How to sell books when everybody's selling books

What happens when books become a customer acquisition tool?

How to sell books when everybody's selling books

If you're old enough to remember Napster, you remember a time when people had to go to the music shop to buy music on CDs or tapes.

Music shop? CD?

Barely memories from a more barbarous time. Back before we had more music, of more styles, than we could ever listen to in 100 lifetimes.

It took a few decades, but what went for music will be the fate of all art and culture.

Right now, Big Publishing is next on the chopping block. Many writers have gotten a clue and turned to indie publishing as publishing houses consolidate, agents and editors become harder to find, and contracts become more onerous for writers.

But that's just the beginning. Publishing insider Mike Shatzkin informs us of bigger upsets waiting in the wings.

“Enterprise self-publishing” is coming: the third great disruption of book publishing since the 1990s | The Idea Logical Company
The book business is in the early stages of its third great disruption in the past quarter century. The first two both changed the shape of the industry and created winners and losers across the entire value chain: touching every step from how authors got money to how readers got books. Significant …

What happens when anybody that wants to be a publisher can be a publisher?

These will be books delivered by a vast unaffiliated network of entities doing publishing as a “function”, not publishing as a “business”.

Publishing is a function rather than a primary business. Marinate on that for a minute. Then ask yourself what that means if you're out there trying to hustle books. If that's your livelihood, you'd best have a Plan B.

What happens after this:

Across what will be many times the number of titles as are now being published, making money will sometimes happen. But in most cases the payoff from the publishing “investment” will be expected to be realized in other ways. The new players who are doing “publishing as a function” will also band together in countless opportunistic ways. But, once again, that asymmetry of economic purpose will be poison to people trying to publish books as a rational, stand-alone economic enterprise.

The 20th century model of writing a book, selling it to a publisher, and sailing off into the sunset on a yacht of gold is done.

(Not that it ever worked but for a handful of mega-stars anyway.)

The books aren't the business. For the most part they never were. So...

How do you sell books in the tsunami of books?

Answer: The (profitable) business is not selling books. Changes in publishing, writing, and reading mean that you've got to stay innovative.

First: You aren't selling BOOKS.

That's hard to grok for creators who grew up pre-internet and those poor lost souls who fell into the avant garde literary circuits.

That crowd believes that the book is the product. Your success is determined by reviews, praise, five-star ratings on Amazon, and sales numbers.

You win when you get a lot of sales. That's the game they're playing.

That's not the game anymore.

Writers aren't selling books.

The book is a commodity. With printing and fulfillment and distribution now cheap and available to anyone who wants it, that bottleneck is gone. Poof.

Being in the book-selling business right now is like being in the CD selling business in 1999.

Not the place I'd want to set up shop.

But you aren't selling books, are you?

As a writer you're really in a different business.

Writers sell entertainment.

Entertainment is medium-agnostic.

Readers like to read, so you give them that experience.

But you aren't limited to that. That's not your primary business.

There's lots of ways to sell entertainment.

Have you considered some of them?

Second: You aren't SELLING books.

Professional authors aren't in the business of writing stories, printing and binding them, and then selling those copies to buyers one transaction at a time.

Think bigger.

You're selling YOU before anything else.

A personality. A brand. You're a person that fascinates and commands attention.

You're building an audience. A community. You're building a world for people to play in.

Too many authors out there – amateurs and pros alike – still peddle the belief that the writing business is transactional.

I make thing, you buy thing.

These folks don't know business and don't want to know it.

While I can sympathize...

That ain't how it works.

If you're stuck in the mindset that your business is selling book-units to customers, you're going to lose the new game.

Treat your work as a commodity and it will vanish into the infinite shelf space with all the other mediocrities.

To stand out, you must stand out. That's the real game.

Third: You get paid by getting paid

And how do you do that?

The same way every successful business does it.

You put a desirable offer in front of the right person in the right situation.

Easy enough if you've got a business behind it. Use the books as a customer-getting tool, build your house list, and sell them the real stuff on the back end.

But what about the fiction authors?

Direct marketers may be able to publish books as channel for acquiring customers, but what happens if you're a storyteller who wants to write fiction? How's that going to work?

The answer's the same.

You have a lot of stuff to sell your readers.

That might lead you to thoughts about merchandise, but it doesn't only mean that.

It does mean having a lot of stories to sell. More stories means more opportunities for promotion. More chances to show up and be found. More items of conversation for people to talk about. More goods for sale in your shop.

It won't be quick and it won't be easy at first, but you really can make a living by writing a lot.

From there, the only limits are your imagination. Expand into other media. Collaborate with graphic artists and musicians. Create premium editions of your works. License your creations (wisely).

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