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Cory Doctorow: Why Should Anyone Care?

One of my most important formative experiences as a writer was working in bookstores. I worked in three shops: a specialist science fiction store (Bakka Books in Toronto), an academic store near the University of Toronto campus, and a dreadful suburban mall bookstore. Going into my first bookstore job, I’d been supremely confident in my understanding of the bookselling trade: after all, I’d been spending all my pocket money and after-school wages in book shops since I’d been old enough to ride the subway on my own. I didn’t just shop at bookstores, I haunted them. I could happily spend a day reading the blurbs on every single book in the science fiction and fantasy section, perusing every likely-looking magazine on the rack, looking through all the interesting reference books and the sale tables, hunting for…. Well, I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, and that was the point, right? I just wanted a great book, something I hadn’t heard of, new or old, used or new, genre or mainstream, just something that’d grab me by the ganglia that reading activated and drag me around for a few days.

Needless to say, the reality of working in a bookstore didn’t have much in common with my imaginings. On the one hand, I had been right that many bookstore clerks really liked books and were delighted to talk about them with customers (at least, I was that sort of clerk). On the other hand, I’d been totally wrong about the reverence I’d imagined that booksellers had for books. I’d been taught to handle books by librarians, taught to think of books as something more than mere articles of commerce. Books had lives and afterlives, living on as cherished friends in the bookcase and then resurfacing as precious used books, rich with history and old bus-transfer bookmarks.

But the reality of books was this: a publisher’s rep would come in and tell us breathlessly about the lead titles – how much promotion they were up for, how much the house believed in the title, how well the author had done before. We’d order a pile of hardcovers, generally a smaller pile than we’d been asked to take, and usually, they’d sell modestly well. Then we’d return the leftovers, and some months later, they’d resurface as remainders, with their dustjackets clipped or magic-markered lines drawn on their page-edges. Then they’d come in as paperbacks, hang around for a few months longer, and vanish. Sometimes, a copy or two would surface as used trade-ins, and sometimes a regular would ask us to order a copy, but within a short time, the book would no longer be in the publisher’s catalog in any form. It would be gone.

This was the greatest shock of my bookselling career, because these weren’t always bad books. Sometimes, they’d be wonderful books, the kind of books you wrote enthusiastic ‘‘shelf-talkers’’ for and recommended to all the regulars – the kind of books you fell in love with. Sometimes there was an afterword that talked about how much heart and soul the author poured into the book – the years of work and heartbreak. And just like that, the book would be gone.

Now, obviously much has changed since then. The advent of online stores like Amazon combined with efficiencies in short print runs has made it possible to keep modest sellers in the stream of commerce for something like perpetuity. But one thing hasn’t changed: most books – even those that are deservedly well-loved by publishers, readers, and booksellers – make hardly a ripple on release and fade away to nothing before you know it.

Here’s the thing: I’ve just described the best-promoted books in the field, the ones with the biggest push. Books whose authors tour, books with whole pages in the catalog and special, personal mention from the sales reps. Books with lots of advance reader copies, liberally distributed to critics and booksellers and influential readers. Most books get none of that: these days, they’ll get a few hardcopy ARCs and a lot more digital ones (as a reviewer, I’m skeptical of how much attention electronic ARCs get), a short summary in the catalog, and not much more. The author and her friends will make as big a fuss as possible, and sometimes this works (especially in the Internet era, where readers and writers are much more intimately involved in each others’ lives than ever before).

Modestly promoted books aren’t necessarily doomed. A favorable review in the trade press, a surprise review in a mainstream newspaper, online buzz, word-of-mouth among the super-networked library world – they can all translate into healthy sales. Publishers generally know what they’re doing, and they’ve got well-tuned, semi-automated systems for getting readers to pay attention to books. They’ve had a lot of practice.

Writers, by and large, haven’t. Not successful, established writers, and certainly not brand new, fresh-out-of-the-wrapper writers. It doesn’t really matter how much time you spend hanging around bookstores or browsing online stores, until you’ve marketed a book, you don’t really know how to market a book.

I certainly didn’t.

