zelah Meyer had countered with: ‘delusional optimism and a long-term view’!

 

Which is about what I would say (at least, the second bit).

We’ll assume for the moment that you’ve done everything possible to ensure your books are up to scratch, with appropriate covers, well-honed descriptions and sharp metadata. You know the book’s good. You’re doing all you can, as your promotion budgets and tastes allow. But those sales aren’t stacking up.

How do you take courage?

Build volume

Keep calm and build a body of work. Actually, I see this as the only possible plan. Writing is a lifelong thing anyway. If you’ve had the gumption to start, and stick with it, it’s a default habit built over years. Having ideas is as usual as taking breaths. You finish a book and you don’t settle until you’ve got another under way.

Also, building a portfolio makes business sense. Whether we’re the Big Five/Four/Three/Two/AmazOne or an individual writer, this is what we’re doing. With more books we get more chances to be found by readers. And when we are found, we look like more of a presence.

Does this mean you have to churn them out? No. We are taking a long-term view. Write and publish fast if that suits your nature, your material, your market. If it doesn’t, you’re still building a body of work. However long the book takes, once it’s finished, it’s out for ever.

But everyone else…

What about all those posts on Facebook, G+ and Twitter where people share a stellar sales rank or triumphant sales numbers? Some days that can be like a big wet slap. Even though you know how sales ranks surge and plummet by the hour. What can you do, apart from congratulate them – and write?

First, remind yourself it doesn’t reflect on you or mean you should ‘do more’. (Except write. Did I mention that?)

And second, there is something you can do. Keep making meaningful connections, fishing in the internet sea for the other people who think like you, write like you, read like you. Writing is all about connection anyway.

Also, remind yourself how the ebook jungle has changed. I published Nail Your Novel when there was far less competition, and clocked up a good 10,000 sales with so little effort I couldn’t be bothered to count any further. I now can’t believe it used to be so easy. Now, with all the books clamouring for readers, we have to work so much harder for each sale.

Jessica BellCould you write non-fiction?

Author/editor/songwriter/poet Jessica Bell (left) wrote about this recently at Jane Davis’s blog. I hit on this strategy myself, completely by accident, when I wrote Nail Your Novel. In fact, if I hadn’t got those nonfic titles I’d be feeling pretty discouraged, simply because selling literary fiction is hard, hard, hard. My novels sell only a fifth as many as my Nail Your Novels. But that means I’m five times as thrilled by a fiction sale as I am by a Nail Your Novel sale (though I’m still quite thrilled by those, thank you very much).

 

What if you only have one book?

A significant number of writers have just one title, and feel no desire to write another. Creatively that’s fine. One book might be all you need to say. Ask Harper Lee. But you are likely to feel this sales problem very keenly. Especially if it’s fiction.

fordI do know writers who made a big splash with just one novel. For instance, John A A Logan with his literary thriller The Survival of Thomas Ford – but he published at that goldrush time, when a free promotion could work miracles. It was many years before he released another book, and the momentum he got with the first kept him going nicely. He also supplemented it with a lot of hard work on Kindle and Goodreads forums. Now, though, it’s rare that one book will get you noticed enough.

In this situation, your best bet is to go for volume (again). Team up with other likeminded one-book authors and form a collective. Perhaps release a box set.

If the book is non-fiction, you could use it to launch a speaking or tutoring career, which gives people more chances to encounter you. It’s the volume principle again – but you’re producing performances instead of books.

It’s not all about sales

Let’s remember we don’t write simply to chase sales. Except for a few stellar bestsellers, there are more lucrative lines of work. But the satisfaction factor? Every new comment from a reader, every email, every new review, tells me I’m writing what I should be writing. It’s worth the struggle.

Stop this relentless positivity, please

So this probably all sounds very well adjusted. Do ever stop being so darned positive? Certainly I do. I had a towering strop recently when I saw a report of a speech at a publishing conference where the delegates were discussing how much credibility to give indie authors. It all hinged on sales; nothing else. No thought for originality, craft, quality. It reminded me that the publishing world does not want to give authors credibility if they publish themselves – and if we do, they assume we must be at some junior, paint-by-numbers level. Which is insulting for just about everybody – genre authors included. After that I was not positive at all. Measured in that way, EL James would have far more credibility than Henry James.

