My self-published book, Business Doctors, shows an Out of Stock status on Flipkart.
My year-long publishing experiment is over and I won’t be printing any more physical copies. This puts Business Doctors in an unusual situation, with a dormant demand building up for it but no new stock to quell it.
Here’s the book marketing plan that helped in getting it to this stage.
It’s taken a while for this update. But I’m happy to be back on the blog after a long hiatus to share what’s happened over the last few months since I wrote the earlier post – My Self Publishing Experiment.
I hope my experiences would help other writers who decide to go down the untrodden path (for reasons ranging from impatience to serial rejections) and skip the traditional publishing process.
It’s a long post with more details than you’d probably want to know. You’ve been warned.
The book: Business Doctors – Management Consulting Gone Wild (fiction, thriller) is a story about Management consultants who get hired by the mafia to turn around their underworld businesses (drugs, gambling, pornography).
The experiment: After going through the traditional publishing process and getting an encouraging response (4 reprints in 3 years) for my first book – Beyond The MBA Hype (non-fiction) – I thought it would be interesting to explore the publishing supply chain independently.
No prior track record in managing the non-writing part of publishing (editing, printing, distribution, retailing…)
Untested genre: The plot, context, language, characters in the story are American. Which means the mass market audience in India could reject it outright.
Pricing: Even though I went for offset printing (common in traditional publishing) as opposed to digital printing (popular with vanity publishers), without the economies of scale of larger publishers, the cost of printing each copy went up. This reflected in the pricing. The printed price of the book was Rs 250.
Limited distribution channels: The book was available only via online book stores (Flipkart, Amazon, etc) and not via regular book stores.
The objective: The best case scenario would be to sell the entire stock (1000 copies) within a year to ‘real’ readers. Making a profit would be tough, so I just wanted to limit my losses in the process.
Though there was no one to judge the experiment, I wanted to ensure that I stay away from shady strategies just to meet the objective. If my main takeaway from all this was to learn something that doesn’t get taught anywhere formally (or even discussed), it had to go beyond ego gratification and bragging rights.
The early book promotion plan
Many years back, Guy Kawasaki had sent me a pre-release copy of his (now best-selling) book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, as I had interviewed him earlier for his other book – Enchantment.
APE beautifully captures the essence of what an author should do before, during and after the book is self-published. If you are even remotely thinking of self-publishing, this could be your Bible.
The main idea in it is that you need to think not just like an author, but also as a publisher and an entrepreneur.
What I hadn’t imagined was that several years later I’d be taking on these 3 roles and adapting them for the Indian market (which has its own set of challenges, like piracy).
While the copies of Business Doctors were getting printed, I had identified a distributor who could get the book listed on all the leading online book retailers.
However, the first bottleneck was that the distributor was going to stock only a handful of copies in his office. He’d order additional copies only after the copies he held were sold. This meant that I had to double up as the warehousing guy for him and manage the entire logistics of storing the stock, creating cash memos, sending it across by courier, and creating invoices for payment.
With that arrangement, the entire stock of 1000 freshly printed copies was delivered by the printing company, Thomson Press (I chose them as they had printed my first book as well), to my doorstep.
My first shock was when I realised that the physical storage space it was going to take (with all the packaging) was more than double of what I had expected. 42 boxes in 6 huge sacks [see image].
I began to question the objective I had set for myself. Had I bitten off more than I could chew? This query would continue to pop up over the next several months.
Online marketing plan for the book
One of the online book retailers where the book was hosted proposed a paid promotion campaign which would get the book in front of thousands of their registered users. The price tag – 1 Lakh Rupees!
I took a conscious decision to stay away from paid promotion. It would’ve been a quick way to generate awareness, but it would also increase the cost of reader acquisition.
In other words, there was no point in spending 100 rupees to attract 10 readers on social media. Even if one of those 10 would buy a copy (highly optimistic scenario), I’d still be making a loss of 80 bucks on each book.
Instead, I chose to rely on resources where the reach wasn’t as widespread and instant, but I’d have greater control over the costs.
Here’s a list of the online platforms I used.
My MBA blog:
I got a simple (and admittedly a little cheesy, in hindsight) Kinetic Typography based book trailer made for Business Doctors, hosted it on Youtube and embedded the link on my site.
Apart from the cost of producing the video, I wasn’t spending anything on video hosting. Considering the bandwidth required for transmitting video files, this can add up to a neat sum over time.
I also created a landing page for the book with all the relevant details and sample chapters. I linked it from the relevant pages on my site that focused on management consulting related topics.
Goodreads: I already had an author profile on Goodreads and a page for my first book. I created a Goodreads page for Business Doctors as well and explored some useful features that I had ignored earlier – like the Goodreads Giveaway, an online competition where authors can give away any number of copies and the Goodreads engine randomly selects winners. All that the author needs to do is to define the geography (no ebooks allowed, you need to be able to ship physical copies), time period and number of copies.
