Tuesday, February 20, 2007

First Three Weeks

The first few weeks after your book is released, you won't be sleeping much.

Part of that will be worry. But most if it will be hustle.

If you (or your publicist, or both of you) laid the groundwork prior to your release, you'll have several weeks of traveling, speaking, and interviews. Your editor and agent will be sending you reviews. Your emails will triple. You'll be running around frantically trying to stay on top of everything.

Your publisher wants you to push as hard as you can, because they believe the first few weeks in a book's life are the most important. They want to get you on the bestseller list. They want the coop placement they bought to earn out.

While that's understandable, I also believe it is short-sighted. Here are the reasons why:

1. Slow and steady wins the race. Sure, selling a lot of books the first few weeks looks good. And that's what the marketing dollars are used for. But building a readership is a marathon, and you can't sprint the first mile and hope to keep up that pace. Word of mouth takes time to build.

When your new book comes out, you're trying to remind your previous fans to buy it, and you're trying to find new fans. How many new fans do you think you will find you during the three weeks your book is being pushed, vs. the forty-nine weeks that your book has no coop?

I'm voting that you have the potential to find more fans in those forty-nine weeks, with your backlist, your appearances, and your internet presence. You also have the potential to sell more books in those forty-nine weeks than in the first three.

I can understand why your publisher only pushes for three weeks--it's a monetary decision. But they shouldn't stop caring the rest of the year, or be disappointed if your book has a slow start. A sale is a sale, no matter when it comes. Wanting your sales to be top-loaded for the first few weeks causes a lot of undue stress and unrealistic expectations.

2. You can't make a difference anyway. Let's say your publisher is hoping for a shot at the NYT List. So they send you to a new city every day for 21 days. The tour is hectic and expensive, and what's the most they could hope for?

Even if you're a bestseller already, moving 200 hardcovers per event is a huge amount. Chances are you'll sell under 50. But even if you sell 200, in a week's worth of tremendous effort you only managed to sell 2100 books.

Yes, 1400 is a lot, but I doubt it will be the tipping point to get you on the Times list. First of all, that assumes everyone who buys a book at a signing is a brand new fan who wouldn't have bought it otherwise (if they would have bought it anyway, why waste the time and money?) Second, that extra 1400 probably won't be the difference between making the list and missing the list. The numbers needed to make the NYT List are very high, and an extra thousand books probably won't be enough. Patterson sells 60,000 of his new hardcover a week.

3. It's not this year that counts. Actually, how well your new book does has less to do with your current promotion and more to do with your prior promotion. If you spent the previous forty-nine weeks accruing and prepping a readership, then you can announce a new book during your three week sprint and sell X number of copies, because you have a group that already knows you. Running around for three weeks trying to find new readers is much harder to do, and not very effective unless you have a huge media buzz.

4. The numbers game. Publishers care about numbers. But it seems that everyone is looking at the first numbers, and if they don't meet expectations they give up hope.

Why is it that important things like a second printing, or consistent sales, or earning out an advance, aren't even mentioned to the author? We hear it immediately if we get a review or make a bestseller list, but isn't your paperback going back to press for the third time also a cause for celebration? When your book finally begins to earn royalties, isn't that even more important than being on some bestseller list? But no one tells you this when it happens.

It seems that the numbers have to be front-loaded to be impressive.

This is the Hollywood blockbuster mentality, where you spend 150 million and hope to make 200 million. Doesn't it make more sense to spend 50 thousand and make 100 thousand? Do books have to sell millions of copies in order to be successful? Isn't the publisher making a profit more important than them making a killing? Especially since so many of these blockbusters lose money?

I recognize the importance of the first three weeks. But I don't believe that's where all the emphasis should be. Winning teams usually aren't created overnight. It takes years of training, fine-tuning, coaching, and adjusting to get a winning ball team. Sports owners know this. I wonder why publishers don't seem to.