Monday, May 12, 2014

Lawrence Gooley On Self Publishing, Book Giveaways

Books Image JW01The Adirondack Center for Writing recently shared a link on their Facebook page to a Bookbaby blog entry titled, “From book to book launch: how to successfully self-publish your book.” There are 17 steps posted, each with links, most of which lead to something you need to do and describing how Bookbaby can provide each service. It’s an effective practice, offering free information of varying value and linking it to paid services.

As general guidelines go, the Bookbaby list is OK, but it’s important for aspiring authors to know that while some of the items apply to most books, the formula in its entirety applies to only certain genres. If you’re not writing for certain audiences, some of it is bad advice.

As you click through the links associated with each of the 17 steps, a theme develops: giveaways. Give books away to potential online reviewers, actual book critics (if you can find any), newspaper reporters, family, friends, Twitter and Facebook contacts, local libraries, and owners of bookstores. The giveaways are printed copies, not digital versions. According to the list of steps, that covers the majority of the first 100 copies you’ll have printed and handed out before your launch date.

Here’s an alternative opinion: the bulk of those should be reclassified as throwaways. Worse than that, many of the recipients—family, friends, Twitter and Facebook contacts, and libraries—represent the initial sales that get you going, boosting your confidence and incentive by confirming that folks will pay to read what you wrote.

Yes, we all give books away, perhaps to Mom and Dad and some strong supporters, but it’s also important to sell early on, to establish momentum and build a following.

In the vast majority of cases, freebies to newspapers or widely read media commentators are the only options with real potential. But the traditional practice of sending 50 copies to newspapers in hopes of being reviewed? Good luck with that in today’s world. Newsprint’s struggles are reflected in reduced page count, smaller print, self-editing, and fewer issues.

The important conclusion: space is at a premium like it has never been before. Your book, now just one among millions, is not the news story it once was. Three reviews would be above average, and don’t be shocked if you are asked to pay. Apparently it’s part of the new reality.

Here are four things to be aware of when considering the giveaway promotional plan:

1. The average self-published book sells between 100 and 250 copies.

2. The cost per printed book for such a small run might be $8 to $12 per copy.

3. That price will rise if your book file is not print-ready.

4. The truth: virtually no self-prepared file is print-ready.

Item #4 is critical: if your file is not well edited for spelling, grammar, and punctuation, it is a virtual death sentence for your book no matter how good the story is. If you doubt that, name a book that reviewers said was badly in need of copyediting but still went on to great success. (Hint: don’t waste your time looking.)

Giving away 100 copies might seem like a bad idea when the average book reaches an audience of 100 to 250. The freebies also represent an investment: ordering 100 copies of your 202-page book from Bookbaby will cost $766.

And make no mistake about it: each copy you order for free distribution represents either a gift or a gamble.

There is already plenty of gambling in the self-publishing process, which casts doubt on the wisdom of staking a book’s success on one’s ability to entice, trick, or beg readers to indulge. The marketing concept is simple: give away a few chapters or even the first book in a series, and if all the necessary components are in place, word-of-mouth and reader reviews might cause your book to catch on and sell in a big way.

And yes, it does work … sometimes, but without those components—an interesting or compelling story that is well written and well edited—you’ve almost certainly wasted your time and money.

And by it working “sometimes,” I mean seldom. You’ll hear of some successes, but not of the overwhelming multitude of failures. Yet many publishers focus on those rare success stories to entice author hopefuls, knowing that nearly 100% of them cannot prepare the proper files without considerable cost.

It’s a practice not unlike the NYS Lottery motto: “Hey, you never know,” except that publishers win for having sold you services in the effort. That’s because they do know. They’re not lying: they’re just not telling you everything they know.

It’s a twist on the old principle, “Let the buyer beware.” They know what you’ll be facing, and they know the failure rate. But hey, it’s a free country, and people can follow their dreams.

In business, I’ve dealt with just that situation many times, and here’s my standard opening mantra: “It’s very hard to sell books, and the failure rate is quite high.” But it can be done.

I do encourage people to pursue their dreams, but with an awareness of the costs and the difficulties, as well as the great rewards. Each author has their own definition of success. For some, it’s sharing a wide audience. For others, it might be public attention, or earning profits. Each situation is different. If financial costs and profit are not primary considerations, the pressures are reduced and the pleasures are multiplied.

