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Real Lessons on Promoting Fiction

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by Deb Vanasse, IBPA Independent staff reporter

Deb Vanasse

How to overcome challenges and grow your readership

Independent publishers succeed with nonfiction by targeting niche markets and pursuing special sales opportunities. But finding an audience for fiction can be—quite literally—a different story.

“With an oversaturated market, it becomes tremendously daunting to stand out, especially if your promotional budget is comparatively small in relation to the larger, more well-established publishing houses,” notes Frederick Barrows, publisher at Lone Argonaut.

The difficulty of identifying potential readers for fiction amplifies the problem. “Nonfiction titles tend to have very obvious target markets—leadership books for C-suite executives, cookbooks for those with specific dietary needs, finance books for those interested and able to invest,” says Corrin Foster, director of marketing and branding for Greenleaf Book Group. “Fiction readers cross genres, and interest lines.”

With titles that correlate to particular interest groups, authors of nonfiction also benefit from speaking opportunities that help build a fan base, notes Wendy Dingwall, publisher at Canterbury House. This advantage extends to press coverage too.

Patricia Rockwell Cozy Cat Press

Patricia Rockwell

“I’ve always felt it unfair that reporters and bloggers tend to interview nonfiction authors regarding their topics but fiction authors only regarding the art of writing,” says Patricia Rockwell, publisher at Cozy Cat Press. “Just because a work of fiction is not real does not mean that the author has not done a lot of research and investigation to create it. I wish reporters would recognize this fact and ask fiction writers questions about book content as often as they ask nonfiction writers.”

Despite these challenges, resourceful publishers are able to create strategies that grow readership for their fiction.

Strategies from Peers

Greenleaf Book Group has developed an effective, systematic approach to promoting fiction. For each title, they undertake a comprehensive brand audit, beginning with an analysis of the competitive landscape and concluding with a plan that emphasizes a cohesive brand message. As part of the process, Foster explains, the marketing team identifies primary, secondary, and tertiary audiences for each book. Audience size, level of engagement, and the degree to which the audience correlates with the book’s target demographics distinguish these three categories of potential readers.

Patricia Flaherty Pagan Editor-in-Chief Spider Road Press

Patricia Flaherty Pagan

Another strategy is to focus a company’s fiction list on a specific subset of readers—in other words, to target a niche market for fiction. Spider Road Press, which publishes fiction by and/or about strong women, caters to writers, teachers, and activists who are interested in supporting women in literature and in the arts in general. To promote the company’s list to this niche market, Editor-in-Chief Patricia Flaherty Pagan reached out first to her primary audience—her own network of MFA connections, women’s groups, and alumni networks.

1. UpDo_BookCoverSeasonal tie-ins have also boosted sales of fiction at Spider Road Press. “Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers is a natural choice for classes, book groups, and literary fiction readers to explore during Women’s History Month,” Pagan says. Before and during this tie-in month, the company markets the title via social media, through Amazon giveaways, and by offering special pricing at in-person sales events.

Ultimately, Pagan notes, reader satisfaction is among the best strategies for growing an audience for fiction. “We have found that readers who read our initial title, Up, Do, are pleased with its intensity and diversity of styles—and these readers tend to become loyal readers,” she says, citing sales tracking from the company’s website that shows satisfied customers returning for additional purchases.

Involving Authors

To address the challenge of promoting fiction, independent publishers also leverage the strong relationships they build with their authors. “I strongly encourage authors to do at least 30 signing events in the first six to nine months, supported by a web presence on several media outlets,” says Dingwall.

By fostering relationships among its authors, Cozy Cat Press also extends the promotional reach for its list of mystery titles. “Many of our authors have blogs or websites where they post about their own books and the books of their fellow authors,” Rockwell says. “We have one author who has a podcast and she frequently interviews other Cozy Cat authors on her radio show. Another author edits an online mystery magazine and features our books.”

Publishing multiple authors in a single collection amplifies the reach. Spider Road’s Up, Do features work by 32 writers, each of whom brings her own connections to the promotional mix. “Prize-winning writers like Kathryn Kulpa in Rhode Island and Cathy Edmunds in the United Kingdom help us reach readers in their areas,” Pagan says. The response from book groups has been especially strong, she notes—and by offering a group discount, the company encourages these orders.

E-marketing Tactics

E-marketing is another effective way of growing an audience for fiction. “We spend quite a bit of time researching social media trends, in the hope of getting more hits, likes, and sales,” says Dingwall, who uses Hootsuite to stay active on social media. Twitter promotions produced the biggest bump in sales.

For tips on effective social media campaigns, she relies on the IBPA Independent, Target Marketing Magazine, and Digital Book World, as well as social media sites such as Curata.com. “The key is following the right targets for a particular book,” she explains. “For example, I uploaded a true-crime e-book, so I began to follow true-crime TV programs and other true-crime sites, assuming their followers would be interested in true-crime novels.” As the number of follow-backs increased, Dingwall began posting about Cozy Cat’s true-crime novel Deadly Greed, using hashtags #WilmingtonNC, #Political, #FBI.

