Thursday + Gregory Huffstutter = The Ad Man Answers
Mark’s latest release, THE FALLEN, is the third in his series featuring Homeland-Security troubleshooter Derek Stillwater.
For Part 1 of our Q&A, link here.
Mark, in your blog, you've been very frank about book contracts, royalty statements, Kindle sales figures. What's been the overall reaction by the author community / publishers / agents to you "opening your books" while discussing the real financial challenges to making a living as a full-time writer?
Feedback I get from my current publisher about the blog is positive. I suspect my last publisher didn’t like my candor at all. I’m more careful now to not criticize the publisher on my blog (and in all honesty, I don’t have any particular criticisms of my current publisher, they’ve been great, and I’m not just saying that). I think writers generally appreciate it, although some have accused me of being a Debbie Downer because I don’t slap on the rose-colored glasses and start spewing rainbows and unicorns. If my agent has an opinion, she’s kept it to herself.
From my perspective, publishing—in particular, book publishing—is a business, and a tough business at that. Fiction is an odd business in the 21st century—there’s probably way too much product in a shrinking market. In the 1980s or so publishers started pushing away from the notion of having 10 authors that each sold 5,000 copies to a single author selling 50,000 copies… or 500,000 copies. Large conglomerates and media companies started buying the major publishers, pushing back at the bottom line and demanding profit margins consistent with other media, something book publishing struggles to do. The returns policy is, at the very best, weird, and at the very worst, archaic and destructive.
An industry that always realized it would typically take 4 or 5 or 6 or more books before a novelist could develop a readership and develop some sales momentum, started dropping writers if their books didn’t sell well enough after 2 or 3 books. Computerized bookstore inventory and sales data allowed bookstores to track which authors did better regionally, but created the “3-book death spiral”—if they order 10 copies of the author’s first book and it only sold 6 copies, they only order 5 of the second book; with fewer copies in the store and less “shelf real estate”, they may sell even fewer books, or if they do sell the 5 they ordered, they don’t order more; then the computer indicates a declining sales trend and they order even fewer or no books for the third book and pretty soon the authors are out of business. So the first book has to do really, really well, which can be tough in a superstore with several hundred thousand books to choose from… book publishing is not for wimps.
How many people do you have on your newsletter distribution list? How often to you reach out to those fans? Can you estimate what percentage they contribute to your new book sales?
You know, I really should double-check those numbers. I don’t know. A couple hundred. I try not to “spam” my readers, so I try to only use the e-newsletter when I have something to announce, like a new book coming out or a launch party. Things have changed over the last 5-10 years in terms of e-newsletters and I receive so much email myself—well over a hundred a day—that’s work-related or book-related that I have an itchy delete finger, so the content had either be something I’m interested in or interesting.
You've embarked on a Kindle self-publishing experiment with a couple of unsold titles, and blogged about it here:
Are you seeing any new traction on your eBook sales? Has THE FALLEN been released on iBookstore yet? Are you thinking of creating an alternate author website for your YA eBook titles?
When I wrestled the e-rights to the 2 previous Derek Stillwater novels back from my previous publisher, THE DEVIL’S PITCHFORK and THE SERPENT’S KISS, I commissioned new cover art and got those up on Kindle. Those two have been far better sales than my other e-books sales right from the get-go. I don’t have sales figures yet for the Kindle version of THE FALLEN and won’t until sometime in 2011. I was just told by my publisher that it will soon be available on the iBookstore.
That’s an interesting idea about the alternate author website for the YA e-book titles. Haven’t really thought about it. It would be nice if those books did well, but in some way I just didn’t want those 2 (there’s another one, maybe I’ll publish it) stories languishing in a drawer. I hoped at the very least my kids would read them. I’m undecided how much marketing time, money and energy to put into the kids’ books. Still up in the air.
But in answer to the basic question, yes, I think sales have picked up in the last month and each month seems a little better.
