Mark Terry

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

You Seek Yoda?

December 1, 2009
Over on my Facebook wall Natasha Fondren and Jude Harden and I were quibbling over a situation I'm facing regarding a possible book signing at an annual conference I attend. We asked the association that hosts the conference (I am the editor of their technical journal) if I could set up a table and bring in a bookseller to sell copies of my next novel, The Fallen. The executive director said yes, but she'd run it by the meeting organizers. They came back with the possibility of either charging me for floor space or charging me a percentage of sales, both of which I'm balking at, at least at the moment.

Anyway, Jude made what I thought was a fairly provocative statement or two, basically that the point of a book signing is to get your book into the hands of as many people as possible so you can sell more copies of the next book. This is, by no means, the first time I've heard this. I pointed out that The Fallen will be my 5th book and 4th novel and over the preceding years I have gone to conferences, done book signings, given Rotary Club Talks, Library talks, book fairs, given seminars, discounted books, sold books at cost, given books away, given books away to reviewers, donated books to the military, pretty much ad nauseum. All pretty much in the name of this-will-help-sell-the-next-book.

So here's my question to you.

What is more important to you? Readers? Or books sold?

And because this is my blog post, here's the restriction: you can't pick both. You have to pick one or the other. If you pick both I will scold you and give you 40 metaphorical lashes with a wet noodle. One or t'other, folks.

For me? Books sold. As crass and money-fixated as that may be (and you say that as if it's a bad thing), I'm running a business here and my time, money, and energy is finite. If I just wanted readers I'd publish them on my website for free.

What do you seek, my friends?


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Books sold. Yes, in my town I have made personal connections, and on my blog the same thing . . . and in SOME cases (you covered this on your blog a bit ago) you can count on that being an auto-buy of you--though not always . . . in the end, there is but so much ground you can cover in hand-selling. And this is not meant to be rude or a putdown of nonpubbed writers, but I think the people who are convinced signings make a difference one reader at a time haven't done too many of them. It's a painstaking thing and in order for it to make a difference, you've got to be someone like Konrath, who will freely state something along the lines of a tradeoff of parenting with being on the road. I have four kids. What I am WILLING (not can) to do to promote myself has limits. They come first and always will.


7:05 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

"And this is not meant to be rude or a putdown of nonpubbed writers, but I think the people who are convinced signings make a difference one reader at a time haven't done too many of them."

Yeah, and it's really only something you can judge once you've done it. I once thought it would be fun and you'd have a sense of accomplishment, but now, having done enough of them, I've figured out which ones I like doing (talks, preferably paid talks), and which ones I don't (almost everything else). That isn't to say that I don't put on my Professional Happy Face and go do them, but they're work, a lot of work, and they take up a HUGE amount of time and energy. And as I'm arguing with Jude, the return on investment not only is not measurable, it's just NOT THERE.

I know Konrath got a lot of kudos for his 600+ self-created book tour, but he was gone for weeks and I can't and won't do that to my family. If I wanted to be a traveling salesman, that's the kind of job I would have looked for.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Here's the last comment I made on Facebook:

If you measure the success of a signing by the number of books sold, then nearly every signing (even the ones done by NYT bestsellers) is a failure. In fact, at the signings I've been to, most of the audience members already had a copy of the book. Promotion is all about future sales. Of course it's not an exact science, but most authors seem to think it helps.

So how many copies of a book do you need to sell to deem a signing a success? My guess is that signings are hardly ever profitable in the short run, unless your name happens to be Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer. For the rest of us (not that I've been there, but I plan to be someday), it's all about promotion, and promotion is all about future sales.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

I followed that discussion on Facebook and resisted contributing, mainly because the venue doesn't invite long contributions.

I'm with Jude. I keep hearing that publishing is a business, yet some of the same people who preach the advice don't act like business people.

The guy who assembles computer components in his garage, hoping one day to build an empire, isn't looking for profit. In fact he's borrowing heavily and doesn't expect to be in the black for years.

