Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet (Homage to Barry Hannah)

This comprehensive post on marketing is by successful indie author David Rothstein. He recently launched his Civil War novel, Casualties, which is based on a true story about a woman who set out with a horse and wagon to rescue her husband from a Confederate POW camp.


You’ve written your novel. You’ve workshopped it until you’re wondering if those other people are reading the same manuscript you are. All the typos are gone. You’ve figured out how to convert it to eBook format, got a great cover design and it’s all ready to upload to Createspace or Lulu or whomever. You’re self-publishing because all of your queries turned up dry.

Congratulations. You are now a small businessperson. Actually, you’re a small retailer. The real work has just begun.

When we start out to write a novel or a collection of poetry we don’t typically think of how to get it to market, how to sell it, how to distribute it. If we’d thought hard about those things at the beginning, we might never have gotten to the final draft of our stories. Instead, we exhibit a kind of naive courage. Most writers know little or nothing about running a small (or maybe any) business. But that’s the stuff you need to know if you’re looking for any kind of commercial success.

There’s really nothing mysterious about success in a small business, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The rules of small retail are basic and consistent. Here are a few of the more important ones you’ll need to know and master.

The first three rules of retail—especially small retail—are: location, location, location. In getting your book to market that translates into distribution, distribution, distribution.

The distribution problem has largely been solved through Amazon and maybe Lulu for print, and Smashwords, Kindle, iBooks, et al for digital. That’s the upside. The downside is that with the cost of entry so low there are many more authors and books with which you’ll compete. But you know that.

Marketing is the sine qua non of commercial success. It is you getting your book in front of people who will be most likely to see value in it and will be motivated to pay for the opportunity to experience your story.

So that’s where the hard part comes in. You need to get your work in front of potential buyers, i.e., readers. And that’s actually true even if you managed to get a book contract from a publisher, because as an unknown you’ll probably not get much of a marketing budget or placement in bookstores or on their lists. It will still be up to you to do those things. How you do that with a book is no different from any other small retail enterprise getting in front of its potential buyers.

With a novel a huge part of marketing is self-promotion and self-promotion is not a natural thing for new writers to do. I think it’s especially the case with self-published new writers. Even if you didn’t start out that way, as you’ve gotten rejection after (disingenuous) rejection it will rub off on you. You’ll end up believing somewhere inside you that by self-publishing you’re not as good as the others. That’s what the publishing establishment wants you and your potential buyers to believe because it reduces the competition. As Kurt Vonnegut might say, “Sometimes I don’t know about the publishing establishment.”

And maybe you’re not as good. But maybe you’re better. But only readers can tell you that, not agents, or editors or writers’ groups or anyone else. If you’re going to be rejected, be rejected by those who count. The ones who count are readers who will pay you for your work.

Whenever you doubt the legitimacy of self-publishing it will help to remember the Impressionists. When the snots of the Paris Salon refused to show the Impressionists’ work, Monet, Manet, Degas, Cezanne and others rented an exhibit space just down the street and did their own show. They called it “Le Salon des Refusés.” The Exhibition of the Rejected. They self-published. And we all know the outcome.

Then there’s pricing. Pricing can be pretty tricky, especially when you don’t know how much your product has cost you and you haven’t set any revenue goals. Early in the game you have to determine how much you have invested in this product. With a novel that means how much your time and passion and labor are worth. If you don’t know that and are expecting any kind of return, you’ll probably not get it.

The chat rooms, blogosphere, writer’s groups are full of talk about pricing. One of the worst pieces of advice I’ve seen is that you should give your work away to build a “platform.” To me that is pure nonsense.

There’s the basic rule of perceived value. If you’re selling your eBook for ninety-nine cents while the others are going for upwards of $7.99, then the perception is not that yours is a bargain, but that it must not be as good as the others. If you try to sell at that price you’re telling potential buyers that is how much you think your own work is worth. If you give it away you’re telling potential buyers your work has zero value. You cannot compete on price. You must compete on value.

You can’t sell something by giving it away. There’s a selective process that happens: if you give your stuff away, or give away large portions of it, your fan base (to the extent that you develop one) will become people who want something for nothing and you’ll be the sap giving it to them. All those people who are happy to download your first book for free will not be there when you write the second and ask them to buy it. You’ll have rewarded them for the wrong behavior. And you’ll have driven away the readers who are willing to part with their money for something they believe has value. I believe you should never let people preview more than three percent of your book. That will push you even harder to make the first few pages compelling.

