Tuesday, September 29, 2009

3 Big Questions about Your Nonfiction Book - #2

The number two question of the 3 Big Questions I kept coming across as I studied how to sell things was this:

2. Who is going to buy your book?

Duh. Shouldn’t we, as authors, know this? But I know plenty of authors who (at least at the beginning) might say their book is for “everyone.” Nobody’s book is for everyone. Seriously, who is going to buy yours?

For my book, I thought pro-life pregnancy centers would buy my book. I thought they’d want it for clients and donors and others who misunderstood what they do or didn’t know what they do. This idea, again, got a chilly reception from professionals in the publishing industry.

Maybe I was creating a book for them, but would they buy it? Would they have the funds to buy it? What would they do with it after they bought it? Would they want copies for their clients or donors? Would that be compelling enough for them to buy my book?

What about your book? Who is going to buy your book?

Who is going to be your primary reader/book-buyer? Who will be attracted to its title and content? Who needs it? Who wants it? Who will need or want it so much that they're willing to fork out money to get it?

If you can’t answer these questions, you’re going to have a hard time selling your book. If you can answer them, you’re going to have ways to market and promote your book!

But after answering this question, there’s a bigger challenge awaiting…

Sunday, September 27, 2009

3 Big Questions about Your Nonfiction Book - #1

After my major epiphany about the problem with my book, I started looking to learn more about how to shape a book that will sell.

At the beginning of this year I bought several books on copywriting and started studying. My thinking was this: “copywriting” is writing copy that helps businesses sell their products so if I can learn how to sell things, it will help me sell my books.

There’s so much I could say about what I’ve learned. And I intend let you in on all that, but it’s going to take some time. So to start, I want to give you three questions that kept coming up over and over. These became my “3 Big Questions” to ask. Here’s question number one:

1. What need does your book fill, what problem does it solve, or what desirable thing does it help your readers obtain?

Now, taking my book as an example, Where Grace Abounds: True Stories from Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers, can you see how I utterly failed to create a book idea that anyone would want to buy?

I may have a great idea for a book. And the comments and e-mails I get from people in pro-life work confirm that. But it is not shaped in a way that anyone walking into Barnes and Noble or any other bookseller would want to buy it. They wouldn’t even know to look for it. And if they saw it on the bookstore shelf, they wouldn’t think they needed to read it.

Can you see how I created a book based on something I wanted people to know? I could even think people need to know what’s going on in pro-life pregnancy centers.

If you remember the beginning of this story, I first wanted to write this book because I saw so much misunderstanding about what pro-life pregnancy centers do. People I encountered thought our pregnancy center helped women get abortions, which we didn’t. People thought we enabled promiscuity in young people. People thought we only helped unwed teenagers, not realizing many clients were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and many were married.

I wanted to showcase what we were really doing: helping anyone who needed help in their unplanned pregnancy, no matter the age, no judgments about their marital status. I wanted to set the record straight, but I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to inform people who needed our services that we had what they need. I wanted to let people who might support our efforts know what we really do. I wanted to inform other people about this great work in case they didn’t know what pro-life pregnancy centers do or in case they didn’t even know this work existed!

All noble intentions. But can you see the problem here? The above paragraph is loaded with “I want… I want… I want…” I may have wanted to do a lot of wonderful things, but the reader/book-buyer doesn’t care.

The reader/book-buyer is at the bookstore because they have “I wants.” Or “I needs.” And my book wasn’t playing into any of their wants or needs.

Even if my book, or the book you’re planning, does indeed help the reader/book-buyer with her or his wants and needs, they don’t know they need to read it!

If your nonfiction book, or mine, it isn’t couched in the setting for the reader/book-buyer’s wants and needs, they’re not going to find it, let alone buy it.

So, how will you answer the #1 of the 3 Big Questions for your book?

If you’re having trouble with that, go to your book store or visit one online and look at how the books on their shelves answer it.

  • How-to books fill needs for information.
  • Self-help books help people solve problems.
  • Diet and money management books help readers obtain desirable things.

If your book doesn’t do one of these, how can you tweak it so that it does?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Major Epiphany: My Marketing Problem and How I Got a Clue

If you read my recent posts about my misadventures of trying to sell my book idea to editors and agents at writer’s conferences, you may have gotten a feel for how the publishing world can be so very discouraging. If you’re a writer, no doubt you've experienced that discouragement. If you haven’t yet, you will.

So, what can we do? Well, we can quit. Or, maybe some of us can’t.

