The Absolute No-Bulls**t Guide To Writing, Publishing And Selling A Book, Chapter 5: Selling

The Absolute No-Bulls**t Guide To Writing, Publishing And Selling A Book

Introduction and Chapter 1: 90% Of What You Need To Know, In One Chapter
Chapter 2: Writing Your Book
Chapter 5: Selling Your Book

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Champagne wishes and caviar dreams... And all that stands between you and your lifetime of fame is getting a copy of this book into every pair of hands in America (or Canada, or the UK, or wherever it is you wish to be famous).

When you figure that part out, let me know. I'm still working on it myself. Although, I have found one sure-fire method: be famous first. It helps a LOT. The rest of us... We're left hocking the thing the best we can to whomever will buy it. And based on the method of publishing you chose, you actually have two very different customers: the publisher and the reader.

This is where I, once again, trumpet the choice of self-publishing, because it allows you to actually sell to both readers and publishers. You can make a few bucks (if you're lucky) by selling it to readers who might recommend it to their friends, all the while trying to sell it to a publisher for a bigger distribution base. Or, just stick with selling it to readers if it's doing well enough (or you don't want to be a part of the big corporate machine... Which you will be if you sell to a publisher, whether you like it or not). And the other thing is that no matter which choice you make, you're selling to the readers. Selling to a publisher does not absolve you from the responsibility of selling your book to the readers. It just takes all the logistics off your shoulders.

Let's Say You Get A Book Deal...

You've gotten an agent... Or maybe you haven't. Maybe your cousin's best friend is on the intramural lacrosse team with an editor at a publisher. Or maybe you just threw the book proposal we discussed earlier into the mailbox, it went into the slush pile, and somehow it was selected, read, and liked. Whatever happened, you've now got the attention of a buying editor at a publisher. 

First thing to know: There's no "standard" book deal. How much you get as an advance, how much you get in royalties, how many books you'll be asked to deliver... Who knows. It all depends on how good your material is, how good your agent is (even if you are your own agent), and who the publisher is. What I can tell you are a few things you can expect. 

First, the advance... The big number with a bunch of zeroes that makes headlines when some breakout new author sells a future Hollywood movie featuring tons and TONS of pathos and stars Rachel McAdams book. Otherwise known as the fuel for every single wannabe author's dreams of never, ever working again due to their amazing imagination being validated by society at large. 

How much do you ask for in your advance? Shoot, go for a million bucks. It'll make the editor laugh, and starting with a joke always makes the process go easier. 

But really, the process is pretty basic. One of you starts with a number, and the other party either says "Hey, that's fair" and accepts or says "No, how about this" and counters. What number one of you starts with depends entirely on the potential market, the size of the publisher, and the strength of your material. I was courted by three publishing houses when I decided to sell to Gotham / Penguin. I received offers of $7,500, $27,500 and $50,000. Penguin was the middle offer. 

I chose them because I really liked the editor. He gets me. She understood what the book was trying to be: not another Tucker Max self-loveathon catered toward fratboys with gross misconceptions about how women work. The lowest offer came from a small publishing house that apparently specializes in blog-to-book properties, who got the process but didn't really offer much in the way of helping me grow. The highest came from another big-six publisher whose buying editor did not understand in the slightest what I was actually trying to achieve with my writing. 

$27,500 might sound like a lot of money. It's not. And it doesn't come all at once - it comes in three payments: one when you sign, one when you turn in the manuscript, and one when the book is published. Taking into account that the process takes about a year no matter who you are, it's hardly a big payday. 

It's called an "advance" for a reason. It's an advance against future royalties. This is not a big fat book check on top of all those millions of book sales you're going to make, it's a down payment. And until you sell enough books to make enough royalties to cover the advance payment, you won't be getting royalty checks. My royalty is 7.5% of cover price, which is $14.95 -- meaning I get $1.12 a book. This means I had to sell roughly 24,533 copies of my book to break even with the publisher's advance and begin receiving royalty checks. 

It's hard work selling enough copies to cover an advance. The publisher will want you to spend most of that advance on marketing and promotion efforts. Suggestions include hiring a web developer to build the book's website (they don't do this in-house - at least, mine doesn't), print / radio / web ads, Facebook app development, etcetera. The publisher does not pay for these things out of pocket unless there is a VERY good pitch placed in front of them. The pitch will require figures: anticipated sales that are generated by x demographic for y money. And you won't get it. Just letting you know. 