But if you have to rely on myriad tricks, gifts, and virtual bribes to promote and sell your book, best of luck. Perhaps consider an alternative: if you believe in the value of what you write, try selling it as such. Focus on its good points: why it’s worth reading, why it was worth writing, and what compelled you to pursue the subject.

Unlike random hope attached to freebies, that attracts fans who will remember you. When they purchase your book, they’re investing in you because of those things. And that’s something you can build on.

Photo by John Warren.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.


5 Responses

  1. ethan says:

    You make some good points, some not-so-good. ALL forms of publicity and marketing cost money — it’s a cost center in corporate organizations for a reason. You have to spend money to make money, as the adage goes. But your point is very well-taken: go in to self-publishing with a full understanding the risks.

    You’re almost certainly going to fail.

    But then, that’s true if you go with a traditional publisher too — the vast majority of books (and an even higher percentage for first-time authors) sink like a stone, even when it says Random House or HarperCollins on the spine.

    Re: Giveaways: Your point about giving away copies to the people who are your first (and most likely, only, customers) is a good one. Aside from a copy for your spouse, your parents, and maybe a mentor or some other important figure in the book’s development, you should be asking family and friends to buy a copy. Electronic or print. It’s a few bucks to support a friend–get used to making the “ask.”

    You’re right that most newspaper reviewers could care less about your self-published work. So you should strategize your print giveaways carefully. How I might do so:

    1. Hometown paper(s) (if you’re from a small town). For someone from a rural region like the Adirondacks, papers of nearby towns and pan-Adirondack papers would also make sense.
    2. Any outlets that specifically relate to the subject of your work. If you’ve written a novel set in the Adirondack region during the Civil War, then approaching magazines for Civil War buffs would make sense. If you’ve written a memoir of your time as a Forest Ranger, then camping, climbing, hiking magazines would make sense, as might environmental magazines.
    3. Local libraries and bookstore owners: you should approach them as a local author, NOT give them freebies. Bookstores buy books on a fully returnable basis and they usually try to support local authors by buying a few copies, displaying them for a month or two, then returning if unsold. The only cost to them is the carrying cost of the inventory for those few months. Librarians don’t spend their own money on books and libraries should (sometimes) have an acquisitions budget for local authors, so instead, just show up and pitch your book, urge them to buy a copy. Consider also local venues that aren’t libraries / bookstores (these you may have to give away sample copies to). E.g., if I lived in the Adirondacks and wrote a memoir about my 30 years observing the wildlife around me, I would definitely approach the Wild Center and the Adirondack Museum about displaying and/or selling my book.
    4. Local radio and TV. Along the same logic as (2) above. Approach local stations, NPR affiliates, what have you (don’t neglect college radio)! If your book has a SPECIFIC, RELEVANT hook that might interest a bigger national or regional show then and only then should you send it to them (and consider having a publicist write the press release).
    5. Bloggers: local bloggers, topical bloggers whose subject matter dovetails with the book in some way.
    6. Amazon top reviewers whose subject matter interests dovetail with your book (see which ones gave positive reviews to the titles most comparable to yours — and don’t say “but my book is unique” because EVERY book has comp titles).
    7. Take any publicity you do get and use it hard. That hometown newspaper article (if positive, of course) should be going out across Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram… If there’s a relevant subject matter subreddit on Reddit, you should be posting there. Etc.
    8. Local influencers. You know: the people who know everyone and love to talk and share what they’ve found. Social nexuses.
    9. If you get any traction then consider reaching out to agents / editors in the industry who have demonstrated subject matter interest. Even better, if you get enough traction, they may reach out to you.

    I agree with you that gimmicks can be problematic (chapter giveaways, rewards for buying multiple copies, entry into a sweepstakes giveaway if you email your Amazon receipt, a free copy if you write a review, a bonus e-book if you email your receipt, write a review, what have you), but they do work — except they work ONLY when, as you say, you’ve got “an interesting or compelling story that is well written and well edited.”