The chef who opens a new restaurant had better be prepared to lose money for at least the first year. In fact the reason most small businesses fail is because they're undercapitalized.

In a former life I published maps, and I didn't expect to make any money in the first printing, or the first edition, or the first year---or sometimes ever. And I'm not going to make money on my first novel, either. I'm going to lose money.

The advice I've gotten is to spend only ten percent of my advance on promotion. WTF? My promotional costs the first year will be at least five times my advance. If you think that's insane, you've never tried to launch an empire in your garage.

So, readers or sales? READERS. Fuck the sales. It's not about the sales. Jude is right: surrender your advance, your royalties, everything. Do whatever it takes.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I know Konrath got a lot of kudos for his 600+ self-created book tour, but he was gone for weeks and I can't and won't do that to my family. If I wanted to be a traveling salesman, that's the kind of job I would have looked for.

Do you think that trip was profitable for him in the short run? Do you think he hand-sold enough books to even pay for his gasoline?

Do you think Tess Gerritsen sells enough books at her signings to cover her publisher's expenses like airfare, hotel, and a friggin' media escort.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

Comment moderation is hampering this discussion.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

My opinion--and that's what it is--is that successful book signings don't make bestsellers; bestsellers make successful book signings.

Will doing book signings and promotion sell more books? Ultimately, yes. I think so. Certainly more than doing none.

Is it cost-effective and time-effective? Uh, no. Not for anybody. Which is largely why publishers have pushed the expense and time off on the authors, they don't think it's worth their time and money.

Don't forget, historically, the point of an author tour wasn't to sell books, it was to get authors into a city where they could then get media exposure--newspapers, radio and TV. But that's shifted, and along with it, the usefulness of author tours. Now it's just going to bookstores and only a certain type of reader bothers with bookstore events (who are reluctant to host anyone who isn't a brand name or bestseller anyway, because they do it to bring people into the store, not to promote an author's career).

7:36 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Who told you 10%? They used to tell us expect to use your entire advance (not hard, as I think you know). But at what point do you start wondering when your advance will outstrip your promotional expenses. If you bought a pizza franchise, how long can you continue marketing and paying overhead without turning a profit?

My first book, Catfish Guru, was published in 2002. My first novel, Dirty Deeds, in 2004. Now, The Fallen comes out in 2010.

Am I making more money than I'm spending on promotion?

Not so far. So how long?

7:39 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm trying to keep up, but I'm going to have to head out of the office soon.

7:40 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

If you bought a pizza franchise, how long can you continue marketing and paying overhead without turning a profit?

If it were my dream to operate a pizza business, I would do whatever it took to make it work.

By the way, I don't know why the focus is on book signings. They're inefficient, to say the least. I don't intend to do any at all.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Also, in terms of Konrath, he's an outlier, although I'm not sure he'll admit it. He received a 6-figure advance for his first contract. Writing novels is what he does for a living. If I received a 6-figure contract, I'd promote the hell out of my books, too, simply because it's obvious where the money is, and because I would have TIME to do it.

Sure, I got a 6-figure advance. Only two of the figures were to the right side of the decimel point. I can rip through my advance after my agent fee and taxes by just updating my website and hosting fees. My publisher keeps asking me if I'm going to go to ThrillerFest in NYC in August.

Here's a financial breakdown of that trip. Hotel: $199 a night for 5 nights =$1000 before tax & fees.

If I wanted a no-frills fee for the Fest and I did the Early Bird, it would be about $415. If I wanted to do the whole thing, AgentFest, ThrillerFest, CraftFest, Awards Banquet, it's $840 for Early Bird, and $1,140 for regular.

Food for five days, hmm, let's go easy and say $50/day, so $250 (and since this is NYC, I think $50/day is unlikely).

Airfare's a little low, surprisingly. It looks like I could get a flight for $262 (although if you've flown recently you know they charge you for baggage, so let's round up to $300).

Cost for this little promotional trip: $2390, give or take.

My latest book advance: $1000 - $150 for agent fee, $850, then yank 28% out of it for taxes and you've got $612.

