In my experience, publishing a book means owning at least a few boxes of the book. These can be given as gifts, sold, used in promotions, and more. I have boxes of Big Enough sitting beside me right now. The copies I have came directly from the printer and don’t have an impact on my sales numbers. This version of buying your own books is both ethical and expected.
Some enterprising authors, however, look for ways to game the system and increase their book’s visibility by purchasing 100s or 1000s of copies as a way to boost their numbers. This isn’t illegal, but the publishing industry discourages it and has ways of punishing those who do it.
Author Mark Dawson has lost his Top 10 position in the Sunday Times bestseller charts for his thriller The Cleaner after revealing that he bought 400 copies himself to get a higher position.
Book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan began investigating after Dawson revealed on his podcast, The Self Publishing Show, that he had placed an order for 400 hardback copies of The Cleaner with a children’s bookshop in Salisbury, for a cost of £3,600. Dawson said he was motivated to do this after seeing he was in 13th spot on Nielsen’s midweek chart, and that he contacted readers overseas to see if they would purchase the novel from him if he bought the books. The purchase meant the novel, published by independent press Welbeck, moved up to eighth place in the Sunday Times hardback fiction list.
Dawson’s story is a part of a much bigger picture. Book publishing is full of authors and publishers who have schemes to get books on bestseller lists. By comparison, his story is modest and not the result of a diabolical plan. As he said:
“If I was intent on ‘gaming the system’ I would have bought 10k copies, sat on them forever and been number one. (I wouldn’t have discussed it on a popular podcast, either.)”
Good point. I think the real lesson here is that if you do buy a bunch of copies of your book to boost your numbers, don’t talk about it on a podcast.
As Sachi will tell you, I am often preoccupied with data about our business. I spend a lot of time checking websites and dashboards to see how our projects are going. I love it, but it can also become an obsession. There have been times when my daily perception of myself and Common Craft were driven by data points. A few days of disappointing data would make me want to reassess our entire direction. It wasn’t healthy and over time Sachi convinced me to take a step back.
In Big Enough I wrote about the impact of the “Merchant Receipt” emails I received when someone signed up for Common Craft:
At Sachi’s insistence, I committed to making a big change: I turned those email notifications off. Sachi insisted that what was happening on a day-to-day basis was her business. She does micro, I do macro. She’s the CFO, I’m the creative director. I needed to focus on the future and what we could do to sell more memberships.
She was right. I had become so accustomed to the endorphin rushes that each day without them felt bland and uneventful. It seemed like there was nothing to celebrate. Eventually, I regained a better outlook and took a longer view of our work and direction. It was the right decision.
Big Enough, Chapter 7, A Platform of One’s Own
I still struggle. The emails may not arrive in my inbox, but I know where to find the data. My first book, The Art of Explanation, set off a similar habit. Multiple times a day I checked the Amazon Bestseller Rank to see how the book was doing. I still check it a few times a week. Now, Big Enough is occupying that part of my brain and I’m always cataloging where it lands on the list.
A bit of promotion regarding the ebook and pre-orders pushed Big Enough into the top 45k books and it has me feeling good. For a book that doesn’t come out for a couple of months, I’m encouraged.
Over the last week, a roof appeared over the entirety of our house and this was reason for celebration. After eight months of construction, it is finally protected from the elements. For now, the house sits ready for the next phase, which may or not come for weeks. In our state, the quarantine has been extended until May 4th and construction projects are mostly on hold. It is what it is.
In the background, we’ve been working on the details of the windows and doors so they can be ordered. Now that the framing is finished, the house has a wide variety of “rough openings” where windows and doors will someday protect us from wind and weather. The rough openings, framed in wood, are built according to the plan, but don’t always match the exact measurements provided by our architect. The framers do their best to build what’s in the plan but there are always adjustments, and sometimes, improvements.
It’s easy to think that the architect specifies a window size, the framers build it, and the window fits perfectly. If only. What really happens is, after the framers have done their best, the contractor measures the rough opening in order to define the exact size of each window for the order. Then, the windows are manufactured to fit. In this process, the plans matter less than what is actually built and can be observed.
I’ve been thinking about the idea of rough openings and how we’re all suddenly forced to give up our plans and react to conditions on the ground. Like building plans, what we do this spring and summer is based less on executing a detailed plan and more on reactions to what we see at the moment. We are living in an age of rough openings that guide us more than best-laid plans.
This is certainly the case for our other big project: the publishing of my book, Big Enough. In the fall of 2019, we decided that the publish date would be May 5th of this year and created a detailed plan that led up to making a splash on that date. We had no idea what was coming.
By the end of February, it was becoming clear that the U.S. was heading into a crisis, but May 5th still seemed far away. After so much planning, it was hard to fathom not pushing through. Multiple processes, like having the book printed, were focused on that date. But it was still just a plan. What mattered was conditions on the ground. Our carefully crafted design for the book’s release was fading and being replaced by a rough opening.
In March, I started paying more attention to models that predicted the spread of COVID-19 and the potential death tolls. What I saw alarmed me as a person, but also as the author of a forthcoming book. May was projected to be a time of national tragedy, with hundreds if not thousands of deaths per day. Was I really going to promote and publish a new book during a global pandemic? I couldn’t imagine it.
I sent a note to my publishing partners at Page Two and asked about the lead time that was needed to change a publication date and they said a decision needed to be made about a month in advance. This created a deadline. I needed to decide the book’s publication date by April 5th. If I did nothing, Big Enough would be on a one-way street to arriving in stores and online according to our plan.
Part of me wanted to stick to the schedule. Big Enough is about designing a business to be small and resilient. It’s about being able to weather a storm. In my mind, there was some chance that it could land at just the right time and inspire people who were thinking differently about their careers. But was that time May 5th?
We had a call with Page Two and talked through the options. Going into the call, I was open to ideas but was increasingly convinced that the publish date had to move. Being the author and central promoter, I couldn’t get past the idea of marketing a book during a pandemic.
The plans were set, but our rough opening, the conditions on the ground, were telling us a different story. Page Two recommended moving the publish date to the fall of 2020 and that’s what we did. It felt like we’d found an escape hatch that meant our plan could still be executed, but at a different time.
My hope is that by September, people will be feeling more hopeful than today and Big Enough will land at just the right time. We’ll surely have windows and doors, by then, too. My hope is that, for everyone’s sake, 2020 ends better than it began.
Based on the way events are unfolding today, it’s impossible to know where we’ll be next month, much less five months from now. It almost seems fruitless to have a solid plan. The best we can do is stay safe, focus on what we can control and be ready to act when conditions on the ground change.
There will be a time to take measurements and focus on the details. For now, it’s all rough openings.
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.