This is the tenth post in Joe Biel’s ongoing Business of Publishing series. Today’s edition is a deeper focus into title development, so if you haven’t read the previous post already, take a look—it’s perhaps the most important part of being a successful publisher.
Due to the four thousand new books being published every day, readers have less of an attention span than ever for unfamiliar titles. When I interview interns who want to go into publishing for the editorial side of the work, I explain the three things that make a book successful:
If you did your title development correctly, your research should have steered you away from any parts of the shelf that are already too crowded or that have one celebrity author thoroughly dominating all sales.
But even if you do your research, develop correctly, and the book is beautifully written and edited, you can still screw it all up with bad metadata!
The most telltale sign that a book is self-published or from a vanity press is that the back cover indicates a subject to shelve it under that simply doesn’t exist in the bookstore. Similarly, I’ve had to explain to many authors that while their idea is unique, clever, and important, we can’t package it the way that they want to because “essays / general” or “world history” or “memoir” just aren’t exactly magnet destinations in any store. They are huge dumping grounds for books that don’t fit on the shelves that readers frequent (or, again, are dominated by a few celebrity authors).
Metadata directs the industry and, in turn, the reader. When salespeople go out and meet with buyers, the process is accelerated. There are lots of books and they are presorted by subject. The ones with the biggest marketing budgets get a few extra seconds. But if a book isn’t correctly developed or is listed for the wrong shelf, the salesperson and buyer won’t make time to let you know about the error—unless it’s the only book being sold, they have large expectations of its sales potential, or you have a longstanding relationship with them.
And so again, this is where your comparable and competitive titles (comps), the books that a customer might buy instead of or in addition to your book, come into play. If you have access to BookScan software, look up what the comps are selling. Make sure that your comps are as successful as you suspect that they are. Many authors have argued that their book would be successful based on the success of another book, sending a link to a New York Times article about the book as proof. When I look up this well-received book, I sometimes find that it hasn’t even sold two hundred copies in BookScan! Sometimes so much effort is put into smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of success that we forget to actually make a book successful.
By looking at the metadata, you can see what is working for your comps. What keywords are readers searching for that direct them to that book? These words should appear in your title, subtitle, reading line, and jacket copy. The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) creates a list of approved shelving codes based on what books are currently being published and what subjects are no longer seeing new titles. Once enough titles exist, say, in “comics journalism,” it will be a distinct category for new books. What BISAC shelving codes are your comps using, and where are stores actually shelving the book? Publishing industry software typically allows two to four shelving categories, and this information is propagated to a series of industry databases. Use them all!
Naturally, things can still go wrong. The worst horror stories feature the publisher making a series of intentional choices and inputting them correctly and Ingram or Baker & Taylor misinterpreting the data that arrives in their feed. Stores don’t order a book about home repair if it’s listed under “philosophy / hermeneutics.” Though that might be an apt opinion about the book in question, no one is going to look for it there.
This is why it’s very important to routinely check your metadata on other databases. Amazon is another place where Microcosm Publishing’s books have shown up as DVDs or under hilariously incorrect subjects. When Sarah Mirk’s Sex From Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules showed up as part of another publisher’s series on Amazon with the subject “religion / biblical meditations / Old Testament,” I admittedly took it somewhat personally since the book is about rejecting religious dogma as the foundation of relationship choices.
Try to detach yourself from your personal relationship to the subject matter. Think about what you would be most excited about as a reader. Sometimes your metadata choices can become so robotic that the final product doesn’t feel like a personal or creative work any longer. Review the cover and metadata with both industry professionals (ideally buyers) and people that read books like this for fun. You will likely be able to make simple fixes to avert huge mistakes. For instance, sometimes a beautiful, painterly book cover just doesn’t work on a self-help / compulsive behavior / obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) title.
Once you’ve done the homework of determining what the best keywords and shelving choices for your book are, visit two local bookstores that sell new books. See where books like yours are shelved in practice, and if you’re the friendly type, talk to the staff people about why they do this. They will likely have hilarious personal anecdotes about what led to this decision-making, or in some cases, a political axe to grind about having to shelve Newt Gingrich’s Treason in the first place. In any event, learning about how their decisions are made will better inform your choices.
Often making a few quick and easy changes will vastly improve your development before it’s too late and you are hearing this same feedback from stores explaining why they think it wasn’t more successful.
Sometimes your vision for the book will come so naturally that it only takes a single draft and the idea comes to you clearly and immediately. Even when this has happened to me, I am sometimes so excited that I still overlook important details—like making the title as readable as possible, omitting a word in the subtitle, or neglecting to note the different meanings between “everyday” and “every day.”
Sometimes you’ll do everything “right” and the book still doesn’t sell. While this can be disconcerting, investigate why this happened and learn from it. Similarly, sometimes you’ll do everything “wrong” and the readers will find the book anyway and love it! Learn how to repeat this effectively.
Learn from my mistakes! Good luck!