THE mystery is worth a book in itself. How could a hitherto unknown novel by Harper Lee, writer of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, remain hidden for 60 years, and why was it not published before? For all the swirling questions, there is one certainty. The book will become a blockbuster without Ms Lee so much as signing a copy. If only every author could be so lucky.
Standing out as a book writer today requires more than a bright idea and limpid prose. Authors need to become businesspeople as well, thinking strategically about their brand, and marketing themselves and their products. There is more competition for readers’ and reviewers’ attention, and fewer bookshops to provide a showcase for new titles. In 2013 some 1.4m print books were published in America, over five times as many as a decade earlier. Publishers are increasingly focusing their efforts on a few titles they think will make a splash, neglecting less well-known authors and less popular themes.
Many authors dream of a happy ending in which, having delivered their magnum opus, they sit back and enjoy an endless stream of royalties. But these days, writing a book is just a prologue to more work. Even the most successful writers need to invest large amounts of time and resources in promoting themselves. Authors mostly used to rely on public-relations staff provided by the publishing house. Now, wise writers hire their own publicists, whether they are unknowns just starting out in the business or stars such as J.K. Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame.
Authors must court an expanding variety of “influencers”—people whose opinions can determine a book’s success. Once a select group of newspaper reviewers were the principal arbiters of literary taste. Now, as the amount of newsprint devoted to reviews keeps shrinking, a host of bloggers and social-media pundits fill the gap. The most important are the celebrity endorsers. Oprah Winfrey used to help books soar up the charts by discussing them on her television show. More recently Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has become an important endorser. Steven Pinker, a psychologist, enjoyed a “Zuckerberg bump” in sales of his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, after the social network’s boss told his online followers he was reading it.
Prizes like the Pulitzer and Man Booker may send sales as high as a librarian’s neckline, but are notoriously hard to win. So are Hollywood film deals. Entrepreneurial authors find it more effective to devote themselves to a more achievable aim: getting onto the bestseller lists. The secret of such lists, the most prominent of which are those in the New York Times, is that they do not measure total sales, but their velocity. Books that fly off the shelves in their first week make the lists, and that in turn boosts their subsequent sales. Pre-orders of books all count toward the first week’s sales figures, so canny authors try to get people to buy copies in advance of publication. Eric Ries, a lecturer on entrepreneurship and innovation, went on a “pre-book” book tour to drum up interest before his work, “The Lean Startup”, even had a firm name, and started selling it online more than a year in advance of its publication. It worked. The book’s cover is now able to boast “the New York Times bestseller” above the title.
Ruthless authors can go even further. The Times compiles its lists by tracking sales at a few thousand shops, wholesalers and online retailers. It is not hard for writers to find out which outlets feed their numbers into the rankings; indeed, there are firms that provide such information, for a fee. Wordsmiths can then route their book tours accordingly, and encourage buyers to place orders at those shops. Another way of working the system is to release a book in a quiet period—such as this month—when there is less competition for a place on the bestseller lists.
It is easier than it used to be to get onto these lists. Last year the Times added 12 new bestseller categories, including travel, humour and spirituality. It has also expanded its main lists, to 20 books, which gives more authors a shot at making the charts. Shrewd authors have realised that “bestseller” is a relative term: in some months and some categories they can make the bottom of a list by selling merely a few thousand copies.
Authors, like other entrepreneurs, should not let failure get to them. If they fail to make aTimes bestseller list, they can always try for another one, such as Amazon’s. Cheap e-books can shoot up the website’s real-time lists, which is how many self-published authors have gained attention. Their moment of glory may have lasted a mere few seconds, but no one needs to know that.
Chapter and purse
The open secret of publishing is that very few authors can live by books alone. Even some of the most successful ones make most of their money from public speaking, consulting or teaching, and use the publicity gained by their books to justify higher fees. Take Chris Anderson, an author (and former journalist at The Economist), who is paid tens of thousands of dollars for each lecture; or Alain de Botton, a writer on philosophy, whose profile brings paying customers to his School of Life. Last month Simon & Schuster, a publisher, announced it would sell online video courses led by some of its authors. Things are more difficult for fiction writers: the organisers of conferences and other events pay good speaking fees to non-fiction writers with a bit of name recognition, but not to the average novelist.
Authors are becoming more like pop stars, who used to make most of their money selling albums but who now use their recordings as promotional tools, earning a living mainly from concerts. The trouble with many budding writers is that they are not cut out for this new world. They are often introverts, preferring solitude to salesmanship. Readers these days want to get to know the creators of the books they buy. Diffident authors may feel uncomfortable with getting so close to their fans. But only the likes of Ms Lee can afford to stay mysterious.
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