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Yes, You Can Sell Self-Published Fiction!

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Conventional wisdom has long claimed that it’s easier for small/independent publishers to market nonfiction books than novels. Where, then, does that leave the frustrated novelist who enters the publishing business in order to attract readers to the book of her heart?

That was the dilemma I faced in 1998. I had been writing for about 10 years, having begun with teenage romances for Bantam. But the young adult market was growing soft, and I felt the time was right for a change in genre. I had always loved the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer and now I was ready to do the necessary research.

Alas, the response was underwhelming. It appeared that the New York publishing world was not ready for The Weaver Takes a Wife and its protagonist Ethan Brundy, the wealthy but unpolished mill owner who weds¾
and ultimately wins¾
the proud but penniless daughter of a duke. Replies ranged from the kind but vague (“well-written, but not quite right for our line”) to the brutal (“No woman could possibly fall in love with a man like that unless he was devastatingly handsome,” wrote one editor).

I was convinced the editor was wrong. Granted, in a genre peopled with lords and ladies, Mr. Brundy was something of a misfit. But therein, I was convinced, lay his charm. Furthermore, my status as a reader, rather than an industry professional, gave me a perspective the New York publishers lacked. I was familiar with the complaints of Regency fans: shallow and often inaccurate historical detail, stock plotting and characterizations, prose dumbed down from Georgette Heyer’s rich language. And finally, I believed that there was indeed a market for this book–and that I knew how to reach it.

 

What Will Make Them Buy?

Genre marketing, like charity, begins at home. Since I was a member of several groups devoted to writers and/or readers of Regency romances, these seemed the logical place to start. I sent an e-mail detailing my plans for self-publishing to the 400-member Georgette Heyer listserv and the 200-member Beau Monde, a chapter of Romance Writers of America dedicated to the Regency sub-genre. In my message, I offered the book at a pre-publication price of $9.95, approximately 25% off its retail price. This mailing not only allowed me to get the word out to several hundred people at once, at virtually no cost; it also raised a significant portion of my down payment to the printer.

I would like to report that the response rate to this pre-publication offer was 100%; in fact, it was about 15%. Some people were not interested in the book’s story line, I decided, and maybe they could not afford even $9.95. I thought it more likely, however, that they doubted the quality of the writing. Clearly, more persuasion was in order, so after publication I created a tri-fold brochure featuring an excerpt of about 250 words from a scene that reveals something of the major characters’ personalities and the humorous situation that drives the plot. The outside of the brochure featured ordering information and a couple of quotes I had solicited from authors whose style, I felt, was comparable to mine. I printed out copies of the brochure and mailed it to the entire Beau Monde membership roster (I had snail mail addresses for them but not for the Georgette Heyer listserv). As I had suspected, more orders came in once potential buyers were able to read a sample.

 

Getting Reviews & Other Print Publicity

So far, I felt I was doing a good job of reaching the closely knit Regency community, but I would have to do better if I wanted to move the mountains of books cluttering up my computer room. Unfortunately, in my ignorance, I had missed the deadlines for major review publications like Publishers Weekly,Library Journal, and Booklist. What to do? Once again, I looked to the Internet, and there I found several book-review sites devoted to the romance genre. I sent review copies to All About Romance, Romance Communications (now Romance Reviews Today), The Romance Reader (which, unfortunately, no longer accepts self-published books), and Under the Covers Book Reviews. To my delight, they all gave The Weaver Takes a Wife excellent reviews–and, ironically, they all cited the same thing as the book’s major strength: Ethan Brundy, the hapless hero “no woman could possibly love”!

Now that I had reviews to quote, it was time to cast my net a little wider. Since most of my capital was tied up in the book’s production, I had little left for paid advertising, and rates at the major book-review publications, even genre-specific ones like Romantic Times, far exceeded my budget constraints. But I was able to advertise in an eight-page monthly newsletter called The Regency Plume. This publication contains articles on various aspects of life in Regency England, and it’s a popular research tool among Regency writers, as well as others who have an interest in the historical period. It offers reduced ad rates in exchange for articles, so I wrote one on textile production during the Industrial Revolution, based on research I had done while writing my novel. This not only allowed me to promote my book; it also established me as something of an authority on my subject.

 

A Happy Ending for Returns

When my second book, Miss Darby’s Duenna, came out in November 1999, it was reviewed by Library Journal and, as a result, sold as many copies in the first six weeks as Weaver had sold in a year. But success had an unanticipated downside–returns. With the burgeoning library sales of Miss Darby’s Duenna (and later Brighton Honeymoon – August 2000 and French Leave – October 2001), Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Brodart overstocked–causing unwelcome visits from the UPS driver several months later. Faced with dozens of books showing slight but significant damage–scuffed covers, rounded corners, etc.–I had to find a secondary outlet.

This time when I turned to the Internet, I found half.com and ebay. By listing my books, either singly or in groups of mixed titles, I was able to reach readers who never would have heard about them any other way. When packing each order for shipping, I enclosed a copy of my catalog so the buyer could examine my other titles. In order to keep bids up, I listed only two or three books at a time, and spaced them several weeks apart, so the work was sometimes tedious. However the approach has proven successful, as I discovered when one book sparked a bidding war that ended with the shopworn book selling for 20% over retail!

 

Three Tested Tips

Based on my own experience, I offer the following advice to those interested in self-publishing fiction:

·Be absolutely certain as to the quality of your writing. It needs to be as good–or better–than anything coming out of New York.

·Ask yourself: Who is most likely to be interested in reading this book? What publications would they read? What Web sites would they visit?

·Create a marketing plan based on your answers to the above questions.

One caveat: People are justifiably incensed when someone joins their Internet group for the sole purpose of hawking a book. Be sure to contribute to the general discussion as well. Not only will you avoid offending your target market, you’ll also make friends who will be more inclined to buy a book written by someone they “know.”

 

Good luck! It won’t be easy, but publishing and selling my own fiction has been one of the most challenging–and satisfying–things I’ve ever done.

Sheri Cobb South says she’s “a textbook example of what can happen when a writer falls in love with her own creation. So smitten was I by Ethan Brundy that I followed ‘The Weaver Takes a Wife’ with two other novels just so I could keep writing about him.” “Miss Darby’s Duenna,” an unrelated book, won the Royal Ascot Award, and it was described by one reviewer as “I Love Lucy in historical costume.” Excerpts of all South’s books are available at http://www.prinnyworld.com.

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