Thursday, September 20, 2012

Beat the Bestsellers - The Other Way to the Top—Guest Post by Nick Thacker

by Nick Thacker @NickThacker

nickthackerIf you're like any other author (or person, for that matter), you probably hold a book with the words "New York Times Bestselling Author" on it in much higher esteem than others. Authors, for as long as "The Lists" have been out, have tried to find the "magic bullet" method of getting their book placed side-by-side with the likes of Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and Robert Ludlum. Their reasoning, while implausible, is sound: "if my book can get on that list, I'll be set. I won't have to work another day in my life!" clip_image001Ok, well maybe it's not that extreme, but it's not too far off. Heck, I tend to daydream about landing a huge publishing deal that'll send me a half-million-dollar advance, and a spot beside the next in the Bourne saga. But truthfully, my expectations--and yours, if you're a writer--should be a little lower.

It's a well-known fact that the bestseller lists (NYT, Book Review; pick one) are just proprietary algorithms that would make Google proud, that select and churn out "bestsellers" left and right--sometimes before the book even hits the shelves.

It's even been rumored that these lists are contrived forms of propaganda intended to keep the "establishment media" agencies ahead of the game.

Big-name authors like the aforementioned reap some of the benefits of being on these lists, no doubt (as do the publishing companies that push them!). But the bottom line for the rest of us new or even mid-list authors is that we don't have the choice to get to The Lists. We can try--by writing more and better and for longer periods of time--but there's never a guarantee. Success at that level is at best as elusive as it is esteemed.

No, we humble wordsmiths are resigned to the closets of our one-bedroom apartments in the suburbs, wrenching and prying out words that might never be read by anyone other than our devoted spouses and fan (yes, that's singular...). It's easier to complain, blaming the system and politicians and publishing companies and agents and...

There is another way.

Yes, that's right. There's another way to "the top." While it isn't via "traditional" channels like landing on a well-respected list or having a daytime spot on Oprah, but it's a just as--or perhaps more--satisfying way to achieve success in the scary world of books: making a ton of money and attracting a bunch of new readers without the strings, constraints, and conditions of big publishing.

"Self-publishing" may still have a bit of a stigma, but it seems as though more and more, authors are expected to market themselves; either putting up the money for an advertising firm, or by going it alone. There's simply not as much money in the industry as there used to be (or, at least, it's not allocated the same way...).

Sure enough, authors--published or not--are finding new and untested ways to market, promote, and sell their books. Mailing lists, social networking, and special Kindle shenanigans come to mind, and all of these are great ways to market your stuff after it's written.

And that's just it -- the "new" method for long-term success in this world has little to do with "after the fact" marketing.

It's about writing more books.

Specifically, it's about publishing (however you want to define the word) more books.

The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and I can vouch for it. Over the past few months, I've studied just about every marketing tactic, promotional strategy, and book-selling trick known to the self-publishing world. Some worked, some didn't, but I discovered a truth that authors like J.A. Konrath and others have been preaching for awhile:

The more books you have available to be purchased, the more you will sell.

The problem facing any author is the delicate balance between "finishing" a book so that it's polished, edited, and basically perfect (which is probably impossible anyway), and just getting it out to market, flaws and all.

Since no one wants to embarrass themselves with a shoddy product, authors tend to lean toward the "waiting" side of things. But there really is another way:

I'm a big proponent of the "lean startup" method of launching a product, app, or business, and I've applied the approach to my books. Here is my process that's worked to provide me with a modest yet growing monthly income stream:

1. Write a lot of stuff.

I say "stuff" here because you don't have to publish super-long books on Amazon -- I have a line of "Dead-Simple Guides" that I market as "articles," even though they're on the longer side of that definition (around 10,000-20,000 words). I also have a manifesto, a couple full-length nonfiction books, and some guides.

The whole point is that I am constantly writing -- and publishing. It's building a backlist, sure, but it's also building a craft around what I like to write. However, none of this would be possible without the next steps...

2. Have a "pre-reading" plan in place.

I've started blogging and building a mailing list of possible readers that I "tap" whenever I'm about to release something -- I can send them a free copy of the book if they're willing to read through it and let me know what they think. This saves me from hiring a professional editor for everything I write (I still go with an editor for the longer stuff).

These beta readers vet out the typos, continuity errors, and generally anything they don't like -- allowing me to rewrite knowing that it'll be much better afterwards.

3. Shoot for digital first.

Digital is fast, immediately trackable, and adaptable. I don't want to wait around for an editor to find every single thing that's wrong with the book -- I can instead let the beta readers tear it up, rewrite it a few times, publish it, and make more minute changes as we go forward. If a particular book does really well one month, I might think about offering a special print version or something, but not usually from the very beginning.

This process is different, and it's not what a "major" house would probably recommend. But by doing it this way, I'm working to be a bestseller in a handful of sub-sub-sub-sub-categories, not the overall Nonfiction or Fiction categories. I don't expect to sell 10,000 copies of anything in the first week of a launch, and that's not the goal. The goal is to completely own a few of these smaller niche categories over time.

The process works because it's so much faster the "old" way.

Yes, you have to type fast and think fast and publish fast, but it's really not that bad. In fact, I can't imagine waiting a year or more to go from finished manuscript to print -- I usually go from concept to storefront in a little over a month -- and I'm working on numerous projects at once.

You can "beat" the bestsellers by doing it this way, but you have to make the commitment to building trust with some readers over time, and consistently provide them with something to read. I believe most people would prefer to read a full-length novel and a few shorts from a favorite author, putting up with the minor typo or error every now and then (that will eventually get fixed anyway), than wait for a typo-less, full-length novel only every year.

Get it? The point isn't to ignore mistakes and publish for the sake of making money -- it's to publish enough stuff that you're staying in front of people so they can't forget you, offering better and better stuff as the relationship grows.

As small business owners, our benefit is speed. Use it to your advantage, and you'll "win" this publishing game.

Welcome Home

Nick Thacker writes about writing, blogging, and publishing, and you can check him out on his blog. Be sure to grab his new book, Welcome Home: The Author’s Guide to Building A Marketing Home Base, and grab the newsletter!