Copyright 2009 by Morris Rosenthal
All Rights Reserved
Research Competing Title Sales And How To Market Books Online
I just moved all of my online book marketing stuff to a new page. This page is mainly about market research.
For most publishers, market research consists of data mining, culling through their own sales data or industry wide data obtained from distributors or subscription services. Imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery in the publishing business, though most authors who've been "flattered" through knock-off titles would have preferred a kind word. Large trade publishers may fool around with focus groups before launching a new initiative, but it would be difficult to justify that sort of overhead cost for an individual title. Publishers will send acquisitions editors to industry events and professional conferences to try to spot hot areas and growing trends, but most new titles are still brought in by authors. As a small publisher or author, there are five free market research tools just waiting for you to take advantage.
1) Bookstore Shelves
I spend a lot of time in bookstores and libraries, and there's plainly a relationship between books consistently appearing on these shelves and actual demand over time. Bookstores, if they are large enough, are a pretty good place keep an eye on mainstream books, but it can be difficult to separate the steady earners from the wallpaper titles. I always check the printing number on the copyright page when I look at books in a store. If a book was published in the last twelve months and it's already in a third or higher printing, that's a strong indication it's selling well. Backlist books stocked by the chains should also go through at least one printing a year. Keep in mind, however, that some pretty strong books don't get stocked for a variety of reasons, especially those from smaller publishers who focus on other distribution methods. Stores can also be slow to stock successful new titles, depending on the season and what the publisher does to promote the book.
2) Library Books
You can measure demand for a library book by checking the wear-and-tear or the number of date stamps, if your library hasn't modernized beyond stamping due dates in books. Unfortunately, this only works for books that are popular enough to be acquired, not popular enough to have been stolen, and which happen to be on the shelf when you visit. Still, if you visit the library on a regular basis, it pays to keep an eye on the subject sections in which you publish. Library collections tend to go light on how-to books (which usually do get stolen when acquired), and they also prefer hardcovers to paperbacks. Still, if you're an author or a publisher who wants to publish books with staying power, library availability is a great way to separate the crazes from the trends.
3) Published Bestseller Lists
Everyone publishes bestseller lists, from the big newspapers to the big distributors-even the independent bookstores club their data to generate a list. All of these lists suffer from being too narrow in scope, but that's the penalty when you pick the top 10 or 25 of anything. There's also the little matter of the positive feedback loop they generate that works to keep an existing "bestseller" on the list and may actually hurt chances for a similar title. Published bestseller lists are only valuable for detecting very broad trends, but you can generate an almost infinite number of custom bestseller lists on Amazon, which we'll talk about in detail later in the chapter.
4) Online Interest
There are lots of ways to determine the online interest in a subject, aside from looking at Amazon or Barnes&Noble.com sales ranks. You can look at the number of public discussion groups and the level of activity in those groups on Yahoo!, Google, or the newsgroups. You can do simple searches on Google and note the raw number of websites that come up for a key phrase. While online interest won't necessarily translate into book sales, it's a pretty good indication that the subject has an audience outside the author and the publisher. If you have the flexibility to engineer your book title, Internet keyword testing beats focus groups for both cost and honesty.
5) Proprietary Data
Publishers can subscribe to services that track book sales at the point of sale or purchase publishing reports outright, but this is a serious expense that small publishers should avoid. If you have your own data from titles you've published, that's the most accurate measure of demand you can find, and it gives you a way to calibrate the sales of other titles that are grouped around yours in terms of online sales ranks or positions in bestseller sorts. The largest U.S. book distributor is Ingram, and you can get their sales numbers for a given ISBN through their automated stock check and sales tool at (615) 213-6803. They limit you to 5 title checks per call. The problem with using Ingram numbers is in estimating what percentage of the title's sales goes through Ingram. That's a tall task, because it depends on how strong the publisher is at direct sales to both consumers and bookstores, who else distributes the book, and where the majority of the sales come from (i.e., independent book stores, chains, supermarkets, specialty stores).
I regularly update my page on publishing industry book sales. It's an excellent place to get a quick background on what the publishing industry is all about and how the dollars are divided up. If you're doing research for the competing titles section of a book proposal, the worst thing you can do is start wildly overestimating the sales of competing titles. They'll either laugh and think you were trying to get a bigger advance, or they'll think you aren't too bright.
How to market your book online
This article is based on personal experience, and rather than simply presenting my conclusions, I'm going to include some of the data they are based on. A logical starting place is a quick review of non-Internet based costs to market a book, and though I'm writing this primarily for small independent presses or self-publishers, it can also be effective with trade published titles. A book I write for McGraw-Hill, "Build Your Own PC," entered a crowded field when it was published in December 1998, yet it's gone on to sell over 100,000 copies in three editions, and has been the bestselling book of it's type for the past four years. I give much of the credit for the original sales impetus to my old content driven website, which attracted over 1,000 individuals a day and sent thousands of shoppers a month to Amazon or to their local retail store to request the book.
