Top ten ways to sell more books

I thought I would share with you the summary of my presentation regarding selling more books. I’ll spare you all of the introductory material and get right to the point! Of course, we are already doing most if not all of these things for you — or have done them for you in the past.
  1. Reviews, reviews, reviews
  2. Distribution that allows returns and is discounted as expected
  3. Metadata / product information
  4. Direct email appeal to independent bookstores
  5. Publicity campaigns to major media
  6. Flash promotions aligned with non-fiction hooks, holidays, current events, etc.
  7. Write series
  8. Periodically refresh your backlist
  9. Sell in non-bookstore outlets / situations
  10. Build an email list to your readers
We are in an era which is dominated by Amazon with over half of all sales. Our mix is less reliant on Amazon, but Amazon reviews are most important. As mentioned previously, books with at least 1 review have sales 50% higher on average than books with no reviews. Also note, a 5-star average does not help! This is seen as suspect. It is actually good to have a few negative or critical reviews in the mix — as long as your average is better than 3.5 — 4+ preferred.
Distribution has the second biggest impact at Sunbury Press. This makes sense since it opens more markets. The key here is the return flag — while it might increase sales, it might also mean a portion of the sales might come back. Thus the additional sales might not be profitable.
Publicity campaigns are not #1! They are best suited for nonfiction books / authors. Fiction publicity is less effective. Note that publicity is a crap-shoot — one fantastic mention can make all the difference but is unlikely. You can spend a lot of money chasing it and receive little return.
I’ve provided a link to a number of other ideas that are less impactful (in our experience).

Inelastic fiction sales

I recently read some very disheartening statistics regarding the industry-wide sales of fiction books. There are two main points:
1) Fiction sales are flat or down among most publishers in most categories.
2) Readers, on average, only pay for 25% of the fiction books they read. The remaining 75% are either free downloads, pirated, or borrowed.
At Sunbury Press, our sales have been increasing steadily the last three years, but this is mainly due to balancing our mix more towards nonfiction and increasing our marketing and publicity capabilities. Our fiction sales are actually up a bit for most authors.
However, it is very telling when you are in an industry where only one quarter of the customers pay. Understand, of the 25% who do pay SOMETHING for their fiction, they might be buying 99 cent eBooks or picking up used copies for a dollar or two at used bookstores or flea markets. The reader who pays full price for fiction is very rare indeed. Ask yourselves — when is the last time you paid full-price for a fiction book you actually read? In my case, it has been quite some time. I benefit from reading all of your novels! My last fiction purchase was a series of books by Howard Frank Mosher some years ago. Tammi and I cherish them as some of our favorite books. Of course, she reads A LOT of thrillers on her Kindle that she pays for.
But, think about it. When possibly only 10% of the reading public is paying full price for your work and the vast majority are reading it for free, what does this mean?
  • Can you really make a living as a fiction author in today’s saturated marketplace where anyone can release anything they want whenever they want?
  • In economics this is a clear indication of a situation where supply far outweighs the demand. We’ve clearly gone well past the point of elasticity — where the customer is willing to pay for another instance of a product. We are so far into the territory where they will only take it if they can get it for nothing!
As a publisher trying to grow both in the nonfiction and fiction spaces, we are finding our fiction propped up by our nonfiction. We do this because we believe these fiction works are worthy of publication and SHOULD be selling much better. Under normal circumstances, they would be.
As fiction authors, you must seriously consider the headwinds we are facing. We need to find different ways to get books in front of people that are willing to pay for them. I also think we need to stop participating in the giveaways. It’s a fools errand leading to nothing more than fool’s gold.
  • Growth of US traditional publishing print book sales in 2016: 3%
  • Growth of US traditional publishing print book sales in 2017: 2%
  • Growth of US traditional publishing print book sales in 2018 so far: 2.9%
  • Adult fiction print sales in 2018 YTD versus 2017: -3.5%
  • Children’s/YA print sales in 2018 YTD versus 2017: +5.7%
  • Hardcover sales in 2018 YTD versus 2017: +7%
  • Nonfiction print sales volume growth between 2014 and 2017: 5%
  • Fiction print sales volume growth between 2014 and 2017: 0
  • Children’s/YA print sales volume growth between 2014 and 2017: 3%

