Selling Science Fiction Books in 2005
I’m finding the aftermath commentary to the Stupidity of Worrying About Online Piracy very interesting; apparently this subject is something people are thinking about, particularly for its long-term implications, much of which boils down to: Being willing to not worry about online piracy may work now, today, in 2005, when people are still lugging around those laughably obsolete objects known as “books.” But what happens in a couple of years when the literary equivalent of the iPod hits the market, and physical books become a thing of the past, and the only copies of everything are digital — and some pirate has your entire canon of work uploaded in the P2P networks? How will you make money then? You won’t be so happy about all that piracy then, will you? Where is your God now, Mr. I-Don’t-Worry-About-Piracy monkey boy? Huh? Huh? Huh?
You know, these are all really fascinating questions, and I’m sure at the next WorldCon or other science fiction convention I’m at I’ll be on a panel discussing these things with other folks, and we’ll all be very interesting and thought-provoking on the matter, and who knows, maybe something we say won’t be completely full of crap. However — and I want to be very clear on this, so allow me to use some profanity to bring the point home — in a very real and fundamental sense, I don’t fucking care. Right now, it’s 2005, I’ve got one science fiction book published and two more coming in the next twelve months, and my primary concern is selling those books in the here and now. Today I am looking for ways to get my writing in front of people, perchance to convince these fine people to purchase that writing.
Pursuant to that, the following data points.
1. Old Man’s War has been out for six months and despite what I am told are very positive sales for a first-time unknown writer, not once has it been available at my local bookstore, whose science fiction/fantasy section is jammed into a corner of the store as it is, well outside the main traffic pattern, and is confined to one and a half shelves, of which three-quarters of one shelf is reserved for Star Wars/Star Trek/Tolkien crap. This one bookstore serves its town, and the towns directly north and south of it. So effectively, my book is not physically available anywhere in a 30-mile radius from my home — except at my local library, to which I donated a copy. Yes, I live in rural America, but not everything in that 30-mile radius is rural.
2. Anecdotally, I hear my book is hard to find in bookstores, period; this is partly a reflection of its strong sales (i.e., when it is in a bookstore, it doesn’t stay long) and partly (I suspect) a reflection of Tor’s printing strategy for the book, which has been of multiple small printings (the largest being the first printing of 3,800 copies), that keep Tor from having an overprint situation for a new, untested author (which is to say \you probably shouldn’t count on finding the hardcover of Old Man’s War on the remainder table. Sorry). I can’t and don’t fault Tor’s logic here — the last thing I want as a new author is my publisher having rather more copies of the book than it can sell — but the regrettable side effect of this is that people can’t browse a book that’s not on the bookstore shelves.
3. The Kroger supermarket nearest me, whose (actually fairly extensive) book section functions as the bookstore for its town, not only doesn’t stock my book, it doesn’t stock science fiction at all, and aside from Harry Potter and Eragon (good job Christopher Paolini!), no fantasy, either. Not stocking my book is entirely not surprising (remember: first-time unknown SF writer in hardback), but not stocking any science fiction or fantasy at all? What the hell? For comparison, the store is generously stocked with romances, contemporary thillers, and westerns. Yes, westerns. You thought that genre was dead, didn’t you. Surprise! The Wal-Mart and Meijer near me have remarkably similar stocking patterns.
What do these data points tell me? Clearly, that I shouldn’t expect people to discover my book in the conventional ways, because the book isn’t there. Now, some or all of these issues may be alleviated when the book goes to softcover; the reason Tor bought the book, as I’ve noted before, was that it believes that this is the sort of book that can crack the “no SF in supermarkets” barrier, because — yes, we can admit it here among friends — it’s a Heinlein-esque adventure without all that scary edgy stuff, and maybe you can shove that next to the Clancys and the Grishams and sell it. If it were a car, it’d be a Chevy, and I see a fair amount of Cheveys in the Kroger parking lot. So we’ll see. But that’s tomorrow, and this is today.
In terms of promotion, well, I would love to promote Old Man’s War in the Old School ways. I’m not a snob, and I’m not stupid — there’s an incredible amount of promotional power in “old media.” Way back when, when I met my editor at Tor for the first time, he asked me if there were any media I thought the publicity department should approach for the book. You know the first place I suggested? AARP Magazine. Because the book’s about an older American, and the magazine has a subscriber roll of 21 million. It doesn’t get much more old school than AARP Magazine, and I’d be a friggin’ moron not to put the book in front of that audience. I still want to, hint, hint, Tor publicity department. But again: new writer, writing science fiction. I have been absolutely blessed with reviews in the Washington Post, in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and in Entertainment Weekly, and it’s a minor miracle I got those (not withstanding AARP Magazine, Tor’s publicity folks rock). Most science fiction writers, even the established ones — and even the good established ones — would be happy with that. Right now, this is what I have to work with in terms of the Old School presence.
New School, I have options. I have this Web site, which pulls down some nice visitor numbers; I have the AOL Journal, which does the same. I have had good press from prominent bloggers, whose recommendations have translated into real sales with aclarity, because their readers trust their recommendations. Right now, there is no downside in letting someone go onto Amazon and reading as much of the book as Amazon lets them — they are on Amazon, after all, and one does typically go to the Amazon site to buy things. The chances of turning a sale there are good, and inasmuch as we’ve already established looking at a physical copy is difficult, this is the next best thing. There is no downside in offering an entire novel’s worth of writing for free on my own site; why not let people get a feel for my style? If you like Agent chances are pretty good you’ll like Old Man’s War; it’s a different set-up and story, but, well, I’m me, and for better or worse, that’s how I write.
Will these methods work in the future? Don’t know. And, mostly, don’t care, because they’re working now, and now is the timeframe I need to sell my book in. I don’t doubt that a dozen years from now, getting my books out to readers — and making money from them — will require different things and take on a different form than it does now, since among other things most of the ways I’m promoting my books now didn’t exist a dozen years ago. But here are a couple things I expect to be true in 2017: That people will still want to be amused by creative types, and that the more enterprising members of that class will have found new and exciting ways of extracting money out of people who wish to be entertained. As so long as I’m not dead or somehow deeply mentally damaged between now and 2017, I expect to be in the latter camp. I guess we’ll find out. In the meantime, I’m happy to do what works.