Black: Crown Publishing Group, the division of Random House whose imprint Broadway published my book, placed AdReady network ads on sites such as Harper’s, the Atlantic, and Goodreads. Print ads are more expensive—the smallest ad in the New York Times Book Review, a two-fifths-page spot, costs $6,688 for black and white and $12,731 for color—so they didn’t go that route. I personally paid for an ad on Narrative.com and one in Poets & Writers Magazine; both places give you a healthy author discount, and it felt like money well spent. Lovely was in its fourth printing this past April, but that number doesn’t tell you much—we could be in our one-thousandth printing if each print run were ten books. My initial print run was eighty-five hundred, and each of the subsequent runs was under two thousand. When my first royalty check arrived earlier this year, at first I didn’t know what it was; I wasn’t expecting to have earned out my advance. I was surprised that only one e-book was sold for every ten p-books (and I was surprised to learn the term p-book).
Toth: Annie Begins was an Amazon Top 100 Kindle Best Seller and Top 10 in Kindle Contemporary Romance for a time during the summer of 2011, and in the first year of publication e-book sales of more than five thousand dominated paperback sales of around five hundred. I recently elected to participate in an Amazon e-book giveaway that generated more than fifteen thousand downloads in less than a day and drove a significant jump in sales momentum. I also experimented with Facebook ads, which did not pay back the investment in terms of sales. The most effective thing I did was to focus on e-books and Amazon. Controversy aside, Amazon is by far the most important site for e-book sales, and I suggest to all self-publishers that they should not only have an online strategy, but also an Amazon strategy.
Keating: I had modest expectations, as I knew going in that Plain View Press had limited marketing capability. Then the publisher died, throwing the press into turmoil from which it is valiantly recovering. So I’m thrilled that ten months out, Layla is still selling, which I assume means it’s being hand-sold. Sales are actually picking up, and Layla was Plain View’s top seller for 2011. My wildest dream was to sell a thousand books the first year, and it looks like that just might happen. My publisher put out an e-book version of the book recently, so I look forward to taking Michelle’s advice about e-book strategy.
Toth: Part of the approach my publicist and I agreed on was for me to blog and speak on self-publishing, both because of the momentum of the self-publishing path and because I have a business background. It’s been gratifying to help empower authors by spreading the word about independent publishing, but such exposure does not necessarily translate to book sales. I also put up a Facebook page and did updates when I felt there was real news, believing that readers don’t need more than a couple of reminders to know if they want to buy your book. Mostly, though, I’ve reassessed the trade-off of taking time away from writing my second novel and developing the (sixoneseven) books platform, now structured as a micro press that has published three additional authors—two novelists, one memoirist—and counting. While I appreciate the value of social media, I think the best way to achieve my creative goals is to write and publish more books—of my own, and of other writers!
Keating: I dove into social media feet first (as in, less brain) and tried everything: Facebook, Twitter, Gather, Goodreads, LibraryThing, She Writes, and Red Room. This was SM—as in sadomasochistic, not social media—overkill. Like a bee amid flowers, I flitted from one site to the next, sipping nectar but producing only exhaustion. But gradually I began to make meaningful connections and tap into a wealth of useful information. And I got a real charge when I put an invitation on She Writes to anyone who lived in a town where I was giving a reading and didn’t know a soul, and a blogger and short story writer showed up! There’s no magic about social media. Just as with connections in the real world, you can’t expect tangible results without a significant investment of quality time.
Black: I’m no good at coming up with real-time 140-character-long observations that would be worth anyone’s attention. My publisher requested that I join Facebook, and I did; but I’m not on Twitter and I’m only minimally on Goodreads. Instead of putting my time into those venues, I tried to continue to write. I wrote a piece for Writer’s Digest about how I wished my dad could read my book, an essay for Narrative Magazine about why I write at night, and I published a new piece of fiction in One Story. I also told a couple of stories onstage for the Moth. The Twitterverse serves a lot of people well, but I think you should play to your strengths. If you’re a fish, don’t try to ride a bike.
