I had a great time at Bouchercon, the world mystery conference. It’s fun to get together with friends from all over, and it’s stimulating to hear from others in the business about ways they handle various writing techniques and other writer problems, such as promoting books and creating good book covers. Bouchercon is also the place to get all the industry news and gossip, important information for a professional in the rapidly changing world of publishing.
Sometimes that part is not such fun. At Bouchercon 2012, I heard from friends with multiple books, great reviews, even industry awards, and these friends were being cut from their publishers’ lists because their sales weren’t climbing as fast as the publishers wanted. These friends were stunned, sad and frightened about their future in the business they love. They write books I look forward to buying and reading every year, so their loss is mine—and yours. When readers can’t find new books on the shelves from some of these writers, they’re going to be shocked and disappointed.
These writers will now effectively disappear, along with their books. As one told me, “No publisher will touch me unless I reinvent myself with different kinds of books under another name.” Her readers—and she has many, just not as many as the publisher wants to see—will be unable to find books by her. If she’s lucky, she’ll be publishing again in a few years under a pseudonym and quite likely a different kind of book. She’ll be starting over from scratch and trying to build up an audience from nothing once again. If she’s not lucky, she’ll face a choice of self-publishing, moving to an entirely different genre, or finding a different line of work altogether.
I’m not going to deal with the right or wrong of this situation. Publishers have to worry about profits, like any other business, and they can also be short-sighted and foolish, like any other business. This is, unfortunately, the reality that writers live with today, and the time allowed to build an audience is shorter than ever. I want to talk about what this means to readers and what they can do to prevent their favorite authors from disappearing in front of their eyes.
Over 70,000 books are traditionally published a year. 750,000 are self published. Less than 10 percent of the traditionally published sell more than 100,000 copies. That means there are 63,000 traditionally published books per year that don’t sell very many copies. Of the self published, the average sells less than 100 copies. Less than five percent of the people who call themselves authors make a living from their books alone. These are the facts your favorite novelists live with daily, and even if they are among the lucky few who are selling enough right now to be successful, they always know that can change in a short time, leaving them another of the writers stranded. This is why authors sometimes go a little crazy and frantic in their efforts at promotion, and why some get a little nuts about vicious reviews that slam their books in a public forum because people don’t like the price or cover (things over which the author has no control) or the protagonist’s name or the color of his/her eyes. I’m not trying to justify these authors when they overreact and behave badly. As you know if you’ve followed my blog or my posts at Writers Who Kill and The Stiletto Gang, I’m appalled at some of that bad behavior. I simply point out that most authors live in some kind of fear most of the time.
Novelists lose their livelihood when their books are dropped by a publisher, but readers lose their authors. I loved the work of one well-known author. Suddenly, you couldn’t find any more books in that series with those characters. After a delay, the author was back under a different name with a different series and different characters. I also like the new one, but I’d love to see new books in the old series. At Malice Domestic this year, audience members asked a panel of authors when they would write new books in long-gone series. The writers replied that they also loved those characters, but they had to write what publishers would buy. Margaret Maron and Donna Andrews both pointed out that, though they loved those earlier characters, they supported themselves with their writing and had to write what would pay their mortgages. So there will be no more books in Maron’s Sigrid Harald series or Andrews’ Turing Hopper series. And you could hear the groans of disappointment in the audience.
So, what can the reader do to make sure that her/his favorite author can keep writing books about his/her favorite characters? I’ve talked some about this before, but it bears repeating. First of all, of course, buy the books. Buy them for yourself and to give as gifts. Buy them from brick-and-mortar bookstores, if you can. If the bookstores don’t have your authors’ books, ask them to order them. But if you can’t buy them at a bookstore because of lack of stores in your area or because you really need the super discounts, buy them online. Buying books is the best thing you can do to help your favorite authors survive.
But buying at used bookstores will not help in this effort. That’s not a putdown of those who buy at used bookstores. I use them to find out-of-print books often. However, be aware that buying a used copy of a recently published book means the author and publisher get nothing for it, and your sale will not count to keep that author’s books being published. If you can’t afford to buy new books, request that your library buy them and check them out when the library does. Multiple times. Even if you buy X’s new book, still go to the library and request/check it out. Libraries are vital to the survival of midlist authors, a set that includes many of our favorite writers who aren’t Steven King or J.K. Rowling. Vote to support libraries also. They are as endangered as many of our favorite authors, and I believe free public libraries are of vast importance to a free, literate society.
Secondly, tell people about novelists you like. Word of mouth is the most effective method of selling books. Unfortunately, it’s one that writers and publishers have little control over. I have seen for myself again and again how one person who liked my first book would mention it on Facebook or Twitter and that would immediately lead to another person buying it and liking it. Your recommendations of books to your libraries, bookstores, and friends and family are the most powerful way you can help keep the books you love coming to you each year.
Reviews are another way to spread the word about books you love. For those who like to write, there are book blogs and other spots that take guest reviews, and writing one of these would be a lovely thing to do. But you may be a reader who feels shy putting words on the page for the general public to read. Hit the LIKE button on Amazon for books you enjoyed. Agree with the tags (if they aren’t designed to hurt the author—some on Amazon are, lately). This helps the book be found by readers looking for the elements this book has. Write a two- or three-sentence review. Just list a couple of things you really liked—realistic characters, suspense, humor, etc. All of these things help this book show up when readers are looking for good books of this type. Copy and paste your review to Goodreads or the other reading communities, such as Library Thing. It needn’t take a lot of effort or time.
For your very favorite writers, the ones you hate to think of living without, consider becoming members of that author’s “street team.” That’s a term I’ve stolen from the music world to use in the workshops I give authors on how to promote their books so that new readers can find them. All it means is that you are a superfan who follows your author’s blog and comments on it, who helps to promote appearances by your author in your area and encourages people to attend, who boosts that new book you’ve been eagerly waiting for on Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media you’re on. Every author needs a street team to help him or her. Become a part of the street team for the authors you most love.
A reader doesn’t have to be powerless in today’s Internet-connected world. You can help the sales of authors you don’t want to see disappear before your eyes as you wait eagerly for their next books. In the process, you may make new friends, and you will surely find yourself listed when your beloved author is thinking about the blessings in her/his life. Let other readers know about these things that they can do, also. After all, there’s nothing worse for a reader than losing the continued work of an author you love.