Recently, The Object interviewed author J. Eric Laing, who told us he had placed his novel Cicada with Night Publishing, owned by Tim Roux, but several months ago withdrew it from Night and self-published instead.
A disagreement between the author and publisher unveiled itself during the interview and subsequent commenting, which has led to Tim offering us an article entitled “The Publishing Market” that details his perspective on the subject, along with how his company operates in today’s publishing world.
The Publishing Market
by Tim Roux, Taylor Street Publishing
I have been a professional international marketer, brand manager and business strategist for 30 years but, like many a closet (or at least bookcase) bookworm, I always felt I had a book inside me.
Then, in 2004, after throwing away a few chapters of an effort that embarrassed even me twenty years earlier, I went for it and wrote ‘Blood & Marriage’ in 3 months, mostly 35,000 feet in the air.
It was, and is, a totally self-indulgent book that nobody should ever be asked to read, but it led to nine other books, some of which have been kindly reviewed, and I have had something like 20,000 sales / downloads of my books since, so I can declare with false modesty to anyone who will listen – and many who won’t – ‘Yeah, I have sold a few books’.
However, where I have really begun to sell books has been as a publisher. When I started out in January 2010, I simply knew that I wanted to get some books I loved into print. I knew how to publish books on the cheap into paperback – I had self-published my own – but I certainly didn’t know how to promote or sell them. Nevertheless, I was friendly with several authors and managed to persuade a few of them to let me publish them (as I still do).
I started with a target of publishing 5-6 books a month. Nine months later, our first book really took off – 3 sales in 6 months, then 11,000 the next day. The company got into its true sales rhythm about a year ago. It has certainly had its ups and downs since, and the original company was driven into the sidings during a particularly vicious divorce process, but the phoenix companies are up and fighting all over again, with a specific view of publishing which I would like to share here, whether it is useful to you or not, or even true or not.
I think the first thing, as authors, we have to decide is what we want from writing. Do we want to hold our own book in our hand; do we want people to read it; do we want to make money out of it?
If all you want is your own book, then you can self-publish your book in a day, and nothing can stop you. If you want people to read your book, you have Kindle Select and Smashwords to offer free downloads in their tens of thousands, if your book is attractive enough. If you want to make money, well, as Mark Twain said, “Any idiot can write a book, but it takes a genius to sell it.”
The book market is a market, and all markets have segments, eventually. As far as we are concerned, there are four topline segments for fiction – literary, genre, life and weird.
If you are a literary writer and want to make money from your novels, you really only have one choice – find a major publisher and get them to see you as the latest literary Messiah, or at least as the latest Pulitzer contender. Major publishers only want sales or prizes. Literary books generally don’t sell, so you have to offer publishers prestige and prizes. Without a major publisher, you are stuffed. The only chance of selling a literary book is if you and your book become household names, you are reviewed by the major literary reviewers and you are displayed prominently in bookshops – all incidences of which are symbiotic. You must enter the zeitgeist, then book clubs want to read you to discuss, in effect, the news. Sure, you can self-publish – you may even get a big review – but you need the muscle of the majors to drive you to prominence.
However, if you are a genre writer, your opportunities are radically different. Kindle and e-books have changed everything. You can just bowl in there, give away some books, and see if you can catch on. It is an open market. The big genre markets are Romance and Crime, so however hard you have to shoe-horn, give your genre book a Romance / Crime slant if you possibly can. And don’t get too clever. Readers are attracted by the cover, then read the back cover text, then sample the writing, then buy. The cover has to be simple and impactful, not ‘designed’, the back cover text is advertising copy, and the book itself is whatever it is. Never allow the reader to hesitate – a reader who hesitates is lost.
Also remember that most e-books are free, so even 99c is premium pricing. 99c doesn’t give you much in terms of royalties but you are hitting the countline impulse purchase point and we have paid out $4,000 in a quarter to a writer whose book was priced at 99c, and regularly pay out $2,000. Everything over 99c is for established writers. $2.99 earns you better royalty rates, but keep it for the sequel to a successful 99c book.