Facebook: I created a facebook page for Business Doctors and cross-promoted the posts on other more popular pages that I manage (like the MBA Crystal Ball FB page).
Quora: This is a Q&A site where experts can answer queries related to their area of expertise. It allows book review pages. One good thing about Quora is its upvote feature. Readers can reward good answers with ‘upvotes’ (similar to FB likes). The expert can then use these credits (1 upvote = 1 credit) to promote other answers or pages or book reviews.
Book Bloggers: I reached out to several book reviewers with blogs and checked if they’d be interested in reading my book. One of the criteria for short-listing such bloggers was the popularity of their site. I used Alexa, an online traffic estimation tool, to get an idea of how popular the blog was.
Humbly, I’ll admit that many of the reviewers have better writing skills than I do. Their genuine, balanced reviews played a key role in giving the book legitimacy and visibility. [If you were among the reviewers, a heartfelt thank you!]
The initial response
I published a couple of posts related to the book on my sites. That helped in spreading the word in the initial days.
With all the background work I had done plus the general curiosity that a new launch tends to get, the initial spike was very encouraging. The book debuted at number 25 on Amazon in its genre (action & adventure).
The distributor was the first to share this news with me. He asked me to send more copies.
The reviews started coming in. Apart from a few reviewers who ripped it apart, the general feedback was good.
Then, rather quickly, the sales graph started slowing down. It seemed like the marketing effort was running out of steam within a month of launch.
“That’s it? Game over?” I wondered, as I looked at the pile of boxes lying in my balcony. A month seemed too short for the momentum to die.
There had to be a reason (or ten) why this was happening. If I could identify, analyse, fix them, maybe the graph would be on the upswing again.
Little problem. As this was unexpected, I had no clue where to start. So I thought a wait-n-watch strategy would be the best. Maybe I was being impatient. Maybe it was just a matter of time, and the sales would pick up again.
So I waited. And the sales virtually stopped. Operation Wait-n-watch wasn’t working. Back to the drawing board to dig deeper and try to find answers.
The only thing in my control at this stage was the marketing strategy. Thanks to Shri Philip Kotler (the marketing guru), the 4-P framework helped in adding structure to the analysis. Here’s a summary of what the 4 P’s meant for my book.
Product: The end product (i.e. the book) was already there. So there was no point worrying about the publishing process I had followed and how a bigger publisher would’ve managed it. I had to live with the decision however good, bad or ugly it was. I struck this aspect off the evaluation list.
Place: Probably I needed to promote the book to a bigger audience. The easy solution (paid promotion via advertisements) though tempting was still ruled out for RoI reasons. What were the other options? Get on to platforms that I wasn’t active on. Stop over-depending on online channels. Get out there and meet real readers, as opposed to faceless online accounts. More to chew on.
Promotion: As the book touched upon consulting concepts, I was positioning it as a book that would appeal to MBA students. But unlike my first (niche, non-fiction) book, this one was mainstream. Maybe it was time to widen the circle and include business professionals as well. Or the general business non-fiction reader? Hmmm, some more food for thought needed here.
Pricing: Though I knew what the printed price was, it was important to also look at how a buyer would see it. I went back to the online retail platforms where the book was hosted (Amazon, Flipkart) to see if there was something else that I was missing.
There were two key findings.
1. Despite the huge margin that they had, the online retailers were not giving any discounts on my book.
2. There was a courier charge of 40 bucks.
I guess they take a call on both based on several factors, like the popularity of the author, prior sales for the same book, promotional campaigns etc. I was too small for them.
For me, this meant a reader would end up paying close to 300 Rupees for a printed copy. Most would think that’s too much for a new, untested author.
Compared to the earlier phase where I was clueless, now there was plenty on the plate to think about and act upon. With the first P out, I started working on the remaining 3 P’s.
Revised book marketing strategy
My entire book marketing approach so far had relied upon online promotion. So I thought of exploring offline options. This meant shaving my 3 day old stubble (I work from home) and heading back into civilisation to see how mankind has evolved since I went into hibernation.
Remember Jamaal bhai (that’s him in the pic), the owner of a local book store where I had tried out another little sales experiment for my first book? Here’s the full article.
I went back to him to ask if he’d be willing to stock my new book, if I’d become his unpaid salesman over weekends.
He’d get a free employee who’d sell books and give him additional income. In return all he’d need to do was offer a cutting chai (1/2 cup tea) politely, which I’d refuse politely. He agreed as both sides knew the drill.
I offered the same price to him that I had offered the bigger online companies. Jamaal bhai offers a standard 20% discount on the cover price. No hidden fees (like packaging, shipping charges). Readers would get the book for 200 rupees flat.