Publicity campaigns

We hired a new employee, Nicole Amenheuser, to be our Digital Marketing Assistant. Nicole boldly took the reins and began executing a couple test campaigns on the Cision platform. We were both very optimistic.
Then came the email. “Lawrence, we’ve hit our capacity.”
“Capacity? What capacity,” I asked. “For the day? For the week? For the month?”
“For the year,” she replied.
“That can’t be!” I exclaimed. I was beside myself. Given the amount of money we had invested in Cision, I was sure this was a mistake. However, after a brief phone call, I quickly learned I had invested in a lower-cost version of the platform used by “smaller organizations.” Apparently our salesman did not explain that very well, or I had visions of sugar plums while he was thinking dollar signs.
Fortunately, the situation was quickly resolved. I decided to up the ante and invest in the unlimited level of service. This means as many campaigns and emails as we can do, we will do. Nicole and I are in the process of catching-up that will ultimately bring in every one of you. First up are the most recent releases and then we’ll work our way back. In the meantime, think about how we might hook the media on your books. We can tap up to 1.6 million people– everyone who is anyone in media in the United States is in this database. Preliminary results have garnered a radio or news interview for about every 1000 emails sent. We also received some review and promotional opportunities.
Another thing to think about is taking advantage of Amazon’s algorithm for “Also Bought” marketing. I have attached the article below. There are some interesting ideas here. Anyone interested in collaborating on this, please let me know.

Trouble at Barnes and Noble

Our news regarding Barnes and Noble has been a mixed bag. First and foremost, the chain had a terrible year in 2017 and is taking some drastic actions this year. Those of you who have been with us for awhile know I’ve been on Barnes and Noble death watch for some time. We’ve just seen ToysRUs file for bankruptcy and plan to liquidate all of its stores. Barnes is similar in that it is also a 1990s-style big box store. They have announced plans to close some stores, reduce the number of employees in the stores, and only open smaller stores in the future. This sounds like the death spiral continues.
But, they remain the largest book chain by far, though they only do less than half of Amazon’s business. Still, we cannot ignore 17% of the marketplace. One in six books is sold through B&N!
At Sunbury Press, we have been losing money when dealing with the chain book trade since early 2017. We have noticed an uptick in returns and a slight decline in new orders. Meanwhile, our sales in other channels have grown thanks to direct sales to readers, direct sales to independent bookstores, and our growing online business. This downturn when dealing with the big chains tells me they are in trouble. We don’t want to be left hanging when they fold — like the dozens of publishers who went out of business when Borders closed and returned millions of dollars in unsold books. We are quietly switching our strategy with Barnes to deal directly with them, rather than through Ingram. Through the direct arrangement, Barnes agrees not to return books. We’ve also “rekindled” our eBook deal with them. Look for many of our books to be available again on the Nook. The main reason I am doing this is I believe this will be sold off — likely to Kobo or Apple and will give us entré onto those platforms in a big way.

2017 was a good year

It wasn’t the best of times, nor was it the worst of times. The good news is 2017 saw an improvement of 15% in book sales. What’s really interesting about that is we only released 47 new books in 2017 – exactly equal to our 2016 output. So why the sales increase?
1) The economy improved!  As much as some of us don’t like the new leadership in the country, the economy has picked up steam. This is evident in all of my experiences in and out of publishing and as an Economics professor.
2) We changed our mix to release more nonfiction. We have had better and steadier performance from our new releases.
3) We improved our social media engagement. The steady pulse of social media has definitely resulted in increased sales of our back list books.
4) We had some breakthroughs with major media thanks to several of our authors.
So, what can improve? Sales are still below our best year of 2015. Most companies do not grow in a steady linear upward fashion. There is give and take and ups and downs. It really is more like a boat ride on rough seas than a skate across a frozen pond. 2015 was so good because we had a number of large hardcover publishing deals that were very successful. This has yet to repeat, and may never. The lesson learned is we need to keep adjusting to our readers and the marketplace.
Here are the top things we can do to improve to try to hit or exceed the 2015 number in 2018:
1) Sell more of the books we offer — especially fiction!
2) Continue to leverage new services like NetGalley, our Entertainment Agent site partner, and other opportunities to increase exposure.
3) Better coordinate our marketing campaigns. We will be attempting to coordinate our social media activity and ebook promotions — especially for fiction.
4) Continue to sign new authors with fresh material.
5) Continue to sign veteran authors with great backlists.
6) Continue to grow our new imprint brands.