    As someone who’s spent 12+ years in publishing, across the industry, including at several of the big houses, here’s how I’d allocate my scarce dollars if I was self-publishing

    1. I’d hire a good, experienced editor who’s edited multiple comparable books to yours that you thought were well-done. This is a few thousand VERY well spent if you can afford it. If you can’t — join writers groups,
    2. Jacket. This helps, even online. I think, frankly, especially online. Get a decent jacket. Don’t try to do it yourself, even if you’ve got design skill. Approach someone who understands the specific demands of book jackets. If you can’t afford a pro, try approaching a design student at least.
    3. See if you can get a publicist / marketer (maybe someone you know) to help you draft a press release to use in your marketing efforts above. If your book starts to get any traction, or you’re flush, consider hiring a publicity / marketing firm for a few thousand to do a broader push than you can manage yourself. The giveaway budget would fall under this item.
    4. Get a semi-decent website. It doesn’t have to be fancy — frankly, you can probably teach yourself enough HTML to do one that will work — but it needs to have your bio, contact, the book jacket, a sample chapter, perhaps reading group questions, any publicity you get, and so on. If you’re not at all computer savvy you can pay someone to get it done cheaply — you don’t need video, audio, animations, anything like that.
    5. Hire a good copyeditor. This is not the same as an editor. An editor focuses on content: is the book confusing? Should the chapters be reworked? Is this section too long? Do you lose momentum here, or conversely, are you moving too fast? Is this character not developed enough? A copyeditor focuses purely on the grammar, punctuation, and syntax. They also check for continuity (is a minor character described as a redhead on p. 24 and a blonde on p. 150?) and most can properly tag your file for e-publishing. I’d put this higher except for the fact that most self-publishing budgets are very very tight. If you can’t afford one then beg, borrow, or steal somebody. SOMEONE you know has an aunt who just retired after teaching English for 40 years and whom you can beg to review your writing.

    If you hired a professional editor above, they will fix any grammar mistakes they catch, absolutely — but it’s not the focus of how they’re spending their time.

    OK this is almost as long as the article so I’ll stop here. (Also, writing this on one cup of coffee, so please forgive typos!)

    • Larry says:

      Ethan … I would differ on one point: to the contrary, not ALL publicity and marketing costs money. Particularly on a regional basis, a self-published author can sell 1000 copies of a book, earning somewhere between $5000 and $10,000 net profit without a penny spent for advertising or marketing (in a one- to two-year time frame). It’s been done repeatedly, using certain strategies. And if they can sell 2000 or more copies, the math comes out quite nicely.

      A note on bookstores: in the Adirondacks is a high-profile venue that charges authors $25 to place a book on consignment. That’s right … you pay them for the space your book will occupy. A terrible policy, in my opinion … and you know who you are! That arrangement does almost nothing in terms of support for the local author who’s trying to get started … but it ensures the store earns money whether or not your book sells. What a deal! (If the books don’t sell within a few months, they are donated to local libraries … good for the recipient, but more loss for the author.)

      You provided lots of good advice, things I might have included had I gone into detail. Your comment was actually longer than the article! Many of the things you mentioned are what self-published authors need to do, and you’re right … there are no guarantees. There are, however, many factors that can be controlled to varying degrees, and to the author’s benefit.

      • Ethan says:

        All publicity and marketing costs money. It’s just some of it doesn’t cost cash. But all of it takes time and energy; to the extent the author places value on their time they incur an opportunity cost for spending that time on publicity and marketing activities.

        • Larry says:

          By that reasoning, breathing costs money. OR, everything we do related to books is advertising. I guess we’ll just agree to disagree.
          Perhaps you’d feel better if I said I spend no money on traditional advertising, marketing, and publicity.
          In the end, I attend events, and I suppose you could claim some hourly rate for the few hours involved, but as you know, most events are held on weekends or evenings, time that people otherwise spend watching TV, goofing off, driving somewhere to hike, see a movie, etc. If that’s what you’re calling money spent on advertising, it’s quite the stretch. I’m getting the sense it bothers you that I sell lots of books without paying for any publicity or advertising because it’s counter to everything you know. Is you figgerin’ we folks jes fell off de turnip truck?

  2. Lorraine Duvall says:

    “Sell Your Book like Wildfire “ by Rob Eagar and the companion website contains some useful advice on marketing your own book, not always valid for self published authors, as Larry discusses. Interesting that Eagar only takes on clients with traditional publishers.
    I’ve been working with Larry over the last couple of months to turn my memoir “And I Know Too Much to Pretend” into a publishable form. His helpful advice is well worth heeding.

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