A famous businessman (I forget who) once said, "I know half my advertising dollars are wasted. I just don't know which half."
Wise words, indeed. And said quite some time ago, in the days before advertising-based business models (think newspapers, magazines) started experiencing some major challenges. I recently picked up a copy of Time magazine - once replete with ads - and was moderately shocked to see how thin the publication has become. Now it's mostly content, not something I would complain about, since who buys a news magazine for the advertisements?
Fortunately or unfortunately, the book publishing business hasn't relied on advertising (within the pages of the books themselves) to support itself. So, I do think we are a step ahead of newspapers and magazines in that regard. (And, honestly, I don't think magazines and newspapers would be in their current pickle if they hadn't all been in such a rush to provide all their content for free online. What sort of bubblehead ever thought THAT was a good idea?)
As we watch markets adjust to new conditions, helping to craft them in the tiny ways over which we have some control (for example, my publishing house refuses to ever offer its books for 99 cents online), all of us are forced to examine our operating assumptions and to think about ROI (return on investment), the acronym we can't get away from. Before we spend any money, we have to ask ourselves: Will this help us sell more books? Will it help us increase our profits and keep us in business? Or will this send money down a sinkhole?
With that in mind, I've compiled a list of the things I will pay for, and the things I will NOT pay for.
THINGS I WILL NOT PAY FOR:
1. Reviews. I will never, and I do mean NEVER, pay anyone to review any book we publish. Paid reviews don't matter and don't affect sales. They are a waste of time, a waste of money. Nobody takes them seriously. Most pay-for-review sites are taking advantage of those who take part in vanity publishing activities. Kirkus (shame on them, but heck--they DO have to pay the bills) now has a pay-for-review part of the magazine; nobody even looks at those reviews. ForeWord magazine occasionally sends our publicist an email saying that one of our books hasn't been chosen for review, but it HAS been chosen for the privilege of our paying them to review it. We laugh and wonder if they think we're some vanity publishing outfit. The only reviews that matter are those that you get for "free," because all others are paid advertising, pure and simple, and we know what most people think of THAT. I will pay people to review my books when three conditions are met: (1) Pigs fly, (2) Hell freezes over, and (3) Snowballs stand a good chance in the aforementioned Hades.
2. Author "tours." I know that many writers dream of the days when publishers sent them on book signing tours. And if I was with one of the big houses who is lucky enough to publish guaranteed best-sellers, I might spring for one. But from where I sit now - we just can't do it. Have you looked at the price of airfare, hotel rooms, and meals lately? Do you have any idea how many books we have to sell just to cover the cost of one night in a hotel room? Sadly but truthfully, people just aren't going to turn out to hear some author they've most likely never heard of and buy their book. We have better ways to spend our money.
3. Advertisements in the popular media. We simply can't afford advertisements in popular magazines and newspapers; and even if we could, the number of books sold as a result would not cover the cost. I think many writers think that advertising is the key to getting readers; it isn't. I know people who take out ads with their own money, post on every listserv known to man, and blog themselves silly who still can't sell more than a couple of thousand copies of their book. This isn't to say that I have the magic formula for making a book successful, as there's plenty of garbage that does quite well and plenty of wonderful books that get remaindered almost instantly.
4. Overnight mail. Was there ever a greater waste of money and resources than overnight mail? Listen, I love what I do, but most people can wait 2 or 3 days for their books without dying. In many cases, the cost of shipping is the single largest chunk of book revenue - it can even exceed the book's unit price (i.e., the printing cost per unit). Media Mail is what it's all about. I shudder to think what would happen if the USPS ever got rid of Media Mail. So let's not even go there.
THINGS I WILL PAY FOR (OR CONSIDER PAYING FOR):
1. Good cover designers. I'm shocked by the really awful cover designs that I see (sometimes, but not always, done by small presses). In our visual and shallow age, there is no more important signal of a quality-published book than a good, creative, interesting cover design. Look at the best-seller list: Rarely do you see a terrible cover. Nothing makes a book look more cheap, or more unprofessional, than a poor cover design. I'm afraid that this comment will now make the self-published spend lots of money on cover designs; but please know that a good cover alone is not enough to make a book sell.
2. Bookstore placement. It isn't cheap, but I am willing to pay for book placement at Barnes & Noble and a couple of other large book retailing outlets. To do this, I would have to have the utmost faith in my book, as well as an aggressive author who is as much a self-marketer as s/he is a writer. No human being can go into a B&N and look through all the books in the stacks, their spines facing outward. Being on display says "Look at me," and it can be enough to turn a casual browser into a book buyer. Of course, the book has to have a great cover, a whammo opening page, and an attractive author (which is why you see so many author photos that have been Photoshopped into Hollywood-style images).
3. Quid Pro Quo. While I don't believe advertising works (except library advertising, and then ONLY if your ads are backed up by good reviews in LJ, PW, Kirkus, or Booklist), I can and do advertise in those magazines as a way of supporting them. And while subscriptions to each of those publications is a burden, we need to support them, their staffs, and their missions--so each year we shell out the annual subscription fee. In other words, if you want my scant advertising dollars, your best bet is to review a couple of our books, which then creates a sense of obligation in us to support you in return. (As I say this, I am glad that I do this blog anonymously.)
4. Google AdWords. What a terrific waste of money. I speak from experience. Never again. Maybe for yachts; not for products, like books, with razor-thin profit margins.
What about the Internet, you ask? Well, the jury is out. We do cautiously try things out every now and again; results have been mixed (the 50% to which the first line of this post refers). We're in the process of trying out a few Amazon programs - we'll see how those turn out. I do worry about Amazon and its predatory practices; we've seen what happens when a company becomes the only game in town (Microsoft, though it's only a matter of time before Apple eclipses them, and it may have already done so). But just as B&N is still the best venue for book lovers at a physical level, Amazon seems to be the best Internet space for book lovers, so I bow to pragmatism and do what I must.