But we’re playing a long game. For some of us it is longer than others, but the answer is the same. Write more books, and write them well. And remember the main contest you’re in is not against other writers. It’s against your own standards and hopes; the struggle to do justice to your ideas and your talent.

This post probably isn’t startling information. But if you’re also having a crisis of confidence, I hope it helps. And I really hope my optimism isn’t delusional. This is Zelah, by the way. She really can do this. I’ve seen her.

 Thanks for the hare and tortoise pic CarbonNYC

Any thoughts to add? Share in the comments!

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From last resort to new career – how I self-published and how it’s changed my outlook as a writer: speech for the Society of Young Publishers, Oxford

This week I was invited to give a talk on my self-publishing adventures to the Society of Young Publishers in Oxford. Inevitably they also got a few opinions (at the end) on how I now see my role as a writer  🙂  

I’ve since had requests to publish it here, so…. here goes.

I wasn’t new to publishing when I self-published. More than two decades ago my first job was in the editorial office of a small publisher where I handled every kind of non-fiction title – books, directories, partworks, magazines, a newspaper – and even, once, a novel. From there I moved to magazine editing. In parallel I developed a career as a writer – I’ve ghosted 11 novels and 8 of them have been bestsellers. I also mentor other writers – originally for a literary consultancy and now freelance.

I’m fully armed with literary agents – two of them, actually. In spite of this, I ended up self-publishing. Here’s the story.

I self-publish a writing book

Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence was the book I published first. I wrote it as a natural extension of the writing blog I’d just started. It’s my writing process distilled into 10 steps – how to take an idea, flesh it out, draft it and revise it thoroughly. It’s 40,000 words, which proved too dinky for the market. But that was deliberate. I knew from the online community that writers wanted a book that wouldn’t snaffle their precious writing time but told them only what they needed.

No one would publish it, so I thought it had better not sit around. I set it up on Lulu – the most straightforward print platform at the time – and told my blog and Twitter followers. I also gave away free PDFs. This was three years ago, so the giveaway packed a punch. NYN got good reviews, sold about 20 print copies a month and became quite widely known – at any rate, strangers would email me telling me how useful it was.

So NYN ticked over on Lulu as a nice accessory to my blog, but I still wanted a deal for my fiction. It wasn’t respectable to self-publish fiction – especially if you’d secured an agent.

I am forced into the Kindle age

Most people self-pub with ebooks first, especially now. I didn’t. Three years ago when I brought out NYN I’d never seen an ebook. I had a house full of print. I’d worked with print and I wasn’t convinced that making an ebook was worth the fuss.

No doubt this reasoning has been repeated in publishers up and down the land.

I was even getting requests for a Kindle NYN but it took a catastrophe to boot me over. One day Lulu deleted a bunch of Amazon listings and then bickered with Amazon – and its authors – about whose fault this was. My book, which was generating a buzz, vanished from sale for several weeks – and so did my reviews. The links from bloggers who’d written about it went to dead ends.

Clearly I had to find out about sales avenues, instead of just being a writer. I read my most trusted bloggers, filled a few information gaps, formatted NYN and wrote a how-I-did-it post for my readers.

Woot, I’d launched an ebook. I say launch, but that ‘how-to’ post, a Facebook event and a few tweets was the only launch I did.

Launch. How do you launch?

Again, I was thinking with my writer head. I had no idea how books should be introduced to the market. When I worked for the small publisher, the marketing manager handled it. When ghostwriting, I was never the focus – the celebrity authors had an army organising bus stop posters and appearances on Breakfast TV.

But, probably only by the grace of bloggers, my tiny launch sold five times as many copies in one month as I’d sold in print. There must have been quite a few people waiting for a Kindle NYN because it spent a long time in the Kindle top 10 for books on writing and it’s still in the top 50.

Thank goodness I eventually listened to my readers. (It’s now also on Kobo and Smashwords.)

