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IBPA Roundtable: Revelations from Readers: Part 1

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February 2014

Revelations from Readers

“What good are readers?” is one of those questions that seem to demand a response, like “How much time do you have?”

For sure, readers mean book sales and book sales mean money and money means being able to do more books and get them into the hands and minds and hearts of appreciative readers. But as IBPA members know, readers have great value for many other reasons too.

The reports that follow make up the first installment of our series about what publishers glean from interactions with readers. As you’ll see, they provide insights on how you might manage those interactions and what rewards you might reap as a result.

More members’ reports will run next month. Many thanks to everybody who sent a contribution.

—Judith Appelbaum

Intel Re: Abiding Interest

Blue Merle Publishing is a niche startup that focuses on canine fiction, cozy mysteries, and mature women’s fiction, and that has been entirely shaped by what I’ve learned from readers through email (author contact

information appears in the back of every book I publish), social media, and blog comments.

I answer every email I receive and add each address to my contact list. Four times a year I send out a newsletter about sales and new releases, including not only my books but also those of other authors I publish.

Although I don’t always read online reader reviews, I conduct a “focus group” session for every new release, offering a giveaway to about 20 readers chosen at random from my list to provide feedback on what they liked and didn’t like about the book. This kind of   feedback helps me make sure I am still on target with the direction a series is taking, and it is absolutely vital to sales, because without a good product no amount of marketing will make a difference.

Blue Merle Publishing was born when I began receiving multiple emails every day requesting more books in the Raine Stockton Dog Mysteries series, which NAL had canceled almost three years previously (after a print life of less than a year for the entire series). Most of those readers had picked up the books in used-book stores.

These emails told me two important things: Readers of cozy mysteries are reluctant to pay full price (even the $7.99 paperback price) for a new author, and it takes longer than a year to establish a series. I took a chance on publishing another short installment in the series as an e-book and sold it for $1.99 (which is close to what readers would pay in aused-book store).

 

The speed with which the book took off astonished me. I had enough requests for a paperback to justify bringing out a print version with POD, and the series was reborn. There are now eight books in the Raine Stockton Dog Mysteries series, selling briskly at $5.99 apiece as e-books and $16.95 apiece as trade paperbacks. And this is due solely to the fact that reader feedback assured me of an audience for the series and guided me toward the price point. In addition to sending emails directly to me, many readers follow me on Facebook, which gives me a good idea of the demographic for each series.

Readers of the dog mysteries are generally in their 30s and 40s, with a good mix of male and female, and they tend to be somewhat technologically savvy. Therefore, e-books do very well with this group.

Readers of the Ladybug Farm series, which is targeted to women ages 40 to 60, tend to be much older than I had imagined (more like 60 to 80), and although they may have e-reading devices, they are not particularly comfortable with them. These readers, mostly female, tend to check out books from the library and share books among friends. They are also the target market for large-print books. Accordingly, for the Ladybug Farm series I focus on print book sales, especially library sales and large-print subrights sales. E-book sales, though healthy, are incidental.

The readers of the Ladybug Farm series tend to be more communicative than those of my other series, and often their emails tell me how my books have touched their lives in some way—helping them through an illness or the loss of a loved one, restoring a broken relationship, bringing mothers and daughters together. I received one email from a reader in Newtown, CT, only days after the Sandy Hook shooting, that I will never forget, expressing with simple eloquence how even a few hours of escape in the midst of tragedy can restore hope. Letters like this have defined the mission of my company and have shaped the content of my books.

Donna Ball

Blue Merle Publishing

bluemerlepublishing.com

Clues to Additional Markets

Because of customer comments, Parenting Press became aware of how useful its materials are in therapeutic and special needs situations. The press was established in 1979 to issue parenting guides, and some years later, we began to add problem-solving books for children.

We did not publish a full-color picture book for a general audience until 2000. Comments from pediatric centers and from parents of children with autism were among the early praise for that book, The Way I Feel, which shows kids experiencing sadness, fear, jealousy, disappointment, and other strong emotions.

Most of those comments came in fan mail, and we followed up on every one to obtain permission to quote it in our promotional material.

When we didn’t get a lot of early feedback on a later publication—The Self-Calming Cards, a card deck that explains and shows how children can manage emotions with activities (kneading bread, stringing beads, jumping rope, for example)—we contacted our direct customers by phone and asked them how they were using the cards. One

elementary school special education teacher who praised the content said he especially liked the fact that the cards were larger than other cards available for his students. That was something we hadn’t known was a benefit.

Feedback from readers prompted us to pursue state education department approval for both books.

We continually promote these and other publications with our in-house database of school librarians, school psychologists and social workers, and classroom and special education teachers.

The database includes more than 30,000 email addresses, and we contact most of those several times annually. Almost every e-blast includes subscription information that encourages further contact via two free digital publications—our Weekly Parenting Tips (parentingpress.com/weeklytips.html) and News for Parents (parentingpress.com/ezine.html), a monthly that includes a feedback link after each of its nine or ten articles. Both are available for reprint at no charge.

