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The Niche as Novelist’s’ Nirvana; Or, Cycling to Success

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If you want to give your book its best shot, you can’t go wrong by finding ways to identify readers who want it to succeed almost as badly as you do. Several things that I’ve done, both by design and by accident, have contributed to success for me.

Lassoing a Tornado

In the midst of the stir my new book is now creating, it’s hard to believe that as late as December of 2003 I was still pursuing traditional publication channels for The Race: A Novel of Grit, Tactics, and the Tour de France, thinking that what I really needed was a publisher with deep pockets who would go out and tell the world about the novel. How naïve I was, and how thankful I am for the obstacles that sent me onto another path!

Only a couple of weeks beyond my publication date, I’ve sold nearly 6,000 copies, and we have returned to press three times. Back in December I was negotiating with a well-established publisher when it delivered the news that it would be impossible to get my book out prior to the 2004 Tour de France. I realized this would never work. My options had been narrowing by the day, but I was convinced that this book must get onto shelves this season. I owed it to the people who needed to read it (even if they weren’t aware of that yet).

I scraped funds together and created Three Story Press. Ten years of effort trying to break through as a novelist had yielded an understanding of routes likely to lead to success, and I could see I wasn’t exactly on one of them. To accomplish my dreams, I’d need some lucky breaks, and since I’ve always believed luck is what occurs when preparation meets opportunity, one of my first moves was to join PMA.

I felt confident in my marketing plan, which was initially geared to getting books into the hands of cyclists, but I knew that distribution to bookstores also had to be part of the plan. That’s why, even as the first 3,000 copies were rolling off the presses, I submitted my title for the IPG Small Press Distribution Program. I was thrilled when it was accepted, but I would soon be deflated when I learned that acceptance was contingent on my packaging the book in a new cover. (Note to self: Learn to enjoy roller-coaster emotions, or get the heck out of publishing.)

Pushed Forward by Setbacks

Not only would a new cover and another print run be difficult for an underfunded company, but the time frame appeared impossible. IPG needed artwork for their catalog in only a couple of weeks. My foot had been firmly planted on the gas pedal from the beginning in this project, and it was tough to consider returning to the design stage. When I cleared my head, though, I realized that was the right move. I still can’t believe my good fortune at hooking up with IPG’s Cynthia Murphy and Lightbourne’s Bob Swingle to help me pull it off.

At that point I still held a full-time job, so I spent late nights scouring the Internet for artwork that met our criteria. Bob added who knows how many more hours creating complementary design elements and making high-tech photo alterations. Then Cynthia and the IPG team applied their expertise to tell us what was right and what was not as the project evolved. I couldn’t be more pleased with the end result, and while I realize you can’t judge a book by its cover, I now understand more clearly than ever how vital the cover is in convincing people that your book is worth judging in the first place.

The redesign pushed our publication date back a month. The big target of the July 2004 Tour de France loomed. My plans relied upon having real momentum by the time Lance Armstrong hit the Alps. I firmly believed that if the public realized a novel existed to give them insight into this legendary cyclist’s epic accomplishments, they would have to grab a copy. That could only happen if I’d captured the media’s attention in time for them to get the word out for me.

Recruiting My Satisfied Readers Sales Force

The reprint snafu forced me to take in a garage full of books that no longer matched my marketing materials, but I figured cycling fans might like “collector’s editions” more than the real thing. I would rely on them to tell the noncycling community what a great book they’d discovered. I felt they would do that because the tale expresses their passion and reveals the culture they love. And they did, as you’ll see below.

I began spreading the word on cycling Web sites and also attending the most popular races. I encouraged every reader to e-mail me with opinions on the story, and I thanked all the readers who responded and asked them to share the book with others. I’ve been completely open with readers about what I am trying to accomplish, and hundreds of them have become wonderful partners in my quest.

Just one example: Someone mentioned my book on a popular Internet discussion board and created a hotlink to my Web site. When traffic started coming in, I followed it backward and joined the conversation. Readers spread the word to numerous other cycling discussion boards, and I got in on those conversations as well. As a result, a sports talk-show host who is passionate about bicycle racing contacted me, and we scheduled a series of interviews. Who knows where this chain might lead next? No wonder I let every reader who contacts me know how grateful I am for their notes. Not only are those are my honest feelings, but as a book marketer I have an awful lot to gain.

The cool thing is, people of all sorts–from cycling aficionados to literary critics–who had no previous interest in cycling have had nice things to say about The Race. I’ve used their comments to build a platform to continue leveraging the book’s success.

Jumping on More Promo Possibilities

Just before attending my first bicycle race to launch the book, I read Burt Levy’s PMA Newsletter article in which he mentioned posting fliers in Porta-Potties (“Innovation Is Desperation Turned Inside Out,” April 2004). What a great idea! When I tried it, people began searching me out, and I sold out of stock. If there is a better spot to post people’s opinions of your work than above a urinal, I can’t think of it. Some of the comments I’ve received have been classic.

Radio interviews have sold a lot of copies too, even though conventional wisdom says they don’t work too well for fiction. I advertised in TV & Radio Interview Report, and I’m finding that hosts often keep me on for twice the scheduled time, probably because I follow four guidelines (see “Why Radio Works for My Novel”).

And an accident of promotion turned into a gold mine. Through a set of circumstances too fortuitous to be believed, the owners of a cycling Web site called DailyPeloton.com became aware of my manuscript in September 2003. Soon afterward I won a contest to attend the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s (LAF) principal fundraiser, The Ride for the Roses in Austin, Texas. On a last-minute whim I requested a press pass from the Daily Peloton so I could share my journey with their readers. This gave me amazing access to cycling insiders, but it also showed me how perfectly my book worked as a fundraiser. Today, people who buy on my site are credited with a donation to LAF and get an opportunity to win a ride with Lance Armstrong.

I now attend every cycling event as a member of the press, writing articles afterward that share my experiences and give me an opportunity to mention my book to additional audiences. At the core, it is all happening because I created a book with a niche audience clearly in mind. What a journey it’s been! I can’t wait to learn where this road leads next.

Dave Shields, an award-winning author and avid endurance athlete, credits “intense rewriting over two years with members of my critique group, Noveldoc.com,” with transforming his novel into “a story people who had never even straddled a bicycle would find compelling.” For more information, visit www.DaveShields.com.




Why Radio Works for My Novel

I reveal interesting, timely, and/or entertaining facts about my area of expertise. In my case there are many. For example: Everyone in this country knows Lance Armstrong, but only a tiny fraction of Americans understand the incredible sport he dominates–until I come along.

I project my passion for cycling through the radio. Until the last sentence of an interview, I never try to sell anything except my love for bicycle racing. For me, the interview is successful if the only thing I accomplish is convincing one new fan to watch the Tour de France for the first time. The listeners seem to sense my passion and want to learn more by reading the book. I’m certain the same formula would work equally well for stamp collecting.

When I do sell, I make the host look good. My last sentence is always something like, “I’ve set up a link at ReadTheRace.com where Uncle Mac fans can purchase a book. I’ll donate a third of the price to the Lance Armstrong Foundation and enter them to win a trip to Austin and a private bike ride with Lance!” Usually the hosts say, “Wow!” and often they then add another sales message of their own, even though moments before they were saying, “We’ve got to hurry and get to break.”

Lastly, I have fun when I’m on the radio, partly because I believe in myself and am happy about getting the word out. Enthusiasm is addictive. Most people want to see others succeed, and they love to help.

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