Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Wendy apologizes that you aren’t reading a blog post from her today. She’s traveling and posting blogs, remembering what day it is, that sort of thing, flitted right out of her brain. She’ll be back next week both Monday and Tuesday.
Meanwhile, here’s the blog I intended to post next Monday. Happy reading!
Several months ago I read an article in Forbes Magazine that I mentally keep revisiting. The author, David Vinjamuri, posits that publishers have it wrong when they measure an author’s future success based on previous copies sold and on platform. Vinjamuri believes stats show it’s more important that an author’s ability to get readers to come back to buy the next book and the next is the real powerhouse in publishing. You can read the full article here.
I keep coming back to his proposition because we know:
Platform isn’t a guarantee of book success. Publishers have learned this the hard way when they produced books written by individuals with massive blog readerships, only to find the blog readers didn’t convert to book readers. What publishers should look for is loyal readers who are meaningful engaged with the blogger and for bloggers who can write a book with a message tied to their blogs but not duplicates of blog material.
Also, celebrity status doesn’t automatically mean a book will sell well. I recall a book that was produced by Zondervan while I was an editor there. The author, John DeLorean, designer of, among other iconic cars, the DeLorean (which is remembered as the time machine vehicle in the film Back to the Future), was caught up in a scandal when he was arrested for drug trafficking. He later was acquitted because government agents had entrapped him into selling them drugs.
Zondervan executives believed that the Christian community would want to hear DeLorean’s side of the story and invested a great deal in the ensuing book. Even though DeLorean’s name was widely recognized, his platform, his celebrity, weren’t sufficient to sell many copies of the book. One issue that worked against him was that many people felt he was guilty of drug trafficking but got off because of the entrapment ruling–a technicality. The second issue was that, even though he was a great car designer, he actually was a shy man. I had a chance to meet him and suddenly found myself in the room alone with him. I struggled to come up with a conversational topic once we covered car designing–a subject I pretty much exhausted once I mentioned that my brother had owned a GTO. DeLorean’s personality didn’t lend itself to gripping interviews.
Sales can only tell you what succeeded in the past, not forecast the future. In his Forbes article, Vinjamuri points out that basing future success on past sales is, in some ways, a poor device to use. It’s a pretty straightforward way to go because numbers are easy to obtain. But what about a much subtler, harder to measure pointer to long-term success–readers determining they will buy the author’s next book after reading the current one.
What counts most in predicting a successful future is brand loyalty.
This also means good reviews or awards aren’t necessarily harbingers of a book selling. The Forbes article points to The Cuckoo’s Calling as a perfect example. Despite solid reviews, its sales were lackluster until the person behind the nom de plume was outed–J. K. Rowling. Then sales boomed. Why? Because her readers wanted to buy whatever she had written.
But the real surprise of the article was when Vinjamuri checked the Codex survey for the strongest brand in publishing and found it was Lee Child’s protagonist Jack Reacher. “Child doesn’t have the largest following among bestselling authors,” Vinjamuri writes. “Just over a third of book shoppers are aware of him versus the more than 95% who know John Grisham and the 99% aware of Stephen King, both of whom have sold more books.”
But a third of Reacher readers chose Child as their favorite author, with Grisham and King being ranked “favorite” by a quarter of their readers. And Child has a higher percentage of readers who plan to buy his next book, with 41% of Grisham’s readers planning to buy his next book and 70% of Child’s planning on that purchase.
How did Child build this loyal fan base? First, we need to acknowledge that Child started writing before social media became the go-to marketing maven. So the methods he used to build loyalty, while still “tried and true,” don’t reflect the real world for aspiring authors today.
Here are the steps Child took:
1. Consistency. He wrote in a series rather than standalone. Readers felt they knew who Jack Reacher was, and Child made sure they encountered the same Reacher in every book they read–not that the character didn’t grow or change, but basic characteristics stayed the same.
2. Authenticity. Child observes there’s a difference between accuracy and authenticity. A writer needs to use facts that are believable, that ring true to the reader, rather than being factual. “I live in New York….The actual reality of [life in] New York might not seem believable to the reader who doesn’t live here.” Having authenticity in a setting, aspects of the protagonist’s profession, and manner in which people behave cause the reader to have that “you are there” feeling, which goes a long way in building loyalty.
3. Uniqueness. Child ignores what everyone else is writing in his genre but instead keeps his focus on the world and characters he’s created in his own series. “If you start with a laundry list of things [that everyone else is including] then the book won’t be organic.”
Ultimately, what we know is that sales numbers and platform don’t predict success. A deeper look at how the author engages readers is a better indicator, but a more elusive one.
Do you agree that return buyers are more important, in the long run, than number of copies sold?
Why do you think publishers use previous sales as the measure for future success?
Why sales & platform aren’t the best measure for future book sales success? Click to tweet.
Big sales and huge platform? Doesn’t mean your books will sell. Click to tweet.