So, should I spent that kind of money on ONE promotional trip?

I can guarantee you what my wife would say.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Yeah, it's really impossible to get a discussion going with the comment moderation on.

Anyway, I'm not saying that any sort of promotions, signings included, will have an effect on future sales, I'm just saying that they might. At any rate, it's very unlikely that any writer is going to sell enough books at an event to show a profit for that day. That's just not how it works.

How many books do you think you can sell at that tech journal convention? A hundred would probably exceed your wildest dreams, and assuming it's a $25 hardcover and the royalty rate is about 10%, that's a whopping $250 in your pocket. And they're going to let you set up a table for a percentage of that?!

I say jump on it.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

By the way, I don't know why the focus is on book signings. They're inefficient, to say the least. I don't intend to do any at all.

I agree. But this whole discussion came up because Mark is already going to be at a certain convention, and he and his publisher are negotiating for table space. So this signing is efficient, more than most, because he's going to be there anyway. All the convention wants is a percentage of the sales, which I thought sounded like a bargain for Mark.

8:03 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

Cost for this little promotional trip: $2390, give or take.

It's a strawman argument, just like the book signings. By all means, spend your money where it will do the most good. A $2390 magazine ad would probably serve you better than ThrillerFest.

I'm retiring from this discussion. Comment moderation makes me feel like I'm listening for echoes in a soundproof room.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

...I think the people who are convinced signings make a difference one reader at a time haven't done too many of them.

That really wasn't the issue. Mark was concerned about doing a signing where he wasn't going to get as much money as he wanted, and my argument was that signings are never about how much money is made on sales that day.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I think it's normal for the conference to charge you a fee. I wouldn't do it unless my pub paid it, and unless I was already attending for whatever reason.

I liken "grunt" marketing to preparing a piano piece for competition. If you do 98% of the work, you're not in the ballgame at all. The last 2% will take you double or triple or quadruple the amount of the time, but it will put you in the running.

I'd be willing to do a Konrath sing-ins because I'm already living on the road, and if I get to have kids, they will be too, and I already go to just about every bookstore around.

But as for the rest, no. Just having watched writers promote, and the half a year I did it for pseudonym, nothing comes close to touching 1) a backlist, 2) co-op, 3) talk shows, etc.

Only one of those elements is in my control, and I'll focus most my efforts on number one.

8:33 AM  
Blogger Joe Konrath said...

I'll play.

Readers are more important. The more readers you have, the more books you'll sell. I'm convinced that if I could give away a free paperback of Whiskey Sour to every person who bought the new James Patterson book, the rest of my backlist would become bestsellers.

I think the people who are convinced signings make a difference one reader at a time haven't done too many of them.

I'm convinced of this, and I've done more signings than... well... anyone in history.

Has this made me a bestseller? No. But I never thought it would.

I'm sure it has played a part, however, in keeping my books in print (and in multiple printings) with zero coop and mediocre distribution. I draw this conclusion based on many of my peers whose books have gone out of print.

who will freely state something along the lines of a tradeoff of parenting with being on the road

Wow, that comes off as harsh. But it's probably true. Though I do see my son more than 99% of fathers who work 9 to 5, because I'm home when I'm not touring, and I rarely tour more than 2 months. Also, it's worth noting that laying down a foundation of financial security will probably benefit my son more than tucking him into bed for a few weeks out of the year. Time will tell.

If I wanted to be a traveling salesman, that's the kind of job I would have looked for.

I agree. I don't want to be a traveling salesman, either. But being a traveling salesman is what allows me to write full time. I'd rather hawk books than work a regular job.

Do you think that trip was profitable for him in the short run? Do you think he hand-sold enough books to even pay for his gasoline?

My publisher paid for everything, Jude, so all it took was time. And I feel it was worth my time, even though your correct in stating that the immediate sales my tour generated probably weren't enough to justify the time or cost (I'd have to double-check how many I sold.) But it wasn't about selling, as you've stated. It was about finding readers. If I find one loyal reader, I've sold a dozen books.

is that successful book signings don't make bestsellers; bestsellers make successful book signings.

