What It Takes

What It Takes

Rubber Meets Road

By Shawn Coyne | Published: January 7, 2011

My last post was about the tried-and-true book publishing methods of making sure that the most important element of publication—getting books in stores and displayed—is successful. Selling-in a book at the retail and wholesale level is vitally important. So the early discussion at our December 1, 2010, marketing/publicity meeting at Crown covered this ground. Here is what is planned for The Profession.

  • Crown will feature The Profession as a lead title in its summer 2011 catalog. A publisher’s catalog is a sales rep’s calling card. Getting featured placement in it is crucial to launch a bestseller campaign.
  • Crown will produce advance reading galleys of The Profession (an early copy of the book in a paperback format) and distribute them to its sales force in January 2011, five months before the book goes on sale. Crown’s sales reps—the people who actually solicit orders—will read the book and pass on copies to the buyers and bookstore managers at the major chains before they ask them for an order.
  • An additional quantity of galleys will be given to Steve and me to solicit advance praise for the book from big thriller writers—just like we did with Gates of Fire. Armed with these quotes and having many of the buyers read the book before ordering, the sales reps will be in a better position to convince retailers to take a big position. That is, bookstore buyers will order a critical mass of copies (enough out there to make the bestseller list out of the gate) of The Profession and display the book prominently in their stores.
  • As many retailers and wholesalers have e-newsletters that target consumers, Crown’s marketing and publicity departments also suggested that Steve do an interview with them to give deep background about the genesis of the book and how he came to write it. The interview will help in the pitch to the editors of these newsletters to include The Profession in their “Hot Picks” for summer reading. The interview will also be included in the galley hand-off so that those bookstore managers or buyers who wouldn’t ordinarily read a book with a military theme can get a sense of the craft and its raison d’être.

These plans are traditional ways of getting retailers’ and wholesalers’ attention. The message communicated by the above campaign is “pay attention to this one.”

Steve and I listened and nodded as these plans were laid out. This is a great start and it’s obvious that Crown has every intention of communicating to its sales force and the retail world that The Profession has “bestseller” written all over it. I’m excited.

We’ve got the basics down. I’m confident Crown’s sales reps will hit the ground running. I know a lot of them from my days as an editor and they are real pros. They care. They’ll get The Profession great placement in stores and I know there will be enough copies out there to give Steve a real shot at The New York Times bestseller list from day one. Big Big Win for The Profession.

Now we can talk about how we can take the next step. My inner agitator is ready to let loose. As you’ll recall, my “Getting the Meeting” post was about how the big trade publishers spend their energy selling to retailers and wholesalers—not consumers. That will have to change.

This post is going live just as the Borders Group bookstore chain is in deep trouble. Borders has failed to pay its bills to publishers and there have been massive resignations at the top of their management. Book publishers, agents and authors can no longer ignore the fact that bricks-and-mortar bookstore retailing is in serious trouble—like “Tower Records/Virgin/Sam Goody/Coconuts/National Record Mart” trouble.

If dedicated bricks-and-mortar bookstores fall, will people stop reading and buying books? Not on your life. It will take some time, but the big boxes and online retailers will eventually absorb the physical book market. But as I discussed in “The Sell In,” big box retailers are Darwinian enterprises. They only stock product that moves. In the very foreseeable future, if you do not have an instant audience for your book, you will not get physical distribution at the retail level.

What this all means is that writers have to form a direct connection with their audience. A publisher can’t do that, only a writer can. A writer’s job is no longer just about delivering the manuscript to her publisher, vetting copyediting and galley pages, and then waiting for the book to be published to great acclaim and bestsellerdom. Callie impressed this upon Steve in no uncertain terms when they launched his blog. Thank God!

So now that we’ve covered the plans to get The Profession traditional retailer support, Steve and I want to explore with Crown the best way to reach the people who would actually want to buy The Profession. Can we corral Pressfield buyers early on and engage them in a dialogue about The Profession before we even go on sale? How would we do that? What is our goal before his sucker even goes on sale and how can we achieve it?

Steve, Callie, Jeff and I spent weeks discussing all of these questions before our meeting with Crown. Here is what we came up with.

Our goal: We want The Profession to hit The New York Times bestseller list in its first week on sale.

Why is The New York Times bestseller list so important?

