You walk into a store and can’t find what you’re looking for. You ask the clerk behind the counter, “Have you got moldy bat wing party favors hiding somewhere in the back of the loading dock?”
Far too quickly, without looking up from his coffee, he says, “Nope! We’re out of the entire line of moldy bat wing party favors.”
You walk out empty-handed, but you’re thinking, “I bet there might be some left in the back if the clerk had just bothered to take the time to check.”
You’ve still got your moldy bat wing party favor deficit, but as soon as the clerk said no, their problem was over.
It’s easier to say no than to say yes. “Yes” means more work.
This is the downfall of living in The Land of The Easy No.
Which brings us to the business of selling books… As a sales rep for numerous publishers, I had a lot of catalogues to get through. Appointments could take two or even three hours, depending on how much hemming and hawing the bookseller went through to complete an order. I had to power through those catalogues, talking fast, to fit three appointments into a day. Traveling between bookstores took time away from selling, so efficiency was not a trivial issue.
Each book received a few seconds of attention and — surprise!— not all books get equal attention. A “credibility book” is a book from the backlist that a sales rep steers a bookseller away from. “You don’t have to worry about that one,” is code for, “If you buy that book you’ll be returning it as quick as you can and you won’t believe a word I say when I tell you to go heavy with your order on another title.” When you have seconds to sell a title, you go with the high points. Selling an author who has sold well before is the easiest thing to do. When I sat down with booksellers, there was a shorthand with popular authors. Other pitches focused on publisher support or celebrity. Getting them excited over a story was usually (but not always) the last choice in the hierarchy of what made a sale quick and easy.
Easy sell: “How about you double the order on that romance author you’ve already sold a ton of? It’s the same unchallenging book her fans want over and over, and sure, the quality has slipped, but it’s about branding and a following.”
Difficult sell: “Here’s a new author you’ve never heard of but it’s a great story.”
Better: “Here’s a new author you’ve never heard of, but it’s a great story, and she’s getting major media and we’re really pushing it and it’s so much like Lee Child and we’ve got great advance reviews and Bill Clinton will provide a cover quote and Bill O’Reilly will write the introduction.”
Much better: And did I mention this Lee Child-toned story is about a sexy woman who commits grisly sex murders who escapes from jail and the sexy female FBI agent who brings her to justice? Did I mention it’s based on a true story and it will be a major motion picture just in time for your Christmas season…and did I mention Brad Pitt will play the roles of both sexy women and he makes out with himself? Think Fight Club, but with more lingerie and slow panning shots of Brad Pitt’s legs in ripped nylons.”
Tough sell: “Let me tell you about this quirky one with a niche hook that’s going to be a slow build but a cult hit over time.”
META ANALYSIS: That, I think, is a great description of Self-help for Stoners, Stuff to Read When You’re High (though I am biased.) The trouble with this pitch: It’s a short story collection (ouch!) that’s a self-help (Oh! Good and hopeful!) in fictional form (huh? Like parables? Like in the Bible?) and no, you don’t have to be a stoner to enjoy it. (Slow down. I think I have to be high to get all of that at once!)
Note the language: quirky, niche, slow build, cult hit, time. That’s too many caveats and double backs for a quick and easy sale because it sits across genres, squatting there in its damnable uniqueness.
Short shorthand sale: When I sell my post-apocalyptic and suspense novels, the sales pitch will be much quicker: Think Stephen King. Done.
Publishers’ sales forces have diminished immensely since I was driving around with a car so heavy with books it ran low on the axles. Times have changed. When publishers talk about authors giving authors a big push now, what they really mean is the author is tech savvy and not shy. The author will do most of the publicity work, though that’s been true since the birth of the Internet, anyway.
Where have the big publicity opportunities gone? They went away when Oprah went away. She was the the book industry’s angel. Now the big angel is Jon Stewart, but that won’t help you if you sell fiction. The Daily Show is only for non-fiction. (The last fiction author on The Daily Show was Kurt Vonnegut, shortly before his death, and he talked mostly about his non-fiction book Man Without a Country.)
Forget big publicity.
Look for small publicity opportunities.
Radio is still a good publicity opportunity and you don’t have to travel anywhere. Contact radio show producers and pitch them, but remember fiction is still tough so to succeed, you’ll need an angle. (The easiest? I lost my job and now I’m a hometown start-up business and my book is set in this town and I kill hobos for sport…The Most Dangerous Game!) Morning radio is topical and lends itself to non-fiction books. Consider going after shows that are not radio prime time (i.e. the drive time slots.) Book a show that is a book show. You’ll find it easier to get on air with a university radio station.
The “push” comes from authors now. It’s up to you. Authors don’t just write anymore. We sell ourselves. I’ve got three blogs, a podcast and three twitter accounts. And that’s not nearly all the publicity I do or plan to do. I’ll be expanding in social media and beyond social media in the new year (TBA). And I really have to start chasing down reviewers for my books. (If you’re a book blogger or book reviewer and like suspense, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.) All that social media is a lot to maintain while I’m getting a new novel written and revising the already-written novels. That’s three eight-hour shifts by my reckoning. Set up that intravenous by my desk! And make my new desk chair a toilet!