I revamped the print edition and put it on Amazon’s CreateSpace (because I’d got fed up of middlemen). NYN immediately got offered on a 4 for the price of 3 deal and is always on a bundle deal of some sort. Now it’s catching up with e-sales.

Does blogging and social media sell books? Yes, but I did it by accident

So, I had a book out but my goodness I needed to learn more about promotion. Off to my bloggers again. It turned out my blog got top marks for being a good platform –

  • I stuck to a subject I could blog about until the end of the world
  • I could demonstrate with my background that I knew what I was talking about
  • my posts were useful and accessible
  • I was happy to answer commenters and develop posts into a conversation.

All of this I did entirely by accident. The tight focus on writing came from my background in magazines – where you give readers useful advice and don’t dilute your value with off-topic material. The rest happened because I was having fun.

I was relieved to find I didn’t have to do a hard sell – because I’d seen some pretty grotesque campaigns around Twitter and Facebook.

As with blogging, social media marketing seems to work by a gentlemanly process of relationships – people get to know you, enjoy your company in an interview or a blog post. It’s the way books have always sold on in traditional publishing – by generating curiosity so that one day the reader stops and picks up the book. It is, to quote one of my guru bloggers Joanna Penn, hand-selling on a global scale.

The unthinkable – I self-publish my novel

By mid-2011, NYN was doing well. My agent had given up trying to sell my own novel. The typical feedback was: ‘we really enjoyed it but it’s too unconventional’.

Meanwhile, in traditional publishing, a number of novelists were daring the unthinkable – they were going indie. They were writing articles explaining why, many describing exactly my predicament – too unusual for the market.

I decided it was time to publish My Memories of a Future Life. I put it through a rigorous round of edits and got an editor friend to scourge it as well, and it was ready to go.

The promotion problem

Publishing my novel was very liberating, but how would I launch it? People who wanted writing advice wouldn’t necessarily like my fiction. I couldn’t change my blog into a hybrid of writing advice and marketing for my novel – that would annoy the readership I’d built up.

I told my readers what I was doing, created another blog for the novel and a breakaway twitter ID dedicated to the kind of fiction and ideas that interest me.

That took care of its online home, but where should I promote it? So far I’d learned how to sell a book that was helpful to people – which was easy and unembarrassing. But a novel isn’t helpful and nobody needs it. All I could do was try to drum up curiosity. But where?

All the advice I’d found was about marketing genre fiction – where you create a buzz on forums, Goodreads groups and books blogs. But my novel is contemporary fiction with literary sensibilities. Its tag line is ‘what if your life was somebody’s past’, so it seems to be a reincarnation story, but is no more about reincarnation than We Need To Talk About Kevin is about a crime. Publishers said it was too much like a thriller for literary readers and too psychological and poetic for thriller readers. And the narrator isn’t regressing to a past life, but looking to an incarnation in the future – so that might add a label of speculative fiction – or not, depending on your take on the story.

I began to see why publishers passed in favour of something easier.

(You might be wondering if such a duck-billed platypus of a novel would ever work, but it’s got a respectable clutch of high-starred reviews, none of them paid for and none of them calling in favours.)

Some writers hire publicists but that wasn’t an option for me:

  • I wouldn’t know how to assess whether a publicist was any good
  • I didn’t know anyone else who’d marketed an equivalent book so couldn’t use them as a template or find suitable publicists through them
  • I didn’t have any budget anyway.

What I did – the episodes

I weighed up my novel’s biggest asset – a thought-provoking distinctive idea – split the book into four parts and released it as a Kindle serial over four weeks. Then I followed with the complete novel on Kindle and in print.

I called each instalment an ‘episode’ to echo the freshness of serials like Lost and also to suggest how to approach it – as a modern, multi-level thought-provoking story.

This meant I was handling an exhausting 4 launches instead of one – but it created an event, and people around Twitter, blogs and Facebook helped to build the anticipation – and even wrote reviews for the individual episodes.

My lovely readers

Here I found I’d underestimated my lovely followers – they were curious to see, at long last, the kind of novel I’d written. Also, subscriptions to my blog doubled – suggesting I’d passed some kind of test. Perhaps I’d proved, after all this talk, that I also walked the walk.

