Monthly Archives: September 2011

What New Authors Need to Do: Market

My money quote from Grael Norton, acquisitions editor for Wheatmark, during Wednesday’s webinar at the Authors Academy (disclosure: I’m a Gold Member):

“You are not doing a marketing campaign. You are living a career as an author-marketer.”

The best part of this insight, IMHO, is it recognizes that, as authors, we need to focus on long-term results (book sales), not short-term and discrete projects or programs. We need to be strategic in our marketing plans to build a comprehensive platform, and not let the individual projects or programs (tactics) fall outside this larger framework. It all should work together toward the goal of establishing a long-term, sustainable readership base for our work. Or, as Grael also said, “It’s a marathon, not a spring.”

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Why Self-Publishing Has Such a Bad Reputation

One of the biggest hurdles authors of “small market” books have to overcome is the dismal reputation of vanity presses and self-publishing. The literary standards are quite low. In fact, in some cases, they are non-existent-shell out the money and, voila, your book is in print!

The problem now, however, is that mainstream and trade presses won’t even look at books without the potential to sell significantly more than 10,000 copies (see here, here, and here) even though they can be financially viable projects with press runs of less than 1,000 copies and, under the right circumstances, even 500 copies. (In fact, it’s quite common for academic presses to profitably publsh books with press runs of 250 or less, but the price is really high.)

But, the truth is that lots of books coming out of subsidy and self-publishing houses are really bad. Not just in the literary sense. They violate fundamental rules of grammar and organization!

Irene Watson, the publisher and editor of, one of her two on-line book review sites, has a nice summary of the problem in a post over at Blogging Authors (July 3, 2011):

And, I can’t help but wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Langer except the fact that I would say only 20% shouldn’t have published at all; that is, from what passes over my desk and often straight into the recycle bin.  Those don’t make the grade of being listed for review.  Many books aren’t even worth donating to the library or charity.  Yes…really, they are that bad. My percentage is probably less because Tattered Cover [Langer’s book store] gets more authors sending books in for consideration because the ultimate dream is to get the book into a bookstore.  Many authors don’t even know there is such a thing as a review, let alone how to find a reviewer. Yes…really.

 Norm Goldman from, when asked how many books he rejects upfront, claims that about 10% are not readable.  He also says “Personally, I chuck the book aside if after the first 50 pages the book is a disaster, and this includes books received as part of my Priority Review Service.”  I asked Ellen Feld of the same question and she said “Outright reject?  Not many, I’d say less than 5%.  However, about 40% of self-pub (slightly higher for subsidy – maybe 50/60% and guessing this is because the author assumes the subsidy is taking care of it) have some editorial problems that Joe Buying Public would find annoying.  We mention these problems in our reviews but don’t outright reject the book – the quality isn’t so bad as to demand rejection.”

The only way authors of books for small markets will be successful is if they produce high-quality products, professionally edited, and marketed aggressively. We don’t have the advantages of the “big boys” distribution networks; we have to reinvent the wheel. We need to also keep in mind that one of the obstacles we face is overcoming the terrible stuff coming out of the same presses we use for our high-quality work.

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New Review: A Warrior’s Soul is “Highly Recommended”

One of the problems I struggle with as an author is patience waiting for reader feedback and book reviews. So, I’m happy to announce the Midwest Book Review has come through with an excellent (five star on review of my new middle-grade novel A Warrior’s Soul (Wheatmark, 2011) in MBR’s September 11, 2011 edition (under fiction):

“You cannot run from the nature to protect. “A Warrior’s Soul: Path of the Warrior 1” is the first entry in SR Staley’s novels about young Luke, who has abandoned his martial arts training. When a violent gang begins to put pressure on his school, he’s the only one who sees the threat for what it is. Leaping to protect his friends, Luke will learn what it means to be a warrior and that it’s more than training. “A Warrior’s Soul” is a fine and exciting read for younger readers, highly recommended.”

Thank you!

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How to Manage Sales Expectations

Oddly, I don’t remember obsessing over book sales for my first book. I had a reputable publisher (Transaction Books) and it was on a very timely topic (violence & the drug trade), but my goal was to be heard, not sell books. So, I didn’t pay much attention because I, indeed, became part of the public discussion on this book (and every non-fiction book I’ve published since). (And, as I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, all my non-fiction books have been financially successful, if not bestsellers.)

It was only as I published more books, that I started paying attention to sales volumes (and revenues). More relevantly (for this post), it was only when I started writing fiction that revenues (and thus sales) became an important part of my strategy: I needed to sell books to fund my fiction writing habit. I needed sales goals, and a marketing strategy for meeting my objectives.

And that’s when I had my “come to Jesus” moment. I found that selling books was really, really hard. In fact, without a mainstream publishing house behind you, reaching a benchmark of 1,000 copies sold would put me in pretty elite company among independent authors. (But not impossible by any stretch. In fact, my publisher, Wheatmark, has a special category for the scores of their authors that have reached 2,000 copies sold.)

