Monday, September 9, 2013

The Snowball Theory

Why do some books sell like crazy, and others... don't? A lot of people have spent a lot of time pondering this topic, myself included. One idea that people seem to come up with is: book sales are like a form of mass. The more sales the book has, the greater its mass becomes. The greater its mass, the greater the gravity it exerts, pulling even more sales its way.

Take The Da Vinci Code as an example. It's one of the bestselling books of all time. It reached a sales momentum that actually seemed to propel itself forward to greater sales. Everyone was talking about it, and because of that, even people who don't normally read felt motivated to buy a copy, just so they could participate in the conversation.

That was back in the days of mega-bookstore dominance, when every town of notable size had at least one Borders bookstore and/or one Barnes & Noble, and the mega-bookstores fueled bestsellers sales. They offered bestsellers at significant discounts. They arranged the store displays in ways to maximize bestseller visibility.

Things have changed a bit since then. Book sales are no longer overwhelmingly channeled through the megastores. Borders went bankrupt, and rumor has it that Barnes & Noble is hurting too. Online sales, of both print books and ebooks, have claimed a growing portion of the pie. How will that effect the bestseller-phenomenon?

I think it'll make it even more pronounced.

From what I've seen, online booksellers tend to exacerbate many of the factors that feed into the bestseller-phenomenon. Mainly, they give more visibility to titles that are selling more copies. An online store is sort of like the old mega-bookstores, but instead of displaying books on tables and shelves, they're displaying the books on a screen. The more copies a book sells, the more likely it is to appear on the screen. And instead of dealing with a few dozen--or even a few hundred--people walking into a physical store on any given day, we're dealing with hundreds of thousands--even millions--of people looking at a screen.

Some readers might point out that there isn't one specific screen that all people see. Online booksellers like Amazon customize the screen to the viewer--if you like Fantasy fiction, they'll make sure that some of the books on your screen are Fantasy books. But I think that the underlying factors are similar. Not every Fantasy book you see on your screen will be seen by other people who like Fantasy, but there will probably be some titles that are shown to every reader of Fantasy books. And the more copies those titles have sold, the more likely it is that you'll see them.

More sales mean greater visibility. And greater visibility leads, exponentially, to more sales. I call it the Snowball effect.

What this means for self-published authors, in a practical sense, is that you're facing obscurity unless you can generate sales. If a month goes by without a title moving any copies, that book will receive none of the benefit of greater visibility. People won't see it unless they go looking for it, and since there are more than a million self-published books on Amazon alone, people are going to have to look pretty hard to find your book.

It's like your book is a pebble sitting on top of a snow-covered mountain. If no one buys a copy, the pebble just sits there. As the hours and days and weeks go by, your pebble sinks into the snow, and more snow falls on top of it, and pretty soon it's lost. What you need to do is prod at the pebble--try to get eyes on it, try to generate sales--and keep prodding until you can get it to move. If you only get it to move a little--sell only a few copies--the pebble loses its momentum and stops moving and starts to sink. But if you can give it a good jolt and start it sliding, it's more likely to have snow stick to it. And if it starts rolling down the mountain, and keeps picking up snow as it rolls, you've got the chance for it to become something big.

So, the initial efforts are the greatest. There are millions of pebbles out there--they're small and hard to see. Once a pebble starts rolling and taking on snow, you won't have to be as diligent to keep it rolling. It'll start to roll on it's own, at least for a little while.

And the good thing for self-published authors is the fact that we don't have such a strict time limit to get that forward momentum started. Physical books get taken off the shelves after a few weeks if they don't sell. Ebooks are still there, still available. We can keep trying to get the snowball rolling. Our main limitation is our own energy (which is a very real limitation).

Of course, that's how things look to me now, with Blood Brothers an inert pebble. I've never really got a snowball rolling, so I don't even really know if there is a snowball. Maybe I'm totally wrong about all of this.

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