Tonight I’m off to the Brisbane launch of The Silver Well, a short story collection by Kim Wilkins and Kate Forsyth. There will be wine, readings, finger food, book signings, and an evening spent celebrating two awesome writers who have done something new.
Some time tomorrow, depending on the timezone the various sales sites are using, my short story collection The Birdcage Heart & Other Strange Tales will be available for sale. The launch will consist of a blog post, a handful of tweets spaced out over the last few weeks, and me going back to work on my next project for Brain Jar Press.
Today I’m going to talk about why.
WHAT NEW WRITERS THINK BOOK LAUNCHES ARE ALL ABOUT
New writers look forward to their book launch, but they don’t always understand how they fit into the publishing ecosystem. In the five years I spent answering phones at Queensland Writers Centre, the calls where people asked “how can I get people/the media to come to my book launch and sell books?” were among the most frustrating and difficult to answer because the disconnect between what people expected from their launch and what launches actually do were incredibly wide.
The misconception largely comes about because writers see their book as a big event, a milestone on par with getting married or having a baby or turning twenty-one. The book is the culmination of years spent toiling away at their craft, navigating the publishing landscape (whether traditional or indie), and it becomes an object loaded with hopes and expectations.
And just like getting married, or having a baby, or turning twenty-one, publishing can book is a milestone worth celebrating. It’s a chance to gather together family and friends who are invested in your success and feting all that effort.
The thing that warps expectations is the assumption that, unlike a wedding or a new child or a twenty-first, the release of the book is big news for people they don’t know.
New books, by and large, aren’t that big a deal. There are several hundred thousand new titles published every year, and all of them are competing for eyeballs and attention. While some are big news, it’s usually got very little to do with the fact that they’re being released and a whole lot to do with who has written them.
WHAT BOOK LAUNCHES ARE ACTUALLY ABOUT
The advice I always gave people over the phone, at QWC, was book launches are just a celebration for family and friends. They don’t draw in new readers (or the press) on their own. The reality is a little more complex than that, but it’s incredibly hard to convey it over the phone.
Here’s the truth: in some circumstances, book launches will sell books and they will sell books to people who don’t necessarily know you personally. They just tend not to happen if it’s your first book, and they definitely don’t happen if you’re looking at holding a stand-alone event just to generate sales.
If you strip back the advice I delivered over the phone to its heart, it’s really a simple idea: book launches are an opportunity to trade social and professional capital into sales and profile. A critical mass of readers picking up your book and talking about it is a good thing, as it transforms the release into a conversation and attaches it to social networks. In a world where the most prevalent reason for picking up a book is familiarity with the author, and the second-most-prevalent reason is recommendation from a trusted friend, these conversations can be critical.
The problem for most new writers is that their social capital is pretty low – the people invested in their careers are largely the same people who are invested in other major life milestones.
MODES OF CAPITAL AT WORK IN BOOK LAUNCHES
There are ways around this if you’re a new writer, most noticeably trading on other people’s social capital. The first time I had an actual wine-reading-signings kind of book launch was way back in 2009, when Horn was launched at the National Science Fiction conference in Adelaide.
I was a new-to-SF writer at the time, attending my second-ever conference, and away from the network of friends and family I’d built up in Brisbane. This meant I had a handful fo social connections at the conference to entice people along, but they were pretty small. What made that launch work was the social capital developed by Twelfth Planet Press as a small publisher doing interesting things in the SF space, and the general community capital that exists at science fiction conferences where dedicated readers who truly love the genre are looking for something new (and where you will find people who take a chance on new writers/works ‘for the good of the community’ more often than not).
Similarly, when you look at the Wilkins and Forsyth event I’m attending later tonight, they are two writers with a bunch of connections. Both are award-winning novelists deep into their careers, with over 60 novels between them. They’ve won awards, hit best-seller lists, and have an established pool of readers and professional connections spread around the country. Their launch is an opportunity to leverage social capital through personal networks, professional networks, and reader networks, and the associated prestige they both hold within the genre they’re working can also sway genre fans attached to those networks.
Their book launch may not be big news within the wide community in the way that household names like Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer would be, but for fans of SF and Fantasy the status of the writers (and the fact that it’s released through a small press) makes a collaborate book a noteworthy thing.
