David Marusek: Tootin' Your Own Horn

I started this series of guest posts about self-pubbing ebooks by citing the statistic that over a million new book titles, most of them ebooks, are published in the U.S. each year. The inevitable question follows—how can my hopeful little ebook stand out in this crowd? I’m still searching for the answer, but I’ve gained a few insights along the way.

After my second novel was released in 2009, I made the decision to take a two-year break from self-promotion and to devote all my writing time to actual writing. No more readings, book signings, blog posts, judging contests, interviews, podcasts, or book-flogging of any kind. I wasn’t convinced that any of that actually boosted sales. I figured that my job was writing fiction, and writing fiction was what I was going to do. Turns out that this might be the best self-promotion strategy of all.

You’ve probably heard that publishing is undergoing a sea change and that traditional publishing (like record companies and film studios before it) is grasping at an outdated business model trying to survive. But what does this actually mean? One of the clearest explanations I’ve seen comes from Kristine Kathryn Rusch who writes a series of articles about the industry based on her extensive experience as author, editor, and publisher. In a recent post she contrasts the “scarcity” model of traditional publishing with the “abundance” model of epublishing. The scarcity, of course, is not the number of new titles but the amount of retail shelf space available to display them. On average, a book has an abysmally short shelf life, about six weeks. Like produce in a grocery store, unsold books must quickly and continuously make way for new stock, especially in mega-bookstores like B&N. Since advertising dollars are also scarce, publishers use their funds to promote only a handful of their titles, hoping to strike gold, and let the rest of their catalog fare as it may with minimal investment. This is the bestseller stratagem that underpins traditional publishing, from the NYT bestseller list to airport book racks, in which a minuscule number of authors become stars and the rest are consigned to the wasteland of the “mid-list.”

Epublishing blows a hole in the scarcity model because online shelf space is limitless and perpetual. A million new titles? Bring ’em on. Last year’s titles (or last century’s)? No prob. As Rusch points out, the two most potent forces in book sales are familiarity with the author’s work and word of mouth. Publisher advertising ranks only fifth or sixth in comparison. If you enjoy reading an author’s book, odds are you’ll look for more from that author. If a friend recommends a book, especially if your tastes in books coincide, odds are you’ll read that book. These are forces publishers can’t control, especially when they treat books like produce. But under the abundance model, a book has the potential to live long enough to build a readership through word of mouth, with or without a hefty promotion budget.

Naturally, people will try to fake it. I’ve found a FB group in which members read each other’s books with the intention of posting positive Amazon reviews. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, but there are even easier ways of generating fake word of mouth. For a mere $5 you can pay an astroturf company to purchase your $0.99 Kindle book, write a positive, “unique” review, click “like,” add tags, and give it a 5-star rating. Such a deal!

If a publisher can’t control word of mouth, neither can you, except by creating work that is so compelling that people want to tell their friends about it. In other words, instead of tooting your own horn by the hour on your blog, you might do better for yourself by investing that time in polishing the rough spots in your current novel.

Likewise, when a reader finishes your book, wishes it never ended, and impulsively looks for more of your work, there had better be more for her to find on the online bookshelf. When a reader browses your book listing on Amazon, B&N, and Powell’s and sees, “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought . . .” ideally your other titles will appear there (as in my slightly shooped graphic at the top of this post). That’s about the best advertising you cannot buy. And the only way it’s going to happen is if you shut off Facebook and write your next book.

At least that’s what I tell myself, and now that my guest blogger stint here at 49 Writers is over, it’s back to work on the novel for me and getting my next short story ebook online. I think it’ll be a story called, “Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz.” Look for it.

Publishing is a big, quickly-evolving topic, and my posts have only scratched the surface. I did want to leave you with my best guess at where things are going. If traditional publishing is on the ropes, what will replace it? IMO, authors will find an efficient, comfortable middle ground between the big publisher scarcity model and completely DIY self-pubbing. In the short term there will emerge author-helper businesses like Lucky Bat Books. These businesses will offer à la carte services for the author: editing, copyediting, ebook conversion, book and cover design, promotion, copyright, and legal services. Services will be charged on a work-for-hire basis, not for a commission, not for a monthly subscription fee (while holding your book hostage in the cloud).

I think such author-helper services will flourish, and they will become incorporated into other models. One idea I like is the author coop, such as the Book View Cafe. A coop can be a joint venture of a dozen or so self-pubbing authors who combine their resources for in-house services (as listed above). In addition, they will have an online store which pays authors 95% of their sales (compared to 30–70% through Amazon or B&N). Members would still sell through the big online booksellers and even through trad publishing routes, but they could point readers to their own store from their websites and blogs, cutting out the middlemen. Ideally, author coops would have a common theme holding them together, such as science fiction or Alaskan nature writing. In this way they can cooperate in building a recognizable brand.

Keep up with Fairbanks author David Marusek’s evolving ideas, opinion, and book news on his blog. Like him on FB, if you like. Follow him every chance you get.

5 thoughts on “David Marusek: Tootin' Your Own Horn”

  1. The way I see it, too many writers think the only options are to write in silence or "tooting your own horn by the hour on your blog." To me, the biggest reason writers should post blogs is not to tell me about their book tour (this can be better done on a website calendar) or their daily outhouse visit (I'm not wild about other people's journals, in general) but to keep smart, thoughtful book-centered conversation as a visible part of the public discourse. So, no reason to think of a blog as just a chance for publicity (though it may be that.) It could function like a lecture series or an essay collection, or a spiritual practice or in the case of 49 writers, a community. This enlargens the whole conversation about literature, and it cultivates a reading public that is the bedrock of any commercial success, as well.

    Full disclosure: I don't have a blog, but really enjoy a handful of writers/book blogs, including:

    Richard Hoffman (essay/lecture style): http://mnemosynesmemes.blogspot.com/

    Eva Saulitis (essay/spiritual practice): http://alaskanincancerland.blogspot.com/

    Dave Roon (science, essay, pottery, books):

    The Rumpus (book criticism and reviews): http://therumpus.net/

    Beacon Broadside: (Social commentary, reviews, interviews): http://www.beaconbroadside.com/

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    One thing some conventional publishers do well is getting those advance reading copies (or more and more, net copies, I think) to potential reader-reviewers — e.g. in Amazon's VINE program — so that an authentic (not paid) reader can share their thoughts and potentially get word of mouth started. If I were to go the self-pub route, I would do all I could to make sure those early copies went out, and as a reader, I do pay attention and peruse the amazon reviews. They don't have to be a 5-star– not at all –but I can usually read between the lines and get a better sense if the book is for me. An intelligent mixed review with lots of analysis can persuade me to order a book.

  3. A marvelous series, David. Thanks for helping us think in constructive ways about the game-changing in publishing.

  4. Twylla Alexander

    David, thank you for your helpful article. I'm wondering if you or anyone looking at these comments has had experience with Publication Consultants, located in Anchorage. I found the link on the Alaska Association of Authors website. AAA seems to be a way of marketing books in the Alaska market. However, I'd like to hear from someone who has direct knowledge of either of these businesses. Thanks.

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