I agree, for the most part. I've been able to draw over a hundred people to signings, which is more than a lot of bestsellers draw, but I don't do so consistently. And a book tour doesn't make you a bestseller. But why is it either/or?

Do as much as possible. Some of the people you reach will become readers. Some readers will become fans. Some fans will become buyers.

He received a 6-figure advance for his first contract.

Six figures for three books came out to less than 50k per book. That's a nice amount, but not enough to allow me to do all the promotion I'd like to and still eat.

Cost for this little promotional trip: $2390, give or take.

Travel is expensive. But it also varies. I visited 505 bookstores for $5400. This year I visited 202 bookstores for $2300. In both cases, my publisher paid. But I found both of these trips more effective than a conference.

I agree that booksignings are inefficient and expensive. But they're only one way to reach readers. They can be used effectively in conjunction with many other forms of marketing and promotion. It simply depends on time and money, plus a writer's goals.

My goal is to sell as many books as possible. But to reach that goal, I've dedicated myself to finding as many readers as possible. Sometimes I'll meet the readers face to face at a signing or conference. Sometimes they'll surf on into my site or blog.

My efforts are all about finding readers. In order to do that, I have to go to where the readers are.

In many cases, that means bookstores.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thanks for stopping by, Joe. What I was getting at about your 6-figure advance was it allowed you to be a full-time novelist.

I'm a full-time freelance writer. As my breakdown of my novels indicates, I can't make a single mortgage payment with my novel advance. However, I make a very good living as a freelance writer. I don't, however, have paid vacations or sick days. So if I take time off from freelance writing to promote my novels, the amount of money I lose shows up directly on my bottom line. In theory that time will eventually come back with more book sales, which will make up the money. I say in theory because to-date that hasn't been remotely true. And if I can't spend my time doing the freelance writing work (that I love, by the way) that pays my bills, I'm going to have to go and find some other type of work, which I don't want to do. (There are other factors, of course; I've written a fair number of novels on spec recently in hopes of increasing my novel-writing income, but none of them have been picked up).

Does that mean we shouldn't promote? I think we should, as much as we can afford in terms of money and time, and however much we can stomach, which varies from writer to writer and each writer's personal circumstances.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

And for anyone who makes it this far, I want to step back and explain the original Facebook post that got this going.

I had a meeting with my publishers and various marketing people there about a month ago to discuss various promotional possibilities. They wanted to know if I had any trips planned. The only one planned is the Annual Meeting of the Association of Genetic Technologists, which will be held in June in Phoenix, Arizona. I have been the editor of their tech/trade journal since 2000. Everybody there knows who I am. I'll be in Phoenix from about Tuesday to Sunday. I said I could certainly hit bookstores and even do signings. They asked me if it would be possible to do a signing at the meeting, since there would be 200 or 300 or so people all in one place. I said I'd ask the executive director.

Now, the Ex Dir is new. If it had been the previous 2 ex dir's who I'm very close to and remain friends with, I think this would be a slam dunk (maybe). But I called the Ex Dir and asked her and she said she thought it would be fine, but she'd run it by the meeting planners. Now, for clarification, the association is run by a professional company that runs professional organizations, so the Ex Dir actually is an employee of the association. But everything else, the board, etc., is voluntary by members (except the editor of the journal--me--who is also an employee). So the Ex Dir asked them and their response was basically, a booth or table in the floor of the Vendor's Room at the hotel is prime real estate, would I be willing to pay for that space to do this? I don't think we were on the same page about this, and this space would probably cost hundreds of dollars. I was thinking more of on one day putting up a table near the registration desk for a few hours. Am I willing to pay hundreds of dollars (I haven't gotten a figure on this yet, by the way, although I asked) for this? Probably not. Is my publisher? You've got to be joking.

