Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Capricious Nature of This Life We Live

by Lois Winston
Malice-Go-Round authors
(photo by Greg Puhl)

Malice-Go-Round Attendees
I recently attended Malice Domestic in Bethesda, MD and the Festival of Mystery in Oakmont, PA. As is wont to happen when authors get together at conventions and conferences, there is considerable discussion (and grousing) about the capricious nature of the publishing industry. It got me thinking about why one author will shoot up the bestseller lists when another author with an equally well-written book lingers in obscurity. Over the years, I’ve also seen too many poorly written books take off, climb the lists, and make gobs of money for the authors who wrote them (50 Shades of Crap, anyone?) while fabulous books that should have become bestsellers never caught on.

Mystery fans lined up, waiting to get into the Festival of Mystery
I used to think an author’s success was tied to how much promotion her publisher was willing to give her books and how much effort the author put into social media. But I’ve seen books that had huge publisher support never take off and books shelved spine out alphabetically (meaning, no promo dollars were allocated to the author,) become the book everyone was talking about.

Same for self-promotion. I know a debut author who became ill shortly before her book was to be released. She was too busy fighting her disease to think about flacking her book. Her publisher did nothing for her. Her book wasn’t reviewed anywhere. Yet that book sold and sold well. Six years later she was still receiving royalty checks twice a year from her publisher.

Another author I know had a debut book come out at the same time. Her publisher also spent no promo dollars on her, but this author hired a publicist. She received some pretty good press coverage for her book, including fabulous reviews and a huge write-up in a major newspaper. She barely earned out her paltry advance.

Some authors are phenoms when it comes to social media. Readers hang on their every Tweet and Facebook update. Other authors who do basically the same thing have next to no followers, even though the books are worth reading. Why do readers gravitate to some of these authors and not others equally worthy of having followings? Why does word-of-mouth favor one author’s book over another?

And it’s not just in traditional publishing where you find this. Indie authors experience the same disparity. I know indie authors who write equally good books in the same genre and sell them for the same price. One sells hundreds of books a day while the other sells maybe one or two books a week.

