From Rick:

Whenever I suggest self-publishing to authors, I frequently hear the same three objections.

One: They can’t afford it.

This one derives in part from the days when Vanity Presses represented the only viable route to self-publishing and from the perceptions that it’s expensive to publish a book, period. Sure, print books can be expensive, particularly the more elaborate ones, but not all print books are expensive, and e-books cost less to publish because you don’t have the extra costs of printing and formatting for print. It amazes me how few authors have done the research to find out about the current state self-publishing and to learn how easy and inexpensive it can be to produce a quality product.

Two: They don’t know anything about marketing.

These authors sincerely believe that they need to be marketing experts and that a traditional publisher is going to handle everything so that they don’t have to deal with marketing or promotion at all.

Three: They aren’t afraid of marketing, but they don’t want to spend the time it takes because they just want to write.

As I and others have said, if you’re sincere about writing then you have to treat it as a business, regardless of how your work is published.

These authors just do not want to believe me when I tell them that, even if they land a major publisher (I’ll deal with smaller publishers in a moment), they are STILL going to have to do a lot of marketing if they expect their book to succeed, and that the publisher is for the most part going to do a minimal job of marketing.

You see, the myth persists that publishers are these benevolent beings who will take your book and turn it into a sure-fire (best)seller and that as a published author, the money will roll into your bank account. Further, these naive authors believe that publishers will arrange book signings, and maybe even a book tour, for them to promote their book, and that their book will automatically show up in every bookstore in the country.

In other words, these authors sincerely believe that once they land a publisher, all their worries are over. Now, I will say that some publishers (notably smaller ones) will really try to help you out as much as they can, but you still have to do a lot of work on your own.

Scott and I have, hopefully, dispelled all of the above arguments in previous blogs. Yes, you can pay a lot to self-publish if you aren’t smart about it, but there is certainly no requirement that it has to cost you one or more appendages. It cost about $10 to self-publish Punctuation For Fiction Writers. Why that? That’s what it cost for a print proof copy (with shipping).

Many (if not most) small publishers—unless they have been around for more than a few years—lack the resources, connections, and reach for significant promotion and marketing. They aren’t able to do much more than you could do by yourself, and they have little pull with bookstores. These publishers may promote well on their websites, but unless the publisher has developed a large following (and few publishers have done that yet), then their marketing will be so-so at best. Remember that readers largely do not care who publishes a book and do not visit publisher websites, so it does little good if your publisher promotes on its website.

Several years ago about 40% of book sales were due to word of mouth, not to advertising or direct marketing. I will assume that this percentage, possibly even higher, still holds true.

Here’s an interesting short article on the importance of word of mouth and positive book reviews:

WORD OF MOUTH AND ONLINE REVIEWS

Although the article is a few years old, noted blogger and self-publisher David Gaughran gives his view on the importance of word of mouth:

WORD OF MOUTH IN ACTION—DAVID GAUGHRAN

But in order for word of mouth to take over, something needs to push a book initially. As I see it, for a book to be successful, three things must happen:

1— Readers must find out about it
2— It must connect with its readers
3— It must have a strong enough impact on readers that they will pass the word on about it.

Getting the word out is the first uphill battle, and this is the ONLY one of the three points where perhaps someone with marketing smarts may be able to help a little. This is known as visibility and discoverability, and what also helps is for an author to have more than one book out.

But even if people know about the book, unless it connects with its readers and is strong enough to have an impact on them and stand out, then all the marketing in the world is useless beyond that initial stage. I hate to say this, but I’d wager that most of the problems that authors have with bemoaning their lack of sales is due less to getting the word out than it is to the book not standing out enough to be noticed or to have the word spread about it.

Books that stand out will also garner a lot of enthusiastic reviews. I’m not talking a 5-star rating with one or two sentences telling that the reader loved it. I’m talking a well-thought-out, sincere review that specifically tells WHY the reader loved it and gives effusive praise for it. That’s when the book will rise to the top of the lists on Amazon and elsewhere and more people will see it and buy it. That’s when word of mouth takes over.

So, the best marketing strategy is to have a book worthy of rave reviews in the first place, and the best way to find out if your book falls into that category is to find some test readers who are capable of giving honest and competent feedback.

Unfortunately, the cold, hard reality of publishing, both traditional and indie is that no one has ever developed a good formula for predicting what will make a book worthy of rave reviews and great sales. If there were such a formula, publishers would rarely have a failure because they’d never publish books not guaranteed to succeed.

However, a few books are guaranteed to succeed: those that are the hyped (Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee) and controversial ones (Fifty Shades of Grey. Books written by celebrities, especially those that “tell all” will still generate a lot of money despite negative reviews.

Unless you have the kind of book that will generate controversy, then the book must distinguish itself in some other way. It doesn’t matter whether it’s traditionally published or indie published, and it doesn’t matter hugely for sales if the book has less-than-perfect editing (as long as the flaws are minor an infrequent). I’m not advocating skimping on the editing, merely saying that if a few errors slip by, they won’t kill your sales. A strong story and an author who consistently delivers will find success no matter what. I believe that most or all great books will eventually be discovered as long as reasonable efforts are made to make readers aware of them.

The Harry Potter books and the Twilight and Hunger Games series took off because they were different and connected with readers. You don’t need that kind of impact to be a success, but the more a book steps outside the box and delivers a story and characters that have real impact, the better its chances of success.

Finally, if readers are not raving about a book and telling their friends, then it’s likely doomed to be just another good book out there with average to mediocre sales. Those are the harsh realities of writing. Take your readers on a journey and make them care about your characters… or else.

J. K. Rowling delivered in the first Harry Potter book and continued to do so in the rest of the series (mostly), but look at what happened when she tried something else that did not deliver on readers’ expectations. And if her second Harry Potter book had fallen flat, well, we wouldn’t have seen Harry Potter movies, the Harry Potter section of the Universal Studios theme parks would be quite different, and Rowling would have become just another mid-list author.

The bottom line is that all the marketing in the world won’t help a lackluster book. BEFORE you consider how to publish and market your book, make sure it is worthy of the effort.

—Rick