When it comes to books and how they sell, writers tend to think there are two main categories that influence the sales. FIRST: there is what the author has control over, the quality of the book itself. SECOND: there is what the author does NOT have control over, i.e., marketing budgets, reviews, media presence, cover art, etc. For practical purposes, let's call this category "Marketing."
So. What do you think? If you want to sell your book to the masses, is it more important to have a quality book? Or is it more important to have a lot of marketing?
I'm going to hold off answering for a minute, because you probably already know and you don't want it confirmed yet because it's depressing.
See, the writing world is full of optimists. (Otherwise, why would we write? Or, more specifically, why would we try to publish?) We all believe that we will be the rare exception to every rule! Yes, marketing would be nice, we tell ourselves. But if we can just get our books out there, i.e. PUBLISHED, then people will catch on! They'll see our brilliance! We'll be the next Stephanie Meyer!**
This belief is perpetuated in books-on-writing, talks, conferences, everywhere. You never know, people say. It could happen. No one wants to be the killer of dreams.
So let me kill your dreams: Books sell when they are well-marketed. Period.
Are there exceptions? Maybe one in 100. (Actual odds coming in a few paragraphs.) That's one percent, people.
Here's my research (with numbers! and graphs! and equations!):
FIRST, though, I want to make a caveat. Statistics like this can be tricky because of one fact: they can show correlation but they can't PROVE causation. They can certainly imply causation, but all they prove is correlation. What does that mean, practically speaking? It means that, yes, marketed books are the ones that sell. But what if ONLY really quality books get that kind of marketing? In that case, it might be quality that's the cause, though marketing is correlated. As to whether or not this is true? Well, just think about the last few super-hits you've read. Are they quality? That question is up to you. I will say, though, that one aspect of my study was to compare what audiences value versus what publishers value (i.e. what they market). There are some pretty big disconnects, though there is a LOT of variability among houses.
So, back to the question of MARKETING. As the abstract outlined yesterday, in my study we gave each of 200 books two scores: a marketing score and a sales score. (Actually, we looked at 210 books, but had to throw some out for various statistical reasons, coming to 197; let's just round and say 200 cuz it's easier to remember, k?) And when I say "we" I mostly mean "I," but, not only did I have wonderful volunteers from this very blog who helped read books, I also obtained the help of a very gracious statistics professor (Dr. Natalie) to make sure my calculations weren't full of crap. So I feel better when I say "we."
The statistics professor is important because I want you to know: you can have some reasonable trust in the way we scored marketing and sales. It wasn't just an English major playing with math, it was an English major playing with math who had a professional statistician to call her on her crazies and steer her toward the solid stuff.
Anyway, the way we scored marketing ended up being a semi-complicated algorithm (utilizing various data sources gleaned from many different places)and we came up with it together, though, yeah, Dr. Natalie helped a LOT. Is the algorithm perfect? Well, you know what would have been perfect? If publishers would have given me their marketing budgets directly. But when I asked them? They laughed. And laughed. And laughed.
So, like I said, Dr. Natalie and I had to come up with our own way. The resulting algorithm provided us with a way to compare marketing among the books and then to rank them. Books with the least amount of marketing in our sample were scored with a "1." Books with the highest amount of marketing were scored "11." Books in between had scores between 1 and 11. This way, even though we couldn't know the exact amount of marketing behind a book, we could know how its marketing ranked in comparison to all the other books in the sample.
(The cool thing? When I showed editors my results, they were freaked out by the accuracy. Let's give a WOOT to statistics!)
Okay, now that you know that, let's consider some disturbing stuff. Like, the very first calculation I did: The Pearson's Correlations which ultimately gave us the ability to perform a Linear Regression. Sounds scary, but all it is is a way to measure the tendency for one variable to increase linearly as the other variable increases, giving us the ability to quantify the actual relationship. In this case, we looked at how much sales increased with increased marketing.
This is the initial bar graph:
Further calculations showed that this was a strong linear progression. It had a simply calculated formula with a relatively small margin of error:
S = 0.63M + 2.58 (S = Sales; M = Marketing)
(I'd tell you the R-squared so you could judge the error margin yourself, but I think that would just make us all blind or migrainey.)
So what does that formula mean? It means that Sales increase in direct proportion to Marketing. Any other stuff? Like book quality? Simply do not seem to factor in.
It gets more disturbing.
In the sample of 200 books, there were about 10 "breakouts." That is, books that sold MUCH better than their marketing predicted they would. OK, you might think, I have a 5% chance of getting a breakout! All I have to do is get published...
Consider this graph:
(are y'all OK with the graphs? would you rather I chat instead?)
Now, for some reason when I converted the graph into a picture, only one of the stars showed up. Can you do a little imagining for me? Do you see how the star marks a profound "jump" in the data? That's a sales spike. There are 9 other sales spikes, if I counted right (all used to have a star on them, I dunno what happened). Can you see them?
So, let's consider. The graph shows sales scores as marketing increases. The vertical lines in the graph (pink/red ones) represent the delineation between each "level" of marketing. Everything before the first line got a marketing score of one. Before the second? Two. And so on up till eleven.
Notice anything yucky?
First: the biggest category of books BY FAR is that made up of books with a marketing score of ONE. If you are a new author? This is where you will most likely find yourself.
Did ANY books "breakout" in that category?
For a marketing score of two? There was ONE breakout. Sounds good until you realize the sheer number of books it took to get to that one breakout: more than 100.
Out of the first 100 books, there was ONE breakout. A success rate of one percent.
What does this mean? It means that not only will the vast majority of books fail to breakout, but that a full half of them never had a chance in hell of breaking out.
