Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Reality Check For Authors

Note to authors: If you write books, here's something basic about the business that will make your job much more clear.

Authors are responsible for selling their books. Not publishers, not brick-and-mortar bookstores, not online bookstores, not libraries, not gift shops, not the local Rotary book sale. It is the author who motivates someone to try his or her books. The venues that put your books into distribution or - if you're lucky - actually stock them on their shelves, are merely making them available to buy. It's the author who has to get a reader to search out his or her book and buy it. If you think otherwise, you are setting yourself up for serious disappointment and, probably, career failure.

A few weeks ago, I was at a library author event with something over a dozen authors. The library invited the authors, provided them with space and tables, and publicized the event in local media, both print media and online media. The library even made sure that the publicity mentioned each author's name along with some basic information about their books. The library printed up name sheets for each author's table.

By my standards, the event went well. People showed up and bought books. I don't know how many books were bought or how successful the various authors were, but I sold a bunch of books.

Afterward, I heard one author complaining to one of the librarians, saying, "I didn't even sell one book." The author went on to say that one of the exhibit rooms was not clearly marked and not enough people went in there.

The only reason I wasn't incredulous was that I've seen it many times before, authors blaming everybody but themselves for getting no traction with their book. I wanted to say, "At no expense to you, the library cleared out their space, put up tables and chairs, publicized the event including getting your name and your book's title in the local media, and you have the audacity to complain to them that you didn't sell books???!!" I wanted to say, "How many postcards did you send out about the event, how many emails, how many phone calls? Was it on your website and your social media pages? Did you hand out flyers about it at your last event? Have you even done other events?" I didn't say it, but maybe I should have. It might have given that author a helpful reality check.

I understand disappointment. Books are hard to sell. Every author secretly hopes that their book is good enough that it will somehow find an audience by itself. But it doesn't work that way. Books don't go viral like cat videos.

Do your research. If you spend even a fraction as much time learning about the business of books as you did writing your book, you will learn that no book sells without significant effort on the part of the author.

"Wait," you say. "James Patterson's publisher does all this press and advertising. His books are bought by millions who've never been exposed to his efforts." Right. That's because he built his audience step by step, working at it 8 days a week for decades. I've never heard of a single successful author who didn't pound the pavement, introducing her books to the world. There is no successful author out there who would think that not only should a library set them up in front of readers but also figure out how to sell their books. Authors who succeed recognize that it is an incredible opportunity to be given a venue and media coverage all for free, and they would promote, promote, promote, driving readers into that library any way they could. Just like they drive readers into bookstores. Just like they drive readers to Amazon. Authors have to sell their own books because no one else does.

If you are serious about developing a readership, then get serious about learning how to introduce your books to the world and plan to work on it continuously. 

I've mentioned some effective approaches in previous blog posts, so I won't list them again here. But here's a tip. Find books that sell - especially those by relatively new authors - and research what that author did to make it happen. Then mimic their efforts. Do the same things they do, set yourself the same schedule, give just as many talks, go to as many schools, exhibit your books at as many or more festivals of all kinds, send out as many emails and postcards, make your website just as attractive, post on your blog just as frequently, make what you post just as compelling, and make your social media approach just as comprehensive. And if you're self-publishing, hire the same professional book cover designer, format the inside of your book to make it look just as professional as theirs, develop your characters to be just as captivating, work your future books into a single series or connect them all up in some fashion so that if a reader likes one they'll buy the rest.

Libraries are a writer's best friend. They introduce your books to readers who would never otherwise find them. And libraries do it all at their expense. Learn to work with libraries. Be grateful for what they do.

But don't expect them, or any other institution, to sell your books. Authors sell books.

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