In which I expound on why most writers’ initiatives to promote their own books are about as effective as patching a leaky boat with Band-Aids, and then interview a writer who has sold more than 17,000 copies of his first novel – self-published! – in just over a year . . . and the book keeps selling: like hotcakes.
Mary’s Opinion About the Problem With A Lot of Book Promotion
Whether your novel (or poetry book, or work of non-fiction) is about to be released from a major publishing house, a small literary press, a collective, or under your own imprint, the primary challenge once the book is released is how to get it noticed amid the hordes of other authors who have also just published a book, and (more importantly) how to get it selling.
Traditional promotional routes such as a mention in the New York Times or the various outdated forms of “industry buzz” just don’t make it any more. Who cares what “the industry” thinks? (Answer: The industry does. No one else gives a damn.) What we need to do is to build a profile among readers.
I have many, many friends and acquaintances who have published books recently, both on their own or working with established presses. For an unfortunate majority, their marketing efforts seem to be restricted to statements on FaceBook or Twitter that really amount to nothing more than, “My book is out. Buy it.” Or “My book is available for 99 cents today only. Buy it.” Or even, “A big (or small) company published my book and therefore it must be good. Buy it.” Their blog posts are only marginally more interesting and/or informative. Could I care less that they have published a book and that it is for sale? No. Several millions of people have done that (most of them, it seems, within the past two years. ;) )
This “Here I am. Buy me” approach does not work for me for one significant reason: it tells me nothing about what buying the book is going to do for me. And unless you are a very dear friend, I am not going to buy your book, much less read it – much, much less read it and review it – just for your sake. And this applies not only to those who are marketing their first books, but also to those who are publishing their third or fourth books. I need to get something out of the experience myself before I’m going to invest my time and money in your book. As I get older (and a note to younger writers: we baby boomers constitute a massive audience for books, and we buy them. It is wise to consider us in your marketing efforts), I get even more particular.
Book reviews from trusted outlets and word-of-mouth are the primary sources of information I use to choose which books to buy and read. I choose my sources of reviews and feedback based on my interests: I don’t normally read science fiction or fantasy, for example, so I don’t seek out reviews and recommendations about books in those genres.
As a writer, I want to know how to get my books into the venues that are going to persuade other people who think like me (i.e., readers who want a literate general fiction book) to read the books I’ve written (general fiction with a twist). That is my job today: no one else is going to do it for me. The time is long gone when we as authors could decide that we were “above” all that – that as “artists,” we were too superior and delicate to walk among the mortals – that good literature was self-evident, and that it would reveal itself, and that people would find and read it.
We can be delicate artists while we’re writing, but when the book is published, we need to put on our running shoes and hit the streets (the Internet streets as well as the ones outside our doors). To my mind, a work of art is only complete if it has an audience. Our publishers (if any) aren’t going to do it for us: we are the ones who need to take responsibility for making sure that our books get read. We need to deploy new forms of creative energy in the marketing of our books. We need to study business models, to strategize, to take the “customer is always right” approach.
If we’re going to sell books, we need a mind shift: we need to stop thinking of our books as our “babies.” It is hard to sell a baby. Our books, once published, are commodities, and people are going to criticize them – and us. We have to let that roll right off our backs.
We need to create a feeling among our prospective readers that they want and need to read our books, not that they “ought” to read them. We need to figure out our target audiences: promote ourselves among people who really are going to enjoy what we’ve written – and we need to disregard the ones who aren’t in our target audience (and this includes non-readers for the most part, by the way). If our book really is intended for the entire world (a universally appealing serio-comic western, shall we say, just as an example?), it will cross genres on its own.
I actually find this part of the process exciting, and one of the best parts of the new world of books. No longer do we need to leave this crucial component of the publication process (and the source of our future incomes) up to the vague if earnest attempts of interns in publicity departments who have a dozen temperamental authors with several books to promote as well as ours, which they haven’t had time to read and probably never will. Now we can do it all on our own.
To start my investigation into how to become a really effective marketer of my own book, I interviewed multiple-award-winning novelist Rodney Walther, author of Broken Laces. In just over a year, Rodney has sold more than 17,000 copies of his self-published first novel, and I was very pleased to be able to talk with him.
