Friday, April 30, 2010

Guest Blog: Why Some Authors Fail

Today, book marketing whiz Penny Sansevieri, president of Author Marketing Experts, Inc., shares with all authors valuable information on what works and what doesn't work in getting your book noticed, bought, and read.

Why (Some) Authors Fail
by Penny C. Sansevieri

Sorry for the buzz kill title of this article, but instead of spreading pixie dust as many marketing articles do, I thought I'd take a hard look at the realities of self-defeating behavior and some of the things authors might buy into that will sabotage their careers. Over the years I've written a lot of articles on how to be successful, but to be successful you must first learn how to fail up, meaning that you learn from what you did wrong, take full responsibility for it and move on. Lessons in publishing are often costly, both in time and dollars. I don't presume to tell you that you should avoid making any mistakes, but many of them are avoidable. Here are a few for you to consider.

Not Learning Enough About the Industry

The first piece of this is simple: get to know the market you are in. This is a bit of a dual message because I'm not just speaking of the market you are promoting to: your area of expertise, but also to the publishing industry at large. Who else is publishing in this area? What are they publishing? Is your area of writing hot or a fading trend? These are all good things to know before you jump headlong into your area. Getting to know your market can help you not only avoid expensive errors but also possibly incorporate trends into your book that could help to leverage its success. How to learn about the industry? Read up on it at sites like, subscribe to the free or paid newsletter the site offers. This will give you a good sense of what's selling, who's buying, what's being published. Publishers Weekly is another good resource. If you can't afford a subscription try their online site at, or check out your local library to see if they carry any copies. This is a great industry resource.

Not Accepting Feedback

A couple of weeks ago an author who has sat in on a number of my classes, both online and off, asked me numerous times how she could get onto Huffington Post as a blogger. I told her I would try to pursue a HuffPo blogger for her to get feedback on her work. I did this as a favor because, well, she was relentless in her pursuit of this and I had to admire that. So, I finally got a blogger to review her work and the critique came back not so good. In fact it was terrible. I sat on it for a day, wondering if I should share it with her. I finally decided that if she was so relentless about her career, she would be equally relentless about crafting a perfect message, right? Not so much, actually. When I forwarded her the feedback she shot me off an email saying that many other people loved it and that astrologically this was a terrible time to accept feedback so she would dismiss it. Some moon phase or something. I honestly can't recall. No, I'm not making this up. OK, listen, full confession time here. I have a friend who calls me whenever Mercury is retrograde, "don't buy anything electronic" she says, and I listen. Well, sometimes. Anyway, point being that I get that we're all driven by a different drummer, but if someone takes the time to critique your work why would you not try to learn from that? Look, I know not everyone is going to be spot-on with their feedback, but take from it what you can and move on - better yourself, better your writing.

Feedback is a crucial part to any writer's career. If someone who is more knowledgeable than you about the industry you are in is willing to give you feedback you should listen. Really. In a room of one hundred authors I can pick out the successful ones. You know who they are? They are the ones who aren't so wrapped up in their egos that they aren't willing to listen and learn.

Not Surrounding Yourself with Enough Professionals

Let's face it, your mother and immediate family will love anything you write. These are not the people who will offer you the kind of guidance that will further your career. Yes, they will (and should) love and support you through this work, but you need professionals you trust by your side giving you advice, wisdom, and direction. You don't need to keep a group of experts on retainer, but you need to know who they are so you can call on them when you need help.

Not Doing Their Research

What would you think of a store owner who opened a yogurt shop in downtown San Diego only to find that five other stores were opening within months of his, one of them a very successful franchise with a huge following? Wouldn't this make you sort of wonder why on earth this store owner would do that, I mean open a store without doing the proper research? Then why on earth would you launch head first into publishing without knowing your market - I mean the publishing market? So many authors learn the ropes after their book is out, and by then it's too late. Well, not too late really because you still have a book, but late in the sense that you can't really do anything about mistakes made and the money it's gonna cost you. There are a ton of online resources out there. Get to know them, I've listed a number of them in this article and there are more, many more. The Internet is abundant with free content. Use it.

Measuring Their Success in Book Sales

Many of you might be shaking your head wondering how I could possibly say this, but it's true. Book sales, even in the best of economic climates, are sketchy and planning your success or failure around them is a very bad way to market your book. Here's the reality: exposure = awareness = sales. The more exposure you get, the more awareness there is for the book, the more sales you may get. But this equation takes time and in the midst of this marketing many other really great non-book-sale-related things may happen. An example of this is an author who didn't really sell a lot of her books as she was marketing, but found that her speaking gigs started to pick up. Each speaking gig netted her about fifty book sales, and because of the market she was in, many of those book sales turned into individual consulting gigs that brought in much more revenue than a single book sale ever could have. Get the picture?

The other reason I say this is because book sales can be tough to calculate, many reporting agencies don't report sales for three to six months. I know this sounds crazy but it's part of the reason why publishing is such a tricky business. So, if you're doing a huge push in December and you look at your statement in January and find that you've only sold 3 books, it might be because you're looking at sales figures from September or October when you weren't doing any marketing at all.

