Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Birth of a Book, Part 10 -- Marketing

This is the last part of a ten part series on the stages involved in producing a novel.

Most aspiring writers I know do not expect or want to market their books. I was no different when I started writing. I considered myself a “writer,” an “artist.” Marketing was something slightly dirty, money grubbing, something for “ad executives” and Madison Avenue. I remember telling people that "my books are my children – they may not be perfect but I love them, warts and all. You can’t sell you children!" I felt it was both beneath my dignity and beyond my capacity to aggressively get out and sell my books. I felt, furthermore, that selling books required a totally different set of skills from writing them. Even if, I told myself, I had the time to sell books (which I don’t), I wouldn’t know how to do it or be very good at it if I tried.

But as I mentioned earlier, commercial publisher have only limited budgets, which are dedicated for the most part to the books of already famous people and successful authors, while print-on-demand publishers don’t do any marketing at all. Furthermore, the sheer number of books coming onto the market makes it increasingly important to market books.

To understand the situation, let me provide some key statistics:

• In 2010 roughly 450,000 books were published in the USA.

• Of these, roughly 135,000 were self-published

• Roughly 15% of all published books were novels; e.g. some 67,000 novels were published in the U.S. in 2010 alone.

• Less than 3% of all books published in the USA sold more than 1,000 copies. That’s about 13,500 books – a lot of books! – but still only 3%.

• Today, on average, each published title sells 70 copies. That means for every best seller that sells 10,000s, 100,000s or even a million books, there are a lot of books out there that sell only a handful of copies.

In short, if you are not a celebrity or an otherwise already a successful author, the chances are your book is going to be one of those that sells less than seventy copies – unless you are prepared to do something to promote your book yourself. Thus, whether you like the idea of marketing your book on not, and whether you think you are suited to the task or not, it is advisable to be prepared to market your own product.

There are two ways of doing this, of course. One is to hire a professional book or literary publicist. There are many agencies offering marketing and publicity services to authors today. Many are very professional and good. They are not cheap. I was quoted a price of $1,000 per day by one London agency -- with no guarantees of success. There are also a lot of agencies out there offering services at a reasonable price. Most of these have a standard package of services (press release, reviews, website, social media page, twitter, book fairs, contests). They do not have time to read the books they market. They don’t need to. They rely heavily on in-put from the author and operate using a “cookie cutter” approach. They can afford to charge reasonable fees precisely because they churn out marketing materials for lots of books that are pretty much the same regardless of the book.

Alternatively, you can try to do all the marketing yourself. This requires a lot of time, effort and above all patience. At a minimum, you will need at least one website with considerable content – not just the cover image and cover blurb. You will need to have a blog -- again with serious content that is updated regularly. You should be prepared to surf the internet for the blogs and websites of your competitors and to actively take part in social media forums on topics related to your book. Other things you can do are:

• Enter your book in literary contests

• Place ads for your book in newspapers, journals etc.

• Pay to have your book to be displayed at book fairs

• Organize readings and signings at your local book shop (but don’t expect a lot of people to come!)

Most important, be creative. The world of book marketing is wide, wild and constantly changing.

Just remember, unless you are prepared to market you finished product, that wonderful flash of inspiration that you had at the start of the creative process is likely to be drowned in the ocean of books flooding the market and will end up as one of those titles that does not sell even 100 copies.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Birth of a Book, Part 9: Reviews

This is the ninth part of a ten part series on process of producing a novel.

Reviews are both a mirror and a marketing tool. They are to be valued for both reasons.

Reviews – honest, objective reviews from strangers – are the very best way to assess your success as a novelist. Obviously, not every reviewer is fair or honest, and I have become disgusted with the number of reviewers who only regurgitate back what was on the cover blurb or in the “Forward” or “Notes” of the book itself. But increasingly, through online retailers, authors are getting a lot more feedback from real readers. These reviews may not be from famous critics and they may lack literary style, but they are from the very people you depend on to buy your books. The unexpected reviews from readers I never dreamed my books would appeal to are those that have been most exciting and satisfying, while complaints from readers about one or another aspect of my books make me rethink my writing. Thus the “mirror” function of reviews should never be neglected.