Imprint update

The feedback regarding our new imprints continues to be very positive. However, sales of the new imprints continues to lag our main imprint, Sunbury Press. This is primarily due to the following efforts that are ongoing:
1) Updates to Bowker — all of the books in print — to include imprint information.
2) Updates to Ingram to apprise them of the imprint changes.
3) Updates to Amazon for the same reason.
4) Updates to Baker & Taylor and Follett.
I am repeating the following reminder since so few of you reacted to it last month. Please give the following some thought:
This is a great time to think about other updates you might want to make to your metadata. Books that are selling will receive a rebranding — change to the cover and interior. Have a look at your books and think about any improvements you might want to make:
1) Categories — is there a more targeted category?
2) Reviews — have you received any reviews from VIPs?
3) Awards — have you won any awards?
4) ECommerce — check your book on our website. Is it up to date? Do you have an author page on our site? We can help set this up.
5) Keywords — think about keyword assignments you might want to try. This could improve your book’s performance in online search.
Lastly, please be sure to like your imprint on Facebook. As we get into next year, we will be working with groups of authors associated with each imprint. Social media will be a big part of this.

Plans for expansion and growth

It’s becoming clear to me that the self-publishing revolution of five to ten years ago has hit some serious roadblocks. Many of the vanity press services have gone under, leaving authors with garages full of books and no customers. Many small presses — some for the benefit of single authors — some focused on a special category — some with progressive missions to share everything with everybody — have gone out of business. Many large presses have downsized, cut staff, and released rights for backlist or unsuccessful books. Even Barnes & Noble is about to downsize its store footprint (see below).
Why is all of this happening? Book sales are actually up! Very simply, the self-publishing boom is over. The reading consumer has figured out the difference between a self-published book and a professionally published book. They haven’t been buying the self-published books since late 2012. Self-published sales have gone the way of the declining ebook market.
What is selling? Regarding nonfiction, quality books on topics of interest continue to do well. Regarding fiction, quality books from known authors continue to sell well. Regardless of category, quality must come first — in editing, interior design, cover design, etc. Unfortunately, the vast majority of self-published books lacked these key components — and also lacked quality content. Readers have learned this and have been rejecting such books at an increasing rate. As we emerge from the rubble of this transformative era, like other times of transformation, opportunities abound. While others are waiting and hiding and biding their time, we will seize the opportunity to gain more territory. Here’s what’s in store for next year:
1) Growth through acquisition — we will be seeking to acquire other presses that are deciding to exit the business. If you know of any troubled entities where the owners are giving up, let me know. If they have quality content, we might be able to turn it around.
2) Growth through new authors — we will continue to sign new authors at our current rate. We are especially looking for authors who have had success in the past and who already have a backlist. Hopefully they have their rights returned to them. If you know anyone who has a number of publications that are looking for a new home, let me know.
3) Growth through our current authors — we will continue to develop our current list of authors, expanding your opportunities and properties. We will be focused on building our existing assets, as well as encouraging the development of new material.
At the foundation of this strategy is quality. As a decent-sized small press, we have the economies of scale to produce a professional level of quality at a much lower cost than if it was done individually. We will continue to maintain our high standards while we also seek more quality content.
Regarding nonfiction, we will continue to seek interesting material. Regarding fiction, we will seek quality content while also assisting in building the names and reputation of our authors.
Here’s to our growth and greater success in 2018 and beyond!

Imprint update

So far, so good. This whole imprint strategy seems to make so much sense! There seems to be a lot of energy behind the new brands, and we hope to see an uptick in sales over the next year, as we fully implement.
Right now, we are engaged in a huge data update regarding your books:
1) Updates to Bowker — all of the books in print — to include imprint information.
2) Updates to Ingram to apprise them of the imprint changes.
3) Updates to Amazon for the same reason.
4) Updates to Baker & Taylor and Follett, too — more on this later.
This means, before long, you will see your books listed at the various online retailers under the imprints, assuming you have been assigned to something other than the base Sunbury Press imprint.
This is a great time to think about other updates you might want to make to your metadata. Books that are selling will receive a rebranding — change to the cover and interior. Have a look at your books and think about any improvements you might want to make:
1) Categories — is there a more targeted category?
2) Reviews — have you received any reviews from VIPs?
3) Awards — have you won any awards?
4) ECommerce — check your book on our website. Is it up to date? Do you have an author page on our site? We can help set this up.
5) Keywords — think about keyword assignments you might want to try. This could improve your book’s performance in online search.
Lastly, please be sure to like your imprint on Facebook. As we get into next year, we will be working with groups of authors associated with each imprint. Social media will be a big part of this.

