Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Power to the People

I'm supposed to be heading over the river and through the woods today, but it looks like it will be this afternoon, as I still have a few things to take care of. I don't know how much posting I'll get done later in the week, so I'll go ahead and say Happy Thanksgiving today. I've been sticking to my writing schedule so far, but that, too, may get derailed. I know I need to tinker with the parts I've written because getting into that viewpoint character's head is proving to be something of a challenge. I've got the actions written, but I'm going to have to play with the way I describe it, since this character is a total fish out of water in an environment that's totally foreign to her in both place and time -- and it's our world, so that means I have to take a step back and consider all the things about the everyday environment that might be strange to someone who'd just come here, and then think of how that person would describe it all, which means I also have to mentally world-build the place she comes from, even though it doesn't actually appear in this story.

But that's what's fun about writing fantasy.

And since I need to post and run, here's another fun bit about the book biz that I wrote earlier when it was on my mind (I've been doing that a lot lately -- when I think of something that would make a good blog post, I write it and then have it handy for busy days).

One of my oft-repeated refrains is that readers who buy and talk about books have a lot of power in the publishing world. Here's how it works:

My blog has in the ballpark of 300-400 regular readers (based on the number of people who've friended me at LiveJournal and the blog hit count at MySpace). Those are people who, for whatever reason, whether they're my real-life friends, people who read my books or people who like my blog posts, seem to have at least a slight interest in what I have to say. If I wanted to support a TV show, my efforts wouldn't amount to much. It's not statistically unfeasible for none of those 300-400 people to be part of ratings households, so even if I could get everyone who reads my blog to watch that show, the networks wouldn't even notice. These days, iTunes downloads or online viewing might get measured, but the networks still mostly look at traditional viewers as measured by ratings. The only way I can have an impact there is if one person reading happens to be in a ratings household -- and even there, if they're in the right demographic. Even if the people I got to watch were somehow measured, it takes at least three million viewers for a network television series to survive, and 300 people is barely a blip.

On the other hand, in the book world, a midlist trade paperback book (the kind of books mine are) -- and by midlist I mean books that aren't the lead title and that don't get any kind of major promotional push -- generally sells from 5,000 to 30,000 copies, total (so you see why authors freak out when they learn that someone has illegally put their books on a file-sharing site and there have been more than a thousand downloads). In those numbers, 300 sales are a decent percentage of total sales. For a hypothetical but still semi-realistic case study, that book on the lower end is probably one where there may be one or two copies in each of the larger major chain stores, and it may not be stocked at all in their smaller outposts. Those copies will be shelved spine-out in the regular shelves. They won't show up on any of the front tables. The only promotion done by the publisher will be sending out review copies, and that will mostly result only in a few online reviews, with possibly something in the author's hometown newspaper. Say I discover that book soon after its release, think it's the best book ever and blog about it, and say that makes about 300 of my readers decide they have to check it out for themselves (that's probably the least realistic part of this scenario).

So about 200 of those people will go to their favorite bookstores. About half of those may find copies on the shelf. For the other half, someone else may have already bought the one or two copies per store, or else the stores they visited didn't have it at all. For those who find the book and buy it, because the book is still relatively recent, those chain stores are planned to have that one or two copies, so one copy being bought will trigger the system to re-order it. For those who don't find it, say they ask for it and the store special orders it. That means the chains are going to be ordering a total of 200 copies of that book. For simplicity's sake, let's split it down the middle between the two big B stores. It's highly unlikely that the chain warehouses will have 100 copies each of that book, so the chains will have to order more copies from the publisher. Let's say the other 100 blog readers decide to order from Amazon. That many book purchases within a reasonably short span of time (like within a few days) will shoot the book's ranking up, possibly landing it on a category bestseller list. Amazon probably doesn't have a hundred copies in stock, so they'll have to reorder from the publisher. Now this book the publisher more or less flung out into the world and forgot about is getting reorders, all because I was able to get 300 people to buy it.

Then that has a multiplier effect. That many sales in one week is pretty big for a non-bestseller book (to give you an idea, my latest book only sold above 100 copies a week in the major chains (combined) for the first month of release), so the chain stores may start stocking more copies, which means more orders from the publisher, which may even mean an additional print run. More copies mean the book is more visible, even spine-out on the shelves, so more people will notice it in stores. The Amazon rating going up and getting on a category bestseller list means the book becomes more visible, so more readers may see it and look into it, so that means more sales. And then the 300 people I influence may talk about the book and get even more people to buy it. Even if that's a relatively small effect, if a book that would have sold 5,000 copies sells 6,000 copies instead, the publisher and the bookstores will think of the book as a success. It's still not a bestseller, but that could make the difference in the author getting another contract. And that's from the impact of one blog post by someone with a moderate (but easily influenced, in this example) readership.

Are you feeling giddy with power yet?

It's too bad I can't use my powers to promote my own books, because if you're reading this, you've probably already bought them, so I'm preaching to the choir. Maybe for an experiment I need to scout out some lower tier trade paperback book and see what I can do. I'd have to find something going more or less unnoticed that I absolutely love.

The numbers are different for mass market paperbacks, since they are expected to sell more copies at a lower price point and are stocked at more stores (you don't usually see a lot of trade paperbacks, other than bestsellers, at supermarkets), and as I haven't really worked much in that area, I don't know what numbers are realistic. Hardcovers theoretically can sell in even smaller quantities than trade paperbacks, but then the trend these days is that they often don't publish things in hardcover that they don't consider to have bestseller potential, and that changes the numbers and expectations.

Now I need to pack and hit the road.

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