Another rule of retail is, “Mark it up to mark it down.”  You might need to mark your price down later in the game. If you price your work with the minimum margin when you initially publish it, you can’t mark it down if you need to. Plus you’ll already have signaled something unfavorable about your estimation of its value. And any early sales will not have yielded the maximum return for you.

If you’re in the right market and you’re selling on value, price is not the principal deterrent to someone buying your work. It takes as much effort to sell something for $5 as it does to sell something for $500 or $5000. Ask any retailer. It has to do with the way consumers typically make buying decisions. If you think your work is as valuable as anything written by Phillip Roth, or Cormac McCarthy or Tom Clancy or fill in the blank, that’s what you should price it. If you don’t think it’s as valuable (not necessarily as good, but as valuable), you probably need to ask about your reasons for writing in the first place.

Be really careful about blogs and chats—which ones you read, which ones you respond to. The conversation on most writing blogs (except Sarah’s, of course) is a lot of people talking to one another and none of them have the answers to the questions they’re asking. It’s mostly a churn of angst and speculation and daydreaming. It’s like being locked in a room with a bunch of people who don’t know how to pick a lock, but have no limit to how much they can talk about being locked in a room.

In my opinion if you’re at the marketing stage and don’t know what to do, you’d be better off getting your advice from a small retailer, someone selling pet supplies or apparel or car parts. If they’re still in business in this economy, they’re the people who know what you want to know. You just have to know what questions to ask.

When all else fails, change your expectations. That’s ordinarily crappy advice. But in this case it’s actually not that bad. If you thought you’d become a famous author and you haven’t on your first try, by changing your expectations you’ll be that much more inclined to write another book, and that one might make cash registers ring everywhere. At least you’ll live to fight another day. You’ll keep writing, and that’s what it’s supposed to be about in the first place. On the other hand if the result of your work is “only” that you finish what you set out to do and you also make your grandchildren proud of you, that’s pretty damned good. Besides, you’ll know you’ve done something that nearly all humans in nearly all the history of our species couldn’t or wouldn’t or didn’t do.

Finally there’s capitalization. You must have enough capitalization to make mistakes and recover, and to hire help when you need it. This is even more important if you’ve no experience in marketing and promotion.  At this stage we’re all pretty vulnerable. So be extra careful about unsolicited offers from publicists, book reps, all those types. Do your research to make sure they’ve actually produced and don’t pay anyone anything unless they can prove that they’ve actually produced for someone else. The best evidence is real writers with real books that have really sold.

Here are a few things that you can do to get the word out to potential buyers.

  1. Advertising still works. Place ads in media that your potential readers will likely see. You have to figure that out—who, what, where and when. Another reason you need capitalization.
  2. Readings and Signings. Even if it’s just local, the exposure and experience will be great. Go to the bookstore and talk with the decision maker and give that person a review copy. They’ll be most concerned about their margins and ability to return unsold copies. There are two ways you can do that; first, by having them buy through the big distributors; second, by taking your books on consignment. Don’t be disappointed if they agree but only ask for two copies. Then leave them alone. It’s a total high when they call you and ask for two more. The split is usually 60/40.
  3. If number two has worked, put together a book tour. It’s not that hard to do. But it costs.
  4. Approach other writers. But make sure they’re known writers. You’d be astonished at how many writers will actually give you their time and attention. Send a copy of your book with a well-composed note asking the person to read it. Real writers are suckers for good writing and if your story is as good as you believe it to be, writers will be drawn into it, and they are the peers you want. Agents aren’t. If a known writer likes your work you’ll know about it. If the news is good always ask for a review and referrals from him/her.
  5. Be persistent. If there’s someone (a reviewer, a known writer) and that person can help you, go back again and again until he/she helps you or tells you to get lost. You have absolutely nothing to lose.
  6. Do what screenwriters do. People who write screenplays know they’ll have to sell them and they develop a plan to do it. And the successful ones are not only good writers, they’re good marketers and they’re persistent. Track one of them down and talk. You’ll learn a lot.
  7. Remember what old man Stamper said, “Never give a inch.”  It’s your project, your story, your innards.

I hope this helps. And I wish you all the success you can create.

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