I know what I wanted to do. I wanted to figure out why the book idea that I thought was such a great idea was getting such a chilly reception among publishing professionals. But how could I do that?

I have to admit sometimes I feel like I’m back in Junior High and I’m getting that paranoid feeling like when it seems everyone is whispering…until you walk in the room. Then suddenly everything’s quiet. You wonder what’s going on but no one will tell you. You try to figure it out, but the only conclusion you can come to is that they were whispering something about you. But no one will say what it’s about. Whatever’s going on, you’re the last person to know. All you can do is hope your best friend will let you in on it.

That’s how I felt about this book. I thought it was a great idea. But no one else seemed to. What did they know that I didn't? What did they see in it that I couldn't see? Was it going to be a major failure? Or could it possibly be one of those great stories writers dream about where every publisher in the world turns it down and so the author publishes it herself and it becomes a best-seller and sells ten million copies?

I knew publishing professionals were giving my book idea the cold shoulder, but I didn't know why. Obviously the pros saw something wrong, but I couldn't see what it was. Who could I ask, because no one was telling me?!

One day, on a writer’s e-mail loop, there was a question that allowed us to send in our book ideas for feedback, and so I took a deep breath, steeled myself, and sent my book idea out there. I told them about my great idea: a book filled with true stories from pro-life pregnancy centers!

I wish I could tell you who it was who wrote to me privately. I’d love to give her credit, God bless her. I wish I would have kept her note, and if I ever remember who it was I’ll let you know, but she was the friend who came to me privately and told me what was going on.

She said something like, “Dianne, you have a marketing problem. Nobody walks into Barnes and Noble thinking, ‘Gee, I’d like to read a book about pro-life pregnancy centers today.’”

Oh my. Major epiphany. This author, God bless her, finally let me in on the problem and put it in terms I could understand.

I have to tell you I chewed on that little piece of information for months. I knew instantly she was right, and I could finally see the problem with my great book idea. But it took me a while to see the situation clearly enough to begin to figure out how to, hopefully, fix it.

So with your book, or your great book idea, can you test it by removing my topic (pro-life pregnancy centers) and fill your topic into that blank and see if your great book idea is going to fly? Will people walking into Barnes and Noble be looking for your book?

This insight was a major turning point for me. I've learned a ton since then, and in my next posts I’ll give you three big questions to ask which should help you sort out whether you have a winner of a nonfiction book idea or, if not, how to tweak it so you do.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Searching for a Publisher: Misadventure #2

In my “Misadventure #1” post, I told you about a strange experience I had at a writer’s conference. Here’s the other:

A few years ago I took my one-sheet (a single page with all the information about my proposed book), to another writer’s conference. I looked forward to talking with editors and agents about my great idea for Where Grace Abounds: True Stories from Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers.

I had studied the conference brochure to see which publishing houses and agencies would be there and studied the editorial needs listed on the conference’s web site.

I was delighted with which publishers were being represented at the conference that year—some very big-name publishers, including the A #1 publisher on my list of possible publishers for my book. This publisher was part of a large Christian ministry which was actively doing some pro-life work. This seemed to me to be the best publisher for my book. “My book,” I thought, “fits right in with what they’re doing.” So I made the appointment with that editor plus appointments with three other good possibilities.

The big day came and there I was, sitting with the editor of the big-name ministry and publishing company. I was just sure this editor would love my book idea, would see its tremendous value, and would just be unable to contain himself until he got me to sign a publishing contract with his company.

Alas, when I told him about my great book idea, he seemed less than interested. He politely sort of encouraged me to maybe…um…try someplace else.

I really couldn’t understand why he wasn’t interested. I mean, seriously, all kidding aside, to this day I believe my book fits perfectly with that ministry and publishing house.

However I’ve been to enough conferences and sat across from enough editors that not much surprises me anymore. I’ve learned the hard way that in the span of a few short days at a conference a writer can go from the highest heights to the lowest lows. I’ve had editors and agents express great interest in some of my projects—which carried me to the highest highs—only to turn in the project after the conference and have nothing ever come of it.

I’ve also had some editors tell me very discouraging things about my writing projects—which carried me to the lowest lows—only to later find a publisher for that article or short story which confirmed the piece was at least as good as I thought it was.

The bottom line: Don’t let Discouragement get to you because: At a writer’s conference, the highs often are not as high as we think they are and the lows are never as low as we think they are. It all tends to level out in the afterglow of the conference.

So, although I was perplexed about why this editor was not at all interested in my great idea, I wasn’t devastated.

