Twenty years ago, I was writing little Star Wars books for Scholastic when my editor, David Levithan, asked if I would be willing to look at some books and help choose one to push big. So I looked at about 40 books and chose one called Harry Potter.
Afterward, I spoke with the head of Scholastic about Harry Potter and why I felt it could be a big hit, then she asked a question that surprised me. “If you wanted to push this book huge, how would you do it?”
I outlined a rather ambitious plan to promote the book. I talked about advertising big in the bookstores—buying space in the windows, behind the counters, and on the mail floors of big chains like Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Books-a-Million for the months of November and December. We talked about how to convince the stores to sell that kind of advertising space, and then I left the job to the folks at Scholastic to implement over the next year.
Within two years, J.K. Rowling was the exceedingly wealthy. So was Scholastic.
As authors, each of us would love to be in Rowling’s place. We’d all love to become the bestsellers of all time.
But even if you came to me with a book today and asked me to outline a plan to push it big, it wouldn’t be the same plan that we used for Harry Potter. The way that books are marketed has changed dramatically.
It’s for that reason that Tom Doherty, the president Tor/Saint Martins, recently said that “The greatest problem for authors and publishers today is discoverability.” In short, the question today is, “How do you create enough media attention so that you can become a bestseller?”
That’s a tricky question to answer, and there is no clear path. Lots of things can work. But here are some clues.
1. Book placement. The single best way to sell a book is to make sure that you have it sitting on a bookshelf in a bookstore, prominently displayed. If you’re trying to self-publish, this is pretty much impossible. But if you are willing to work with traditional publishers, you’re going to find that about half of the sales in the US still come through mainstream bookstores. So if you want to sell books, you need to attract the attention of the bookstores in such a way that they make a concerted effort to promote your book.
This can be tougher than it seems. Barnes and Noble is still a huge chain, but Borders is gone, and some of the smaller chains are falling by the wayside, while independent bookstores are on the increase. So it becomes difficult to create a promotional plan today that would be adopted by a significant number of bookstores.
2. Virtual bookstores. But roughly half of the sales in the US are now made on e-books. (The numbers are unclear, but some surveys that I’ve seen suggest that e-books make up more than half of all sales, but bring in less than half of all revenue spent on books.
So how do you get “placement” in an electronic bookstore? The answer to this would almost require me to write a separate book (and I won’t do that simply because the landscape can change in five minutes), but you need to remember that Amazon.com is working to control the entire online distribution system.
Each time that a new company comes along and offers a novel way for you as an author to become discovered, Amazon buys that company. So we see that Goodreads, Twitch, Audible, and similar sites are all being purchased by Amazon.
The answer, in part, then, is to learn how to work with Amazon to do your online advertising. They’re the ones who control the virtual bookshelves here in America.
3. Create your own mailing list. Your mailing list and your use of social media can help provide the initial impetus to push your book huge, to get the attention of both book publishers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon. I’ve written articles about the importance of creating your own list, but if you need some refreshing, you can find it in my book Blockbuster Book Signings. There are plenty of tips in there on how to create and build your own mailing list.
4. Use multimedia. Most authors today seem to think only in terms of social media, apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but that is a huge mistake.
Getting coverage in newspapers or getting on radio talk shows, or even appearing on television, might be easier than you imagine. Each of those traditional mediums can help you reach immense audiences. There was a time when appearing on the Dick Cavett show, or in Oprah’s Book Club, or doing a show on NPR could ensure a certain level of sales. Some of those paths are now closed, but there are still authors who make a splash with traditional news media and become guests for television and magazines.
The thing is, before you can get on big talk shows or on television, you almost have to have a hit in the making. You have to develop some strong momentum for your book.
So think of your use of multimedia as rungs on a ladder. Your use of apps like Facebook and Twitter can get you into newspapers, and that might help you reach your goal of being on the radio, which can lead to television rather quickly. You’d be surprised to find that if you handle it right, we are talking about building a hit within days and weeks rather than months. The goal is to reach a velocity of sales that is so high, that traditional booksellers, readers, and news organizations take notice of you.
It’s still possible to be discovered. Authors are doing it all the time.
In some ways, it might even be easier now for an author to break into wide distribution than ever before, but because the entire distribution system for books has changed in the past twenty years, we have to figure out how to break out in the publishing industry using today’s online tools, not the ones that worked many years ago.