May I coax you into joining me in a brief foray back into the dim mists of yesteryear, campers? Or at least earlier this year? Back as far as early January, perhaps, when I delighted us all by announcing that FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Mary Hutchings Reed, had taken the bold step of releasing her eyebrow-raising ‘s novel about what goes on behind the beautifully-veneered doors of a high-powered law firm, Courting Kathleen Hannigan as a available as a 99 cent download for electronic readers.
Has the screen gone all wavy yet? Good. One prefers one’s time travel properly filmic.
As those of you with well-equipped time machines, excellent memories, and/or the curiosity to click on the link to that long-ago post may recall, when I first announced this interesting marketing move, we had a little chat about how much larger a role your garden-variety novelist is expected to play in the marketing of his own book than — how can I put this without exaggeration? — at any point in the last two hundred years. While it long been true that nonfiction and self-published authors were often their own best marketing asset, the notion that book-hawking is an integral part of the fiction-writer’s job description is a relatively new one.
Yes, yes, I hear you groaning, novelists; I know that the prospect strikes many of you as horrifying. “But I don’t know anything about book promotion!” you mewl piteously, and who could blame you? “Isn’t that what my future publisher’s marketing department is for?”
Of course it is, but increasingly, writers of every stripe are expected (there’s that oppressive word again) to take the time — and make the effort — to reach out to potential readers. And honestly, it’s in every author’s interest to do so: as many a writer was shocked to learn from established historical fiction author Patricia O’Brien’s feeling the need to market her sixth novel under a pen name, because her previous novel, the well-reviewed HARRIET AND ISABELLA had not sold well enough, publishers and booksellers alike now have instant access to past sales numbers. These are not the good old days, when elegant ladies in hats and gentlemen in spats glanced over a small-but-serious author’s seventh manuscript and said, “Oh, I like her writing. Maybe this is the book that will make the public notice her at last; she certainly deserves it.”
Does the deathly hush that just fell over the cosmos indicate that some of you had been blissfully unaware that the publishing industry no longer works that way?
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but they can’t afford it. As we have been discussing, publishing houses are seldom non-profit endeavors selflessly devoted to the discovery and promotion of new voices, any more than agencies are. Actually, it’s rather hard to blame them: in any given year, fiction by first-time authors seldom rises above about 4% of sales. And a startlingly high percentage of those don’t make back their advances.
If you are wobbling on your feet, fighting off a swoon because it just hit you what that last factoid might mean for all of those struggling first-time authors trying to sell their second books, you are in fact grasping the situation. In an industry where a first literary fiction release’s selling 4,000 copies used to be considered to have done pretty well, it’s now pretty standard for editors to say — brace yourselves — “Oh, yes, I really enjoyed his first novel, but it didn’t even break the 10,000-copy mark! I’m afraid we’d have a hard time selling his second.”
Or third. Or tenth. The concept of building up a small but devoted readership over the course of several books has lost its currency, at least temporarily.
Do you wonder, then, that as often as I can, I like to place in front of the Author! Author! community new and innovative ideas for writers to promote their own work?
I have been particularly after Mary to share her experiences, as the 99-cent electronic release has been lauded recently as the new frontier of authorial book promotion. It certainly holds a lot of advantages for the reader: for a laughably small investment, a reader can now sample an extraordinary array of different authors’ work. And while I have yet to see an electronic reader that doesn’t resent getting accidentally buried in the sand at the beach or being dropped into the bathtub when the reader’s hands get soapy — oh, you’ve never had either happen with a bound book? — one can’t deny that this method of sampling saves shelf space.
Okay, you caught me: I’m a hard-copy girl, and I suspect that I always shall be. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good book-marketing concept when I see one.
Before I begin lobbying for Mary’s insights on the subject, however, let me share a bit more about the book in question. As those of you who were excited by Mary’s guest post about writing on verboten topics may recall, COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN is a book that flies in the face of prevailing notions of what goes on in law firms — including those behind-the-scenes thrillers written by authors who, like this one, have spent years in the trenches. Unlike some of those glossier works, though, this reads like the real thing because it is. Here’s the blurb, for your comparing-and-contrasting pleasure with the trailer above:
Courting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success.
Hey, I don’t provide blurbs for just any novel. Nor do I blandish every author to share her wisdom and experience with you fine people — and believe me, I went on a blandishing rampage for this one. Let’s take a peek at the results.
Anne: So have I successfully blandished you?
Mary: Yes, Anne, I can be blandished, but slowly. Thanks so much for telling folks I’d reduced the price of the electronic version of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN to 99 cents.
Anne: My pleasure. You’ve had a such an interesting history with this novel — it really flies in the face of that ridiculous truism about a book’s success being best measured in the first three weeks after its release. Would you mind giving us an overview?
Mary: I self-published CKH, my first novel, in the fall of 2007, both in paperback and electronically, and I’ve hand-sold about fifteen hundred paper copies in the intervening years.
Anne: Which is many, many times the average sales for a self-published book. Don’t mind that array of thumping sounds; it’s just the multitudes of writers contemplating self-publishing who were not aware of that particular sales trend.
