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IBPA Roundtable: Revelations from Readers: Part 2

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by Judith Appelbaum, Editor, IBPA Independent

A Note from the Editor:

Direct contact with readers is a big plus for independent publishers. When just a few people do the work that large houses parcel out to editorial departments and marketing departments and publicity departments and design departments and production departments and finance departments and operations departments and IT departments, then those people can regularly share input from readers along with other information and ideas. And the input strengthens the writer-to-reader connection that publishing is all about.

Of course, having all those departments housed in one single human being offers the same benefits. In fact, if you’re an independent publisher who’s publishing your own work, you may well profit most from the rewards of being in touch with readers. Functioning as a writer, you’re likely to take special pleasure in readers’ positive comments about the content of your book, and functioning simultaneously as a publisher, you can make use of everything they tell you—whether or not it’s positive—to get the book into the hands, minds, and hearts of additional appreciative readers.

The reports from IBPA members presented below illuminate some of the benefits that flow from direct contact with readers. See also the first installment of this series, published last month, and watch for the third and final installment, coming in the April issue.

As always, it’s a treat to hear from members. Many thanks to all of you who wrote about your experiences with readers and shared what you’ve learned from them.

Judith Appelbaum

A Rich Array of Pointers

We want to learn about readers and prospective readers of our books so we can understand their motivations for selecting the titles, gain information on demographics, determine whether we have a long-lasting relationship with a specific type of reader, and pursue information that can lead to better book design and more strategic marketing

What we’ve learned so far is that our readers prefer faces on book covers, that certain colors appeal to a larger audience, that font size matters (people are more likely to purchase a book if they scan pages and come away feeling it’s an easy read), that unique design increases desire to hold a book and own it as a treasure, and that cover design matters less to buyers of books that contain technical information.

This past year, we revised a book that had been published 25 years ago, basing the new cover design, layout, and format on what we’ve learned from our readers.

Our approach to marketing the new edition is much more comprehensive than our approach to marketing the first one. We now rely heavily on Internet sales and online advertising, and we use email, our Website, telephone calls, and face-to-face communication during book signings, workshops, school visits, and speeches to communicate with readers. Fairly often, we use letters, and we have seen that many of our readers prefer print dialog or face-to-face dialog with us rather than online communication.

Also, we have learned that:

  • Readers like to see a book and hold it. The cover speaks to them, and they like to ask you questions about the book’s content based on what they discern from the cover.
  • Readers like to feel that they’re part of the story you’re telling. They want to see some part of themselves in your book’s fabric.
  • Readers can show you whether a book design is lacking something or fails to address a critical element and help you improve design the next time around.

Readers who are library professionals or teachers (or otherwise in charge of other readers) have taught me how my books are used. For example, some teachers wrote to tell me about using some of my books with high school students who had low reading levels. They said the books spoke to the students’ high intelligence and employed their critical thinking skills without talking down to them, while using words and language on their reading levels. This information improved my marketing and targeting goals. In marketing, this peculiarity could be stressed as an asset.

Vivian Owens 
Eschar Publications, LLC 

Information That Inspires

My mother, Dr. Virginia K. Freyermuth, and I started Polly Parker Press to create inspiring, beautiful books to be treasured and loved by children, young adults, and the young at heart. We consider our books to be works of art, and we invite our readers to step with us into a new era of children’s books with old world spirit and charm.

After three years of work, we published our first picture book—Norbert: What Can Little Me Do?—in November 2013, based on a real three-pound registered therapy dog named Norbert.

We seek feedback through social media, email, and word of mouth, and during author/illustrator talks, book readings, and book signings. This feedback inspires us and informs our creative process for our future publications.

Our audience includes children, parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians, and independent bookstore owners. One little boy hugged and kissed our picture book, then thanked us after his mother purchased it, inspiring us and helping us see that we are fulfilling our purpose.

Before our book launch, we ran a successful Kickstarter Project, so we also encourage feedback (and testimonials) from our project backers via email, posts to our Facebook page, and personal phone calls.

