Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
I read an article in Publishers Weekly recently that advised writers to publish a lot: “The more books you have out there, the easier the marketing game is….This principle applies to any creative pursuit. The more work you put out, the more people will discover you.”
I beg to differ.
But first, let me say that I do agree that the basis for this precept is true. It’s readily understandable in the grocery store’s cereal aisle. General Mills doesn’t offer you one kind of cereal or even one size box of that cereal. General Mills’s goal is to “own” the largest chunk of shelf space it can. The more options, the merrier.
That’s because the basis for this precept is the importance of attaining critical mass.
When it comes to books, my observation is that an author needs to have approximately 20 titles (or critical mass) available for readers before the writer’s career breaks out to the next level of sales. Before that, sales might grow slightly from title to title. But when critical mass kicks in, sales for each title released thereafter skyrocket. (NOTE: The number of titles will vary from author to author, depending on how consistently the author stuck to his or her brand, market conditions, timing of releases, etc.)
But the precept tatters when the author creates too much too fast. Then cannibalism occurs. The sales for one title “eat” the sales of another title because the consumer buys only so many books in a given time span. If we go back to the cereal aisle, we’ll see each company attempting to strike just the right balance between owning as much of the real estate as possible yet maintaining adequate sales for each permutation of cereal they produce to make that cereal type profitable. Offer too many oat cereal variations, and each oat cereal variation will sell less. Once you have critical mass, sales will increase when new offerings are shelved–until cannibalism occurs because critical mass was exceeded. Critical mass can even be exceeded if too many companies offer oat options. Sales will fall for every company.
The same is true for the number of new or re-released titles an author can offer to readers per year. Let me give you two case studies.
- Author #1 has established a stellar writing career, reaching the best-seller list with every new title. Her sales numbers are staggeringly high. But then a publisher she no longer is with decides to cash-in big-time on her success. They re-release 75 of her old titles in one year. Her readers don’t know what to do. Loyal as they are, their heads are spinning with options. Just think how many titles that would be per month! The author, of course, has an aggressive publishing schedule for new titles in that same year. The market would be awash in her books. Because each buyer will purchase a fairly set number of books per year (how ever many that person can read or aspires to read), every additional title popping onto the market cannibalizes the sales of all the other titles. The affects of that single, mammoth year would resonate for at least one additional year, if not more. The glut in the market has to dissipate before her career can return to normal, let alone have any hope of growing.
- Author #2 has self-published for a number of years but is facing an unexpected major decrease in her income this year. Her solution is to re-release 12 titles in one year and release one new title, all in the same genre. Will she cannibalize her own sales? She thinks readers will buy her all titles because they binge read.
Consumers’ binge behavior is fascinating to me. Most of us participate in it in some way:
- Discovering a new (for you) TV series and watching an entire year’s worth of it in one weekend.
- Being in the mood to read a specific genre (say, mysteries) and blasting through series after series.
- Finding a film producer whose work suits your taste perfectly and streaming movie after movie created by that person.
- Binge buying various teas or coffees or deciding a specific company makes the best ice cream and working your way through the entire menu of options.
Author #2 is certainly right that we indulge in binge behavior. But I’m not convinced that readers will work through every series one author has to offer, especially if the writer is prolific or the market is glutted with options by that author in a fairly short time span. Think about the cereal aisle. If one company creates too many oat cereals, that company has made a major miscalculation and will pay the price.
What examples can you think of that showcase critical mass or cannibalism?
Tell us about the ways you consume media in binges.
What authors need to know about critical mass vs. cannibalism. Click to tweet.
How can authors tap into readers’ binge behavior? Click to tweet.
Can an author over-publish? Click to tweet.
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