by Andrew Mackay
The BelieversPress team had a great time at ICRS in Atlanta last week.
We led Author Bootcamp on Sunday. A real highlight for me was seeing Jerry Jenkins do his Thick-Skinned Manuscript Critiques. I was challenged to re-evaluate my writing and fight for tight, good writing. It was very helpful.
We spent the rest of the show on the floor. I helped Suzy Q and Mr. SuzyQ (I think I'm allowed to call him Shawn now) host some author signings. I spent some time (never enough!) talking to authors and walking the show floor. I had meetings with professionals: PR agents, editors, designers, printers, and more. I thought I'd try to distill some of the lessons I took away from the event:
- Content is still king. No matter who I talked to, they had stories about trying to help authors who didn't spend time refining and perfecting their content. It never worked. PR reps who arranged reviews for bad books, resulting in angry authors and less public interest than ever. Marketing campaigns failed over chapters that hadn't ever met a red pen. Books ignored by buyers because of terrible cover design. These content issues make it impossible for these pros -- who are otherwise at the top of their author-helping professions -- to do their jobs.
- Audience matters. As an author, your job is to know your audience, write for them, and make connections with them. I watched a CBA pro do an author signing and knock it out of the park. She connected with each one of those people. Significant? Yes! Why? Well, in this case, most of them were buyers for bookstores. But they also fit perfectly into her target audience. And they love her even more now, because she loved them and served them while they stood in her line.
- Retail is still a viable option for many projects. Not every project, not even most projects, but there are projects, authors, brands where good connections with retail will benefit the author's publishing endeavors.
- Publishers are still confused about what they offer authors. Most publishers haven't a clue what they want to offer. I heard an analogy that applies: I go to Walmart, and I know what they want to be. They want to be always low prices. I go to Target, and I know what they want to be, they want to be the store that raises your expectations - expect more, pay less. Five Guys - great burgers, more fries than you can eat. These are brands that know what they do.
Publishers, though, are more like Kmart. I have no idea what's going on there. Are they going for low prices or are they trying to carry luxury brands? Do they know who their audience is? Publishers are trying to be like amazon - carry a little bit of everything and hope something works out. It's a terrible plan, unless you have tremendously deep pockets. At some point, authors will need to ask themselves, if the publisher isn't delivering an audience, what do I need them for?
- Self published books are getting better, but there's still a long way to go. As I wandered the show floor, I saw self-published authors working from their own tables, trying to connect with bookstore buyers. Some of the books looked really good. Some of them made me sad. Some of my saddest conversations were with self-published authors who had paid publishers lots of money to be there only to wind up disenfranchised with the experience. They got the experience they paid for, it just wasn't worth paying for. But, I digress. There was hope. There were professionally presented, well-put-together titles with authors who were working hard to make inroads into Christian retail. That's exciting.
- Companies that serve authors who self-publish need more candor than ever. This is a necessary corollary to the points above -- our job is to shoot straight with authors about what it takes to succeed in this market. A bad book won't cut it. An author who doesn't connect with their audience won't succeed. An author who won't spend their resources (especially time, but also money) to develop their career / titles / audience isn't likely to succeed. We have to be the ones to say it. At BelieversPress, we have a corporate history of presenting those truths. The world needs more of that, not less.
- Successful authors are doing a bunch of different things to achieve that success. It's really difficult to nail down what constitutes a working publishing strategy. A great website plus a good PR campaign plus marketing consultants helping to execute great author events, plus a great book, plus good cover design, plus public speaking efforts, plus content give-away strategies plus... plus... plus. An author's work is never done. There's not a one-size-fits-all recipe book for how to succeed at publishing. Some authors do all of this stuff and still fail to sell enough books to recoup their costs. Some do all these things and feel like it was "the PR campaign" or "the social media campaign" that made it work. But if they'd done just that one thing without all the others, would it have worked? Doubtful.
- Authors need to work together. This one is where my heart sings. I got to watch the Jerry B. Jenkins Select authors support one another out on the show floor. They'd check in when one of the others was signing. They'd talk to book buyers about the other books in the line. They weren't operating in a vacuum. Find writers you can love and who will love you back. Work together. Find opportunities to talk about each other. A rising tide lifts all boats. Help one another raise the tide. It's not a zero-sum game, because most readers read more than one book in their lifetime. They're not done after they buy your book, and buying someone else's book doesn't preclude them from also buying yours. Use that to your advantage.
It's an exciting time to be an author. A little scary, but exciting... and that's what I learned at ICRS.