When my first book was coming out, I got some good advice from Steve Cannon, the director of A Gathering of the Tribes, the non profit organization that was releasing my book. He told me that the hardest thing to get in this industry was a second book deal.
The first is not so easy. There are hundreds of aspiring authors making submissions and collecting rejection slips for every one that ever sees a book in print. He explained that when you have had no book out you are an unknown quantity. You have no track record. But once you have had a book out your next book will always be judged by how well your last book performed. It’s true. Most first books fail and if your last book failed you are a pariah.
I got lucky. My first book took so long from contract to release (over two years) that I had a second book contract with a different publisher by the time the first one came out. My first book did fail. 1500 copies were printed and after a year there were 900 copies left. That’s after close to 100 review copies and promotional copies were handed out. That book got a grand total of zero reviews despite many review copies being provided to reviewers. 500 copies sold. That was failure.
What is success? For a small press, a success is 5000 copies. That is the approximate point at which a publisher breaks even for the cost of releasing a book. I was lucky that my first book’s failure didn’t keep me from a second book deal because I already had one. Nine months after my first book came out, my second book was in print. My second book sold very well. 10,000 in its first year, 24,000 in the three years it was in print. I still didn’t know what made one successful and the other not. My third book was out 3 years later and it did even better. 28,000 copies. And then my fourth, two years later, fell flat. Less than 900 copies sold in 6 months. My previous books were outselling my new book every month.
It was 2004 and I got serious about learning what made one book succeed and another fail. I had a lot of time to work on it. It was 5 years before I signed another book deal, 8 years before I had another book in print. During that time I was helping other people with their books. At first just friends but word spread and in a little while I was doing marketing work freelance which ultimately landed me a job with authors Large and Small.
I’m by no means an authority, but I have learned quite a few things along the way. The first is have a good book. All marketing, publicity, and advertising can do is get a potential reader to take a peek inside the book. That reader may open the book to any page and read two of three sentences. Then they decide if they are going to buy that book or not. It doesn’t matter if the book contains the greatest two of three sentences ever written if those are not the ones that potential reader tries. It doesn’t matter to the success of that book how great the greatest thing in the book is, the final decision comes down to how great any random segment on any page is. Step one is to make sure that any paragraph on any page in the book, standing alone, will sell that book to the reader who happens to open to that one to check it out.
How good that book ends up being will sell the author’s next book. My fourth book failed because my third book wasn’t very good. Lots of people knew my third book wasn’t very good because lots of people bought it. And lots of people bought it because my second book was good and buyers expected the third to be. My fifth book was in a new genre. I went from poetry to children’s. That meant a whole new audience to try to reach. That book is still in print. It has sold about 7500 copies in hardcover so far and looks like it will get up to 9000 before it goes to paperback. Not 28,000 but still not bad. My sixth book comes out soon and we will see how well it does.
Having a good book is not just up to your luck and your skill. I had a good book with my second and it sold my third, I had a bad book with my third and it torpedoed my fourth. The difference was a good editor and enough time. To be sure you have a good book, use a good editor and take the time needed to go over the book again and again. In the years since my first book came out the industry has moved in the exact opposite direction. Self publishing has never been easier.
Books go from idea to first draft to print so quickly that readers get books in their hands that they might have loved had they been edited and polished, but instead they say, meh. The good side of this is that it gives you a chance to stand out by being one of the few that put in the time and effort needed to make your book a gem. The second thing I would suggest is don’t wait until the book has a release date to get your publicist working. Your book will do better if we see it in its rough draft stage and can point out details that will help or hurt its marketing along the way.
Of course, don’t compromise the integrity of your work to make it more salable, but being more salable is important. Do consider every chance to make your book more salable that does not compromise your integrity. Maybe you want your book to change the world, maybe you want it to comfort those in pain or teach a valuable lesson or even just make people smile or laugh. It can’t do any of that if it doesn’t get read and it won’t get read if it doesn’t get sold.
At this point you may be expecting a check list of things to do to market your book. I could make a list of things one can do, but it would be like writing out a list of possible medical procedures a doctor can prescribe for an ailment. A cast might work great for a broken leg but do nothing for an ear infection. No two marketing campaigns are exactly alike nor should be. One thing you want your book to do is stand out, so if every book got the same treatment, none would stand out. The best marketing are customized for your book.
Here are some insights Authors, Large and Small’s crew has gleaned over the years that guide our approach to book outreach and publicity.
We invite everyone to take a look at these. We’re also open to providing general advice and answering some of the questions people have in this column, so if you have a book outreach-related question, please feel welcome to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll see if we can assist.