By John Gilstrap
In my effort to maintain a digital footprint in the Worldwide Web, I participate on several writers’ boards on Facebook and LinkedIn. For the most part, those boards are filled with shameless self-promotion of self-published books, but every now and then, I find thread that piques my interest. Recently, I found two: One dealt with authors’ needs to brand themselves, and a second with the pricing of eBooks. In my mind, the two topics are closely related, and I thought I’d nudge a discussion here in the Killzone.
As I see things, the act of writing a story is an art form that not everyone is cut out to do. There’s an X-factor to story creation that transends the mechanics of writing (which can be taught), and involves a certain clarity of vision which cannot be taught. For lack of a better term, we’ll call that X-factor talent.
That said, the selling of one’s art is 100% commerce, reducing the finished work to a product among other products that are seeking attention from the same customer base. Like any product, a book needs to be noticed before it can be successful.
This brings me to the notion of branding. Given the nature of our product, there are only two options that I can see: we can brand the book, or we can brand the author. In a perfect world, we brand both. As consumers become comfortable with the way a particular author tells a story, they’ll start looking forward to the next release.
Branding presents a delicate mix. Covers from an author should invoke some sense of the previous books, and the stories from book to book should take readers on the same kind of ride without becoming repetitious. In my own case, I jealously guard my July 1 pub date, ever aware that readers are learning to look for the new releases at that time of year. All of these little detals perpetuate the brand.
Branding can’t be rushed. Except for the occasional first-novel lightning strike, the common denominator I see among the mega-sellers in our industry is the regular production of books. Year after year–more or less at the same place in the calendar–they produce yet another story for their readers. Over time, they create a critical mass, and then they’re off and running. Huge marketing budgets and media campaigns aside–all of which are justified only by growing readership–bestsellers are born of word-of mouth. I honestly don’t think there’s a way to force it.
Which brings me to the subject of pricing, whether you have control over your cover price, or if that is controlled by your publisher. All too often in this business model, the production side of the business looks too hard at their own interests while turning a blind eye to their customers. Here’s the question that we and our publishers need to ask when it comes to pricing: What’s the level that will give incentive to readers to read our book instead of a book by an author who’s far better known in the genre?
There’s a lot of noise on the other boards about authors disrespecting themselves by pricing their books too low. This is nonsense. Given all the entertainment alternatives, it’s in our best interest to get people to read our works at virtually any price. The fact that we need $X to make ends meet is irrelevant to a reader’s decision to buy our work. If they’ve never heard of us, but are intrigued by all the other things that have to go right for success to even be an option, we’ve got to make that a low-risk gamble. Vince Flynn and I write in a similar genre, but he has many more fans than I do, who are clearly willing to shell out $28 every year for his next story. God bless him. If I want to tap into that reader base–and I do, as does my publisher–then we need to give readers a reason. If their rationale for picking up their first Gilstrap book is, “What the heck, it’s only $4.00,” I’m okay with that. I’m also confident that they’ll feel they got a great ride for their investment.
With luck, that reader will share his perception of value with his friends, and come next summer–or the one after that–those friends will dare to take a chance on their own. Do it enough times, and a critical mass is born.
So, what do y’all think? Is it worth it to surrender some coin on per-copy compensation to increase the reader base? Have you been driven to buy a book you otherwise wouldn’t have because the price was right?