Several weeks later, I got out the tapes and CDs I had purchased at the conference. There are always so many great workshops to take you can’t possibly get to them all, so I attend some and buy the rest on CD. Because I was interested in working with that particular editor, I had purchased all the workshops he taught.

So there I was, sitting in my office listening to this man’s wisdom emanate from my boom box. He was talking about how some people end up having large ministries that are in the spotlight, but many others have “quiet ministries,” ministries that not too many people even notice. For example, he said, he had talked to a lady at this conference who wanted to write a book about pro-life pregnancy centers.

“Oh my,” I thought. “Here we go again. He’s talking about me.”

Now that, he went on to say, would be a very quiet ministry because, and this is how I remember it: “That book will never end up on the shelves of bookstores.”


There it was. On tape.

I remember thinking, “Why not? Why wouldn’t my book be on bookstore shelves?!”

My next thought was, “Why would I want to partner with a publishing company that doesn’t see my book on the shelves in bookstores?”

Guess that explains his lack of interest in my book. Sort of.

Also, he’d said that to his whole workshop class. Did anyone know who he was talking about? Probably. I had my writer’s guidelines on the conference freebie table and had many people talking to me about writing stories for my book. It was no secret.

Sometimes the reactions we get from others, including editors and agents, baffle us.

I continue to believe in my book. I continue to believe in the power of these true stories from real people to help, encourage, and guide others who are going through unplanned pregnancies right now.

Am I kidding myself about whether this book can be successful? Do these professionals in the book publishing business see a failure of a book that I’m blind to?

At the same time I’m getting these chilly reactions from editors and agents, I’m getting e-mails from pro-life pregnancy center directors and volunteers (people who would actually, um, be buying the book) saying, “What a great idea! When and where can I buy a copy?”

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dismal Book Sales Numbers (and hints that you can improve yours)

In my last post, I told you the story of the author at a conference I attended who told me I’d done very well to sell 300 copies (at the time) of my Dear America book. He said most books don’t sell more than 100 copies.

Is that true?

A few years ago there were some numbers floating around writing circles. (I wish I could tell you where they originated, but I haven’t been able to find that information. I think they were in Publishers Weekly or some such publication, but I don’t know for sure.)

Author Randy Ingermanson (http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/) recapped them and analyzed them in his The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine in August 2007. Here’s a portion of what Randy wrote:

In the last few months, it seems like everybody has been quoting the same set of horrifying numbers, a group of sales figures for books in the year 2004.

Why 2004? Because that is the most recent year for which reasonably accurate statistics are available…

Here are some of those brutal numbers.

In 2004, about 1.2 million books were in print.

80% of those books sold fewer than 100 copies.

98% sold fewer than 5000 copies.

Only a few hundred books sold more than 100,000 copies.

About 10 books sold over a million copies.

Randy noted that many of those book were self-published by authors who couldn’t find a traditional publisher and so self-published and ended up with cases of books molding in their garages. Randy also noted that not all of those books were published that year, and therefore might be on the waning end of their sales history.

So, is it terrific that I sold more than 300 copies of Dear America?

By some standards, perhaps I did pretty well.

But I know this: I need to do way better than that next time.

And so do you.

We need to do way better than that if we’re publishing with a traditional publisher (so they’ll want to publish us again!). And if we’re self- (independently) publishing, we need to do way better than that to make it feasible to publish, and then to go beyond “feasibility” to actually, um, make a profit. (This is not a sin.) Why is making a profit important? Just like the traditional publishers: so we can live to publish another book. And, so we can get our book in the hands of as many people as possible for them to read it because that is, after all, why we wrote it. Correct?

So I’ve been thinking, brainstorming, studying, and learning all I can about how to sell books. I’ve learned a ton. And yet I think I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ll share what I’ve learned so far and what I continue to learn as this blog continues.

Sharing what I’ve learned so you can do well with your book. That’s what I intend this blog to be all about.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Searching for a Publisher: Misadventure #1

So after this book decided it wouldn’t stay dead and it resurrected itself, I knew my first, best choice was to try to attract a traditional publisher. I felt this would give the book the best chance of success and the greatest exposure.

So I prepared to go to conferences and present my book idea to editors and agents. At the beginning, I had no idea what an adventure this would be!

I thought I had a great idea cooking in my brain and I thought several publishers would be really interested in it. But as I presented my idea at conferences, I had a couple of interesting misadventures. Two stand out.

Why would I tell you about these? Certainly not to criticize or embarrass anyone.

