This morning I came across a post by British writer Walter Ellis on the struggle to make headway in publishing on the web. As it happens I have been involved in the publishing industry and writing as a profession even longer than I have been active on the web as a promoter and SEO and I have a relatively unique view which comes about from an intimate knowledge of the overlap between the two spheres of activity.
The question Walter, so eloquently implies in his post, is just how can you get a published book to sell? The glib answer here (which publishers used to trot out as a ward against upstarts who might have wanted to try the go-it-alone route) is that quality always sells. If you write a book which is good the devil himself could not keep the book buying public from ferreting it out and paying some cold, hard cash for the privilege of reading it. The implication was that a ‘good’ book was one published by a publisher (as opposed to an author) who knew what the reading public wanted to read and had what it took to turn a passable manuscript into a great read.
All of this is rubbish. I grant that publishing houses put in resources into turning a book into a saleable product but they also make sure that the book falls within the rigid guidelines of their house style (for non-fiction books) and publishing range (for fiction) which means they work not just to polish an author but also to shoehorn them into becoming a production unit which will make money for the publisher. If they are successful in that, they put marketing resources behind the book, creating a visible product which catches the attention of the book buying public and, in the worst case scenario, ends up selling 5,000 copies and creating a modest profit for author and publisher alike.
What’s Different with Digital Publishing
Digital publishing changes almost all of this. In one fell swoop, technology allows the writer to fulfil the role of content creator, editor, and publisher – much like technology has enabled one-man outfits to successfully run a digital enterprise with remote staff and hundreds of global customers.
While some may frown upon this process (and they usually tend to be publishers) to my mind this is the ultimate democratization of writing. By removing the gatekeepers (the publishing houses) we allow the writer, much like any artist, to shoulder the huge investment in effort, creation, editing and product packaging.
The arguments publishers have traditionally cited against this in terms of quality, reading habits and trends often ring hollow upon my ears. I have seen first hand internal budget pressures create an editing process for fiction books where all of the editor’s work went into polishing up that first chapter and then the work was assigned a quick edit to make sure there were no glaring grammatical bloopers and that’s it. And as for the reading tastes of the public, writing as a whole is about discovering new voices, expanding perception and the use of language, looking at ‘old’ stories in new ways and learning new things (with how-to books). Left to their own devices publishing houses would continue to bring out Enid Blyton style fiction or Agatha Christie and they would never stretch beyond the safe non-fiction publishing of the Bible and Good Housekeeping cooking recipes. And let’s not forget the number of times Harry Potter was turned down and Animal Farm was dismissed as a ‘talking animal story’ with no buying public.
So, if digital publishing is an improvement in that it actually allows us, the reader, to make a judgement upon a work (and an author) and find books which really reflect our tastes, why is Walter so right in saying that digital publishing is problematic?
Well, in assuming the mantle of a publisher, a new (or even an established author) takes on not just those irritating things such as acceptance, the offer to publish and the fact that the book will get ‘out there’ but also its marketing and here, publishers, still hold sway. Marketing a book is all about visibility. In a past article on how to promote your book using SEO I outlined a number of specific steps which authors need to take in order to make their books visible. This is important even if you are published by a publishing house as the resources they have available for marketing your book, these days, are limited and focused, mostly, on their more promising best-selling authors (based on their track record of course).
If you are serious about making sales you need to get your name and your book ‘out there’ yourself. This is the part where Walter is wrong. He assumes (and this is only due to understandable inexperience) that his part was done the moment his book was finally made available. By the sounds of it the book is good so why is he not making sales?
The Purchasing Process for a Book
The only way to understand how to make more sales on a book is to look at the purchasing process from the buyer’s point of view. While this is standard procedure for anyone working on the web today, for many writers it is new territory. We believe (erroneously) that we are somehow special (it takes a great deal of discipline even for me to break out of this writer’s mindset). After all, we have done all the hard work. We have created a brilliant product of exquisite prose which is capable of either transporting you to an entirely different world or unlocking the floodgates and releasing collective knowledge which you could not easily obtain, straight into your head. Because this is a remarkable achievement any way you look at it, we focus upon it and fail to remember that a potential buyer of the book knows zilch about us and our craft and they are buying a product, little different from a grapefruit or a new DIY wallpaper stripper.
It helps then to step out of our skins and look at our books with outsiders’ eyes. The purchasing process for a book is usually a little like this:
Step 1. The book comes to our attention. We decide if we need it (in the case of non-fiction) or like the sound of it, in case of fiction.
Step 2. We need to see a little of it. Ideally a sample. Certainly some reviews. Definitely a website, or a blog. Something which will convince us that we are not about to waste our time and money.
Step 3. We check out the author. We need to get a feel of who is writing because a book, even a non-fiction one, is a creative work, not unlike a film or play. Just as we like to know who the actors are in a film and who directs a play so do we like to get a sense of the author. Harry Potter (again, because it has been so phenomenally successful) got a massive boost by J. K. Rowling’s heart-felt tale of being a single mother, writing in cafes and feeling guilty over neglecting her children and household chores while she struggled to write.
Step 4. We make purchase. We look for the easiest, most secure way to purchase the book. Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Waterstone’s as well as perhaps the author’s website and other online bookstores. To illustrate the point of a safe, trusted, choice, in my case SEO Help has been available to download from my website since the beginning of 2010 when the book came out. Yet it’s not until the book took off massively on Amazon and the Kindle store that I started to see daily sales from my website. Bear in mind that I am not new to website and online book promotion and the traffic figures in terms of relevant visitors have been steady. What has changed is that now SEO Help is all over the web, I am highly visible as an author and there are many reviews and even case studies about how the book has helped website and blog owners achieve greater visibility in Google and get more business as a result.
This is a sequential, interlinked process. If step 1 is not there and your book is not as visible as it could, for instance, the search term ‘My SEO’ puts my website on Google’s first page against over 360 million (!) competing pages, then you should not expect to make sales.
There are plenty of articles on the web advising authors to have a website, have a blog and become engaged in social networks. What few articles tell them is what to do so that these activities lead to greater visibility and more sales. This is where Walter is stumbling. By missing out on Step 1 he is also ensuring that all the other steps which need to be taken in order to get to Step 4 (making a purchase of the book itself) are higher hurdles than they need to be, and that’s where the problem is with self-publishing.
Work to overcome that and as Seth Godin suggests in his three part video presentation below and then you have created ‘scarcity’ while stimulating demand. Then you are onto a real winner.
Seth Godin on Rethinking Publishing