Staying Afloat in the Roiling Sea of Books

by James Scott Bell

Blue-footed booby

Discoverability is becoming as rare as the blue-footed booby.

According to Bowker, the outfit that registers ISBN numbers, over a million self-published books were issued ISBNs last year.

That’s a one with six zeros after it.

And understand, this does not include traditionally-published books, nor all the ebook-only titles without ISBNs.

Which means there’s a whole lotta books out there, and more added every year. (Most of which are bad. See Sturgeon’s Law.)

Industry observer Mike Shatzkin added this:

I had reason to learn recently that Ingram has 16 million individual titles loaded in their Lightning Source database ready to be delivered as a bound book to you within 24 hours, if not sooner. So every book coming into the world today is competing against 16 million other books that you might buy.

That number — the number of individual book titles available to any consumer, bookstore, or library — has exploded in my working lifetime. As recently as 25 years ago, the potential titles available — in print and on a warehouse shelf ready to be ordered, or even to be backordered until a next printing — was numbered in the hundreds of thousands. So it has grown by 20 or 30 or 40 times. That’s between 2000 percent and 4000 percent in the last quarter century.

Of discoverability, agent Rachelle Gardner recently observed:

How can any single book stand out in that large of a field? It’s very difficult. The problem is known as discoverability and it means the odds are stacked against us when we want to bring readers’ attention to our books.

This is why the publisher needs your help—it’s important to find your audience, that specific group of people who will like your book. They need you engaging with your audience, connecting with them, doing your part to make them aware of you.

Even with all this work, it’s still hard to make your book discoverable. It’s not anyone’s fault. Publishers are not conspiring to make life difficult for you. They’re not being unreasonable by requiring authors to participate in marketing. It’s simply the situation we find ourselves in—there are too many books, so we all have to work so much harder to each one stand out to its unique audience.

One line that jumped out at me is: the publisher needs your help. It used to be the other way around. A writer needed a traditional publisher to get into bookstores. If there were some marketing dollars in the budget, the publisher might arrange to have the book placed on the New Release table at the front of the store.

But now, with bookstore space shrinking, and marketing push going almost exclusively to the A list, authors writing inside the walls of the Forbidden City are expected to do audience building themselves (which has some authors wondering why the publishing houses still take the same royalty split as when they did all the heavy lifting. But I digress).

So how do you build an audience these days? The old-fashioned way. You earn it. (Hat tip to John Houseman).

Book after book. And more than one or two titles. You don’t hit a stride until you have several books out there to go with a steady pace of future production.

Another agent, Steve Laube, also reflected on the Bowker publishing numbers, and offered this advice:

  1. Write the very best book you can.
  2. Build an audience who will support your work (i.e. platform).
  3. Decide whether to self-publish (but only do it the right way) or go the traditional route (get an agent).
  4. Figure out how to launch a book.

The fundamentals don’t change, do they? That’s why they’re called fundamentals. I’d modify the list a bit this way:

  1. Write the very best books (plural) you can, at least one per year.
  2. Keep learning and growing in the craft.
  3. Decide what kind of writer you want to be. If self-publishing is on your mind, consider:
    1. Can you be sufficiently productive?
    2. Do you have the discipline to learn basic business practices?
    3. Are you willing to invest between $500 and $2,000 for cover design, editing, and proofreading for each book?
  1. If traditional publishing is your goal, ask:
    1. Am I patient enough to wait up to 18 months for my book to come out?
    2. Will my agent fight for more author-friendly non-compete and reversion-of-rights clauses?
    3. Am I ready with a plan should my publisher drop me?

One word I do wish we’d get rid of is platform. For non-fiction a platform is desirable because there’s a built-in audience for a subject. But agents and publishers push this amorphous concept on unpublished fiction authors, which only adds to their stress and detracts from their writing time.

The best time for a fiction writer to build a platform is 2003. That’s when we weren’t so blog saturated that a new author might actually gain a following. That’s when we weren’t tossing away good writing time on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram (and, worse, thinking that the latter venues are good places to sell books!)

As I argued a couple of years ago, we need to get out of “discoverability thinking” and into “trustability thinking.”

You should be thinking that each new offering is an opportunity to prove to readers that you deliver the goods. As you do this, time after time, trust in you grows. Consumers buy more from businesses they trust. Readers are consumers and you are a business.

This applies whether you are traditional or indie, commercial or literary, tall or short.

Or have blue feet.

So … are you about to dive into the cold Atlantic of content, knowing full well how vast and choppy it is out there? Have you taken swimming lessons (studied craft and market)?  

Or are you already swimming?

How’s the water?

32 thoughts on “Staying Afloat in the Roiling Sea of Books

  1. Good advice, as always. In fact, I have my own blog post touching on staying visible in today’s market scheduled for tomorrow. I’m going to link to this post.