Oh, when I launched my DIY short story collection With a Little Help, I figured I could deploy all the stuff I’d done when my other books had been published by mainstream publishers, the stuff that had given my books a little push to get them out of the midlist and into wider circles of attention and discussion. I knew I’d have to do some of the stuff my publisher had done, but like everyone doing something complicated for the first time, I dramatically underestimated how much work this would be. It’s not impossible, and it’s not horrible work – it’s challenging, exciting stuff, but it’s incredibly time consuming and it can be tough (and expensive – sending out hundreds of review copies ain’t cheap, but it was worth it, if only for the major feature in The Wall Street Journal this garnered me).

I get a lot of e-mail from writers starting out who want to know whether it’s worth trying to get published by major houses. The odds are poor – only a small fraction of books find a home in mainstream publishing – and the process can be slow and frustrating. We’ve all heard horror stories, both legit (‘‘Why is there a white girl on the cover of my book about a black girl?’’) and suspect (‘‘My editor was a philistine who simply didn’t understand the nuances of my work’’). And we’ve all heard about writers who’ve met with modest – or stellar – success with self-publishing. So why not cut out the middleman and go direct to readers?

There’s not a thing wrong with that plan, provided that it is a plan. Mainstream publishers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over decades learning and re-learning how to get people to care about the existence of books. They often do so very well, and sometimes they screw it up, but at least they’re methodically attempting to understand and improve the process by which large masses of people decide to read a book (even better, decide to buy and read a book).

I firmly believe that there are writers out there today who have valuable insights and native talent that would make them natural successes at marketing their own work. If you are one of those writers – if you have a firm theory that fits available evidence about how to get people to love your work – then by all means, experiment! Provided, of course, that you are pleased and challenged by doing this commercial stuff that has almost nothing in common with imagining stories and writing them down. Provided that you find it rewarding and satisfying.

You’ll probably screw it up (I did). You’ll probably learn and improve (I did). If you’re lucky, you’ll make some money at it (I did). If you’re very lucky, you might make a lot of money at it (not yet!). But, as with any arts venture and any entrepreneurial effort, the realistic odds are that you’ll be one of the people whose efforts fail to shake the world. The realistic odds are that you’ll earn more working a regular job in an office than you will trying to invent fictional worlds and then invent new ways of selling them. There’s only one good reason to do that kind of thing: because it makes you sane and whole and happy.

Getting people to care about the products of your imagination is a profound and infinitely complex task that will absorb as much attention as you give it. Every book and every author brings a different proposition to the negotiation with readers, but there’s one thing they all have in common: unless someone takes charge of doing something, something clever and active and good and slightly improbable, no one will care about the book or the person who wrote it.


Comments

Comment from Tom West
Time September 7, 2011 at 6:31 am

A. Nonymous: there is precious little that big houses offer that authors can’t do themselves

Access to a bookstore (while they still exist) so that your book (in the company of a few hundred (not hundreds of thousands) of other books) is seen by several thousand browsers primed to buy.

Almost any book is guaranteed a few thousand sales if it gets national bookstore distribution, and that is enough to generate the word-of-mouth avalanche if the book just happens to touch what the public wants that moment.

Of course, for that privilege, they get the lion’s share of the pie.

Pingback from Mediactive » Cory Doctorow on Self-Publishing
Time September 7, 2011 at 7:20 am

[…] piece by Cory (a friend) about who’s cut out for self-publishing, and who may not be. Excerpt: I firmly believe that there are writers out there today who have […]

Comment from George A. Brandt
Time September 7, 2011 at 7:25 am

Thanks for caring, Cory – and for cajoling others into doing the same. From the bottom of my heart!

