November 29, 2011
My next novel, Proximity, has a high school football coach as its hero. As such, I find myself thinking lately about sports metaphors.
Thus I have this to share from great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.”
In the publication of Primacy, naturally, I’ve done some things right and also made some mistakes. It’s too early to tell definitively what the final outcome will be, but this is my last column on the subject. Thus, here is my moment for self-reflection.
I started with the conviction (juiced by the opinion of my agent) that I wrote a good novel and that that novel fit solidly within the thriller genre. Then I sought to make the novel better by hiring a first-class editor, Patrick LoBrutto. The end result was a critical success: no flat-out negative reviews and some raves. Although when I think hard about the book I conclude that I might have chosen to tell the story differently, the result seemed to please most people who read it. Pat’s advice definitely helped put me over the top. Grade: A-
The book jacket looks great, stands out on the shelf, and even garnered a mention from a blog review. The interior design, feel of the paper, and price point are all spot-on. With all due respect to the folks who gave me blurbs for the back ad, I do wish I’d pursued more authors at the top of the thriller genre, but I was shy about it. Grade: A-
Once I had a well-edited manuscript and a well-designed jacket, using the Greenleaf Book Group as my distributor was by far the biggest decision that I made. I can happily report that these guys did what they said they’d do. They helped me produce a great book (they did the printing) and they got it into bookstores and airport stores. The latter cost me a great deal of money, however, and will probably result in miserable sell-through. Its value as sheer marketing exposure is impossible to gauge. But, most important, Greenleaf put me in the game. Grade: B+
I don’t have to tell anyone reading this that these days the foundations of book publishing and distribution are shifting sands. My distributor advised me that as a first novelist I’d likely sell more copies in paperback original than in hardcover. I chose the latter because I wasn’t convinced that the likely improvement in sales numbers would justify the economic decision. Also, being old school, I thought a hardcover would get taken more seriously by reviewers. Another option, of course, would have been to dispense with bookstores entirely and simply go e-book and print-on-demand. A further argument for the conventional hardcover, in my opinion, was that it would help establish the value proposition of the e-book. Finally, having a physical book might earn me the support of bookstores — still the greatest mass of book advocates around. Unfortunately, while I did garner some support from local bookstores, retailers are running so scared nowadays that the impact of all this is questionable. At the very least, it’s hard to measure until all the returns come in and I release (or someone else releases) a paperback. Grade: B
I came into this project with a notion that all the plain-jane author websites out there don’t do much for their authors. If I could produce a dynamic publisher website with an e-commerce component and drive traffic there with advertising, I thought I could sell some books directly at great margins. I was wrong. Either I built a crappy store or people simply prefer to shop with established retailers. It’s probably a combination of the two. Either way, I wasted a lot of money. I won’t give myself an F, however, because the Verbitrage website might have given me a degree of credibility with trade reviewers that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Still, that’s small consolation. Grade: D
A friend of mine recently reminded me of the old saw that fifty percent of all marketing dollars go to waste but the problem comes because no one knows which fifty percent is the wasted half. I ran display ads on TNB and (on advice from someone who knows about these things) used Facebook’s ad engine both to drive people to the Verbitrage website and to Amazon. The ads didn’t sell any copies at Verbitrage and I’ll never know whether they accounted for any of the books that sold through Amazon. Marketing books is damned hard. Grade: C-
I had two notions for helping move hardcovers. First, if you purchased a book directly from Verbitrage, you got a specially designed, signed and numbered bookplate for free. I didn’t expect many people to place value in my autograph, but I thought there might be a few collectors and gift-givers out there to whom this would appeal. Uh, no. Second, I put a starburst on the cover promising a free e-book with the purchase of every hardcover. What’s not to like, right? I had one taker, a librarian in Vermont. Grade: F
I paid a great deal of money to the biggest book publicity company in the business. They agreed with me that the book had a good off-the-book-page hook and they loved the story. They put me on nearly twenty local radio shows across the nation and one small syndicate. Some sales did result, but the overall success is hard to measure (do I sound like a broken record?). I had good trade reviews but beyond that the print and blog coverage, while gratifying in individual cases, was disappointing in number. Next time, I might try a social networking specialist. Grade: C+
On the advice of my distributor, I ran a contest on Goodreads where I garnered thousands of entries and gave away ten copies of the book. As this cost me so little, it’s hard to regret it. But I deeply suspect that people who throw their names into a hat at no charge and wait weeks for the result are not very good customers for anything or anyone. Readers of this column know I am highly skeptical about social media in general, but not so skeptical that I don’t play. I won’t re-hash my old arguments here. Despite my skepticism, however, I probably should have made a more concerted effort on the social networking front. Would it have mattered? Like everything else about book marketing, who knows? Grade: D
The logic behind writing this column for what will be 38 weeks in a row seemed compelling at the time that I decided to do it, even though I knew it would consume a great many hours — the better part of a day per week, in essence. I wanted to spout off about new means of book publishing while generating curiosity for my new novel. For evidence of my spouting off, you have the preceding fifty thousand words or so. As for generating interest in the novel, I have a sneaking suspicion (yet another thing I’ll never be able to prove) that fewer than one in a hundred readers of this column have purchased Primacy in any form. Most people on TNB probably admit to being literary snobs and thus have little appreciation for how damned intelligent and sophisticated a thriller like Primacy can be. Don’t believe me? Buy a copy NOW. Until you do, my self-esteem won’t be all it could be. Grade: C
So if you give each grade equal weight, you might conclude that I’m averaging out pretty fair to middling here, especially if you consider how much money I sank into this project.
If those were my last dollars AND I expected an immediate return, I might rue the decisions I made, good and bad. But that is far from the case because Primacy isn’t a one-off; it’s a step along my career path. For sticking my neck out and giving myself the opportunity to make mistakes, I assign myself an A. If I wasn’t making mistakes, after all, I wouldn’t be doing anything.
Last week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 36: Perseverance is an Art
Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 38: The New New Thing
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