If you’re reading this, you probably have already decided to write a book. You probably have a subject and title in your mind and you can visualize the cover—or maybe you’ve been working on a manuscript for years. Maybe you can visualize your Pulitzer Prize and maybe you’ve started to compile a wish list of things to buy with your book earnings.
Fantasy may get you motivated to write, but reality—even harsh reality—is critically important. Writing is an art, but publishing is a business. As with most businesses, you have to develop a product that fills a need, find customers and sell the product.
While self-publishing has made it easier to become an author, it’s easier for many thousands of people besides you. Each year a great many new books are published and your book will have lots of competition.
You probably have been thinking a lot about the inside and outside of your book. It’s time to think about how your book will stand out among the others that are competing for attention of booksellers, reviewers, bloggers and readers.
Does the world really need more celebrity biographies, barbecue recipe collections, novels about vampire sex or teenage dystopians, or advice on weight loss or menopause? Even if you write the absolute best book about bikini waxing or the Martian Civil War of 2457, how will you find potential readers and convince them to buy your book?
Nonfiction outsells fiction, and poetry sales are tiny. It’s been said that poets and novelists are interesting to talk to, but nonfiction writers have nicer homes. Fiction and poetry are not necessary to readers. People who want to read a novel may be content to borrow a copy from a friend or the library instead of buying it—even if they have to wait a few weeks. Fiction books are entertainment. That means they are options. They are expendable when money is tight; and they have to compete with movies, ball games, video games, music and more. Novels may be read just once or twice. A nonfiction book—particularly an important reference—might be referred to hundreds of times and be a vital part of a personal or business library.
Fiction is usually timeless. We still read the works of Dickens and Homer (above). Your new novel must compete with other books written centuries or even millennia ago.
Nonfiction is usually information or instruction, and may have a limited lifespan before it becomes obsolete. Readers want the latest information. They may replace your book bought just a year ago with your new version—or a new book from another author.
People will generally pay more money for information than for entertainment. The more important the information is, the more you can charge for it.
The more people who are likely to be readers of your book, the more expensive it will be to reach them.
Obviously, if you are a self-publishing writer, you can publish anything you want to. HOWEVER, if you want to make money rather than just fulfill a dream, impress your family or inflate your ego, it’s better to think carefully about what you publish.
It’s extremely difficult to sell many copies of self-published fiction or poetry—or the memoir of a non-famous person—on paper. In order to sell thousands of copies, you’ll have to be either extremely lucky (not likely) or generate a huge amount of “buzz” through viral marketing, public relations and advertising (time-consuming and often expensive), or you’ll have to impress one or more reviewers enough to praise you in the media.
If you are a novelist, poet or memoirist, your e-books can sell for much less money than printed books, and may allow you to build an audience and make money. It’s easier for an unknown author to sell $1.99 e-books than $19.95 p-books.
Another reason not to self-publish fiction (unless aimed at a narrow and easy-to-reach audience) is that most fiction is aimed at the mass market. You’ll be competing with big publishing companies with much more experience, much bigger budgets and much better distribution than you have. The world is not waiting for your novel, poetry or memoir to be published. If your book should appeal to “everyone,” can you afford to let everyone know about it?
It’s much easier to target a market and devise a promotional strategy for nonfiction. If you write a book for owners of small businesses, Little League coaches, obstetricians or pig farmers, it’s much easier to reach them with your marketing. Novels, memoirs and poems depend on push marketing—you have to “push” books on a public that has no need for them. On the other hand, if you write nonfiction about an interesting and important subject or—even better—a how-to book, you can use much simpler pull marketing and have a much greater chance of success. With pull marketing, you take advantage of an existing desire by the public to know more about a subject. Readers will “pull” the books from you.
Find a niche! People who want to know more about growing strawberries, raising an autistic child, getting a college scholarship or traveling with a dog will search for that information on Google, Amazon.com, or elsewhere, and there’s a good chance they’ll find your book. (But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll buy it.)
Timing is important. The world’s best written, most authoritative book about Sarah Palin probably sold a lot better before she lost the election in 2008. If she runs for office again, the Palin specialists get another chance to sell books.
Pick a hot topic, and one that may stay hot, or at least warm, for a few years. Consider combining two hot topics such as “Gay weddings on a tight budget.”
Pick something you know about, which you can contribute something new about, which lots of people care about, and which lots of people have not already written about. If there are other books on the same topic (and there probably are), make sure you have something important to add so your book can be better than the others.
Price, value and speed count, too. This $4.99 e-book is available instantly and competes against p-books that cost three and four times as much and have to be shipped to readers. This book has color photos and hyperlinks. The p-books don’t. This book is searchable. P-books are not.
If you decide to publish, don’t print lots of copies at first. For test marketing, print on demand (POD) or an e-book will be much less expensive than a large offset print run.
If you’ve put information online that people can read for free, your book will be competing with your own free words. Make your book more complete than what you give away. Modify your online content to plug your book, and point out that the pay-for book is better than the online freebie.