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a closer look at review copies

I mentioned yesterday thst it felt counter intuitive for sending out more review copies to increase overall revenue. It seems kind of obvious that more review copies would garner more reviews and that would lead to more sales. So where's the counter intuition?

In small press, print runs are small, budgets are tight and sales are hard work. There's a common feeling that free copies will eat into any potential profit or perhaps, worse, prevent the project from breaking even at all. There really isn't a lot of room to move on the maths of small press. For example, I wanted to do the novella series as a sampler or taste product - something low risk, price-wise, for a reader to buy and try out a new genre or publisher or style or author. I wanted a $10 product. A lot of feedback has told me that it's a good price point. The problem though is that booksellers and wholesalers require a 40% discount from publishers. And my $10 cover price works on a very very tight budget which has translated to a profit margin on books sold through bookstores of about 80c. Which, on reflection, has felt like a lot of work for 80c per copy.

People might scoff at this and point out I'm talking about profit and not breaking even, which is rare enough for small press. It's the main reason why I have started to refer to Twelfth Planet Press as an indie press. I don't want to be "small" and I don't have small goals. Products need to more than break even for a press to be viable - this creates more cash flow that can be invested into subsequent projects. Profitable projects subsidise less profitable ones and allow you to take more risks or make some purely artistic choices. It's how the publishing industry works. In any case, the business model for the novella series is a different story for a different post.

What I did that was different for Horn was to take a risk on the number of copies I gave away for free. I gave away about 42 copies, which was a significant percentage of the total print run. It came about because I was talking with deborahb about the promotion plan for A Book of Endings and we were going to test some of the ideas out with Horn. She told me that it "depended on what my business plan said, if it said [blah blah] by the end of 3 years then ..." And I stopped listening because I was like, "Business Plan? I need a Business Plan?" And you know, of course I needed a business plan. So I went away and thought about it for a while. And I realised that I love indie press. I love everything about it. And I want to be doing it in one year, three years and five years time. And if that's the case, then I can't be thinking about projects at the project scale only. I need to be looking at this as a business, and at a whole of business scale. I need to develop a general philosophy, brand and business approach. I need to have milestones beyond the next project and I need to set a working philosophy that aims to achieve these as well as the project level goals.

So what that meant, and this is one way that I see things in a pre and post-Horn view, is that what I did for Horn would not just be about promoting and selling Horn. It would also be about promoting and selling petermball, who I knew at that stage was writing subsequent volumes in the Aster Series. It would also be about promoting the novella series, A Book of Endings and the Twelfth Planet Press label. It would be about looking at things in a whole of business sense. It would be about building a brand and an image and creating a foundation that each subsequent product could stand on, without having to start back at the beginning. And that meant that some of the free copies of Horn would be about garnering sales for products beyond it. That bottom lines for individual projects needed to be considered in a whole-of-press context as well.

So I now view review copies as so much more than what I once did. I see them not as copies of the book that I can no longer sell at cover price. I see them as ambassadors of the TPP label, introducing new readers to who we are and what we do. If people don't know we exist, how can they buy our products? And this has become my current philosophy. When I get a bit down because I haven't sold a book lately, I look at sending out a complimentary copy somewhere. That's sorta how I like to balance the cosmos - want a sale? Tell someone new about my books.

And I have a list of potential outlets and names of people far longer than I could really afford to send review copies of the same book to. So that's really what I have been looking at, in terms of effective use of sample merchandise. The bit though, that's counter intuitive is that it's not a review of a book that garners you the sale. You can't really track one copy out into the world and see what sales it generated. And it's often hard to trace back a sale to where it came from. And I'm all too aware that some of those copies are sleeper agents - providing brand recognition for future sales of future products.

I'm currently in a state of branding and expansion. I'm in a process of getting word out about who we are and what we do. Some of the spreading of the word comes from review outlets reviewing the books, and hopefully talking positively about them. Some of it comes from the authors and our friends talking about the books and getting the word get out. Some of it comes from people hearing about the book and wandering into a bookstore and asking for it, which then comes back to me both as an order for the book as well as for copies from the back catalogue. Most of it, I dare say comes from people talking about it. As an example, I (and tallaudrey) sent out copies of Horn to a few people in the US right before World Fantasy Con this year. Only one of those people wrote a review of the book, featuring it on his blog. But friends of mine came back from that con reporting a buzz and I received several orders from the US in the week or two afterwards. These sales, I believe, came from a combination of the blog feature of Horn as well as from people talking about the book at the con.

