Rubber Meets Road
My last post was about the tried-and-true book publishing methods of making sure that the most important element of publication—getting books in stores and displayed—is successful. Selling-in a book at the retail and wholesale level is vitally important. So the early discussion at our December 1, 2010, marketing/publicity meeting at Crown covered this ground. Here is what is planned for The Profession.
- Crown will feature The Profession as a lead title in its summer 2011 catalog. A publisher’s catalog is a sales rep’s calling card. Getting featured placement in it is crucial to launch a bestseller campaign.
- Crown will produce advance reading galleys of The Profession (an early copy of the book in a paperback format) and distribute them to its sales force in January 2011, five months before the book goes on sale. Crown’s sales reps—the people who actually solicit orders—will read the book and pass on copies to the buyers and bookstore managers at the major chains before they ask them for an order.
- An additional quantity of galleys will be given to Steve and me to solicit advance praise for the book from big thriller writers—just like we did with Gates of Fire. Armed with these quotes and having many of the buyers read the book before ordering, the sales reps will be in a better position to convince retailers to take a big position. That is, bookstore buyers will order a critical mass of copies (enough out there to make the bestseller list out of the gate) of The Profession and display the book prominently in their stores.
- As many retailers and wholesalers have e-newsletters that target consumers, Crown’s marketing and publicity departments also suggested that Steve do an interview with them to give deep background about the genesis of the book and how he came to write it. The interview will help in the pitch to the editors of these newsletters to include The Profession in their “Hot Picks” for summer reading. The interview will also be included in the galley hand-off so that those bookstore managers or buyers who wouldn’t ordinarily read a book with a military theme can get a sense of the craft and its raison d’être.
These plans are traditional ways of getting retailers’ and wholesalers’ attention. The message communicated by the above campaign is “pay attention to this one.”
Steve and I listened and nodded as these plans were laid out. This is a great start and it’s obvious that Crown has every intention of communicating to its sales force and the retail world that The Profession has “bestseller” written all over it. I’m excited.
We’ve got the basics down. I’m confident Crown’s sales reps will hit the ground running. I know a lot of them from my days as an editor and they are real pros. They care. They’ll get The Profession great placement in stores and I know there will be enough copies out there to give Steve a real shot at The New York Times bestseller list from day one. Big Big Win for The Profession.
Now we can talk about how we can take the next step. My inner agitator is ready to let loose. As you’ll recall, my “Getting the Meeting” post was about how the big trade publishers spend their energy selling to retailers and wholesalers—not consumers. That will have to change.
This post is going live just as the Borders Group bookstore chain is in deep trouble. Borders has failed to pay its bills to publishers and there have been massive resignations at the top of their management. Book publishers, agents and authors can no longer ignore the fact that bricks-and-mortar bookstore retailing is in serious trouble—like “Tower Records/Virgin/Sam Goody/Coconuts/National Record Mart” trouble.
If dedicated bricks-and-mortar bookstores fall, will people stop reading and buying books? Not on your life. It will take some time, but the big boxes and online retailers will eventually absorb the physical book market. But as I discussed in “The Sell In,” big box retailers are Darwinian enterprises. They only stock product that moves. In the very foreseeable future, if you do not have an instant audience for your book, you will not get physical distribution at the retail level.
What this all means is that writers have to form a direct connection with their audience. A publisher can’t do that, only a writer can. A writer’s job is no longer just about delivering the manuscript to her publisher, vetting copyediting and galley pages, and then waiting for the book to be published to great acclaim and bestsellerdom. Callie impressed this upon Steve in no uncertain terms when they launched his blog. Thank God!
So now that we’ve covered the plans to get The Profession traditional retailer support, Steve and I want to explore with Crown the best way to reach the people who would actually want to buy The Profession. Can we corral Pressfield buyers early on and engage them in a dialogue about The Profession before we even go on sale? How would we do that? What is our goal before his sucker even goes on sale and how can we achieve it?
Steve, Callie, Jeff and I spent weeks discussing all of these questions before our meeting with Crown. Here is what we came up with.
Our goal: We want The Profession to hit The New York Times bestseller list in its first week on sale.
Why is The New York Times bestseller list so important?