It guarantees substantial in-store and online placement. The first thing you see when you walk into a bookstore is a shelf loaded with bestsellers. We want The Profession to be on that shelf because it will double the book’s retail exposure. Crown’s sales reps will work like Hell to get The Profession front of store and on the NEW FICTION table for at least the first two weeks it goes on sale.

But if the book isn’t moving in those two weeks, the store puts another novel in place of The Profession, copies are returned to Crown for full credit, leaving only a few per store stuck deep into the stacks for tenacious Pressfield lovers to find. Nothing personal. Just business. Without Crown we’d never even get a chance to be front of store. We don’t want to blow this opportunity.

If we can get The Profession on the bestseller shelf out of the gate, it will give us two bites of the apple in that critical two- week window. It will move the books that are waiting in the store’s back room, to replace the sold copies on the NEW FICTION table, out of their boxes and onto the prime bestseller location on the sales floor.

The same goes for Amazon and BN.com. If it is a New York Times bestseller, The Profession will get additional promotion by all of the retailers and that wonderful thing called “momentum” starts to happen.

In the mass market pre-internet era, the adage was that the consumer has to be exposed to a new product at least three times before they even register its existence. Today, I’d wager that ten exposures (a display, a print ad, a radio ad, an online ad, a review etc.) don’t even cut through our “buy buy buy” cultural noise. We’ve turned off our brains to constant barrage.

But the very very good news is that we now have opportunities to generate “social exposures.” Or what we used to call a recommendation from a friend or respected colleague. “Dude, just read this awesome book. You should check it out.” That is what sells books. Always has. Always will.

Back to brass tacks.

How many copies do you have to sell to get on The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list?

It depends on the time of year and the specific week a book goes on sale. In the fall, it’s very difficult to get on the list because that is when the brand writers (Clancy, Franzen, Steele, Coben, Cussler, Roberts, etc.) come out with their latest novels. The big guns sell tens of thousands of copies a week and if the list is loaded with them, a writer who doesn’t have big box/wholesaler appeal is frozen out.

The very first discussion I had with Steve’s editor was to move him out of the fall season and get him into his sweet spot: Father’s Day! What better gift for dad than a Pressfield novel? It was an easy sell to Crown. In fact, they were way ahead of me. They were hoping that Steve delivered The Profession with enough time to make that happen. Steve did and they moved his pub date from October to June the same week they got the manuscript.

I tracked sales figures from 2010 for the corresponding week that The Profession goes on sale. I discovered that 15,000 units is the magic number to get us safely in the top 15 for a mid-June on-sale date.

Now we have the most critical element for success. A number. Without a number, we’d be lost. A number gives you clarity. Don’t fear a number. Embrace the number. It will focus you like nothing else. Why? Because a number won’t let you bullshit yourself.

You can come up with the most original and remarkable marketing idea. Your friends and colleagues will think you’re a genius. But if it doesn’t get you closer to your number—no matter how cool it is—you have to kill that promotion and kill it quickly. Try something else. If you don’t have a number and a way to measure your progress, how are you going to know if you’re marketing is working? You won’t.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road:

We must sell 15,000 copies of The Profession the first week it goes on sale.

I did some more research and discovered that Steve’s previous novels have sold on average 3,000 copies their first week on sale. They go on to sell a lot more than that (he averages about 250,000 copies sold for each) but his previous novels are not akin to The Profession.

Adding 12,000 buyers to Steve’s core of 3,000 first week buyers is ambitious. But we have the book to do it.

On the surface, The Profession is an action packed/instant gratification kind of read—a popcorn airport indulgence. It’s the kind of book that only a handful of writers can do well—plot driven, lean, and immersive. But that is just the window dressing. Deep down it’s as epic and specific and literary as Gates of Fire. The Profession has what it takes to bring in a whole new audience for Steve, but it also has the gravitas to satisfy Steve’s core devotees.

I’ll do a post about what makes it so special down the road. I’ll cover the “inside baseball” of it as well as offer my professorial literary analysis. I don’t get to do too much of that kind of wonky writing, so I look forward to it. That post will also give you a sense of why some books are given a big push by publishers and why others aren’t. What a “Big Book” really is.