Review and promotional copies do work. But I think they work best as part of an overall campaign for brand recognition and promotion. And I don't believe you can isolate one review copy and pinpoint its direct sales. I've tried all sorts of different outlets. Some have been successful, others less so. I've even changed my stance on judges' copies for awards - afterall, those judges must be fans of the genre. If they see a TPP book and like what we do, maybe they'll come looking for what we do next year or the year after. Or pick up one of our books at a bookstore some time. If I didn't send them a copy, maybe they would never have heard about us.

I think one final thing to mention is the timescale for getting the word out. I've found that it takes at least a month before review and promotional copies seem to kick in. It takes that long for books to work their way up the review pile for reading. And it takes about that long for the buzz to kinda kick up and gather momentum. I tend to spend that month continuing to spread out my promotional efforts so that I don't lose heart because the outcomes are not instantaneous and so that I don't run out of steam trying to get everything done in a day or a week.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 1st, 2009 08:15 am (UTC)
When I get a bit down because I haven't sold a book lately, I look at sending out a complimentary copy somewhere. That's sorta how I like to balance the cosmos - want a sale? Tell someone new about my books.

That is a f*cking brilliant thought.

Dec. 1st, 2009 08:35 am (UTC)
Yes. Tres awesome :-)
Dec. 2nd, 2009 05:09 am (UTC)
Thank you.
Dec. 2nd, 2009 06:49 am (UTC)
Dec. 1st, 2009 09:54 am (UTC)
The point about judges is a good one. No one would sign up for the AAs if they weren't completely in love with books. It's a potential double whammy - if the judges love the book and it gets shortlisted, that's great, but even if it doesn't get shortlisted there might be just ONE judge on the panel who adores the book enough to spread the word.

Many judges are booksellers or librarians, and there is no underestimating their role in moving books, even if what they do is less immediately 'obvious' than a review online.

Dec. 2nd, 2009 06:49 am (UTC)
That's how I dealt with the being asked to submit 20 copies of Horn and Roadkill/Siren Beat. I didn't submit 20 copies of each but I did submit more than I felt comfortable doing, realising that these copies would actually be read by someone interested in the genre.
Dec. 1st, 2009 10:45 am (UTC)
I really said [blah blah blah]'?

;) Well, that sounds simple.
Dec. 1st, 2009 04:01 pm (UTC)
No, you said stuff that sounded complex and intelligent, I just got stuck on the, "wait, I need a business plan?" bit.
Dec. 1st, 2009 01:59 pm (UTC)
I've found the whole-press approach to be the right way to figure things, too, and it's what I advise new presses, that especially for their first few titles, they're going to want to give away a lot more copies than usual, because very often those are your business card, your proof of existing, etc. and reviewers might not review those very first titles, but when they see you're serious, and sometimes in regret for not having gotten to those first ones in time, they'll review later titles.

It's also good to think about where sales/traffic come from, and what a review serves.

Reviews can often be very good for the profile of a press, especially within the trade: other review sources might take you more seriously, bookstores may stock or re-stock your book, foreign publishers may consider rights to your titles, etc.

But reviews often don't actually sell books, depending on when and where they appear. And it's not just a question of being a small venue. Sometimes a small venue will move many more copies than a large one. For instance, there was a review of one of A Midsummer Night's Press' very first titles, THE GOOD-NEIGHBOR POLICY: A DOUBLE-CROSS IN DOUBLE DACTYLS, that appeared in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. That's quite a major coup for such a small press and moreover for a POETRY title. However, the week that it was in EW we didn't get a single hit on the website for the book (let alone a sale) nor was there a single copy moved on Amazon. Whereas sometimes a little mention on a mystery fan blog has prompted a small flurry of sales movement.

So actually selling books and getting reviews are not necessarily synonymous. Getting reviews is always good for the press, though, in terms of visibility/credibility/etc. in that you're being taken seriously.
Dec. 2nd, 2009 06:47 am (UTC)
I think that's exactly it - the needing to show that you are serious, which you can only do over time, by being visible and across several projects.

I think reviews do sell books, but not every time. We had a really good response to a review in a major newspaper which not only sold books but also raised our profile and put us on the radar in new places. I think it's more than you can't always pick which reviews will be the ones to do that for you.
Dec. 1st, 2009 03:53 pm (UTC)
I loved this post too!

Your approach is good public relations as I've been learning it this semester.
Dec. 2nd, 2009 06:43 am (UTC)
Thank you.
Dec. 2nd, 2009 12:00 am (UTC)
Have you considered sending copies to council libraries?
Dec. 2nd, 2009 05:10 am (UTC)
For free? Most libraries buy through library distributors, who do have copies of the books.
Dec. 2nd, 2009 01:17 pm (UTC)
Better sent out as a review copy than returned as a remainder.
Dec. 3rd, 2009 12:28 pm (UTC)
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )