It has been a mantra in self-publishing circles that an author’s most reliable pathway to long-term financial success is to rapidly write and publish more and more books. This strategy is supposed to increase your exposure and name recognition, and therefore the “discoverability” of your books to buyers who browse retail websites like Amazon.
This quantitative strategy seems perfectly sensible, too. The key to strong sales is to make your work visible, or “discoverable,” to your target audience of readers. So, how could your cumulative sales over time not increase if you issue an ever-expanding number of titles for readers to find and buy?
Author Mike Dennis recently summarized this mantra as: “Write more books. That’s the surefire way to increase sales!” However, Dennis touched off an intense online debate by questioning the validity of this “quantitative” strategy on the “K-Board Writer’s Cafe” site, a discussion board for self-publishing authors.
Despite his release of more and more titles over the past two years, he reports steadily declining monthly book sales since January 2012. That month he sold 1077 books, spread over 6 different titles. By August 2012 Dennis had increased his offerings to 9 books; yet his cumulative sales had plunged to only 159 copies. A year later, in July 2013, he had 10 titles for sale, but the total purchased that month sagged to 90 copies. And though by October 2013 he had added yet another book, his total monthly sales for all 11 titles were just 42 copies.
Discouraged by this trend, Dennis asked if fellow authors also were experiencing declining sales over time, despite publishing more books. A lot of other writers then chimed in to confirm the trend. Clearly rattled, the discussion participants have since been bemoaning — and trying to explain — the apparent failure of this, one self-publishing’s main articles of faith. After all, how could you not sell more copies if you publish more titles?
They have pondered a host of possible explanations for what seems inexplicable. Has Amazon changed its promotional algorithms to hurt sales? (Why would they do that?) Maybe our books aren’t ideally categorized on such online sales sites. Maybe authors need to compile better customer email lists — or perhaps they should start (or stop) using this pricing strategy, that sales channel, or the other promotional gimmick. Or maybe the ebook market has just become overly glutted with too many self-published titles clamoring for readers’ attention.
On and on the thread goes, with numerous hypotheses, theories, personal anecdotes, and suggestions. And many of them have a lot of merit. Other writers, such as Libby Fischer Hellmann, have weighed in; in fact, I have offered my own suggestions about marketing.
Now, all other things being equal, it’s probably true that more titles = more visibility —> more sales. But I don’t think all other things are equal. Focusing mainly on quantity, no writer, no matter how prolific, can possibly crank out books fast enough to keep up with the thousands of new titles being published each week. The sea of available titles is now enormous, and ever-expanding. In that vast sea, how are your kind of customers going to discover your titles?
Marketing experts have wrestled with that problem for decades. I learned a lot about how to achieve visibility in a glutted marketplace by reading the books by marketing gurus Jack Trout and Al Ries — especially their little classic, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. Its subtitle is How to Be Seen and Heard in the Overcrowded Marketplace — and that, of course, is exactly what authors need to know.
Though not written specifically for writers, the book offers us many great lessons and insights, and I don’t want to take up space here repeating them. But its overriding principle of “positioning” is about how to distinguish yourself and/or your product so that it stands out from the pack and achieves a unique, memorable “position” in your target customer’s mind.
Yes, the key to commercial success is achieving visibility to your target audience; but the pathway to visibility is not necessarily the quantity of one’s works. A second element, of course, is the quality of one’s writing.
However, even here, let me be clear about what I mean by “quality.” I don’t only mean “craftsmanship,” although striving for professionalism in writing, marketing, and all aspects of publishing is extremely important. Still, a meticulously written story that follows all the “rules” can be a dull, unimaginative affair. In my opinion, then, craft is a necessary but not sufficient condition for strong sales.
When I think about the super-selling books, though, what they have in common is that they are distinctive. They stand out as something fresh and memorable, because they contain unique themes, plots, and characters. They present provocative ideas, unusual settings, iconic personalities. And that is why they become “visible” . . . often, without even much of a marketing push. Those kinds of books succeed by “word of mouth.” Consider:
Hunger Games. A society living inside a huge underground silo. A hulking, ex-Army vigilante drifter. An ape-man who lives in the jungle. An arrogant London private detective with an encyclopedic memory and dazzling powers of observation, induction, and deduction. A hunt for a giant man-eating shark. A hunt for a giant ship-killing white whale. A park where cloned dinosaurs roam. A magical baseball field in a cornfield, where the ghosts of legendary players return. A WWII German assassination plot against Churchill. A contract killer’s quest to assassinate Charles DeGaulle. An Australian girl torn between two lovers — one, a young Catholic priest. A willful young woman in the Civil War torn between a gentleman who represents the Old South, and a dashing rogue who represents the emerging postwar era. A boy wizard in a school for wizards. A small group of Allied commandos who must take out two giant German guns poised to decimate their navy. A Soviet nuclear sub commander’s desperate quest to escape to the West with his vessel. A female bail bondsman who gets into wacky adventures . . .
Big or small, international or intimate, such stories and characters grab readers’ imaginations, and that all important “discoverability,” because they stand out from the pack. They’re distinctive. They’re innovative. They’re imaginative. So much so that they “brand” themselves upon our minds.
By contrast, when I scan the titles and covers or read the product descriptions of most books on Amazon, the overwhelming majority don’t grab me and aren’t memorable. How many thriller covers display a small shadow image of some running figure against a city backdrop? How many romance covers flaunt bare male chests and heaving breasts? Pick your genre, and the titles and covers often seem interchangeable. Worse, the product descriptions don’t suggest that the novel is . . . well, novel.
And so each such title sinks into the sea of like titles, drowning under waves of familiarity, similarity, repetition. Worst of all, that familiarity, similarity, and repetition also can be found inside the books, in their rebooted plots and retread characters. And in an ongoing series, too often I see a once-unique premise or hero become stale, the victim of endless recycling.
So, I think the emphasis on rapidly producing lots of books, then obsessing about all sorts of tactics and gimmicks to market them, is misplaced. Marketing and promotional techniques certainly can be important aids to achieving visibility, hence to achieving long-term career success; but I think such things are secondary. They become valuable tools only if the writer focuses primarily on creating and crafting distinctive, inventive stories and characters that grab and hold people’s imaginations.
In short, I would suggest to authors that the main way to capture visibility and discoverability is not what you do to your story, but what you do in it.