Among most book authors (and publishers, for that matter), there's a misconception about what a big media appearance can do. A writer I know recently had lost a chance to be on Oprah’s show, and although there's been other media attention, sales of the author's recent title are already starting to slow. The publisher was disappointed with the sales number, hoping that the controversial material would translate into plenty of sales.
Publishers want the "blockbuster" so that they don't have to do that much after the first three months - because they won't, anyway. Create your own marketing plan and do it, step at a time. No, you won't have a sudden rush of sales that will make you independently wealthy. That type of hit is pretty rare, and largely unpredictable.
Mass media may even result in increased sales - for a pretty short time. But it's not going to create the sustained sales you need to have a big hit. For example, a friend of mine wrote an investigative look into the scientists that vocally opposed the idea of global warming - and where they got their money. The author is a two-time Pulitzer winner, got an excerpt in Harpers, and a huge amount of radio time and attention from print. And the book sales were disappointing.
Sometimes a book will even become a smashing overnight success, but if your topic is ahead of its time or has a "niche" audience - no matter how broad you think the audience might be - then mass marketing doesn't work because you aren't reaching the potential readers (otherwise known as customers) in sufficient numbers to hit the publisher's sales targets.
Media attention – no matter what show or publication is giving the attention – offers no guarantee of financial success. The New York Times once ran an interesting story about the lack of sales on either side of the work-outside-the-house/stay-at-home mothering debate. At the heart of the article is the premise that although they get tremendous media attention, "these so-called mommy books fail to transform their talk-show and blogosphere buzz into book sales." Instead of reading, women debate the titles based on summaries or excerpts but don't buy copies.
That may seem odd, but it's really not. Getting press doesn't necessarily mean getting sales. For example, there have been companies delighted at a mention in the Wall Street Journal only to find that nothing much came of it. If you're a book author, then you probably have the experience of being quoted in a magazine article - maybe even chasing such opportunities - and finding that the sales didn't follow. That's because there's a big difference between interest and motivation. Sometimes a rightly timed and placed television appearance will cause big sales because the people watching happen to include a large number of potential buyers. And sometimes the people who watch the show don't intersect well enough with the potential buyers.
If people are going to shell out money, they have to feel that they're going to get something. Even if they don't really get something, they at least have to think or feel that they will. With a polarizing topic, those who agree might not buy because they already "know" they're right, and those who disagree are just as sure that the book will be wrong, so why bother? I suspect that many of the nasty political books only do well because they dish the dirt on someone, which is almost irresistible to the public at large.
In other words, a LOO - Lack Of Oprah - can't break you and getting on that show probably won’t make you, either. Not that publicity isn't valuable. It is, but only if you use it correctly. You must look at selling and marketing strategically. If you don’t keep the sales coming in at first, then the publisher and stores will assume that there’s no demand, which means it won’t be likely to keep the book in print and stores won’t carry it. The title won’t go on to become required reading in university classes. It won’t become a favorite and important read for people who are directly touched by the topic.
What you can do is work an approach that steadily keeps the sales coming in. – as your publisher will likely do precious little to really help sell the book. (That’s why they want people with “platforms” that will do the work for them.) You need to get in front of people who are likely to buy your book.
One avenue is to pursue special interest groups in the forms of blogs, relevant support associations and online forums, book discussion groups, affiliated professional organizations, relevant university departments - in short, everyone and anyone who has some investment in the topic at hand. I understand that many authors want a broader audience, that they think that “everyone should be concerned with what I’m writing,” but cold historic fact says that they won’t, or at least not to start.
So you have to find less conventional ways to reach higher concentrations of the more natural readers. That's why chat rooms and support groups and blogs and book clubs and therapy groups and YouTube videos and so on are such natural tools. I’ve spoken with authors who got more – far more – sales from specific blog mentions than they did from a big media hit. That’s because the bloggers are talking to the people heavily invested in the topic. I know one writer getting a lot of interest from her YouTube video. Some intelligently work a MySpace page (when that would be a fit for the reading demographic).. If you keep at it, you can create a lot of sales.
As people do start reading, they tell others and you start developing the possibility of word-of-mouth, which is really the most effective way of gaining sales. But to get that word, you need a core of buyers. The psychology of the blockbuster is actually the polar opposite, because it depends on instant acceptance from everyone – fine if you can get it, but impossible to really plan in advance. Get things moving in the right direction and you can hold on to a backlist spot, which means someone will keep publishing, and then you can look at sales in the long run. It's a matter of patience and persistence.