With each book purchased at our programs, we include a marketing postcard and typed letter from Norbert, who is present at many of our book events, creating a strong connection and memorable experience for our audience. Our readers learn about the work of therapy dogs, take photos, and often send us drawings of Norbert, which we display at pollyparkerpress.com/fan-art-gallery, and which further validate our efforts as a publisher for young children.

Julie Freyermuth 
Polly Parker Press, LLC 

The Hometown Advantage

I established an independent publishing company to self-publish my first novel, Stuck, released this past September. My target readers are women ages 18–55, and I thought my book would appeal mostly to American readers purchasing e-books from major e-tailers such as Amazon. In fact, most of my book sales so far have been to readers on the east coast of Canada—where I’m from and where the book is set—who buy the paperback version from bookstores and at author events.

I have had some interesting reactions and reviews from readers. Analyzing the comments, I noticed that most of the negative feedback came from Netgalley reviewers who had chosen my book to read and review even though it wasn’t in their genre. Now I’ve learned that it is important to stay within your genre if you’re seeking attention from book reviewers and bloggers.

The most memorable comment I received about my book came when I was doing a signing at a big Christmas fair in Atlantic Canada. A young man approached me and asked if I would meet his girlfriend; he said she was shy, but she really wanted to talk to me. I said yes, of course, and a young woman walked over and shook my hand, saying she was so happy to meet me because her whole family had read my book, even her dad, who didn’t like to read. She said her mother had bought the book only because we were all from the same small town and she was curious about it, and the family loved the local references and characters I’d created—they related to the book completely.

I have made it a priority to communicate every day with family, friends, and fans by way of social media. It has been an overwhelmingly emotional and gratifying experience for me. Through Facebook I’ve been able to reconnect with aunts and cousins I’d completely lost touch with, and some of them have turned out to be the biggest cheerleaders for my book. I use Twitter mainly to establish myself as an expert, tweeting all kinds of information about the transforming publishing industry and opportunities for authors. I engage in Tumblr to syndicate my Website blog, which I publish every Friday to talk about my lessons learned, and I started a Pinterest page for my favorite book covers. I also maintain a Google+ page to follow leaders in the industry such as Guy Kawasaki, and I created a separate Google+ book cover page to help with discoverability for my book in the Google search algorithms. Also, I enjoy using Instagram to snap fun, candid moments that share a bit of my personality with fans, since I’ve heard that online communication with a visual component is twice as likely to be read as a simple text post.

In addition, I maintain a LinkedIn professional profile to share my publishing progress and blog with my connections, and because I do freelance editing work. I have a profile on the new Kirkus Reviews ProConnect page; I publish chapters of my work on the free reading site Wattpad to find new readers; I maintain an author profile and participate in groups on Goodreads and Shefari; and I maintain an Author Central author page on Amazon that syndicates my blog and Twitter feed.

As you can see, I engage readers online in just about every way I can think of, and the result is the occasional “comment,” “reblog,” “favorite,” or “like” from fans. The online conversations that seem to gain the most traction are always the personal ones with photos, where I announce something that I’m doing—like heading to a cottage in the woods for a writer’s retreat—rather than a bit of industry news.

But still, I have to admit that the best way I’ve found to engage fans is with face-to-face conversations at book signings, book clubs, and other in-person events. This is where I learn why people liked my book and what their favorite parts were, which continues to intrigue me. It’s also where I’ve heard overwhelmingly from readers that they want to see a sequel to Stuck so they can follow Odette’s journey into the next phase of her life. Very interesting, because I honestly had never thought about writing a sequel.

Stacey D. Atkinson 
Mirror Image Publishing 

Signs of Social Impact

I am a physician who has published two nonfiction books for the health care markets about service improvement in health care. More recently, I have written a historical novel entitled 1918 about the Great Influenza Pandemic. The novel would be enjoyed by people who like rigorously researched and accurate historical fiction, and by clinical health care workers.

