Reframing Publishing Success

There’s nothing like writing and publishing a book to bring out the dormant diva who lives inside every aspiring author. Even the most unassuming authors have moments when indulging the fantasy of übersuccess sends them into an uncharacteristic fanning of tail feathers as they imagine what might be possible. And, of course, there are authors with far less reserve, who can be blatant in their own self-regard. I say more power to them. Publishing a book is a big deal, and it doesn’t hurt to dream. What does hurt, however, is allowing that dream to cloud reality.

In my experience, there are two ways in which authors inadvertently sabotage themselves through anticipation: first, their expectations are too high, and, second, their expectations are too high and they are unwilling (or unable) to put publicity dollars behind their efforts, which results in a huge disconnect.

In the nearly two decades I’ve been working with authors, I’ve heard 10,000 copies as a sales goal over and over again. I would love to better understand the psychology of 10,000 copies and why writers have glommed onto that number. My guess is that it stems, at least in part, from the fact that authors and publishers at writing conferences often include discounted or free e-books in sales numbers. I also imagine that 10,000 sounds like a smaller number than it actually is. Whatever the reason, it’s an unrealistic benchmark for 95% of authors, and it’s especially unrealistic for debut authors.

In 2015, Lynn Neary reported a story on NPR called “When It Comes to Book Sales, What Counts as Success Might Surprise You” that noted that one of the books shortlisted for that year’s Man Booker Prize had sold fewer than 3,600 copies and another fewer than 3,000. For publishers accustomed to looking at dismal royalty statements, 3,000 copies sold is a solid performance, but for an author hell-bent on 10,000 as the measure of success, that’s missing the mark by quite a lot.

Indie authors are sometimes at a disadvantage because they don’t always understand what traditional publishers know: that most books fail—which means they fail to earn out their advance, never mind their expenses. Given the advance-to-sales ratio these days, most books are destined to fail by this definition. After all, we’re seeing more and more books being published every year, while readership and consumer dollars spent on books remains steady.

Given these realities, where should indie authors’ expectations fall? What agency do authors have if they want to experience some modicum of publishing success?

First, debut authors would do well to think of their first books as an investment in themselves and their futures. It’s common book publishing wisdom that the needle doesn’t truly begin to move on book sales until authors publish their third book. As such, this industry requires patience, and selling 1,000 or 2,000 copies of a freshman effort is something worth celebrating.

Second, publicity matters. There are few industries that have as many subjective nuances as book publishing, which makes publicity a particularly hard conversation. Authors can spend a lot of money and see very few results. But without publicity, the idea that a book will reach its readership is nothing short of naive. Publicity needs to start months ahead of publication, and the indie authors I know who’ve experienced the greatest success always have their eye on what’s happening with their publicity campaigns.

Third, authors who have evergreen books could continue to find a readership for years and years to come. Authors going into new publishing ventures can look at their books as products that they continue to plug and to sell for years. Blog and social media posts and speaking opportunities and podcast interviews are all opportunities to find new readers for old books—if authors remember to plug them.

And finally, it’s important to look at the big picture. What other sales opportunities might be explored? Today’s authors can publish in multiple formats, including audiobooks, the fastest-growing segment of the industry. Authors I work with have had success with discounted e-book campaigns to drive more sales, Facebook and Amazon ads, and publishing supplemental digital-only content as loss leaders. Publishing also opens up opportunities for speaking engagements, paid writing gigs, teaching, coaching, and other opportunities to earn money.

Success in book publishing is about sales and always should be, but it can also be about exposure, building an author platform, growing author visibility, and establishing expertise. My advice to debut authors about publishing success is this: change that 10,000 benchmark to 1,000 for the first book; learn everything there is to learn about book publishing and apply those lessons the next time around; be in it for the long haul; and celebrate the small victories, such as moments of connection with readers, a glowing review from a stranger, and the potential that these kinds of victories have to propel the next book.

Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, a TEDx speaker, writing coach, and the author of Green-Light Your Book and What’s Your Book?

A version of this article appeared in the 08/27/2018 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Reframing Success

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