Friday, January 30, 2009

What to do when publishers (or self publishers) won't..

It was inevitable that the economic downturn would hit the publishing industry. Book sales had dropped off before the recession. Shrinking wallets and corporate panic (with good cause, unfortunately) was unlikely to help. So mainstream publishers (who already weren't publishing a terribly high percentage of all new books) are publishing fewer books and promoting and marketing fewer of the books they have published. That means book publicists' phones are ringing more often than before -- not necessarily with tons of viable book promotion projects, but still, most authors understand that, if they want their books promoted, they have to do it themselves or hire a book publicity firm to do it for them (or at least to partner with them to conduct a book promotion campaign).

The hitch? So many authors come to the question of book promotion when it's almost too late. They email or call a book publicist and say, "My book was published by [fill in the name of a major publishing house] in 2008, and that publisher failed to promote my book. What can you do for me?" Well, immediately, I can tell them that they should have contacted me several months before the book was published so we'd have the greatest window of opportunity for book promotion ... and then I can tell them that there are still some highly effective book promotion strategies that we can try.

Mainstream books have a fairly long window for promotional opportunities because they are mainstream published books. But what about self-published books?

In case you missed the New York Times article of January 27, 2008, "Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab," here's the link. It offers a headache-inducing quantity of information about various ways in which authors might self publish their books, but it doesn't offer a primer on how to figure out which self publish route is best. It's almost impossible for a publishing industry outsider to chance upon the best self publishing solution; it takes time, research and, unfortunately -- for many authors -- making some mistakes and learning from them.

So authors contact me and say "I'm curious about what it would take to launch a book promotion campaign for my self-published book" too late for me to steer them toward the most information they could find: they haven't really self-published at all. My definition of self publishing is having your own ISBN number and bar code on your book, and having your own imprint on it, too. The minute any company sells you those things, or insists that you use them, then -- for book promotion purposes -- you haven't self published. You've saddled yourself with someone else's baggage, and when you go to promote your book -- or you try to engage a book publicity firm to help -- you're necessarily dragging around the weight of thousands of subpar, unpalatable titles. The media is aware of the dismal track record of so many of the turnkey print-on-demand publishers. Therefore, many of them steer clear of those imprints. However, if your book is truly self published -- if you bring your own imprint to it, and your own clean slate -- then you are on an equal playing field when you launch your book promotion campaign.

I wish the New York Times article had urged would-be authors to do their homework before they committed to publishing their books through any of the companies they mentioned. All of those companies have their place, and I would personally go with any of them -- under the right set of circumstances, and for the right reasons. But I'd do so because I've done my homework. I know the differences between the companies, and I know their limitations, and I know which are likely to help -- or hinder -- book promotion and book marketing efforts.

At this time, there are no resources I would recommend as a shortcut to finding out which method of self publishing would be best under various sets of conditions. There's a book called The Fine Print of Self Publishing: The Contracts & Services of 45 Self-Publishing Companies Analyzed Ranked & Exposed by Mark Levine that's helpful in a lot of ways and that you should buy if you're comparing various companies' contracts -- but the book doesn't go far enough in discussion the book marketing implications of each publishing choice. To really understand how to self publish, you have to ask the right questions of each company you're considering. These questions include (but aren't limited to):

* May I use my own book cover? (So many print-on-demand companies' book covers are unappealing enough to cause negative feedback from important media outlets.)
* May I use my own imprint instead of yours? (As I've said, it's much easier to drum up book promotion opportunities for books that don't suffer the stigma of an imprint responsible for printing thousands and thousands of "duds.")
* Will my book be carried by Ingram Book Group? (If you don't know who they are, you really have to do your homework. Distribution through Ingram is critical to a book's mainstream success, and the only time distribution through Ingram wouldn't matter would be if your niche were so small that you were selling directly to your target audience rather than conducting a book promotion campaign to drive potential buyers to bookstores.)
* May I use my own ISBN number? (That's actually the same as asking "May I use my own imprint instead of yours," since book buyers and the media can easily recognize the ISBN numbers that belong to huge companies. You're far better off, from a book marketing perspective, if you can use your own ISBN number -- and, please, buy the whole block of ten numbers rather than a single number so you won't end up spending more money than you have to as you decide to publish an ebook, an audio book, or your next title.)
* What can you do to help me get book sales if I score some major book promotion opportunities? (In a traditional publishing house, the marketing department communicates your book promotion hits to its sales force on a regular basis so that stores will have an incentive to buy more copies of your book. What can the self publishing company you're considering do to help make your book promotion efforts worthwhile?)

That's a starter list of questions that will help you choose the "right" way to self publish a book that you intend to promote and market. But the best advice this book publicist could provide to most authors who want to self publish their books would be this: to maximize your chances of selling the greatest number of books as a reward for your book promotion efforts, work with LightningSource. I have no financial relationship with LightningSource, and I have never been a client of theirs (although several of my clients have worked with them), but I do appreciate the fact that the company distributes through Ingram; insists that you use your own imprint and ISBN number (they don't offer you any other option); doesn't require exclusivity; and -- last time I checked -- charges only about $75 to set up an account. But working with LightningSource isn't as easy as working with one of the turnkey solution print-on-demand companies. LightningSource insists that you be your own publisher, and while the account representatives will offer guidance, they won't do the work of a publisher for you.

I love the fact that I'm hearing from more authors than ever before, and I'm flattered that so many of them have looked at my web site, like what they see, and have inquired about my book promotion services. But I'd so much like to catch authors before it's too late to get a book publicist really excited about a project: before a major book publishing house has given up on promoting the book (or lost interest in selling the book) or before an author has committed to working with a print-on-demand company whose imprint would make a book about 95% more difficult to properly promote than it has to be.