I was careful never to abuse this generosity. I wrote posts about the novel on my main blog only if they were useful to writers. For instance, I discovered that splitting the novel in four was an excellent way to test the story structure. I also wrote about how to produce a print edition  and another post about how to write back cover copy – with examples of my laughably rotten versions.

Another accident – the novel’s blog gets a new life

Once the releases were out, I was going to leave the novel’s blog as a static site. Then I wrote a post called The Undercover Soundtrack – about how I used music as inspiration to create characters and crucial story developments. It fitted nicely as the novel is about a musician.

I suddenly thought I’d like other authors to tackle this, rather like Desert Island Discs, so I turned it into a series. It’s building a following from readers who like the concept and it also allows me to showcase other authors – karmic payback for all the advice and support they’ve given me.

I now get emails from publishers and publicists asking if their authors can take part – which is nice for a site that started as a way to launch a self-published novel (and by the way, you’re welcome to email me too). The boundaries are blurring.

My changed outlook

So I became a self-publisher by necessity. It wasn’t initially as a positive choice, just the only way to get my work to an audience who were increasingly curious about it. But my experiences and the recent shifts in the industry have changed the way I think about my role as a writer.

In my conventional publishing experiences, the author is a cog and a lot of decisions are left to others: blurbs, covers, style questions – sometimes even editorial direction. The book becomes the ‘property’ of the publishing team. Now, though, I’m used to being in charge.

Message 1 for publishers – the new breed of author

The genie’s out of the bottle. Authors are learning what’s possible and that they can have far more control. And that’s before we even think about royalties, especially with ebooks.

But before you worry this will become a strident call to arms, let me say this – the ‘empowerment’ of writers works both ways. Level-headed, professional authors are also learning what we want help with.

To take me as an example: I’m writing NYN 2 and I’ll self-publish because I have the resources to do a good job and to find readers. (Indeed I’ve had 5 small-press offers to republish book 1, but I didn’t need editorial services and they didn’t have a wider reach into relevant markets.) So I can write, produce and sell books on writing.

But that’s non-fiction.

With my fiction, I can take editorial charge, I can find a compatible developmental editor – but I’d be just as happy to build a relationship with an editor in a publishing house. Also, I need help to find an audience. My novel does pick up new fans, but I have to work non-stop to get it to new readers and I’m doing it very inefficiently because I’m guessing. And I certainly can’t get the notice of influential reviewers.

Writers will weigh up these options, and savvy publishers could too. Some writers can lead the process and produce top-notch books. Others will gladly leave many jobs to the publisher. For every writer that equation will be different. Probably for every book it will be different.

To take an example – my husband, Dave Morris, recently had a critically acclaimed hit with an interactive app of Frankenstein. He’s a game designer as well as a writer and could have programmed the app himself and put it in the app store, but he preferred to partner with a publisher. He found a home for it with Profile Books – which gave Frankenstein a prestigious launch.

Message 2 for publishers – don’t throw away your competitive advantage

One of the problems is that marketing strategies are steering editorial decisions. I know Big Six editors who don’t read submissions from unknowns and instead trawl the indie bestsellers on Amazon. My own agent tells me he’s had plenty of phenomenal novels from first-time writers that reached the editorial board and were rejected because they didn’t fit with what sells.

Obviously there’s no simple answer, but this pressure is squeezing out the original, unusual books written by people who dared to be different, the game-changing novels that will be the classics of the future.

This is bad for our art form. It’s bad for everyone who likes a good read. It’s ghettoising our next generation of original writers, who 10 years ago would have had a chance to build a career.

It’s especially worrying when you consider that a lot of self-publishing bestsellers are not the most original work but derived from what’s already successful. So if publishers copy the copies, where does everyone end up?

Publishers need to take a longer-term view. They need to have confidence in innovation.

Innovation is where the big hits arise. Harry Potter and Twilight weren’t like anything that was already successful. The competitive advantage of publishers is their experienced editors who can take a nurturing view.

There can’t be a publisher – or indeed an agent – who doesn’t have a stack of outstanding manuscripts they couldn’t get commercial backing for. I’ve suggested before that agents should help them self-publish under a special imprint, but it’s not what they’re geared up for. But publishers are.