The most attractive option to many first-time publishers is passive marketing, paying for an ad or a mailing. After all, it feels serious, committing money to promote your book, it fits nicely into a business plan for those who have one, and most importantly, it's easy. In our experience, it's also been a waste of money. It's not always possible to assess the precise impact of advertising on your sales, particularly if you actively market the book through multiple channels. For example, I've exchanged articles for space in magazines to promote a book published by a major trade, where the success was impossible to track. However, thanks to being a small publisher with a number of active titles and years of experimenting, I can say with some certainty what has and hasn't worked for us.
Here's the quick run down on advertising we've paid for. A cooperative mailing to the 3,000 public libraries in the US with the largest budgets sold three books, two months after the mailing went out. This was a pretty classy mailing, nice envelope, nice stamp, only two other publisher fliers included with ours. The books advertised have both had some success in libraries, were well reviewed, and offered at a 30% discount. People who do a lot of mailings will tell you that repeated exposure is critical, that content must be tuned, that it's been a tough year for libraries. All of these things may be true, but at $600 to participate in the mailing and another $150 for the fliers, we have better uses for our marketing dollars. Displaying two titles in a cooperative booth through a publisher's organization netted zero sales, but at $70 it was a cheap lesson. A small space ad in specialty magazine, following an issue in which the book was reviewed, cost $144 and sold eight books. The only web related advertising expense I've ever made was paying $200 to a Jewish organization's gift shop supplier page to include a link to the Sarah Foner translations on this site. In the first six months, this resulted in zero sales and a bare handful of visitors to the specific page linked. A new Print-On-Demand published author recently wrote to tell me he spent $2300 on a small space ad in the New York Times Book Review to promote his book which resulted in a single sale. The rule of thumb for expensive advertising is it's wasted money unless the author is famous or the ad can quote some superstar saying the book is a must read.
Free advertising has worked much better for us than paid advertising. Every published book review has sold a few books. The sell-through isn't only dependent on the placement and tone of the review, it's also dependent on the availability of your title to the reader. We've been bitten repeatedly by distributors who report to potential customers that our books are out of stock or can't be obtained. Fortunately, some of our customers gone to the effort of contacting us directly when this happens, so we not only get the sale, but we learn something about the distribution channel. Book readings are an effective way to sell books, though the actual sell through is dependent on the particular crowd. An interview on local access television stations produced no noticeable increase in sales. Free advertising also requires a sense of timing. I had a book extract from the Sarah Foner translations published in a Jewish magazine with a circulation of over 100,000. Unfortunately, it was published a year before the book was available!
My best argument for why you should promote your book on the Internet is the fact that you're reading this. It didn't cost me a dime to bring you here and hold your interest down to this point. In fact, the Foner Books website costs me $10/month, and currently averages around 3000 unique visitors per day. The majority of people visiting this site come for the computer or business related material, though my article about Amazon Sales ranks frequently breaks into the top 10 pages by drawing over 50 visitors a day. If you've written a book, you already have the main ingredient needed to build a successful website - content. Nobody will ever give Foner Books an award for artistic excellence, but until the day Google starts taking aesthetics into account in their ranking algorithm, that doesn't matter to me. Take a look at the getting published article if you need to be argued into putting book material online, I'm more concerned with the specifics here.
I had the full draft of my Print On Demand book "Start Your Own Computer Business: The Unembellished Guide" online for a year before I published the book. Sales were pretty sluggish from the start, but I was prepared to ignore it until readers started e-mailing me saying, "I've read the online version. Great book! Am I missing out if I don't buy the published version?" I answered honestly that aside from some editing, proof reading and illustrations, they'd pretty much read the whole thing. Finally, one guy wrote throwing a line from my own book back at me, paraphrased, "Are you running a publishing company or a money losing hobby?"
At that point, I took all but the first three chapters of the book offline, and sales immediately jumped by 200%. The world was right about how to market a book online and I was wrong. You can't give the whole book away for free and not expect it to affect sales. Over three quarters of my Amazon sales for the business book are currently coming through this website, as are around a copy a day in direct sales. The huge surprise to me is that my biggest sales channel for the book has been regular book stores. Even though I only assigned a 35% discount to the title, it's selling by special order through chains like Barnes&Noble, Borders, Daltons, etc... All of these sales are generated through online book promotion, or word-of-mouth from previous website sales.
What are some important factors in a web site to market a book? The only factor that there's no wiggle room for is the site must rank well in Google for relevant searches. Google is currently driving around 75% of the search engine traffic on the web, and I don't know what other sort of traffic there is to be interested in. Millions of words have been written about how to get noticed by Google, most of which depend on underhanded schemes for getting other people to link to your site in exchanges that would make a Wall Street lawyer proud. The simple truth is that Google does such a good job directing web traffic that if you put useful content online, you'll get some of it. About the most important thing you can do is to title your page correctly for the key concept or subject that you're addressing. Take a look at the websites supporting sales of similar books to see what works for those publishers.
We've actually sold books by personal check off our web sites for years, making hundreds of sales that way. Recently, I replaced most of my "Mail a check" text with a link to PayPal to pay by credit card or PayPal account. It certainly can't hurt to accept checks and I've always sold books through Amazon Marketplace, but online direct sales more or less doubled with the addition of the PayPal links. Having all of the sales information at the bottom every page, rather than forcing visitors to click through to a special order page, also seems to help, though I haven't been able to quantify it yet.
Search the self publishing blog archive on marketing - lots of stuff.