I love the enthusiasm of authors who are new to book publishing. After months or years of work on their book, many are rightfully proud of what they have created.
It’s no easy thing to finish writing a solid, salable book. Pretty easy to start, not so easy to finish, and you should be proud of that accomplishment.
The problem comes in when, after publishing the book, authors start to wonder why they have sold so few copies. Don’t other people realize how great the book is?
Well, the fact is that most authors don’t intuitively understand why books sell. This leads them to start thinking about:
• Buying advertising
• Hiring publicists
• Printing bookmarks
Or other things that usually mean you’ll end up with a lot less money in your pocket than when you started, and no guarantee of any book sales, either.
There’s nothing wrong with ads, publicists or bookmarks when they are part of a plan you have for marketing your books. But all too often we feel like we just have to do something.
There’s a Secret
Here’s the secret that savvy book marketers understand, and that most authors don’t:
No one knows in advance which books will sell and which won’t sell.
Of course I’m not talking about books by niche-market publishers who research and test their products before publication. But by and large, most trade publishing happens with absolutely no guarantee of what the sales of any particular book will be.
This is just as true for big traditional publishers with huge marketing departments as it is for huge Hollywood movie studios and big conglomerate television channels, so don’t feel too bad about it.
All the advertising, promotion and marketing in the world cannot guarantee that real actual people will buy your book.
For example, a long time ago Donald Trump, the real estate investor and television reality show host, published his first book, The Art of the Deal. It was a huge hit.
Of course Trump wanted to follow that up with another blockbuster. A book was created and rolled out in anticipation of huge sales. Books were stacked in huge pyramids of expectation in bookstore display windows.
Problem was, nobody bought the book. The return rate must have been shocking, because they all went right back to the publisher.
Why is is that no one can guarantee a book will sell? I bet you can find the answer in your own book-buying habits.
It’s because most people buy books based on the recommendation of someone they know and trust. And you can’t buy those recommendations, can you?
This is the holy grail of book marketing, the “word of mouth” influence that travels directly from one individual to another.
By extension, it can also work for trusted book reviewers or others in the media who have earned readers’ trust, but it rarely extends past that.
For instance, I just read Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a fantastic and very funny book about punctuation that I had known about for years but never read. It hasn’t been on television, I haven’t seen a book trailer about it, nor have I seen an ad for it anywhere.
But a friend mentioned it recently and told me I “just had to read it.” Doesn’t that happen to you all the time? And don’t you recommend books exactly the same way to people you know? I know I do.
This leads to a big question for authors, and that is how do you get that word of mouth marketing working for you?
Of course, if I had scientifically worked out how to do that, I’d be selling it to some big publisher for a gazillion dollars, wouldn’t I?
But there are things we, as self-published authors, can do to get word of mouth started. You might boil it down to this:
Write the best book you possibly can, and get an editor to make it better.
Make sure the book speaks to the audience you wrote it for, and let readers judge whether you’ve hit your target.
Get your book in front of enough people who don’t know you to get the ball rolling.
Figuring out how to do this is why people hire professional book marketers, and that’s a smart move.
It also pays to really understand how to match up what you have to say with what readers really want to buy. Whether you call it “marketing” or “thinking deeply about the people who read my books” doesn’t much matter.
What does matter is getting the best book you can create in front of the largest number of people who are likely to love it. As an author and a publisher, you can’t do any less.
Because then at least you’ve put it where word of mouth can take over.
Joel Friedlander is a self-published author and book designer who blogs about book design, self-publishing and the indie publishing life at TheBookDesigner.com. He's also the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, where he helps publishers and authors who decide to publish get to market on time and on budget with books that are both properly constructed and beautiful to read.