Self-Publishing Industry Targets Writers as the Consumers

John J. Hohn, Author

Anybody with the bucks can publish a book. It’s no longer a big deal, although an author can tap into an allotted fifteen minutes of fame basking in the praise of family and friends—hardly the most objective critics. There’s a misnomer at work. Self-publishing or publishing-on-demand only means printing. Bringing a book to market should be called self-marketing because that is what it is all about. Traditional publishers don’t just print books, they market them—something few outside the industry ever take into account. Thus, the huge surprise reported by first time self-published authors. They need to market their work if they want sales and recognition.

Books, even great ones, do not sell themselves. Making matters infinitely worse, of course, is that most writers are not attracted to nor interested in jobs in marketing and sales. Many even nurture at least a mild disdain for that kind of work, if not a passionate dislike for it and everyone so employed.

A First Mistake . . .

Traditional publishers know the ground on which the battle for readers is fought. They have the networks, the contacts, the reviewers, and the wholesale buyers all lined up for their next offering. The self-published neophyte enters the field virtually unarmed and with no knowledge of strategy or tactics as they presume to contend against the well equipped veteran forces of the industry. The freshman author’s first mistake is to regard traditional publishers as adversaries. They are not.

The real adversaries are the new author’s would be friends—the legions of printers, publicists, contest promoters, etc. 99 percent of self-published authors don’t make money. They lose it. But those would be friends, those who work in the industry promoting a granfalloon of fraternity, mutual support and mentoring, do. They make the money.

A combination of vivid imagination, discipline in postponing gratification, and ignorance make the inexperienced authors fair game for those who are in the business for the buck. They can rely on an author to be patient for results. After all, it took months to write a book. They can count on the author to envision the ultimate goal of recognition, praise, and financial reward. Working with the stuff of dreams is an author’s stock and trade. And ignorance, well, ignorance can hold its own by remaining silent on its own behalf. Being impaled on one’s strengths is a horrible way to lose.

A Little Self-Assessment . . .

A first step in fending off the seductive pitches of the predators prowling the industry is an honest, brutal self-assessment. Some questions cannot be ignored:

  • Can I sell? Have I ever sold anything? Successfully? Will I enjoy selling?
  • How will I attract buyers to my book?
  • How many books can I reasonably expect to sell?
  • What is the market for my book? How do I enter that market?
  • How much time am I willing to spend each week promoting my book?
  • How many new books are published each year? How many in the same genre as my book?

If an author answers, “No,” or “I don’t know,” to most of the above, then the first logical step is to back fill with research and study. Rather than do that, however, most first-time authors delegate those tasks to someone who seems to know and pay them to take on the job. Those vying for the role are legion. They are printers, marketers and sales organizations, surprise—surprise, who know how to sell their services to aspiring writers.

Marketing and selling are fields worthy of study. It behooves an author to know something about both, if for no other reason than to appraise the offers of service from the firms in the industry.

The dynamics of the communication between buyer and seller break down in three continua based upon the buyer’s needs or motivation. Thus, a continuum anchored on one end would classify a need as urgent. (300 miles to go and the gas gauge is on “empty.”) The opposite end would be anchored by a need classified as not urgent. (Want a Blu-ray player to replace the old working DVD player.)

Further, buyers are not always aware of their needs. Thus a continuum would be anchored on one end with the need defined as apparent. (No beer in the fridge.) The opposite end is anchored as unapparent. (The water heater about to give out and flood the family room.) When a need is apparent, prospects usually rely on their own resources. They look to be attracted to the source that offers satisfaction. When the need is not apparent, prospects need to be approached and interaction usually must be initiated by a salesperson.

Neither an Apparent nor Urgent Need . . .

A book, unless it is required for school, work, or mastering a skill, rarely qualifies as urgently needed.  A book, further, is rarely regarded as an apparent need. Products for which the need is neither apparent nor urgent depend almost entirely upon direct interaction with a salesperson. Sales increase when a sales force is well trained in the psychology and art of selling and knowledgeable about products they represent.

Authors usually are not trained in sales techniques, but it doesn’t matter because they rarely interact with prospects. They may meet the buying public at a book signing event, during the speaking engagement, or attending a book fair, but their appearances even then tend to be more passive and managed by others.

The choice between approach or attract is also made for the author given that the product is a book. Certainly, authors can approach prospects one at a time, but generating a large volume of sales doing so is bound to fail. One major company in the United States has sold door-to-door for decades but their product is The Bible, and their sales force, hundreds of college students on summer break. Writers are a force of one and cannot generate the numbers in a sales plan that relies on approaching prospects.* Thus,writers are denied the approaches to selling that are most effective in engaging the buyer whose need is neither apparent nor urgent. There only option is marketing.

Marketing, in contrast to sales, is passive. Marketing attracts buyers. Working alone, ignorant of marketing strategy, writers push ahead by trial and error, or perhaps far worse, they are taken in by publicists who promise an array of approaches such as blog tours, Facebook optimization, Amazon reviews, blog consulting, Twitter campaigns—the list expands almost weekly. All of these promotions are passive. None can guarantee sales. All they can guarantee is that they will do as they promise. The writer will be required to put in hours of time sustaining the campaigns once initiated, so much so that most will find that their lives have changed, that they no longer write as much as they once did, and that making the top 100 at The Times remains as much a pipe dream as it ever.

Supply-and-demand is yet another principal of marketing and sales that writers may at least recognize. When it comes to books—ordinary, entertaining, well-written books—the supply overwhelms demand. First time authors are urged to offer eBook versions of their work at no charge—give it away. They may be asked to make a number of volumes available to a web site for readers who may, or may not, publish a review of it. If it’s free, maybe someone will pick it out of the torrent. The next Willa Cather, or Eudora Welty, or F. Scott Fitzgerald may be out in the flood with all of the other works being released each month. Often respected reviewers cannot get to them, rescue them and take them to higher ground.

Writers as Consumers . . .

Writers need to realize that they are the consumers for the self-publishing industry—not the reading public. Most traditional publishers know that very few books they bring to market will be profitable. They know the odds. They have the resources that improve their chances. Writers don’t. Writers cannot afford unsuccessful campaigns costing hundreds if not thousands. They would be better off betting at the track. The motivation to enhance the perception that the odds are in favor of the writer is all on the side of the promoters and marketers of the industry. They may see the writer as a client, perhaps even as a friend, but above all, they see the writer as a source of income for their firms.

There are good printing, marketing and publicist firms working in the industry. Choosing one is a topic beyond the scope of this article. To borrow from a popular saying, “When you’re up to your neck in promotions, it’s easy to forget that all you wanted was to write a book.” Writing always comes first with writers. They write for the joy and personal gratification of the process. Theirs is a mission, one in search of their own truth, a search on which they would love to have the company of many. Remaining committed to the mission, however, is often a solitary quest. Stopping to allow the crowd to catch up can be capitulation, the worst of all failures.

* Authors need one-on-one sales skills whenever they wish to approach a center of influence, someone who may represent exposure to a large group of buyers—a subject that falls outside of the scope of this article.

This is the first in a series of articles that I have planned on self-marketing. I invite my readers to watch for subsequent installments and and urge them to thumb through the other pages of my web site. Thanks for dropping in.