Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen ‘s Chicken Soup for the Soul did not hit the best-seller list until eighteen months after it was published. Meanwhile, the authors did workshops around the country and gave five to ten radio interviews a week. The book went on to sell almost a billion copies and spawned follow-up best-sellers.
Publishing people believe what movie people believe: Word of mouth is the most powerful form of promotion, period, amen, end of story. You can read reviews and articles about authors, see the ads, and maybe even hear authors speak, but still not be totally convinced. But when someone whose judgment you respect tells you, “You must read this book!” you’re a believer.
Andrea Brown, a literary agent who specializes in children’s books, finds that this is especially true with children’s books. Booksellers who hand-sell their favorite books can create best-sellers, as can parents, librarians, teachers, and even kids themselves.
The goal of everything done to promote books by unknown writers is done to generate a critical mass of people who love them. If a book can convince enough people to praise it with enough fervor, the book will succeed. Once that happens, an unstoppable army of fans will keep winning victory after victory for the rest of the author’s career.
Convincing people to buy a book is a victory, but a short-sighted one. Sure, the author will receive a royalty check. But we’ll bet that you have bought at least one book that, despite your best intentions, you’ve never read.
If you’re like us, your fantasy is that book buyers will take your book home, do nothing else except breathe until they finish it, and tell everyone they know to read it. Is that too much to ask?
Publishers have three approaches to making that happen. The most likely way for a book to reach the best-seller list is if an author’s previous book was on it. Once word of mouth elevates sales to that lofty level, a book benefits from the self-fulfilling momentum of appearing on the list. Then future books benefit from the sales momentum of previous books. So as long as the author’s books deliver and they are well promoted, an author can stay on the list for a lifetime.
Books by best-selling authors have six- or seven-figure first printings and may have a laydown date on which booksellers can start selling them. The purpose of a large first printing with a specific on-sale date is to trigger an explosion of sales that will immediately catapult a book onto best-seller lists in as high a position as possible. This is the publishing equivalent of the opening weekend box office sales that enable movie people to gauge the movie’s eventual receipts.
Making the list for the first time, however, continues to become more difficult, especially for fiction, which is harder to promote than nonfiction. People are less willing to pay even discounted prices to take a chance on a novel by a new author that may not be worth the money or, even more valuable, the time to read it.
This is one reason it can be easier for novelists to break in by writing genre fiction like mysteries and romances that are published as mass-market originals. When they have enough fans, their publishers will start publishing them and promoting their books to their waiting readers.
But even if a publisher goes all-out for a new author, the proof of whether their efforts are justified is still in the reading. Despite all of the persuasive hoopla publishers can produce for books, if a book doesn’t deliver, it’s a lost cause no matter how much money the publisher throws at it. The moment they realize it’s hopeless, they’ll drop the book in a New York minute and move on to the next likely prospect.
Without an author’s previous appearance on the best-seller list, large subsidiary rights sales, rave prepublication reviews, or an expensive promotional blitz, word of mouth is the easiest, fastest, cheapest, and in fact, the only way to create a best-seller by a new writer. In this scenario, the publisher’s faith in a book justifies one of the “ent” words in chapter 1: patient.
It took eighteen months for Chicken Soup for the SoulT to hit the best-seller list. It took Diana Gabaldon four books to build enough of a fan base to enable her time-trip historical Outlander series to reach best-sellerdom.
That’s why it’s important for writers and publishers to not give up on a book too soon.
KEEPING YOUR EARS OPEN FOR THE “BIG MOUTHS”
Every field has what are respectfully called “big mouths”: insiders, networkers, and opinion-makers who talk to a lot of people and are eager to spread the word about whatever’s new and hot. You’ll know them when you meet them, and now you’ll know enough to make them allies and take special care of them.
By Rick Frishman
Reprinted from “Rick Frishman’s Author 101 Newsletter”
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