I woke up this morning realising why I haven't added a new print author to my autobuy list in the last two years.
I've always said that authors have to sell to agents and publishers, not to
the reader, at least initially, until their work takes off.
It's this "big concept" idea. The idea that bursts out of a book, that
pushes the author on to the best seller lists, and makes that author the
next big thing - until the next big thing. So writers who have found the
Big Idea have sold, and explode on to the scene, only to putter down in the
next couple of books.
That works very well - but only once or twice. With my reader hat firmly on
my head, I can say that I've been taken for an exhilarating ride for a book
or two, only to find that poor plotting, clumsy prose or repetition of an
idea has made me abandon that author and go back to the writers I trust to
give me a thoroughly good read.
When I look at my list of favourite authors, classical or modern, the ones
I go back to, the ones on my keeper shelf, have a good, rounded list of
attributes. They can tell a good story, they have vividly drawn characters,
they have prose you can linger on and enjoy, and they have well constructed
plots with no gaping holes in them.
Looking at my keeper shelf, I see Jo Beverley, Dorothy Dunnett, Laura
Kinsale, Susan Elizabeth Philips, Nicola Cornick, Jane Austen and the writer I read more than any other, Charles Dickens.
Not one which has emerged in the past couple of years.
I love the historical, including the much maligned Traditional Regency (not the
Regency Historical although I love that too). I'm lucky, in that there are many backlists I haven't fully explored yet, but the Regency genre has no Big Ideas, merely providing me with a good read I can lose myself in for a few hours. That is
what I look for in a book.
Historical inaccuracy drives me demented, which is the main reason I haven't found a historical author I want to stick with in the last few years. To the historical, maybe more than other genres, a proficiency with elegant prose is also important, and something I appreciate, something I look for and have been repeatedly disappointed by in the last few years.
Having gained my MBA and worked at the sharp end for several years, (in
fmcg marketing), it's only too clear where this attitude has come from. It's the fast sell, the instant sell through, and the concept of piling high and selling fast. It works for food, because food is gone in a few weeks. It works for books, or rather, it does initially. But a good food retailer must also provide consistency of product if there is any chance of longevity of brand. I suppose the food retailers are better at it, because in many ways the book market is new to this idea, and demonstrates some amateur approaches to it. I worked for companies that knew the difference between a core brand and a variety, and have worked for many years with the concepts. I have done some strategic planning, and in that it is far more important to develop a good product portfolio than it is to concentrate on the Next Big Thing. That was the job of the product managers, a step down the management tree to the general management level, where I was working. It seems the book market is fast forgetting that. You need your new product, but you also need an author who can improve and develop.
All this doesn't just depend on the writer. It also depends on investment in product, and this is another area many publishers are skimping on. All writers have to promote their books. This is all well and good, but writers are writers and not marketers. They can come up with ideas, but to expect a writer to come up with a consistent marketing plan is like asking a product manager to write a novel. They will probably be able to do it, but it won't be as good, or as efficiently done, as a professional can do it. It isn't just lack of ability, and very often has little to do with that, it's to do with lack of expertise and knowledge. Why should a writer know anything about product placement, portfolio management and the other factors? And even if you do know, there is little a writer can do without access to the numbers.
Promotional activity depends on the results, and without results, all promotional activity continues to be a shot in the dark. You only get the really useful numbers if you're prepared to pay for them. A company like Nielsen in the UK collects sales figures at various levels - distribution, manufacturing, and retail, and produces them in market sector reports. A good strategic manager collects Nielsen, together with market research figures and government figures to produce an overall report, and that is the only way effectiveness can be measured. But - when I was a market
research manager, my annual budget was in the millions. Pounds, not dollars. As far as I can gather, no consistent data exists, no regular Usage and Attitude surveys to provide hard numbers to back up hunches. Or if they are, they are strictly in house. Which means publishers aren't sharing, which means short term thinking prevalent through the industry.
Don't forget, fellow authors - when you sell your first book, you are not selling to the reading public, you are selling to agents and publishers. When the public gets to know you, then you can create demand and write what you want to write, but until then, you are not selling to the public. So you need to research your market, find out what editors are looking for, what's hot. Now I am in no way advocating that you tailor your book to the market, but if you happen to write something that is becoming hot, you want to know when to present your work, don't you? And if you write in more than one genre, you might want to favour one over another when it comes to sales.
Naturally, if you've written a brilliant, mould breaking visionary work that will take the world by storm, ignore the above. It just doesn't apply to you. And yes, I do mean it. JK Rowling proved it could be done.
The reader can only demand what he or she knows exists, a basic tenet of marketing that pushes understanding and philosophy. It's vital to take into account what publisher and agent wants, as well as your own ideas.
But watch the e-publishing market. So many new voices and styles are coming from the e-publishing world. Writers like Angela Knight, MaryJanice Davidson, genres like the urban gothic are turning the market for e-books and print upside down. Sales are currently low compared to the print market; the e-publisher has a few hundred years to catch up on. But new readers, more used to reading off their phones and pda's are making their demands felt and by using the internet, writers can communicate with readers like never before. Most of my books are published electronically (as well as being available in print) and that's by choice.