Friday, April 15, 2011

(A Lesson From) Someone a Lot Smarter than Me

When you self-publish, you're spared the disappointment when you find out your publisher doesn't know how to sell your book either, so you still have to do it all yourself.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez

What's cool about this quote is that Jan actually said that to me, when I called her for advice in 2004. She was the cooking writer for the newspaper I worked for and the author of several cookbooks, some that she had self-published and some traditionally. Mark and I had written our first humor book and an agent was trying to place it, but after a year had had no luck (one editor called it "drop dead funny," but didn't buy it) and suggested we self-publish it to see if that could stir up a publishing deal.

Jan was right. After investing as much as we figured we could afford to lose, we worked our asses off getting the word out. Besides our Web site and newsletter, we sent thousands of postcards to bookstores all over the country, made our own press kits and sent them to newspapers and radio stations, did interviews with anyone who would talk to us. And travelled as much as we could.

That was where I learned the lesson that sales is a much harder job than writing. You've got, say, eight bookstores on your list for the day. And you paste a smile on your face, go in ask for the manager, do your spiel, he or she says no, you thank her or him for the time and move on to the next, smiling just as brightly at the eighth store as you did at the first, when what you really want to find is a bar so you can buy a drink and cry.

But somehow, it worked. Within six months we'd made our money back, and about six months after that we'd sold enough that a publisher wanted to buy the book.

And the publisher did almost nothing to sell it. We were assigned a publicist who did some good groundwork before the book came out, but she went off to get married three weeks before the release date and never came back. She was replaced by another woman who did nothing. Didn’t even respond to our e-mails. I was told by someone else that unless your book sold 50,000 copies she wouldn't even respond to say she couldn't help you. I felt like, if your book has already sold 50,000 copies what do you need a publicist for?

I have to say I was kind of surprised by how seemingly uninterested the publisher was in selling books. Why did they bother printing them at all? Another interesting thing I learned was the "list." There are a publisher's top of the list offerings, the books they expect to be big sellers, so that's where they put their effort. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course. Then there's the mid-list. Mid-list books seem to get tossed out on the market randomly, with little fanfare or support, and, if one of them hits, it's like a bonus and they'll throw more effort behind it.

There is nothing below the mid-list. It's sort of like fast food restaurants, where the smallest size fries you can buy is large and the smallest drink is a regular.

One thing we learned is that unless you're a pretty big name, or for some reason they expect big sales, they're not going to send you on a book tour. It's pretty simple math. If they don't think they'll make more money in extra sales than it costs to send you, they're not going to foot the bill. So you might want to save any advance you might get to invest in your own mini-tour. We travelled a little on our own dime, sent postcards and did all the same things again. Set up book signing events all over the northwest, did everything we could. And it worked. The book went through seven printings. Hooray!

That publisher was not interested in a sequel, so another publisher did our second book. We heard from the publicist once – to tell us he'd been assigned to our book and was looking forward to working with us. That was the last we heard of him. So we started to do it again – although shortly after the book came out the Baurs finally were able to sell our house and make the long-planned move to St. Croix. And with our forces divided we haven't been able to accomplish as much, and the book hasn't sold as well as the first. Sad.

The book business has changed quite a bit in just those few years. Now ebooks are taking an increasingly large share of the market, and between that and the growth of the "social media" have changed the calculus a lot.

But the bottom line is still the same and what Jan said to me then is as true today. Unless you don't actually care whether anyone reads your work, you're probably going to be the one who sells it, whether you're self-publishing or landed a book deal.

Do not take any of this as a complaint. It's not. I've had great fun with Tori coming up with ideas to market our books, and getting out there doing whatever it takes to sell them. I look forward to doing it again. And of course this is only my experience, well, and Jan's. You always hear of, or dream of, someplace, call it the Shangri-La Publishing House, where cadres of marketing people labor with ceaseless, loving devotion to sell your book, sending authors on round-the-world book tours that never involve going to Modesto.

On the other hand, Mark and I have some pretty good stories. Ask us about Modesto, or San Fransisco, or Yachats. So there is an upside to the "Abject Poverty Book Tour." It can be funny, once you get home and get some perspective.

Just consider this a cautionary tale. The work's not done when you type "The End." And it's not done when you've signed a contract (if you're very lucky) or gone over the proofs or hold that first copy in your hand. No, the work is just beginning.

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