Fiction and nonfiction processes under review

There is probably not a drier subject than business process engineering. No, I will not bore you with swim-lane diagrams or all of the little tweaks we are making. Rather, I want you to be aware of our work at a higher level.
At one time, not long ago, Sunbury Press was growing at a rapid pace. In recent years, we’ve topped off — plateaued a bit, if you will. While the business is still strong and healthy, the upside has stalled while we work through what we will become and how we will go about achieving it.
First, a little history.  In the past, we did things the “Sunbury Way” — which meant getting all of our books to market as quickly as possible and then leveraging technology to market them as efficiently as possible. This approach was very friendly to nonfiction titles, but not so effective for fiction. However, during this time period, the company grew many fold.
Given that nearly 70% of our titles are fiction, we thought adjusting our process to favor fiction would lead to faster growth. After all, only about 30% of our sales have been from fiction, and none of our top ten books of all time are fiction. So, it made sense to leverage our deep catalog of fiction and our deeper queue of proposals to drive growth through a new fiction-friendly process.
So, we did what the trade wanted us to do in order to sell more fiction — slow things down — build reviews in advance — set advance sale opportunities, etc. We invested nearly all of our marketing budget in improving our fiction performance. What happened?
We got slower. We released fewer books of all kinds. And, our sales leveled off — even dropped some months.  Obviously, this was not a good idea — especially given the currents we were sailing in.  Clearly, fiction sales are soft industry-wide and we were fighting against it rather than sailing with what worked.
In more recent months, we have sloughed off some of the “fiction burdens” and regressed to our prior process. In return, more books have been released more quickly, and sales have risen — albeit nonfiction sales. Think of this as a patch to tide us over.
I recently told the staff in our operations meeting that our company-wide goal is to double sales by the end of 2019. Obviously, one way to do that might be to double the number of books we publish.  However, as one of our leaders reminded us, we might not have enough quality in the pipeline to warrant the investment. We realize we also need to increase sales. What that balance will be — more releases versus more marketing — remains to be seen. More releases require more labor for editing and design — and marketing.  Selling more books requires more creative ideas for marketing.  I am certain we will coalesce on a plan soon that will achieve both goals.
One realization is that we might need to split our process into three distinct paths:
1) Nonfiction — our traditional “Sunbury Way” of high quality / rapid to market / heavy on the SEO and discovery.
2) Fast Path — when we create new editions of prior works or sign authors with works that are being “retreaded,” we can speed through many of our quality checks, assuming the base we are working with is already good.
3) Fiction — The focus is on building the platforms for the authors we have under management by building their catalog and marketing it collectively. We also need to help build the reading public’s confidence in our authors. This is not a fast path or rapid-to-market approach. It requires an investment in patience. It also means focusing on opportunities with movies and television, as well as foreign rights.
While our pipeline continues to burst with proposals, it might be time to slow down the fiction valve for awhile, only allowing in authors who have a series well underway or come to us with an established platform. We then should allow our current fiction authors to build up — build their catalogs and their offerings.
Your thoughts on this would be appreciated!

Book Publishing Annual StatShot Survey Reveals Religious Crossover and Inspirational Books Supported Trade Book Growth in 2016