It guarantees substantial in-store and online placement. The first thing you see when you walk into a bookstore is a shelf loaded with bestsellers. We want The Profession to be on that shelf because it will double the book’s retail exposure. Crown’s sales reps will work like Hell to get The Profession front of store and on the NEW FICTION table for at least the first two weeks it goes on sale.
But if the book isn’t moving in those two weeks, the store puts another novel in place of The Profession, copies are returned to Crown for full credit, leaving only a few per store stuck deep into the stacks for tenacious Pressfield lovers to find. Nothing personal. Just business. Without Crown we’d never even get a chance to be front of store. We don’t want to blow this opportunity.
If we can get The Profession on the bestseller shelf out of the gate, it will give us two bites of the apple in that critical two- week window. It will move the books that are waiting in the store’s back room, to replace the sold copies on the NEW FICTION table, out of their boxes and onto the prime bestseller location on the sales floor.
The same goes for Amazon and BN.com. If it is a New York Times bestseller, The Profession will get additional promotion by all of the retailers and that wonderful thing called “momentum” starts to happen.
In the mass market pre-internet era, the adage was that the consumer has to be exposed to a new product at least three times before they even register its existence. Today, I’d wager that ten exposures (a display, a print ad, a radio ad, an online ad, a review etc.) don’t even cut through our “buy buy buy” cultural noise. We’ve turned off our brains to constant barrage.
But the very very good news is that we now have opportunities to generate “social exposures.” Or what we used to call a recommendation from a friend or respected colleague. “Dude, just read this awesome book. You should check it out.” That is what sells books. Always has. Always will.
Back to brass tacks.
How many copies do you have to sell to get on The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list?
It depends on the time of year and the specific week a book goes on sale. In the fall, it’s very difficult to get on the list because that is when the brand writers (Clancy, Franzen, Steele, Coben, Cussler, Roberts, etc.) come out with their latest novels. The big guns sell tens of thousands of copies a week and if the list is loaded with them, a writer who doesn’t have big box/wholesaler appeal is frozen out.
The very first discussion I had with Steve’s editor was to move him out of the fall season and get him into his sweet spot: Father’s Day! What better gift for dad than a Pressfield novel? It was an easy sell to Crown. In fact, they were way ahead of me. They were hoping that Steve delivered The Profession with enough time to make that happen. Steve did and they moved his pub date from October to June the same week they got the manuscript.
I tracked sales figures from 2010 for the corresponding week that The Profession goes on sale. I discovered that 15,000 units is the magic number to get us safely in the top 15 for a mid-June on-sale date.
Now we have the most critical element for success. A number. Without a number, we’d be lost. A number gives you clarity. Don’t fear a number. Embrace the number. It will focus you like nothing else. Why? Because a number won’t let you bullshit yourself.
You can come up with the most original and remarkable marketing idea. Your friends and colleagues will think you’re a genius. But if it doesn’t get you closer to your number—no matter how cool it is—you have to kill that promotion and kill it quickly. Try something else. If you don’t have a number and a way to measure your progress, how are you going to know if you’re marketing is working? You won’t.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road:
We must sell 15,000 copies of The Profession the first week it goes on sale.
I did some more research and discovered that Steve’s previous novels have sold on average 3,000 copies their first week on sale. They go on to sell a lot more than that (he averages about 250,000 copies sold for each) but his previous novels are not akin to The Profession.
Adding 12,000 buyers to Steve’s core of 3,000 first week buyers is ambitious. But we have the book to do it.
On the surface, The Profession is an action packed/instant gratification kind of read—a popcorn airport indulgence. It’s the kind of book that only a handful of writers can do well—plot driven, lean, and immersive. But that is just the window dressing. Deep down it’s as epic and specific and literary as Gates of Fire. The Profession has what it takes to bring in a whole new audience for Steve, but it also has the gravitas to satisfy Steve’s core devotees.
I’ll do a post about what makes it so special down the road. I’ll cover the “inside baseball” of it as well as offer my professorial literary analysis. I don’t get to do too much of that kind of wonky writing, so I look forward to it. That post will also give you a sense of why some books are given a big push by publishers and why others aren’t. What a “Big Book” really is.
Back to the December 1 meeting at Crown: As I turn the page of the marketing agenda I see the phrase “Consumer Awareness Building.” Now it’s time to unleash my inner “agitator.”
I rudely interrupt: “How can we convert Steve’s 3,000 copy first week track record into a 15,000 first week performance?”
To be continued.