What It Takes

What It Takes

The 10,000 Reader Rule

By Shawn Coyne | Published: August 8, 2014

The sum total of my twenty-two years of experience in book publishing comes down to the number 10,000.

What is a book publisher’s job?

Is it to get a writer on The Today Show?

Is it to buy a full-page four-color advertisement on the back page of The New York Times Arts and Leisure section?

Is it to make sure a book is on the front table of Barnes & Noble for its first two weeks on sale?

Is it to entertain every cockamamie marketing idea an author has…Why don’t we have an ice cream social in Times Square to promote my book about William Howard Taft?

I’ve contemplated all of these tactics over the years as an editor at the major book publishers, an independent book publisher, as an agent and even as an author for a Big Five publisher myself.

What I’ve concluded is that a book publisher’s job is to get 10,000 people to try the book.

Ideally, those readers will give their full attention to at least its first paragraph. If they like what they’ve read, they’ll read the second paragraph…and so on.

That’s it.  Get the book to 10,000 people who will sincerely give it a try.

I know, this pronouncement seems glib and just more headline fodder for Buzzfeed, but think about it.

There are three major trade book-reading generations in the United States today.

1. The Baby Boomers (75 million)

2. Generation X (50 million), and

3. Generation Y (75 million).

According to the National Endowment for the Arts survey in 2012, 50% of Americans read at least one book a year for pleasure. So the total market for trade books in general is half of the total populations of Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y…give or take.

That comes to about 100,000,000 people who will read at least one book this year.

10,000 squared.

10,000 times 10,000, a 1:1 ratio.

Call it magical thinking, but for me there’s just something poetic about square roots. The 1 to 1 element mimics a one on one conversation.

We don’t really pay attention unless we have a direct human-to-human exchange of ideas. And I think that’s truer today than ever before. Far fewer of us are susceptible to generic mass media recommendations. When was the last book you bought because it was reviewed in The New York Times?

We don’t really act on anything until a person we trust tells us it’s worthwhile. One to one.

A couple of years ago, Steve and I put this 10,000-reader rule theory to the test when we published The Warrior Ethos. Just to be clear, we never anticipated that The Warrior Ethos would become a backlist bestseller. We published it as a way to increase Steve’s visibility when his Big 5 publisher was publishing his novel The Profession.

We wanted to do all kinds of promotions with The Profession, especially with men and women serving abroad. We wanted to give them free early copies to get word of mouth going. But the publisher had zero interest in giving anything away…eBook, galley or finished hardcover copy.

We even offered to pay for the giveaway, but to no avail. FREE doesn’t play at the big houses. And to do something FREE that might actually work, in their opinion, could set a dangerous precedent.

If we do something like this for Pressfield, then our other authors will want to do it too and before you know it we’ll be giving away as many copies as we sell.

Don’t forget that the big publishers need to recoup their big book advance guarantees as soon as possible so every dollar out the door without any immediately coming back in is a big no-no.

So, instead of crying in our beer (or rather after we cried in our beer), we decided to create something in the vein of The Profession and then give it away ourselves. Our thinking was that someone who reads a book like The Warrior Ethos would probably be interested in Steve’s other work. And if we can pull someone into our little tribe by being generous and thank all of the soldiers who’ve made GATES OF FIRE a major bestseller at the same time, why not?

Initial exposure of "The Warrior Ethos" was 18,000 free copies to Marine Corps and Special Forces units in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at home.

So through Steve and Callie’s connections within the armed forces, we managed to put 18,000 free physical copies into the hands of men and women who would appreciate Steve’s ruminations about the warrior life through history, the meat and potatoes of TWE.

Then for fun, we put it on sale at Amazon and all of the other online places we could think of to see if we could actually sell any after it had already be read for free.

Retail demand for The Warrior Ethos started out slowly. Which was fine by us. Any money that came in just went right to our red ink giving the thing away in the first place.

But then we noticed that month after month the book sold more and more. It went from 40 copies a month to 60 then 80 etc.

Now, three years later, it sells about 1000 copies a month just through word of mouth. We’ve sold over 50,000 copies combined in paperback, eBook and audio. And we’ve done exactly no advertising or publicity for it. It’s not even in bookstores.

Not bad at all.

Now if The Warrior Ethos wasn’t edited properly; if it didn’t have a compelling beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff, it would have sunk like a stone. The 10,000 copies we gave away would have been thrown in the trash and forgotten if it was a bad book.

Giving away a bad book won’t help anyone.

But the fact is that The Warrior Ethos was written, edited and published very well. Now it’s even on the required reading list of the Marine Corps and is ordered in bulk by individual military units, first responders, and even high school athletic teams.

We learned a great deal from publishing The Warrior Ethos and the biggest takeaway is “if the book is well done, the more people who read it and like it no matter how they come to it, the more people will buy it down the road.”

