Thursday, February 3, 2011

First Novels and Micro-Runs, Part 2

If you want the whole Slippin' Into Darkness story, click on over to my website and check out my essay, "The Care and Feeding of First Novels." For our purposes here, let's just stick to the short version of the tale -- the limited CD run of Slippin' sold out in just under three weeks, which was a lightning-quick sell-through in the pre-Internet days of 1994.

So what accounted for Slippin's success? There were a few reasons.

First, Rich Chizmar didn't confine Slippin' to the usual small-press audience. Instead, he broadened his sales approach and sold it just the way a New York publisher would. He printed a boatload of ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) and sent them out to mainstream review markets. As a result, we scored great reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, even a handful of major newspapers. That earned a lot of sales -- in fact, Slippin' was already sold out by the time the orders rolled in from major distributors. We could have easily sold double the run, but we didn't have the books. All publishers and writers should have that problem.

Second, in addition to hitting the mainstream review markets, Rich used the Cemetery Dance mailing list, focusing a niche marketing approach aimed at Cemetery Dance/Norm Partridge readers. These days Rich's list is the size of a small European country, but back then it was still in the early growth stages, mostly built from his subscriber list for the magazine. Still, a lot of the orders for Slippin' came to Rich direct from customers, so that cut out the middleman and made it a better deal financially for him. Also, it helped build an audience for both the CD book line and myself. The price was low enough that readers of the magazine took a chance on Slippin', and fortunately for both Rich and myself they liked what they got for their money.

Third, I wrote a pretty good first novel. I like to think so, anyway (and, yes, you can insert a virtual wink right here).

Anyway, that's what we did to sell the book. Fast-forward fifteen years, add in some bells-and-whistles thanks to the Internet, and this is still the basic approach most small publishers are taking now to first novels... only they're a much tougher sell in today's market.

Why? Again, I've got a few reasons.

First, the market is more crowded today than it was in 1994. Like: mucho crowded. For publishers, it's easier to produce a book (or eBook), so more people do. For writer's, it's easier to get published, so more people do. To paraphrase one Southern gentleman: There's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on. To grab a phrase from another... well, you know what Mr. Faulkner had to say about sound and fury signifying nothing. Shake that up in a bag and it doesn't equal an easy sale for anyone. What it equals is a very solid chance that your book will get lost in the shuffle if you don't watch yourself (and your publisher).

Second, many small press publishers have given up on a broad-based sales approach. They ignore the old school review markets; some don't even issue ARCs. Instead, they focus on the niche approach to sales, aiming at the small pond of horror collectors and readers. Which is fine in some respects -- hey, it's great to have an audience of rabid readers. On the other hand, when you take this approach in publishing a first novel the phrase "preaching to the choir" comes to mind. That's one reason I don't like it. The way I see it you don't want your first novel locked up with the usual suspects; instead, you want to give it the best chance possible to expand your audience and your career horizons. That's not going to happen with a publisher who only wants to print a hundred copies of your book and sell it to the same hundred folks who've bought all his other books. Or, as my first generation Weird Tales reading granddad might have said: "Publishing a hundred copies of a horror novel is like serving up seafood to the Royal Order of Dagon, and it's a lead-pipe cinch that those boys have already eaten a whole helluva lot of squid."

Third: Forget mining a niche market for customers, we're now entering the realm of the micro-run limited and what I like to think of as "stranglehold publishing." This the land of small print runs and high prices. Some publishers like this approach because 1) they won't get stuck with extra copies they can't sell, and 2) they hope to fan the collector's market flames and earn themselves a quick pre-publication sell-through (i.e. "I have to buy this now! Stranglehold Press is only publishing 100 copies! I don't care if it cost me two weeks' groceries! I'm sure I'll be able to sell this puppy on eBay for big bucks in five years!"). This means Stranglehold Press will publish runs as low as 100 - 150 copies, which (you guessed it) instantly jacks up the cover price into the $60.00 - $75.00 range (and that's the low end). Forget the author signature and production values, that's a lot of money to shell out for a first novel -- even one by a writer who looks like a comer. And even if you're an established writer, doing a short-run limited can be a gamble. After all, your fan base may resent it if a collectible edition has a limitation so low that it prevents a good portion of them from buying one of your books. But if you're a first novelist, you're a couple miles down the road and across the state line from that kind of problem. What you need now is readers, not collectors, and I can almost guarantee that Joe Average Horror Fan isn't going to take a chance on your novel if it's wearing a $75.00 price tag... unless he's also your cousin or something. Add that to my comments about seafood and the Royal Order of Dagon above, and you'll see why you should avoid a micro-run on your first novel if you possibly can.

Remember: As a first novelist you're after readers, not collectors.

Plus: You want to give your book the best chance possible to do you some good.

Next Wednesday, I'll have some tips about how you can do just that.