A year ago, I published a blog on lessons learned from marketing my first novel Hattie’s Place. (Marketing and Promoting a Book: Five Pieces of Conventional Wisdom I Should Have Taken to Heart at http://wp.me/p5MhC5-jH). Since then I’ve published a second novel, In the Fullness of Time, and have been busy implementing a revised marketing plan based on what I learned the first time around.
As you will know if you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, I’m a great believer in the messy process of Learning by Doing as the best way to master any unknown skill. It’s a process that values failures and mistakes as tools for honing what works and what doesn’t work, making success, when it comes, all the more valid.
I’m glad to share what I’ve learned in this second attempt to market and promote my writing, so that readers of this blog can benefit. I’ve certainly profited from the generous advice of other writers, especially those connected to the indie writing community. For you see, even though Learning by Doing is my primary mode of discovery, I always supplement it with lots of prior research and reading.
Marketing: A Never Ending Cycle
I’ve discovered that marketing/promotion is a never ending process, beginning well before the book is published, and continuing on to include the publication of future books. In fact, one of the most repeated pieces of advice for selling more books is to get busy writing another one. The logistics of doing that seemed almost impossible to me, until I discovered Na-No-Wri-Mo (National Novel Writing Month), an initiative that organizes and supports authors around the globe, participating in a thirty-day marathon to draft 50,000 words, the approximate length of a short novel, all within the month of November.
I took the plunge and participated in Na-No-Wri-Mo in November 2016, while my current novel, In the Fullness of Time, was being edited by Kirkus Review. The result of my effort is a 50,000 word draft with the working title Mountain Brook Memories: 1961-1963. It’s the story of a preacher’s kid whose family moves to the affluent community of Mountain Brook, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. Set in the era of the Cold War and the American Civil Rights Movement, it explores themes of acceptance, alienation, and change. The main character, Harriet Oechsner, is the granddaughter of Hattie Barton, the protagonist in my first two novels.
When I reached my goal of 50,000 words, I let the draft sit while I finished editing and publishing In the Fullness of Time. Recently, I’ve begun to revise and edit Mountain Brook Memories in earnest, with the intention that I’ll publish it early in 2018.
My goal is to develop an outline for still another novel in time to participate again this November in Na-No-Wri-Mo. The new book will probably take up in the early 1920’s where In the Fullness of Time left off. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten with it. I don’t even have a working title yet.
If I can continue to hold myself to the cycle of drafting a novel every November, I can conceivably publish a new novel somewhere between once a year and every eighteen months. I became convinced of this possibility when I heard John Grisham speak at the Book Marks festival in Winston-Salem last fall. Grisham told about a book-signing event for his first best selling novel The Firm. A man came over and picked up a copy of the book. Shaking it at Grisham, he said, “You know the big boys turn out one of these things about once a year.”
Grisham decided that he wanted to be one of the big boys, and he has published one and sometimes two books a year since 1991 when The Firm came out.
Grisham begins ruminating over a new story every fall, but does not get down to business until the first of January, when he begins writing in earnest. He secludes himself in his office, at a computer that isn’t even connected to the internet. Prior to writing, he outlines every chapter and has a clear idea of the beginning and ending of the story. By June, he has completed his manuscript and sends it to his publisher for editing. He revises in July and returns the final copy to the editor for publication.
I have a long way to go to become one of the “big boys,” or in my case “big girls,” and I’m not nearly as efficient a planner as John Grisham when it comes to my writing process. I’m still a bit of a “pantser” in terms of letting my characters guide me through the story. However, I do think that every serious author must have a process for generating new work, and I think I’ve found mine with the Na-No-Wri-Mo challenge.
Maybe I won’t be a Na-No-Wri-Mo completer every year. Maybe it will take me two Novembers to finish my next draft. But the discipline of writing to a deadline is a sure fire way to get motivated and to force latent story ideas into print. I was simply amazed at how much writing I could turn out under pressure, when I stuck closely to the Na-No-Wri-Mo rule of “no re-writing or revising until the entire draft is completed.”
It makes sense that the best way to market your novel is to write another one. What better way to keep your readers happy and engaged than to come out with a sequel?
I consider this revelation of marketing as a continuing process to be the most valuable lesson learned thus far.
Reviews, Reviews, Reviews
Another “must-do” on every How-to-Market-and-Promote-Your-Novel list is to get reviews of your book, preferably before the book is even published. This is awfully hard to do unless you are connected with a writing group or an editor or well-known writer willing to read and review your book.
I’d paid Self-Publishers Review (SPR) $99, and Online Book Club $297 to review Hattie’s Place after it was published in 2015, and I decided to do it again with In the Fullness of Time. This time I submitted the book for review prior to publication.
SPR returned a positive review, which I was able to post on my Amazon author site and use for blurbs in my promotional materials. However, I ran into a bit of snag with Online Book Club.
I’d indicated that the manuscript I was sending was a draft, which was currently being copy edited, and asked that the reviewer focus exclusively on the content. Instead, he published a positive review with the comment that the book would have received a top rating of 4, except for minor typos that made the book less professional, and thus a 3.
I asked to have the reviewer amend his review to clarify that the book had not yet been published and was still being edited. However, according to policy at Online Book Club, a review cannot be changed and my only option was to pay to have it re-reviewed.
I recount this incident not as a criticism of Online Book Club, but as a caveat on submitting work that is not a final edition. In the future, I’ll be careful to send only finished manuscripts when seeking professional reviews.
Shortly after In the Fullness of Time was published, I invested in a promotional package from SPR ($1199) that resulted in the sale of 128 Kindle copies on March 31, and 15 verified reviews on my Amazon author page, by April 15.
