A few years ago, I found myself talking to Lee Wochner, a playwright and marketing specialist whose company Counterintuity did a great job promoting my play, Who Lives? Most of the run sold out. This time I met him just before a handful of authors and experts at the University of Southern California were about to present a panel on book marketing. I expected to hear the usual, that marketing nonfiction and genre fiction such as mysteries, thrillers, and romances has always been a little easier than literary fiction. I didn’t expect to hear much about literary books, the kind studied at the university in its English department.
In fact, I shot a question at Lee. “What if a person wrote an interesting, captivating book about a character, full of truth and sometimes humor--a literary book. How do you make a mark if your agent doesn’t send out such things?” That was my problem at the time. Lee immediately said I needed to create a newsletter about my life and work and send it out monthly. I scoffed. I said, “I don’t see John Irving doing such a thing.”
He replied, “If John Irving had to get his start today, he’d be sending out a newsletter.”
That set me on my way to not only create a newsletter called The Maplewoods Mirror but also to explore more of what to do if you’re a up-and-coming literary writer.
When I couldn’t get my agent at the time to send out a manuscript of my previously published short fiction, I took the advice of Daniel Will-Harris, who had worked with me at Prelude Press where I’d been the senior editor. He said, “You know publishing. Start your own imprint and publish your book yourself.” This was in 2005 before what has now become a huge trend: independent publishing.
I published it myself after hiring an editor and book designer, and The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea’s first review--in the Los Angeles Times--helped launch my book that was eventually mentioned in Entertainment Weekly.
Since then, I’ve published another collection, Months and Seasons, which went on to make the long list of the Frank O’Connor International Short Fiction Award. My most recent book, a novel called The Brightest Moon of the Century, has received reviews in more than three dozen print and online publications. I’ve discovered a lot of what to do, so I thought I’d give some tips for those of you who are writers or are thinking about becoming one.
Literary fiction has a broad definition, and Wikipedia’s definition is the best I’ve seen: “A term that [came] into common usage in the early 1960s, the term is principally used to distinguish ‘serious fiction’ which is a work that claims to hold literary merit), in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e., paraliterature). In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more upon style, psychological depth, and character. This is in contrast to Mainstream commercial fiction, which focuses more on narrative and plot.”
I’ll even make the definition broader; literary fiction CAN BE deeply focused on narrative and plot--just not to the exclusion of character. In my mind, plot is simply what interesting people do.
My favorite novels happen to make sense of this crazy thing we’re doing: living. Because I often see life’s absurdities, I like fiction with humor, such as the novels by Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, and Nick Hornby. I also loved discovering Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Yet some of my favorite novels are by women: Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Sure, there’s not a lot of humor in all of these, but those books have enveloped me.
All of the above authors have had their challenges in marketing their books at one time, and yet they all have had movies made from their books, which shows me how narrative and plot are important in their novels.
Novelist Philip Persinger (Do the Math), a guy I’ve come to admire, has a sobering perspective on what I’m trying to do in this article. After having agents and different ways of publishing literary books, he says, “My fundamental belief is that the only way to make money selling books is to write a book called How to Make Money Selling Books.
“Fiction is even more problematical. In the beginning, I tried to apply the old models only to watch them collapse. Now I’m going for serendipity. I call it the shotgun approach; throwing up everything I can think of and waiting for something to stick.”
Perhaps quixotically, I give you what I’ve learned about making and marketing literary fiction.
Making Literary Fiction
1) My first tip, perhaps the hardest tip, is write a book that is worthy of being published. It means you write draft after draft. Good literary fiction is written in layers; some images or events can have dual meanings. Foreshadowing is used, and you can’t foreshadow if you don’t know your story.
After a first draft or two, you have to discover what needs to be expanded and what needs to be condensed. This is where you get readers you trust to give you some feedback. A novel isn’t an excuse to go off on long tangents. Your novel is the shortest in can be to tell the story you’re telling.
