Observations after the Buchmesse, part #5. Is it easier to sell your e-book in the English-speaking market?

Here we are with the fifth article reporting my observations after being a guest at the Frankfurter Buchmesse (I’ve talked, together with Matthias Matting, German self-publisher, and Camille Mofidi, European Manager at Kobo Writing Life, about “Think Local, Act Global: How to Reach a Global and Successful Audience through Self-Publishing” at Kobo stand).

Today’s article will try to analyse whether selling an e-book in English is easier than in another language.

The omnibus of “Deserto rosso” (my science fiction series) among the books exposed in the stand of
 Kobo during the Frankfurter Buchmesse 2014.

It’s evident that, when a self-publisher from a non-English country talks about publishing a translation of their book, they are referring in 99% of cases to an English edition. The reason is obvious: the English-speaking market is the one including the biggest number of potential readers. I’m not just considering those leaving in an English-speaking country. And they would already be a huge number, given that English-speaking countries are those where digital reading is more widespread (within self-publishing when we say book we mostly mean e-book). But, beside those English mother tongue persons, there’s the rest of the world, because people able to read in this language are everywhere. In other words, having your book in English means launching it into the global market.
To the chance of selling more I would add that, since this is a more mature market, the e-books are sold at a significantly higher price than in the minor markets, causing a bigger income per copy sold.

Therefore, it is natural that the English-speaking market is the first ambition for an author willing to have their book translated. But does the fact it is the market with the biggest number of readers mean that it is the one where it’s easier to sell your book?

Before giving an answer to this question, you must consider a couple of things.
The first and most obvious one is that, even if there are more readers, it’s also true that there are many more authors and books, i.e. a biggest competition. They mostly are mother tongue authors who put practically their entire promotional effort on this market and they can, at least theoretically, do it much better than someone living abroad, also because you must not forget that there isn’t only the online promotion. And, for what concerns the books, the existence of a hugely higher number of titles has as consequence a higher difficulty to end up in the genre charts (especially the macro-charts, the one more exposed to potential readers), to be reviewed and/or mentioned in important websites or web magazines, in a nutshell, to acquire some popularity, which brings to sales.

Moreover you must distinguish between the ability to sell your book as a beginner and the one you acquire, with its related results, once you are part of the publishing mechanism of the market.

If you belong to the first category (beginners), like someone deciding to publish their book in English for the first time, the answer to that question is: selling in the English-speaking market is as difficult as in any other market where you have published nothing.
In fact, the point is that everything we have done and that we know about our market doesn’t count at all, or almost at all. The same applies for the results. We may have sold tens of thousands copies in our country, but out of our language borders, unfortunately, we are nobody. Thinking to replicate abroad the same chain of events that brought us to success is pure utopia, because the playing elements (including luck) are completely different.
What we must do, instead, is to start all over again, exactly as we’ve done in our country. And in order to be in the same situation we were when we started the first time, we need to: know the rules of the market, speak English and therefore be able to interact with other people in English, create an English blog and in general manage our promotion efforts within the global market.

Oh gosh, you would say. And these are only the preconditions. That means they may not be enough.

It is also true that in the English market there are some paid promotion tools that are completely absent in the other markets. They can really make the difference at the beginning (or later). But they are so many that you need to be able to understand which one is suitable to your publishing product, otherwise you risk wasting your money.

All that doesn’t mean I intend to discourage you, but I just want to highlight that it is a challenge. Yes, because these difficulties mostly concern the beginners in the English market. Everything is different after what I call the triggering event occurs.

Camille Mofidi, Matthias Matting and me at Kobo stand
during the Frankfurter Buchmesse 2014.
If you have some popularity in your market is almost always because something happened, generally out of your control (call it fluke), which brought you under the spotlight. It may be the mentioning in a literary blog, in a web magazine, in a podcast (in my case, the triggering event in Italy was my connection with FantaScientificast), the suggestion to an opinion leader, the fact that Amazon decided to put your book in a promotion, and I could go on forever. Maybe some of you don’t know what their triggering event was, but it surely occurred.
Even if luck has played an essential role, almost always luck has been helped by constant efforts for promoting your own work.
Well, also in the English-speaking market (and in any other market) you must work a lot at the beginning, apparently with little results, to pursue the occurring of this event, because everything changes afterwards.

And here is the main difference, if you look at the English-speaking market. In our country, this sudden even made us popular, not really rich, but we started receiving those nice bank transfers.
But, if this triggering event occurs in a global market like the one in English, the proportions change drastically. If the answer to the question in the title is referred to the situation of an author who has already experienced their triggering event, it becomes: heck, yes!
When you start acquiring some popularity in the English market, the sales can theoretically be ten or one hundred (or more) times higher than those in your own market. Actually the English-speaking market is rich of examples of self-publishers making a living out of their writing activity, or who get interesting incomes from it, which together with other related activities allow them to live as a self-publisher. They are authors who have already published many titles and keep on collecting many new readers who provide them with constant incomes. And you don’t need to sell millions of copies to succeed, also because making a living as an author doesn’t mean to become rich. Actually who writes to become rich has chosen the wrong job!

Bottom line: selling in the English market isn’t easy at the beginning, but the prospects of success in the long term are so interesting that they are worth all the efforts (in time and money) we are willing to put to reach it. In the end what makes the difference is how good our publishing product is and how much we believe in it.

Frankfurt skyline.
If you expected to read a magic formula in this article to make that triggering event happen, unfortunately you’ll be disappointed, because there’s no such thing as a magic formula. Who says otherwise is lying. Each publishing product (and each author) is a story on its own. But successful authors exist, so it isn’t an unattainable goal.

I’m trying to reach it, too. I’ve published two books in English (the first two in my “Red Desert” science fiction series), but I’ve done that while knowing that they would’ve sold a little or nothing, because I don’t have a reader platform in English. I was a beginner and I’m still a beginner. What I do is to conduct my strategy, which includes first of all publishing good books. The first two are already out and I’m working on the third one, then the fourth one will come. In the meantime I’m starting to promote myself in the international market by interacting with other authors, keeping this blog updated, participating to international events (like this one in Frankfurt), getting in touch with my target readers (for instance, Mars and space enthusiasts thanks to my involvement in Mars Initiative), trying to use the social networks (mostly with Anna Persson’s Twitter profile), giving my books to opinion leaders (people working in the scope of space research or science fiction), participating to podcasts (like Mars Pirate Radio), trying some paid promotions and so on. I’m doing all this, while I’m about to publish my seventh Italian book (on November 30th), I’m still promoting my previous books, participating to events in Italy (next one in December) and I’m carrying out all the activities of a publisher, which I am, from simple public relations, to planning my work for the next year, to more important collaborations and negotiations, which are supposed to have positive outcomes in the coming months.

In all this working I’m perhaps (I repeat, perhaps) starting to see a path, a series of elements that should bring me to that triggering event. The excellent results of other colleagues give me hope. If they made it, I can make it, too. And so can you.
Meanwhile what counts is to dedicate yourself to your project with passion and humility, and most of all never stop to have fun.

The next article in this series will include some suggestions about the Italian market to those authors interested in having their books translated into Italian.