Small Press Publishing for Profit, Part 3: ‘The Tribe’

The third installment of a series in which Valley Press founder Jamie McGarry reveals his tried-and-tested formula for making a living as a self-employed literary publisher. This week: how to sell books.

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A young publisher, early in his career, reading poetry to commuters over a train intercom. (Photo: FirstGroup)

Those who’ve been following this series have already heard my perspective on a few key publishing ideas — why we can only make £3 from each book sold, how we can avoid making less than that, and how we can turn that £3 per book into a viable small business, so long as we sell an average 200 copies of each new title we publish. Now it’s time for the most crucial part: how we actually get those sold.

The good news is, selling things is easy. A piece of cake. Here are some sure-fire ways to sell a lot of books — thousands in fact — all of which I’ve dabbled with in the past, and all of which you’ll have encountered as a reader:

  • Point-of-sale promotion. For example, buying into a Waterstones or WHSmith ‘3 for 2’ offer, or maybe paying to have a special display in-store featuring the book.
  • Advertising. Whether on a train station billboard, in a literary magazine, or through targeted online campaigns, it’s easy to put your book’s cover and details in front of people who might be interested.
  • Reviews. Positive book reviews in respected outlets definitely do lead to sales. For best results, employ a top publicist who has close relationships with the literary editors to pursue reviews on your behalf. Or, publish authors with an existing national profile.
  • Publicity/media. While you’re employing the publicist, get them pitching for author appearances on radio and TV, or features, news stories and interviews in online and print media.
  • Events. A glamorous ‘launch’ will pack in the readers, and a national tour of festivals and bookshops will also lead to guaranteed sales.
  • Word of mouth. This is a natural process, but one you can kick-start; famously, Vintage sent out 8000+ promotional copies of John Williams’ Stoner, which worked like a defibrillator on conversation around that book, and made it a bestseller after five decades in the shadows.

So there you have it. All it takes is money; give me a sack of cash (like the presses supported by philanthropists), or an Arts Council grant (like Valley Press, this year at least), or a huge budget to spend speculatively on ‘loss leaders’ (like Penguin Random House and the other conglomerates), and I guarantee you, I can sell books.

The problem is, after I’ve sold the books, I won’t still have the sack of cash; it’ll be gone. My previous articles have relied on formulas (which I always find immensely comforting), but there’s no formula for making a profit using the methods above. If there was a formula, everyone in publishing would be unbelievably rich, because they could simply follow it over and over again and make more and more money, maximising the potential market for each new title, ensuring everyone who would ever consider buying a copy does so.

But they can’t. Here’s a case study: you hire a publicist to do ten days of work on a book — and it costs you £2000 (which would be very reasonable, for someone who knows what they’re doing). They recommend 100 well-known media outlets who might promote the book, so you dutifully post each of them a copy, paying £1.40 for print each time, and £1.19 for second class postage. Wrapping them takes you a whole day, so £60 worth of your time at least. Now you’ve spent £2300.

After some cajoling from the publicist, five of those media outlets decide to give the book some space, so you get a couple of decent national reviews, and some radio spots. 100,000 people have now heard about your book; 0.5% of them make the effort to order a copy (an optimistic figure). So you’ve generated 500 extra sales, brilliant! Except at £3 profit per book sold, you’ve only made £1500 on those sales, and it cost you £2300 to get there.

If you’ve got a grant, or can afford some speculative losses, that’s all part of the game; and of course sometimes things will work out more happily (the above was one example, based on various personal experiences and anecdotes — I could produce similar for each strategy on the list above.) But what if we can’t afford to lose money on promotion and marketing; what if all we have is those two days we set aside for publicity in part two of this series? How can we sell 200 copies of each title, whilst investing just 16 hours of our time (or a total budget of £120)? That is a crucial question, which I will now attempt to answer; but as ever, you’ll need to be patient.

Sitting here in 2016, I can confidently say it’s never been easier to publish a book — and I only see things getting simpler as time goes by. I like to think I work with some of the best writers in the country, and it’s not uncommon for them to present their work in a perfectly-typeset Word document, or even to enclose a ‘mock-up’ image of a cover idea they’ve had (I even had one with printer’s crop marks on it last week). Writers have sent me stuff which is minutes from being a printable book. So why don’t they do it themselves? In a world where everyone can publish, what is the value of the publisher?