2) When you think your book is done, hire a good editor. This is not likely to be one of your friends because what friend will spend many hours considering each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter? Will your friend ponder whether each element is the best it can be? Is the story told in the right order, and does it all makes sense? Are there enough turns and surprises?
A book editor can cost anywhere from $500 to $2500, and some charge a per-page rate, such as $5 per double-spaced page. (There’s about 250 words per double-spaced page.) I’ve usually paid around $2,000 per book, and that’s not money that came to me easily. I earn it through teaching, something I also love to do. I consider the money paid to an editor as an investment in making the book as good as it can be.
3) After you finished working with an editor, you want to hire a proofreader or two. Proofreading is not about structure or story elements. It’s about making sure there are no typos, that the punctuation is correct, and that each sentence is easy to read. It doesn’t take the same amount of time as a book editor needs. Friends might help you here; otherwise, you might pay anywhere from fifty cents to two dollars a page.
4) Now your manuscript is done, and you will want to hire a book designer, or at least a graphic designer to create a cover. Mystery writer J.A Konrath, who has found publishing eBooks on the Kindle particularly lucrative and whose blog A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com) has advice for all writers on marketing an eBook: strong covers and good product descriptions.
He says, “I just improved some of my covers, and saw an immediate uptick in sales. I'm also constantly adding to/tweaking my book descriptions. I've found that more information leads to stronger sales (as opposed to teasers with less info.) I also make sure my first line of description is "Only $1.99 for a limited time." By announcing the low pricing is limited, I encourage impulse buyers.” To get his ten thoughts on why he’s selling well, click here.
My designer, who creates the covers, spines, back covers, and insides, is Daniel Will-Harris. He's a gem to work with. You can hire him by going to his website.
Marketing Literary Fiction
Here’s where my advice veers from (or extends from) Konrath’s list because literary fiction is a challenging market. It’s not an easy-to-identity niche and seems to work best from word-of-mouth. Word of mouth starts with reviewers. Most top reviewers only review books whose publication date comes two to four months after they received an advanced reading copy. The idea of all of this is to help build your “platform,” a buzzword publishers use to describe your fanbase. You need to connect your book to readers and make them into fans.
Thus, what follows is a list of my ideas. A lot of this will work with any book, but if you’re writing in a genre and have a good book, you may not need all these things—you may find your market more easily. In fact, start with Kindle and see how you do.
2) Print Books. However, you also need to create a print version of your book, and market it in much the way traditional publishers do by creating a publication date months in advance. Lulu, iUniverse, CreateSpace, and Lightning Source, among others, are companies where your book can be printed-on-demand (POD) and automatically show up on Amazon.com. Research the companies and choose one.
If you want reviews, DO NOT make your book available for sales immediately or you will undercut your marketing. You will start selling the book on its publication date, which is an arbitrary date two to four months after you start sending your books to reviewers. Select a date that might be good for having a publication party. (More on that in a moment.)
3) Reviews. The first thing to do before your book is officially published is send copies to reviewers. In a cover letter and/or on the back cover, list such information as the publication date, its ISBN number (which you have to buy from Bowker), number of pages, the retail price, the trim size (such as 6 x 9), the distributor’s name, publicity contact information, and your agent’s name (if you have an agent). Also mention that it’s an uncorrected proof. You don’t have to send out the final final version of your book.
To find the right reviewers to send to, research who published reviews of books that are similar to yours. For instance, I knew full well that most people don’t review short story collections. (Have you bought one in the last year?) However, Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection, Unaccustomed Earth (which I happen to be teaching in my English class right now) had landed on the New York Times best-seller list. I found who reviewed her book and wrote personal letters to those people. About 35 reviewers wrote me back that they were interested in looking at Months and Seasons, so I sent them copies. I received nearly two dozen reviews in return, most of them astonishing.