Back to the December 1 meeting at Crown: As I turn the page of the marketing agenda I see the phrase “Consumer Awareness Building.” Now it’s time to unleash my inner “agitator.”

I rudely interrupt: “How can we convert Steve’s 3,000 copy first week track record into a 15,000 first week performance?”

To be continued.

Posted in What It Takes

15 Responses to “Rubber Meets Road”

  1. January 7, 2011 at 6:42 am

    These posts are some of the most enlightening & insightful articles I’ve read on how the real business of publishing — and by only a slight stretch, I’m sure music & movies — works. The world is absolutely changing underneath our very feets and creative individuals looking to make a living from their creations need to take heed. And good notes.

    Beyond that, Shawn’s writing is just plan good reading!

    Thanks so much for this continuing series.

  2. Ulla Lauridsen
    January 7, 2011 at 7:19 am

    Can I read the first few pages anywhere? You’ve actually got me interested, but I think you are being a bit coy.

    • Shawn Coyne
      January 7, 2011 at 4:18 pm

      Hi Ulla,

      Steve and Callie spoke with the folks at Crown today and we’ll be able to offer the first couple of chapters of THE PROFESSION sometime next week.

      If you were referring to earlier posts of WHAT IT TAKES, you can go to the top banner under “The Series” and read them sequentially.

      Shawn

  3. Pam Burks
    January 7, 2011 at 7:43 am

    I have to agree that these posts are very enlightening, and a fascinating look into getting your work published.

    Although Shawn’s earlier comment, “for all of the hoopla about eBooks today, 90% of Steve’s audience will buy physical copies of THE PROFESSION at the tried and true distribution outlets” may have been true a month ago, I would posit that may not continue to be true for a simple reason: Christmas came. Many reports place Amazon’s Kindle sales for 2010 at 8 million units. Add BN’s Nook, and the current buzz at CES about tablet device sales (it ain’t just iPads anymore), there’s huge market potential there.

    For what it’s worth, my favorite vendor is eBooks.com. They are application and device independent. If I forget my reader (or tablet) I can keep reading my book by logging into my account on any PC. I’m glad “The Professional” will be on eBooks.com – could “War of Art”, be made available there too?

    It’s easy to drop a link into a Facebook post or email about how awesome a writer Steven is, and hey – he has a new book coming out! I hope the next post shares some of the ebook strategy, so his fans can join in that effort too.

    • Pam Burks
      January 7, 2011 at 7:53 am

      Pardon me – “The Profession.”

  4. January 7, 2011 at 8:06 am

    Shawn,

    Do those 15,000 copies have to be sold by specific retailers? Do some retailers count more than others? In other words, what if 10K came from online sales – pre-orders, kindle editions, etc – and only $5K came from bricks and mortar book sellers and big box stores. Is that good enough or do you need the sales to come from people physically walking into the store and buying the book at the cash register? Just curious.

    – Jeff

    • Shawn Coyne
      January 7, 2011 at 9:34 am

      Jeff,

      I was going to get into the 15,000 copy breakdown next post, but since you asked, here goes:
      The New York Times Hardcover bestseller list tracks a wide swath of retailers. The usual suspects…BN, Borders, some reporting “Indie” Stores, Amazon, Books a Million, Hastings etc. are included. The Times is not completely transparent about the full source list or how they get all of its numbers because they want to discourage authors from “gaming” the system. Despite the Times efforts, the system has been gamed over the years. Usually bulk order purchases…that is a group of people are hired to go out and buy up a book’s inventory across the country on one day or over a week.

      If you look at the list from week to week, every now and then you’ll find a title that bangs on at a high number one week and then falls way down the list the next or even falls completely off of the list to never return. That book was probably “gamed” on. It’s an honor to be a New York Times bestselling author, so some people will do anything to get that moniker. Not many people do it because it’s expensive and against the whole spirit of the thing to begin with…”Yay for me! I cheated and won!” doesn’t warm the cockles of most people’s hearts. At least I hope not.

      What is important to know is that the list represents “velocity” of sales for one particular week, not cumulative sales. That makes sense because if the list just tracked cumulative sales, it wouldn’t be very dynamic…this week holding on at #1 is The Bible and at #2 The Bible, New Testament etc.

