Sunday, May 10, 2009

When "What Makes Sense" Keeps us from "What Works"

Need to sell more of your books? If marketing methods that make sense aren't working, try methods that don't make sense. This kind of thinking isn't unusual in the business world.

  • Who'd have thought that people would pay $3.50 for a cup of coffee? Starbucks did the nonsensical and built a great company.
  • Who'd have thought you could make money by selling products so cheap that real businessmen "just knew" you couldn't make a profit? Wal-Mart did the nonsensical and built the largest retailing outfit in the world.
  • Times were when people "just knew" that the universe revolved around the earth, that the earth was flat, and that time wasn't relative. But thinkers who entertained nonsensical thoughts discovered otherwise.
Assumptions I'm Questioning

So what are some of the things that "everybody who's anybody knows for certain" about selling books, that we might want to question?

Assumption #1: The best places to sell books are in bookstores.
Assumption #2: Businesses that don't currently sell books are the worst prospects for selling my book.
Assumption #3: The larger the bookstore, the better.
Assumption #4: Go for the large cities since more people are there.
Assumption #5: Go for reviews only in the largest newspapers.
Assumption #6: The ultimate is to get on TV.

Why I Question These Assumptions

I now question all these assumptions:

1. If you're a best-selling author with a traditional publisher, bookstores are great places to sell books. Although, after distributors, wholesalers, and bookstores take their cut, you won't get much money for each sale, people know they can find your books there. But if you're not that well-known, or not with a traditional publisher, you'll probably have trouble getting into the bookstore. And if it doesn't sell within a few months, it may be returned to the distributor and never re-ordered.

That's why Dan Poynter is fond of saying something like, "Bookstores are lousy places to sell books." Great places to buy books, just lousy places to sell them. And it makes sense, once you think about it. If my book is one of 100 personal finance books in a large bookstore, why would someone choose mine over the high profile Dave Ramsey's and Suze Ormans? But if they find it in a smaller, non-bookstore setting, there's no competition.

Since my current book is self-published, I'm encountering hurdle after hurdle to getting into bookstores. I've got it into some locally owned bookstores, but chains are much tougher.

2. Businesses that don't currently sell books at all might take some initial convincing to sell my book, but if they take it on consignment, with no risk, they might like the idea of finding a new source of income. That's how my friend David sold 200 books in a local restaurant in about 6 months. I've currently got my book in a consignment clothing and furniture store, and a video rental store. I'll keep you posted as to how these go.

3. Larger bookstores mean more competition for similar books. Amazon means the most competition. If you have a niche book, like my Contemporary Christian Music Debate, Amazon's a great place to sell a book. People searching for "Christian Rock" or "Contemporary Christian Music" find it at the top of their search. But my book on personal finances, Enjoy Your Money!, competes against thousands of books on the same subject. It's unlikely that anyone would find it searching the term "personal finances". (However, once readers hear about the book from other sources, Amazon's a wonderful place to sell my financial book.)

4. While big-time authors should do well signing books in large cities, where they already have followings, I doubt they'd come out for small-time authors. But since most big-time authors go for the large cities, why not go for the smaller cities? People in smaller, established cities actually read their newspapers to get local news. Hearing that an author's in town, they might be delighted to come to the library and hear you talk about your topic and your book.

5. It's great to get coverage in big-time papers that have a large circulation. Three days ago a financial columnist reviewed my book in the Oakland (California) Tribune. I sold 11 books that first day, five the second day, and four the third day. (One personal actually called to order from me, so that I'm reasonably sure where the other orders came from. For the few days prior to the article, none sold at all.) But if you can't get the big papers, realize that several small ones may net you just as many sales.

6. TV is cool, but can be frightening as well. I was on Fox 5's Good Day Atlanta last Thursday. Great potential, but what if I froze up like the Psychiatrist's interview in "What About Bob?". Everything went great, however. Everyone raved about how relaxed I seemed, how I gave great information, how the station highlighted my book and gave great contact information, how they linked to my book information from their Website, etc. Yet, on the day of the broadcast, I sold exactly 0 books. That's not a typo. The next day I sold a few, but I suspect the sales came from my wife telling her facebook friends about the interview.

Am I glad I did the interview? Sure!
  • It exposed a lot of people to the book who may buy it later.
  • People often need to be exposed to a product several times before they purchase.
  • I can purchase the video and use it on and link to it from our publisher's Web page to show other potential media that I can handle interviews.
But still, no immediate sales as a result? I've heard similar stories of people who got big-time media coverage, but no or few sales. (I passed on this phenomenon to publishing consultant John Schuster, suggesting that perhaps "viewers view and readers read." He responded that "several marketing studies have shown exactly that.")

So don't put all your eggs into a few massive events, seeing them as your silver bullets. In the long run, the little, local stuff might be your biggest hit.

What are your experiences with what works and what doesn't concerning selling books? Are you questioning some common assumptions? Post a response and let's learn from each other!