Over the decades, I’ve met many writers that planned to write a book, publish it and reap fame and fortune. At least that appears to be what most believe.
In reality, this belief is the same as tying fifty-pounds of iron to an infant then throwing the three-month-old child in the ocean expecting him to swim ten-miles to shore.
Back in 1968, when I wrote my first book-length manuscript and found an agent to represent it, who found an interested publisher, that’s probably what I thought too—at first.
The wake-up call to reality was traumatic because that deal ended in rejection. The publisher had a budget to publish one new author and someone else earned that slot. If it was any consolation, I was one of the finalists and reached second place, but only first place signed the publishing contract, which explains why this series of post is specifically written for writers (want-to-be authors) and authors (already published—it doesn’t matter how: traditional, indie/self-published, or vanity), who may be wondering where all the readers are hiding after the bubble that held the dream of fame and fortune popped.
First, it helps to know how many books are competing for the attention of people that read.
In August 2010, Google reported there were 129.8 million unique books in the entire world. I’m not talking about the total number of books printed. I’m talking about unique titles. The number printed is in the billions.
For example, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien has sold more than 250 million copies and that’s for a few titles.
How about a few more examples?
Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles have sold about 80 million; J. K. Rowling has sold more than 400 million, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, one title, has sold 30 million in fifty-two years.
Such success is a great motivator sort of like hearing that someone won a few hundred million in a lottery. However, if you read the small print on the back of a lottery ticket, the odds are usually 20 million to one or worse.
How about books and publishing? What are the odds? The answers to these questions are more complicated.
According to Nielsen Bookscan, the average U.S. book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime, and it doesn’t help that the competition is getting more crowded annualy.
In April 2010, Smashwords reported, “A staggering 764,448 titles were produced in 2009 by self-publishers and micro-niche publishers …”
By the end of 2011, R.R. Bowker reported 2,776,260 self-published books were printed in the US alone. In the UK, there was an additional 151,969 new titles. Source: News & Press: Publishing.
With all of those new titles coming out annually, who reads them and what do they read?
In 2010, the ABA’s Bookselling this Week reported, “Based on the two Verso surveys, which were statistically weighted to mirror the U.S. population age 18 or older, avid readers (those who spend five or more hours a week reading) comprise 28 percent of the population. These readers skew older into the Boomer cohort, and 63 percent – or approximately 39 million – are female. Importantly, actual book purchase behavior showed a similar pattern in the Verso survey, with avid readers buying 10 or more books a year. … Older Americans represent two-thirds of avid readers …”
If those numbers hold true today, that means there are about 63 million avid readers in the US age 18 or older reading an average of 10 books a year and there are about 3.3 million new titles to choose from if we do not count books published in previous years.
Stephen’s Lighthouse.com reported, “Bowker released its much-anticipated 2009 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Report today, providing the U.S. book industry with the most complete consumer-based research on who buys books and why. … Women lead men in overall purchases, contributing 64% of sales. Even among detective and thriller genres, women top 60% of the sales. Where do men catch up? Fantasy titles are purchased evenly by men and women. … Americans like people. The biggest selling non-fiction genre is biography – auto and otherwise.”
Then German Book Office New York, Inc. says, “According to the 2011 United States Census Bureau, in 2010, 37.9% (75.8 million adults) of Americans read a book within the last 12 months, with 20.8% (41.6 million adults) reading two or more times a week; 3.6% (7.2 million adults) reading once a week; 3.8% (7.6 million adults) reading two or three times a month; 2.8% (5.6 million adults) reading once a month, and 2.5% (5 million adults) of American participated in a book club in the past 12 months.
“The Harris Poll surveyed over 2,000 adults online between July 11 and 18 … With questions focusing on reading habit, the survey revealed insights into the changes that e-Reading has had over the past year as well.
“Overall 16% (32 million adults) of Americans read between 11 and 20 books a year with 20% reading 21 books or more in a year. These numbers are very different for Americans who read electronically: 32% of Americans read 11-20 books and 27% read 21 books in an average year with e-Reader devices.