Exposing 10,000 people who care about the arena of your book gives you a chance that enough of them will actually read it and then recommend it to someone else. That word of mouth will keep the book alive from one year to the next.

So the question that a publisher should ask about a book is not how many copies it might sell in its first year, but rather if the publisher had to give away 10,000 copies, how difficult would that be?

How hard is it to find 10,000 people who when handed a free copy by a friend would actually read it? If you can’t give ‘em away for free, chances are you won’t sell very many.

Posted in What It Takes

12 Responses to “The 10,000 Reader Rule”

  1. August 8, 2014 at 6:13 am

    Any relation to Kevin Kelley’s 1000 True Fans?

  2. August 8, 2014 at 6:41 am

    I love it. In the advertising world the thinking is that good advertising will only accelerate what was going to happen anyway. It’ll make a great business more successful, more quickly than would have happened anyway, and it will make a lousy business or product fail more quickly and spectacularly. Great ads don’t mean squat when your buddy tells you the product sucks.

    Why would the book marketing world be any different?

    Apparently it isn’t. At least not for perennial or backlist sellers. And to keep the powers of 10 thing going, according to a recent McKinsey study, peer reviews are 10 times more powerful than a salesperson’s recommendation.

    Great post, Shawn. Thanks.

  3. Mary Doyle
    August 8, 2014 at 6:57 am

    I love this – you guys followed your gut instinct, put the book out there to the readers who could benefit most from it, and the readership did the rest. I wonder if any of the Big 5 folks read this blog – they could learn something, that’s for sure – thanks for a great post Shawn!

  4. August 8, 2014 at 7:32 am

    I was fascinated by the “10,000 Reader Rule” when you first mentioned it last week. (btw, if I haven’t said this before, I truly admire not just your time in publishing, but the quality and breadth of your experience, as well as your generosity in sharing it. You are what I envision an editor ought to be. While you are not alone (I’ve had contact with some good ones in the magazine field), you and those like you are too rare these days.)

    Aside from meshing the long-term value of a book with the short-term entrance, a qualifier to be at the table or on the bookshelf, the 10,000 reader rule sets a realistic goal for writer and publisher. Finding an audience, creating a tribe (very Seth Godin like). Perhaps authors look at movie and TV audiences with a touch of jealousy or whimsy – the numbers are scaled differently. But so is the investment, the competition and the number of people with fingers and toes in the works.

    As you say, quality of content and production is the sine qua non, but the 10,000 reader rule is an excellent frame, not only of reference, but of work-genre definition. I remember back in the 60s, and early 70s, before Star Wars, that SF &F novels had a “guaranteed” audience of about 3,000. (Hence the “rule” that B and C list writers had to do 3 books a year to make a living.) Put SF or Fantasy on the cover, and, unless the book was putrid, it’d get minimum 3,000 sales. Good books, or name authors, would get to 5,000. (Poul Anderson, for example, and that group.) The bigger names (Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov – except he wasn’t doing much SF in that period) would get beyond 5,000, maybe to the magical 10,000 (not sure of those numbers). I think that “minimum genre readership number” applied to other fields, such as romance, mystery and western, though the numbers may have varied. It’d be fascinating to get some hard stats about that, then and now. Thanks!

  5. August 8, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Amazing. Convincing. Challenging.
    Thanks Shawn.

  6. August 8, 2014 at 9:46 am

    Fascinating, Shawn. I loved how you’ve taken a marketing practice and broke it down to an-almost mathematical equation, then proved it validity. Great post!

  7. August 8, 2014 at 11:30 am

    Thanks for the idea, which sparked another idea, which FEELS right.

    I’ll let you know if it works – but it has a huge potential for me if it does.

    Alicia

  8. August 8, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Love this, Shawn. I’m developing a long tail campaign for my YA fantasy series based on this idea for when my book 3 in the series comes out. Thanks for the inspiring view. And I really agree with you that it’s all about the one-on-one connections. I get that. Now just to execute!

  9. August 8, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Love this insight! Although I have to say I read few books on recommendation from friends and buy quite a few on Wall Street Journal reviews and then pass them on to my friends!

  10. August 9, 2014 at 11:25 am

    I am glad my high school Latin students and I could be part of that number. We used The Warrior Ethos in a class project with great results, which are discussed here: http://intoy2014.blogspot.com/2014_05_01_archive.html.

  11. August 14, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Wow! Thank you. If, I can only think of 10,000 people, better yet.. coming up with the funds to print 10,000 books. So, in the meantime I’ll challenge myself to find 10,000 ways to be more creative… Now you have me ticking! Thanks again!!!!

  12. August 20, 2014 at 7:56 am

    Very interesting idea. I have noticed that almost every book I buy is because somebody I trust recommended it to me–and coincidentally, none of those people are professional reviewers.