Our e-blasts also encourage continuing contact by including information on our Facebook and Twitter posts. Although Facebook reports that each of our posts to the company page is typically seen by fewer than 150 people, we have more than 1,200 Twitter followers, all gathered with only our own publicity and followers’ retweets.

Carolyn Threadgill

Parenting Press

parentingpress.com

Leads to Libraries and More

Crying Cougar Press publishes fantasy adventure series for middle grade and young adult readers. To find out about readers for our books, mostly I listen and read, and I’m on the phone all the time.

At a publishers group meeting many years ago, someone mentioned Google Alerts as a way to learn when a book series gets hits on Google. I set up alerts for Harry PotterPercy Jackson, and Wimpy Kid. Every week I get an email for each alert, and if I see a public library or school library mentioned in an article, I call and speak with the librarian. I ask if I can email my series Websites to them. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this, including having Diego’s Dragon featured in the New York Public Library, with the librarian posting Facebook promo info for kids borrowing books.

I read, yes, the Independent. After I followed the advice in an article about getting bloggers to review your books and posting reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and so on, a wonderful woman in Montana asked for the first Diego’s Dragon book for her 10-year-old daughter to read, and the girl went absolutely nuts about it. Said I was her new fav author, and proclaimed Diego’s Dragon the best dragon book she’s ever read (and her mom said she’s read dozens).

Then I found two Websites that are clearinghouses listing hundreds of MG and YA bloggers (middlegrademania.blogspot.com/p/middle-grade-book-blogs_03.htmlyabookblogdirectory.blogspot.com/p/ya-book-blogger-list.html), and all those bloggers talk to each other. How’s that for the exponential spread of good news?

You may not believe it, but I’ve made close to 100,000 phone calls over the last nine years, to bookstores, public libraries, and school libraries. (If you’re not willing to put in the time, then you can’t expect your books to receive any exposure.)

I focus on personal email responses, my Websites, a newsletter, a blog, Facebook, Twitter, telephone calls, and school visits. I do a lot, but I have big dreams, and I know Diego’s Dragon and Conor and the Crossworlds are good enough to go all the way. I’m even beginning to intertwine both series, which is going to bring about amazing plot lines.

But the telephone calls and the school visits, they’re my bread and butter.

Kevin Gerard

Crying Cougar Press

diegosdragon.comconorandthecrossworlds.com

Input Pre- and Post-Pub

Some people write for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers. I write for one reader but that one reader is someone who is going to be deeply moved by what I have written.

I think there are two kinds of writers. Some want their books to be a stand (or grandstand) for what they want to teach others. I’m the other kind, the one who wants to go on a journey that starts with a question mark and ends with a book after the author has learned a tremendous amount about a subject.

Okay, in case you’re curious, I love to write nonfiction books that take many sides of a complicated social or medical issue, walking the reader (and before the book is finished, walking myself) through a maze of information, ideas, paradigms, and opinions. When I wrote The Circumcision Decision, for example, to help expectant parents make a truly informed decision for a newborn son, I learned about the medical issues, the social and ethical issues, and even the sexual issues. Then—along with my coauthor, who is also my longtime editor—I wrote a final chapter on actually making the decision.

We had numerous readers who helped us along the way. Some were experts in religion and ethics; others were experts in decision making. Still others were physicians who corrected information about the procedure, about foreskins, disease, and the like. We even had a physician/minister who is an expert on sexology help us refine our information and present it accurately.

The readers who helped us after the book came out were the ones writing online reviews, blurbs, letters of gratitude, and yes, sometimes the ones offering information for later, revised editions.

What would I do if a reader wrote a terrible review? That has never happened for any of my 20-plus books, but once I did get a horrific review on a proposal I had submitted to an editor. I looked up that editor’s books, read a number of the recent ones, and saw what she was lamenting—I sounded too much like a dry encyclopedia. Then I used her negative comments to improve my writing. And I tell that story over and over again to budding writers who want only approval from their readers.

Susan Terkel

Carrot Seed Publishing LLC

thecircumcisiondecision.com

When Helping Is the Goal

For me it is a simple story.

It is not about markets and targets. It is about the fact that my daughter, at 31, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. I swore if she made it through the place I call Cancerville I would devote the rest of my career as a psychologist to helping people cope with that difficult and demanding place. She has done well, and three books have emerged so far; a fourth is in process.

Readers can email or call me for support, and they do. I respond to every call and email.

I speak at cancer-related conferences all over the country without a fee and usually on my own dime. For me, it is about helping—anyone and everyone dealing with cancer. I can’t say it puts a smile on my face, but I can say it puts a deposit in what I call my “pride bank.”

Bill Penzer

Esperance Press Inc

cancerville.commindlymatters.com

Alerts from Reviews (Among Other Things)

We publish business books and textbooks, with a focus on decision analysis and game theory. Our market is a niche market.

To learn about readers and prospective readers for our books, I participate in industry conferences related to our market. If I’m speaking (or if one of our authors is speaking), we sometimes give a free copy of our newest book to the person who answers a question during the talk. This brings attention to the book without blatantly plugging it (and blatant plugs are not appropriate at these conferences).