At Bitingduck Press, Editor-in-Chief Jay Nadeau reports success with e-marketing tactics such as electronic book tours, BookBub promotions, and the distribution of e-galleys. “To get reviewers, we send queries to potentially interested authors and book reviewers, some via NetGalley,” Nadeau explains. “We don’t have any limit on the number of pre-release copies we’ll send out; sometimes it’s hundreds.” Reviews by bloggers who learn of the books from NetGalley lay the groundwork for electronic book tours, which are organized by the authors themselves.

Foster also notes the value of distributing e-galleys. “The NetGalley community has supported our fiction titles tremendously, and their reporting tools provide us with a level of analysis that we can’t get from any other reader community,” she says. “Being able to target readers by genre interest and buying power is a huge benefit. Their honest and active reviewers are instrumental in generating buzz and championing independent authors.”

Corrin Foster Director of Marketing and Branding Greenleaf Book Group

Corrin Foster

Post-launch, publishers turn to e-book promotions. “Limited-time promotions for fiction titles have been especially fruitful for our authors as they benefit from voracious readers who are willing to try a book by a new author for a low price,” Foster explains. “Those readers are also more likely to review and share their recommendations with others. All that buzz influences Amazon rankings, which can make the book visible to even more potential readers.”

When running a promotion, Greenleaf discounts the e-book price to between $0.99 and $2.99 for 7–14 days—a significant, limited-time discount that encourages downloads while still conveying the title’s value, Foster says. To maximize visibility during the promotional period, the company partners with e-book bargain sites while also running targeted advertising through sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, and Goodreads. At the same time, they reactivate the title on NetGalley to encourage blog coverage and social promotion from an audience that is already familiar with and supportive of the book.

“Every time we coordinate a promotion, we analyze the results and use that data to make future promotional decisions and reallocate campaign budgets to the most effective avenues,” Foster says.

At Bitingduck, BookBub is the venue of choice for e-book promotions. “It’s challenging to get a title accepted, but it always helps,” Nadeau says, noting that the company relies on its authors to submit their titles to BookBub—again and again, if necessary.

Return on Investment

In contrast with NetGalley and e-book promotions, Foster says, “The least valuable initiatives are those with no metrics or tracking, specifically print advertising. My marketing team can execute a half-dozen trackable initiatives for the cost of one print ad.”

While Nadeau agrees that returns from ads in general publications can be negligible, his company has found success with targeted advertising of fiction titles. After running an ad in VFW Magazine (readers are veterans of foreign wars) to promote a maritime historical fiction series, The Fighting Anthonys, Bitingduck noted an uptick in sales for the series. Online advertising of a hard sci-fi title about astrophysicists, A Slow Cold Death, on the space news and reference site SpaceRef.com yielded similar results.

Bitingduck has also found success marketing fiction at targeted conferences such as American Library Association Conference. “We have seen approximately a doubling in [general] sales after each conference for each featured title,” says Nadeau, noting that library sales on select titles increased tenfold.

At Lone Argonaut, co-op ads targeting libraries and independent bookstores helped to drive sales. After advertising in several IBPA catalogs, the Publishers Weekly cooperative, and Foreword Reviews, Barrows received requests from Midwest Book Review for three novels from the company’s list, with a subsequent uptick in sales after the reviews were published.

Tips for Success

By developing and implementing creative tactics that make good use of available resources, independent publishers can overcome the challenges of promoting their fiction. “It’s a common- sense approach,” says Dingwall. “Be visible and engaging in a professional way, both in person and on the web.”

A professional approach includes taking time to research and identify the target market for each title, Foster notes. “It might not be who you think it is,” she says. “Focus your efforts on those initiatives with analytics that can help inform future campaigns, and grow your audience through genuine interactions with readers.”

To build relationships with readers at in-person events, Dingwall recommends thinking outside the box. “Bookstores are great, but craft fairs, gift shops, and festivals of all types can allow the author more sales, more money, and are often more motivating experiences,” she explains.

Dingwall also stresses the importance of keeping authors motivated to sign and market books after their initial tours end. “Most of all, make sure they know they should have fun and enjoy getting to know their fans,” she says. “The fans will appreciate it and return to buy their new releases.”

With fiction in particular, success breeds success. “Don’t stop at the first book,” Nadeau recommends. “Series are popular, and the popularity of the series usually grows with each successive book.”

In the end, readers of fiction are like all other readers—they’re looking for quality books. By insisting on top-notch editorial and design work for each title, independent publishers take a substantial first step toward reaching these readers. As Barrows points out, “If the work is good, it will ultimately find an audience.”

Deb Vanasse, who co-founded 49 Writers and founded the author co-op Running Fox Books, is the author of 16 books. Her most recent are WRITE YOUR BEST BOOK, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest, and WHAT EVERY AUTHOR SHOULD KNOW, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion, as well as WEALTH WOMAN: KATE CARMACK AND THE KLONDIKE RACE FOR THE GOLD (April 2016).

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