I share these experiences because, if you’re a writer/author or a wannabe writer or author, you no doubt have discovered (or soon will) that your biggest enemy is the big “D”: Discouragement.

Discouragement can be a real witch. I wonder how many books she’s managed to kill. I don’t want that to happen to you or your book. So hang in there.

I certainly felt discouragement after these two incidents. But if you’re going to stay in the writing game, then you’ve got to be able to overcome Discouragement and any obstacles she tries to throw in your path. I hope my experiences will let you know these things happen, they happen to all of us (not just you), and in the grand scheme of things, they’re not that big of a deal. You’re searching for a publisher, and if you run into a misadventure yourself, brush it off, (make sure your have a good, quality project), and move on.

So, for laughs, for enlightenment, for information, for whatever…here are a couple of my misadventures as I remember them:

At one conference I attended after I’d resurrected my “pro-life pregnancy center book,” on a break between workshops, I found myself standing near one of the faculty members, an author whom I knew had multiple books out.

I can’t remember what started the conversation, but I believe he was asking the writers around him about their books or articles. When he asked me, I told him briefly about Dear America: A Letter of Comfort and Hope to a Grieving Nation. I can’t remember why we were talking sales numbers, but for some reason I ended up telling him I’d sold about 300 copies at that time.

He told me that was really good.

Personally, I thought that was pretty dismal.

He told me that most books don’t sell more than 100 copies. He added some of his books had sold less than 100 copies.

I was stunned.

All of his books (as far as I know) are published by traditional publishers. I thought surely his books would have sold at least several thousand copies. Minimum.

(Silently I wondered, if some of his traditionally published books sold less than 100 copies, how did he manage to continue getting publishing contracts from traditional publishers? But he has. And continues to, as far as I know.)

When it was time for the workshops to start, I made my way into his classroom and found an empty seat. When he began to teach, he made a comment about a lady he had talked to earlier. Then he paused, scanned the room while saying, “I hope she’s not in here.”

I didn’t know if he was going to talk about me or somebody else. When scanning the room, I thought he looked right at me. I didn’t know if I should raise my hand and say, “Here I am.”

When he then told the room about our conversation, I knew he was talking about me. And I was sitting right there!

He told them “that lady” was very disappointed that she had only sold 300 copies of her book and that she really had done quite well.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I glanced at my friend who also knew he was talking about me. She shrugged, indicating she didn’t know what I should do either. So I slinked down in my chair and kept my head low. Sure was glad I hadn’t raised my hand.

That whole incident just felt weird. Why would he tell a whole classroom of wannabe authors most books don’t sell more than 100 copies? I could understand if he’d followed with ways to sell more books, but… I don’t know. It was just weird.

So, any lessons learned? Perhaps just this: If you’re going to talk about something in your workshop, assume the person you’re talking about is listening and make sure you’re polite.

(I’m wondering if that author is reading this right now and recognizing himself. Uh oh.)

That’s not the only time that has happened to me. I’ll tell you the other time in “Misadventure #2.”

But first, would you like to know more about those dismal book sales numbers? Whether you’re publishing independently or traditionally, you need to know book sales numbers. Knowing is the first step to making your sales numbers better. I’ll tell you what I know about sales numbers next time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

You MUST Know what Type of Publishing Company You’re Working With

I’m amazed when I talk with an author who is so excited that they have a publishing company that wants to publish their book and, when I ask which publisher, they name a company I know to be a self- or independent-publishing company. These authors act as if they’ve landed a contract with a traditional publisher, and I think they believe they have, but they haven’t. I have to wonder if they know the difference. In some cases I don’t think so.

(I’m not talking here about experienced, self-/independently-publishing authors who know exactly what they’re doing.)

Here’s the scoop:

Don’t assume that just because a publisher tells you they want to publish your book that you’re hooked up with a traditional publisher. You have to know what type of publisher you’re working with!

If a traditional publisher tells you they want to publish your book, that usually is a pretty good thing.

If a self-, independent-, or subsidy-publisher tells you they want to publish your book, that’s not the same thing!

Having a self-, independent-, or subsidy-publisher tell you they want to publish your book, or even asking one of these if they think you should publish your book (asking if it is of publishable quality, or if they think it will sell), is a little like having a car salesman tell you that you should buy a new car. Or asking a car salesman if you should buy a new car. Selling cars is this person’s business. It’s how he makes his money. Of course he’ll tell you that you need a new car!

A self-, independent-, or subsidy-publisher will most likely tell you they want to publish your book or that you should publish your book. It’s their business. It’s what they do. It’s how they make their money. Why would they tell you no?

