Wednesday, 17 March 2010

How Books Are Sold

Commercial publishers achieve their high sales levels by ensuring that they have a good stock of books and an efficient distribution system which will get their titles from warehouse to bookshop shelves as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

This backs up the efforts of their sales teams, which use a combination of telesales calls and store visits to take orders from booksellers across the country.

The sales staff are supported by the publisher's marketing staff, who produce full-colour catalogues for the sales teams to refer to. These catalogues list all titles from backlist to front runners, including books planned for publication in the future, and are sent free of charge to distributors, wholesalers, bookshops and anyone else in between. The marketing staff advertise books to the book industry via the trade press, and promote the books to potential readers by buying advertising in national and niche publications; by producing promotional goods like posters, postcards and dump-bins; and by arranging special promotions and book signings. On top of that, the marketing staff also supply all and any relevant publications with advanced reading copies (ARCs) months before each title is published, in order to tie in with the periodicals’ own publication schedules and allow the reviewers plenty of reading time.

Together, the sales and marketing teams operate a double-sided attack which ensures that just as a book becomes available in bookshops across the country, its potential readers will become aware of it, it so maximising its sales.

When I consider the huge orchestrated efforts that commercial publishers make to promote and sell their titles, and compare their sales figures to those of most self-published books, I am surprised: not by the gulf between the two different levels of sales, but by the fact that so many self-published books, none of which have anything like the same level of support that commercially-published titles receive, manage to sell more than five or ten books each. Such sales figures are a testament to the cleverness, creativity and determination of those self-publishers, and should be applauded.


Dan Holloway said...

Good golly, Jane, I wasn't expecting that twist at the end - are you practising for a devious mystery?

The book, music, and film industries prove something about teh nature of the difference between qualitative and quantitative. In film in particular it's an old adage that the backing of a big studio marketing budget and presence of certain "names" can guarantee a certain sized opening weekend, but the rest is down to whether it's any good, reviews, luck, what the weather's doing and so on.

I imagine the same to be true of the book industry.

Where both really need to be looking at figures is at what point this "guaranteed opening" plateau is reached. My statistical intuition tells me there will be a sales/marketing graph that has a series of "sweet spots" - in other words (figures ENTIRELY illustrative), a £5k spend will get you from 200 to 2000 initial sales; a £50k spend will send you from 4,000 to 40,000, but a £40k spend will only take you from 4,000 to 6,000 if you see what I mean. My personal feeling is that there will be three financial sweet spots, but I may be wrong (I usually am). What I would love to know is whether publishers analyse the stats in this way or whether they just say "here's my budget" or let agents dictate the sums. I just have an inkling, and your post says it all, that publishers could be being smarter with their marketing budgets.

Jarred McGinnis said...

Have commercial publishers taken note of the best of the self-publishing successes and modified their own marketing strategies?

Jenzarina said...

Interesting post!
I always think self-publishing works best when it is an incredibly niche market and therefore likely to have a tight network of interested enthusiasts.

This tends to be in non-fiction areas but with modern social networking there is the increased possibility of someone with a 'big' personality reaching a lot of people without any budget at all.

However, I suspect these types are rare.

Anonymous said...

Well, you've got the plot twist down pat! ;)

Did not see the SP comment coming at all. Still, good basic info on book-selling.

Dan Holloway said...

I had a lovely long response to Jarred last night and then my computer ate it. Here's hoping the morning brings better luck with a shorter post.

Jarred, I think some of the smaller presses, and of the more progressive imprints, are learning some of the things that self-publishers have used (though others point out the importance of niche to self-publishers, and many of their "tricks" are based on niche and close networks taht aren't transferable) - Harpert Studio, Salt, and To Hell With Publishing are rather good users of twitter for example (as opposed to those who say, er, we ought to tweet, what now?).

Small presses, by not having the levels of hierarchy to go through for approval, for example, will always be better emulators of "outside the box" success - they are just flexible in a way big companies find hard.

I've yet to see a publisher put together a marvellous direct marketing campaign - the kind of witty, informative, engaging newsletter the best independednt authors do - but that is almost certainly because I haven't looked hard enough. I hope publishers don't jump on the back of viral video marketing but I have a feeling they will, and one or two will have success, leading to one or two hundred thousand more disasters

Nicola Morgan said...

Great stuff, Jane.

Dan, I'd want to point out that some small presses do a truly awful / amateur job of selling, so smallness is not necessarily a sign of focus and quality, or true powerful independence. I'd rather self-publish, with all the work entails, than be with a useless "proper" / "traditional" (whatever we call it!) publisher who didn't know what it was doing and was doing it amateurishly. It's not about the model but about the intelligence and skill with which one operates it. Which is why so much self-pubbing doesn't work either in quality or quantity.

I think there's too much talk about whether a particular model works, and too little about the quality of the people within those models.

Dan Holloway said...

Nicola, of course - and I hear horror stories from small presses. I DO think that some things are only possible if you are, or think, small - from a simple logistical point of view - but of course that doesn't imply all small presses will do them (see my guest post here last August on Bad Logic :))

What I find interesting (and encouraging) are outfits like Harper Studio where a big company tries to act small.

You are right, though - it's very easy to look at the model you've created, tick the boxes, and think you're sorted. As with so many things, I think some models definitely don't work at some practices, but in order to do them well, getting the model right is the first of many steps, most of which, like you say, will involve having fantastic people

Anonymous said...

Well, I want to publish a photo book slash memoir about my dying mom, but traditional publishers are so elitist. And self publishing requires me to be great at marketing which I am not. An established writer suggested a publishing company powerHouse Publishing, they have plenty of books out with a plethora of authors, but they charge $250 which I have not heard of.

With all of the resources to go to I am a bit overwhelmed. I guess my question is, where to begin? And if I pay a fee what does it cover? I am waiting for PH to return my query email that I just sent out. Thanks MBPL

JFBookman said...

Well, having been there, Jane, and having watched many other self-publishers both succeed at selling books, and fail miserably, I can tell you that it takes a fair amount of entrepreneurial spirit to make a go of it. Thanks for the post.

Jane Smith said...

I think it's interesting that the slant of the conversation here has been towards self-publishers being adventurous and entrepreneurial (I can't usually spell that word, so please don't laugh at me if I got it wrong), and how big publishers should try to emulate their successes.

There hasn't been a mention of self-publishers trying to emulate the large-scale distribution that so benefits the maintream publishers.

Interesting, no?

Anon, if a publisher is charging you to publish your book you must make sure to know right from the start what that fee is for. I'd probably avoid them, and find a POD printer to produce your books for you.

Unknown said...

Ref. Dan's comments on the link between marketing budget and sales, all marketers spend their time trying to punch above their weight.

In advertising, for example, you can just buy 'the obvious' in your market for a standard price minus standard discount, or you can flog yourself and negotiate a better price, a better balance between size, time and price, or hunt out better-targetted publications.

That's what marketing people are paid to do - not just to follow a list of what worked last time.

Smaller companies, of course, need to do this really well to avoid being subsumed by the massive budgets of larger publishers.