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Hope it Never Sells

Hope it Never Sells

What would having a book mean for you, your business, and your career? And would you want to sell it? Crazy question, right?

We’re publishers, my partner Jessica and I. We met as freelance writers a few years ago and quickly, fueled by our lifelong love of books, found ourselves learning the business of writing and publishing as it stands today, and founding the Bibliophile Publishing Group and Maven Books. And publishing is still evolving, but it may now be that the evolution is a little more predictable at last.

Publishing today reminds me in ways of the real estate bubble not so long ago. When selling houses was a cinch, when the “absorption rate” was around 100% (that is, 100% of available inventory turned over in an average of just 30 days, which it did for a while), people came from all walks of life to get into the gold rush, to move west, to <insert bandwagon of choice>.

I considered myself a “real” broker, though, and I actually liked it when the market started falling apart. Your hairdresser, landscaper, attorney, studio musician, and people from other walks of life who had abandoned their calling to “get rich quick” in real estate sales all started going back to their natural environments. And selling houses became full time work again—very good for all involved. That’s kind of going on in publishing right now.

The Tsunami

And as now in publishing, when the information explosion “infiltrated” real estate brokerage, there were hold-outs. My own broker at one point used to yell far and wide about how bad this was, that you no longer had to go see an agent to look up available inventory in those old, phonebook-like tomes delivered only to brokerages. As far as I was concerned, the cult had been exposed for what it was. With the digital age came access, as listings were now easy to find and you no longer had to subjugate yourself to some priest of the practice to interplead on your behalf.

Heck, remember BuyOwner and others that tried to eliminate agents altogether? Ever hear an agent talk about the downsides of companies like that? Like a religious war, man! But the only constant is change itself, and we all know who won that battle. Agents are still around, though, and highly valuable in specific ways just like your accountant or dentist, despite all the abundant information around now. Yet the information age is a juggernaut. So as in the art of Aikido, use the motion presented to you, or just get crushed, because such change is far too big.

Anyone can publish a book today but not everyone understands how.

So the gatekeepers started to fall away and everyone and his brother got in the market (or the business) to ride the wave. This results in a lot of sound and fury (nuance intended). And now in publishing it’s the same thing: easy access, the downfall of giants, and so on. Anyone can publish a book today but not everyone understands how. This creates a gap that gets exploited, just as it did in real estate, and as it probably does in lots of other industries where a sea change has taken place but not everyone has completely understood it yet.

Best Seller

Here’s an example. “Best seller” status sounds pretty good, right? Sure it does—in fact it’s a dream for so many. Well, today there is a misnomer here. Amazon will grant that you have a “best seller” should your book rise to the top 100 books in any given category. Choose a category with 99 existing, competing books, and… Get the point? And Amazon makes this possible by having lots of categories—I don’t know, hundreds? So while technically true, this is kind of a cheesy way to become a “best selling author.”

…the public, by and large, still makes assumptions, still believes “best seller” to be a certain, highly accomplished thing.

Say that at a party or something, though and “Wow! Oooh, aaaah!” You see books that say “Best Seller” on the covers, too, when they’ve sold six copies. Here’s the difference: To be a New York Times best seller, a book generally needs to sell between three and five thousand copies through several outlets within a week. (There are also far fewer categories on the NYT list.) This is why we have book “launches,” as authors try to concentrate sales all into one short period. If you really hit best seller status your book gets attention which leads to more sales and so on, and so on.

