Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What They Got Right

This is the first time since December 2010 that I have not had a deadline looming within the next thirty days. I have written, formatted, designed, marketed, promoted, and published four books in the past eight months. Seriously. So that’s why you haven’t heard from me in awhile.


I currently have 18 books under the Blue Merle Publishing logo, and I am finally beginning (and I do mean beginning) to feel like a real publisher. And let me tell you something: it’s hard.

There are people who have been doing this far longer than I have, and who have far more claim to expertise than I do, so I don’t pretend to set myself up as an authority on the subject of independent publishing. However, with all the rockets buzzing around the internet about what traditional publishing has done wrong, my recent experience in indie publishing, juxtaposed against twenty-plus years in traditional publishing, has pointed out to me that there is a reason why traditional publishing has survived for over a hundred years, virtually unchanged. As much as I hate to admit it, they got a lot of things right. Here are a few of them:

1) Give the people what they want

There is a reason why you can’t pick up a book today that doesn’t have a vampire, zombie, angel or wizard on the cover. This used to outrage me, until I was faced with a choice: a solid fan base who was begging for the continuation of my mystery series, or my own literary leanings toward something more daring and esoteric. Suddenly I understood why publishers had declined to take a chance on some of my more creative proposals, and I no longer held them in quite such contempt. Once you have a proven audience for a product, it is very scary—and foolish-- to turn your back and walk the other way. My decision was to go with the proven product, and I don’t regret it for a minute.

2)Know Your Strength

Over the course of my career I have written under seven different pseudonyms and in every fiction genre known to man. Great for the resume; bad for the sales figures. Again, I didn’t understand why my versatility didn’t command the respect that was clearly its due until I was the one who had to reconcile the bottom line. When one series outsells the others three-to-one, it really doesn’t matter how well-reviewed, innovative, or close to the heart the other books are. You publish the books that sell. Everything else is collateral damage.

3)It’s Not Personal, it’s Business

In the “It Only Hurts When I Laugh” category… my pet project was highly praised and ultimately rejected by a dozen of the top literary agents in New York with the inevitable disclaimer: I love this, but I can’t sell it . I finally decided that, rather than turn the book into the shredded wheat that would please the New York publishing community, I would publish it myself, and guess what? I couldn’t sell it either. Well reviewed? Yes. Commercial success? Hardly. Will I continue the series? Not a chance in hell. Nothing personal, fans. But this is business.

4)It’s All About Marketing... and Budget

Not to continue to beat the poor dead horse whose screams we’ve all been hearing for years now, but (to mix another colorful metaphor) it’s not the steak but the sizzle. And yes, that pisses me off now as much as it did when I was Number 11 on the Top 10 Bestseller List in the world of traditional bookstores and traditional publishers… not because my book was any better or worse by merit than #10, but because someone, somewhere had randomly decided to put more money into front-of-store placement, magazine and trade advertising, book tours and promotional spots for #10. (To be fair, next year, the same random decision might be made in my favor and I will be #10…or 9…or 7) This is not a merit-based industry. How many times have I heard that? Yet, until I was the one who had to actually come up with the cash that would make the difference between a book that faded into obscurity and a book that would receive the attention it deserved, I never truly appreciated how brutal and dispassionate was the view from this side of the checkbook. I discovered that I am not nearly the risk taker I thought I was… and that’s while dealing with my own money, on behalf of a product that I passionately believe in. How much less willing would I be to gamble with someone else’s money, for someone else’s book? Suddenly the decisions made by my former publishers about my marketing budget don’t seem quite as stupid as they once did.

5) Timing is Crucial.

When the new Harry Potter, Grisham, or Stephen King is shipped to brick and mortar bookstores, it is very likely in a box marked, “Do Not Shelve Until…” with a date. Years of experience have taught traditional publishers the value of a “crisp lay-down” to build buzz, maximize presence, and yes, inflate sales rankings and bestseller lists. Despite the fact that, as so many indies happily proclaim, e-books are forever, if you want to give your forever-book a chance to make itself known in the e-book jungle, following this simple practice from traditional publishing is the easiest and most cost effective thing you can do. Launch with a bang. Build your product page first and have it filled with reviews before announcing your release to the public. Arrange contests, Goodreads giveaways, discussion groups, blog tours, ad campaigns and reviews all to fall within a two week period of publication (Resourceful authors will plan to repeat this process in a few months, as sales start to fall). The more visible your book is, the more popular it seems,and the more popular it seems, the more popular it actually becomes because its very popularity will nudge it onto Amazon’s also- bought list, which will in turn push it up in the rankings. The higher in the rankings your book goes, the more visible it becomes, which means more people buy it, and so on and so forth. This is, believe or not, pretty much the same process that traditionally published print books have been undergoing to make the various bestseller lists for years. There’s nothing new under the sun.

6)Holding its own is not good enough.

This was perhaps the most painful and difficult lesson for me to learn. I have complained ad infinitum about the publisher who canceled my mystery series while Book #2 was on a bestsellers list, and the publisher who canceled my women’s fiction series while Book # 1 was approaching a 95% sell-through. Their reason for doing so, in both cases, was that Book #3 had failed to live up to the sales numbers generated by previous books. Here’s what they got right: it’s not enough to maintain your readership. Unless your fan base continues to grow, you cannot sustain a series.


What they got wrong (among many other things)

The assembly-line mentality upon which corporate America was built does not work in the Arts. Simply put, when a book fails to live up to expectations in a Big Six house, it is cut, cast off, arteries severed; it is tossed, still writhing with life and screaming protests, into the teeming sea like so much chum. Moving on; next project.

When a book fails to succeed in my house, I want to know why. Did it fail to give the readers what they want? Did it fail to find its audience? Was it marketed incorrectly or not at all? Bad cover? Bad blurb? Wrong price? Did it have enough time to succeed? What can I do to change its fate? If I believe in a book I will do everything in my power to give it a second chance… and a third, and even a fourth, if I have to. I will find out what I did wrong, and I will fix it. I will accept responsibility for a less than stellar performance, and I will correct flaws in marketing, design, pricing and placement. I will beat the bushes for new readers, come up with innovative ad campaigns to draw people in, go for markets I hadn’t considered before. Only when I have done everything that I can do, as a publisher, to help a book a find its audience—and , if necessary, when I’ve done it again and again—will I give up. This is my book, you see. I care what happens to it.

And that, in the end, may be the most important thing I’ve learned from the Big Six. Bad things happen when you don’t care. Good things happen when you do. I’m glad I finally found a publisher who cares.

Me.