    I’d use “brand” instead of platform – people should know who you are and that you can be trusted to deliver a good product.
    I totally agree that social media doesn’t sell books, that it should be used to “engage” people with you. The marketing workshops I’ve attended suggest 80% “social” and only 20% “selling.”

    I’ve found I’m happy with the indie side of things. Some years I swim, others I tread water, but so far, I’m staying afloat, and I owe that to loving the writing process. The marketing side — not so much.

    • You’re doing the right things, Terry. The best part of your comment is that you’re loving the writing. That’s not only what sustains us, but what adds that extra “vibrancy” to the prose.

      I don’t know many writers who like marketing. Mention the phrase “bookstore signing” among a group of pros and listen to the groans!

  2. Great post, Jim. I am a Heinlein’s Rules adherent and have the most trouble with Rule 4.

    I just love telling stories. Publishing and marketing, not so much.

    I recently realized I had three unpublished novels (in a series) and had 22 “back” short stories that were on the same theme and hadn’t been collected yet.

    So I grudgingly took a couple days away from having fun with my characters to publish those. (I’ve been the traditional route; now I’m stricly indie.)

    As I put novel 33 and 34 up for pre-order after releasing novel 32, I realized if I’d stuck with traditional publishing, I’d be putting out a novel around once a year instead of once every few months.

    But in the tradpub/indie argument, whatever works for each writer is fine with me. If it doesn’t affect my personal writing process or paycheck, I don’t sweat the small stuff. (grin)

    • And it usually takes years for a writer to figure out what is “fine.” Even then, constant adjustments, some big, some small, have to be made.

      Some adjustments are terrible, bad, unwise–like Dave Roberts pulling Rich Hill out of the Dodger game last night!

  3. Turbulence on the horizon, sir. Overflowing competition is rocking my boat. Every time I read a subpar book or an amazing book, I go back to my 2 WIPs and polish. Yet, I fear I am too scared to finish them, worried they will never be seaworthy. Sick, right? Seasick.

  4. Oh man. I don’t know whether to call this an eye opener or a kick in the gut! Perhaps both? I’m writing my first novel (at an advanced age. Long story…aren’t they all?)

    I so want to go the traditional route, perhaps because of my advanced age, having been raised to believe that was the appropriate route.

    I would love to say this clarified things, but, I think it just scared my pants off.

    • Best to have that eye-opening moment now, right Sally? And you can always buy more pants.

      The “traditional route” as you put it is long gone. Trad publishers are now acting more like digital managers rather than curators and distributors (which used to be their advantage). Not that this route is invalid, just be aware that it takes a long time and that you must protect your most important asset: your intellectual property rights.

      The antidote to being scared? Keep writing!

    • Sally, you’re not alone. I’m in that same boat with you, and the sea is choppy. I’m about to start my third novel, and I have yet to produce something publishable. It’s a learning process for sure, but we keep trying because we get better with each sentence we write.

    • One of the reasons I’m happy going indie is my age. The traditional route, if things went well, would be about a year finding an agent, another year for the agent to find a publisher, another year at least for the book to get into print. And very few authors make it on Book One, so adding more years to build an audience (I heard CJ Box’s editor say it took them five years to decide he was worth promoting widely), and I’ll be long gone.

  5. It’s a continuous cycle – write, edit, repeat. I’ve got good reviews though I’m sure my work could still be improved. Now I’m chasing keywords, trying to make sure that I’ve picked the best ones and despite all the articles I read on them, no one seems to have the secret sauce on picking keywords. Yesterday I printed all the book descriptions for my 11 books to see if there was anything I could improve there. In this era of self-publishing, managing your small business is a fun and challenging sport. I guess it’s like football in that the NFL (Amazon) changes the rules enough each year to make sure to keep you on your toes.

    • Well said Alec. You do have to keep up on things, and while there is no “magic bullet” (except on occasion for cheaters, like “book stuffers” and the like, which Amazon does its best to clear out without harming honest authors) you do have to be wise on some basics.

  6. A question: it is common to hear that social media doesn’t sell books, but I find this confusing. In essence, the only way people speak to each other nowadays is through devices (may not be 100% true but it is a LOT true), so if not via social media, how are authors selling apart from selling out of the trunk of their car or whatever?

    I can understand the constant spate of “BUY MY BOOK!” ads on FB etc not working, But I would still think a majority of books get discovered via those sources. Usually when I buy a book it’s because someone has mentioned it on Facebook in some group I’m in or something.

    • The key word in your comment, BK, is “someone.” That is, someone other than the author. What you have identified is, quite simply, the most powerful sales driver–word of mouth. But that’s coming from other people talking about a book.

      It’s perfectly fine for an author to mention a book that’s coming out, or has a deal attached to it. But in reality, that will maybe drive 2-5% of the people who even see the alert to click over.