Keating: Readings not only helped me get past my shyness but also brought me back to my reason for writing in the first place. At a book group in Staten Island, New York, I had the overpowering experience of listening to women quote favorite lines from Layla and describe the metaphors that moved them. There’s nothing more rewarding than that, no matter which path takes you there. But while I’m thrilled I seized the reins by going with a small press, I learned that I don’t have Michelle’s energy and entrepreneurial savvy for DIY. I think it’s really tough to find your audience without adequate sales-and-marketing muscle. So for my new book, which aims for a more commercial audience than Layla, it looks like I’ll be shopping for an agent.
Toth: I’m not at all shy, but I still find self-promotion uncomfortable. One trick that helped me was to separate myself a bit from my book: I talked about what was happening for my character Annie, not myself. I rallied family and friends to join “Team Annie” to help in various promotional activities. And I surrounded myself with supportive writer friends who would understand the unique challenges of willingly subjecting yourself to public judgment and loss of privacy.
Black: It’s possible to promote yourself too much, and I think a lot of first-time authors do themselves a disservice by misusing the megaphone. Yes, a lot of book publicity falls on our shoulders these days, whether you’re with a big house, self-publishing, or somewhere in between. But the injunction “Buy my book” never works. It’s like being on a date and being told, “Like me.” If you have interesting things to say, if you make people laugh or make them curious to learn more about you, buying your book will be a natural consequence. If someone else’s book really wows me, I might make a public fuss about it. But I don’t think the most effective marketing always uses the front door.
Toth: My surprises weren’t all specific to my path, but there were several of them nonetheless:
1. I didn’t expect Annie to resonate as much with men as it has, and they’ve provided some of the most illuminating feedback.
2. An editor from a traditional publisher contacted me, having discovered Annie as part of the Amazon contest, and asked to see my next manuscript.
3. Despite my all-digital strategy, I started getting multiple purchase orders, which seemed to have been triggered by the Library Journal review. Suddenly, I became the shipping department I never thought I’d have: packaging and shipping paper books while calculating discounts and sending invoices.
4. I was bemused when some people I gave books to—in the unspoken hope they would provide positive word of mouth to others—made a habit of enthusiastically loaning the book out rather than encouraging people to purchase a copy!
5. If you write in the first person, and borrow anything from your real life, people will assume everything you’ve written is autobiographical.
Black: I need to say an amen to Michelle’s last point. There is so much in these stories that’s true, and so many people who were able to recognize it as true, that they sometimes imagined it’s all true. I had a friend who, after reading a story about a college student who performs a kind of striptease for a homeless man, tried to divine if this was something I’d actually done. When my own mother first read a story about the summer we lost one of my sisters up at Lake Winnipesaukee, she was puzzled by the ending. “That’s not the way it happened,” she said. I had to remind her that this was fiction, not memoir. I got a more troubling surprise when two friends stopped speaking to me because I’d forgotten to put them in the acknowledgments. And I had an ex-boyfriend request that I write a sequel to the story about a threesome—not because he wanted to read the sex scene, but because he disagreed with my ideas about nonpossessive love and wanted to see them challenged.
Keating: My narrator is twenty-two years old, so I thought I’d escape the question of autobiography. No such luck. People ask in hushed voices if I know any real fugitives like those in the book—or perhaps wonder if I am one! But most surprising for me has been how Layla has been perceived. Because editors in mainstream houses felt the novel wasn’t terribly commercial, I’d internalized the perception that it had limited appeal, especially given the political issues it raises. So I’ve been surprised by how strong the emotional response has been. I’d hoped the novel would resonate with people who lived through the 1960s, but it seems to strike more of a nerve with young people and parents in terms of their relationships with each other. A woman I had never spoken to rushed over to give me a hug and thank me for bringing her and her daughter together. I now see my own novel in a completely different light.
Alethea Black is the author of the short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely, published by Broadway Books in July 2011.
Céline Keating is the author of the novel Layla, published by Plain View Press in June 2011. She is an editorial associate at Hanging Loose Press.
Michelle Toth is the author of the novel Annie Begins, published in March 2011 as the first title from (sixoneseven) books, an independent publishing company that she founded. Toth is a member of the board of directors of the literary nonprofit organization Grub Street.