I have never understood how books find readers.
If you are a reader, you probably pictured it the other way round: readers finding books. But as an author, I’m here to tell you, books find readers. They reach out to you with their attention-grabbing cover art, their carefully-chosen titles, even (eventually) the author’s name — once the author has sold enough books. In the world of print publishing, sometimes the author’s name is, itself, chosen to attract you. Julia Quinn, for example, invented her pen name to place her books on the shelf next to Amanda Quick, an already-established author writing in her sub-genre. It worked so well that newer authors now vie for the honor of being shelved next to Julia Quinn. And so on.
It helped, of course, that Julia Quinn’s books were terrific. But I digress.
More thought, preparation and money goes into crafting the look and feel of a book than readers can possibly imagine. Cover artists are routinely paid more than authors. Marketing people argue and brainstorm for hours, I am told, figuring out how to ensure that this particular book reaches its audience — the people who, all unwittingly, are destined to enjoy it most. However true the adage may be that you can’t judge a book by its cover, you do. We all do. And it is an important part of a publisher’s job to design and market each book in such a way that it efficiently telegraphs its essence at a glance. How do they do this?
I don’t know.
Publishers do not hawk books the same way other businesses hawk toothpaste, beer, or automobiles. Because you, Gentle Reader, would not buy a book based on an advertisement you saw on TV or in a magazine. You buy the books your friends urge you to read, or — better yet — you wander the aisles of a bookstore or library until some lucky book catches your eye and your interest. You pause. Pick it up. Turn it over and read the back cover copy (over which many people have sweated, unseen and unsung). Based on what you see there, perhaps you open the book and glance at the first paragraph. And then you either return the book to the shelf or … and this is the moment for which so many, from the author to the clerk behind the counter, have labored and longed … kismet. You fall in love.
It’s a mysterious, and oddly intimate, process. We have a relationship with the books we read. Reading them requires a commitment — first of money, then of time, an even more precious commodity. Buying a book is a very big deal.
So now we come to the brave new world of e-publishing. No wonder traditional publishers are flummoxed. And authors even more so! In the old days — you know, two or three years ago — all an author had to do was write a book and hand it over, then get out of the way. Now the last thing they want you to do is get out of the way. Quite the contrary. Your publisher now wants you to help market the book. Probably because (I suspect) they no longer know how. The old tricks don’t work in e-publishing. There are no shelves of carefully-grouped, alphabetized authors labeled ROMANCE, WESTERNS, CLASSICS, GENL FICTION. There is a website.
Oh, dear. Better have the author pitch in.
Market the book! What a disaster. I am among the majority of authors, I think, who not only have no clue how to market a book, but actually shudder at the prospect. My circle of family and friends is numerically limited, after all. If each and every one of them bought a copy — or even two — I’d still have no hope of hitting the NYT list. So what’s the point of badgering them? For heaven’s sake, let me leave them alone. And if you don’t mean for me to hawk the darn thing to my friends and family, what on earth are you asking me to do? Go door to door? Rent a sound truck? Hand out flyers in airports? And if I did, why would total strangers listen or care??
No, indeed, the entire prospect is repulsive. Please do not ask me to market my books. I’d rather not sell any books at all. In fact, I’m going to hide under my desk and refuse to answer the phone. Somebody else go out and market my books, please. Not me.
But a funny thing happened while I was cowering beneath the desk. People started buying Wicked Cool.
Quick recap: Cerridwen Press released Wicked Cool in May of last year as an e-book. The rights reverted to me at the end of December, and I brought it out through CreateSpace in a nice, glossy print-on-demand version. I forget what Cerridwen Press charged, but it was more than I wished they would. And CreateSpace has rules to guarantee that they don’t lose money when they print and ship books (and pay the author a royalty). So, basically, my friends and family (and a few others, I admit) have been shelling out $8 to $12 for Wicked Cool.
Along about March of this year, I released a Kindle version — you know, in the spirit of “why not?” It was absurdly easy. Since Amazon and CreateSpace are linked, I was able to use the cover art from the print edition. The most difficult part of the experience was deciding what to charge. A very kind friend on Facebook urged me to sell it for the lowest possible price. The lowest price Amazon would let me set was 99 cents.
