No one knows exactly how many books are published in the United States every year. Bowker, the leading provider of global book information, estimates 288,355 print titles were published in 2009. Add to that what Bowker considers "non-traditional" books (reprints, titles in the public domain, and printed on-demand), and the number jumps to well over one million.
As large as this number is, it represents only a fraction of the books that are actually written. Many authors elect to publish their work themselves. Others publish through a trade association, or with a university press. And every week, literary agents get hundreds of query letters from aspiring authors hoping to be published with one of the major publishers. Most take on only a handful of new clients per year. And not every book an agent agrees to represent eventually sells.
This winnowing means that the authors of those 288,355 titles comprise an elite group. And yet after an author is published, they face an even greater challenge: getting published again.
Publishing by the Numbers
Ultimately, it's readers, and not the author's publisher, who determine whether or not the author will be offered another book contract. The reason is simple. If a publisher doesn't make a profit on an author's titles, they can't continue to publish them.
"The book world has become a numbers game," confirms Jeff Kleinman, one of the founders of Folio Literary Management. "When I talk to an editor over the phone about an author with a track record, the editor will sometimes ask me to spell the author's name. I can hear the keys clattering as the editor's looking up the author's BookScan numbers."
BookScan is a data provider owned by the Nielsen Company which compiles point of sale information for the publishing industry. Kleinman explains why an author's BookScan sales numbers are so critical: "For publishers, it can be tough to convince the folks who order for Barnes & Noble, Borders, and all the other bookstores to place a large order for Novel #3 when Novels #1 and #2 didn't do well. 'Why,' the bookchain folk may ask, 'should we order a lot of Book #3 when the other two didn't sell many copies, and the market's only getting more challenging?'"
Tough, But Not Impossible
"It's tough out there," agrees Steve Berry, New York Times bestselling author of 9 thrillers including The Jefferson Key (available May 17). "The pressure doesn't get any less after novel one. In fact, it increases. In the world of commercial fiction, until you're branded with a recognizable name and an enthusiastic audience who eagerly look for your next novel, you're only as good as your last word."
Naturally, an author who's invested a year or more to write a book wants to do everything they can to help it sell well. Authors have many ways to reach readers: blog tours, radio tours, bookstore signings, book club visits, blog ads, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media -- so many options, in fact, that it's difficult for authors to decide where they should invest their energy and money.
Writers Helping Writers
Those outside the book industry may be surprised to learn that an author's best help comes from other authors. Along with the Authors Guild, the nation's oldest and largest professional society of published authors, there's a veritable alphabet soup of writers organizations created to advance the interests of their members: ITW (International Thriller Writers), RWA (Romance Writers of America), HWA (Horror Writers Association), MWA (Mystery Writers of America), SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), ASJA (American Society of Authors and Journalists), including the online writers organization I co-founded in 2004, Backspace.
Backspace is a non-genre association of authors founded on the principle of "writers helping writers." A third of the 1,400 members are agented and/or published, and include several dozen New York Times bestselling authors. At the online discussion forums, members share marketing tips and offer advice based, not on speculation and hearsay, but on hard-won, real-world experience.
As an example, last December, just prior to my second novel's release, I ran several ads for the book in Shelf Awareness, an industry newsletter geared toward bookstore owners and librarians. I posted my report on their effectiveness at the Backspace forums, including how much the ads cost, how many visitors my website saw as a result, and whether or not I think the ads were worth it (I do).
Other authors share the results of their marketing and publicity efforts at the discussion forums, building an up-to-date, collective knowledge base that's far more extensive than any an author could gain on their own. Thanks in large part to this shared knowledge, over the years, hundreds of Backspace members have been published -- over and over again.
Strength in Numbers
When it comes to writers helping writers, the Backspace organization is by no means unique. At discussion forums and message boards and email lists across the Internet, savvy career authors demonstrate that they understand they are not in competition with one another; that the more books that are sold, the stronger their industry becomes, to every author's benefit.
Bestselling authors also understand that what's good for one is good for all. Authors like Berry regularly reach back a hand to help less experienced authors by offering advice, endorsements -- even occasionally inviting a newer author to come along with them for a stop or two on their book tour.
They do this because they haven't forgotten what it was like when they were starting out, and because no one knows better than another author how challenging it is to get -- and stay -- published.
* * *
Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of the environmental thrillers Freezing Point and Boiling Point, a novel Steve Berry christened, "a heart-thumping thriller." Karen is also the cofounder of Backspace, and serves on the board of directors of the International Thriller Writers. Visit Red Room to find out more about her books and to read her blog.