When I sold Mentally Incontinent to Gotham, the publishing industry still wasn't ready for internet-to-book properties for the sake of doing internet-to-book properties (which they apparently got over, because these days, anyone with a Tumblr account and a unique hook to collect photos of strange things will get a book deal. If you're looking for a shortcut to a book deal, this is the only one I have for you. Go figure out something clever to collect photographs of, slap captions on them, and profit). 

I got offers on my book from publishers because I was able to demonstrate a history of sales and an established audience. I had people I could sell my book to already lined up and ready to get my next book. This was vital, because my book never would have made it on the strength of its merits alone. I self-published first, stumbled upon success, and the publisher noticed. 

Had I not self-published, I would have had to convince a publisher that 1) a book full of short stories 2) written on the internet 3) by a non-famous person 4) about his life in suburban Georgia 5) that were selected by the readers was worth publishing. 

Right. Exactly. Now you see why I advocate self-publishing first. It doesn't matter how hard I tried to convince them that it was funny, touching, interesting or whatever. But when I can show them sales figures of people who bought it, there's no need to convince them. The readers who bought my book did that for me.

Selling it to Readers

The major thing that you need to know is that there is no magic sales fairy who will make your book sell, no matter whether you decide to self-publish or go through a traditional publisher. The publisher certainly has a motivation to promote you and help you sell your book... But they're also not stupid. They put the vast majority of their money and time into promoting books from celebrities and in categories they know they can make massive profits on.

Unless you fall into one of those two categories, it's going to be up to you. And if you self-publish, it's definitely up to you. The publisher may help promote your book. They may do some print or digital marketing - but as a first time author, chances will be slim. They will help you get some PR and book you on radio shows - but who listens to radio? Unless it's a politically-themed book and you get airtime on the yapping frothing fevered-ego talk shows (or, you're zany AND VERY VERY LUCKY and get a shot on Howard Stern), you're talking into the air and no one's listening. 

But at the end of the day, they're going to tell you what they told me, and what every single author I know heard with their first (and usually second and third and fourth) books. The publisher expects you to spend your advance on marketing and PR. They say (and they're right) that the more you spend promoting your book, the more you'll make up on the back end in royalties.

You can do a few things:

Buying print / tv ads. If you're a millionaire, and you just really want the world to know about your book as fast as possible, you can do this. It's expensive, and no one gives a crap about ads, especially for books. But you can do it.

Book reviews / mentions on blogs. Building relationships with people with a voice. The thing is, everyone wants a piece of these people, and blindly sending them your book meets with slightly less resistance than sending it to a publisher sight-unseen. And then, they may hate it. But it's an avenue.

Buy your way into the New York Times Bestseller List. Yes, you certainly can do this. The NYT Bestseller list is NOT a chart of best-selling books. It's editorialized. And if you hire the right number of old ladies in the right cities to buy your book on launch day from the right bookstores, you can end up there as an unknown author selling a billion copies. You're not actually selling a billion - more like a thousand. But because those stores are set up with BookScan (like Neilson ratings for tv), they register as a boatload of books. This service is very expensive, but hey... NYT Bestseller.

Hire a PR rep / publicist. Just like an agent is to the publisher, a PR rep is a shortcut between you and everyone in the industry with a voice who can chirp about your book. Unlike an agent, these guys get paid up front. They have to, because it's how their job works. There's no commission with publicity. With PR / publicity, the work gets done, and the performance of your book actually rests on your ability to a) communicate what it's about, and b) convince people they want it. You can get ten interviews in ten days on the top ten talk shows in the nation, and if your book is crap or you're unable to convince people quickly what it's about, there will be no sales. A good publicist will tell you how to handle this. For the record, I don't have a publicist, outside of the one Gotham assigned to me (and in-house publicists are not people you can command the time of too often, especially as a first-timer). I can't afford it, and I just don't see it as necessary.

Other things that cost a lot of money. Skywrite your book's title in the sky over every NASCAR event. Sponsor a NASCAR car. Buy an NFL team and take them to the Super Bowl, and stitch your book's title on the jersey of every player. You get my point.

Marketing is expensive. But one thing you can do that is relatively inexpensive if you do it right:

Tour. Tour like a motherfucker. Arrange signings in stores. If you're with a publisher, or if you hired a publicist yourself, you can have your publicist arrange signings, but there's no reason on earth why you can't do that yourself. It's as simple as calling the store of your choice, asking for the community relations person (or asking the person who answers the phone who you speak to if you want to arrange a signing), and you're off. If you've self-published, being in Ingram (the big catalog every store orders from) helps a LOT, because it shows the person making the decision that you're taking it seriously. But if you're not, it's not game over - they'll just ask you to sell them copies and ship them so they can prepare your signing. If you can bring 20 people to the store, they'll consider your day a success. Even if you can't, you can sell lots of books by being interesting. Be a carnival barker - don't be afraid to stop people walking by and ask them if they'd be interested in hearing what your book is about.