      The hardcover list does not count electronic book sales. The Times is going to begin a separate eBook bestseller list in the very near future so stay tuned for that. I think that’s going to be really great for everyone, especially for those writers who cannot find traditional physical distribution.

      Here’s the rub about the list right now that excites me. And I think it will be a real game changer for the industry as the years and even months go by… Any pre-order for a book (someone who buys the book online before it is published) is counted as a sale during the first week of publication.

      This is a pretty cool piece of information. Why?

      One of the big big problems of book publishing is WASTE. There is not one person who likes the fact that we print books, only to have them returned and in many cases destroyed without anyone having ever read them. It bums everyone out. It happens because publishers have had to wait until publication to actually sell their books. And as my posts in the past have shown, publishers have had to take an educated guess about what books will succeed and at what level.

      Years ago, publishers would make big pre-publication announcements…100,000 copy first print! to tell retailers what their big books were. They never would print 100,000 copies blindly, rather they’d print about 5 to 10 thousand more than their initial orders–enough to fulfill reorders but not enough to keep them awake at night. If the book worked and began to sell, they’d go back to press to meet demand etc.

      But what happens when a publisher makes a mistake? They convince retailers to take say 30,000 copies of a book before it goes on sale. Stores are filled with them the day it goes on sale. And then no one buys the book. It’s pulp city. Writers lose their careers over such mistakes. Publishers lose a lot of $.

      Today though, we’re close to eliminating a ton of waste. How? The fact that pre-orders count during the first week of on sale for the bestseller lists will encourage publishers and writers to sell their books before they go to press.

      When we meet our goal of 15,000 pre-orders of THE PROFESSION, Crown will have a much better sense of how many copies to initially print. They’ll know even before the book goes on sale that they have a New York Times bestseller. They’ll even have income coming in before they print one copy. Imagine that!

      The retailers will also be able to see that Steve’s book has real momentum even before it goes on sale. So, they’ll pay more attention to it. Give it even more placement etc.

      Now do you see why it’s so important for writers to find their peeps and talk to them before they even publish their books?

      If a writer has an authentic relationship with her readers…she’s not disingenuous or hucksterish, but rather giving and respectful to the people who enjoy her work, her readers become the real force that makes her work live.

      Being a bestselling writer is great. There’s a better living to be had by being one etc. But writers are writers no matter how many copies they sell or if they ever get published. It took Pressfield decades before he got a penny for the hundreds of thousands of words he put on paper. His “first novel” was probably really his thirtieth. What matters to real writers is getting people to read, think about and share their creations.

      Melville almost killed himself writing Moby Dick. Guess what…when it was published no one liked it. Not true. Millions would love it, but Melville how no way to talk to them. It took years for one of the top five American Novels to find a compelling audience. He died without ever really knowing that his life’s work touched millions of people. That sucks.

      Joe Schmoe in Kokomo could be writing another MOBY DICK right now. Chances are that if he takes his relationship with people who like his work as seriously as he does his work, he’ll not be muttering about being unappreciated on his death bed.

      We read about the failures and crises in book publishing just about every day. I think that’s a bunch of crap. With the advent of honest two way communication between a writer and her readers, we are living in the dawn of a literary renaissance.

      Shawn

      • January 9, 2011 at 1:24 pm

        Shawn,

        Thanks so much for the run down. I knew that velocity of sales mattered a lot, and that the NYT only counted certain distributors (I have a colleague in the book gaming business), but wasn’t sure where pre-orders stood.

        Well, how early can you convince the sellers to start taking pre-orders? And are there rules against free-miums and bonus items that could be offered to readers who place a pre-order (vs. buying one on the day of release)?

        I’m sure you’ve already thought of all this, but after reading your response, the stuff that’s coming to mind are the things the movie industry does with DVD extras: interviews, cut scenes, production peaks, etc. Is it permissible to drive pre-order sales by offering that kind of thing as a pre-order bonus? Include a booklet/CD package with a few chapters Steve had to cut but still loves, some interviews of Steve about the book, etc.

        Or would all that disqualify a pre-order in counting towards first week sales?

  5. January 7, 2011 at 8:16 am

    Another fantastic post!

    Looks like I’ll be using my $25 Border’s gift card today before it’s actual worth plummets to that of a plastic bookmark!

    Thanks for the heads up!

