First Time Authors: Thinking of “Listening to Prozac?”
If you want to curb the enthusiasm of a first time author, just share some facts about the state of publishing today. Bowker reported that over three million books were published in 2010 in the U.S., compared to a mere 172,000 in 2005.
At the same time, average book sales are shockingly small and falling fast. For example, Bookscan reports that the average U.S. nonfiction book is selling less than 250 copies a year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.
Be Encouraged by the Success of Others
So why should any aspiring writer even try? First, authors should write for love, not money. If you want to get rich, I would kindly suggest you get a job on Wall Street – or invent the next Snuggie. Second, while these facts are daunting, that’s not to say you can’t succeed. Consider Khaled Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner, which spent over five years on the New York Times bestseller list, was published in 55 languages, has sold over 10 million copies and was made into an award-winning film.
Of course, most of us aren’t the next Hosseini or the handful of other highly successful first time authors. The fact is that the odds of success are overwhelming stacked against us. So what exactly should we do?
I confess I had a bit of an advantage. In a previous life I successfully marketed three New York Times non-fiction best sellers. I remembered some important lessons, like making sure you write the very best book you can (though given the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, I’m rethinking that one); sending out advance copies and getting praise for your book before it is released; and building up as much interest in your book as you can through your business and personal network (what today is referred to as one’s “platform”). And of course, finding an agent and a great publisher.
My Old School Problem
But my knowledge predated the bankruptcy of book chains; the downsizing of the large publishing houses with their sales forces and robust distribution channels; the advent of the e-book and dramatic increase in self-publishing; and even the rather bizarre phenomenon of teenagers trying to increase their chances of getting into a good college by having a “published book” listed on their application (don’t laugh – the New York Times devoted a whole story to this).
We all know that e-books are growing. What many don’t realize is just how fast. In 2009 they made up just 3% of the market according to the American Association of Publishers. In February of 2011, e-books hit 29.5% of the market—ahead of hardback books, trade paperbacks, and mass-market paperbacks. I know what you’re thinking – that must include free e-books. Sorry, but I’m talking about in dollar terms.
To Self-Publish or Not To Self-Publish?
I tried many times to secure an agent – with a 100% failure rate. There was one publisher who was willing to publish my novel, but their terms were onerous and their lack of knowledge of the e-book market downright frightening.
For me, the obvious alternative was to self-publish, but I still carried that stigma of “vanity press” in my head. That is until I read about Amanda Hocking. For those of you who have spent the past two years banished to Yakutsk, Hocking is a 27-year-old paranormal author (My Blood Approves; Trylle Triology) who for nine years pitched numerous novels that were rejected by umpteen agents and publishers. Wanting to earn enough money to travel from Austin, Minnesota to Chicago to see a Muppet exhibit (I’m not kidding), in April of 2011 she decided to self-publish and sell them at Amazon. At last count she’d sold 1.5 million copies and made $2.5 million. The stigma of self-publishing evaporated in an instant.
Call in the Experts?
Now what? I knew nothing about this brave new world of self-publishing and how it worked. I read – a lot – and realized this was going to be a lot of work. So what did I do? I called in the self-publishing experts, of course! What I quickly discovered was that in some instances I was actually paying them to learn about this field at the same rate I was. Here are some of the lessons I learned:
- “Old School” still has its place. I’ll leave it to the critics to decide if I wrote a good novel. But there is no question that getting advance praise and building up as much excitement before, during and after the launch of your book is still enormously important. I sent out advanced copies to authors I knew and asked them if they liked my novel would they would provide me with advance praise; I worked my network (my database, LinkedIn and Facebook) very hard and to the point of irritation; I shared cover concepts online with others to engage them; and I am promoting my book to my “platform” to this very day.
- Do your homework. There are a number of other basic things to remember if you self-publish your novel. For example, most media reviewers (and some bloggers) won’t even consider it if you send it to them after the publication date. This seems so obvious to me now that it’s embarrassing to admit. But my paid expert should be more embarrassed because he never even mentioned it to me when we were preparing the book for launch.
- Be careful of outsourcing. When you self-publish, you have to do everything. Depending on your means, you hire a consultant, a cover artist, an editor, a proofreader, a marketer/social media pro, a website designer, a digital distributor, and (in my case) a print-on-demand firm. I searched hard to find the best by leveraging my contacts in the publishing industry. Yet I was astonished at the number of missteps and mistakes. Case in point: it took three “editions” to finally correct the editorial errors in my novel.
- Don’t believe the hype. And by hype, I mean the golden advice given to you by some supposed self-publishing marketing experts. One told me that people who worked in the technology industry (the setting of my novel) would never be interested in it because “it’ll just remind them of their jobs.” Wrong. I was also told that you absolutely should only advertise via social media. Yet with the exception of Amazon, I didn’t see much of a return on all those dollars I spent.
- Find Yourself a Good Partner. Let’s face it. If you are a first time author that is self-publishing, then you’d better understand how Amazon and other retailers really work. INscribe Digital is my digital distributor and they have been a good partner. The Director of Client Services took a genuine interest in my novel, believed it had strong appeal and impressive reviews, and then did her best to ensure that the merchandising team at Amazon would take a look at it. They did, and decided to make it one of their Daily Deals. While Amazon’s decision was completely independent and based on their own analysis, I have little doubt that having a partner like INscribe Digital was invaluable.
A Small Success – But It’s a Start
In December of 2012 my novel, Terminal Value, hit the #1 spot at Amazon’s Paid Kindle Store and stayed in the top 100 for nearly two weeks and is still selling well. A number of other aspiring authors have asked me for advice. I simply tell them write the very best book you can; promote yourself on your “platform” before, during, and after your publication date; choose your partners carefully; and hope for good reviews. Oh yes, and pray.
About Thomas Waite
Thomas Waite is the author of the best-selling novel, Terminal Value. Tom’s original plan was to get his Master’s degree in creative writing, and then set the world on fire by writing mysteries and thrillers. Alas, life intervened, and with bills to pay, he was forced into business – ironically first as a writer. He labored for many years ghostwriting non-fiction for others. Unfortunately, his name was buried in the acknowledgements and unnoticed.
After a successful business career he decided it was time to pursue his real dream and began writing fiction. His novel, Terminal Value, seems to have resonated with readers and reviewers alike. With encouragement from his fans, he is now working on his next novel in the same genre.
Born in Ipswich, Massachusetts – once home to the authors John Updike, Adele Robertson, and John Norton and the poet Anne Bradstreet – none of which he can hold a candle to, he received his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He now lives in Boston.
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