The Long Tail—the tail that is always new
Rudyard Kipling wrote several great poems about wanderlust and the itch to look over the next hill, including “The Long Trail.” We authors are more interested in the long tail, the sales of our earlier books. We want new readers to have access to our older work, to buy them, enjoy them, tell others about them. Long tail sales can yield a pretty penny over time, and can lure new readers in as well.
The first difficulty with long-tail sales for the traditionally-published writer is ensuring that the book is available. This is one of those places where the Internet revolution has made life easier for some, notably buyers. For buyers, being able to go to one place, enter an author’s name or the title of an out-of-print book and find out that it is available, used, from somewhere that will ship it to you on demand… Even if your library cannot get it via inter-library loan (happens rarely but does happen, especially for fiction)… wonderful! No more haunting used book stores in hopes of a chance find, no more wondering if So-and-so ever wrote anything else.
That’s the buyers’ side. The writers’ side is a little different. Used books don’t pay royalties or count towards sales for contracts. Traditional publishing remains tied to the tax model imposed by the US Supreme Court in the Thor Tools decision, meaning that keeping print copies of older books in stock is a burden. Bookstores do not want the inventory because to the inability to “write down” the value over time, publishers do not want the inventory for the same reason (they can no longer tell the IRS that the books have a lower value for projected income purposes), and we all know the results. [For a detailed take, with math, see: http://www.sfwa.org/2005/01/how-thor-power-hammered-publishing/ ] E-books and audio-books changed that, for those authors who have e-books and audio books. The IRS is not taxing file space on servers as inventory yet. [I probably should not give them ideas.] But most authors who have long series, or shorter series, published by the traditional means don’t see much, if any, money from those long-ago print books, because only newly printed and sold counts. That might be changing, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
Those of us who control all of our books all the time, and their sales, are very, very fortunate. The trick is capitalizing on that long-tail.
First, the books have to be available somehow, through our web-sites, through Amazon, D2D, Kobo, and other options. At the same time, readers need to know that they are out there. I have separate pages on my blog for each major series, and one for non-series odds and ends. On each page, the books are in series order, sometimes with a note about in-world chronology for readers who prefer that.
So far, so good, at least for me. Where I’m in trouble, sort of, or at least not helping myself is the covers. Amanda, Cedar, and others have talked about how fashions for covers change over time, and how genre signals have shifted. Certain color schemes no longer signal certain sub-genres (although having the bio-hazard or nuclear-radiation warning symbol still suggests post-apocalyptic or horror, possibly thriller.) Pastel backgrounds and drawn figures still inclined one toward sweet, humorous romance or chick-lit, but not as strongly as five years ago.
My covers have not all aged well. Have yours? Some are still OK, but could be better. The Cat books do not have anything like a “series” look until the last three or four, and even then the genre signalling is off. The various sub-series within the Colplatschki series are a little better, but not much, and are somewhat dated. I need to go through and re-cover a lot of things. The old covers are probably not helping my sales.
When you go back and look at your older books, it is also a good time to catch typos and any other glitches that you missed the first and second times around. Certain slang might have changed, and a reader today might miss a reference, or interpret something 180 degrees from what was intended at the time. This is probably not a big problem, but it does happen. I had a perfectly acceptable phrase that a certain Disney movie turned into a euphemism for something not intended at all in the book. Grrrr. The phrase got changed, because it would jar a reader out of the scene.
It is important to make sure that other readers know these are the same book with different covers. Especially if you change the title. Put it in the sales copy, possibly even on the cover, put it on your blog, put it on the title page or copyright page, just don’t accidentally rook long-time readers by accident. They don’t like that. (Ditto if you have a different edition for British vs. US markets.)
Are the links current? Can readers see all the books in a series? If you have changed or modified a pen-name, is that up to date for readers to see?
To sell long-tail also means reminding people every so often that the older books are out there. I’m going to reevaluate pricing over the summer. Some prices might drop, others stay the same, depending on sales and where the book is in the series.
And be patient. Every few months, I log into the Kindle author page and grin like the Cheshire cat. Someone will binge-buy (or rent) the first three, or four, or more, or an older series. That money is gravy. The books have earned out, and that is profit.
I like profit. Profit means I have the resources to buy good chocolate, pay the bills, and write more books, not necessarily in that order.