Pingback from Why Do Authors Do What They Do? « Notes from An Alien
Time September 7, 2011 at 7:46 am

[…] found an article by Cory Doctorow, Why Should Anyone Care?, that should be read by any writer who’s uncertain they have what it takes to pour themselves […]

Pingback from Getting people to care about the products of your imagination is a profound and infinitely complex task | The Passive Voice
Time September 7, 2011 at 8:03 am

[…] to the rest at Locus Online Click to Tweet/Email/Share This […]

Comment from A. Nonymous
Time September 7, 2011 at 8:18 am

Tom, I think it’s more like in the company of a few thousand titles at retail, not just a few hundred. But I appreciate your point. On the other hand, if a title is noticed at retail, it’s usually because the publisher paid to have it showcased in a special display. And if, as an author, you’ve made it onto that list, you ARE guaranteed to sell a few thousand titles…because the publisher is pushing you, not just because your title’s at retail. Plus, even if you are selling a few thousand titles at retail, you’re probably not earning out, given the economics of most “traditional” publishing contracts.

Comment from Kimberly (@Kimmydonn)
Time September 7, 2011 at 9:01 am

Sadly, I think your last paragraph may have just helped nudge me further from publishing. I write for my sanity, for my enjoyment. I have a day job that pays the bills and I enjoy. I can’t ‘unpublish’ my debut novel, and I will definitely publish the sequel for the sake of readers who want it. I’m not sure I’ll publish again though. I think I’ll share my work freely, online, and save myself the grief.

Pingback from Infobib » Cory Doctorow: Taught by librarians
Time September 7, 2011 at 9:49 am

[…] Cory Doctorow im Locusmag: Why Should Anyone Care? […]

Comment from Mark Neumayer
Time September 7, 2011 at 11:02 am

It should be noted that BigPub can NOT make me care about a book. They can bring it to my attention and let me know that it is out there but they can’t make me care about it. Caring is the vital part. When I care about a book is when I talk it up to my friends, when I write online reviews, when I buy extra copies to give away. BigPub is a Buzz machine. They can make the noise but in the end they can’t do much to guarantee they are not packing up a load of flash and trash. If BigPub knew how to make me care then every book would sell like gangbusters and we all know that is definitely not the case.

You get people to care about your book by crafting the best work that you possibly can, by pouring your heart and soul into the work.

Pingback from Across a crowded room (full of books) « Rachel Hartman
Time September 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm

[…] Here’s an interesting post by Cory Doctorow on marketing, or as he puts it, “getting people to care about the products of your imagination”. The article’s focus ends up being on self-publishing, but I think it’s relevant for any author, really. […]

Comment from Bob Mayer
Time September 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Without “placement” a new book is doomed. Nook did a blog on my latest release and it soared to #2 overall over the weekend. Without that, it would have drowned quietly in all the other titles coming out.
A good book is key.
But placement and promotion is as important.

Pingback from Cory Doctorow and the Reality of Bookselling for Self-Publishers — The Book Designer
Time September 8, 2011 at 12:02 am

[…] imagining stories and writing them down. Provided that you find it rewarding and satisfying.—Cory Doctorow: Why Should Anyone Care?, Locus […]

Pingback from Writing on the Ether
Time September 8, 2011 at 2:04 am

[…] —A cautionary Cory Doctorow weighs self-publishing and traditional publishing: Why Should Anyone Care? […]

Pingback from On the Shelf: Cory Doctorow on Self-Publishing, Jesse Ball on Bookworm, and King Arthur at the Round Table « the contextual life
Time September 8, 2011 at 2:57 am

[…] BoingBoing, is also a columnist for the science fiction magazine Locus. In his most recent article, Why Should Anyone Care?, he gives thought to his self-published short story collection, With a Little Help, that came out […]

Comment from Betty Kelly Sargent
Time September 8, 2011 at 4:42 am

Brilliant article. As a freelance editor (and published author) who spent over 25 years as an acquiring editor in the trade publishing biz in NYC I’m delighted to find such a fine analysis of what is going on in the world of publishing today. The big secret, of course is that so many traditionally published books end up selling very few copies. Self publishing is not easy but for the first time authors who have been turned down by the “gate keepers” have a shot at success. And you are right. It would be great if there were one book that gave writers a birdseye view of self and subsidy publishing. Hmmmm!

Comment from Victoria Mixon
Time September 8, 2011 at 10:13 am

“There’s only one good reason to do that kind of thing: because it makes you sane and whole and happy.”

