Monday, April 14, 2008

The Point System

Unless they have social anxiety or are writing a fictional tale about a politician whose name does not rhyme with Gill Minton, new authors are desperate to aid their publishers in promoting their books. We spend money that we likely won't recoup, we join every social networking site under the sun (I think authors are almost singlehandedly responsible for raising the average age on Facebook), blog until our finger bleed, and run contests where we give away everything but our firstborn.

We build websites. Hire publicists. Send out newsletters. Do everything short of go door-to-door to sell our books (and I'm sure some do that as well). So how much does it all help? It's an impossible question to answer. The simple responsible is that it all helps. We just don't know how much.

As authors, we control certain aspects of our publication. Most importantly, the book itself. We control the quality of the manuscript. The subject matter. The timeliness in which we get it to our publisher. How easy--or difficult--we are to work with.

What we can't control are things like packaging. Co-op. Review attention (this may come with writing a great book, but more likely than not it will happen because either the book or author are particularly publicity-friendly, or because the publisher has declared the book a 'make' book and are pulling out all stops).

Yet for every 'make' book, there are dozens of books that aren't getting the red carpet treatment. They're being supported to varying degrees, and in most cases the author takes it upon him or herself to augment this support. 

One of the biggest questions facing authors right now is how much time--and money--to spend on self-promotion. How much each venture helps. And how much time is spent that could otherwise be working on their manuscript (right now I could be working on my fourth Henry Parker book, but I'm writing this).

I have a MySpace page. A facebook page. I bought a website, and am currently paying someone to redesign it. I belong to two writer organizations, and have considered joining a third. I have likely spent a few thousand dollars promoting my books, via travel, lodging, and other things.  I have no idea how much it all helps. I do know it doesn't hurt. Which is why I do it. 

At this point in my career, unless I know immediately the reward is not worth the risk, I'm more than likely to join a network if invited, take a speaking engagement if offered, and travel if an opportunity for a book signing or interview presents itself. Again, I don't know how much each of these helps. But they don't hurt.

So here's my point. I believe for every book there exists a point system. The higher the point total, the more books you're going to sell. Some variables which can be granted points are:

--The quality of the book
--The amount of publicity it receives
--Co-op placement
--Subject matter
--Packaging (cover, etc...)
--Attractiveness of author
--Active participation on social networking sites
--Review coverage
--Film deals
--Foriegn or subsidiary rights sales
--Author profile/platform

Each of these, and dozens of other variables, are worth a certain number of points. Some variables, obviously, are worth more than others. Co-op placement is more valuable than a book signing. A great cover is worth more than a lot of friends on MySpace. A terrific platform is more valuable than an ad in the NYTBR.

As an author, you only control so many of these variables. You can only grant yourself so many points. Some take copious amounts of time and yield few points. Some likely take less time and yield more. The variables outside of our control (co-op, jacket art) tend to be more valuable than the variables in our control (the exceptions being our platform, book quality, and subject matter). I just read a chapter in FREAKNOMICS regarding campaign spending which I believe is a fair assessment of publishing as well. An author can double their spending and sell barely any more books. They can halve their spending and sell the same, or even more. And some books, no matter how much money you put behind them, simply won't sell because they don't appeal to audiences.

I'm going to take some time and think about how much different variables are worth. Each gets a point total of somewhere between 1-100. If you're a 1, you can count your readers on one hand. If you're a 100, move over J.K. Rowling. Book quality, cover art, publicity and co-op rank very high on this scale, though probably not more than somewhere in the teens (those of you book quality should be worth more, consider how many terrific books are published that don't sell diddly squat, and vice-versa). On the lower end would be social networking sites. They're fun, but do you really sell enough books to justify the time it takes to sell them? Of course a flat out fantastic book might get more review coverage, get award nominations, get great word of mouth (which is probably the most difficult variable to quantify). So of course each variable itself can be worth more or less, depending on quality or lack thereof. Plus some variables, when combined, might be worth more than the sum of their parts.

So what do you think? What other variables should be on this list? And which do you think are worth the most? The least?

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Blogger Becky LeJeune said...

I think amount of publicity, advertising, and quality of the book are the most important (although we all know some pretty awful books get top billing!) other variables that will then come along would include bookseller backing. If you can get a really good bookseller (hopefully many good booksellers in stores all around) you will have someone dedicated to putting your book into customers' hands. If that bookseller is in a position to effect displays, they'll put your book on them regardless of co-ops - it's always their choice what goes up when something else is out of stock.

Attractiveness of author doesn't matter in my opinion. I would put more stock in the author's attitude towards the public. People are more likely to try something by an author who comes across as a nice person (in my opinion).

2:19 AM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

Hey Becky - Thanks for chiming in. I agree about bookseller backing, that's hugely important. The attractiveness thing likely isn't a huge factor, but it definitely is a factor (I've been in enough editorial meetings to know how crazy publishers can get over an author--male or female--who's photogenic).

And author attitude is important, especially starting out since it's harder to convince people to read your stuff over the tried-and-true bestsellers. Frankly I don't understand authors who have a contentious relationship with their readers.

8:07 AM  
Blogger B. Rehder said...

My opinion is that nothing is more important than word of mouth, and the point total of WOM would dwarf that of all the other variables combined. The trouble is, an author can do very little to create WOM about his or her book. Sure, we can create websites and blogs, solicit reviews, go on tours, etc., but those things won't necessarily lead to satisfied readers, and satisfied readers are the ones who create a rise in WOM.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

Hey Ben - Word of mouth is the fairy dust authors pray for, work their butts off and spend tons of money in the hopes of getting. But you're right, it's impossible to tell just what inspires word of mouth (if it was possible, every book would sell a hundred thousand copies).

All authors and publishers can do is try and spread the word as much as possible, then cross their fingers and hope something about the book catches fire.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Becky LeJeune said...

Oh, I agree that hotness factor is a selling point to marketers! We actually discussed that at DPI. A big cardboard cutout of the author isn't really necessary to win over new readers, though. I think the only access most readers will have to the author is the photo in the back of the book (can't you tell I come from an area that saw about, oh, no author signings!). Do you think that an attractive author will get more attention from the marketing team, though? Good question and one I wish I had more info on, but I have yet to get that coveted marketing job!

2:34 PM  

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