  6. January 7, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Another great post on the road to publishing! Thanks so much for the incite.

  7. Wiz
    January 7, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Wow! I can’t believe the education people are missing by not reading this blog.

  8. January 7, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Wow! This post is breathtaking in its informativeness (is that a word?) Anyway, thank you so much for sharing.

    I would love to hear more about how, exactly, to calculate your goal number. This is HUGE information – most people in the industry that you ask only give an “it depends…” sort of answer. I guess my agent and publisher could help me figure that out at some point, but I’d love to know now, while I’m still revising the book, so that I can know what I should be shooting for.

    On another note, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said this: “If a writer has an authentic relationship with her readers…” One thing that the new media facilitate, and that consumers are starting to demand, is that real, personal connection with an author.

    Thank you for an excellent post! It’s a goldmine!

    • Shawn Coyne
      January 7, 2011 at 5:53 pm

      Jennifer,

      Here is the method and reasoning I used to calculate the necessary number of units I think THE PROFESSION must sell to hit The New York Times Bestseller list for the first week it goes on sale.

      The first thing you should do is find out when your book actually goes on sale. Not the generic pub month, but the actual day books are displayed in-store or online. Each publisher has a day that serves as its “official” on sale date. The Random House imprints use Tuesday. Let’s say it’s next week, Tuesday January 11, 2011.

      What that means is that you’ll have 6 days the first week to log sales instead of 7–better than 4 right? So you better rally the troops to buy those first six days. What’s happened to me before is that from a Tuesday through Sunday, a book will sell 2,000 copies, then on Monday when the fever pitch from the weekend publicity bears fruit, another 2,000 are sold on that one day…but then the rest of the week it tails off. If those 2,000 Monday buyers had just bought their books on Sunday, there would have been enough momentum to get on the list. Definitely worth knowing.

      The New York Times’ list will not be “in print” (meaning physically in paper form) until almost three weeks after you actually go on sale.

      So, your first official week on sale for your book that appears in stores on January 11, 2011 will end on Sunday January 16, 2011. The Times starts to collect its numbers on Monday January 17, 2011 for the books that were on sale from January 10 through January 16. But it does not publish the results of that week until January 30, 2011.

      What that means is that the results of your “first week on sale” will not be reported by The New York Times in the paper until Sunday January 30, 2011.

      In order to estimate how many copies you should shoot for in order to make the list, you should analyze how many copies each of the top 15 titles (or 35 if you’re looking to appear on the extended list) sold the previous year for your particular week on sale. That is, you should go into The New York Times bestseller archives (available online) and write down all of the titles that appeared on the January 31, 2010 bestseller list for your particular category (Hardcover fiction, Hardcover nonfiction, trade paperback fiction, trade paperback nonfiction etc.)

      Now that you have the titles from the analogous week from the previous year, you have to call in favors.

      You’ll need access to Nielsen Bookscan to find the sales numbers for these titles for that particular week. It takes a little work to track back to the week that you need, but it can be done. Bookscan actually has sales figures for every week a book is on sale so you can see how many copies your book sells every week it’s alive in the marketplace. Great Info!

      So say The Bible was #1 the previous year during the analogous first week on sale for your book and Bookscan says it sold 50,000 copies that week. And The Great Gatsby was #15 and it sold 10,000 that week.

      You’re still not done. Bookscan tracks 70% of sales. We don’t know what real number The New York Times tracks. So to be safe, you should divide 50,000 by .70 (70%) and 10,000 by .70 to get you the range that you’ll need to shoot for.

      So The Bible actually sold 71,428 copies that week at #1 and that The Great Gatsby sold 14,285 at #15. To make the list for the same week a year later, it’s a good bet that you’ll need to sell between 14,285 and 71,428. To be safe, I’d shoot to sell 25,000 copies that first week.

      How do you get access to Bookscan? Your publisher has access and perhaps your agent will be able to call in some favors around town for the numbers you need. You’ll need to give them the titles and the week on sale to make it all work.

      Hope this helps.
      Shawn

  9. June 8, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    I sort of disagree with you on this one, but I can see that you made your point well.

  10. June 28, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    I would not think the novel may fall towards the e-reader anytime soon. Your odor of a fresh publication is something a good e-reader can’t duplicate.