Publishing 101: When the “Little Guy” Struggles to Sell a Book

Ingram vs Amazon Self Publishing 101 Claire McKinneyIt’s hard for a person to figure out how to publish, market, and publicize her work on her own, and it is even more difficult to simply make the book available for sale.  Among all of the e-retailers out there, we know that Amazon ranks king in the world of online sales—which is where most of an indie publisher’s books will sell.  If you go through CreateSpace, an Amazon company, you will have a much easier time of getting your book on their site and available without too much fuss.  If you decide to start a new business and imprint, like I did, and choose to go through the Ingram platform IngramSpark instead, well, that’s where more problems can occur.

It can take a month for the information about your book on Ingram to be completely reflected on Amazon.  Ingram sends it in an instant, but Amazon goes through a process that takes time.  During this period your book might be listed as “out of stock”, “ships in 2-4 weeks”, “ships in 2-5 weeks”, or nothing much at all.  I’m okay with that, because it’s common knowledge if you read all the print, fine and otherwise, on Ingram and Amazon.  I also know from working with authors, that this is a standard. 

What I don’t understand is what’s happened to my book since its publication date, which was June 6, 2017.   Since then it’s been listed as “ships in 2-5 weeks”, “out-of-stock”, “ships in 1-2 weeks”, and lately with a random future availability date that Amazon pulled out of a hat.  My first line of defense was to call Ingram.

Here is an approximate run down of what happened with Ingram:

Me: “Hi, I’m calling because I don’t understand why my book, Do You Know What a Book Publicist Does?, isn’t immediately for sale on Amazon, especially given it is a print-on-demand title.  Theoretically it should be available almost immediately with shipping being the only issue.”

Ingram: “Hmmm, well I don’t see anything wrong with your account or what we sent.  You know, Amazon sometimes will hold individual customer orders for POD and submit them all at once.  This is why the book may not listed as available.”

Me: “What?! You mean if someone orders my book, the order could be held with several other titles ordered by different people until Amazon feels like sending them over to Ingram?”

Ingram: “Yes, that’s possible and we have no idea of why Amazon does that.  In fact, we have no idea of how or why Amazon does what it does and we’ve given up trying to figure it out.”

Me: “Right, and they won’t tell you why because it’s an algorithm thing or something like that.”

Ingram: “Correct.  But, you do have your ‘BUY’ button, that’s a good sign.”

Me: “My ‘BUY’ button?  You mean they could take that off whenever they want?”

Ingram: “Yes.  And again, we don’t know why they do that, but we get a lot of calls from authors who have that problem.  There isn’t anything we can do except send the title information to Amazon again and hope that jars something for them.”

Me (thinking): This sounds like the kick the vending machine way of getting results, but what do I know?

Me: “Well, thank you for your help.  I understand you are doing what you can.”

Ingram: “Good luck.”

Good luck, indeed.  Since I published the book to help people who need a resource and can’t afford to hire a publicist, and because I have a day job, I can let some of this slide without worrying about missed sales opportunities.  But what about writers who are expecting to earn a living, or are currently earning a living from their books?

I’m hoping that the more titles you publish the more influence you have with Amazon and the more seamless the process gets.  For now, I can only say keep an eye on your BUY button and watch what happens with other titles you know.  Maybe there is an order to this that we aren’t aware of, kind of like the universe.  On second thought—Amazon-the universe—I hope not.

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Case Studies 3: Accepting the Audience that Wants Your Book and Reaping the Benefits

You have an MFA in Creative Writing from a respected program/university.  You have been carefully crafting your story and verbiage to create the best literary debut you can. Now for promotion and the audience that comes with it—Paris Review?  The New Yorker? Tin House? New York Times Book Review? Not likely.

Whether you are published by a traditional publisher with a lot of muscle, a small independent press, or your own book production venture, no one can count on that kind of coverage for literary novels.  For one thing, there just aren’t enough venues anymore.  The other problem is that there are too many books and too little time, and frankly, if you are not published by Knopf or Simon & Schuster, you just won’t command the kind of attention you need to get into one of those classic publications.

Whatever you do, don’t stop writing and don’t give up hope for promotion!  We need great writing and great books, and while you can’t market a work of serious fiction as a chick lit novel, you can consider what other audiences might be interested in your story.