I don’t have any answers. I wish I did. The only conclusion I can draw is that publishing, whether in the traditional arena or as an independent author, is a crapshoot. And success at publishing is even more of one. Roll the dice!
~~~
Award-winning author Lois Winston writes the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series featuring magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack. Lois is also published in women’s fiction, romance, romantic suspense, and non-fiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. In addition, she’s an award-winning crafts and needlework designer and an agent with the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency. Visit Lois at http://www.loiswinston.com, visit Emma at http://www.emmacarlyle.com, and visit Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers character blog, www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com.

23 comments:

Rayne E. Golay said...

It's both daunting and encouraging, depending on which side of the fence I stand.

Jennifer Harlow said...

Luck. It's pure pure luck. The fates either smile on you or they don't. You can up your chances of having them help but in the end it's just chance.

PJ Sharon said...

Deepak Chopra says that "luck is the meeting of opportunity and preparedness." I tend to agree. So much of an author's success has to do with writing the right book at the right time. The publishing industry is always in flux and what readers want today might not be what they want tomorrow, so catching the wave is nearly impossible. If a book catches the top of the wave and readers are ready for what it has to offer, either by way of story or beautiful writing, that book and that author can be riding high. While others might have missed the wave and are floating in the dead zone of calm seas. While others tried to get ahead of it and ended up crushed under the deluge. Enough metaphor? You're right...it's a crap-shoot.

Candice Hughes said...

Good article! The only approach I can think of is to just keep trying and have hope that good books/authors will eventually get noticed. Some people win the author lottery and rocket to the top and others keep slogging along, doing every thing right for minimal returns. Sloggers have to hope that the great karma they're building will help them in the end.

Morgan Mandel said...

The same question could be asked about why one person will hit the lotto jackpot while others keep trying!

Morgan Mandel
http://www.morganmandel.com

Catriona McPherson said...

Usually, kind of, in some way (enough hedging?!) there's something about a bestseller that shines. If Dan Brown with his writing style wrote the PLOTS that . . . say . . . Annie Proulx is drawn to, I think he'd have a day-job. But sometimes you pick up a book that's got great reviews, tons of four and five Amazon rankings and face-out displays and you read it and you just don't get what it is people are seeing.

Deborah Macgillivray said...

Much of what makes a bestseller is timing. Seriously, the range that NY times looks at sales is about a two week period - week of release and week after.

The problem for most authors (print) is books are shipped 3-4 weeks BEFORE release. Those sale miss that target range. It's why you cannot buy Harry Potters until midnight of the release day - the publishers pay a huge "lay down" fee to see the books go out on the day so every book counts to make NY Times list. Publishers only do this for certain authors. Everyone else gets shipped a month before, so have a hard time making that two week corridor.

An author can sell 100,000 books th e month before, while an author that sells 10,000 copies the release week could make NY Times. Notice the black daggers beside titles? That denote authors or publishers who have bought large chunks of their books at the proper point to get on the list. A book that hits that target, can - for that week be a bestseller - but go on to never sell another copy.

Harlequin used to see tens of thousands of copies of their books, yet you don't see that many Harelequin books on the list. So numbers are not as important as when the book hits the self.

Beth Groundwater said...

I agree that it's very hard for an author to see what s/he can do to best promote a new release. I usually try one or two new activities with each release, and drop one or two activities that I don't think were worth the expense. For example, with this release, I'm not ordering new bookmarks or going on an organized virtual tour (though, I'm guesting in June on about a half dozen blogs and blogtalkradio shows). New things I'm trying are an article in Criminal Element and creating Facebook and Goodreads events for the release and inviting all my friends to celebrate with me in cyberspace. Will the changes work? Who knows?

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Fascinating article, Lois. I wish I knew what the magic was. As an example, How to Marry a British Lord had gone out of print until Julian Fellowes mentioned it in an article about his inspiration for Downton Abbey. As a result, that book is back in print and presumably selling well. I remember Nancy Pickard talking about the lack of control we authors have in this. Joe Konrath and I discussed it, too. But we can control the quality of our work, so that's where I put the bulk of my efforts, in writing the best books I can.

Lois Winston said...

Thank you all for stopping by and commenting. Yes, much of an author's success is the karma of having the right book come out at the right time. It's no different than getting a book contract in that respect. The right book has to land on the right editor's desk on the right day. All we can do in the end is what Joanna said. We can only control the quality of our work. So we write the best books we possibly can and hope for the best.

DirtyMartini said...

Yeah, I believe there are way too many factors involved to ever really predict whether something will become a bestseller, or to attempt to try to replicate what others have done, and expect the same results...

I believe all you can do is put out a decent product, promote it as best you know how, and frankly hope for the best...

Cheers,
Alan.

Chester Campbell said...

Enjoyed you post and all the comments, Lois. I agree with the view that it's largely luck. Unfortunately, I'm one of those who if he didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have any. With ebooks, I think a lot of the success and lack of it has to do with the vagaries of promotion. I started putting up free books last fall and it gave a big boost to sales. Now it has fallen way off. All we can do is keep trying, and hoping.

Joyce Lavene said...

I think this all the time. Good blog.

Lois Winston said...

Chester, when Amazon changed their algorithms, free books stopped being helpful to authors' rankings. Personally, I think there are too many readers who download nothing but free books, and that certainly doesn't help authors sell more books. I'd rather see books go on sale for short periods of time than go free. We'd all be better off for it.

Thanks, Joyce!

Angela Adams said...

Great post...and, even "greater" comments. Thanks for giving us food for thought.

Lois Winston said...

Thanks for stopping by, Angela!

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Word of mouth carries on when the promotion is gone. But promotion can get those books into the hands of the readers who will talk about them and recommend them because, on some level and for some reason, they connect with the story.

Lois Winston said...

Carolyn, that's often true, but there are some authors who promote the heck out of their books with little results. While others do no promoting, but word-of-mouth kicks in and provides them with huge sales. It really is a mystery why two authors with equally good books can do the same exact things when it comes to promotion, yet have totally different results. I've seen it happen countless times.

Larissa Reinhart said...

Great post, Lois! It's very frustrating, isn't it? My first book had some good reviews from mystery magazines, etc, but didn't sell much. The second has had no reviews and is now making the top twenty in Amazon charts. I don't get it. I'm just going to keep writing and hope it all evens out in the wash;)
Larissa
Wait a min, maybe you're endorsement of book 2 helped;)

Marilyn Levinson said...

Great topic, Lois. One I think about often. Good luck and good timing come about by chance. All we can do is continue to write the best books we can and get our names and titles out there.

Cindy Sample said...

Great post, Lois, and obviously a topic all authors ponder on a daily basis. It may be a crapshoot but I'm having more fun playing with promotion than I would in a casino. If I ever discover a true recipe for success, I'll share it with one and all. In the meantime, it's back to writing that next great book.

E. F. Watkins said...

I've noticed this random effect with my own books. I just put out my seventh, and as time went on I of course concentrated my publicity efforts on the most recent ones. Yes my first two books--which have almost nothing in common and which I actually put out under slightly different (author) names--continue to be my biggest sellers, especially as ebooks. Are they being heavily cross-promoted on Amazon? Hard to tell. Even the business manager of my publishing company could only guess that it might have something to do with the titles. But the first of these books came out in 2003! Must be good word of mouth somewhere...

Lois Winston said...

Larissa, you give me far too much credit. ;-)

Marilyn, that's all any of us can do in the end. Just keep on keeping on...

Cindy, I doubt there's a true recipe for success, but just in case I'm wrong, thanks for offering to share it if you find it.

E.F., it's nice to hear that books that were published years ago are still selling for you and haven't gone OOP.