Before SPR began my promotional campaign, the consultant advised that I make keyword changes to improve my rankings on Amazon. Kindle allows three sets of keywords as descriptors, and I had previously chosen Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction, and Literary Fiction. I followed through and had the changes made:
Kindle eBooks>Literature and Fiction>Historical Fiction>Biographical
Kindle eBooks>Literature and Fiction>History and Criticisms>Movements and Periods
Kindle eBooks>History>Americas>United States>State and Local>South
I actually had to contact a Kindle representative by phone to make the change. Once I reached the right person, it was very easy. The Kindle toll free help number is 1-866-321-8851.
On March 31, the day the 128 copies sold, In the Fullness of Time received a Best Seller badge for being #1 South; #1 Movements and Periods; and #10 Biography. The rankings held for several days, but quickly dropped as sales decreased.
Although the package was pricey at $1199, SPR fulfilled all of it’s stated obligations and produced by far the most book sales and reviews of any of the professional author services in which I invested. I’ll say a bit more about that in a later blog.
The verified purchase reviews, which are essentially reviews resulting from a book being purchased–the only ones that Amazon will publish–remain on my author page. Since that time, I have accumulated five more, a couple from Goodreads users, and a couple from another paid promotional package which never really got off the ground.
Recently, my number of reviews dropped from 20 to 19. Amazon must have found one that did not qualify as a verified purchase. They’re really funny about that.The reviews that remain are positive, with nothing below a rating of 4–over half are 5’s.
I’m inserting a plea here, not only for myself but for other independent authors. Book rankings, and thus sales on Amazon, depend a great deal on reviews. If you’ve purchased a Kindle or hard copy book on Amazon, please take a few minutes to write a short review and post it in the review section. It doesn’t have to be literary or fancy. Just a few lines about what you liked about the story, or how you were affected by the characters, or a short summary of the plot will suffice. Or, if the book is nonfiction, tell what you learned or why the book interested you. It’s one of the kindest things you can do to promote independent publishing.
My plan is to continue to seek opportunities to get reviews. In the meantime, I’ve been reading a lot of excellent books and writing a number of book reviews, which I’ve posted on this blog site, as well as on Amazon and Goodreads. I figure if I want others to review my books, I need to take the time to give thoughtful written feedback on the works of other authors.
Reader Base and Author Brand: Putting a Face on Your Writing
I’ve learned the importance of connecting with readers who enjoy books written in my genre, which is historical fiction with strong female characters. It’s unrealistic to rely on family and friends as the primary consumers of a book. Many of them prefer other genres and have no interest in your writing, aside from the fact that they want to be supportive of you. Besides, most people don’t have enough family or a wide enough circle of friends to build a reader base exclusively from those sources.
In marketing In the Fullness of Time, I started by mailing fifty hard copies of the book to family, friends, and local libraries. I inserted a short cover letter describing the book and asking that the receiver pass it on to someone they thought would enjoy it.
I created a bookmark at https://www.uprinting.com/bookmark-printing.html with a picture of the cover, a brief description of the book, and my contact information. I ordered 500 copies to use as business cards and to distribute to various locations. I left one side blank to provide space for personal notes.
I’ve only done one book talk, and that was to a group of men in Charlotte, called the Brotherhood of the Biscuit, who meet monthly at 7:00 a.m. at my son Todd’s church. Todd invited me to share my writing experience in the thirty minutes they set aside for presentations. I was really dubious that they would be remotely interested in anything I had to say at that ungodly time of morning, but they were a wonderful audience and we had a lively interchange of shared experiences on writing.
I was telling them how much of a shock it was when I discovered I’d only done half the work when I published my first novel–that the marketing part would consume equally as much effort as the writing. I told them how inadequate I felt about the marketing aspect, and assumed that most authors felt that same way.
One of the men spoke up and said that his sister had written a book about an illness she’d gone through and how it had altered her life. “For her the writing was the hardest part,” he said. “Selling the book was a piece of cake.”
One of the most gratifying things to an author is to receive responses from readers who have read your book and have connected with some aspect of it. I’m always thrilled to get an e-mail from someone who appreciates that I write about strong women, or that I include accurate historical background with my stories; or to be stopped at church or at the grocery store by someone who loved the main character in Hattie’s Place and was happy to find that I had written a sequel so they could find out what happened to her.
I’m becoming aware that when you establish your author platform or brand–know yourself as a writer and project your image to your readers–you give a face to your writing. This makes it easier to identify your reader base among those around you physically, as well as those who can be reached through social media.
Not surprisingly, the people who seem to like my novels are often women, my age and older, who are nostalgic about the past, and who view life with an open and positive attitude. However, my books also attract younger people who like to read about women as strong role models and who support human rights causes. As I learn more about who my readers are, I discover more about myself as a writer. The cycle continues.
Maintaining the Cycle
This second time around, I’ve discovered that successful book marketing and promotion is not a one time event or campaign. It’s a continuous cycle, requiring constant attention and maintenance, which revolves around:
(1) Establishing a process for generating new work (e.g., with Na-No-Wri-Mo) and producing that work
(2) Developing an author platform/brand to articulate how you want to be known as a writer, and connecting with your readers, who will reflect back to you how you actually appear as a writer.
(2) Seeking reviews for your books and, in turn, writing lots of reviews for other authors.
In the next two blogs, I’ll share more of the resources and professional services I’ve used to promote In the Fullness of Time, and tell you about steps I’ve taken to market my work through social media.
For those of you who are like the woman who found marketing and promotion “a piece of cake,” please share your tips for success in the comment section, or e-mail them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would also be honored to have you share your experiences with successful book promotions as a guest blogger on FortheLoveofWriting.net. Just attach your blog to an e-mail and I’ll post it.