I thought long and hard about that. Did I really want to sell a book — a work that took years of my life — for 99 cents?! My friend assured me that yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. (During this conversation, I believe the name “Amanda Hocking” was bandied about.) Apparently 99 cents is what people nowadays expect to pay for things. And (my friend explained) it is such a low price that readers who have never heard of you will roll the dice and buy your book. Because, after all, it’s only 99 cents. That’s throwaway money.
My objections to this ridiculously-low price were twofold. One was the obvious — it hurt my pride to sell one of my darlings for throwaway money. The other was, all the people I really cared about on Planet Earth who were going to buy my book had already bought it, and they had paid a heckuva lot more than 99 cents. So I cringed at the thought of insulting them by suddenly offering Wicked Cool to the masses for so much less than they had paid.
My compromise? I decided to wait until the anniversary of the book’s initial release. Once the book has been out for a year (I reasoned), it wouldn’t be so bad to drop the price. Since I’m working on a sequel, I thought it might even be good marketing strategy. Not that I actually have a marketing strategy, or know beans about marketing, but hey, any strategy is better than none. Maybe.
So there the book sat: Available, but unheralded. It was March. I let it lie there, quietly, in the corner of Amazon’s Kindle store, thinking it could gather dust while I waited for May. Not that I had a plan for May, really, apart from finally confessing to my near and dear that I had done this. Maybe adding it to my email signature. Announcing it to a few folks on Facebook. That’s about the extent of my marketing muscle.
The first week it was available, six people bought it. I figured the few people I had mentioned it to had sought it out. Although six seemed a little high.
The next week, three more copies were sold. Then four, then three again, then six. By this time, I felt puzzled. Gratified, you know, but puzzled. How on earth were these people finding it?? I supposed there must be a coterie of people who noodle around Amazon the way people used to noodle around bookstores. I found this amusing, but heartening. Sure, this particular bookstore had over ten million books on the shelves, but with so many customers, apparently even my humble offering was sparking a certain amount of interest. I pictured my sales like background radiation on a Geiger counter: sput. Sput-sput. Sput.
When six people bought it the next week, it still seemed random to me — it didn’t occur to me that my numbers had, you know, suddenly doubled. But the next week, fifteen copies sold. And that caught my attention. Fifteen?! I was flabbergasted. This must be how Amanda Hocking felt, I realized, dazed. There was no earthly reason why fifteen people should have suddenly purchased my book.
Oh, wait a minute. Now it was May, the anniversary month I’d been waiting for. Time to “launch.” (Insert hollow laughter.) So I mentioned it on Facebook. That’s all I’ve done so far; no Twitter campaign, no blogathon (whatever that is), no change to my email signature yet — just a single Facebook mention. And I think — though I can’t be sure — that two people from Facebook bought it. Just two.
Then I checked my sales figures for this week. They have quadrupled. Oh, wait — I just checked them again. More than quadrupled. People are buying Wicked Cool at an unsustainable rate, surely, but good heavens — I am going to receive actual royalties from this thing.
Is it a fluke? Or worse, a joke? Has Amazon made an accounting error? What on earth is going on?? I rushed to Google, as I always do when I need answers. Nope, no new reviews. No discernible buzz. No overnight outpouring on any Googleable message boards.
So what should you expect when you e-pub? I thought I knew the answer to that one: Nothing. I still think it’s best to expect nothing. Anything you get is gravy — that’s Rule No. 1 when writing a book, and always has been. They used to tell you to write for the love of it, expecting nothing, because there was no guarantee that it would get published. Now you have the power to guarantee that much all by yourself. It’s the sales you can’t control.
How do books find readers? How do readers find books? I still don’t know. I may never know. It remains as mysterious, and as fascinating, as True Love. People manage to find books the way they manage to find marriage partners. We stumble through life toward Destiny, until Destiny overtakes us. We wander through the bookstore, or click idly through Amazon, or whatever the heck we do, and then … suddenly … ahh. There it is. Our next read.
It’s just weird.
Note: Wicked Cool sold thousands of copies that summer and made me a believer. I apologize to anyone I called an “amateur” in The Truth About E-books.