Just how many books can you expect to sell if you’re using an independent press, subsidy publisher, or self-publish? Hint: set your expectations well below 1,000. Hundreds is a more realistic number, and the low-end of that. One self-publisher told the New York Times that most books in his stable sell about 150 copies. Irene Watson, who runs the book review websites and, noted over at Blogging Authors (July 3, 2011) that “Many traditional publishers feel that the self-published book has already reached its audience; in most cases this is less than 200.”

Getting beyond 200 requires a real marketing plan, a strategy, funds to underwrite the plan, and a high-quality product with a broad appeal. Fortunately, due to today’s publishing technology, you can still cover your out-of-pocket costs in this range if your are frugal and highly strategic in the way you approach publishing your book.

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Don’t Skimp on Editing

Over at Blogging Authors, guest columnist Chris Hoole has a very important post on editing. I’ve talked about this before in the context of self-editing (April 19, 2011), so it’s nice to see a professional validate my experience as an author and editor. While Hoole’s own view might seem a little harsh, I think he’s spot on:

“Editors are stock and trade to the publishing industry.  While creative writing can break some of the rules out there, it’s important to understand that unless you’re reading a manuscript with a critical eye – something no writer can actually do to their own work [, or unless you can] objectively look  for errors in grammar, misspelled (but still correct) words and more, that sooner or later something is going to slip through the cracks. 

“There is a ‘worse’ breed of indie writer – one that believes that editors are the ‘gatekeepers’ to the writing community and because they’ve had either a poor experience in the past, or worse, just can’t take constructive criticism criticise editors at every turn.  These deluded souls are often seen putting out book after book after book and wondering why no one even talks to them any more – but are also, conversely, the loudest and most critical voices in the community, and are the worst ‘name’ in indie writing.”

Good writers, even the best, need good editors. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the acknowledgements section of any bestseller. Count the number of editors the author thanks for their insight and ability to keep their story on track. (For example, Suzanne Collins, author of the highly acclaimed Hunger Games trilogy published by Scholastic Press, identifies three by name in the acknowledgements of the third book, Mockingjay.)

Also, from my personal experience with A Warrior’s Soul, I had a difficult stylistic problem I couldn’t solve on my own. My character talked a lot “in her head.” A professional editor suggested putting the thoughts in italics, even though they weren’t really statements or specific thoughts. This was a brilliant move, making the story flow more quickly without losing the personal feel provided by his unique (and essential) perspective. (Other authors avoid this by writing in the first person, but for creative reasons I wanted to stay in third person.)

A good editor won’t just check spelling and grammar (although that’s important). A good editor won’t be a gatekeeper. Rather, he or she will be your best friend, telling you the good, the bad, and the ugly. They will professionally hone your voice and keep you from making mistakes-some fundamental but many not so fundamental-that detract from your story. That’s what they are paid to do. If you don’t get that candid, objective opinion, you’re not spending your money wisely.

For more on Hoole, see here. The Authors Academy also has held webinars on how to identify and commission the right editor for the level of work.

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What to Include in a Synopsis

Irene Watson has a nice post over at, an on-line book reviewer, on what to include in a book synopsis that might turn off a reviewer. The last thing a reviewer wants is an unpleasant surprise.

The specific reviewer I quoted above refused to write a review but I’ve had reviewers that chose to write a review and mention the adverse content in the review.  Both are in their own right.  Some reviewers feel they need to warn potential readers so they wouldn’t be surprised or turned off the same as they are, or some just refuse to even participate in giving what turns them off any energy and writing a review.

Notably, Watson couldn’t find much help on the internet on what to include or not to include in a synopsis and she provides twelve helpful suggestions.

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More on Book Sales

A reader of my previous post on book sales (Books Sales By The Numbers), noted that I may have been too optimistic about when mainstream trade publishers might show interest in an author or their book. I suggested that 5,000 copies was the threshold for mainstream publishers to start taking notice. He observed based on his lengthy experience in the for-profit publishing world, that it’s more likely 10,000 copies, or at least 5,000 copies per year over two years.

For more on the changing market in publishing and the implications for new and niche authors, see here and here.

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The Hunger Games, Dialogue, and Voice

My new favorite young-adult series is The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The books literally grabbed me from the first page. I’ve been mulling over the stylistic and artistic reasons why I think these books were so good, particularly since I’m not a big fan of first-person narrative. Ironically, I think it’s the first-person voice that grabbed me.

For many writers, the first-person narrative is a mechanical vehicle for engaging readers by shifting the point of view. Rather than an out of body, third-person perspective, the reader gets to see the world through the eyes (or, more appropriately, lens) of the lead character. This technique is moderately successful, IMHO, but most writers don’t really exploit it effectively.

Collins does, however, because she has infused the first-person narrative with a distinctive voice and perspective: 16-year old Katniss Everdeen. The language is broken, littered with dependent clauses where sentence structure often seems incongruent. In short, she’s writing like a teenager thinks and talks. Take the first two paragraphs from The Hunger Games:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough convas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed togehter. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is a fresh as raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

Short sentences, short clauses, some strung together, some on their own. Throughout, Collins mixes present tense with past observations by the character. Again, these are techniques for pulling the reader actively into the story and Katniss’s character. As the story progresses, Collins infuses more of Katniss’s way of thinking into the book, including self questioning and the kinds of dilemma’s anyone would face in such as situation. And it’s all teenager, not adults writing like teenagers.

Where did she get this fresh approach? I think it has a lot to do with her experience writing screenplays for children’s television shows. Screenplays are all about dialogue and developing distinctive characters. That’s a critical stylistic building block for these books, and a good lesson for writers more generally.

So, voice, character, and perspective are wrapped together in a very fresh first-person narrative. And the rest will be history….

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Book Sales By the Numbers

It may seem like an odd question, but when do you know your book’s a success?

The question is a lot harder to answer than we might think. If you’ve published with a mainstream publisher, the answer is somewhat obvious: When the book makes money for your publisher. That threshold is also the point when they might consider publishing another book by you.

But, more and more authors are publishing with small and niche presses, subsidy publishers, or self-publishing. That begs the same question yet again. As someone with experience in both the mainstream and subsidy publishing world, I’ve developed a couple of rules of the road for my books.

1. I don’t worry about my publisher. I want them to make money, of course, but it’s up to the publisher to decide if they’ve made enough off my books to warrant printing new editions or picking up another book.

2. I want my books to cover my out-of-pocket costs. I love to write, but I can’t afford (or I’m unwilling) to shell out cash for books that don’t attract enough readers to at least break even from my personal checking account. (Note: I’ve given up on compensating me for the time I put into writing.)

Okay, these aren’t really rules; they’re principles. What does this mean in terms of cold, tangible, measurable numbers?

I got some help on this from Grael Norton, the acquisitions editor for Wheatmark, an independent publisher in Tuscon, Arizona (and publisher of my most recent novel A Warrior’s Soul) during on on-line publishing and marketing workshop for authors (their “Authors Academy,” of which I’m a member). I’m going to embellish his insight gained from practical experience with my own thoughts. Here are his thoughts in numbers with my embellished commentary:

One. By at least one very important measure, the physical sale of the first book is a major success, particularly for first-time authors. We often wonder if anyone will buy our book. That first sale gives us the confidence to go out and sell (or promote) the second copy. As I’ve discussed before, authors are the most important marketing tool for their books. So don’t under-estimate the importance of the first sale. But, of course, you haven’t come close to recouping out-of-pocket costs.

100. This, according to Grael (and I concur from my own experience) is a crucial threshold because this level of sales implies you have broken out of your inner circle of friends and family. Many people can leverage their good graces with their inner circle to sell 50 or 75 copies of your book. But, that’s about the limit for most individuals unless they are celebrities or have something near celebrity status. One hundred is a good number, but you are still far away from covering your out-of-pocket costs, let alone make money for your publisher.

500. At this point, you have broken out of the small, inner circle and really begun to sell a decent number of copies. This still isn’t a high enough threshold to sustain your writing career on its own, but if you have sold 500 copies, you have probably covered your out-of-pocket costs if you have used a reputable subsidy or self-publisher. (Notably, this is still not enough to make real money on your book, but at least your not draining your savings or checking account.)

1,000. Once you have crossed this threshold, Grael’s experience at Wheatmark suggests your book has tapped into a niche market. In short, it’s financially, and most likely literarily, sustainable. I would concur based on my experience with nonfiction and fiction books. You still aren’t selling enough to attract the mainstream big boys in publishing, but your making more than your out-of-pocket costs and subsidy-publishers are pretty happy.

2,000. At this level, you’ve tapped into a bonafide niche market and have a successful book. Indeed, this threshold might be sufficiently large that additional books will leverage the first into a sustainble series where you might be able to make some meaningful money. At this level, authors are approaching the sales range where mainstream niche and small presses can turn a profit on your work as well. (Notably, this is also the threshold for Wheatmark’s Great Expectations program where authors have access to a more complete array of publishing services similar to larger, mainstream presses.)

5,000. (My number, not Grael’s.) In my opinion, this is a threshold for a book to establish itself through the conventional publishing market. These sales volumes are high enough for an author to become attractive to agents and established mainstream presses (but still below what is increasingly necessary for the publisher or agent to make money). If your book is selling at these levels, a wider distribution system may well take it to a much higher level of sales. Your book will be noticed. You will develop a cadre of loyal readers that becomes your base for future books. You will be making money if you’ve signed with a decent publisher and have a decent publishing contract.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences. Because of spam, I’ve turned off the comment function on my blog, but feel free to email me at

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