Friday, December 26, 2008

Marketing The Monster, Part One

So you've spent years writing this thing. Learning the ropes. Honing your craft. Taking classes and joining writer's groups. Editing and polishing and revising it yet again. Finally you have this masterpiece, a tome which represents the tangible landscape of your inner soul.

Then you spend a year or more in sending it to everyone you know and any name on every list that you might think will show some interest in this monstrosity that you've created. But still it's little more than just a pile of paper sitting on your desk, weighing down the forward progress of your life.

So then you spend more time (and no small sum of money) traversing the rugged landscape of self-publishing to see the thing in print at last. You've done the layout, the artwork for the cover, proof-read the thing more times than you can count. Finally you have your debut book in hand, hot off the press.

The question is, now what?

Probably you might have asked this question earlier, but the answer tended to be something like: "Then the publisher sends me out on a worldwide book tour where I sign a million copies of my masterpiece!"

Only now you're the publisher, and the bookstores aren't interested in self-published works by unknown authors. Unless you can offer them a standard trade discount of 55-65% off the cover price, as well as accepting returns - meaning they will very likely send them back for a full refund somewhere down the road, which you will have to cough up then - the brick-and-mortar retailers won't be all too interested in your offer. Very probably even if you do offer these incentives they still won't stock your book, because they don't know you from Joe Dirt. I imagine some local shops might take pity on you and give your book a tryout in the "local author" section, and if you play your cards right (and do some highly-publicized book signings there) you might make an inroad that could lead to other stores taking your work on.

But I didn't go that route, so I can't help you there. Maybe next time.

The dilemma for me in this regard was that the size of my monster epic was such that the cost of printing it alone is $9.48, leaving little room for discounts to the retail outlets. Setting a short discount of 20% off a cover price of $16.95 gives $3.39 to the retailer (rather than the $11.01 discount 65% comes to), leaving $13.56 that is sent to Lightning Source from the retailer. Taking out their $9.48 printing cost, the remaining $4.08 is deposited into my bank account (after 90 days, that is, allowing time for invoicing at either end). Were I to offer even a 55% discount, I would have to list a suggested retail price of just over $30 to make my same four bucks from book store chains. Clearly not a practical strategy for me, at least this time.

But for a moment let's reverse engineer that equation, just to see what would work. We'll use our $16.95 suggested retail as a model for comparison. This price, by the way, is probably the upper range of what is practical to charge for a 6x9 softcover novel - over this and the cost becomes exponentially prohibitive to potential buyers - less, of course, works just the opposite, with 12.95 seeming to be a nice fit, under ten even better, although not for the author. Amazon and some other online retailers will discount your cover price (while others will increase it, and get far fewer sales as a result), but it comes out of their share not yours: half of my 20% discount is passed on to the buyer by Amazon, making their list price $15.25. Barnes & Noble offers that price as well, but only to members of their book buyer's club.

So taking our suggested retail of $16.95, a 65% discount leaves us with 5.93, while a 55% discount nets $7.17. Keeping our hoped for profit around 25% (that is, $4.23) we can see that there is little left for printing cost: a 65% discount with a 25% profit gives us only $1.70 to cover printing - that would be a max book length of 61 pages (1.3¢ per page x 61 pages + .90 for the cover). For my money, $16.95 is a lot to pay for a 60 page book, unless it has some really useful information in it, like a guaranteed way to make more money (a very popular subject, by the way). Now, using that same method, but offering a 55% discount leaves us with $5.55 for printing ($16.95-7.17 discount= 9.78-4.23 profit = $5.55). This gives us enough to print a book a little over 350 pages (1.3¢ x 350 =4.55 + .90¢ = $5.45), which is far more reasonable.

Of course, we don't need to make four bucks off each book (although it would be nice). In exchange for the potential increase in sales exposure in bookstores offer, a drop in profit per book is certainly in order. Let's say we cut our profit to just 10%, netting us $1.65 per sale (still better than almost all trade published authors net). $16.95 - 65% = $5.93 (wholesale cost to bookstore), minus our $1.65 net leaves $4.28 for printing costs, giving us enough for a book of 260 pages at the best trade discount.

Somewhere between these two is probably where you'll want to fall. 300 is a good page length, 60% a reasonable discount, and a buck or two of profit per sale acceptable. You might, of course, also lower the suggested retail in this equation, in hopes of getting more sales that way. For example, a 300 page book listing for $14.95 with a 60% trade discount would net you $1.18 per sale (subtracting $4.80 print cost and $8.97 wholesale discount to outlet), while $15.95 for the same book would give you $1.58 (-$4.80 print cost, -$9.57 wholesale discount). The full $16.95 for same nets $1.98 by comparison.

You could, of course, also write a shorter book than this, but the cover price would have to drop accordingly. The exception to that seems to be graphic novels, which sell for high retail prices relative to their generally short page length. Color costs more to print, but for a book of less than a hundred pages it's likely quite profitable, and something I intend to look into.

As you can see, you'll really have to crunch some numbers if you plan to approach brick-and-mortar outlets. And bear in mind your costs of advertising and promotions such as driving around the country signing books (hopefully) and printing up posters and fliers (definitely) all have to come out of your portion. Some of the larger bookstores will help with advertising, but it will be the author's job as much, or more, than theirs to promote your appearances with local ads and press releases sent out well in advance.

Also, unless you accept returns, it won't matter how much of a discount you offer, because Barnes & Noble isn't interested in getting stuck with several thousand copies of a book that they can't sell. But then, neither are you. It defeats one of the foremost benefits of print-on-demand, which is not printing any copies of the book until they're sold. But that model just doesn't work in the brick-and-mortar world, unless you're selling a lot of books.

So tomorrow I'll talk about what you can do to market your book online, from the comfort of your own home (in your pj's if you wish), whether or not you also intend to hit the streets with a trunk full of books in tow.