Thursday, November 8, 2007

If We Publish Great Books, Will They Buy Them?

Publishing and marketing consultant Shel Horowitz made an interesting comment on my October 25 blog post—the one where I talked about conferences discriminating against self publishing. He said:
"The very best way to overcome the stigma about self-publishing is to blow people out of the water with the quality of your book. That means a great story (fiction)/useful and practical information (nonfiction), professional editing and proofreading, professional interior and cover design...and a track record in the marketplace. Produce books that win awards and testimonials and great reviews!" 

This message is one I've heard over and over from the old guard. They essentially say, "Quite whining about discrimination. Just focus on making your books the very best they can be and you'll do fine." If only that were true! It's such a lovely, idealistic way of looking at publishing. But it's not the way it actually works.

Selling books is much more complicated than just building a better mousetrap and waiting for people to beat a path to your door. And Shel Horowitz knows this. He even says on his website: " …an author or publisher releasing a book today has to work four times as hard to get noticed as authors and publishers did just sixteen years ago." He also says, "The book industry is rigged against ordinary folks, and 90 percent of books never sell more than 1000 copies." He knows self publishers and small publishers need help. That's why he writes how-to books about marketing and offers consulting to help book publishers market their books—which, by the way, I hear he's very good at.

In reality, when it comes to self publishing, the type of book probably affects sales more than the editing, layout and cover design. Nonfiction books fare much better than fiction. If you are an expert in an area and you write a useful how-to book passing on your knowledge, readers don't care all that much how the book looks. I can testify to that from personal experience selling our stress-management book, Stress? Find Your Balance, which looks great in its current 4th edition incarnation, but started out looking embarrassingly amateurish. Nevertheless we sold over 50,000 copies of that book before its current edition. Why? Because it contains useful information and we could sell it in bulk at a large discount to wellness centers and such.

But if you write a novel, it's a very different game. It can be a well-written, professionally designed, award-winning book, but few people will know about it if you can't get it reviewed by newspapers, displayed at conferences, and discussed by other media outlets. Again I draw on personal experience. My novel, Too Near The Edge, has gotten good reviews from online reviewers and on Amazon and it won an IPPY award. But my local paper won't consider it for review because it's self published. And, also because it's self published I can't have it in the book dealers' room at the Left Coast Crime conference, which is being held here this spring.

So we reformers don't agree with the old guard. We say, "Yes, our books need to be good, but it doesn't matter how good they are if prejudice against self publishing keeps us from getting the word out."


  1. [...] Publish Great Books, Will They Buy Them? Lynn Osterkamp, Ph.D. placed an observative post today on If We Publish Great Books, Will They Buy Them?Here’s a quick excerptJust focus on making your books the very best they can be and you’lldo fine.” If only that were true! It’s such a lovely, idealistic way of looking at publishing. But it’s not the way it actually works. … [...]

  2. I think that the greatest impediment for independent - self published - novelists is NOT predjudice, but lack of consolidation. There are simply too many of you, and your works are not presented to buyers in a cohesive enough way.Buyers are bombarded with sales catalogs and other marketing materials, and tend to pick their books based on recommendations from other bookstores or from sales reps (who present many titles at one time). Most buyers don't have one extra minute to look at individual titles.Some independent bookstores have opened up sections for local authors. My advice would be to look for those in your area and get the buzz going among the independent publishers. Believe it or not, that was how the DiVinci code got going.........

  3. I saw Shel's post and had the same reaction. First, let me say I have the utmost respect for Shel, he's extremely knowledgeable but publishes non-fiction, so has not encountered the prejudice fiction writers face.By most standards my DAFFODILS mysteries are very successful--they have sold more copies than the average "big house" mystery, they have been accepted by all of the major retail chains, and my tiny company was even invited to exhibit at a major chain's annual meeting alongside the big guys.All of these accomplishments were hard-fought but I persevered. Yet, just when I thought I'd finally overcome the last market obstacle--acceptance by Ingram who no longer accepts traditionally printed books from small presses--Mystery Writers of America (of which I am a member!) throws an artificial, non-cost or business based hurdle in my path.Citing a shifting set of justifications/spin, MWA adopted a convoluted set of publisher standards that basically bans all self-/small publishers. The standards are bad enough, but MWA went a step further and actually issued a list of approved publishers (meaning a black list by omission.) It's the black list part that makes my skin crawl and raises images of McCarthyism. The publisher list is totally unnecessary for membership (MWA could deny anyone membership based on the convoluted standards) unless their real objective is to give an economic advantage to their approved publishers and eliminate competition by driving small companies out of business. Sadly, I believe that is their true goal.

  4. Let me clarify:I am fully aware that it's not enough to publish beautiful, well-written books. You have to also find markets. I was referring specifically to the old-guard attitude that anything self-published is bound to be junk, or the book would have found a real publisher. Well, that is only one among many reasons why someone might self-publish.I've published with three conventional publishers, and with the right project, I might do so again. But I still find it advantageous to self-publish when it's the right model for a particular book. And believe me, I don't publish junk!The point I was making is that we have to defuse the stereotype by publishing books that no one could possibly call junk. Lynn, I wasn't saying this was the path to success--but the path to getting respect in the publishing world for self-publishing generally. Unfortunately, there's enough self-published stuff out there that is really crappy that it provides ammunition for those who would discard our efforts, wholesale. My post was a plea to change that.I advise most of my publishing consulting clients to pursue channels outside the mainstream. The bookstore/big-publisher system is rigged against most of us. But there are plenty of other ways to sell books; I cover 308 pages of them in Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers.And Mary, I'm married to a novelist who refuses to self-publish or even to take self-publishing very seriously, so I'm well aware of the prejudice. I live with it. And let me tell you it's a hard road even in mainstream. She has books with Simon & Schuster and Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, which have achieved some recognition but not huge sales--and she still gets very little consideration from the big houses or the publishing world generally.

  5. Shel,Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you clarified your position. Unfortunately, many on the Yahoo lists seem to subscribe to the "just make your books good enough and they will sell" idea. I'm glad you don't. I too have published traditionally as well as self-publishing, and I prefer self-publishing because of the control I have over my book's title and look, as well as being able to keep it in print as long as I like. My point--and Mary's as well--is that while it is important for self-published books to be well done it's also important for them to have a level playing field. And to get the level playing field, it's not enough to have great books-- we also have to stand up against the bias.Lynn