Probably our most common interaction with readers is via email. When a reader sends an email about technical content in a book, we get the author to respond. Quite a few of our orders come in via email.

Our most important interaction with readers is via Amazon reviews. We watch those reviews closely, and if authors’ business competitors flame the authors’ books as a competitive move, we get Amazon to remove those inappropriate posts.

Dave Charlesworth

Probabilistic Publishing

decisions-books.com

Reasons for Gratitude

I am a psychologist who writes literary American women’s historical fiction, books about psychology for the profession or the trade, and psychological suspense novels.

If there was a purpose to my being born, it was to write The Art of Dying. When I wrote it in 1994, there were many books for people who were bereaved, and also for caregivers, but there seemed to be nothing for those who were facing their own deaths, either because they were ill or because they were in existential crisis.

In the years since I wrote the book, I have given numerous talks and had many conversations with relatives, often people in their 40s, who wanted to know how to help a beloved dying parent or spouse. I suggest reading the book, which tackles a number of the practical problems the dying face and offers a variety of solutions. The relative can then focus on the problems that seem uppermost in their loved one’s mind, and suggest some of the solutions.

I still receive messages of gratitude. When I feel like weeping, I remember my own experience of near-death and dying into the light when I was 20, long before these phrases were even coined. Dying is a transition, something I have written about extensively in my historical novels.

My careers have taught me that what I thought I couldn’t do, I did. I thought I couldn’t get over my agoraphobia, but I did so by stepping outside our front door one day in utter terror, and then taking another step the next day, until I was around the block. (That can be dangerous; every time you turn back, the surge of relief is a reward for doing so). I thought I couldn’t speak in public; I became a university professor. I thought I couldn’t sell my books; my most delightful experience was selling The Cave of Storms at book-signings.

Because I love my books, I communicate that passion to others. I thought only women would like them, but it turned out that men “loved all that Indian stuff.” I thought I lacked craft, but, at a party two years ago, a guest spent almost an hour in an exegesis of Mindstalker, my novel of psychological suspense, showing me what choices I’d made, what decisions, why I had done this and not something else. I thought only I knew that!

I am profoundly grateful to the Universe for these lessons, and also for its help.

What I hope others derive from my story is that it’s not about money, fame, duty, power, time, or any other matter of extrinsic worth. Many writing students have approached me for advice about how to write a bestseller. They also want to be rock stars or movie actors, win the lottery, or otherwise become very, very rich. I don’t believe that’s the way to happiness.

Of course, we must earn enough to survive. But if there is something that whispers to you over and over through the years, then that is what you must do. Forget about whether or not you can. It’s irrelevant. Someone will always be better than you. Your gift is yours, no one else’s.

Patricia Weenolsen

Rubythroat Press

RubythroatPress.com.

Rewards via Research and Reassurance

Auricle Ink Publishers was founded in 1997 as the only book publishing company in the hearing industry that invites scholars to write chapters and books for consumers with hearing loss—books, in other words, that can be readily understood at a nontechnical level. Since 1997, we’ve exceeded our highest goals, selling mostly within the hearing industry, although our books have been widely embraced within the general book trade.

To our pleasant surprise, even top colleges, universities, and medical schools (such as Harvard, Princeton, and the Mayo Clinic) have adopted our books as supplemental reading for students, since the material is so straightforward, yet covers highly technical information and technologies.

Early on, we used the Walmart model for marketing: Target the biggest avenues to our audience and sell at a highly reduced price. Following this model, we created abridged editions of one of our most successful books—The Consumer Handbook on Hearing Loss & Hearing Aids: A Bridge to Healing, compiled by multiple scholars—reducing 250 pages to 112. We were quite successful in getting hearing aid manufacturers to buy them and give them free with their products to the ultimate end-user (patients who would wear their brand of hearing aids).

Somewhat remarkably, the value of this book as an educational tool was put to the test in a national scientific study. Just under 300 subjects across 31 audiologic practices were evaluated (information on the study is available at betterhearing.org/hia/publications/MR38.pdf).

Results revealed the book had significant and measurable impact on patients (cutting the hearing aid return rate almost in half), benefiting individuals and the whole family in their struggles with hearing loss and hearing aids. We then touted this study as a marketing tool to other professionals in the industry to demonstrate the value of the book.

This led to many professionals using the book in their hearing aid dispensing business, escalating into tens of thousands of book sales in medical and audiologic practices.

Given the excellence any publisher strives for, proofreading has no end. We had a patient write us a kind email about a miserable typo blunder we had made. We sent her a complimentary hardcover book in gratitude. Hardly a week goes by without us getting at least a phone call from a patient somewhere in the United States wanting extra copies of this book. It is heartwarmingly reassuring when we’re told that this little book has made such a difference in their lives.

With over 75 scholars who have written for the company, our team believes we are on the right track, but confirmation from readers is always a plus, and inspiring. We’ve sold more than a million copies of this title in all editions.

Richard E. Carmen

Auricle Ink Publishers

HearingProblems.com

 

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