by David W. Brown
Though self-published and small-press authors face unique challenges when selling books, many have found great success in turning browsers into buyers. I reached out to several accomplished independent authors to learn the secrets of their success. Writing a good book is the first step. Here are four things indie authors should do next.
RESPECT BOOK BLOGGERS
“Book bloggers spend hours each week reviewing and promoting books that they love,” says K.A. Tucker, USA Today bestselling author of Chasing River. She calls them her “number one ally," and notes: “Aside from receiving free copies of a book in exchange for an honest review, they receive no payment for their time and energy.” Audiences thus trust those reviews, and a blogger’s recommendation can help a book climb the sales chart.
Authors would be fools to take book bloggers lightly. “The worst thing a debut author (or any author, frankly) can do is damage their relationship with bloggers by a) not respecting their time; b) not respecting their opinions; and c) expecting that they read and love your book.” Treating a blogger with disrespect or hostility will likely result in a burned bridge. “And it’s never just one bridge. In this tightly knit community, word spreads quickly and you’ll earn an ‘author behaving badly’ badge overnight.”
DON’T GO IT ALONE
Poets have long toiled in a difficult publishing environment. Because such outlets as The New York Times and The New Yorker rarely review books printed by small presses (where most poetry is published today) poets must be resourceful in order to reach readers. According to Joyelle McSweeney, a poet and the director of the creative writing program at Notre Dame, one way to find new readers is through heartfelt collaboration with fellow writers. Events such as joint readings not only increase the sizes of audiences, but also strengthen local literary communities.
“Forming honest and sincere collaborations with people—not just to promote your work, but to have a fun event celebrating both of your work—is a great way to build your audience without alienating anybody,” she says. “These are the people I want to read my book, and I want to hear my buddy’s new poem, so let’s do a reading together. Invite your friends, and I’ll invite my friends, and we’ll double the audience for both of our readings.”
The purpose of such gatherings is not to reach 200,000 fans. “The goal,” she says, “is to reach people who are going to be moved and changed by your writing. And so you should look at what’s an arm’s distance away from you and start there.”
KICKSTART THOSE SALES
Crowdfunding has emerged as a useful tool for self-published and small-press authors who want to pursue longer-term publishing projects. In such a campaign, readers in effect purchase prerelease copies of an author’s book. “Kickstarter campaigns can also be a form of advertising,” says McSweeney. “Because it goes up on social media, people become interested and intrigued. In some ways it’s easier to hook your readers then, than after you have the finished product of the book.”
Jane Friedman, a writer and consultant, advises authors not to launch Kickstarter campaigns without plans in place. “A lot of a writers’ Kickstarter success depends on how strategic that author has been in really developing a direct line to people who’ve enjoyed their work in the past.” Authors who are considering going the route of crowdfunding should not expect an army of strangers to line up with outstretched fists of cash. “Writers should be really cognizant of the fact that they’re going to be depending on their current network and not some inspirational, hopeful future network.”
Friedman also warns of the “mushy middle” of a crowdsourcing campaign. The first week involves energetic updates from authors and promising investments from friends and family. The last week is a thrilling race to the finish line. But during those middle two weeks, authors sometimes freeze up. They feel like they’ve said everything possible about their book, and fear repeating themselves by continuing to beat the drum. To counter the lull, Friedman suggests that authors hold a reading or give a talk at a conference—any kind of public event, really, where the Kickstarter campaign can score a mid-campaign promotion.
LOOK BEYOND THE BOOKSTORE
Independent authors shouldn’t limit themselves to bookstores to find strong sales, says Friedman. “Some of the best places have some sort of tie-in to the book. Somebody I know wrote a book that took place on Sanibel Island, and she sold the most copies of her book in a little gift shop that people would normally stop in as they were going on vacation, and needed something to read.”
Closer to home, alcohol helps. “Bars or places where people aren’t in the trappings of I feel like I’m in this proper bookstore and I have to behave in a certain way,” says Friedman. “Anytime you can get out of that formality and into a place where it’s much more convivial and about conversation, people will be more inclined to interact with you the author, or a particular idea or theme of your book, and spread the word.”