This time I knew which corner of the book-store to stand in, like a good boy with dilated pupils and a semi-silly half-grin directed at people walking in.
I also knew where different genres were stacked in the store. So I was a more productive and enthusiastic employee this time around – redirecting customers to the right aisle, indulging in small talk, giving free career advice (old habits die hard for consultants).
Over 4 weekends, I sold more books in that one shop than the online retailers did across India.
With the sales getting a shot in the arm, it was time to up the ante.
I knew I couldn’t keep volunteering with shops like this. So I decided to experiment with the pricing. As I was being the distributor, I could control the discounts / pricing better by dealing and negotiating directly with the brick-and-mortar shops.
I started reaching out to smaller shops in Mumbai to check if they’d be willing to stock my book.
Among them was a guy whose shop on the footpath was nothing more than a blue plastic sheet with books piled up. I sat on the street for about 30 minutes negotiating with him. Folks walking around were looking at us curiously, probably wondering if this is a hidden camera reality show. I didn’t have the last laugh though, as the shopkeeper wasn’t interested in my offer.
Fortunately there were other smaller shop-owners who were interested. I offered them bigger discounts and volume based incentives.
They could sell it at a price of around 150, roughly half of what an online buyer would pay. And I was still making a marginal profit.
With this arrangement, I assumed the smaller shops would start proactively promoting my book. The assumption was right.
Within a couple of months one of the small store owners who had placed multiple orders, introduced me to a bigger distributor (let’s call him Big D) who supplied books to many such mom-n-pop shops (not the bigger chains like Landmark & Crossword) across the state.
Big D offered to buy out my entire stock and pay in advance (contrast this with publishers who pay once in 6 months or annually). He’d send the stock to various cities. I no longer had to double up as the warehouse guy, salesman, courier guy, accountant etc.
There was a small catch. He wanted a much bigger discount than what I was offering the individual store owners.
The pros outweighed the cons. So I gave him the nod. He sent a guy to pick up all the remaining copies and hand over a bundle of not-so-crisp currency notes.
The guys on the street were far more professional than I expected. No complicated contracts, just working on their zubaan (keeping their word). Sales focused. Action oriented. No bureaucracy.
Their biggest gripe was that the stock I had was too less! They deal with several thousand copies of each book and I had only a few hundred left.
There are several lessons for the big players of the publishing industry who are struggling to keep their bookstores open. We’ll keep that for another post.
Sales: 1000 books sold out in about 11 months.
Marketing Budget: Zero
Reviews: On Goodreads there are 112 ratings and 72 text reviews, with an average rating of 3.63 out of 5. According to the site, 87% liked it.
Financials: I didn’t keep a track of every single rupee. But after combining the income from the printed copies and ebook sales, I’ve made a small profit overall compared to what I invested.
Key lessons from the self-publishing experiment
– The demand for new books and new authors is alive and kicking. Traditional players are facing the heat because they are dealing with an archaic business model that hasn’t kept up with the changing times. Reduce the baggage and the odds of success will go up.
– Hire professionals to polish your book. A professional editor, typesetter, cover designer can do wonders for your book. In my impatience to get the book out quickly, I ended up with silly issues (like formatting and typesetting) that could’ve been easily avoided.
– Write the book you want to write, not something that you think will have a strong demand. I thought an American plot with American characters wouldn’t work in India, where college romances rule the roost. Indian readers proved me wrong. [Related post: How to choose a book genre]
– Paperback overshadows Ebooks: Despite the optimistic figures and statistics that surveys reveal about how ebooks are taking over, the reality is that Indian readers haven’t moved to the other side yet. Paper still sells way more than electrons.
– Don’t rely only on online book marketing: Online visibility is good. Offline visibility is better. Ensure that your book is on real bookshelves in real bookstores. During my experiment, I could only get Business Doctors in a few small stores in Mumbai. The scale and impact could’ve been very different if I had a national publisher/distributor who could take it across India.
– Get the book pricing right: This is the clincher. As New York Times reported, the rich lady in a BMW doesn’t mind rolling down the car window to pick up a pirated book. That’s your real challenge.
Running an experiment and being the guinea pig in it comes with its limitations. It introduces blind-spots that are difficult to identify.
But I hope what I’ve shared here helps other Indian authors who’d probably not have the inclination to repeat it all. Even if you can pick up one or two tips for your own book, I’d believe that this post has served its purpose.
I’d love to hear from you. Please share your reactions, questions, suggestions below.
Edit: Got an email from Guy Kawasaki saying “Nice story. I tweeted. I like it!”.
Interesting story of self-publishing in India http://t.co/7UYMsjdtZB
— Guy Kawasaki (@GuyKawasaki) May 20, 2015