Still not convinced? Then let me share my own story with you. As of today, Red Hot Internet Publicity has been out since July of 2009. I suspect to date it's sold 5,000 or fewer copies. Not impressive, is it? Does that number bother me? Not at all. Want to know why? Because out of the copies sold I have probably brought twenty to thirty new authors on board who will likely be authors for life. Also, I got a teaching gig at NYU because someone handed someone at NYU this book and all of a sudden - there you have it. So if I measured my success by book sales, you bet I'd be depressed. Thank God I don't. Book sales aren't what drive my success. The same should be true for you. Start measuring your success in other ways and book sales will come. I promise.

Seth Godin, aka brilliant marketer, addressed this in a recent blog post too.

Not Understanding How New York Publishing Works

We may not like how the corporate publishing model works, we may find fault with it, but to understand it is to understand how the industry works. For example, knowing the publishing seasons and why Fall is the biggest time for New York publishers to launch a book and perhaps the worst time for you to send your book to market if you've self-published.

Also, know that corporate publishers don't publish to niches, or rarely do, so if you're publishing to a niche, you may have a real leg up.

As for bookstores, the big six in New York pretty much own most of the shelf space in your local Barnes & Noble, so if you're vying to get in there, you are going to have to do more than show up with a book in hand and a winning smile. You're going to have to promote yourself to that local market and gain enough interest for your book that people start asking for it in bookstores.

Understanding the corporate publishing model means knowing and researching your industry and again, not just the industry you are writing for, but the market of publishing in general. Knowing what's selling, what's not - who's buying, who's closing their doors. Knowledge is power. Arm yourself with it and you'll have a much more successful campaign.

Playing the Blame Game

If something goes wrong, own it. Unless it's really not your fault, unless you were taken for a ride somehow, swindled or whatever. Own it. Take responsibility. Here's an example. Recently an author came up to me after a class I taught and said she'd pitched 200 bloggers and only 5 of them wanted her book. What was wrong with them? Well, maybe it wasn't the bloggers at all. Bloggers are busy, busier than they've ever been so your pitch has to be strong and your book exactly right for the blogger you are pitching. If you're not getting a lot of pick up on your pitch you might need a new pitch and/or you might need a new set of bloggers. Don't assume it's someone else's fault. Investigate what happened and take a critical look at the results. If you don't feel you can be objective, hire someone to sift through the data. Assuming success eluded you because of someone else's lack of interest or follow through might be undermining your campaign and you could be missing out on important data that could really help turn your campaign around.

Believing in the Unbelievable

There are no guarantees. No one can promise book sales, fame, or Oprah. Period. End of story. If someone is promising you these things, run, or if the offer seems too good to be true it likely is. If all else fails ask someone you trust. I get folks asking me all the time about campaigns, programs, and marketing opportunities. Feel free to do the same. Whether you are working with us or not, now or in the future, I will always give you a fair and honest answer. If you'd rather go to someone else, great - but find someone whose opinion you trust and ask before signing on the dotted line.

Success is not about hard work alone, it's also about making smart, savvy choices and not being blinded by your own ambition, creativity, or ego such that it undermines your work. To be successful you need to be relentless, believe in your work and your mission but you also need to be objective, realistic, and humble. That is a successful mix for any author and in the end, isn't it really about getting the book out there? Focus on what matters. Good luck!

Helpful Resources:

Some great and helpful books:

* Dan Poynter's Self-Publishing Manual, Volume 2: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book (ParaPublishing, 2009) - Dan Poynter

* The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing: Everything You Need to Know to Write, Publish, Promote and Sell Your Own Book (Writer's Digest, 2009 or 2010) - Marilyn Ross & Sue Collier

* Doing Business by the Book: How to Craft a Crowd-Pleasing Book and Attract More Clients and Speaking Engagements Than You Ever Thought Possible - Sophfronia Scott (Advantage Media Group, 2008)

* 1001 Ways to Market Your Book - John Kremer (Open Horizons, 2009)

* Red Hot Internet Publicity - Penny Sansevieri (Cosimo, 2009)

* Get Published Today - Penny Sansevieri (Lulu Publishing, 2010)

Great Publishing Blogs

* The Self Publishing Review

* POD People

* Nathan Bransford

* Moby Lives

* Holt Uncensored

* The Book Deal

* Galleycat 

For more valuable tips and insider info, check out Penny's website or drop her a line to subscribe to her newsletter.

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  1. Good article. I particularly liked the bit about not accepting criticism and blaming 'the stars'. Happens al too often.

    Rick - can I cross post this to a writing community?



  2. I have to disagree with the first piece of advice you have on this column:

    "...but also possibly incorporate trends into your book that could help to leverage its success."

    I'm sorry, but the publishing industry you're talking about just doesn't move fast enough for an author to succeed by being a trend-follower. It takes YEARS for a book to go from author to bookstore, and by the time it hits, the trend will probably be over.