4) Book Publishing Journals. One huge barrier is to get your book reviewed by a handful of journals that bookstore managers and librarians read. They use these reviews to order books in advance of the books’ publication dates. Independently published books usually don’t get reviews here, but if your book comes with a cover letter that makes it appear it’s an interesting or important book, there’s hope.
Investigate how to submit to Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, School Library Journal(books for children and teens), The Horn Book(also for children and teens), Choice(for academic libraries), Foreword Magazine and Midwest Book Review. The latter two are the most open to independently published books.
5) Webpage. Create a homepage for your book or for yourself as an author. My homepage was originally designed to be both news about my work and a place for my students to get their homework assignments. Now that I’m about to publish other novelists, I need to redo my homepage and create one for White Whisker Books, which is becoming its own entity.
Weebly is one place to create a homepage for free. My new one is there. You also might find some like-minded writers and create your own collective, as I have at Backword Books. Red Room is another a great place to have a homepage. It’s a gathering of published authors.
6) Blogging. Besides a homepage or two, blogging is great way to subtly promote your work by writing on subjects important to you. To do it well means you really need to write something at least four times a month--the more the better. Blogger is a popular and free way to create a blog. My blog is on Red Room as you see.
7) Publicist. Consider a New York publicist. Because New York remains the center of the publishing industry, publicists there tend to more people in the book business. There are certainly publicists elsewhere. I’ve used Carol Fass Publicity and Public Relations. I just like her, and she helped my first two books get some recognition.
Publicists are not inexpensive and can’t guarantee anything, but I once worked in a public affairs office, and I saw what a great publicist can do. He or she schmoozes a lot. Publicists know people and are friendly. They also need four to six months in advance of your book coming out. If your book is already, most can’t help.
You can also write and send out your own press releases. There’s an art to a press release and what goes into one, but a great book on the subject--one that covers a lot of topics here, too--is The Frugal Book Promoter by Carolyn Howard-Johnson.
8) AuthorBuzz. Consider AuthorBuzz. This is my newest find. They specialize in helping authors connect to readers, booksellers, bookclubs, and libraries. They offer a variety of approaches. You can spend anywhere from $750 to $10,000. Some of their packages are clearly for publishers with a good marketing budget, but if you have a serious book, this is a serious service.
9) The Independent Movement. Listen to other independent novelists and find out what they’ve done. Philip Persinger (Do the Math) tells me, “Taking the whole business seriously is heartbreaking. So I’ve got my BUY BOOKS AND SAVE WESTERN CIVILIZATION T-shirts and tote bags (the dead Dodo comes from Alice in Wonderland).
“I’ve got my SEMELE and BULLET DOG cartoons on YouTube. I’ve got a growing database of over 400 contacts. I strongly recommend maintaining a database. They come in some pretty simple flavors (Bento, AppleWorks) and it makes mass mailings and email a piece of cake. It also helps with tracking.
“I also entered a bunch of competitions. When you win the right to buy stickers it adds credibility to your work. On-line reviews are good also. It’s really helpful when you can quote someone who is not your mother.
“Some perspective: I squandered twenty prime years of my artistic life trying to be respectable. At this Renaissance, I’m much more interested in readership than sales. I’ve taken to giving homeless people review copies. As I said, I’m going for serendipity. I know I’m not going to place a book into Oprah’s hand. But maybe I can get it to someone who will misplace it on a chair in Oprah’s dentist’s waiting room.”
To take a cue on the latter, plenty of people offer their eBooks on Kindle for as little as 99 cents (the lowest price Amazon lets an eBook be). I’ve made my books $2.99, with the idea that it’s saying they’re not dirt cheap but still incredibly affordable.
Phil ended his note to me with his personal perspective: “I believe in art as a life force. In practical terms, I have not been focused on book promotion as much as on how to support an art habit.”
I’m with him, and I’d rather be writing than marketing. All I offer here has required drive--but it works.
