On Writing,  publishing

Think Like a Publisher #7… A Sales Plan

At times I tend to forget that I sat in the publisher’s chair for seven years, growing a publishing house from nothing to the 5th largest producer of science fiction and fantasy and horror in the nation.

And now, sixteen years after Kristine Kathryn Rusch and I shut that company down for good, we are helping in starting up another publishing company. And I’m trying to help indie publishers as well with these chapters.

And so is Kris on her site, explaining some of these same things in different ways. So follow her as well.

But, honestly, I sometimes forget that most writers just don’t know what I learned the hard way at Pulphouse Publishing. So now that I am going into an area I know and understand completely, I have been warned by a few friends to keep this pretty basic and simple and not talk over the heads of writers who would have no idea what I am talking about. I will try to do just that, explain every term, and be as clear as I can.

But don’t be afraid to ask if there is something you don’t understand and I haven’t explained it clearly enough. I honestly don’t mind.

Sales Plan: Some Basics

This last winter Kris had a book dealer complain to her. The dealer said that in the old days it used to be “Push, push, push, now it is pull, pull, pull.”

Not a clue what that means, right? But Kris instantly understood it and when she told me the dealer’s comment, so did I.

Back in the old days, in Pulphouse Publishing, we paid for the two-story office complex and nineteen employees and all the expensive leather book production by getting indie bookstores and specialty stories to buy our books.

Did we just sit there in that two story building and wait for bookstores to find us?  Of course not. We pushed our books to them. There often wasn’t a month that went by that the bookstores didn’t get a mailing from us. We did major catalogs every three months and we put ads in every product we did for our other products.

We pushed the books to the stores. And to readers.

And we did it in a way that would help the dealers buy the books.

I’m not saying you need to do all that. But for some reason now, indie and specialty publishers think that just because they produced a POD book, bookstores and readers will flock to them. Or find their book in the tiny print in an Ingrams’ Catalog. The poor bookstores are reduced to pulling the books they want for their customers from the indie publishers, when they finally realize the book exists.

Push, push, push vs pull, pull, pull.

So, without the stupidity of going to fifteen different cities and trying to do signings and sending useless bookmarks to five hundred stores or doing blog tours that take weeks of time and get you no readers, I’m going to try to describe some ways to promote and push your indie-published books to readers and bookstores in a sane manner.

And cheaply. In ways that work. Just as publishers do.

A Change For Me?

Since the romance writers started the stupidity of authors needing to self-promote their own books, I have openly laughed at any author who does any self-promotion beyond a web site, Twitter account, and Facebook. Let me say this clearly again: If you are selling your books to traditional publishing, don’t waste your time with anything I am talking about here. This is for publishers. For writers selling all your work directly to traditional publishing, most of what I am about to talk about really is a waste of time.

So I haven’t changed at all in that opinion. Self-promotion for traditionally-published authors beyond a basic web site and social networking is a complete waste of time. I have always said that and that hasn’t changed. If you are selling traditionally (meaning to New York publishers), stay home, write the next book. Hit your deadlines and let your publisher alone.

But now, as an indie publisher, you have changed hats from being a writer to a publisher. And you need to learn to think like a publisher. So you need to know what kind of promotion works for publishers and what doesn’t.

Basics of Publishing

Most indie writers just take a few old short stories, maybe a novel or two, toss them up on Kindle and sit back and watch the numbers every day. And then, for the most part, are disappointed.  Let me simply say: Duh!

The major part of a publisher’s job, either traditional or indie, is to sell books to readers and into the distribution system that will get those books to readers. And that takes some thought and planning. And an understanding of the distribution system to begin with.

A Basic Course in the Publishing Business Structure

Since forever in the publishing business, the exact same structure has been in place. Nothing has changed or will change in these four elements. (Imagine from top to bottom arrows leading downward following the track of the story through the system.)

1…Writers create stories

2… Publishers take the stories and produce them and get them into the distribution system.

3… Distributors (including bookstores) transport the book to the reader.

4…Readers, who are the point of the entire business.


This entire indie publishing and electronic reading boom is just going on inside of the two middle areas (publishers and distribution). When a writer puts up a book on Kindle, the writer takes over the publisher duties, which is why the writer can make more money. Duh! The writer becomes the publisher.

Kindle is a bookstore inside the distribution area of the system. Readers buy the book from Kindle. Nothing different in the fundamental structure of publishing.

So now, if writers are going to take over the publishing duties and make the big bucks, they are going to need to understand how to get the books into the distribution system in a more efficient manner beyond just listing them in three places and hoping.

The Basics Required in a Sales Plan

1…You need good, professional-looking covers with a “publisher look.” See the covers post on that.

2… You need numbers of products. (And ideally, a number of author names, but not critical.)

3… You MUST go after every outlet you can find. Both electronically and POD books.

4… You must set your price structure so that you can give discounts to stores. Both electronically and POD.

5… You must know what discounts work for stores and what do not.

6… You must know how to produce quality sales sheets, book flyers, and sales material that grabs a book dealer. (Bookmarks, flowers, and buttons do not work…sorry. But knowing how to write a top pitch, a great active-voice blurb, and a grabbing tag line will sell more books than you can imagine.)

7… You must have a web site for your publishing house that works as a catalog for your products. And that can eventually sell product directly to readers through a shopping cart.

Those seven items cover a lot of data and over the next few chapters I’m going to be expanding these seven points and adding in a few other minor ones as well. So hold on, I will get to each area as quickly as I can. But there are a few more basics to cover in this chapter first.

A sales plan is basically a PLAN that details how you will sell your books.

Planning takes some thought. In fact, most of this series has been about planning.

The first six chapters I helped you set up a publishing business and then do some production to get a product up. So now, thinking like a publisher, how do you plan to sell your product that you have produced for the business? Over the next three or four chapters I hope to help you form that plan.