Print books account for 70.6% of all units sold; eBook revenues decline
Washington, DC; August 1, 2017 – The Association of American Publishers (AAP) announced today that the U.S. book publishing industry generated $26.24 billion in net revenue for 2016, representing 2.7 billion in units (volume). Books with religious and inspirational themes from religious presses and trade publishers were among the best-selling books.
StatShot Annual estimates the book publishing industry’s size and scope, tracking the sales and volume data for trade (fiction/non-fiction/religious), PreK-12 instructional materials, higher education course materials, university presses, and professional books.
While publisher revenue (1.5%) and units sold (2.8%) both increased for trade books, the overall publishing industry saw a decline in revenue (-5.1%.) This may in large part be attributed to a challenging year in the education and scholarly publishing markets, which together comprise about 40% of tracked revenues.
Publisher revenue for trade books grew by $231 million from 2015 to 2016. American publishers sold nearly 2.5 billion trade books, including print, eBook and audiobooks.
Trade Books
Most of the inspirational and religious crossover books that were popular in 2016 are found in the religious presses and Adult non-fiction categories. Since 2014, Adult non-fiction has been the category with the greatest revenue growth, gaining nearly $1 billion. The category went from $4.97 billion in 2014 to $5.87 billion in 2016. Among other books, the category includes memoirs, biographies, inspirational books, political books, and adult coloring books. Within Adult non-fiction, about 80% of the books sold were print, the majority being paperback books. Religious presses, imprints that focus on religion, spirituality and faith, grew by 6.9% to $1.13 billion from 2015 to 2016.Area of Growth: Inspirational and Religious Crossover Books
“Books that emphasized values, simple living or had inspirational messages like the Magnolia Story, Present Over Perfect, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and Uninvited were among the most popular in 2016,” said Tina Jordan, Vice President of Trade Publishing, Association of American Publishers.
Childrens/Young Adult Books and Adult Books
Both fiction and non-fiction Childrens and Young Adult Books saw revenue and unit growth. The overall Childrens/YA Books category grew by 5.9% from $4.22 billion in 2015 to $4.47 billion in revenue in 2016. In all, about 1 billion Childrens/YA books were sold to bookstores, online retailers, directly, or otherwise. Nearly 90% of the books sold in Childrens/YA books in 2016 were print books. eBooks declined from a high of 8.6% share of market in 2012 to 3.3% in 2016 and downloaded audio rose from 0.3% share of market in 2012 to 1.2% in 2016.
The Adult Books category shrank 0.9% in 2016 vs. 2015. The nearly 1.3 billion Adult books sold in 2016 encompassed 65% of trade publisher revenues for the year. While publisher revenue for Adult non-fiction has grown every year for the past five years, growing by 22.9% since 2012, Adult fiction has done the opposite, slowly bringing in less revenue each year.
Within the Adult books category, the fastest growing formats in terms of units sold were downloaded audio (up 18.8%), and paperback (up 7.3%). In 2016 print books comprised 66.9% of the books sold, audiobooks were 5.9%, eBooks were 23.1%, and other formats were 4.7%. In 2012, the mix was 66.4% print books, 3.6% audiobooks, 28.4% eBooks and 2.7% other formats.
 
 Trade Formats: Downloaded Audio Grew Significantly, eBooks Declined
 
 Paperback books: Remaining the most popular format overall in terms of units sold, more than 1 billion paperback books were purchased in 2016, comprising 41.7% of the market. Mass market adds another 7.4%. Revenue was up for paperbacks in 2016 to $5.57 billion from $5.29 billion in 2015. This is the most popular format for Adult non-fiction book readers.
Downloaded audio: As they have each year for the last three years, both unit sales and publisher revenue grew by double digits. More than 16 million additional units were sold in 2016 than in 2015, representing 24.7% growth. While downloaded audio represents a small percentage of books sold (3.3% of units) it’s becoming an increasingly popular category – especially for Adult fiction readers. Both unit sales and revenue have more than doubled for this format since 2012, growing from $299 million to $643 million in 2016.
eBooks: Publisher revenue and unit sales for eBooks declined for the third year in a row, losing about $1 billion since their peak in 2013 when revenues were $3.24 billion. In 2016, publisher revenues for eBooks were $2.26 billion, down 16.9% from 2015. Unit sales also declined by 14.7%, with eBooks now making up 14.0% of the trade book market, down from 16.9% last year. Within the Adult fiction book category, eBooks are the most purchased format with 33.0% of the market.
Hardback books: While they are not the best-selling format, hardback books remain quite popular. Both unit sales and publisher revenue increased for the second consecutive year. Revenue was up $265 million (4.9%) in 2016 and 10 million more units were sold (1.7%).
Number of Trade Book Units Sold by Format
 
  • Print
    • Paperback & mass market: 1.22 billion
    • Hardback: 580 million
    • Children’s board books: 96 million
  • Digital
    • eBook: 348 million
    • Downloaded audio: 82 million
  • Other (includes physical audio, bundles, books with unconventional binding): 147 million