Monday, July 5, 2010

The Long Tail and the Unpublished Author

If you are an unpublished author who is contemplating a self-publishing strategy, but you are afraid to move forward because you don't think you will sell enough books to recover your investment, take heart. Your book might be a perfect product for the long tail market. The long tail was a concept popularized by Chris Anderson in his book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, now out in a revised edition. His thesis was that the changed production, distribution and marketing models offered by the Internet mean that niche markets can be profitable, and a lot of niche markets can be very profitable.

Web technologies, including search engines, e-stores and shopping carts, and other technologies such as print-on-demand, mean that publishers no longer have to predict demand and maintain warehouses full of real books, promoters no longer have to reach millions of prospective buyers and customers no longer have to visit real stores. The altered investment playing field liberates the seller from focusing on blockbuster markets and the marketer from honing one mass market message. This is great news for authors, particularly new authors.

Of course, you still have to write a great book. If you have been getting rejection letters that say, "this is a lovely book, but the cozy market is saturated," or perhaps, "your writing is beautiful, but I can't sell a hybrid like this to an editor," you have a legitimate book that can't get to market because the traditional publishing system is geared to old market thinking. Agents and editors look for big hits or surefire genre fits to reduce the risk of developing books the old bricks and mortar way. They often avoid entire segments because they believe they are stagnant or declining in readership, even though the readership is still in the millions. But to a new author a smaller or quiescent market can represent a very attractive opportunity and a comfortable living.

If you were faced with trying to self-publish your book ten years ago, you confronted a daunting task in terms of promotion. Traditional advertising and publicity were expensive, highly specialized businesses. Publishers were offering less and less of these services to their stables of writers and writers without publishers were up a creek without a paddle. Today, the Internet offers any author, who is willing to toot her own horn and learn some basic, very user-friendly techniques, a means for reaching any audience who might reasonably have an interest in her work. Moreover, thanks to Amazon and other epublishing outlets, and to a vast array of small business solutions, she can chose to be as involved or removed in the actual sales of her book as she wishes.

Assuming you have a good fiction book, I would recommend the following:

1. Spend your limited resources on comprehensive editorial support, good interior design, an attractive, web-friendly cover and compelling back cover copy. Make the product the best that it can possibly be. Then offer the book for sale in POD and electronically.

2. Spend your limited time on getting your name and project out on the web. Develop a web site for the book, and blog about your book process and any other topic for which you have a platform. Join groups that have a passion for reading your genre.

3. Understand who your potential readers are. Don't think of just one group, for example, mystery readers who like locked room mysteries. Is the protagonist a doctor? Does her cat feature prominently in the book? Is the book set in Los Angeles? Does she hang glide? Think of all the communities your book speaks to and find them on the web. Develop a web-centric marketing plan that reaches and builds recognition with these audiences.

4. Run the numbers. Does your mystery take place on a yacht? Well, how many mystery-reading yachtsmen are there? The subscription numbers for Yachting or Boating magazine might be a good starting point, presuming the vessel features significantly in the plot. There are data on the Internet that can help you estimate the size of your niche markets.

5. Enumerate all your affinity groups. List you alumni group, your church group, your fitness club -- all the communities where you are known and people care about you. Make sure they know you have published a book. Link to your friends and acquaintances via social media.

6. Spend the effort to get others to recognize and endorse your work. Use your inventory of copies to reach out to reviewers. Review the work of other authors, particularly those who are writing in your genre. Fill your blog with interesting and constructive information people can use. Credibility is earned with effort and honesty.

7. Leave the selling of your book to others and instead write the sequel. Unless you are a nonfiction author with a broad platform and a lot of collateral products, maintaining your own bookstore is a waste of your talent. Focus on writing more fiction, including short stories, or creative nonfiction, memoirs or essays, and selling or self-publishing these new projects.

8. Limit your direct marketing involvement in face-to-face and web-to-face activities to large, efficient venues. Examples are big conferences such as Bouchercon or guest blogging gigs on very established blogger sites. Avoid touring strings of small towns with bookstores or libraries that produce a turnout of a dozen prospects.

9. Be responsive to your readers and fellow bloggers. In the beginning, your market will be right-sized to you for intimate and timely response. You have an opportunity to be direct, personal and nimble in a way famous authors cannot.

10. Keep working and don't get antsy about time. The long tail is not deadline driven in the way the traditional market is. Major publishers need to move on to next season's authors, but you have the breathing space to build your momentum and your constituencies in the long tail.

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