One big, important difference to keep in mind between traditional publishers and self-publishing companies:

A traditional publisher only makes money if the book sells. They fork out money (usually a lot of it) to publish your book and they need to do more than break even, they need to make a profit to stay in business and publish the next book. This means they won’t take on a book they don’t think will sell. And it means they will help sell the book (at least a little) once it’s published.

In contrast, a self-publishing company makes its money from you. Once you’ve paid them to do the work of publishing your book, and you have your book in your hands, they could care less if it sells. They’ve already been paid. Selling books to earn back what you’ve invested and hopefully make a profit is entirely up to you.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing

If you’re considering self-publishing, you need to make sure you understand the differences between that and traditional publishing. Here are some pros and cons to self-publishing:

  • It’s hard to break in to traditional publishers but anybody can hire a self-publishing company. These used to be called “vanity publishers” because anyone who simply wanted to see their name on the cover of a book could hire one—and they’d publish whatever you sent them: typos, goofs, bad information, bad grammar and all. Today, most self-publishing companies are better than that and self-published books are overcoming that stigma, but you still need to know what you’re doing before you publish your own book if you want to end up with a quality product that you can sell.
  • Some traditional publishers only accept book proposals from agents but you never need an agent to get your foot in the door of an independent publishing company.

  • With traditional publishers, authors may make little in royalties. Authors who self-publish stand to make a lot more. You price the book. You find out what each unit (copy of the book) is going to cost you to produce. You keep the difference. You’ve paid the bills and you keep all the proceeds. (Note: Some publishers are “subsidy publishers” which means you pay part of the costs and they pay part, then you get part of the proceeds and they keep part of the proceeds. How much each party gets is negotiated up front.)

  • Traditional publishers often do little to promote the book—it’s pretty much all up to the author to sell every last copy. Self-publishing companies might help to varying degrees. If they say they will help you promote your book, you should find out exactly what they will do because some consider listing it on Amazon.com as fulfilling that part of your agreement. Simply listing your book on Amazon.com or in a catalog or on their web site is not going to do much to sell your book. In all of these cases, a prospective buyer/reader still needs to know about your book before they know to go to Amazon.com or a catalog or a web site to order it. Again, know what you’re getting into before you get into it. (I hope this blog is helping. That’s why I’m writing it!)

  • Traditional publishers today often expect the author to spend the advance given on promoting the book. If you’re publishing independently, you didn’t get an advance. But you’re still going to have to dig in your pocket to come up with any promotional money you’re going to spend. It’s best to include this, and a specific promotion plan, in your budget from the get-go.

  • You have to pay all expenses to publish the book, but you have complete control and you keep all the profits (if any).

  • You won’t have the professional book publishing people in a traditional publishing house to help you, but your self-publishing company should provide the same professional services, such as:
    - editing your book, including editing for content as well as for grammar;
    - designing your cover;
    - making your book pretty on the inside—fonts, headers, page numbers, etc.;
    - help with the “back cover copy.” (The information printed on the back cover of the book.)
    - Help with the title? Traditional publishers work on titles, but you’ll have to ask your self-publishing company about that.
    - Marketing help to help you sell the book after it’s published. Different packages are probably available for different prices, so ask. Packages might include setting up interviews on radio, TV, blog tours, book signings and more. Any expenses will be yours.

  • A traditional publisher will be able to get your book into the distributors, which makes it available to bookstores nationwide. A good self-publishing company will also have access to distributors.

  • Some self-publishing companies go to trade shows, others do not. You should find out if you’ll be able to attend those shows you wish to before you sign with a company.

  • Some authors see having professionals design their book cover as a con because the author usually has no input or right of refusal for the book cover. When you self-publish you have complete control. Your self-publishing company will work with you, but you may not have marketing/sales professionals behind you directing, so you’ll need to make sure you have professionals helping make sure you end up with a cover that will be attractive. Buyer/readers really do judge a book by its cover.

  • Dittos the above with your title.

  • Self-publishing gives you complete control over design, pricing, and every detail of your book, but make sure you have professionals helping you create a high quality product that will sell.

  • Sometimes traditional publishers will also foot the bill for advertisements in print publications or on radio. You’re self-publishing, so you’re on your own.

  • Traditional publishers will get your book to book reviewers. Check with your self-publishing company to see if they do the same.

  • Traditional publishers will take 12 to 24 months from contract to get your book published. You can have your self-published book in your hands in a couple months, or even quicker.