Let's do a philosophical math exercise. In your blog, you've quoted a 1-2% response rate for direct marketing campaigns... i.e. as a mid-list author if you spend $1,500 sending an e-mail to 500,000 people, with a 1% response rate you can realistically expect your message to resonate with 5,000 people. Of those 5,000 people, only a fraction will go down the purchase process to actually purchase your book, let's say your conversion rate is 5%, so 250 actual books sold.. The apparent ROI would be 250 book sales vs. $1,500 spend... you're spending $6 in marketing per book sold, which is probably more than your author royalties.
As someone who currently works for a direct marketing agency, The Ad Man wouldn't necessary dispute that math. But to play devil's advocate, let's say of every 250 people who buy your book, you create 50 new fans that go into your back catalog for additional purchases, or talk you up to their friends. Do you believe in "lifetime value" of fans, or sparking "word of mouth" conversations? Should that not go into the equasion while estimating the ROI of marketing campaigns? Have you noticed a long-tail effect of previous marketing efforts?
I’m glad you bring that up, because I think it’s a really important topic. I haven’t given it a lot of thought. Why? Because my own book sales history has had so many stops-and-starts to it. DIRTY DEEDS was, technically, the first novel (CATFISH GURU came out a couple years earlier, but it’s a collection of novellas and its publishing history is less traditional than the others), and the publisher didn’t have very good distribution and spent so long making a decision about the follow-up book that my agent and I got them to revise the contract so we could market it elsewhere, but weren’t able to place it. In the meantime, I got the first 2 Derek Stillwater novels published, but after THE SERPENT’S KISS came out, Midnight Ink dropped my contracts. So I then went a couple years before getting another book out, THE FALLEN, and by the time it came out, THE DEVIL’S PITCHFORK and THE SERPENT’S KISS had both gone out of print until I brought out the e-books.
So with that kind of a mess playing around in the background, it’s been hard to market my backlist, such as it was. Now that there are e-books and the new publisher seems willing to publish a book a year and seems pleased with the publishing progress to-date, then I think there might be more value in marketing of that type—and, in fact, it would be foolish not to take advantage of marketing the e-book backlist as well as some of the self-published e-books at the same time. I’m not sure there’s a long-tail effect yet—but I think there will be.
You've kept up a solo blog, This Writing Life, for over 5 years as your peers have gravitated to group blogs like Murderati and Hey, There's a Dead Guy In The Living Room. Have you been tempted to give up your author blog? Do you feel like the benefits still outweigh the time-commitment?
I was peripherally involved in a group blog with Midnight Ink authors, but once MI and I parted ways, although the publisher didn’t organize or sponsor the blog, I felt less inclined to take part in it. There are some group blogs that I’d probably be thrilled to be involved in if given the opportunity.
That said, mostly I enjoy it. Maybe I just like writing about myself. I like the community aspects of it and have made some real friends through my blog—one of them currently lives in Arizona and when I was down in Phoenix for a business trip she came up and we spent the day driving around the state checking out Montezuma’s Castle and Montezuma’s Well, and there are a couple other writers, in particular, that I’ve met through the blog that I’ve talked to on the phone and routinely email off-blog that I would definitely call friends. I don’t know about the marketing benefits of blogging—I’d say they’re real, but probably not as significant as we’d hope—but I think the social and creative benefits are both real and significant.
Thanks again for the insights, Mark!
Next column, we’ll handle a reader question about movie tie-ins and Happy Meals. Come on back, y'hear!
Gregory Huffstutter has been punching Ad Agency timecards for over a dozen years, working on accounts like McDonald's, KIA Motors, Suzuki Automotive, AAA, and the San Diego Padres. His first mystery, KATZ CRADLE is on submission while he's working on the sequel. The first 100 pages of his novel are linked here. For general advertising questions, leave a comment or send e-mail to katz @ gregoryhuffstutter dot com with 'Ask The Ad Man' in the subject line.