So what prompted you to try lowering the price tag on the electronic version? Most authors would be looking to maximize their shares of the cover price, but you steered in the opposite direction.
Anne: And how did that differ from the cover price of the physical book?
Mary: The paperback was listed originally at $19.95. It’s now available at 14.80, and, used copies, supposedly, for a penny.
Anne: I’m always suspicious of those listings. Amazon lists a used copy of my memoir at $309.02, for some reason that surpasses human understanding.
Speaking of my constitutional skepticism, I recall having asked rhetorically when you first lowered the price whether it was too low. Was I just being short-sighted?
Mary: It’s a gimmick, to be sure. I’d like to charge more. A penny is an insult for a paper copy, even for a used one. But once the paperback has run its course (and depleted my marketing energies, which, frankly, I’d rather spend writing), if 99 cents gets my work out there and creates a demand for more, I’m OK with that. Hopefully the next one will be more lucrative.
Anne: From your mouth to the Muses’ ears. How have the sales been going at the lower price?
Mary: It turns out that 99 cents isn’t a magic rocket to the top of the sales chart. I have no idea, frankly, what great confluence of luck, karma, lightening bolts and other phenomena are required to get the kind of success Darcie enjoyed.
Anne: I’m sure a lot of people have been wondering what her secret was. Care to venture any guesses?
Mary: From what the Journal reported, the key seemed to be her listing on mention on a site called Ereader News Today, which posts tips for Kindle readers. By the time the Journal reported her story, she’d sold 419,000 copies.
Anne: Criminy! Did you camp out on the site’s virtual doorstep?
Mary: Sorry, Anne. I didn’t land a review on Ereader News Today. It’s really unclear to me how to make that happen, unless I make a book available for “free.”
Anne: Those quotation marks are telling me that I probably don’t understand what free means in this context.
Mary: Apparently, you can offer an ebook “free” for a short period, and they may feature it, at their discretion. Seems a little chicken and eggy to me: I’d offer it free if I knew it was going to be featured. Otherwise, aren’t I just shooting my self in my other foot, the one I didn’t shoot by reducing the price to 99 cents in the first place?
Anne: Maybe they habitually work with authors with several extra feet. What would you say you have learned about marketing from this experience?
Mary: 99 cents hardly reflects an author’s efforts, but right now, I’m in this for the pleasure I get out of writing and out of being read. In due course, of course, I’d like to collect some royalty checks.
Anne: Again, I would encourage the Muses to pay attention. You’re an unusually prolific writer, too, are you not?
Mary: I have nine more novels and a memoir in my shopping bag, and my agent is still trying to figure out how to sell what she calls “quiet” literary fiction.
Anne: This is me holding my tongue. Watch me not saying anything.
Mary: Yeah, I know — you don’t think of me as “quiet,” but I don’t have a lot of graphic sex, gory crimes, or end-of-the-world chaos. So, my niche is the kind of fiction book clubs might want to read in order to discuss real women facing real-life issues.
Anne: Good fiction aimed at thoughtful readers, in other words. There was a day when that would have been considered mainstream fiction, not literary. I get the categorization, though: your complex characters face extremely complex problems, and there are no easy answers.
Mary: In COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, both the “good” and the “evil” women characters encounter the glass ceiling and encounter the tricky dynamic between their personal ambition and the cause of women’s equality in the workplace.
Anne: I would think many readers would identify with that. I’ve noticed that, contrary to widespread expectation, the e-book market actually isn’t that different from the regular book market: the same books seem to end up on both types of bestseller lists, generally speaking, and the same demographic that habitually buys the most fiction in bookstore — women between 35 and 60 — seem to be turning out to be the most faithful repeat e-book buyers, too. Does the 99 cent marketing strategy speak to that group of book-buyers?
Anne: Dare I ask what that meant in terms of actual sales of the e-book?
Mary: I’d love to share the actual numbers I sold on Kindle, both before and after 99 cents. But my publishing consultant, who set this all up for me, has had a devil of a time getting the info out of Amazon.
Anne: That’s interesting. It must be strange not to know.
Mary: If we ever unlock the stats, we’ll gladly share them. I don’t expect them to be in Darcie’s range.
Still, I believe that electronic publication is the future, and the industry needs to find a way to monetize it. The music industry figured it out. Surely, the publishing industry can do the same.
Anne: I’m sure we’re all curious about how the technical details will be worked out. And the legalities.
Mary: Not sure what effect the Justice Department’s suit against Apple et al will have on ultimate ebook pricing, but I think that if I had a third party publisher, even in ebook format, I’d do better—both in terms of number of readers and in dollars earned—than the 99 cent gambit.
Anne: I’ll be very, very curious to see the sales stats. But what’s the next strategy? Should we all be rushing out to buy it while 99 cents is still the price?
Mary: One of these days I just might go the luxury goods model, and make it so expensive, everyone will want the status of owning their very own copy!
Anne: Actually, I know quite a few authors who have deliberately chosen that route: severely limited editions, extremely high-end binding. Most of them already enjoyed some celebrity or cult status, though, so their publishers had a pretty clear idea of which readers would be interested in a collector’s edition.
Thanks for sharing your insights with us, Mary. And as always, everybody, keep up the good work!