With The Whole Clove Diet – my next novel, and the first I am self-publishing – due for release in about a month, I am eager to learn all I can about this subject—and to share what I learn with others in my situation. So if you have additional suggestions, please add them by way of comments at the end of this article. I appended a few links I found myself while preparing to write this post.
Interview with Rodney Walther
MWW: Broken Laces, your first novel, concerns a father coming to terms with the tragic death of his beloved wife, while also coping with the grieving process and parenting needs of his seven-year-old son. It is set against the backdrop of a suburban community and particularly a Little League baseball team, which serves as a catalyst for many lessons learned by both father and son during the course of the novel.
It is unusual to read a domestic drama with a male figure as the central protagonist, but this one works. What was your primary target audience when you wrote it?
RW: In the original draft, I envisioned my reader as someone like me, a baseball parent or coach who could empathize with the redemption-through-sports angle. As I developed the story over a number of years, I came to understand that the ideal reader was any mom or dad, which led me to emphasize the father-son connection and the hero’s grief journey even more.
While a domestic drama typically appeals to women (and usually features a female protagonist), both women and men have responded to Broken Laces for its unique male voice and its complicated male protagonist. I think that’s allowed my story to stand out from similar books in the genre.
MWW: What made you decide to self publish?
RW: Although I had the interest of agents, the process was agonizingly slow. After five plus years of writing, my novel was finally ready to go, and I didn’t see the need to wait any longer.
Scanning the landscape of the print-on-demand (POD) world for paperbacks and the digital bookstore for e-books, I sensed that the time was right to self-publish. Looking back, I believe my instincts were correct.
MWW: How long has Broken Laces been available? And in what formats did you make the book available?
RW: I originally published Broken Laces in paperback via CreateSpace in November of 2010. Within a few weeks, the e-book was available on Kindle. In early/mid-2011, I made it available on the Nook, iBooks, Kobo, and Smashwords platforms.
MWW: Your novel has been a finalist and a winner of several writing awards. Tell us about those.
RW: The world of writing contests has been a great experience. Initially, I entered a few contests to get feedback on the work, as I was committed to improving my writing craft. I did receive excellent feedback, but I also began to win awards.
For novel-length fiction, I’ve won first place honors from Houston Writers Guild, West Virginia Writers, Maryland Writers’ Association, Panhandle Professional Writers, Crested Butte Writers, and North Texas Professional Writers.
My work has garnered multiple second- and third-place awards as well, including being named as a state finalist at Writers’ League of Texas and an ABNA 2011 quarterfinalist.
MWW: Broken Laces has also occasionally risen quite high in various Amazon best-seller lists. Can you tell us how many copies you have sold? Did sales build gradually or did the book start strong?
RW: My expectations were modest when I released the book. Although I was confident in the work, I knew the long odds against sudden success. The first two to three months had decent sales, with Christmas, 2010 giving the book a nice jumpstart.
Then when I lowered my price in March 2011 (e-book, from $6.95 to $2.99), that set in motion a significant increase in sales. I feel blessed that I’ve seen eleven straight months of sales greater than 1000 (mainly due to Kindle).
Broken Laces regularly stays in the Top-3 of multiple categories (currently #2 in sports fiction behind the 2011 Amazon Book of the Year The Art of Fielding; #2 in baseball behind Moneyball, and #1 for months in Death & Grief). My novel reached the Top-250 of all Kindle books in June 2011.
To date, I’ve sold more than 17,000 copies of Broken Laces.
MWW: Fabulous!! I’ll just pause here to take an admiring breath.
Okay, then. On to the next question. . . .
Your book is very “clean” from an editing perspective. Did you consider this an important part of preparing it for publication?
RW: I am very proud of how well edited the book is. I work with a number of writers in a critique group, who help identify structural flaws and discuss ways to improve characterization, story, etc. Between their contributions and my almost-obsessive attention to details, the book is indeed “clean.”
One of my reviews came from a reader in Spain (!), who said that he was initially wary of reading a self-published book. But after reading the whole book he decided, “This is a well-written novel, up to the standards of any big publisher.” That quote brings a lump to my throat each time I read it.
MWW: How did you decide how to price the book? Is price important to book sales?
