Marketing for the Self-Published Author

The point of this piece is not that self-publishing is a vain and fruitless endeavor. Well, okay, maybe a little (?) vain, but not necessarily fruitless. It’s just that I’ve learned over time how difficult it can be to remain optimistic about sales of one’s opus magnum.

To wit: my two books. Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe was originally published in 2004. A collection of science fiction and fantasy stories, it seemed to me at the time to have pretty good prospects for respectable if not spectacular sales. In fact, I was greatly encouraged when my son-in-law got on a cross country flight and noted that the person seated next to him was reading the book. In spite of this bit of anecdotal evidence and a couple of nice reviews, sales have languished. We’ll get to why in a moment.

My second book, Zendoscopy, was published earlier this year. Sales have been better than with Spacebraid, but still not enough to be considered much of a showing. More puzzling is that feedback on the book has been excellent, including a very nice Kirkus review and the book being a monthly selection for at least one book club.

So, what gives?

The answer, in a word, is probably “marketing”. If I’ve learned anything since Spacebraid was published, it’s that writing and publishing the book account for only half of the job. The other, and by far more expensive, half is marketing. And those of us who self publish find marketing the real stumbling block to significant sales.

There exists a wide variety of marketing possibilities open to the self-published writer: book giveaways (e.g., on Goodreads), book signings, consignment placement in bookstores, book festivals, paid ads, blogs such as this one, YouTube videos, and more. Nearly all either are expensive or, even if not, simply don’t seem to reach a large enough audience unless one is willing to invest a not so small fortune to get the word out.

Let’s look at a couple of the options: book signings and consignment placement. My first attempt to get a book signing was with an independent bookstore in a shopping center minutes from my home. This particular store was in financial trouble and word had it that they might have to close. I spoke with the store’s manager and offered to do a signing in which I’d bring in a supply of books and sell them in turnkey manner for them, donating 40% of what I took in to the store. Despite my offer, which would have cost the store nothing, the manager insisted on 60%. I walked.

My second experience with a signing was much more successful and satisfying. Another local store was holding a signing event open to a limited number of local authors. I applied early enough to make the list. To prepare for the event, I had a couple of self-supporting posters made from jpeg files of my book covers and spread the word via this blog, Facebook, and by direct contact with friends and acquaintances. At the signing, I sold several books and came away reasonably happy.

At about the same time as the second signing, a friend who belongs to a book club read Zendoscopy and liked it enough to make it a monthly selection for her book club. She invited me to appear at the club for a “meet the author” event which went well, and I sold several copies of the book as well as a couple of copies of Spacebraid.

Since then, sales of both books have hit the skids. Neither the publisher of Spacebraid, nor that of Zendoscopy, has done any promotion of the book, although for some hefty fees, they would assist me but not do any marketing on their own. Based upon my early experiences with the publisher of Spacebraid, my impression is that any efforts by publishing houses for self-published authors are of marginal, if any, benefit, and much of what they will do for a price can be done by the author, alone.

These experiences have given me some perspective on how to go about self-publishing one’s writing. If/when my third book is ready to market, I will likely forego the use of a publisher and go directly to e-book format, where self-published works seem to have the best chance for significant sales. It will also make it much easier for me to manage pricing, as I won’t have to go through the publisher every time I want to do a giveaway or price promotion.

The other thing I’ve concluded is that shorter pieces submitted for publication may be beneficial in getting one’s name “out there”. This past summer, I had an essay published in the literary publication of Alpha Omega Alpha, the medical honor society. The piece elicited a remarkable number of responses from people who will shortly receive a distribution e-mail from me mentioning my two books. This may or may not produce sales but, as they say, nothing ventured…

For many of us who self-publish, we are not doing it with the expectation of making a living at it but because we simply love writing. This means that we’re under less pressure than otherwise might be the case. In my particular situation, I can afford to promote my books in careful steps, evaluating the costs and benefits as I go rather than marketing in shotgun and very expensive fashion. In the meantime, I can work on shorter pieces for magazine submission or later inclusion in a short story collection. Will there be a sequel to Zendoscopy? Time will tell…

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