Monday, January 21, 2013

Platforms and Uncertainty Reduction or Why Writing a Good Book is not Sufficient to Sell One

I have often heard the advice put forth, often by nonwriters or amateur writers, but also by successful pros, that if you write a good book, it will sell. Now, if you take only a couple of seconds to think about this, you will realize that the two are not, indeed cannot, have a direct connection. Why?
Because, you idiot, (not you my dear reader you figured this out immediately) how does the reader know it is a good book until they have read it? And that is putting aside the fact that for most of us a "good book" is one we like not one that is judged to be good by some sort of external set of standards.

The truth is, as important as writing a good book is, that alone is not sufficient to sell the book. People will buy the book not because it IS good, but because they believe it MIGHT be good, or if the price is low enough, that it COULD be good. In the absence of certainty about the actual quality of the book, the reader must take a leap of faith. In other words they have to take a risk.

At some point in their thinking, their belief in the potential value of the book must outweigh their lack of direct knowledge of the same. It's like a balancing scale. On one side you have the question is this a good book? and equally important, "Is this book going to be worth the money I will pay for it?" On the other side, you have the book itself, an essentially unknown quantity, a description of the plot, maybe a review or two, and any previous relationship this person has with the author.

This is where the Platform comes into play. A platform is a pre-existing shared relationship experience with the author. That can include readers of a previous book, members of a discussion board or email discussion group, social media contacts, personal friends and relatives. Some people come to writing with a large platform. The classic example is a television personality who is well known and decides to write her life story. Others need to build a platform in other ways.

Now, I want to clarify something right here. You don't build a platform to sell one book. Platform building is not about getting the word out about the book you wrote today. Indeed, people who, for one reason or another read that book, become part of your platform more or less by default for your next book. If all you are interested in is selling a single book, buy an ad on Facebook.

Platforms do two things they build a connection with the author and they reduce uncertainty in the reader. Now, there are many ways in which we build these platforms. We will get into that in another post, but it is about reducing risk for the reader.

A reader is looking at a book. In all probability for those of us who do direct to the reader marketing, that will likely be on a webpage, probably on Amazon or Barnes Noble. The reader might have a short sample of the book, a description, a table of contents, and some customer reviews. They also have one other thing - a price tag. The higher that number, they higher the risk and the lower you will want to reduce the uncertainty. If you are totally unknown to the reader, you have to do a credible job of making the reader want to buy your book more than wanting to keep looking. You want him or her to click that "buy" button. That's a high mountain to climb. Not impossible. We'll talk about turning browsers into fans later, but the sale is much easier to make to someone who already knows the author and the author's work in some other venue.

It goes back to reducing uncertainty. This occurs in several ways. Some are controllable by the author. Others are not. These include:
  • The book if recommended by someone the reader trusts
  • The price point is low enough they feel they won't lose much if the writing stinks
  • The sample is especially compelling and engages them quickly.
  • The description gives enough information for the reader to understand the basic plot, characters and subgenre of the book. Additionally, the description is enticing and gives just enough information to tease the reader into buying the book.
  • The book has high reviews from an independent source
  • The reader has met the author in a live event
  • The reader knows the author in another online or face-to-face venue: email group, social media, club, church, etc.
  • The reader has read another one of the author's books
  • The reader follows the author's writings in a shorter form such as short stories or blog posts
  • The reader saw or heard the author on TV or radio or read about the author in the print media
Of course, every author will discover the ways they can best create that platform. Some do it by blogging. Others through social media. Right now, my main method is building a fan base by setting my price point for my novels, Bible studies and nonfiction books at 99 cents, and using free promotion days on Amazon. In the last three months, close to 5000 people have downloaded my books. I've made 625 paid sales. Since, everyone of my books has links to all of my other books, That's having an ad for my books in the hands of 5000 people who have already shown an interest in a certain type of book. It's very targeted advertising, which is the best kind. And it costs me nothing.

Hold on, you say, it costs you those sales to those people who got your book for free. Maybe, but it's unlikely. Those are probably not people who would have bought that particular book. A certain number of them only get free things. The rest are interested, but they need to know more about me as an author before handing over the cash. The interesting thing is that during my free days, my other sales spike and for a few days afterwards.

I'm building a platform. What are you doing to build a platform? Share your ideas below.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Gatekeeper is Dead and the Gate is Open

Some of you already know that I have recently been experimenting with self-publishing. With one small, less than stunning experiment I did about seven years ago, I have generally been skeptical of the process and, like most writers, saw my literary future in the hands of traditional publishers. In fact, two years ago, I published my first novel Dark Side of the Moon and a couple of shorter works with a fine small publisher. Nothing I say here diminishes my respect for my publisher or for the role traditional publishing plays and will continue to play in the production and distribution of literary products. (I hope this description doesn't sound too "commercial," but the nature of reading, how we do it and how those things we read are produced is changing and the books of tomorrow may bear as little  resemblance to today's volumes as a paperback bears to a cuneiform tablet or a parchment scroll.)

Anyway, the self publishing industry as changed dramatically just over the past five years. It has become easier, more accessible, more digital and more profitable. It has also killed the gatekeepers or, at least, seriously wounded them and distributed the keys to anyone with a computer.