“There is a marvelous peace in not publishing.” —J.D. Salinger

Write because you love to. Market because you love to. If you don’t love something enough to do it without winning the lottery, find something else you love that much and do that instead.

This is your life—spend it wisely.

Comment from Sally Fletcher
Time September 8, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Thank you, Cory! Yes, it’s a lot of work, and I’ve learned to pick the few things that I can handle and concentrate on those things. I self published my first book, The Challenge of Epilepsy in 1986 and I’m still selling it on line. My new book, Music Healing and Harmony is completely different so I feel like I’m starting over in many ways.

Pingback from Finds « Toucanic
Time September 8, 2011 at 1:51 pm

[…] recent tweet from @Jane Friedman mentioned this insightful post by Cory Doctorow on the need for a plan in promoting a book; Doctorow is one of those authors who also has put a lot […]

Pingback from Geek Media Round-Up: September 8, 2011 – Grasping for the Wind
Time September 8, 2011 at 4:03 pm

[…] Advice for self-publishers: why should anyone care about your book? […]

Comment from Tom West
Time September 8, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Plus, even if you are selling a few thousand titles at retail, you’re probably not earning out,

Absolutely. For a traditionally published book, a few thousand is a *disaster*, but my point was that at least with a bookstore, you had a shot. If you wrote a book that happens to touch most readers, then a few thousand is enough for word of mouth to kick in, while a self-published book (from an unknown author) may have difficulty picking up 20 or 30 readers, which is probably not enough, even if the book has “the hit quality”.

So my thesis is that a traditionally published book (from an unknown author) gets its 1 in 100 chance to be successful. The unknown self-published author has to work miracles to get even that.

By the way, let me make it clear, I consider book’s success with readers to be unrelated (not opposite, just unrelated) to how good the book is. And to be honest, *nobody* knows what’s going to click with the reader, otherwise they’d only publish successful books :-).

As an aside, the economics of self-publishing get intensely interesting for an known author with a small but devoted audience. An author with 5,000 hard-core fans will get canned by a publisher, but can make quite a nice living self-publishing. It’s really the unknown author who has nothing they can do to get people to invest their precious time in an unknown book that 100,000 other self-published authors won’t do as well. (Although paying for ‘real’ reviews might work. However, I expect any site that does so will go bankrupt fairly quickly. The review site will only be taken seriously if it is willing to pan the 99% of the ‘not quite ready for prime-time’ books, and what business survives when 99% of your customers are unhappy with their experience?)

Pingback from Link Salad: The Endless Rain Edition | Black Magic Dreams
Time September 9, 2011 at 3:11 am

[…] Cory Doctorow: Why Should Anyone Care? Share: […]

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Time September 9, 2011 at 3:35 am

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Comment from bowerbird
Time September 9, 2011 at 12:15 pm

it’s telling that you begin by saying that
your perspective has been informed by
your experience with print-books and a
context of brick-and-mortar bookstores.

marketing _is_ important for p-books…
(but maybe i should use the past tense?)

if it costs a boatload of money to bring
a product to the marketplace, then you
must spend a ton of money to market it.

because you have to sell enough copies
to cover the big up-front cost you paid,
and you gotta sell the copies right now
(because other product is in the pipe)…

that’s the “know-how” of big6 publishers
— how to sell “enough” books _quickly_.

but none of that — none! — applies in
a world of no-cost non-scarce e-books.

here is the truth:

marketing means absolutely nothing…
books sell based on _word-of-mouth_
(which now manifests in many forms),
and you can’t buy that with advertising.

your e-book will sell _exactly_ the same
whether you market it or not… exactly!

