Monday, February 23, 2009

The new who reviews

These days, the writing life is taking a back seat to the marketing life, because a lot of the most important promotional things have to be done before anyone sees your book. For example, I compiled a list of 25 places I’d like Russian Roulette to be reviewed and almost all of them said they wanted the books 4 months before publication. That’s why I spent my few spare moments last week sending out review copies.

The Washington Post Book World was at the top of my list. Sadly, the Post stopped publishing the separate book section. But when I called the paper to find out where to send their review copy I found that they still want books sent to “Book World.” It turns out that the section will live on as an online product.

I’m cool with that. Most people I know read the paper on line anyway. And maybe they will do what most internet reviews do and add a link to the book on so people can order one right away. That’s why my original list included a few internet-only reviewers. I also have five or six personal friends who review for a variety of publications. Naturally, they got advance copies.

That got me to 30 review sites, and I had 50 review copies. The more I thought about the whole internet review issue the more I thought I was missing a bet. Everybody I know who doesn’t buy their books in a bookstore goes to So I went there. I looked at the profiles of the top reviewers, selecting the ones who focused on mystery novels. I sent them e-mails, and sent books to those who said they’d like to read Russian Roulette.

Who knows? Those reviewers may turn out to be more influential than the newspapers and magazines I mailed to. And at least I know they will take a look at the book.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sign of the Publishing Times

For the last four months there has been a lot of talk about how badly the publishing industry is doing. Mostly we hear about how publishers are losing money, how hard it is for agents to place manuscripts, and how authors are being abandoned by those who were their champions. What we don’t hear about is what’s going on at the crucial interface where the rubber meets the road. Or more properly, where the books meet the readers. I don’t know a lot of New York publishers. The bookstores are where my friends and best supporters are.

I frequently arrange events weeks in advance and they rarely cancel. So I was shocked when I got the call from my publicist this week about an event scheduled for March 15. I had agreed to give a talk to a school group in the Waldenbooks at Manassas Mall. This was the kind of event that ties a store and a writer to a community. But the call I got was to cancel the event because the store won’t be there a month from now.

Saturday I held a book signing at another Waldenbooks, this one in Landmark Mall, Alexandria, VA. Another store that has become a community bookstore in place of privately owned stores that have almost all folded. The manager greeted me as always, but this time to give me the sad news that this would be my last event there. He said his store was on “the list.”

Apparently the Borders chain is losing money and trying to staunch its wounds. At least in my area they have decided that every store that did not turn a profit last year will close when its lease is up.

Selfishly this means books returned to the warehouse, and fewer chances to get face-to-face with readers. More personally it means two friends I won’t see again, with no way to know how many others will vanish before the economy rights itself.

If you have a good bookstore in your area make sure you visit this week. Pick up a couple books and spend some time with the folks who work there. Who knows if you’ll see them again?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Book's not Finished When You Finish Writing

I talk to a lot of self published and Print-On-Demand authors about what they can do to make their books a success. There are a lot of options, from cover selection to interior design to writing a series character versus a stand alone. But you have to start with a good manuscript, and much of what goes into one is not optional. I was reminded of that because during a chat about the various steps leading to publication one author told me that he planned to pay a publicist thousands to market his book but he couldn’t afford a professional editor and so would skip that step.

I had to tell him that, in this writer’s opinion. That is not an option. You might just as well decide not to have a picture on the cover. In other words, if you can’t afford to get a professional editor to work your manuscript, well, you can’t afford to publish your book.

No matter how good a writer you think you are, EVERYONE needs an editor. If you have any hopes of selling copies of your book it needs to be as close to flawless as possible. And if you want an agent to show your work to a publisher, it has to be polished.

Remember, the big publishers wouldn’t let your book go out without being professionally edited, and neither should you.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

How am I doing?

For people in the business world, that is not a rhetorical question. It is one that I contemplate more and more as I approach the release of my next novel.

For a goal-oriented person like me, the world sometimes revolves around tracking what I do and measuring the results. Tracking my activity is relatively simple. So what have I done to insure success of the new novel? I got a manuscript professionally proofread, edited and formatted. I added dedications to my favorite booksellers and a formal invitation to book clubs. I pored over the galleys. I’ve ordered bookmarks, coasters, print ads, post cards, and a mailing list to send those post cards to. I’ve requested blurbs from half a dozen writers whom I respect. Three have already blessed me with wonderful words. I’m poised to send off review copies to an extensive list of reviewers.

But how will I measure success? What line do I cross that tells me my book is a hit?

In our business, the Holy Grail is writing a best seller. Yet, that status does not come with a pre-determined sales point. Not only is this a relative scale, but it is transitory. Getting on someone’s bestseller list merely means that you did better than everyone else THAT WEEK. If the economy is bad enough, that could mean you sold 20 when everyone else sold 19. No book bestseller lists put numbers next to them, like box office figures for top movies, not even in industry publications like Publisher's Weekly. And the fact that different lists have different titles is a pretty good indication that they don’t reflect actual sales anyway.

Even if you have access to sales numbers, there are two sales numbers that can be used: the number of books that are bought by stores through distributors and the number of books actually sold to consumers. The latter is tracked by BookScan, but I don’t know how even publishers get those numbers.

After some digging I learned that I can at least find out how many books shipped through Ingram, the distributor that handles all my books. They have an automated system you can call (615-213-6803 - you’re welcome.) Punch in the ISBN number and the computer will tell you how many copies sold this year. But that number won’t answer my REAL question. How many books do I have to sell before I declare the book a success?

A November 2005 article in Fast Company Magazine stated that the average number of copies sold of a book is 11,800. That is, they said, the average author who manages to find an agent and land a deal. That leaves out a lot of my competition.

Bill Frank, of One2One Direct stated that the average book sells 7500 copies, including million-sellers and flops. quoted the Authors Guild as saying that a successful fiction book sells 5,000 copies.

My favorite so far is a July 2007 article called “THE 10 AWFUL TRUTHS ABOUT BOOK PUBLISHING” by Steven Piersanti, President of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. He quotes statistics published in Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006.

“In 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen BookScan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies”

Presumably the average in this case is the mean, distorted by the Stephen Kings of the world who sell millions. The other numbers seem more useful. So let’s see...

According to this data, when sales hit 100 my novel will have outperformed 79 percent of its fellow releases. When we pass 500 we’re already above average. At 1,000 copies it’s in the 96th percentile. When we hit 5,000 copies (he said optimistically) the book is in the top 2 percent sales-wise. At that point a paperback would have earned a $3,000 advance. I guess we can call that the line for success.

I’ll keep you posted.