Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Waterboarding Is Torture. Marketing Is Worse.

The most intimidating thing about self-publishing a literary novel — and mine is definitely more on the literary side than contemporary or genre — is how to market it. I recall with more than a little frustration how a major publishing company seemingly had no idea how to market my first novel, relying on the catalog and advance reader copies more than any active strategy. The publicist was able to get me one radio interview and two bookstore readings, while I managed to arrange two other radio appearances on my own, several readings, two book fair appearances, many reading group visits, an event with a Famous Novelist Who Shall Remain Nameless, and even a place on the Emerging Voices event at BEA that year.

The truly frustrating thing about all of this, though, was how few copies we were able to move through all of our combined efforts. It’s a simple fact: Without a substantial PR budget, it is very hard to sell literary novels, especially when the author is unknown.

Are we nuts to think we can do by ourselves what a huge trade publisher couldn’t do with all of its resources?

There’s a lot to consider in adding up the odds. For one thing, a small mid-list novel gets lost in the crowd, so unless there’s a timely subject (e.g., The Lovely Bones was published in the midst of several kidnapping/murders of young girls at the time) or some other element that causes a book to rise to the surface, chances are it will be buried in the seasonal avalanche of new titles. Moreover, books like mine don’t get much of a publicity budget. An agent can expect only so much on a first-time author’s deal. Beggars can’t be choosers, so you take what you can get.

I was advised to concentrate on my local area to try to drum up some word of mouth, and most of my events were in fact closer to home. But again, the number of books that have to be sold to get you over the invisible line of viability in the publisher’s eye is much greater than the number you’re likely to move at small, local gatherings. Like most first novelists, I have plenty of horror stories, readings that no one comes to, interviews that are never published or aired, dropped commitments, flubbed arrangements, and many missed connections. Sisyphus comes to mind.

The point being, the only difference between a traditionally published book and a self-published one is the seal of approval on the former, the imprimatur that says, “This meets our sterling standards.” The actual selling is more or less the same.

What’s different now, compared to when my book came out, is the existence of social media: Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, online forums, and a high degree of interconnectivity among them. God knows I don’t have hundreds of “friends” I can call on to pay a few bucks for my ebook, but I might be able to cobble together enough of an online presence that a little word of mouth might come out of it. I’m not big on Facebook — don’t even have an account yet — and I fail to see the point of Twitter at all, at least as a marketing tool. Hell, I don’t even have a cell phone. Ten years ago I did use to pretty good effect the only online resource available to me, a forum called Readerville. I got the BEA gig through it, and I was able to get my book onto the shelves of farflung bookstores in Pennsylvania, Maine, and Kentucky where it wouldn’t likely have been placed by the HarperCollins salesmen.

It seems to me — at least I hope — that independent authors, because they determine how much time and effort to put into their social media activities, have a way to shmooze that doesn’t cost them much, can be tailored to their own personalities, and can tap into a popular movement that is still growing. For now, maybe it will be enough to reach a few readers, who will then use their own social connections to spread the word.

4 comments on “Waterboarding Is Torture. Marketing Is Worse.

  1. tyroper
    April 27, 2013

    I avoid “shmoozing”, since I have to do some of that in real life :(. WP gives me an opportunity to slowly share who I really am, how I think about topics, and allows me to support and encourage others. It’s a great community, sometimes fragile, usually loyal.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 28, 2013

      I know what you mean, but sometimes it feels like “shmooze or lose.” Thanks for your comment!

  2. change it up editing
    May 3, 2013

    I read your comments about discoverability with interest. When I was an editor at a small traditional publisher, one of my biggest complaints was the lack of PR help my authors received. Learning how to market yourself is a j-o-b—there’s just no other way to approach it. I’ve spent a year reading everything I can get my hands on about book marketing, and my conclusion is that there is no magic bullet, no guaranteed way that you’ll become known . . . but there are many strategies others have tried to greater or lesser success. Throw it out there and see if it works, and as Tyroper wrote, the WP community is quite loyal, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  3. Kevin Brennan
    May 3, 2013

    Absolutely. My scratch-the-surface research so far shows me that people are trying all kinds of different strategies and that sometimes some of them work. I will definitely be looking for help…

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This entry was posted on April 27, 2013 by in Publishing and tagged , , , , .
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