Best-selling author and independent publishing expert Joanna Penn interviewed BookBaby President Steven Spatz to discuss the state of indie publishing, treating your book as a product, and marketing insights gleaned from our 2017 survey.
Joanna Penn is a New York Times and USA Today best-selling thriller author who also writes non-fiction for authors and hosts The Creative Penn website and podcast. She has written 23 books, selling more than 500,000 books in 84 countries and five languages. Penn is a proud independent author who also runs a small press, Curl Up Press, with her husband.
The Creative Penn offers inspiration and information about writing, self publishing, book marketing, and how to make a living with your writing. She interviewed BookBaby President Steven Spatz for her podcast on January 29th. Below is an excerpt from their conversation.
How has the reputation of self-publishing changed? That change has sped up recently – but how has it changed?
It really has. We’re a long way from the world of vanity press and all of the negative associations with that concept.
Being as involved with the music business as we are, with our sister companies Disc Makers and CD Baby, we’ve always known that independent musicians have an edge to them, this rebellious streak. We’re finding that independent authors are starting to embrace that, that red badge of courage, as it were, saying, “You know what? I’m an indie author and I’m proud of it!”
Earlier you mentioned the Kindle. It certainly was a milestone, no question about it. But the reason we’re sitting here talking to each other is because of the self-publishing revolution, which I think came about because of the technology revolution. Certainly, the Kindle was one part of that, along with smartphones and social media, and apps like Skype that we’re using right now.
If the Kindle was one milestone, another huge milestone was the advent of digital printing, which makes print-on-demand a reality. Independent authors can make their eBooks, and now all the digital printing equipment – we have a bunch of it here in our New Jersey facility – makes it possible for independent authors to publish tremendous printed products.
I’m originally from a small town in Oregon, and I could be sitting there in a cabin writing my book and have the same advantages as somebody who’s sitting in the concrete canyons of London or Manhattan. Technology really has brought the publishing world to a place where independent authors can be a big part of it.
Let’s talk about the BookBaby survey of independent authors. It’s not surprising that successful authors do more marketing. That’s not breaking news. But the types of marketing were interesting to me. What were some of your findings about successful authors around marketing?
So a little bit of background first. We sent this survey out at the beginning of 2017, we set out to get the widest possible response levels, and we received almost 8,000 responses from aspiring and published authors – most of them were published. And some of the most important findings were when we compared groups of successful authors, which we classify as having made over $5,000 on their last book, versus those who really have not made a lot of money.
Some of the findings were very obvious. Yes, inspiration is important to an author, but when it comes to the marketing, perspiration is the key. Successful authors tried a lot of things. They didn’t just dabble in Twitter. No, they tried many things – from having signing events, to email marketing, to having their own websites.
One of the things I think our authors, and unfortunately all independent authors, overlook is the importance of the pre-sale and the things they can do to set themselves up for success.
We deal with a lot of first-time authors at BookBaby, and I think if we were to poll them after they published and ask “What was the most surprising thing about your book publishing experience?” it would be the time it takes to really do this right. BookBaby does not offer rush service, and that’s for a reason. We will not rush a book out there. We will tell people calling us on November 23rd, “No, your book is not going to be ready in time for Christmas.”
We make a point of making sure our authors understand the timelines involved in going to market. To do a quality pre-sale, they’ve got to have all their ducks in a row. They have to have their book finished on time. They have to get everything ready for the retail sites. They’ve got to get the word out and, yes, it takes a lot of time and planning.
And I think our most successful authors either knew that going in, or they learned from experience and were prepared for their second or third book.
There is the saying, “Haste makes waste,” and that is absolutely true in the self-publishing world.
What are some of the best practices that other industries are using that might be useful for authors?
My family had over 1,500 acres of pear and apple orchards in southern Oregon, and we sold our fruit through mail-order catalogs. How do you market a pear that you could walk into your local supermarket and buy for a $1.69 a pound compared to buying a lovely box of hand-wrapped, hand-selected, carefully-packaged fruit for a whole lot more?
We had to extol the value. We had to impress upon our customers – or, for authors, their readers – the value of what we had to offer.
What I really learned working at Mattel and Hasbro and our family business is the professionalism that comes when you are packaging up your product. And, yes, we have to refer to books as products.
I know it’s an emotional type of product for an author, but at the same time, you’re dealing with a very crowded marketplace and you need to make sure your cover is exquisite. The basics that you have talked about for many years now, about what an author needs. Professionalism certainly is important in that presentation.
Do no harm to your brand is something we talked about a lot at Mattel and Hasbro for GI Joe and Barbie. How does that translate to an author? If you have a Twitter feed or a website, focus on your book. Be a professional.
If you’re a political writer and you’re writing political books, you should be commenting on politics in your Twitter feed. But I don’t. I don’t write political books. I keep politics out of my Twitter feed about self-publishing.
It’s important to not harm your brand. Make sure the brand integrity is there.
And then, finally, life is all about customer service, right? Do right by your customers. For Mattel and Hasbro, I was delivering great products at great prices. For my family fruit business, I was delivering Christmas gifts on time. Most of our business was during the holidays. So there was a lot of pressure for us to deliver those Christmas gifts on time.
For authors, it starts with writing a great book, of course. But it’s also about having the right metadata, having book descriptions that really sell your book, and having reviews that are genuine and honest. You need to make sure your readers — your customers — are happy. If you have intentions to further your writing career, you’re going to want your readers to come back for more.
Click here to hear the podcast on The Creative Penn.
Join Joanna and a host of great presenters, speakers, and exhibitors at BookBaby’s 2018 Independent Authors Conference, November 2-4 at The Sheraton Philadelphia Society Hill Hotel in Philadelphia! The Independent Authors Conference is the only writing conference dedicated to helping independent authors publish successfully. Register now! Don’t miss this opportunity to listen and learn from some of today’s leading self-publishing experts!
How Independent Authors Are Promoting Their Books
Yearning for the vagabond life: a profile of indie author Joanna Penn
Tell your book’s story with metadata
Judging a Book by Its Cover: What Book Publicists—and Media—Want to See on the Outside of a Book
Amazon’s CreateSpace Announces It Will Stop Offering Author Services This Year
Six Essential Book Descriptions
Before it was vanity, there was self publishing