The marketing function of reviews is, however, increasingly important, particularly for the self-published novelist. In the absence of a large distribution network and well-connected executives, reviews are the single most important means of convincing readers that your book has value. Press releases may tell them about the content, and book signings might draw attention to the title. Ads may create a degree of name recognition. Interviews will generally focus on the process of writing and the author’s objectives. Reviews, however, offer readers more than all of the above. Reviews provide an assessment.

This has led many novelists into the temptation of buying good reviews or pushing family and friends into writing favorable reviews. Such methods work for a while, but even assuming potential customers don’t see through them from the start, people who are misled into buying a book that doesn’t meet expectations are the first to post their own negative reviews on the sites of online retailers. If you have as many one star reviews as five star reviews, readers are going to guess that the five star reviews were fake.

Furthermore, I have had readers tell me that they don’t bother to read 5 star reviews, assuming these rave reviews are just “hype.” They prefer to read the critical reviews because these generally address both the positive and negative, the successful and the less successful aspects of the book. These sophisticated readers, incidentally, usually also dismiss as “crap” any review that is simply insulting. In short, the reviews taken most seriously by these decerning readers are those in the 3 to 4 star category.

Nor should we forget the importance of quantity. A book with no or only one review looks like it hasn’t been read very much. It looks like a loser. A book with scores of reviews looks like a winner. Bestsellers have hundreds of reviews. So, let me take this opportunity to appeal to all of you – my readers – to post reviews of any of my novels that you have read. They don’t have to be long. Just tell others what you liked – or didn’t like – about my books.

Thank you!

(Note: My next entry will be January 28 after I return from holiday.)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Birth of a Book, Part 8: Self-Publishing

This is the eighth part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

Self-publishing got a bad name from “vanity” publishing, a racket in which a “publisher” charges an author an outrageous fee to “publish” a book. I know all about it. I did it and got burned. The bottom line is that such schemes not only allow a lot of books of execrable quality to be published, they also kill good books because these are simply dumped on the market and left to die. Vanity publishers do no marketing for books whatsoever and often go bankrupt at regular intervals to avoid paying any royalties to authors who have managed to sell their own books.

In today’s world, however, “self-publishing” is also used to describe “print-on-demand” publication services. Here too the author pays for a professional to format, print, register and list his/her book. Often cover design is included in a standard package or as an extra service. The author can select formats from hard to trade paperback and ebooks. Kindle formatting is increasing popular. These pay-for-service publishers differ significantly from the “vanity publishers” because their charges are reasonable, but just like “vanity publishers,” they do no marketing for the books published under their imprint. They list the books with the major wholesalers and online retailers, but they do not market them.

While this may sound like a serious disadvantage, readers of my blog entry about commercial publishers will remember that the majors don’t necessarily do a great deal of marketing for the all their titles either. If you are a new author or you have a book with only a niche market that probably won’t attract the attentions of the majors anyway, self-publishing is a viable, possibly attractive, alternative.

I have become a convert to self-publishing ever since I found Wheatmark, a very reputable and competent publishing partner. (Note: not all pay-for-service publishers are either reputable or competent and you should do careful research on line before selecting one.) The main advantages of self-publishing are: 1) time to market, 2) control of the product, and 3) control of the marketing and publicity.

Time to market is much faster with a self-published book. Commercial publishers generally take a year or more after a manuscript has been accepted for publication. Self-publishing generally takes half that, and can take as little as 4 months if the manuscript is in good shape.

Control of the product is, of course, even more important. No editor at a pay-for-service publisher is going to tell you to “make this a happy ending,” or slap a cover on the front that you abhor. They do reject manuscripts that are offensive, pornographic, slanderous, incite to violence etc. etc. or of too poor quality, but if they accept a manuscript and you are playing by the rules, they are not going to start trying to interfere with your product. Likewise, they will not accept amateurish covers and have excellent graphic designers on hand to help design an attractive cover for you, but if you have a good design, they will let you use it. They are not going to force you to accept something you do not want. Instead, you will have the opportunity to work with them until you have something with which you are both comfortable.

Finally, because they do not pretend to do any marketing for you, you know from the start that marketing and publicity are all up to you. Knowing that, you can design your own marketing and publicity campaigns, or you can hire other professionals to do this for you. You decide how much time and money you want to invest. You decide if you want to do a “hard” or “soft” sell. You decide what aspect of your book you want to stress.

Ultimately the biggest disadvantage of self-publishing is that you really have no one else to blame if things go very wrong, but I have personally found the experience enlightening and educational – if not always satisfying.