Publishers should start ‘Discovery’ imprints on print-on-demand and ebook, perhaps produced as a flexible partnership with the author but released under the publisher’s banner. They should showcase a handful of titles every few months that they passionately believe in.  The major reviewers would take notice, because the titles would come with the seal of approval of an editorial department. Those authors are going to self-publish anyway, so why not get involved?

This partnership approach is where the real publishing industry of the future will be formed.

Thanks for the umbrellas pic Philip Morton, the author in the arch pic marinalwang, the megaphone pic Neate photos, the launch pic beerandnoodles, the Oxford pic GlobeTrotteur

The session ended with Q&A … so who wants to start…?

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I self-published – should you too?

‘Are you glad you self-published your novel?’ said Stacy Green to me, in the secret passages of Twitter.

‘Totally,’ I replied. Although I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Stacy replied: ‘I’m in the early query process and wondering if I’m making a mistake.’

‘Stacy, I think you should carry on querying.’

An answer that might sound like I’m being disloyal to the indie cause. But here’s my reasoning.

But why????

It’s early days yet for Stacy. Yes, querying is wearying, but it’s the way to tell if your novel is up to professional standard. Yes, it may take a ridiculous while before you get a reply – publishing turnaround is like sending messages to the distant reaches of the solar system.

I still believe everyone should try to get representation first, if they’ve never been published before or don’t have a ready-made audience.

Never forget, writing is a self-taught art. There is so much to get right in a novel and so many ways we can be blind to our book’s faults. This is entirely understandable. You remember when your novel was a scrap of paper with just one idea. You remember learning, from the bootsoles up, how to make it into a novel. You’ve quarried for depth, trampled the rough spots and polished over and over. You’ve developed brilliant and stylish marks of your individuality as well. Compared with when you started, you now feel like an expert – everyone does. Now, you need outside, experienced input.

You can of course hire an editor, and an editor who is a good fit for you can certainly give you a lot of help and guidance. You can trade with beta readers. But the final book is down to you. If you want to cut it in the marketplace, you have to try in the marketplace. And that generally means seeking representation – or publication via the smaller presses. (Although why would you aim small to start with?)

Rejections

Yes, you may be rejected because your book is unusual, or an unfashionable genre. But if you made the grade, the rejection will tell you this – even if it’s just a few short lines. They always do. If you’re getting form rejections or never hear back, you probably still need to do some work. And that tells you you shouldn’t self-publish. Of course it does.

Waiting for this feedback takes a long time. But while you’re waiting, get started on another book. You’ll need it sooner or later. And aren’t you itching to put all you learned into practice?

Me, me, me

I didn’t self-publish until my novel had wooed an agent. (I didn’t have an agent for my ghosting). She took my novel around the publishers, who said ‘it’s fascinating but we don’t know how to sell it’. At that stage, I could have left it locked behind the gatekeepers’ portcullis, or changed it into a conventional thriller (some of the feedback I got). I wasn’t having that.

Am I glad I self-published? More than I ever imagined. Every word of feedback from readers brings my novel to life and gives it a place in the world. For which, thank you.

But going it alone means doing all the selling. That’s no bed of roses. It is much harder for me to prove the book’s worth. If you have an audience amassed, no problem. Few of us do, so we rely on reviews to spread the word to new readers. Ideally we want to be reviewed alongside traditionally published novels that would be next to us in a shop. But it’s not a level bookshelf. Indies are still regarded sniffily in most quarters. (One review I did get, on For Books’ Sake, said My Memories of a Future Life was ‘so original and odd it’s in a class of its own’. I’m going to put that on a T-shirt, of course – but artistic pride aside, how does anyone sell a book like that? No wonder publishers wanted it tamed. Still, that’s my problem now.)

New authors, I urge you to test your book in the market first. If you get an offer and you don’t like it, you can always turn it down.

Indie publishing isn’t for people who couldn’t get published or represented. It’s for people who could.

(Thanks for the pic, Muckster)

How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. Catch up on the first seminar and sign up for the rest.  Find more details and sign up here.

Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon.

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

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