Recently we worked with an author and a novel.  It was definitely a literary book, but it also had different attributes that gave it potential in some niche audiences that were actually bigger than the more esoteric fiction readers that serious writers like to reach. The author had supported herself in non-traditional ways while working on her writing and had achieved a position as a teacher and founder of a charity that promotes writing for children in underdeveloped countries. She definitely had the credentials of a writer.

Since we specialize in promoting fiction across multiple genres and niches, we maximized our focus to include media that covered fiction, literary fiction, romance, christian fiction, debut novelists, philanthropy, and New York City settings.  We approached bloggers, websites, print, radio, and when warranted, television.

We were pretty happy with the coverage from the general fiction audiences and the publisher secured a review in the top trade, but what really paid off was a review on USAToday.com from a reviewer interested in the romance/womens fiction angle.  This review was not only a good one, but it did a couple of things that benefitted the author in a number of ways.  First of all when it ran there was a spike in sales on Amazon.com.  We were able to use the review and its national print-to-online paper status to secure additional media including a local television station in one of her home markets.  Was she happy about the review?  Well, at first not so enthusiastic because she was concerned that she would be “pigeon holed” as a romance writer.  I say “who cares?” as long as you sell books at this stage of the game.

Now I am also a branding strategist, so I do know that is important to avoid being classified as something that isn’t appropriate for you or your career.  However, one review for a debut novel isn’t going to determine your path.  It is a milestone that needs to be appreciated for what it is and to be used in as many positive ways as possible.

One of the best things she got from the deal? She was able to get a Bookbub promotion on the first try.  If any of you have tried to secure a slot on this infamous discounted book marketing site, you may have tried two or three times and perhaps did not even get accepted in the end.  One of their requirements is that they have legitimate reviews or news coverage of a book, whether traditionally or self-published and USAToday.com definitely can help put you over the top in terms of qualifying.

Her promotion ran, and her Amazon rank went from five figures to the lower threes, somewhere around 300, which is a major leap in ranking.  Sales activity like this will increase her audience; garner more Amazon/Goodreads reviews and ratings; generate additional full price sales; and will help along with the press coverage when she wants to bring out her next book and is searching for a publisher.

A couple of lessons here: Try to find every possible way to promote your fiction even if it doesn’t lead you to the coveted New York Times review.  When you do get a big nod that isn’t exactly what you wanted, revel in it, celebrate, do the ten second dance of joy, take a breath…and get back to work.

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Self Publishing Case Study #2: How many books should you be selling?

how-to-self-publish-your-book-pop_8319I’ve been thinking about a client of mine who came to me with a lovely novel that he decided to self-publish.  In our initial conversations he expressed knowledge of how he knew this was a venture that might not yield a lot in the way of money, but for a man in his position it wasn’t a major concern.  In a few words, he had resources.

With the ability to pay for a well-conceived package for the book, an editor, a web designer, and of course a public relations and marketing team, he was off to a really good start.

My client had a great idea for a book.  It was a story about a single mother and her sons, one of whom was really good at sports, especially baseball.  Throw in some flashback scenes with a few old-time famous players and you have the perfect combination of adult/YA crossover with a sports theme. His book had the opportunity for different targeted markets.

Our planning started in July and August with a fully fleshed-out timeline.  The production aspects related to the book were completed by October including the edited copy, interior design, and jacket design/copy/etc.  In September we started kicking off the marketing with a two-tiered plan of big-mouth and bookseller outreach as well as setting up and starting the social media.

We encouraged our author to blog; we handled his tweets; we advised on Facebook posts.  We also connected him to some online outlets that wanted original blog entries.  We did a customized press kit with peanuts, cracker jacks, a baseball card, and a copy of the book to select retailers and media people.  We helped manage the first event, which took place near his home and was in a perfect location–a gated community with a captive audience that added to the friends, family, and other contacts who were able to attend.

In December, shortly after the official “launch” of the book, he sold over 500 copies.  In the months following up until March/April he was selling as few as 20 per month to as many as 80 (approximate numbers here but in the correct range).

We set up a blog review tour leading into the winter months, which certainly helped with the sales, but it was slow, especially after the initial blast of December that had been made possible by the marketing lead up and tapping all of those friends, family, and contacts.

Was he happy?  No.  He was looking for a steady sale of around 800 copies a month.  In the publishing industry in general (traditional and non-) that is not an easy number to reach, especially for a novel by a new author.