What has changed can be summed up in one word - Kindle. Now, my personal favorite dedicated ereader is Nook, and I read most of my ebooks (both Nook and Kindle) on iPad, but you have to give Amazon props for making ereading accessible to just about anyone with an internet connection. It also made low cost publishing accessible to just about everyone.

Of course, self publishing has been around for a long time. Many evangelists and people on the lecture circuit self-published their books for sales at their events. And, certainly, many con artists running "vanity presses," took advantage of would be authors charging them thousands of dollars claiming to "publish" their books, when, in fact, all they did was print them up at exorbitant prices leaving the authors with a box full of books and no way to sell them.

The problem, of course, was that bookstores wouldn't carry self-published books. You can understand their reticence. They had only a certain amount of shelf space. They can't read everything they sell. They have to depend on the publisher acting as a gatekeeper to filter out the really bad stuff. Then they turned to the reviewers for the publishing trade journals. Since bookstores wouldn't carry self-published books, the reviewers wouldn't review them. See the problem. The bookstores wouldn't carry books that hadn't been reviewed and the reviewers wouldn't review the books bookstores would be unlikely to carry.

Certainly, some authors might get a local bookstore to carry their book. If the book dealt with local history or had another local emphasis, their chances were improved. But getting widespread distribution was virtually impossible.

Things started to change as early as the mid-90s when Amazon really started to become a major force in bookselling. They started taking self-published printed books. You still had to pay for the printing, ISBN number and send them several copies and keep them supplied with copies as they sold out. It wasn't perfect, but it was a kick in the shins of the gatekeepers. The volume was still low and cost per unit sold was high. That meant that you could not compete on price in any meaningful way against the Big publishers. Additionally, Amazon still accounted for a relatively small part of the book selling market. You might not remember, but in 2000 fewer than half of all households had internet service. Cell phones only made calls. And a tablet was something with paper you wrote on.

In 2010 approximately one in four books sold were bought through Amazon. Some suggest that this year, that number could be closer to half if you include ebook sales.

There is a very telling graph at . It shows bookstore sales for Barnes Noble bookstores, Borders Bookstore and Amazon sales over the past decade.

In 2002 Amazon had sales of $2 billion dollars. Barnes Noble in store sales had roughly twice that volume. In 2010 BN had roughly $4.25 billion and trending downward. Amazon by contrast had over $7 billion and rising. In short fewer people are buying books in a bookstore. They are buying them online. Okay, you can call that blunt force trauma to the gatekeeper. With Amazon welcoming just about anyone with a book to sell and selling more volume than BN and Borders combined, the gatekeepers were pretty much down for the count.

But wait! Self publishing is still expensive and complicated, right? At one time that was the case. but then along came publish on demand and a little thing called Kindle Direct Publishing. First print on demand created a method where you uploaded a PDF of your book or even a MS-Word file to a POD publisher like Lulu or Amazon's own CreateSpace. The technology made the process simpler, but the product still produced units at prices that limited how much you could discount them and still show a profit. However, some good marketing, and, of course, some good writing could produce a profitable book.

But the real breakthrough for writers was Kindle Direct Publishing and, to a lesser extent Pub-it with Barnes Noble and Mark Coker's Smashwords. But Kindle is still the leader, and its association with Amazon, the internet's leading bookstore, provided unparalleled opportunities for writers, and pretty much wrote the gatekeeper's obituary.

With Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) a writer without any significant technical expertise could write their book using just plain old MS-Word and Kindle's own conversion software and produce an ebook which would be published live on Kindle within 12 hours if the formatting was correct. The cost of production - ZERO!

Even more important, the writer can set the price anywhere from 99 cents on up. They can receive 35 - 70% royalties on all sales. Compare that with standard traditional print royalties of 5 - 15% - often on the wholesale price and not the cover price. You could sell a $10 book and get only 50 cents. I get 35 cents selling books at 99 cents and I'm probably selling a lot more books at that price than at $10 a pop, especially as an "unknown."

Of course, there are reasons, publishing companies, especially the larger, more well established companies pay such a low royalty. First, most are print first, digital later. Producing a print book costs a lot up front. There's paying for editing, formatting, cover design, print setup, printing and shipping. Even "cheap" paperbacks are $8-10 making them anything but an impulse buy. Print books (and many ebooks by name authors) have become luxury items and not cheap entertainment.

But the self-published author has the advantage. S/he can set the price just about anywhere they want. I've chosen the 99 cent price point. It works for me. Since I'm an unknown quantity to most who will find my books on Kindle, charging 99 cents reduces their risk and they get to know me. Also it encourages impulse buying. However, a traditional publisher has to charge at least five times that just in order to make any reasonable profit.

So, the writer is no longer at the mercy of the traditional publishing industry. S/he has the direct to reader option. Now, this is more work, but more profitable. However, if the author prefers to write, submit and let the publisher take care of everything after writing, that is an option as well. However, for good books, traditional publishers can no longer rest easy knowing they are the only shows in town.

I'm not saying self-publishing is right for every one or that traditional publishers do not provide a valuable service. I am saying, that they day of the writer being at the mercy of the traditional publishing community. Yes, a lot of garbage is tramping over the gatekeeper now, but people will vote with their feet. They will buy the good stuff and ignore the bad. The marketplace, and not a few editors, will decide what finds its way into the public arena.

It's going to be a rocky ride for many of us, but it's also going to be an exciting one.