Independent publisher and New York Times-bestselling author Bob Mayer said, “Quality will win out. But so will promoting. After twenty years, I finally have had to admit that while content is king, promotion is queen. But in promotion, the same is true: quality and consistency will win out over being Snooki.”
Echoing that, writer Terrance O’Brien said, “The Great American Novel can sit unnoticed on the Amazon Kindle site forever unless someone has a reason to click on its page. That reason is promotion. Quality and promotion are both necessary elements, but neither is sufficient.”
10) Find Like-Minded People.To find independent novelists, join www.kindleboards.com, and join in the Writer’s Café. Offer your thoughts and opinions all over the place. I found some of the above people there.
Another literary author I met online is R. J. Keller, whose literary novel Waiting for Spring, about a young woman in Maine striking out on her own, has recently been picked up by Amazon Encore, Amazon’s unit that republishes books that get high ratings from their editors and customers, just not sales. Amazon then takes its expertise and gets the book noticed.
One way Amazon noticed is because Ms. Keller was high profile. As she wrote me, “I became part of a community of reader/writer bloggers by searching them out and commenting on their blogs. I never engaged in self-promotion, I just took part in whatever conversations were going on. The link leading back to my blog was in my user name, which other commenters followed, so they got to know me and my writing organically.
“These days I still follow that method, but more with Facebook and Twitter than with my blog. I very, very rarely engage in direct self-promotion. I simply engage in conversations with people, which leads to them finding out about my writing, which sometimes leads to sales. I've always been outgoing, so that's what comes naturally to me.”
11) Publication Party. Have a publication party for your book. Have it on publication day, if you can. The party can be at your house or, even better, a local bookstore. Local bookstores often like to promote local authors, mainly because they can sell twenty or more copies of your book at once. It’s a must-do thing to get the word going on your new book, and it’s also a way to reconnect with friends.
12) Social Networking. Use social networking, as R.J. Keller mentioned above. Every time I write a new blog, I mention it on Facebook. Others like Twitter a lot, and many writers love Goodreads. I’m so maxed on out trying to keep up with Facebook, I haven’t tried the others yet. See: there’s room for growth.
This leads to another concept: you’re not likely to do it all on this list. Don’t feel bad if you can’t.
13) Prizes. Prizes are something to aim for if you’re a literary writer. Once your book is published, a prize can help its sales. There are prestigious awards such as The Story Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and, heck the Pulitzer. My book Months and Seasons landed on the long list for the Frank O’Connor International Story Award and helped. To see a list of great prizes, click here. To see a whole article I wrote on this point, click here. http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/literary-prize-can-help-sell-your-book/19869779/
14) Advertising. Advertising is worth considering but carefully. One can spend thousands of dollars and get nothing. Sponsoring Kindle Nation Daily as I did at one time for $100 brought in almost $200 in sales. It was worth it. I once spent $500 in an ad in ForeWord, and if I received two sales, I’d be surprised. This is a topic I’ll have to investigate more.
15) Audio Books. I’ve been listening to Steig Larson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series on audio and thought, “Should I have an audio book made?” Has anyone has found good sales with that? A friend just sent me this link: http://perfectvoices.net/
16) Video Book Trailers. I’ve used www.expandedbooks.com, and they’ve made great videos for me. It’s hard to tell whether it increases sales, though. I think so, and the videos are fun to do, but I’m wondering what other people have for their marketing.
17) Newsletters. I listened to Lee Wochner, and I created this newsletter. I use a service called IContact. For $14 a month, it keeps track of my database, adding people when they send in their name and email address, deleting when someone wants to unsubscribe, and broadcasting my newsletter to the subscribers each month. I find it’s a good way to keep in touch with my readers. Another popular service is Constant Contact.
As you may gather from this, being a writer these days is more than just about writing a great story. Still, I love it. To quote Woody Allen, I need the eggs.
---Write in the comments below if you have thoughts or ideas on this subject.
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