Can you pay for media coverage to increase sales? Ads are expensive and often ineffective, though I’ll give you some strategies to consider. You’ve already got an author page on Goodreads and you’re doing a book giveaway or a contest or guest blogging. You’ve considered paying for a Goodreads promotion, Amazon ads, the exclusive-to-Amazon offer and advertising with banners on websites. Those are all digital strategies that are already covered elsewhere ubiquitously, so let’s think about some retro, analog approaches for a change. We don’t think old school much, but it can be less expensive than some of the usual options if we’re creative.
Start thinking local, like the tiniest newspaper in town, not the big one. Contact the columnist who does the odd interview. Send a press release. Send a copy. Give him a hook. Maybe the story isn’t your book. Maybe the story is that you have three jobs and are near homeless but you’re still writing the Great American Novel. Or you were published in paper and switched to ebooks. The great ebook versus traditional publishing debate is pasted across the web, but it might be new to the columnist. (We forget what we’ve been soaking in for two or three years is outside the awareness of non-publishing civilians.) Maybe you make your own glue and paper to create your own books to sell from your website. Maybe your book promotion is tied in with a charity. Maybe you didn’t read until you were twenty-six and now you’re an author. Find a hook and be interesting. There’s often a way in if you’re clever.
Then think smaller. Instead of radio, start thinking about podcasts (either producing one yourself as a companion to the book like I did — Self-help for Stoners is on iTunes weekly and will soon be on Stitcher, as well — or sponsor a podcast.) Podcasts are cheaper and usually more targeted or more personal than regular radio.
Now think even smaller. What could be smaller? A newsletter. Just today an opportunity landed in my lap. A friend has a busy business and a newsletter to go with it. He offered me free space in his newsletter. It will go out to 2,000 of his clients with his personal recommendation. That sort of help is precious to me. Who do you know who has a newsletter? How can you expand your sphere of influence by thinking small? Even if you have to pay for the privilege, newsletter ad rates are cheaper than newspaper or magazines ads and are often better read.
Traditional wisdom is that cross-genre books have been a challenge to market to bookstores. But remember? A tough sell is not an impossible sell. Remember the store clerk in The Land of The Easy No? He is the enemy of innovation, profit and expanding minds and experiences. As small publishers, we can invest the time to convince others to try books that aren’t easy to sell. I have just three books on sale. I don’t have the constraints of a huge list where each book has mere seconds to hit or miss. I can take the time to connect with people and tell them more about the book and build enthusiasm.
In the big picture, I have more time and long tail sales opportunities. Now that my books are up for sale on the web, they’ll be up forever. I don’t have to worry about the bookstore packing them up and sending them back for credit six weeks from now. I don’t have a short sales window. I have a sales vista that stretches out, positively prairie-like. I have the time to find readers and for my readers to find my books. We can make quick decisions and invest time rather than cash.
Small companies have flexibility and enthusiasm that big companies do not. Big publishers have a distribution system (which diminishes steadily) and bigger budgets…but in many ways their promotion isn’t that much different from mine with most of their books. I’m selling my books so I care about each precious baby so much more.
How does a small publisher survive in The Land of the Easy No? Flexibility. Enthusiasm. Creative thinking. Innovation. And not falling for saying no too easily.
A difficult sale is not an impossible sale, and sometimes when a difficult book catches on, it catches fire. Too often a sales force mistakes a difficult sell in the short-term for an impossible sell. That’s why the first Harry Potter book was so hard for JK Rowling’s agent to sell to publishers. Rowling didn’t want it to even be a children’s book per se. From the beginning, she saw it as a cross-genre book for adults and children. That’s what it soon turned out to be despite all those editors and sales reps saying, “I can’t sell this.” Maybe what they really meant was, “Selling this will take more than a few seconds, so forget it. Make my job easier by giving me a book to sell that’s an easy yes.” A “Yes” means more work. A “No” means the problem is easily solved by missing a huge opportunity.
Big publishers depend heavily on the opinions of non-editorial staff. Salespeople I worked with thought of books as “products” and “brands” rather than “experiences”, “journeys” and “ideas.” They decided which products were quick, easy packages to sell. That’s why they miss out on opportunities to sell cross-genre books. It’s the same facile mistake as passing up selling Vivaldi for the latest boy band. The Vivaldi will sell more, for a longer time. Short-term thinking left a lot of publishers cutting the same sales force that so influenced their sales.
They lost out because they lived in The Land of The Easy No.
~ Robert Chazz Chute is the author of Self-help for Stoners, Stuff to Read When You’re High, Sex, Death & Mind Control (for fun and profit) and The Dangerous Kind. Download to your smartphone or e-reader. For more information on the book or the podcast, go to AllThatChazz.com.
- Book Marketing: What I didn’t know about resistance to ebooks (chazzwrites.wordpress.com)
- Publishers Desperately Trying To Protect Print Sales, And Failing (davidgaughran.wordpress.com)
- Publishing News: “Hating Amazon is not a strategy” (radar.oreilly.com)
- sell sell sell! (andreadreamin.com)