RW: Price is a huge factor for sales. Especially for self-published works. I originally set the price at $6.95 (Kindle) and $14.95 (paperback). In March 2011, I lowered the e-book price to $2.99 as an experiment, knowing that I’d have to sell two and a half times the number of books to achieve the same royalties. That move has paid off. I have considered the price point of $0.99, but because I’ve enjoyed strong sales at $2.99 and know that I’d have to increase sales six-fold to make the same profit—and because the $0.99 price point does have some negative connotations—I’m staying at $2.99.
MWW: What promotional mechanisms have you used (e.g, in-person, social media, YouTube, sending out review copies, etc.)?
RW: I have done a little of everything: held book signings (sold books at several Little Leagues during Opening Day; attended a book and author dinner arranged by the community’s Literacy Council), participated in Facebook/Twitter (although not as much compared to others), participated in Amazon message forums, and sent out review copies. I haven’t created a YouTube trailer.
MWW: You have an excellent website at http://www.rodneywalther.com. Is it important for writers to have a website? Why?
RW: If people are serious about the process of crafting and selling a book, they should take the time to be serious about the way they appear in public. My website is professional and thorough, although I doubt it’s generated many sales. And I try to maintain a helpful, professional appearance in my Internet life. You won’t see me getting into flame wars or trashing others online: self-published authors do not need enemies.
MWW: Do you blog? Why or why not?
RW: I do not blog, but that’s because I try to focus on my writing.
MWW: Is targeting a specific audience important to book sales? On your website and in other places you have compared your books to other similar books by other (possibly better-known ;) ) authors in order to help readers know what to expect. Is this a worthwhile tactic?
RW: I believe so. It doesn’t make sense to try to sell my book to everyone—it’s much better to identify the audience that will respond to my story. For example, because of the complicated protagonist and the dysfunctional family dynamics (and because of the writing itself), readers of Jodi Picoult tend to buy my book. The emotional aspect of my work also attracts readers of Nicholas Sparks. Looking at Amazon’s “People who bought xxx also bought yyy,” Broken Laces is definitely being bought by that audience.
MWW: Do you have other suggestions for writers who are either self-publishing or are picking up some of the promotional responsibilities for their books from established presses?
RW: Be professional and treat it as a business. For writers who are self-publishing, pay great attention to the cover design. Mary, you and I have discussed this in the past. There are way too many unprofessional covers out there, ones that scream “Look what I did in a couple of hours!”
Building A Fire
MWW: Can you summarize the critical factors for launching a book?
RW: I look at the publishing/marketing of a novel much like trying to start a fire. Some people hope to ignite a successful book launch, but strike a single match and nothing happens. So they give up. Some people spend all their time striking individual matches, trying to win over one reader at a time. That’s a lot of work!
I was committed to giving Broken Laces its best shot at visibility. To continue the fire metaphor, I figured the best way to ignite a blaze was to bring everything together before striking matches haphazardly.
First, I took care in crafting the story and making sure it was well edited. I worked with a graphic designer to develop an effective cover. I identified my target reader and tried to figure out how to make my book visible to them (e.g., use of Amazon tagging, praying to the Amazon suggestion algorithm gods). I made FaceBook friends and ABNA friends, not for the selfish purpose of selling to them but to build relationships. I carefully considered my price point. I wrote a solid pitch and made sure to highlight my writing awards. And I tried to time my book launch for Christmas season.
Thanks to all these factors, plus solid reviews and great word-of-mouth, the fire has been burning for more than a year. Yes, every day I worry that a big rainstorm will come along and put it out.
That’s why I’m working on my next novel, so the blaze can continue well into the future.
* * * *
I am very grateful to Rodney Walther for taking the time to answer all of the questions I asked him — so clearly, thoroughly and honestly. His willingness to share everything he knows about the process of writing and selling has made him a popular and respected figure in the writing circles we share, for good reason. His generosity is appreciated. He’s also a fine writer. If you want more information about his book, click through the link I have posted to his book cover, or go to his website which is, again, www.rodneywalther.com
While researching this article I found a couple of lists of ideas re: book marketing that I think will be useful to my own initiatives — if I use them in conjunction with a few ideas of my own and the suggestions Rodney has provided. Here they are. And again, I welcome feedback from readers by way of comments if you have additional ideas that have worked for you – as a book marketer – or on you, as a book purchaser.
Update: Check out an additional comment from Rodney Walther on ineffectual marketing, thoughts with which I concur completely. Thanks again for all your help with this post, Rodney.