And touring gets a LOT easier if you...

Build an audience first. This is what I did, albeit by accident. I didn't actually intend to build a huge audience who would eventually help push my book along, I just thought it was a very cool thing to write a book, and a very cool thing to let readers tell me what they wanted in the book. When I released my first book, I had a base of people I could ask to show up to my signings and bring friends, and a network of couches I could crash on as I toured around to keep costs down.

The internet makes things so easy these days - you stick your stuff out there and you tell people about it, and if it's not shit, you can build an audience. I fully believe that EVERY SINGLE BOOK ever written has an audience somewhere. There are people out there who build bat boxes, people. These are boxes that bats live in. People build these. And trust me, before they built one, they bought a book about building a bat box. You get my point?

And by sticking stuff out on the net, you open the door for people to discover you and, much much much more importantly, share you with someone they know. How you do this can be discovered in detail on other marketing, web development and social networking blogs - and yes, I'll write a guide on how to do this part as a supplement to this guide eventually. For now, it's important to know that in 2010, this is not only a great way to market and promote your book, it's pretty much essential.

Because I had an audience first, I could put my book on pre-sale before I printed copies so I could gauge how many to print in the initial run. When it came to promoting it, I found college campuses the best place on earth to get the word out - if I could reach one motivated reader in college, before I knew it, I had 100+ fans from that school, and they appreciated greatly the fact that they could read what I wrote without having to buy it first. It actually encouraged them to buy the book as a souvenir.

I got to a point where, if I could sell 20 or so books per signing, I could break even. And I did, a lot. I targeted independent bookstores who had mailing lists of committed, happy customers who came to events, and found those to be the best signings. The bigger stores were cool, too -- just harder. We had parties at night, and I kept my food expenses low by stopping at grocery stores and buying bread, peanut butter and jelly and eating that nearly 3 meals a day.

And now that Kindle and iPad / iPhones are making books just a click away from being read, the market is completely reinvigorated - it's a huge wide-open market. Now, I personally read paper books. I HATE reading e-books. I just can't stand them. I don't know what it is... Maybe I'm just a crusty old curmudgeon. But there are millions of ebooks sold a year via Amazon and Apple's iBook store, so that means there's a gigantic market full of people who DO like reading digitally.

Having a solid internet presence makes it easy as hell to make your book one simple click away from purchase and delivery. And if you self-publish, this is doubly exciting, because the actual return on investment is huge - there's no physical product to produce or ship. Profit goes up. You have more money to promote your book. Rinse, repeat, success.

And how do you know when you're successful? It's a question I get constantly when I do talks and whatnot. And my only answer: when you've reached your goals. If your goal is to write a book, you're a success the moment you type "The End." If your goal is to sell a million copies, well, you have a LOT of work ahead of you. My goal was to sell 100 copies of my first book. I beat that goal in the first hour of pre-orders. I had no idea what sort of community I was sitting on. I hope the same happens for you - I hope you set a low goal that would make you happy beyond your wildest dreams, and you beat it into oblivion. And there's the cautionary tale - set manageable goals. Or, to get all Buddah, be happy with less, because you'll be way happier with more if it comes. It'll be a great ride. No need to set yourself up for disappointment.

But whatever you do, and I cannot stress this enough: Don't quit your day job.

Summing Up

I hope this guide has done two things: 1) discouraged the people who think it's all writing jackets and pipes and being a "writer", and 2) encouraged the rest of you. You CAN do it. You just have to understand that it's a lot of hard work.

That doesn't mean it's a job, however. I consider jobs things you do in return for money when you'd rather be doing something else. To date, I have not found anything else in the world I'd rather be doing than writing, producing and sharing my books with you guys. Every single ounce of the process is amazing for me, even when it's painful and my brain's being stubborn and bookstores are being difficult and radio hosts try to make you the butt of the joke. It's a fantastic experience to watch someone who started off ready to make you sorry you ever showed up change into someone who believes in what you're up to.

And if you believe in it - really, seriously, honestly believe in it, enough to do the work and push through the hard times and make this happen - you can convert them. All you have to do is make them feel what you feel... And that's what you do, isn't it? You're a writer, after all.

So go write.