Monday, July 27, 2009

My First Print Run Is Tiny!! How Can I Save My Book?!

Last week, we talked about why publishing companies push for the biggest print runs possible. There's also this icky trend at publishers, vendors, and review venues to cut losses and not "waste" too much energy on a book with a low print run.

What if this happens to you, through some accident of bad luck, timing, or misunderstanding? (You can't, after all, control the economy--or if you can, please give me a call; we gotta chat about some stuff.) But if you ifnd out your first print run is low, is all hope lost?

I'll start off by telling you a little story.

In 1997, a first novel was published very quietly by a literary press. The first print run was 1,000 copies, smaller by a third than the average modest reprint of another book, and the trade would only take half those copies--the other half went to libraries, where, presumably, they can still be found today. In other words, stores weren't even willing to take the risk of stocking this book, even on a returnable basis.

The publisher must not have had very high hopes--printing 1,000 copies is so modest most publishers would not have bothered to put the book in print at all, since their gross earnings would be so minor (or negative). But they did.

The name of the book? You might have heard of it. It was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

I do not make this up. Corroborative articles here (n.b. it took JK more than 5 years to find a publisher! The book was rejected over and over!) and here (in case you were interested in buying one of these first editions at auction, I suggest you start saving now).

What happened between 1997 and 1998? Well, JK Rowling got really, really lucky. Also, the book are freakin' awesome and deserve to be totally crazy successful (yeah, I'm one of the faithful).

But the point is, books that deserve to be famous are sometimes underestimated by their publishers. If that happens to you, how do you break yourself free?

I don't suggest every book can be Harry Potter. (Geez, I hope not--I'm afraid I just don't have the stamina.) But you, the author, can be a smartypants, and kick a book with a small print run in the butt as much as you can. Back in 2000, the New York Times justifiably called JK "shrewd" in her book campaigning. Be shrewd in yours:

-Be prepared to drop a dime--literally. Nora Roberts recommends you plan on spending 10% of your advance on book publicity yourself.* That's even if you have a huge print run.

-Hire a freelance publicist. You can get publicists of different calibers, different skill sets, and for different amounts of money--the best bet is doing some research on a) where (geographically) you want to sell, b) who your target readership is, c) how they can best be reached (readings? parties? radio? print coverage?), and d) who's good and recommended in your area.

-Hand sell. Don't be shy. (Don't be annoying, either, but don't be shy.) Make sure your friends and family know. Make postcards you can distribute to remind and inspire people. Or make buttons to give out. (I have two, both from Mischief members--you guys know who you are?)

-If you can, try to get a marketing agreement with your contract. Then you know your publishing company is contractually bound to stand behind you, even if your print run is low. Admittedly, this is hard to do, and it's probably well after the fact if your print run has been established.

-Build your presense. We talked about platform here. The more people you know, contacts you have, and places you've written/spoken, the more likely you'll have extra venues to sell in.

-Have a website. When people Google your book name, you want the first thing to pop up to be you, not something else entirely.

-Keep that website lookin' hot. That means clean, accessible, and up-to-date. Keep your current information/daily info on a blog, not on your website--your website should be more general, and should be constantly applicable. (Nothing more of a turn-off than logging on an author website that says "Phew! Can't believe it's 2007 already!")

-Be nice at all times. We talked about this here. If you're not naturally nice, invest $300 in an afternoon of media training. It may make the difference for your book if you're not a natural speaker.

The moral of this story: there is hope for everyone. You, the author, have to be your own advocate. But trust me, there is hope. I have to believe there is; I work at an indie press. Most of our laydown numbers make other publishers (and especially agents, grr) laugh. But that doesn't mean we don't make them work. (Ok, sometimes we don't. But if YOU work with us, we CAN.)

*(I don't remember where I heard this, and the only citation I can find on the internet right now is myself, but I still believe it's true, because Nora's one smart lady. Can anyone help me out with a citation?)


Rick Daley said...

Awesome marketing tips, I need to bookmark this post.

If sales are the fruits of your labors, then marketing is the seed from which they eventually sprout.

Novice Writer Anonymous said...

Very excellent post. Thanks for the tips and the reminders for patience.

Novice Writer Anonymous
Chronicles of a Novice Writer

stephanie said...

As someone with an incredibly low first print run who failed miserably at self-promotion, I wish I'd had this post five years ago! Thanks for putting this advice up here now.

I don't know where the original Nora Roberts reference might be, but I read it on Nathan Bransford's blog when M.J. Rose guest blogged on book marketing.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much of that Rowling did with the first Potter book. Has anyone tracked the word-of-mouth, the marketing efforts, the actual books sales as they spreak?

I think we all like to believe that we've got some iota of control over our lives and careers, but I'm not sure that's really true in this case. The Traveler, the Gargoyle ... huge books with huge backing fail pretty emphatically all the time.

I'm not sure if the time we might spend marketing isn't better spent writing more, polishing again, and editing one final time. Lightning strikes or it doesn't, and trying to call down the skies can detract from more effective activities.


Weronika said...

Thank you for these tips! They are very appreciated. :) I just hope that, some day, I will have the opportunity to perhaps surpass a scenario like this one (or deal with it, if I must).

Deb said...