(you will sell some of the copies _faster_
if you market — word-of-mouth can be
quite slow — but you won’t sell _more_.
you will, however, incur a lot more cost.)

money spent on marketing is _wasted_…
time spent on marketing is irreplaceable!

if your book is gonna catch on, it _will_.
with or without your “help”. so the best
thing you can do is write another book,
so if/when the first book does catch on,
your new fans can buy more of your stuff.

besides, we love writing, right? right!
that’s why we are writers… so _write_…

-bowerbird

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Time September 9, 2011 at 4:02 pm

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Pingback from Commonplace Post (2) » Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
Time September 10, 2011 at 11:17 am

[…] Cory Doctorow: But the reality of books was this: a publisher’s rep would come in and tell us breathlessly about the lead titles – how much promotion they were up for, how much the house believed in the title, how well the author had done before. We’d order a pile of hardcovers, generally a smaller pile than we’d been asked to take, and usually, they’d sell modestly well. Then we’d return the leftovers, and some months later, they’d resurface as remainders, with their dustjackets clipped or magic-markered lines drawn on their page-edges. Then they’d come in as paperbacks, hang around for a few months longer, and vanish. Sometimes, a copy or two would surface as used trade-ins, and sometimes a regular would ask us to order a copy, but within a short time, the book would no longer be in the publisher’s catalog in any form. It would be gone. […]

Pingback from Industry News-September 10 » RWA-WF
Time September 10, 2011 at 1:43 pm

[…] Cory Doctorow, who likes to stay busy, warns self-published authors that marketing their books will take time and money at http://www.locusmag.com/Perspectives/2011/09/cory-doctorow-why-should-anyone-care/ […]

Pingback from To understand & improve the process… « Natural Math
Time September 10, 2011 at 4:21 pm

[…] Doctorow expressed the most heart-wrenching part of the traditional publishing process: But the reality of books was this: a publisher’s rep would come in and tell us breathlessly about the lead titles – how much promotion they were up for, how much the house believed in the title, how well the author had done before. We’d order a pile of hardcovers, generally a smaller pile than we’d been asked to take, and usually, they’d sell modestly well. Then we’d return the leftovers, and some months later, they’d resurface as remainders, with their dustjackets clipped or magic-markered lines drawn on their page-edges. Then they’d come in as paperbacks, hang around for a few months longer, and vanish. Sometimes, a copy or two would surface as used trade-ins, and sometimes a regular would ask us to order a copy, but within a short time, the book would no longer be in the publisher’s catalog in any form. It would be gone. […]

Pingback from New Discussions of Eternal Topics | Pegasus Pulp
Time September 10, 2011 at 4:34 pm

[…] perpetual topic is promotion and how to do it or not. Now SF writer Cory Doctorow discusses the book promotion at Locus […]

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Time September 10, 2011 at 5:02 pm

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Pingback from OMG! I Need to Get Organized … « Debbi Mack: My Life on the Mid-List
Time September 10, 2011 at 5:37 pm

[…] another post about self-publishing by Cory Doctorow. Particularly note the phrase: “I dramatically underestimated how much work this would […]

Pingback from Online Marketing and Passion « Debbi Mack: My Life on the Mid-List
Time September 11, 2011 at 3:40 pm

[…] Here’s the thing. I was enjoying a lovely Italian supper al fresco by candlelight with my husband (spaghetti and tomato sauce on our porch), and I got to thinking about Cory what’s-his-name and his whining about difficulty with self-publishing books. […]

Comment from bassi
Time September 12, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Hi, great post! Thanks..

Pingback from Cory Doctorow: Why Should Anyone Care? « Readersforum's Blog
Time September 14, 2011 at 12:43 am

[…] …read more Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Leave a Comment […]

Comment from Farai Chideya
Time September 15, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Hey Cory:

Boy, have I been thinking this over 12 ways from Sunday. I really think a mix of self-, indie-, and major-publisher efforts lies ahead for me. In this environment, there are things I want to write that have long returns for me (like speech income) that do not benefit agents or publishers much.

I think it’s really important for people to look at all the different gains they get from publishing and put a value on their work to THEM; but also be realistic about what value their work does or doesn’t bring to a publisher, an agent, an industry. Those can be very different calculations…

Thanks for this,
F

Pingback from Do You Have What it Takes to Publish and Promote Your Own Book? | BookBaby Blog
Time September 16, 2011 at 12:43 am

[…] BookBaby’s favorite Sci Fi swami, wrote an interesting article for Locus Online called “Why Should Anyone Care?” In it, he talks about assumptions he made before promoting his first self-published book, […]


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