THE QUESTION TO ASK: WHAT ARE YOU TRADING THAT CAPITAL FOR?
Book launches can be costly events, even when they’re relatively small. Not just in terms of the social capital and goodwill they trade upon, but also in terms of hard costs (which, contrary to the ideas most writers have about the industry, aren’t always covered by the publisher). If you’re going to leverage your social capital and actual, hard cash on a launch event, you also want to a pretty good idea of what you’re getting in that space.
While there’s a definite ego-boost inherent to launching a book, you’d want to keep costs low if that’s all you’re going to get out of the exercise. The secondary concern is the illusive idea known as buzz – the value of the launch lies not in the immediate sales you get, but in the way those sales spiral out into social media conversations and reader recommendations over the weeks that follow. The most valuable thing about a launch is not that it’s a place where books are sold, but that it’s an event that sees your book talked about.
A few years back Goodreads did a study on how readers discover new books they want to read, By far the largest reason was they already knew the work of the author, followed by recommendations from trusted friends. They also discovered that it takes between 6 and 12 ‘touchpoints’ where a potential reader hears about the book before it actually converts into a sale/readership. The stronger a touchpoint (such as a friend recommending it directly, or mentioning it on social media, or getting a review from a trusted source), the fewer the touchpoints that were needed.
(If you’ve ever picked up a really popular book that’s outside your ordinary reading habits just to see what the fuss is about – say, The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight – then you’ve seen the power of touchpoints in real time. The book is so prevalent, so talked about, that it’s overriding your usual buying habits)
So a good book launch has ripple effects in the form of touchpoints – first people talk about being at the event on social media, then they talk about the book afterwards, then they talk to people who weren’t at the event that they expected to be there. The one-to-one relationship that’s built up by signing a book and talking to an author helps too, as we’re more likely to talk about books where we feel like there’s a meaningful connection to the author.
Book launches are particularly useful in the traditional publishing space, where building up buzz early is important due to the short sales cycle (about two to six weeks) that will see the book on store shelves. If you look at the launch and marketing cycles of most traditionally published books, they’re all about packing as many touchpoints as they can into that six weeks, from launch events to reviews to interviews and marketing.
Good buzz – even in small circles or dedicated communities – is a valuable thing for a book. It’s why picking up launches at events where communities are already gathering, like cons, is a really useful thing; the event is already generating conversations and your book becomes part of it. It’s why it worked particularly well for me, as a new author back in 2009, where the more sensational aspects of Horn’s ‘unicorn porn’ reputation generated a good amount of conversation before and after the launch.
SO WHY AM I LAUNCHING THE BIRDCAGE HEART IN SUCH A LOW-KEY MANNER?
If we’ve established buzz is valuable, let’s talk about the reasons I’m basically launching The Birdcage Heart and Other Strange Tales with a blog post rather than an event.
There’s an obvious answer in the fact that it’s ebook only at the moment, with the print version lined up for mid 2018, but that’s only part of it. Even if I was doing the print version straight off, I’d still be launching with a blog post and getting on with the next thing on my list – a physical launch is not an efficient leveraging of capital at this time.
One of the great advantages of indie publishing, and in particular the ebook side of things, is the space for books to find their audience. Rather than expending effort and capital to generate as much buzz as possible in the first month that the book is available for sale, the book can build sales over time as part of a perpetually-available backlist.
A good book launch leverages your social and community capital in order to get the best result you can for the book you’re trying to launch, but the metrics you use to measure that will be dependant on your business model.
Early buzz is at it’s most valuable in the traditional model, and in particular in the traditional model where only a handful of books (and thus, only a handful of attempts to leverage social capital) are released by the author every year. The indie author has less need to generate buzz about a book, and more need to generate buzz about the author and the press. This is less reliant on launch events and more reliant on other things the press/author is doing – regular releases that allow readers to touch base with the writer more often; ongoing engagement with dedicated readers throughout the year rather than drawing in general readers for a one-off bust.
This doesn’t mean early buzz isn’t valuable – it would still be great if people acquired the book early and talking about it in whatever venue they feel comfortable – but it isn’t one of the measures that will allow a book to sink or swim the way it will when there’s a short sales window. My metrics of success for the book have a lot more to do with how many copies are selling in 2019 and how many people find their way to my newsletter, not how many I’m selling by the end of 2017.