Recently I had already talked to 3 prospective clients all before lunch one Monday morning. Two of the calls were about traditional publishing versus self-publishing.
I don’t expect new authors who’ve never released a book before (or even written one, yet) to realize all there is to navigate in the world of publishing. This helps me to not roll my eyes when I see first-time posters ask in writing groups:
“Should I self-publish or go with a traditional publisher?”
Simple answer: unless you already have a built-in following that you can sell at least a couple thousand books out of the gate to, you don’t have a choice. Self-publishing is the path before you.
Something like fewer than 1 in 1000 manuscripts that the average publishing house receives actually leads to getting published. Even then, getting your book selected to be printed and distributed into bookstores is still a lot of strategic work on the part of the author.
It’s NOT a magic bullet to success.
That said, I recently had someone tell me they no longer wanted to self-publish their book but instead planned on getting a traditional publisher, otherwise, they feared they’d never be able to make the bestseller lists.
Let’s back up a little bit.
Sales are what determine your bestseller status, not whether you were under a big name publisher or self-published.
But while we’re at it, most new authors are not as close to being in that position as we wishfully think we are. “Best-selling” status is often just a vanity metric of little to no actual value.
I’ve lost track of how many times I see a listing on Amazon that refers to itself as an Amazon Bestseller because one day, perhaps during launch week, they were able to sell a concentrated number of copies in a short window and ranked number 1 in an obscure category with no competition like Microscopes & Microscopy books. Yes, that category actually exists.
An Amazon sales ranking only gives a rough idea about a book’s actual sales on their platform. Their system updates rankings every hour, so the numbers constantly change throughout the day. A book could have a good ranking in the morning and a worse ranking that same night. You could have been a bestseller at one moment, but then a few days later fell off the map and rank in the millions again.
That’s why I take it with a grain of salt when I see an author refer to themselves as an “Amazon Bestseller”. I assume they’re either a new author who doesn’t know better or a disingenuous marketing guru trying to pull a fast one.
This article by Rob Eagar elaborates more on why and how Amazon rankings work in relation to sales. Telling people your book is a #1 bestseller on Amazon means absolutely nothing, as he explains,
Any author who makes such a claim smacks of desperation and a lack of ethics. Here’s why:
Any author can mount a marketing campaign that temporarily spikes a book to #1 in an obscure Amazon category for a brief period of time – maybe one day or two. But, that spike is a fleeting moment, which quickly drops off. If a book gets to #1, you could use my chart above and guess that it sold 100, 250, or even 1,000 copies in one day. That’s good, but it’s still not that many copies sold.
Then, what about the next day when the ranking quickly falls off to 500, 2,500, or 5,000? Sales are back to modest amounts of 50 – 100 per day. Therefore, a brief spike to #1 on Amazon doesn’t mean a lot of books were actually sold. In order to hit the legitimate bestseller lists, such as the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, or Publishers Weekly, you’ve got to sell around 5,000 copies or more in a week.
Yeah Steve, that’s why I want to go with a traditional publisher. Duh!
Well hold on there, Mr. imaginary composite of many different people I’ve talked to.
This other article, How Bestseller Lists Actually Work — And How To Get On Them is a few years old and is specifically about how bestseller lists (particularly the New York Times) work, but this point is pertinent: Unless you know you’re going to sell, say, even AT LEAST 2000 copies in the first few months after your book’s release, a publisher is not likely to take a chance on your book as a first-time author in the first place:
“Many experts will tell you that you only need to sell 5,000 books to hit the bestseller list. That’s not wrong, but 5,000 doesn’t work many times. In my experience helping dozens of authors work through this process, if you are an unknown author, the bar is higher. The 5,000 number is applicable to known authors and books that have already been on the list, but it is very dangerous for first time or non-established authors.
How do you get 10,000 pre-orders? There are two basic ways to do this — you already have an audience who is willing to pre-order your book or you spend a lot of money to buy your way onto the list. The latter is basically cheating, and it usually costs more than $200,000.
If you don’t have an audience or email list who are used to buying from you, don’t bank on podcasts and Twitter promotions to find that audience. It won’t work. Only a systematic and well-executed plan will.”
For entrepreneurs whose main revenue source is their business, and they use books as marketing tools, I can tell you this — hitting a bestseller list creates very few tangible results for your book. It doesn’t get your book much more attention. It doesn’t help sales much. It doesn’t get in front of many more clients or help your marketing.
I’m not saying it has zero effect. It can have some. Almost all of the impact of hitting a bestseller list is personal and social impact. There is not much business or sales impact, and when you measure the low impact against the high trade-offs, it’s a bad decision.
Simply put, in Stevie B-ese: it’s a very vapid and useless goal to strive for. Especially if you read stories like this one of Brent Underwood, who took a photo of his foot, uploaded it to Amazon, and in a matter of hours, had achieved “No. 1 Best Seller” status, complete with the orange banner and everything.
How did he achieve this?
By asking his friends to buy the book.
You can buy the book he wrote about here:
Just worry about building your platform, creating quality content, and along with that, learn some sales and marketing skills, network with other authors and influencers in your niche who can perhaps help you spread the word of your book — and oh, did I already mention create quality content?
These are ingredients that are more likely to help you achieve best-seller status. Let other people, a.k.a your readers help you become a best-seller.
On that note, I’ll close with a link to a brilliant article about not calling yourself a thought leader.
If I see your Amazon bio states that you are an Amazon bestseller or a thought leader, I immediately assume you’re not actually either one, and you instantly lose all credibility with me.
And we all know how hard it is to correct a lasting first impression.