Olivier Blanchard on Commercial vs Self-Publishing: #2

Olivier Blanchard, Author

Here is the second of my three-part interview with the delightful Olivier Blanchard, author of Social Media ROI: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization (Que, 2011).

Liz: What were your reasons for going with a commercial publisher for this book (in this case, an imprint of Pearson Education), rather than publishing it yourself? What didn’t you know that you didn’t know, prior to becoming a published author? 

Well… The publisher approached me, so that part was easy. I didn’t have to shop the book around. It was all pretty serendipitous. Having said that, I wouldn’t have dreamed of publishing this book on my own, and for two simple reasons:

The first is credibility. When it comes to fiction, I don’t think there’s much of a difference anymore between self-published authors and professionally published authors. Look at the success that some self-published authors are already seeing. It’s amazing. We’ve entered a new era of publishing for fiction authors. The gates are crumbling. Amazon is taking bulldozers to the old publishing world and carving out whole new neighborhoods, highways, and shopping malls. But when it comes to non-fiction, especially business books, we still have a ways to go before self-published books can shed the stigma of not having been “properly” published. If for no other reason, Social Media ROI had to go through a traditional publisher. It couldn’t be just a self-published e-book.

The second is the amount if work it takes to actually get a book to market: Production, distribution, publicity, etc. What most writers don’t realize until they’ve gone through this process is just how much goes into making sure that a book will become a successful product. At the core of that success is a team: The writer and the editor. I am not sure that most people appreciate the importance of the editor in that process – sometimes a whole team of editors, actually. An average writer and a fantastic editor working together can produce an amazing book. Conversely, an incredibly talented writer with no editor might just end up writing a thousand-page wreck. Working with a reputable publisher generally takes care of that problem, so there’s that.

I also mentioned earlier how having deadlines and looking at the project as a job helps get it done. Writers are natural procrastinators. Add a perfectionist streak to that trait and now you have a perfect recipe for “the book project” that takes seven years to complete. No thanks. The point is to get the book out and share it with the world, not to fiddle with it for the better part of a decade. Having someone to push you and keep you to a set schedule is pretty key. 

Also, business book readers don’t exactly have the same habits and expectations as fiction readers. They tend to shop for books differently, read books differently, and they still like paper. It’s still a lot easier to highlight, earmark and sticky-note a physical book than to take notes on a tablet. For a book like Social Media ROI, all of these little details mattered: The book needed to be in book stores. I felt that people needed to see it on the shelf, next to Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki. It needed to have a physical presence from a credibility standpoint. From a more practical standpoint, I wanted it to be discovered by business managers and executives who aren’t necessarily e-format readers or blog readers. Self-publishing limits you somewhat to the electronic format, and that would have ignored that portion of my intended audience.

Production and distribution-wise, even if I wanted to arrange for the book to be printed and had the money to do it, I didn’t want to have to deal with trying to sell it to book stores across the country, across the world, even. It just wasn’t practical. So I needed to work with a real publisher. You give up a few things when you do that, but the balance of it hasn’t been bad: the book doesn’t seem to be slowing down, it’s being sold in book stores around the world, it’s being translated into a half dozen languages. It’s a dream come true for a guy like me. Going with a traditional publisher was the right decision. It would have never been a success if I had gone the self-publishing route.

Liz: I know publishers never like to reveal sales figures, but just between you and me — how has the book done sales-wise since its publication last year? What advice would you give to first-time authors like yourself about marketing and promoting a nonfiction book? 

You’re going to laugh, but I actually don’t know how many copies the book has sold. I’m slack like that. Once it’s sold a hundred thousand copies, I’ll know that. It’s when I’ll start paying attention because that’s something I can legitimately brag about. But until then, I don’t know. At any rate, I can’t look it up right now either because I’m in France and the monthly statements I get from my publisher are back in the US. But look, the book is doing okay. It’s no New York Times bestseller or anything, but it sells so I can’t really complain.

You know, I have to talk about perspective here for a minute, because it’s important when we start talking about success and whatnot. Let’s face it: It’s my first book and I’m kind of a nobody on the world stage. By that, I mean that I’m not Jack Welch or Steve Jobs. I’m not even Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell. People aren’t going to line up around the block to read my book or score my autograph. I’m not a household name. And it isn’t being sold in airport book stores either, which for this kind of book is kind of an arrow to the knee. So once you’ve taken all of that in and you’ve taken a step back to get some perspective on how big the publishing world is, how many books are published each year, and the scandalous percentage of books that just plain fail, it’s a miracle that it’s been as successful as it has been. At least to me. Could it be doing better? Sure. But could it be doing worse? Absolutely. And it would be devastating for me, to have put so much work and hope into it only to see it flop and go nowhere.

What I can tell you is that after just a few months on the shelves, it had already beaten the odds when it comes to books making it or failing outright. I remember not too long after it came out when I saw that it had sold more than five thousand copies because that’s kind of a benchmark for pretty much any book. Most books that get published never quite manage to reach it, which is really scary when you think about how hard it is to get a book published to begin with. So I think that if you’re a new writer and you can sell five thousand copies of a book and watch it just keep going, that’s something. It’s like a series of clubs. The first club you get into is the “I’m published” club, and then there’s the “I’ve actually sold a few books club,” but then there’s that one, the “five-thousand” club, which I think also coincides with the “my publisher just broke even” club, which is nice. It gets you invited back, I think. (I hope.) Then if you’re lucky, you move up to the ten-thousand and the hundred-thousand and even the million+ clubs, and even the “my book was turned into a movie” club, and so on. One can hope. It’s what I’m shooting for anyway. Not that a movie based on this book would be all that fascinating, but you never know.

In the final part (#3) of this interview with Olivier Blanchard, we talk about “discoverability,” longevity, and his time management tips for busy executives and entrepreneurs planning to write a book. Stay tuned for Part Three soon!

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