One big word: curation. Across all art forms, the power increasingly lies with those who can serve as a bridge between creator and consumer; many creators can be their own bridge, but a lot can’t. Readers are lost in a sea of possible books, desperate for a trusted source of guidance that can help separate the gold from the soil, the quality from the hype, and so forth. Someone needs to facilitate ‘discoverability’: as publishers, that can be us.

We do this by forming a ‘tribe’ — bit-by-bit, over time, earning people’s trust and in doing so, selling to an ever-increasing pool of regular readers over and over again. There are no shortcuts; but the good news is, building this system doesn’t need to be expensive. Any time and money we do spend is going to be investment marketing, my favourite kind: not spending on billboards and 10-minute radio spots which are around only briefly, and apply to only one title, but working to add people to our tribe.

Do we understand what I mean here by ‘tribe’? I mean, any collection of like-minded people gathering around a particular idea, or ideal, or leader (a small nod to Seth Godin here). In the world of curation, you build your tribe through regular contact with consumers that benefits them in some way. An email newsletter is an ideal way of doing this, but social media can work too, and so can events. These very articles are an example of tribe-building on my part; if you’ve got this far in, you may already be thinking ‘hey, this Jamie knows a thing or two about publishing — I should sign up to the Valley Press newsletter and keep up with him!’

Once you’ve signed up to the newsletter, what then? You get to hear about future articles; you get to read lots of great literature without paying a penny (we have a ‘free reads’ section on the website); you hear about opportunities for writers (anthologies, submissions and so on); and you hear about our latest books. But never, hopefully, in an irritating or pushy way. The idea is for the Valley Press newsletter to always feel like a personal letter from a friend — I don’t succeed 100% of the time, but that’s the goal.

I don’t believe anyone is swayed by pushy, ‘in your face’ marketing anymore. I’m certainly not. The hope is, after a certain number of non-irritating newsletters, you stay subscribed and even start to look forward to hearing what I’ve got to say each week. If you enjoy enough samples of our books, and start to believe I know what I’m talking about, the next time you think about buying a book — whether it’s for you, or as a gift — Valley Press will be an option in your mind. And if you then go ahead and buy, and that individual experience is positive, you’re likely to do so again. And again.

And now, zooming out: if we have enough people like this in our tribe, and we keep giving them a great experience over and over again (like when the Starbucks CEO talks about building his company ‘one cup of coffee at a time’), we will sell our 200 copies each time without breaking a sweat. And more and more as the years go by.

‘That’s all well and good,’ you may be saying, ‘but what am I supposed to be actually doing with my 16 hours marketing time per title?’ Besides generally being charming on emails, on social media and in person — and constantly reaching out, spending time talking to individual customers, treating them like human beings — there are specific book-related things you can do.

One thing to bear in mind is that each author comes with their own tribe, perhaps better described as ‘fanbase’. You could encourage the author to reach out to them through their own emails, social media, and events — these are perhaps the easiest sales of all — and in doing so, add some of the author’s fans, friends and family to your tribe. You could even do a ‘double launch’ event, bringing in another author and members of yet another tribe; and give everyone a discount on both books if they sign up to the newsletter.

It’s standard practice in many publishing houses for authors to fill out an ‘author questionnaire’, which gives a publisher insight into where members of the author’s tribe might be located; the author will list key bookshops, journalists, venues (etc) they’ve already got a relationship with; so the first few hours of your marketing time could be spent pursuing those leads. You can’t rely on authors to have these connections — which is why we must keep focused on our own efforts — but if they’re there, use them.

Any remaining time you have can be spent gently pursuing your own leads. The absolute dream scenario is for your ‘tribespeople’ (whether authors or happy customers) to become evangelists, sharing news of your books with their own contacts, who might share with theirs, and so on and so on. Once news of your books regularly reaches those who run bookshops, or programme literary festivals, the sky is the limit. Who needs all those expensive marketing schemes, anyway?

I’ll finish there — and hope to never say the word ‘tribes’ again for quite some time — but as ever, if you’ve got any comments or thoughts on this post, I’d love to hear them.

Further reading:

  • ‘Please shut up’ by Delilah Dawson — a self-published author explains why you need to pull, rather than push, to sell books.
  • Publishers adding value’ by Mike Shatzkin — for advanced readers, details of how the biggest publishers are using these same ideas.

Written by

Founder @valleypress. Have mostly written here about small press publishing, but am starting to branch out. Stay with me, people!

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