      If you’re constantly trying to get people to so click, they will soon get so sick.

      • True. I have never purchased a book because the author kept advertising or “talking” about it in their posts on social media or website, matter-of-fact if they retweet what others say too often I am turned off all-together, but I do purchase on the recommendation or reviews of others. Booksellers and friends are the best. Blog reviews are second. Third, I love when the question is asked: What was the last book (or author) you loved and why? I just ordered a Tana French because Clare raved about her on today’s blog post. I get branding, but I prefer a writer with strong writing skills above all else.

        BTW, great blog post, James. It’s a keeper!

  7. Hi Jim,

    The water’s choppy, but fine. It’s always choppy. Definitely focus on the fundamentals, your story telling craft, being mindful of your genre and its readers’ expectations, and your newsletter, your most direct line to your readers.

    Build a newsletter and feed it content. It will take a while.

    Other tools come and go, like blogging. (Get a Book Bub Featured Deal if you can.)

    Work on writing more books. For a genre indie writer, a book every quarter was the gold standard at one time, now some aim for much faster. I’m not a book every quarter writer (not yet at any rate), getting two out a year is more my speed at this point. But regardless of your speed (we all vary), work on writing more, whatever that means for you 🙂

    • Well said, Dale. It’s always been “choppy” for writers, but in the “old days” there was only current to catch, and it flowed out of New York. Now there are other ways, which to me is the greatest boon for writers since Gutenberg. But you still have to know how to swim.

  8. Great post. Wonderful advice. I was expecting a baseball (World Series) analogy this morning. I did see that your response to Harvey slipped in a baseball comment. Good luck with the remainder of the series.

    I like your approach to platform, discoverability, and “trustability.” It makes sense.

    I’m embarking on the indie route. I’m a DIY’er. I like to micromanage. And, if I’m going to do all the marketing, why should I give up a large chunk of the royalty?

    On the subject of being discovered in the polluted ocean of books, I love the creative pursuit of thinking of new ways to be noticed, ex. using (and crediting) interest groups for beta reading, new formats for books (ala James Patterson) like scrolls for children’s fantasy, or even serialization of books in appropriate publications/newspapers (?Charles Dickens).

    • I’m too pained this morning to write much about the Dodgers, Steve. But here goes…sometimes you have to throw out the analytics and go with your gut! I dislike baseball-by-the-numbers if it is unthinkingly followed. A good book can be by the numbers, but a great one has the added elements of heart and instinct.

  9. Very comprehensive (and accurate) assessment of the state of publishing now. You caught the “indie” wave early on, and congratulations on that. The key remains writing the best books possible (I agree with the plural there). Thanks for sharing.

  10. I sure needed your encouragement to keep writing regardless of how small my contribution. Then, I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. On saying that, I must tell you what happened a few months ago.

    A reader messaged me through FB she was reading an early edition of my first novel. Inwardly cringing, I tried to give her an updated copy, but she refused it. (Long story about the odyssey of that first novel and I won’t get into it here.) With out much other choice, I shrugged and let the incident go.

    A week later, she messaged me again to say she had been struggling with an extreme life issue, how to tell her ten year old twin boys she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She went on to say she found the answer to her dilemma on page 229 of my book, and even sent a picture for my reference.

    As odd coincidences go, I am just recovering from a mastectomy and reconstruction myself. We have bonded beyond the book and now message regularly. I try to give encouragement since I have already walked her path. Good news for both of us. The mastectomy removed all the cancer. No follow up treatment is necessary. We are survivors, cure, healed, and now close friends.

    So, we never know how our books will affect others and regardless of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing us, we need to do just as you suggest – keep writing, keeping sharing the story we feel led to write and never, never give up.

    • What a great encouragement, Cecilia. With all the talk about marketing and money, we often forget that our writing can have a personal effect such as you have described. Thanks for that.

  11. I like the concept of “trustability thinking.”

    My life’s experience has taught me that anything worth doing is worth taking the time to do it well, along with all the pain and drudgery (e.g., marketing, self-promoting) that might go along with it.

    Someone mentioned the profound effect their book had on a reader. That would be my definition of success. My books (book, actually) may not reach millions — though, heaven knows, I’m trying — but I hope it finds its way to some people who will find something meaningful in it.

    Besides, if it wasn’t hard, why do it?

  12. I appreciate the candid manner with which you present the business we’ve elected to enter. It depends upon each individual writer’s vision/goals–some are content to self-publish and have only a few friends/family members buy and admire it. But those of us who fantasize about making a few books need to heed your admonitions. The plus side of this daunting picture is that, in a sense, we writers have a tad more autonomy to go out and get it done.

    • That’s right, Rick. Autonomy. It was not really available to writers before 2007, when the Kindle came out. Now the challenge is to find readers, but that’s going to be the no matter how you publish.

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