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How Small Publishers Can Still Sell Books

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How Small Publishers Can Still Sell Good Books

October 2013

by Martin Shepard

What follows is what we at The Permanent Press have learned over the past 35 years when it comes to promoting and selling books, particularly the kinds of books we usually publish. Many of the things I mention may seem self-evident, but I think they are all worth thinking about.

The vast majority of the books we publish are fiction, and we try to select artfully written titles, be they mysteries or general fiction: books that are character driven and outside the realm of what the Big Five generally select. With 250 or more imprints, the Big Five may produce 85 percent of the books sold in America, but by and large they tend to go for the lowest common denominator—for the widest audience—while our target audience is the more thoughtful and sophisticated reader. They publish name-brand writers. We don’t. We pick from among the 5,000 queries and submissions we receive each year and publish the best 12 to 16 manuscripts we read.

Selling books depends on reaching potential readers, and for us that starts with review coverage. Since my wife and I began The Permanent Press in 1978, there have been many changes in the way one finds an audience. Once upon a time there were newspapers that covered books and had book editors who respected and helped get the word out for quality writing by relatively unknown writers published by small independent presses.

That kind of marketing hardly works anymore, as so many newspapers have downsized, closed, or come to rely on wire-service reviews. In these hard times, the biggest newspapers still standing tend to cover books from large publishers that take out ads which a smaller house can ill afford. So we have to look for alternatives: reviewers and other people who aren’t swayed by where a book comes from, or who wrote it, or who advertises, but by the quality of the work itself.

Getting and Using Reviews

Tops for open-hearted and open-minded print coverage are the four prepublication journals Publishers WeeklyKirkusBooklist, and Library Journal. We make sure we print and send advance galleys to them—and everyone else on our review lists—at least four months before publication date, and we try to hold our output to one or two titles a month.

Given the huge numbers of books Random House and the other giants publish, only a small percentage of new titles will get any serious review coverage. Because we limit submissions and don’t overwhelm editors at these journals who feel our titles have merit, our review percentage can be higher. The fact that libraries are still the repository of good writing and apt to order on the basis of reviews in these journals is another reason to value them.

Because we search for original voices by contemporary writers, we don’t publish only e-books. Few electronic-only publishers get reviews, and those that do are the ones that publish works by famous writers of yesteryear that are no longer in copyright.

It is worth investing resources to make galleys attractive. Instead of using a generic colored paper cover with the title printed on the top, we use the art that will appear on our finished books, including flap copy. An artful cover has much greater appeal than a dull one for reviewers who have so many titles to choose from.

When we get coverage in one or more of these journals, we save excerpts and put them on the back covers or dust jackets of finished books.

With favorable comments from reviews in these journals, it may make sense to advertise in one or more, depending on your budget. You can take as little as a sixth of a page in any of these publications, and provide excerpts from the others’ early reviews for their readers.

Another tactic you may want to consider is producing 200 to 300 extra galleys for Library Journal and Booklist, which send out mailings four or five times a year to key librarians, a perfect target audience for interesting titles. We send these out at the same time as we send our advance galleys everywhere else.

We also collect names of the best bloggers we can find for online reviewing. One way to get started with this is to join Library Thing or Good Reads, offer galleys to the first 20 or 30 people who request copies, see how many reviews of your books are posted, and then contact those reviewers who write well and also have their own blog sites and add them to your future galley mailing lists.

We’ve collected and value about two dozen such reviewers who write for an audience of serious readers. Getting coverage in these blogs, even if each one generates only 20 sales, is more important than spending a lot of time soliciting newspapers, because these bloggers are the sort of people who are respected and help spread the word.

I won’t share our lists with you because every publisher needs to find their own compatible bloggers. But I can tell you that three blog sites—Small Press Reviews, New York Journal of Books, and San Francisco Book Review—are particularly kindly disposed toward well-written books. When we place ads in any of the prepub journals, we use excerpts from these sources as well.

Awards, Ads, and Other Authors

Book awards also help us spread the word, since being selected as a finalist or winner of a reputable award can pay very big dividends. In 2012 we published seven mystery writers, and books by three of them are among the five finalists for three important mystery awards this year: Howard Owen’s Oregon Hill for the Hammett Prize, Jaden Terrell’s Racing the Devil for the Shamus Award, and Chris Knopf’s Dead Anyway for the Nero Award. This will attract readers and sales far more than reviews in the most widely read newspapers.

Advertising these titles in the prepub journals and in the best mystery magazine, Mystery Scene, is relatively inexpensive, and spending money on these sorts of ads 18 or 20 times a year is far more effective than spending the same amount for an ad in the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Los Angeles Times. Also, it will help those publications that support you.

One anecdote is worth mentioning here. Back in 1991 when newspapers were more apt to cover good fiction from small presses, we published Sandra Scofield’s Beyond Deserving. The novel had a fine review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, but no review at all appeared in the daily Times. Then, big surprise, the book became a finalist for the National Book Award. We informed the book editor at the Times Culture Desk, which assigns the reviews that appear in the daily Times, about this a couple of months before the winner was to be chosen, without getting any response.

After the winner was announced in a gala setting, the Culture Desk editor justified noncoverage because Beyond Deserving didn’t win. Being ranked as one of the five best novels was not enough. (In fact, we’ve never had a full review in the daily Times except one in our first year—35 years ago. Still, we send one review copy, at minimum expense via Media Mail, in case God wants to make a miracle happen.) But being a finalist for this award sold more copies of Sandra’s novel than additional major newspaper coverage would have.

My suggestion is this: Pay reasonable entrance fees for all sorts of respected awards. Many—including the PEN Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Awards, and the Chautauqua Prize—require no entrance fee. The entry price is steep for the ForeWord Magazine awards, but we limit our entries and find that coming in first, second, or third in any of its many award “categories” makes the investment worthwhile.

One other tactic that works for us is sharing new books with our old authors—well over 100 of them—by sending them electronic files to read and pass on to their friends. It’s had an excellent effect, not only furthering a communal effort, but resulting in authors’ fuller awareness of one another’s talents, which helps increase sales.

I hope that these ideas are helpful to you and that you’ll send feedback on them and information about your own experiences in selling good books to shepard@thepermanentpress.com. Maybe then we’ll have enough for another installment of “How Small Publishers Can Still Sell Good Books.”


Martin Shepard, the co-publisher of The Permanent Press in Sag Harbor, NY, blogs at thecockeyedpessimist.com, which is the source of this article. To learn more: thepermanentpress.com or shepard@thepermanentpress.com.

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