But what about the other breakouts? There were ten after all, right? Well, look closely at the chart. Almost all of them are in the top 20% by marketing score.
Books don't break out. Well-marketed books break out. And how often does that happen for those lucky well-marketed books? 20% of the time. A one in five chance.
To sum up:
80% of books don't get the kind of marketing that frequently leads to high sales. In fact, odds are that only about 2 out of every 150 books in this category might break out. Thems not good odds.
On the other hand, for the 20% of books that do get good marketing? One out of every five of those will be "breakouts."
To sum up even more:
In general, books will sell exactly in proportion to how much marketing they have. i.e. Strong linear relationship = Books are ONLY AS GOOD as their marketing. (Monetarily speaking, obviously. "Good" is a far more visceral, far less determinate value.)
And when it comes to the mysterious feat of writing the "breakout" novel? Well, you have to be in the top 20th percentile of marketing before that's even a remote possibility.
I've never met Dear Mr. Maas who wrote, Writing the Breakout Novel, and I truly mean him no offense when I say the stuff I'm going to say in the next paragraph. The only reason I'm picking on him, actually, is because he had the (mis?)fortune of having such a popular book on writing that his book ended up being one of the books we analyzed for "plot" advice. (Among other things, we looked for successful plot structures. Mr. Maas was in the company of people like Joseph Campbell!) And as you'll see if you ever want me to talk about the kinds of plots that sell, the stuff he said about writing was not bad. Some pretty good advice, actually.
But he also said a lot of stuff about marketing. Maybe to give authors the illusion they had some control over sales? I dunno. Anyway, one thing he emphatically emphasized is that it's a "myth" that a high advances mean higher sales. That promotion doesn't sell books, that the real culprit is bad writing(20-25). In fact, he goes as far as to say that "Ads in the New York Times Book Review are placed there mostly to make the author feel good"(23).
He's not the only person to tell writers this. He's one of many. But he's wrong. Indeed, I think he is doing a great disservice to writers. (It almost seems like, at some level, he knows that it's his industry's fault that certain books don't sell, and he wants to eschew the blame outside, to assuage his guilt, maybe? Am I off base do you think? Anyone know Dear Donald Maass?") Telling authors that their lack of sales is "their fault," is not only false, it makes authors feel like garbage when, all along, the real "fault" might not have had anything to do with their writing.
Is there is any lesson here? Any hope? Anything that an author can take away and actually apply to their own publication endeavors?
Yes, actually. I think there is. (Don't want to kill dreams entirely, I guess. What a softie I am.)
1. You need to leverage your publisher for as much marketing as possible. Since you are a mere author, this means...
2. You absolutely, positively, 100% MUST have an agent. Publishers don't want to spend money on you. They want as little output as possible on their part. "Save costs and it's easier to glean a predictable small profit," is their thinking. (Emphasis on the "small.") Unless you are Stephen King, you will not be able to leverage publishers into giving you the promotion and marketing you need. You MUST have an agent. The best damn agent you can get, preferably. (Think shark!)
3. If you get an offer for a book, you might be SO EXCITED just to know that your words will be in PRINT! It won't even seem to matter that the marketing will be a pittance. Here's the thing, though. There's something called "Bookscan." I know I didn't talk about it here, but this is what it means: bookstores keep track of how well your books sell. If you write a second book, they will look at how well your first book sold. And if you were so eager to sell your book at any price, most likely you did NOT get good marketing. Which means it's almost a guarantee that your book did NOT sell very well. So it becomes a cycle. For your second book, the stores only buy as many books as you sold last time. If that was 12? They'll order 12. This will go on and on until finally your publisher will give up. Maybe they'll try to blame it on you. "Your writing just isn't fresh anymore!" they might say. But it had nothing to do with the writing. It was all about the marketing. (Or the lack of it.) THE LESSON: Don't settle! If you can't get a good deal for your first book, there's nothing wrong with making NO deal and writing another book! Don't let your excitement get in the way of making a good business decision. That's what publishing is, after all. A Business.
4. Learn a little about marketing. Find yourself a marketing friend so you can get in their head. (I married a marketing guy, but you don't have to go that far for the sake of your career. I mean, not everyone is as cut-throat ambitious as I am. :) Figure out the types of subjects/genres/themes/etc. that appeal to marketers. i.e. Ask yourself: What would an MBA do with this? (Not a writer. Not a writing professor, even. An MBA. Someone concerned with sales alone. Repeat the mantra: publishing is a BUSINESS.) So package your writing in a frame that is easy to market. (This doesn't mean dumbing it down, or being any less lyrical in your writing. It means asking yourself, "In two words, why would someone buy this?" And then making sure that you frame the book according to the answer. Because that's all marketers can really work with: two words. And not cuz they're dumb, don't blame them. It's a psychology thing about advertising.) If you can get the MBA's in the publishing house excited? You have a much better shot to sell.
Now, to conclude, does all this mean that you don't have to write a GOOD book? That you can forget about quality? I wouldn't say that.
What I would say is this: you can't count on good writing to translate into good sales.
But you still need good writing. For one thing, getting a kickass agent is REALLY hard if you write like crap. For another thing, good writing still might help you get more marketing--especially if you do #4 and combine your good writing with a frame that's easy to market.
Good writing + Kickass Agent + Thinking like a Marketer = your best chance to sell a book.
**(Incidentally, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight would have scored about a 10 on our marketing scale. Meaning, the book's breakout was mathematically predictable. It had a 1 in 5 chance. Nothing magical about it.)
**(Also note: Stephanie had a kickass agent. Get yurself one, too!)
More to come. In fact, I'll post a vote to see what we talk about next!