  3. Charlie,
    I so agree with you about "not accepting criticism". Any artist who is unwilling to learn and grow is doomed. If you want to cross post, I'd suggest asking Penny. Her e-mail is at the bottom of my blog. I'm sure she'll be happy to give you permission, but I don't think it's my place to do so.

  4. Excellent article, thanks!

    Another point is that with traditional publishers tightening their belts, writers MUST embrace the newest models of indie publishing, to build their careers, backlists, fan base (and hopefully bank accounts *LOL*) instead of sitting around and pining for a "traditional" contract just because they want to see their book "in print." Money in hand from e-book sales is far better than a manuscript sitting unsold.

    Lora Leigh is one prime example I hold up to people, that she started out indie and ended up traditionally published. For the writer who wants to work hard at this business, they need to drop the old mindsets and work with the changing dynamics.

  5. I actually didn't mean cross-post, I meant post an incoming link (my brain, she has died) - do you want me to ask her permission for that? (Am happy to do so).


  6. Charlie...I'm sure a link (and even a sampling) is just fine, without asking.

    Lesli...I completely agree with you. The industry is rapidly changing in so many ways. I used to kind of scoff at ebooks and now they mostly outsell my print titles.

  7. I would agree with Nobilis. One should never write with a trend in mind. It's too capricious. However, staying aware of trends can benefit you. I bristle at the thought of tacking on a given trend to an existing story, but when Twilight and True Blood both hit big, the market was ripe for dusting off that teeny bopper vampire tale of yours and submitting it to publishers eager for their own tale of blood-sucking angst. And if B&N's 8' section fat with similarly-themed titles is any indication, we're sitting atop the bubble on that market and it's probably Nosferatoo late to make a submission. At least, it will be harder to get heard because the publishers are looking at all the titles they have already, perhaps seeing slowing sales...

    And Lesli has a good point. My book was such a niche, regional work that it would have been hard for me to get anyone to pick it up. I could have wasted good time trying or struck while interest in the topic was on the rise. I chose the latter and self-published. It's a lot of work, sure, but I enjoy all the rewards as a consequence. Since it was my first effort, I wasn't concerned with sales figures but rather getting my name out there and paving the way for future work.

  8. Excellent article. I agree with not measuring success by book sales and I'll tell you why. I'm a struggling writer with a small e-press and if I were to base my success on my sales I would have probably jumped off a roof by now. LOL What I can say is that in my journey as a writer I have accomplished the following:

    1) Started building a fan base via word of mouth.

    2) I blog regularly and attracted attention with an interview feature I do every Sunday. My second call for interviewees was so successful I filled every slot for 2010 within 72 hours and am still receiving requests 4 months later.

    3) I began blogging for a writing group I'm with and decided my specialty would be movie reviews. Within three weeks I was invited to join a site for upcoming movie reviewers.

    4) My publisher was impressed enough with my success with my blog (I average between 75-100 hits a day) that she offered me the Promo Assistant position that had been vacated. When I accepted she stated that I accomplished more in 3 days than her previous two had in a year.

    4) My blogging paid off again when an editor for an on-line erotic magazine stumbled across my pro-blog and liked what she saw enough to send me a personal invite to submit to the magazine.

    I've found myself writing in ways I never imagined when I started. My name is getting out there, I'm building a reputation for myself that I'm very proud of, and for me that means I'm on the right path. Success doesn't come overnight. It takes hard work and perseverance.

  9. Kudos to you, Jesse, on your success. You're living proof that perseverance and hard work pay off.

  10. Thank you, Rick. I do try. I learned early on that to be a success you had to be willing to listen to what others say. You can't be in this business if you're going to have a thin skin and refuse to take constructive crit.

    One day I hope to be on your level, but until then I will be busting my hump. :-)

  11. Thanks for this! Always looking to hear from professionals about what it takes in the publishing industry there is so much more than just writing a book.

    And I totally agree about taking and accepting criticism. One publisher said I needed to work on my dialog and then was even kind enough to offer a couple of places I could check out. And you know what she was totally right. If it hadn’t been for her poking me into the right direction I would have never picked up on the issue.
    So again thanks for the fab. Article! Was very helpful!

  12. Thanks for posting this Rick! Great article!! There's always so much to learn, every word of advice helps!

  13. Thank you, Rick, and thank you, Penny--again!

    Penny is a fountain of knowledge in this area, and I recommend her book, Red Hot Internet Publicity to anyone who will listen.

    I may not be a household name, but I make steady sales. By participating in various ways online and getting my name "out there," I have had opportunities come my way that allowed me to reach more people, establish my name (and reputation), and I get to do what I enjoy. All this shows in more sales, which is a definite bonus.

  14. Thanks Rick. The article was very helpful and so are most of the comments. I'm up early trying to take control of my career and learning everything I can.

  15. Excellent post. I ran into a link to this on Twitter - writers sharing good advice! Thanks.

  16. Rick, a great article. Penny is the best. Keep the information flowing. Thanks.

  17. Great post, Rick, thanks for sharing it. I especially liked the angle of measuring success in other ways than book sales, it's food for thought.

  18. Wonderful! I have Penny's book and it's been of great value to me in learning the marketing ropes with my first novel.



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