The trouble is, it seems to me, that nobody knows what marketing efforts pay back, even modestly, and which do not. If they know, they aren't saying. I've had signings where the books went like gangbusters and signings where I've moved like two. Postcards, e-mailings, newsletters -- they're claimed sometimes to work vis-a-vis increased sales, and sometimes they're claimed to be a waste of time.

Anyone with better data on what to focus on, please let us all know. My marketing dollar has to be stretched 'til it screams for mercy.

Charles Gramlich said...

Great tips. I kind of know a lot of this but my personality doesn't like to do the things I know need doing. I'm trying to be a bit better with my new book, though.

Lexi said...

I saw a television interview with JKR, and she said it took her five years to complete the first Harry Potter because she had to work out the outlines for the next six books before it was ready to go. She sold it quite quickly, with under twenty rejections.

I remember buying HP1 for my daughter. Her teacher, knowing what an avid reader she was, told me I must get this fantastic book for her. I went straight out and bought it (alas, not a first edition). So I reckon word of mouth played a big part in its success.

Kronski said...

Why have you not written a book on this stuff yet?

I_am_Tulsa said...

Oh wow, unbelievably, I would be willing to do all of the above...
I need to write the book first don't I?

thank you for this post!

Helen said...

I always wonder about the 'platform' idea and how it can work for literary fiction.

I can totally see the use of platform in genre fiction. Esp with authors who have repeat-perfomance characters with bags of charisma - giving them their own website or tweets just makes sense (and is probably fun practice for the writer).

But say you have written a style-drive literary novel (err - yeah, not talking about myself at all ...) The kind that could never be described as 'rollicking-rollercoaster ride' or 'fantastical fun'. Something more in the vein of To The Lighthouse or Wide Sargasso Sea. quiet, intense books that don't lend themselves to giveaways or fun catchphrase competitions.

How would platform and blog presence work in this case?

BTW I'm not against the use of the internet, nor do I think it is crass to promote yourself, I'm just genuinely not sure how it could be done for something without instant hooks.

Kelsey said...

I was on a panel this weekend at a writers' conference that featured two other first-time authors. We were asked about our marketing efforts. The first guy said something along the lines of, "I don't believe in all of that online stuff...I have a T-shirt with my book cover on it that I wear a lot."

I could have cried, I felt so bad for the dude.

I get some major support from my publisher and it's still a tough slog. Since signing my contract back in January 2008 about 1/8th of my time has been spent writing.

I'm thinking about getting a shirt to wear when I'm marketing that says, "I'd rather be writing."

CKHB said...

I can't find the Nora Roberts quote, either, but I'm convinced I've seen it before. I think Mur Lafferty has said this (or something close to it) on her podcast, I Should Be Writing... or maybe an author that she interviewed said it? This is going to drive me nuts.

moonrat said...

Helen--there IS a literary platform path. The one most often taken is through lit magazines, by publishing essays or short stories in that very competitive arena. I would say for literary writers especially that platform building is a MUST, probably more important than for aspiring genre writers. You're trying to appeal to a smaller and pickier group, and without name recognition, you'll have more trouble placing your novel, never mind publishing it successfully. So tackle those Pushcarts and Glimmertrains.

Ello said...

This was excellent, Moonie.

moonrat said...

CKHB--thanks in any case!! I'm really glad I didn't make this up in my head, at the very least!! (Even if I did, I still think it's good advice;)

Eric said...

Great post! I'm writing one on the pros and cons of freelance publicists soon—I'll be sure to link back here.



Colorado Writer said...

Thank you! This is very timely.

My word verification is unstores. I'm serious.

RDJ said...

Good advice.

I'm in the middle of getting this stuff put together myself, so the timing is certainly right.

Another reason to have a blog on Wordpress or Blogger is simply that there are a lot of people already on those sites who will find you through tags or "possibly related" links at the bottom of others' posts.

For six months I had a blog on my website, but then, at the request of my editor, renovated my site and moved my blog to Wordpress, and though it's only been a month, the stats show that it's reached many more people than when I hosted it on my own site.

Maybe this is obvious and I'm just slow, but it hadn't occurred to me, so I thought it might be worth mentioning.

Scobberlotcher said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing this information. :)

a literary agent said...

I know you're trying to be encouraging about marketing agreements, but I have NEVER heard of ANYONE getting a marketing agreement from a trade publisher. Ever.

The most we've ever gotten is a one-page description of what a publisher might do in terms of marketing - and we required it as part of an auction for a best selling author. Regardless, no publisher would commit to that plan; it was called a "suggestion" or a "guideline."

I agree that it would be wonderfully nice, but I think it's unrealistic to encourage writers to expect to get a marketing agreement -- or even a plan.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I'm a sucker for the quantifiable, so I loved the 10% figure (from Nora). Wish I'd heard that last time around. Thanks for an excellent post.

Simon Hay said...

Great post, and marketing tips. Its a slog sometimes, but a good platform is key to being noticed by anyone. Thanks, Simon.

Bron said...

I'm realising more and more that signing a book contract is only the beginning!

Anonymous said...

Here's a guy who can self-promote. AND I like his books. Does that make me biased?

Mark Meier
LaCrosse, WI

Natalie Allan said...

Just goes to show that there is hope for first time authors. A 1,000 book print run would be pretty pointless, considering there are 500 bookstores and 250 libraries in my county (Midlands, England).

Thanks for sharing this, I now have an added confidence boost.