It’s amazing what an optimistic bunch we authors can be.
Well, more accurately, that’s the case with the business side of writing and publishing. (As for our craft, we can be astonishingly harsh on ourselves, occasionally bordering on depressive.)
For some reason, many of us have a stubborn belief that we will sell thousands of copies of our books without so much as a plan to do so. I taught publishing classes for The Learning Annex for a few years, and one exercise I’d have the students do was estimate how many books they would sell (of whatever title they were currently working on or considering). They would come back with numbers ranging from a few hundred (okay, realistic) to over a million (whoa!), with most guesstimating in the tens of thousands. Following this exercise, I’d have them outline exactly how they would sell their first 500 copies — to whom and how those people would be reached.
Suddenly, they’d have a better perspective on the gap between what they think they can sell and what they can realistically sell.
This is not to say their target numbers could never be met. The issue is more the lack of reality in what large numbers really mean, coming to understand them, and creating a plan to bridge the perspective gap. It used to be that this perspective gap was hammered home when 2,500 books would show up at the author’s door and dozens of boxes of books would be off-loaded from the truck. (Luckily, we don’t have to follow this path anymore.)
Evolutionary psychologists say we have difficulty with numbers larger than a couple or few hundred because, for millions of years, we only lived in groups (as hunter-gatherers) that numbered in the hundred or two hundred range. Our minds never needed to count or conceive of numbers greater than this (which, by the way, is why we can’t really grasp that humans have lived for millions of years.)
So we authors need to do two things to “rein in” the numbers and get out of Delusion Land:
1. Don’t print large numbers of books until the need is clearly there
With print-on-demand (POD) publishing nowadays, this isn’t the problem it used to be. But enough authors still fall into this trap that it’s necessary to mention. And it’s understandable; you see that a POD company is going to charge you $9.25 per book, whereas a digital print run of a few hundred or an offset print run of 1,500 will get your per-book cost way down (perhaps to a buck or two). The profit difference is huge! But it doesn’t matter if you can’t sell all those books. You have zero profit per book until you recoup your investment.
Better to approach this one or both of two ways — start with an ebook version that can be produced and sold at nearly no investment and/or go the POD route at the best per-book cost you can find (for a quality product). Then when, and only when, you know you can sell through a print run within three months, you move over to digital or offset print runs. The point here is to discover what it really takes to sell large numbers of books (and if you and your book can actually achieve this) before you sink a chunk of money into printing your book.
2. Attack target markets in small numbers
Keep in mind what I wrote about how our brains have difficulty truly grasping numbers greater than a couple hundred. We’re deceived because we can do much greater math, but we need to work within what we can actually and effectively understand. For this, I like the number 100. It’s simple, it makes for easy math, and it’s typically the highest number we were taught to count to (or from, like “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”). We can handle this number. So, market in chunks of it.
For example, you’ve discovered a website or blog targeted toward single moms, and your book is about time-management for single mothers or is a novel featuring a single-mom protagonist. Such a website might have thousands of regular visitors or members, which makes it tempting to think in those numbers. Let’s say you discover 40,000 people visit this site or blog each month; all of a sudden, your mind is thinking in thousands and getting all unrealistic and crazy. But in reality, you will most likely sell your book in orders of ones or twos for a while. That’s it. It’s a long and discouraging road to “thousands” at that rate. But if you plan in targets of 100 at a time, you will stay sane and motivated. For example, you might have a sales plan with a projection of 100 books sold in three or six months. You may not hit it, but you’ll probably be a lot closer than if you target 1,000 books sold in a year (and thus less, or not at all, discouraged).
This same mindset applies, by the way, in building your email list. Think of subscriber milestones in the dozens or a hundred, not greater.
While any business, including the business of being an author (or writer), is about many things, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say “it’s all about the numbers.” You can have an excellent product, an outstanding customer experience, and truly unique ideas, but if you plan or work in unrealistic numbers, you won’t get anywhere.
Keep your numbers small and countable, and you will be much more successful and motivated in reaching your goals.