In terms of promotion, Kindle Select is your best bet by miles at the moment. It costs nothing and it can generate massive sales. Some authors are anal and hate giving away books, but it is easily the best route to success – make sure you have a promotion of the free e-book at least one day a month. All other modes of promotion are much more suspect in terms of return on investment. The Kindle satellite recommendation sites used to be good but I think Kindle has mostly seen them off, other than for one-off sales spikes that no longer kick off extended runs.
If you give away books in their thousands, you will inevitably come across the guy I call ‘the village smart-ass’, who will invariably ask, “How many books have you actually sold, then?” The answer is simple, “A lot more than you, smart-ass!”, and that answer, in 99.9% of cases, will be true, unless you are talking to Stephen King (who also self-publishes, as it happens).
Blog reviews really only sell books in single figures; advertising on major blogs doesn’t do a lot for sales either. Building your own brand as a personality can really underpin and fan your sales but you have to train yourself only to mention your books occasionally and to focus on yourself as the key point of interest. People, as they say, buy from people. It is the one-to-many relationship that is important. If they like you and engage with you, they may buy your book.
We are experimenting with every promotional tool we can find but, in general, marketing works best the closer you are to the point of sale. The other day Espresso Book Machines contacted us. They do those instant book machines where you choose your book, wait five minutes, and out it pops. The interesting thing is that they are backed by Google who want a slice of the book market pie. I personally believe that most bookshops will become coffee and cake shops with a few books lying around in the very near future, but people do like paperbacks in their hands, or on their shelves, so I can just see it working. Actually, what I think will happen is that people will start reading an e-book and go, “I would really like to read this as a paperback” or maybe they will use Espresso printing instead of placing an order for a book in a bookshop. Whatever, if we can get the chance to co-promote our books with the backing of Espresso and Google, we are definitely happy.
Which brings us to the final two market segments – ‘life’ and ‘weird’. ‘Weird’ is easy – it’s for off-beat books to be read by a very few people, unless a miracle occurs, as it sometimes does. ‘Life’ books, though, can sometimes perform like genre books. Autobiographies of nonentities are generally hopeless in sales terms, but authors addressing social issues, or describing big personal adventures, can certainly break through to the single buyer market, as against the book clubs which require major publication.
In summary, to date our most successful books in sales terms have been:
1. Romance / Crime
7. Romance / Crime
8. Romance / Fantasy
Finally, agents and publishers ….
In the experience of many authors I know, agents are very hard to get, and once got are rarely worth getting. Some authors fantasize an agent into being, as in, “I’ll just consult with my agent before I sign”, and that may be about as useful as most of them get. However, if you want a major publisher, you need a major agent.
Publishers? A key rule: never expect any useful marketing input from any self-publishing vanity press. They are printers. They have virtually the monopoly on every useless book marketing technique going, and they would love to charge you for the privilege of using their abject services, but tell yourself, ‘Money down the drain’, and don’t stop repeating this until you are safe.
Major publishers mostly demand big sales. If they cannot make $100,000 out of you, you are of very little interest. Most authors, apparently, never get paid more than their initial advance. Many authors’ books get shredded during the first few weeks of publication.
Indie publishers? These are mostly a decent bunch of earnest people as far as I can tell, with varying levels of sales skills. Yes, it is possible that we are the fount of all evil, but mostly we will probably sell more than twice the books you will, and mostly you will not be cheated. A few loquacious authors get very excited about their royalties and whether they have been cheated out of them or not, but, let’s face it, if you are earning real money for a publisher you will get paid, and if you are not, well, you will probably be paid eventually, and waiting for your $50 royalty check will rarely lead you into the financial abyss, especially as most major publishers and printers have a minimum payout rate of $100. Our most outraged authors to date have complained about not being paid on time for royalties amounting to 67c, $4.94 and an amount where they owed us money rather than vice-versa. Important authors get paid; the ‘long tail’ may have to wait a while, as most of them do, patiently.
In short, if you are an amateur writer, the publishing market is a game – enjoy it. If you want to make it your profession, then treat it as your business, and write not only what you are good at writing but what the market wants to read. From there you will have ups and downs, as any business does, but it is your business, so keep at it, make mistakes, record victories, and if you are good at business you may well be a successful writer.
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