Unlike some authors, I have no illusions of great wealth coming from any of my books. That does not interest me at all. What does interest me is feedback from readers who have felt moved by something I have written.

I find it greatly rewarding when someone quotes one of my nonfiction books on the Internet in the context of improving service in their own health care organizations. And I find it enormously satisfying when someone responds to 1918 by saying “I couldn’t put the book down,” or by telling me they felt something for the characters as they lived through both a world war and the worst natural disaster in human history. A number of readers have told me that they will now insist on getting annual influenza vaccinations and insist that their loved ones do that too. Do you know how wonderful that social impact is for a physician?

I have to admit that I am still learning about reader interaction but I have found that social media are absolutely essential. I had a professional construct a Web site for me, and I can’t see how anyone can market a book without one. As I communicate with people via Facebook and email or in person, I can refer to the site to give them an opportunity to explore more about my books when it is convenient for them. Since I have a “day job” as a gastroenterologist, I really don’t have time to do all the other things that people talk about. But again, I’m still learning!

David Cornish 
David Cornish Books 

Feeling-It Feedback

I write young adult sci-fi/fantasy, having recently published my debut novel Eramane. Researching other authors’ downfalls and successes has been helpful in learning about the young-adult audience. Reading reviews via Goodreads is also a great tool for gauging what readers are looking for in a specific genre.

I am active on many social media sites, as most authors are, blogging weekly to engage with other bloggers and readers and keep my Facebook fan page engaging. That can be a daunting task because I have a small fan base there. I thank each visitor who stops by and leaves a comment, and I like to follow those who follow my blog and to be active as a follower so fans know that I am interested in them too.

Twitter is the site I am on most, since you can get in and out quickly but still reach a large number of potential fans. I’m new to Tumblr and Instagram, but I am working on those outlets as well.

Reviews are a love/hate experience. When a fan leaves a good review, you pat yourself on the back and hope that they recommend you to a friend. When the review is bad, or, in some cases, hurtful, you want to hide in a dark room and cry, praying that somehow it will get erased from all the realms and reaches of the Internet. Knowing that your story impacted a reader, made someone feel each emotion, you still get teary-eyed, but these are tears of gratitude. Ahhh . . . that’s the best.

Frankie Ash 
Archway Publishing 

Consequences That Count

We get big grins from reader reactions to both our nonfiction and fiction titles. With respect to our flagship nonfiction title, Bumper to Bumper: The Complete Guide to Tractor-Trailer Operations, we get handwritten notes on little slips of paper from commercial motor vehicle operator trainees telling us how much they enjoyed using our book in their truck driver training program.

These thank-you notes make a big impression on me because I don’t remember ever writing to the publisher of any textbook I ever used. Our efforts are validated when we learn that the students not only graduated and went on to start new careers, but that they keep our book in the cab of the truck for ready reference throughout the driving day.

Four- and five-star unsolicited reader reviews on Amazon.com tell us that both students and instructors find our book informative, easy to use, and preferable to similar titles.

As for our fiction books, we have frankly been overwhelmed by the reader reaction. Four- and five-star unsolicited rave reviews on Amazon.com would have been good enough. However, one reader told us that The Lost King spurred him to pick up a pen and do some writing of his own, which turned out to be fan fiction. Another told us how comforted he was to discover that someone else understood his painful experience. A third stated that until he read The Lost King, his reading consisted of nonfiction—history and biography and technical manuals. However our book awakened a love of fiction, and now he’s a devoted reader of novels. And most recently, a reader who was grieving wrote us to tell us about the relief she found escaping into The King’s Ransom.

We’ve been privileged to help launch a new career; to awaken artistic sensibility; to connect with someone in a deep and meaningful way. There are days when that’s all the encouragement we need to keep writing and to keep putting those books out there.

Devorah Fox  
Mike Byrnes & Assoc., Inc.  
bumper2bumpertruckbook.com; cdlbookblog.com

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