But the public, by and large, still makes assumptions, still believes “best seller” to be a certain, highly accomplished thing. See the gap? True best seller status results from Nielsen-rated sales as you find in the NYT, WSJ, and USA Today, but people are hijacking the term. In fact if you are considering finding someone to help you create that book, that’s how you watch out for publishing mills, they will usually make the following claims about helping you get published:

  1. They’ll help you create a “best seller” or they claim to have helped create “over 1,000 best sellers,” for example;
  2. They might claim you’ll make money on your book sales… a lot of money! And they sometimes do this without stating it but by sharing stories (real or factual) that imply you can, too;
  3. They suggest, as part of the writing process, you first do heavy research to decide upon what to write. This is a formula that book-preneurs seem to be repeating all over the place and it’s adding a lot of chaff and no wheat. It’s the quick-buck scheme. This is different, however, than a dentist (as an example) who is aware that 80% of her clients are women and so caters her book to women. That’s fine! It’s also fine to own a solar energy company and share your actual expertise and experience. I know very well how you end up with an encyclopedia of information in your field and sometimes don’t realize it, until someone asks (like a collaborator in an interview!). If you know that most solar energy customers fall between the ages of 30 and 55 there’s nothing wrong with targeting that demographic in terms of cover design, examples inside the book, but it’s still a genuine testament to your knowledge and your practice.

The other thing to look out for is if your prospective publisher seems to have a quantity-based business model. If they are slow to service yet fast to sell, that’s your first clue.

Lots of people have been taking advantage of this ignorance gap in publishing. I even found a book at the library the other day that listed publishers to seek out and listed which ones to avoid. The public hasn’t really caught up yet on these things enough to recognize the difference, but they will. One simple tip, look for “New York Times” before the “Best Seller,” and find quality-, rather than quantity-based providers.

When we talk about creating a book for entrepreneurs, business people, and professionals, we are not interested in vanity publishing, as far as we’re concerned, because we’re up front about those three things above. We don’t always take on book creation clients and collaborations. We won’t publish just any book, either. Even in your business, remember (I love this saying, forgive me if I’ve repeated it elsewhere), “There are clients I want, and there are clients I want my competition to have.”

Two Paths

And there are two paths to take once you have your business, expertise, or message-oriented book fully created:

  1. Book sales, and/or
  2. Credibility.

You can choose one or both, depending on your time frame and purposes.

A new client recently got to this thought even before we mentioned it to him. We were discussing a collaboration to help make his book a reality and he stated flat out, “Oh I don’t even want it on Amazon.” We asked why, and he had very realistic ideas of what it takes to actually get a book to sell. He wanted none of that, but he did recognize what value having a book would be for his practice and as a way to position and engage with clients, old, new, and prospective. He simply wanted the credibility, which frankly can be quite powerful by having an excellently produced book. (And you’ll want it on all major platforms, by the way, for credibility.) We have great stories of how someone’s book created new contracts, new opportunities, new connections, all vastly greater in value than book sales.

Success Sans Luck

Even if you are publishing for credibility alone, we suggest the book creation process is the same as if primarily for sales. Create a bona fide preservation of your expertise others can discover and engage with, and it can all start right away. For book sales you will need to create and build a platform, which takes time. A book can help build one of course, but it can take some time before income from sales is of any note. In fact, even when we work with an author who has already written a great book in any genre, even if they have several books written (a big plus), it can take months or years to build a platform to sell your books to, and building a platform as an author usually means writing a lot more than just your books. That said, it’s being done every day! That’s the blessing to would-be authors today: there is a formula for success that does not involve luck!

But if your immediate goal is credibility alone (and how powerful is that?), and you highly value your time and understand all the things you can do with a book besides sell it, you may just have the same sentiment, and hope it never sells! Of course, that’s too absolute a statement, but that’s why I like it—in fact it reminds me of a real estate investor who, when asked if his offer was “cash” and he was more interested in arranging payments, would respond, “Why on Earth would you want cash?” The bewildered couple on the couch would often look at each other and ask what else there was! He would then explain the tax and other benefits to accepting payments, which were all real benefits.

So if suggesting you might not want your book to sell gets this article some attention, it should also make you wonder what else—besides sales—there is. So ask yourself, if by having a book you could establish credibility far greater than you might ever hope to through business as usual and at the same time create the instrument by which you could reach the world, what would that be worth to your career, your business, your expertise, your message?

I know, pretty cool, right? Well, we’re writing a book about it!

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by Rodney Taber // Guest Contributor to Businessing Magazine.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.