So, here’s what happened.  He was asked to blog and write pieces for a couple of websites, which he didn’t really see the value in doing.  He wasn’t motivated to keep up with social media, and it really wasn’t his thing (which is fine, not everyone loves the 140 character story).  He decided to work with an ad agency to put notices on some of the higher end literary websites, which we didn’t recommend because the book itself wasn’t right for that market.  Eventually, I think he gave up.

This was a hard one for me because I really liked the book and thought it had a nice slow burn happening with additional opportunities to feed the fire.  As anyone who self-publishes knows, overnight success is rarely possible.  Usually you have to be willing to keep your day job and work at marketing in the off hours.  Will you make money from your first book (or any book for that matter)?  According to a survey from Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest, most authors (both traditional and non-) are making less than $10,000 a year.

The biggest lesson here for me was to make sure that everyone I work with understands the realities of the publishing industry.  Sometimes having an alternative goal to selling books, like raising your public profile or getting pitched to do speaking engagements, helps authors because it is part of a bigger plan for their careers.  With fiction this is a bit more difficult.  The whole process is a journey and although experts can advise and predict based on their experiences, there are many factors that go into the success of a book.  But when your book is selling, even just 20 copies a month, it is something to be proud of and it means there is potential there.  It’s a question of tapping into it, nursing it along, and not letting it go for anything.

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Self-Publishing Series Case Study: Will bookstores sell your indie books?

Dictionary Series - Politics: independentShort answer is yes, it is possible to get brick and mortar bookstores to take your self-published books, but it isn’t an easy option.  The simplest course is to hire someone to get your e-book set up on every available platform including Nook, iBooks, Kindle, Kobo, etc., and then market like crazy online.  But today I am highlighting an author and how his perseverance with booksellers continues to pay-off, over a year later.

A gentleman hired me to work on his debut novel.  It was well over 450 pages and he wanted to print it in hardcover–did I mention he was doing this by himself?  The book was professionally edited, a compelling story, and he did everything he could to maximize the actual look and feel of the product with beveled edges, a beautiful cover, and decorated end papers.  Next, he set up his own press, where he featured other previous non-fiction work (of his)  as well as his upcoming titles.

Now, he wasn’t a person who had grown up through the digital age, and the whole Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Goodreads world was not something that came naturally.  What he was hoping for was attention in traditional newspapers like the New York Times, which I told him was not going to be an option, even though we did try.  In the old days (like 10 years ago) if you wanted to build interest in a novel by a new author, one path to success was to market heavily to the independent bookstore market.

But independent bookstores are not necessarily selling venues for independent writers.  Booksellers have been hurt by the advent of etailers and the decrease in sales of print books just like everyone else in publishing.  They have only so much shelf space and they have seen and heard every pitch.  But that didn’t daunt us, or our author, in this scenario.

In fact we put together the most thorough list of independent booksellers in the Northeast, along with the local chain.  Our author set his hardcovers up with a distributor for legitimacy and also just for ease of distribution.  I mean whose back can hold up packing and shipping cartons of big hardcover books from their house?  He also offered traditional publishing terms with a 40% discount to booksellers off the cover price and free shipping BOTH WAYS.

Then we all hit the phones.  “You are representing who?  And What?”;  “Send it to me and I’ll see what I can do.”; “I have a pile a mile high of potential sellers”  These were some of the responses we received.  But we marched on with the knowledge that there were 2000 copies of this bad boy to get out the door.

We emailed and pitched with every possible thing we had; we offered additional marketing materials and advertising; we even offered to give them the books if they just tried to sell them during their busy seasons.

In the meantime, our author was setting himself up for appearances where he promised to show up at the store, sit at a table, and simply sell and sign the books for the store.  I think between what we set up and what the author did himself, we had almost twenty stores for him to visit.

In the last couple of months I’ve been receiving requests for copies of the novel’s book jacket for event promotion, from Barnes & Noble to independent stores.  I hear the book has gone into a second printing.  It is just over a year since the book was originally published.

I was told that E. Lynn Harris sold books out of the trunk of his car before becoming a bestselling (romance) author.  It’s not the same genre and it’s not the same time period, but I learned a few things from this experience:

1. Literally “never say never.”

2. If you leave your pride and ego at the door, much can be accomplished. (If it isn’t already, this one could be inside a fortune cookie.)

I’m not necessarily recommending this way as a means to a selling end, but I am just pointing out that there is always an extreme case out there where something initially thought impossible, becomes possible.  Was it the best course of action?  It was what our author and the book needed in order to get noticed.  Did it get the book where we wanted it to go?  There are movie options being discussed and books definitely got sold.

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