And decide what is right for your business and your time.

Some elements might be long-term plans, some you might be able to start the very next day.

But for the moment, start the basic plan. (Write out your plan. Helps.)

Common and Usual Ways an Indie Publisher sells books. (Make sure to include these in your plan.)

Electronic: Kindle, Pubit(B&N), Smashwords (which includes Apple, Sony, Kobo, and Diesel.)

POD: CreateSpace or LightningSouce or both.

Promotion: Tweet, Blog, and post on Facebook when a new book is posted. Tell mother and friends.

That’s it. That’s what most indie publishers do in these early days of this movement and nothing wrong with that at all. It made Amanda Hocking very rich and is working great for others.

But there are two things wrong with the above sales plan if that is all you do.

1… It completely misses about 90% of all readers.

2… To make it work at any large numbers level, it depends on luck and market timing, meaning that you have the right book, right topic, right time, or right author name. Most of us don’t. I’m just not that lucky, so I have to work harder to make my luck and my book sales.

Now you have the basics of the plan down. To start adding more to the plan, you first need to change some thinking.

Instead of hoping to sell a thousand copies of a book every month at one place, sell 10 copies a month at 100 places.

Sure, no publisher is going to turn down selling a lot of copies over Kindle. Or to one chain. But the foundation, the structure of publishing, is to sell a lot of different books two or three or five or ten copies at a time at hundreds and hundreds of different outlets. That’s the structure that paid for those huge buildings in New York.

We all want what I call “a home run” when suddenly a book springs to selling a thousand copies in a month on Kindle. We all do. But you can’t plan on that happening. Sorry.

But you can, without hitting a home run, plan on selling a thousand copies a month total of your books. And more. If you act and think like a publisher.

Here is what can you plan on…

—Selling ten copies per title in a month across all stores and sites and have 100 different book titles available. That will get you a sales number of 1,000 copies in a month.

—Selling one hundred copies per title of 10 titles across all outlets. That will get you 1,000 copies in a month sold and you only have to sell one copy of each title in 100 different stores and outlets. (1 sale x 100 outlets x 10 titles = 1,000 total monthly sales)

So keep hoping for the “home run.”  But start working toward putting together as many outlets as you can that will sell your publishing company’s books.

But there aren’t that many outlets!!!

Excuse me while I stop choking from laughter. Yeah, I know, that sounds like a lot. But it is not, actually. Not at all.

There are thousands and thousands of book outlets to get books to readers. Just in this country. And to really expand that number even more, you must expand your thinking to 100% of all readers worldwide. You want your book to have a chance to be in everyone’s hands, don’t you?

Notice I said worldwide? Start thinking that way as well.

(Side Note: For those of you who sold North American rights to a book to traditional publishing and you don’t have those rights back yet, why not do an indie book and sell it electronically outside the States? It’s very easy these days.  Just a thought.)

So how many sites do you sell to now if you are an indie publisher and put your work on Kindle, Pubit, Smashwords, and CreateSpace???

If you answered “four” you really need to open your eyes and look at where your books are going.

Just look at Kindle. By clicking the “Worldwide Rights” button on the second page of the submissions sheet, you are giving permission to Kindle to sell your book around the world in English. That means you have the US store, and the UK store. (That’s 2.) But have you noticed that your 70% book sometimes is sold at 35%? That means it was sold on a Kindle store outside of the US, Canada, and UK. There are a lot. But let’s just consider everything outside the US, Canada, and UK on Kindle as one outlet. (Kindle is very slow going worldwide compared to other companies like Kobo, Sony, and Apple.)

So that’s 3 outlets just by listing your book on Kindle. Pubit is just one store, even though it also has some worldwide reach. So that makes 4 in the count.

Smashwords is a distributor with a small store as well, so count Smashwords store as #5. They distribute to DieselBooks, which is another small store, so that’s #6.

Kobo gets interesting, because they are a worldwide general store and you get into the worldwide store by going through Smashwords, but Kobo is strong in Europe and for the moment in Australia. And they just announced today they were opening country-specific e-stores in six new countries, with more planned soon. So just for the sake of argument, let’s call Kobo 3 outlets. One for the States, one for Europe, one for the rest of the planet.

That brings us to a count of 9 outlets.

Sony is the same, so add 3 more for Sony. That brings the outlets to 12.

iBooks sells also around the world and is very strong in Europe and Australia. My last statement had sales in four different currencies besides the US, so call iBooks 5 outlets.

So just by putting your books up on Kindle, Smashwords, and Pubit, you have hit basically 17 major worldwide outlets. And some minor ones as well.

Now add in CreateSpace and you get your book listed in Amazon and in the fine print in Baker and Taylor distributing catalog and Ingrams catalog. That’s 3 more. And if you used a CreateSpace ISBN, or did a separate library edition, you can go into their library distribution channel as well by doing almost nothing. That’s 4 POD outlets total.

So just by doing the standard, an indie publisher basically gets to 21 major outlets for electronic books.

So you would only be 79 outlets short to find 100 outlets. And how to find and build those other 79 outlets, or more, is what the next chapters in building a sales plan are all about.

When I shut down Pulphouse Publishing, I had a network of 237 outlets for Pulphouse books. I built almost all of that in less than two years.

Stay tuned to the coming chapters and I’ll show you how to build a network of outlets for your company with very little work.

And a ton of sales and money in return without hitting any home runs.


Copyright ©  2011 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover photo copyright © Vladimir Melnikov/Dreamstime


This series is part of the income streams for me. And, to be honest, donations keeps me going on these chapters. And anyone who donates a little to the Magic Bakery tip jar, I will send a free electronic book of all these chapters combined when I am finished.

And  speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean