by Florrie Binford Kichler
“George,” said his father, “do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the garden?”
This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”
“Run to my arms, you dearest boy,”‘ cried his father in transports. “Run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.”
—from The Life of Washington by Mason Locke Weems, 1809
Little did author and bookseller Mason Weems suspect that the fiction he created to (a) give readers what they wanted—a personal bond with a heroic figure—and (b) promote book sales as a result of (a) would endure 200 years later as the quintessential illustration of the character of the Father of our Country . . . despite the fact that the incident never occurred.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines myth as a “widely held but false belief or idea.” Psychologists say that myths live on because they fill an emotional need. And filling an emotional need will trump the desire for truth every time.
Just like Weems’s readers two centuries ago (and today), new publishers, and especially those who have invested huge amounts of time and often tears in writing their own books, are among the most likely to fall victim to what I call the Cherry Tree Syndrome. In spite of no evidence—or, worse, hard evidence to the contrary—they believe in publishing myths that bear no resemblance to reality. Nobody likes a bubble-burster, but after conversations with literally hundreds of newbies, I think it’s useful to confront the following five “widely held but false beliefs or ideas,” which crop up time and time again.
Myth #1: I’m not a real publisher until I see my book(s) on a bookstore shelf.
Mythbuster: Bowker reports that in 2008, more than 400,000 titles were published. It’s a rare week that passes without another independent bookstore closing, and as I write this, Borders has just announced it will be shuttering 200 Walden outlets. Shelf space is shrinking, title output is growing, and competition is fierce. That doesn’t mean you should ignore the physical bookstore market, but it does mean that bookstores are now just one of many brick-and-mortar stores that will shelve your books. Consider specialty retailers (gift shops, museum stores, garden shops, hardware stores, etc.), big-box retailers, and many more, limited only by your imagination and where the people in your target market shop. Let’s replace this myth with “I’m not a real publisher until I see my book sell.”
Myth #2: The market for my book is everyone.
Mythbuster: Who is “everyone,” and how do you reach them? Given the social media explosion, it certainly is easy to reach lots and lots of people, but it’s not so easy to get their attention (remember those 400,000 titles published per year). Taking a good hard look at your book and defining target groups of readers who already have an interest in your subject is one of the keys to your success as a publisher. Another is your business and marketing plans—see Myth #5.
Myth #3: If my book is on Amazon or (fill in the blank with the online retailer of your choice), it will sell itself.
Mythbuster:“If you build it they will come” may work in a movie that features dead baseball greats coming back to life to play ball in a cornfield, but don’t use it as a mantra to sell books. No distributor or wholesaler is going to be an advocate for your book. They are your partners, but it is your job to sell and market, and selling and marketing are relentless tasks—particularly now that online retailers never sleep. You will need to use every method at your disposal—both online and off—to promote and move books.
Myth #4: I’ll print 10,000 copies to get that unit cost down and profit margins up.
Mythbuster: It is a fact that the more you print, the lower the unit cost per book is going to be. What most publishers don’t think about is how long it might take to actually sell those books, and what the opportunity cost is of having dollars tied up in inventory. Granted, short-run digital printing is still more expensive per unit than offset. But the quality is improving all the time, and you need to consider that it might make more sense to test your book sales first with a smaller quantity but a lower total investment. (See Digital Book Printing for Dummies—available via ibpa-online.org—for a beginner’s guide.) A 10,000-copy first printing with a low unit cost will not improve your profit margins if 9,000 of those books remain unsold after two years.
Myth #5: Planning takes too much time—how hard can selling a great book really be?
Mythbuster: Planning is the key element that makes the difference between success and failure in publishing. The time you spend crafting a marketing and business plan before you enter the book industry will save you untold dollars in missed opportunities and unsold books. If you’re not sure how to begin, use the IBPA Independent archives at ibpa-online.org (click on “Newsletter Articles” in the navigation bar on the left on the Home page. and then use the Search function). You’ll find educational resources there to guide you. Start your plan now—it’s never too late.
Stamp Out the Cherry Tree Syndrome
There is no evidence that George Washington “pruned” that ill-fated cherry tree. Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball, nor did Humphrey Bogart say “Play it again, Sam” in the movie Casablanca. Those myths persist but cause no harm to believers—unlike publishing myths, which, at best, can hold you back from realizing the full potential of your business and, at worst, can cost you thousands of dollars and hours spent chasing an illusion.
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