“The Harris Poll has also revealed that e-Reader users are also much more likely to purchase books. Thirty-two percent of Americans say they have not purchased any books in the past year, while only 6% of e-Reader users could say the same.
“Among those who say they read at least one book in an average year, 76% read both fiction and non-fiction. However in both these categories, certain types of books are on the rise. Among fiction categories, 47% of respondents read mystery, thriller and crime books; 25% read science fiction; and 23% read literature and romance. The remaining readers chose between graphic novels (10%), “chick-lit” (8%) and Westerns (5%).
“Within the non-fiction categories 29% of readers pick up biographies; 27% read history; and 24% read religious and spirituality books. 18% of non-fiction readers pick up self-help books, while 13% read true crime, 12% read current affairs, 11% read political books and 10% read business books. …
“According to consumers, free chapters or sample giveaways had the largest impact on buying e-books.”
As you can see, tastes vary as do the number of books read annually from person to person. If an avid reader reads ten books a year and there are several million titles to choose from, what do you consider the odds are that your work will be one of those books?
Something else that effects books sales is political beliefs? There are many nonfiction books written for both conservatives and liberals. Every week when I shop at Costco, I see them on the book table and ignore them.
But what about Fiction?
Archive.Newsmax.com says, “The average self-identified conservative book reader consumes about the same number of books per year (eight) as the self-identified liberal (nine).”
However, in another survey, the results show only 12% of readers were far-right conservative Republicans while 19% were far-left liberal Democrats. Source: Surveys.ap.org
In fact, About.com posted a list of novels conservative should read and listed Animal Farm by George Orwell; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand; The Red Badge of Courage by Steven Crane; Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; On the Road by Jack Kerouac; The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne, and Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe.
Another site, Why Pop Culture Matters, says Science Fiction is Inherently Conservative: “One place where conservatives–and particularly libertarians–do pop culture well is in the science fiction field. Authors like Sarah Hoyt, John Ringo, David Drake, and even Harry Turtledove produce excellent writing in the Robert Heinlein vein, which leans libertarian-right. And John Barnes is very capably reprising the brilliant Heinlein juvenile novels of the 1950s in a twenty-first century style.”
I went in search of a list of fiction for liberals and ran into a conservative firewall of hits attacking liberals as evil and the force that will destroy America.
I did see something about a liberal bias in zombie fiction. I also saw hits criticizing Hollywood for churning out too many movies with liberal themes/topics. After looking at the first hundred hits, I started to try other Google search terms until I found this at the Democratic Underground listing a few authors recommended for liberals: John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Phillip K. Dick for Science Fiction, etc.
What I did learn was that Conservatives are obsessive about the dangers liberals pose to America, but in the US, according to Gallup.com, twenty-one percent of Republicans are hard-right (17.2 million) while only 9% of Democrats are hard-left or very liberal (3.78 million), which may explain why liberals appear to be outnumbered by conservatives on the Internet.
However, normal conservatives (not the hard-right kind) make up 32.4% (64.8 million) of the adult population, Moderates 36% (72 million) and Liberals 21% (42 million). If we subtract the 3.78 million hard-left liberals, that leaves 38.2 million normal liberals.
Now that we have a better idea about the size of the reading public and its reading habits, how does an author go about attracting the right sort of reader for his or her work?
Answer: Building an Internet platform that attracts readers interested in a specific topic, genre and theme.
But, how does an author do that properly?
How does an author build an Internet platform to attract readers to his or her work?
Here’s how I did it and it seems to have worked for my first three novels:
I launched iLookChina.net (my first proper Blog after taking three workshops on the subject), the platform for my first-three historical-fiction novels set in 19th century China. Instead of writing about the writing process and my angst as a writer, as I have discovered many authors do with his or her Blog/s, I focused on topics about China and the Chinese.
Does that make sense?
Here are the results:
I launched iLook China.net near the end of January 2010. Since launching the Blog, I have posted more than 1,500 articles about China and the Chinese.
However, my first novel, My Splendid Concubine was released December 2007.
Sales in 2008 = 221 copies.
Sales in 2009 = 341 copies.
After I launched a Blog to support the novels, sales for 2010 = 2,375 copies (a 696% increase in sales over 2009 when I did not have a proper platform Blog).
Sales in 2011 = 4,641 copies.
So far, sales in 2012 have reached more than 2,700.
As of 6:10 PST on August 19, 2012, iLookChina.net had 285,272 all-time views that I’m sure have contributed to almost 10,000 book sales.
What do these numbers say? Answer: It is crucial for an author to identify the interests of his or her potential readers before building and branding a proper Internet platform.
For example, if an author publishes a cookbook, he or she should consider a Blog about food.
There is more to building an author Internet Platform than just launching a Blog. For example, in 2008, I was a guest on 31 radio talk shows (only one was a Blog radio station) and I have linked from my Website to a few of the reviews that were converted to podcasts.
Recently, actually this morning (as I worked on this series of posts), I read a piece by David Vinjamuri for Forbes.com called Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning in Indie Books – And That’s a Good Thing. It’s a long piece but worth reading for anyone that wants to learn about the current state of publishing. Near the end of Vinjamuri’s six-page on-line article, he says that Indie books must get reviewed, and from the start back in 2008, getting reviews was one of my goals.
I do not pay for reviews, but I have been on three Internet book tours of my work and I paid publicists to organize these Blog tours, which generated maybe 50 – 60 reviews. Most were positive. A few were not. I also submitted my work to literary contests and lost more than I earned some recognition in.
The most valuable reviews came from Writer’s Digest judges (my work has had two); The Midwest Book Review (three); City Weekend Magazine in China; and Historical Novels Review Online—all reputable, established media sources linked to traditional publishing, and this is the quality of reviews/recognition for Indie work that Vinjamuri says Indie authors need to prove credibility equal to that of traditionally published authors.
In addition, I belong to Authors Den, write reviews for Amazon Vine, LL Book Review, leave comments on other Blogs for posts that interest me (the posts I leave comments on have to really interest me—if they do not, I don’t leave a comment).
One fact for sure: there is NO guarantee that anything an author does will attract a sizable reading audience. In fact, there is no guarantee that the Blog/Internet platform I’m building for my next novel, Running with the Enemy, will succeed in finding readers interested in that story.
Unless an author belongs to the rarified A-list of the most successful authors that have sold hundreds of thousands or millions of books, each book an author publishes is another venture into the unknown. For example, one of the most successful Indie authors is Amanda Hocking, and it took her about nine years of hard work building her platform before she graduated to the A-list that most authors will never join.
In conclusion, I want to share a few more depressing thoughts—According to Mental Floss, Where Knowledge Junkies Get Their Fix, in the United States:
1. One-third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
2. Forty-Two percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
3. Eighty percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
4. Seventy percent of U.S., adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
5. Fifty-seven percent of new books are not read to completion.
Then, according to a 98-page, 2007-study by the National Endowment for the Arts, reading is declining as an activity among teenagers.
1. Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers.
2. The percentage of 17-year-olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a 20-year period.
3. For age 9, fifty-four percent read for fun almost every day; for age 13, thirty percent read for fun almost every day but by age 17, only 22% do.
4. The percentage of college graduate that read literature was 82% in 1982 down to 67% by 2002 and 65% of college freshman read for pleasure for less than an hour per week or not at all.
5. Literary readers are more than twice (43%) as likely as non-readers (16%) to do volunteer or do charity work.
6. Deficient readers are far more likely than skilled readers to be high school dropouts. Half of American’s Below-Basic readers failed to complete high school—a percentage gain of 5 points since 1992.
Now, do you understand why writers and authors have to promote to find his or her readers?
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.