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Instant Bestseller, American Style
Once known as "vanity publishing," self-publishing is still widely sneered at by book industry professionals. No wonder, since most self-published books begin their lives on the reject piles of New York publishing houses. Many bookstores still refuse to carry them, but the Web has given little-known authors an unprecedented boost.
Recently I dialed into a phone seminar that teaches self-published authors how to take advantage of some of these new methods. It was called "How to Make Your Book an Amazon.com Bestseller and Sell Tons of Copies -- Even If You're a Marketing Novice," and listening to it felt like watching an infomercial. Everything was pre-recorded. Periodically, the speakers erupted into tinny laughter.
Randy Gilbert, who spent 22 years in the Coast Guard before retiring because he "really wanted to help the industry become proactive," told me (and uncountable others) how his self-published book Success Bound: Breaking Free of Mediocrity rose from Amazon.com Sales Rank #65,000 all the way to #5.
On Sept. 18, 2002, Gilbert had about 12 people e-mail an "endorsed announcement" of his book to approximately 150,000 potential buyers. The announcement included incentives to get people to buy the book within 24 hours.
Gilbert's technique worked because most online bestseller lists measure the rate of sale, not the total number of books sold. Thus, a concentrated sales bump can land a book on the lists for a few hours or a couple of days, especially if buyers purchase books during the dead of the night.
"It used to be very predictable which books would rise into our Top 100 or break into the Top 10," Amazon.com's PR Manager Sean Sundwall says. "They were the books backed by big publishers with big publicity budgets. While those still make up the majority of our Top 100 titles, we are seeing more grassroots marketing efforts that result in much higher rankings than one might expect."
According to Gilbert's partner, Peggy McColl, the e-mail campaign for E. Dee Merriken's self-published novel Dream Season caused so much consternation at BarnesandNoble.com that the president of the company called the author to ask what was causing the unknown book's rise to #15.
The great enemy of Internet marketeers is spam filters. And for $3,095, Gilbert and McColl will gladly teach you how to use "fr.ee" instead of "free" and other such filter-dodging tricks. For another small fee, they'll probably send out an "endorsed announcement" of your book, too.
"We can only work with a small fraction of the authors that are on this call," Peggy's pre-recorded voice said. But so far, I've received six follow-up e-mails telling me there's still room for another desperate author.
Successful Web campaigns all depend on either amassing a huge number of valid e-mail addresses or driving a huge number of visitors to a site. In this ability to network, big publishers and booksellers may still have the advantage over self-published authors.
Powells.com, for example, sends out its biweekly newsletter to 320,000 people. After it goes out, the retailer sees "a spike," says Promotions Coordinator Georgie Lewis, "particularly with books we have a signed first edition of." That sounds like a strategic bonus to me, and with an audience that size it's no surprise that almost all the books on Powells.com's top 10 list are connected to its promotions.
The site's bestseller list is also unusual because it figures in sales from the previous 144 hours, not just the last 24, though sales from the last 12 hours are weighted most heavily.
"If something does have a surge during the day, we want to reflect that," Darin Sennett, Director of Powells.com's Web Stuff, says. "But at the same time we want to show what has staying power."
Staying power may be the one thing Randy Gilbert can't guarantee. He'll have the words "bestselling author" on his bio for the rest of his life, but, as I write, the current Amazon.com Sales Rank of Success Bound is #1,372,974.