Nothing Matters / Everything Matters
Or the Secret to Publishing a Bestseller
At some point in working with me, usually around month six, a client has, on occasion, thrown their hands up in exasperation and said: “you keep saying this thing doesn’t matter, but I still have to do it!” And they’re right to be frustrated, because it makes no sense. Here’s a list of things I don’t think matter:
- Author blurbs
- A tour
- Convention appearances
It’s not a complete list.
But here’s the problem: of course these things matter. Winning a major award can raise awareness and profile. A good blurb from the right author helps define positioning and gives shape to the marketing. A tour can ignite a word of mouth campaign that builds and builds as it spreads. Convention appearances can build a core fanbase that will mobilize on an author’s behalf.
Can. Might. Should. Could.
The problem is, each of these elements does have some unmeasurable impact. When a book succeeds we, as an industry, are too often left with a big shrug when it comes to understanding what elements worked. Mostly because we have abysmal metrics and a very complicated retail infrastructure. And even if it worked in one case, each book release is so unique that it’s hard to apply the same strategy over and over again.
When it comes to many individual items,* I say “this thing doesn’t matter.” And I mean it. Chasing awards is a path that leads to madness. Winning one can help, but it’s not a thing you can intentionally build in to your strategy.** If you don’t get a tour, it’s not a death knell for your book. It just means the strategy isn’t dependent on in person events.
The real secret when it comes to any individual element in a book release cycle is that everything matters. No one thing does, but the accumulation of all of these tiny decisions and the general accretion of positive news at some point crosses into a threshold of “this was important.” At the bottom of the hill, at the start of the climb, it’s nearly impossible to know which paths will be the ones that are important.
Experience is a guide. We can guess, based on the author’s profile, the book’s attributes, what might be a more likely path to getting those wins. But a publishing strategy has to be responsive and reactive as you go. There are no absolutes in book publishing. What works for one project almost certainly would have tanked another. This is why it’s so difficult to give general advice or to provide a simple answer to what seems like a simple question.
The mental image I keep in mind for every book launch is that of a Powerball jackpot. To get a shot at winning, you buy a ticket. To improve your chances, you can keep buying more tickets against that one pot. But an extra ticket just means a marginal boost in your odds, not a guarantee of any outcome.
In this metaphor, the jackpot is some kind of sales target. Tickets are different aspects of your launch that can improve your chances of selling the number of copies you need to be considered a success. A great cover can be another ticket. A large social media presence can be a ticket. A blurb from a huge author can be a ticket. And so on.
The key elements to understand are this:
You can win on one ticket. You can be a hermit who lives in the woods and sends typewritten pages in under a veil of secrecy and still hit the jackpot.
You can do everything right and still miss. You can have a perfect launch, with a phenomenal publicity campaign, all the buzz in the world, and still sell bupkis copies at the till.
Everything matters because you don’t know what extra effort you invest will put you over the threshold. Nothing matters because no one aspect will guarantee success or even be obviously worth the effort.
I find that success in publishing is a matter of learning to live in contradiction. Embrace the things you can attain. Let go of the ones that are out of reach. If you can’t get that blurb or you’re not getting a tour or what ever it is, don’t break yourself on the rocks trying to reach for them. The promise they hold isn’t worth the harm you’ll do to yourself and the rest of your efforts. Focus on what you can achieve and even if that’s just a handful of tickets, those might be enough to get you where you’re going.
* These things always matter: title, cover, jacket copy
** You can sorta aim at an awards-adjacent readership, but this isn’t the same as trying to actually get an award.