Saturday, April 15, 2006

Property Values and Writing

Publishing is really all about real estate.

Your in-house publicist works with sales (the reps who sell to 5 main buyers--libraries, chains, indies, department stores, convenience stores/airports) and marketing (advertising, event planning, appearances, touring, media, coop) to coordinate the amount of money spent to promote your book. A publicist usually doesn't have any power--sales and marketing do--and major decisions are made above her head.

The amount of money a book receives for publicity depends on many things, such as print run, competing titles in the catalog, previous sales, and in-house enthusiasm. I've been told that each book released in a quarter receives a pro rata share of the promo money, depending on how big the print run is.

Print runs are determined by orders. I've heard that a publisher takes orders, then doubles the figure, and that's the print run. That doesn't make much sense, but it would explain why 50% is considered an acceptable sell-through.

Writing a book in and of itself isn't going to generate any media. The author, much like the book, needs a hook.

I've done many alcohol-related events, to tie in to my book titles. I'm visiting 500 bookstores this summer, which will help generate some buzz.

My publisher has done many things for me. Lots of ARCs, big pushes at BEA, tours, awards dinners, library and bookselling conventions, point of sales stuff (free whiskey sour mix shipped witht he first ARC). They did a booklaunch party for me that went very well. They've done several ads in NYTBR, Bookpage, PW, and some mystery publications. Most importantly, they've always kept me in the loop, and have encouraged my participation in coming up with ideas.

For my part, I've gotten over forty interviews, sold over thirty short stories (which is the best advertising), visited a few dozen conventions, signed at several hundred bookstores, and tried to get my name out in cyberspace through my website, blog, and generally being a loudmouth.

My sales are decent, but not spectacular. This summer, I'll have about 170k books in print with three titles, HB and PB.

I've gotten some big reviews (PW, Kirkus, Booklist, LJ), but no huge ones (ET, People, NYT) and very few smaller (towns of less than 1 mil) reviews. That's where I'd like to see a bigger push made, because I think that people in the smaller review markets have a greater percentage of readers per capita, and I am pursuing this angle with the new book, sending out ARCs myself.

If the point of this is to sell books, where does real estate come in?

I'll get to that in a moment. First, let's talk about branding.

The word "branding" has been used a lot in publishing. So has "name-recognition." These basically mean that we want "JA Konrath" to be the same as "Coke." People see the bright covers, see the drink title, and automatically know they'll have a few laughs and a few scares reading it.

This happens in three steps.

1. People pick up my books out of curiosity--they've never heard of me before. Or they've heard of my through word-of-mouth or publicity.

2. People pick up my books because they've read me before.

3. My books become an automatic purchase as they are released.

The majority of my sales are still 1 & 2. The secret to 3, I'm convinced, is simply surviving long enough, with a backlist still available, to amass large numbers of books in print. The more books out there, the more chances for people to find them.

Allison Brennan's publisher released three PBOs in three consecutive months, and this strategy was a double-edged sword---along with getting a lot of books in print at once, it also capitalized on the publicity of a trilogy being released so quickly. Win-win. Of course, it could have backfired. if the first book wasn't any good, no amount of publicity would get readers to buy #2. Since the first book was good, each successive book has debuted higher on the NYT list.

Many bestsellers can become self-fulfilling prophesies. A publisher believes it has a big book, so the reps tell the buyers that this one is getting a large print run and a large push. The buyers anticipate demand from the publicity, and order many copies and are told to sell them word of mouth.

This sometimes backfires. I remember seeing huge stacks of Tom Wolfe and Salman Rushdie books in stores, and bookseller friends have told me the copies sold vs. shipped was ridiculously low.

But the primary factor in book sales, and the point of publicity and marketing, is ultimately real estate.

The more space you take up on a bookshelf, the better store position, the more books you have in stores, the more stores you're in, the likelier you are to sell. It's like Monopoly. Prime property, and ultimately the most property, wins the game.

The goal is to reach the point where you aren't only stocked, but restocked. You want to have permanent space on those shelves. You want to be there when someone goes looking for you, or if someone is just browsing. It's like tenure. That's what branding really does for you.

If you don't sell well, your books will go out of print, and your patch of real estate gets smaller. Smaller space=less sales, and the death spiral has begun.

Slow and steady used to win the race, with publishers carrying midlist authors for many books before the broke out and began selling in large numbers.

These days, there's more competition for space. More books are being published, and they're given less time on the shelves.

Which is why, as authors, we must do everything we can to fight for real estate.

The chains tell their stores when to pull books from the shelves and return them. But there's a loophole. The stores aren't run by computers--they're run by people. If people like your books, they'll keep them on the shelf, even when they are told to return them.

Which is why I'm visiting 500 bookstores this summer. To meet the people. To secure the real estate.

Time will tell if I'm right or wrong.