The vast majority of “Queer” or “Alternative” fiction being published these days is issued by very small presses, most of which operate on a shoestring budget. A few dozen books do come out each year from larger gay/lesbian presses (Alyson or Harrington, for instance) and receive some manner of marketing, but most little presses do not have a department for promotions, much less a budget for it. Most authors end up doing about 95% of marketing ourselves.
Promoting a small press book is a lot of work. The days seem to have passed when presses can be counted on to do advertising and promotional work (unless you are James Patterson or Tom Clancy or Janet Evanovich, etc.). Even some of the genre authors with bigger presses still do a lot of promotions work including keeping a fan mailing list, sending mailings to appropriate stores, and expending funds for visits/signings out-of-town. Unfortunately, YOU have to scare up your opportunities. The good news, though, is that most of the time, working on promotions has a blossoming effect. Focusing on it creates opportunities. Opportunities create connections and networks. Networks help to spread the word, which is, amusingly enough, called “viral marketing” by experts.
Five Particularly Useful Places to Focus
I publish with a very small press with minimal resources for marketing and no budget for advertising. My publisher makes sure I am provided with jpegs of my covers and a promotions helper to make suggestions and share templates. Other than that, I have the responsibility and the freedom to figure out what would work best to market my particular book. In some ways, that is a good thing.
Over time, I have determined that there are five major areas I have concentrated on and found particularly helpful.
1. Maintaining an author's website focusing on the work, but also including lots of variety and new content. I also have an email address available for people to contact me, and any time someone does send me a message, I always answer.
2. Seeking to get good reviews, making sure the various online sites are properly updated, and trying for word-of-mouth by belonging to and participating in a number of online writing/reading groups.
3. Contacting brick-&-mortar bookstores by email, snail mail, and phone to try to get them to carry—even hand-sell—the books.
4. Adding people to an email database such as Yahoogroups or Topica to send out a regular newsletter with news and information. I've only got 562 people on my list, but I know other authors with anywhere from 1,200 to 2,500! If even 20% of those members purchased the book, it would be a nice bump in sales.
5. Do local readings/signings/events, and, wherever possible, also arrange to do them out-of-town. In addition, I have made a number of appearances at other events: Pride, Older Lesbians Organizing for Change, four events at local county government diversity days, at several conferences, at conventions, twice at libraries, etc. Never pass up a chance to speak or to appear at any sort of function. You can meet all sorts of helpful people and make connections worth their weight in gold.
Setting Discounts to Entice Sales
Many small press authors rely on Internet sales to sell their books, but there are at least a hundred small, independent stores who could also carry your books, provided the discount will allow them to make a profit. Being sure that your publisher can give a 40% discount to stores can be critical. With a 30-35% discount, there are some stores that will reluctantly carry your book, but in reality, 40% seems to be the magic number. If the discount is not high enough, stores won't order the book because it's not lucrative for them. In fact, with the cost of shipping these days, some stores won’t even special order books with discounts of less than 20%. In my opinion, devoting all energies to Internet marketing overlooks a vital market of Indie bookstores where many people shop who don’t have Internet access.
Doing the Leg Work and Applying the Elbow Grease
The mere production of a work of fiction, no matter how perfectly written, does not guarantee that people will hear of it and then buy it. Absent vigorous marketing by the publisher or a hired publicist, you, the author, must do the work to shout it out to the world. It is my experience that for every hour I spend writing, I spend another hour working on getting the word out. (My partner just said I spend more like 3 hours to marketing to every hour writing...she might be right!).
Do you have a list of GLBT stores to notify? Can you arrange to make some appearances in your hometown? Can you make a stop while traveling on vacation? Do you have gay rights organizations where you could volunteer to come talk about your books? Are there any local colleges with gay/lesbian education classes or diversity programs in your town? Appearances at local places (where you have almost no expenses to get there) are almost always useful. All four signings at my nearby feminist bookstore have been extremely helpful. Not only was I able to get everyone I know and many I didn’t know to come buy my books (and other books, for which the store was thrilled), but I was also able to get press from local sources: feminist and gay newspapers, the local gay rag, and community centers and organizations that work with or for gay people's issues. The more buzz the better. You want people to hear your name, hear about your books, get curious.
Get Organized and Keep Records For the Future
Setting up a system for promotions is very helpful. For every book you publish in the future, you will have to go through similar steps, so you may as well organize it all and keep records of what worked and what didn’t. Create templates for supporting tools that can be used repeatedly: bookmarks, postcards, flyers, posters, etc. I have been using a lesbian printer in Florida for all my printing, and she offers fair prices on classy products. All I have to do is send her the cover jpeg and the text I want, and she even sets up most of the items for me. (If anyone wants to contact her and get those sorts of materials, let me know.)
Business cards are also VERY useful. Every book I personally sell, every book of any other author's that I give away, every letter, every piece of promo material, and every contact I make gets a business card. You can buy them really cheap at VistaPrint.com. They're on sale all the time for less than ten bucks. I usually buy 250-500 every six months or so and add new data regularly, so I buy new ones often.
Publishing with a small press or POD outfit requires real commitment, promotional ingenuity, and a lot of time and energy. Getting the word out is critical. Once readers find you and like your work, they are likely to stick with you, but first, you have to reach them. It's a building process that requires intensity and diligence. With every book published you have to hope to add new readers, new excited fans. A good example of this is what Ron Donaghe has been doing. He's had his book COMMON SONS go through a few incarnations (I am not even sure how many). It's just recently come out in a new edition, and it has already popped right up to the 40,000s on Amazon.com. This is a book that first came out something like 15 years ago, and yet, it is still selling. Then people want to read his other books, and little by little, each book builds business for the others.
It's a gradual process. Few of us will be lucky enough to have instant success (and congratulations to those of you who have!), but we have to think of this as work for the long haul. I figured it would take me the better part of a decade to get anywhere. So far, I've been at this full-time for 17 months and at it overall for almost four years. Still working, still working, still working..........<g>
I have found the following books to be particularly helpful for getting ideas, finding resource, and learning about industry standards:
© 2004 By Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about promoting Queer and Small Press fiction, a work in progress. Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.
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