article discussing why a self-publisher or independent publisher of fiction should set realistic marketing goals and focus on individual standards of success

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Small Publishers Association of North America

Issue 1/2008

Get a Grip on How You Define Success

At present, I’m reading a very informative self-help/how-to book titled The Well-Fed Self-Publisher (TWFSP) by marketing/self-publishing guru Peter Bowerman. At the same time, I’m reading a history titled Age of Betrayal The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900 by Jack Beatty. I’m not sure why Mr. Beatty chose 1865 as the year beginning the “Age of Betrayal.” As far as I’m concerned, we can go back to 1786 and Shay’s Rebellion and more clearly still, to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. But, of course, Mr. Beatty does qualify his chosen date in the subtitle with the word “triumph.” The year 1865 heralded the defeat of the South and the final triumph of the Federal Government and big business (Northern industry) over advocates of states’ rights and their agrarian brothers and left nothing to stand in the way of the greed, despotism, and aggression that feed them. Yes, …Age of Betrayal… inspires me to climb up on my soapbox, but it was actually the other book, , that provided me the inspiration for this article.

The Well-Fed Self-Publisher is full of advice, guidance, and support for anyone who decides to go it alone. I highly recommend it. Further, it validates much of what I have already learned on my own, confirming that trial and error, flexibility, and imagination is the norm when it comes to marketing self-published works (and probably conventionally-published books, as well). Trial and error and imagination are of particular importance when one talks about marketing self-published “fiction.” Mr. Bowerman notes, and this is a point I was already aware of, non-fiction how-to and self-help books are uniquely suited for self-publishing. This is primarily because experts in a unique field of interest write them—‘writing’ as craft, for instance, or eating a healthy diet. Exercise and childcare are other good examples. Marketing can be adapted either to specific audiences or across the board.

A fiction writer on the other hand is not selling expertise. She is selling a story, and from an uninitiated reader’s perspective, a story that a “real” publisher isn’t interested in buying. So, why should a reader be? Selling that book is harder, so much so that the self-publishing gurus come right out and say the book will probably not realize success.

Well, my question is: How is that self-published fiction writer measuring her success? Ten thousand copies of a first title sold in bookstores across the nation in its first three months?

Okay, lets come back to earth and come up with an industry standard defining success of a self-published work—any self-published work. Peter Bowerman provides a simple standard in TWFSP, that being Ingram’s criteria for participation in its “New Vendor Title Visibility Program,” a program developed with the Independent Book Publishers Association (PMA) for publishers of less than ten titles.

The publisher sells her books to Ingram at a 55 percent discount, then pays a $500.00 participation fee, which nets the publisher a quarter-page ad and an ad on Ingram’s business web site (these two combined ads would normally run $2500.00, so theoretically the publisher has saved $2,000.00). Done. Now the publisher must sell $20,000.00 worth of books over the next two years to remain in the agreed upon program (if the publisher fails, she is either dropped by Ingram or allowed to stay in the program at a steeper discount).

That would mean—and here I’m letting Mr. Bowerman do the math—that at $15.00 per book, given Ingram’s discount, the publisher would have to sell over 2900 books (of one title) in two years to meet Ingram’s measure of “success.” That $15.00 per book is what I ask for both my titles, and it’s at this point where my “inspiration” kicks in—the print run for each of my books is only 2,000. I was a failure before I even got started. No one is going convince me of that.

Having Ingram as a distributor would be great, but for a self-publisher of fiction to define such representation as a measure of success is self-defeating, and I would discourage any first-title fiction writer (or second-title for that matter) from adhering to that arbitrary standard. In my mind, believing you need a big distributor to sell your books is as big a non-starter as believing you need a New York publisher to publish one.

I was well aware of Ingram and Baker and Taylor and Quality Books, etc. etc. and regional distributors before I ever held my first copy of The Devil’s Bastard in my hand. I never considered any of the big distributors viable for me, and after soliciting smaller, regional distributors, I don’t consider them viable at this time either. They simply are not interested. My print run is too small. My name is unknown. Ingram’s program costs too much money, and I never had any delusions about selling $10,000.00 worth of books per year—not at the beginning; the process takes time. Why buy my way into Ingram when the only person interested in getting it into bookstores (not to mention people wanting to buy it) is me? And I’m doing that, piecemeal, but only in Mississippi. I can’t take off and hit every store in this country or in the South or even in this state, and I’ve found that’s what it takes—handing the book to the right person, then following up over and over with that person, whose memory I often have to prod to even remember me. I do not have unlimited time to spend on Loblolly Writer’s House. Oh, that I did! I have to carve out time for everything I do. Slowly, but surely, I’m learning what’s worth my time and money in publishing, and what isn’t. I do have a plan—a working plan, a constantly changing plan. At the moment, distributors aren’t part of it. Right now, I’m focusing on internet marketing, making presentations, writing articles, and my old standbys, gift stores, craft fairs—both very good places to sell self-published fiction—and a handful of bookstores where someone inside has read the book, liked it, and promotes it to their readers, and that doesn’t happen every day, folks.

I’d love to sell 1500 books a year—all distributed by Ingram—but I’m not there yet, and if I believe I need a distributor to participate in this business, I never will be. My publisher isn’t going to drop me, but a bookstore carrying books that don’t sell will sure the devil send them back to me (or they’ll return them to Ingram, which will in turn send them back to me).

My measure of success is as flexible as my marketing plan. I’m writing and publishing books; I’m building a readership, and if that readership ever gets big enough to require a distributor, I’ll bet I’ll be able to come up with one. I’m planning for my next book to help sell my older ones, and vice versa, on and on into the future.

In the case of a small, independent publisher, marketing and distribution is not a catch-22 (read that to mean: What comes first, the distribution or the readership?). Putting the distributor before the readership is putting the cart before the horse (Hey, sometimes cliché works best!). My advice for potential self-publishers? Make a name for yourself and develop a readership, then find yourself a distributor. Otherwise you’re wasting your time and money—both better spent on tactics that pay back.

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