Then one of the meeting planners suggested that maybe the way to do it would be for the organization to take a percentage of the sales. Which is why I then posted this on Facebook:

my eyes are rolling so furiously I think they'll bounce out of their sockets. My publisher & I are trying to work out how to do a book signing at the annual conference I attend (I edit the association's tech journal), and they suggested taking a percentage of the sales. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

I sent the Ex Dir an e-mail telling her basically that I get 10% on sales, which if I sold 100 copies, would amount to about $250 for me, which if I gave them 10% of my sales, would amount to $25 for them, and I could probably cover that with Alan, the guy who suggested it, in the bar in about 30 minutes (and yes, I do know Alan, good guy).

And should I just give them my $250 that I might earn in payment for the table? Well, keep in mind that I don't know if I'll actually sell 100 books. What if I pay $200 for the space flat-fee and sell 25 books? So I earn $75, which may or may not be profit--I still have to pay off the advance--and any royalties I do get my agent takes 15% and the government gets 28% (state and federal), so the question becomes, yet again, over and over again, how far in the red do I have to go in order to sell books? How far in the red am I WILLING to go in order to sell books?

10:00 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...


So how is it going to hurt you to give up a percentage of sales in exchange for table space at the tech journal conference you're already going to be at anyway? You'll end up making at least some money, and you'll end up getting X number of books into X number of hands as a bonus. It's not any different than setting up a kiosk in the mall or something. You're paying for the traffic. I think it's a good opportunity, even if your royalty rate for the books sold that day suffers a bit.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Jude, I don't know why your post didn't pub. Anyway, I wouldn't rule it out completely yet. I was at least partly rolling my eyes because it was clear that they felt that getting a cut of my royalties would mean big bucks for them, which is why I suggested I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I didn't see your last comment before I posted my previous one.

A percentage of the sales would be worth it, IMO. Paying a flat fee probably wouldn't, simply because a tech journal conference doesn't sound like a very likely venue for selling novels.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Joe Konrath said...

@Mark - I've been in this situation many times.

Have the people running the convention order and sell the books themselves. They can get them from the publisher at 40% off, they're returnable, they make the profit, you still earn your normal royalty. It's just like signing at a bookstore, except the company makes what the bookstore would make.

You could also bring the books yourself and give them 40% of the cover price based on what you sell. You get them at a discount, sell them at cost, everyone is happy.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Joe, now THAT idea sounds great and they might get behind it at that level. Thanks. That's a good idea, although I might have to front them the money for it, but not a bad idea at all.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I was referring to some comments you made (no doubt to be provocative) equating being around/parenting and the trade-off to make a book a bestseller--this is at least a year or two (more likely two) ago. Which is why I won't cop out and say I CAN'T tour that much, but that I WON'T. It's a choice . . . .

And the wording of Mark's either/or meant I had to make a choice here with THIS particular conference he's attending. I'm not sure a technology journal conference is a venue and weighing it as he did . . . .


11:25 AM  
Blogger LurkerMonkey said...

Books sold, definitely. Readers are great, but it's hard to eat a reader. Unless they're also made from pork, in which case, mmmmm....

12:42 PM  
Blogger LurkerMonkey said...

OK, so now I've read through everything and have another thought ...

I see the point about readers translating into money. BUT if that's the case, then I still think the dollars out/readers in equation for signings would be a little too steep for me. As Konrath noted, they're extremely inefficient, and it surely helps that his publisher is willing to pick up the financial portion of it.

I read once that part of James Patterson's early success was his willingness to use consumer advertising. As legend has it, he convinced his publisher to sink the marketing budget into consumer ads and forget the expensive traveling and signings ... seems there's some wisdom in that.

Personally, my feeling is that you want to reach as many people as possible, as efficiently as possible. I get the feeling that a well-done website with an opt-in email newsletter program would be a much more efficient and effective marketing campaign than traveling around and talking to 20 people at a time at a signing.

So, when it comes to signings, although I've never had the opportunity to worry about it, I think I would put my efforts and money elsewhere first, and only do signings as a small part of my overall sales effort.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Readers. Once you have readers, other things follow. If you start out going for the money, where's the soul? If you have something compelling to say, people will want to listen, and the money follows, etc.

5:09 AM  

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