by Helen Moffett
This piece was commissioned by Colleen Higgs for Modadji’s Small Publishers’ Catalogue 2013 for southern Africa. It’s a must-have resource: you can buy it online, or direct from Colleen at cdhiggs at gmail.com.
Dear Lovely Author,
I’ve been wanting to reply properly to the letter you sent me for such a long time. You wrote so angrily, about how you had poured all this work into your book, got it published with a reputable publisher – only to see it apparently falling into a black hole. We both know it’s a very good book: I edited it. The (only) two reviews – by careful, creditable people – were full of praise. You blame the publisher, of course; there is a long catalogue of the things you think they should have done, and which they didn’t do.
As I read your mail, I was compiling a list in my head of all the things authors should do if they want to keep their books afloat in the great sea of indifference that greets most South African and indeed African literary fiction. Or afloat at least long enough to sell enough copies to cover the publishers’ outlay.
When it comes to marketing, many authors, drunk on the smell of fresh ink, assume that the publisher will do it – or at least, take the lead. The most they will have to do is show up for panels at fun conferences wearing a jacket nicely pitched between boho and tweedy, and bearing a trendily archaic fountain-pen for signings. Oh dear oh dear.
No one ever really tells authors the truth: that in the tiny sphere that is the Southern African fiction world, marketing is something they are going to have to do themselves. The support from your publisher will vary wildly; sometimes tiny publishers are excellent about what I think of bake-sale marketing strategies (hand-selling small quantities of books at lowered prices at poetry readings, lectures, even parties, for instance). Sometimes the bigger publishers have budgets (!), and will actually throw launches, host events, print posters, pay for campaigns like Homebru and more. Sometimes it will look as if they are doing absolutely nothing (this is almost never the case, though; there is a lot of underwater paddling that the author doesn’t see – the publisher is far more anxious to capture their outlay than you are). But whatever the publishers do or don’t do will come across as erratic to you, especially if it’s your first book.
It’s a basic truth that you have to take the lead in marketing your book. See your publisher as a partner who will back you up, but understand that you’ll be the one steering the process. The old days of doing a J. D. Salinger, of retreating to a garret or a cabin in the woods while expecting your book to create if not a storm, at least a ripple – they’re gone, along with the purity of the notion that any work of art should stand or fall on its own merits.
For your book to sell, you need to be an odd mix: selfish, strategic and sincere. And let’s add another ‘s’ into the mix – for social media.
First of all, you need to be selfish in pushing your book out into the world, and persistent (without being pushy or a prima donna) in pursuing all the avenues available. Will there be an electronic version of your book, and can you get it onto e-selling platforms? Are there any literary festivals coming up? Any conferences or special interest gatherings (gay, environmental, political, sporting, hobby-related?) that you could hitch your book to? Does it qualify for any literary competitions? (Never assume that your publisher will automatically enter you for these. You might even have to pay for international postage to help things along.)
Being selfish doesn’t mean being impolite. Ask your publisher to get you onto a panel at a literary festival, or how you can help them to organise a launch. They can open doors that are closed to you. But you’ll soon learn that there are certain routes you need to take yourself; you may have a contact at a library or university department that will give you a chance to talk about your book. Always keep your publisher posted about what you manage to set up – you may need them to sell the book for you, if your friendly indie bookstore won’t (and that’s something else to cultivate – your relationship with your local bookseller, of which more later).
I believe launches are essential, but your publisher may disagree. Do remember though, that these are seldom occasions at which vast quantities of books are sold.
It goes without saying that if you are a misanthrope or someone who freezes on stage, you need to get over it pdq. These days, authors need to be friendly, professional, articulate and witty, and if you aren’t, start learning how. I’ve attended agonising launches where authors have had their monosyllabic answers dragged from them almost with pliers. And once I had to fill in at a book fair after an author threw a hissy fit, walking off a panel because the distributor hadn’t delivered his books. Agreed, it’s infuriating when this sort of thing happens (and it will), but just ONE tantrum, and you will never be invited to a literary festival again, and your publisher will think twice before looking at your next manuscript.
You need to be strategic about where and how you’re going to apply your energies – assuming that like most writers, you have a day job. So you need to plan around that. If you’re deskbound, then social media is your friend. Set up something – a website, a blog – that means that anyone who googles your name can instantly click on a link to buy your book. This is vital – you must make it easy for folk to buy online. No-one with an internet connection should ever have to ask “How do I get hold of your book?”
My personal take (others will disagree) is that it’s no use creating a Facebook page or Twitter account for your book – rather chat about it on your personal social media platform. But don’t spam your friends and followers – it gets annoying.
If your day job is unrelated to writing, this isn’t a bad thing. If your clients and colleagues are, say, computer programmers or party planners, that creates an entirely new potential market for your book. Obviously you shouldn’t push, but make them feel included in your publishing project. This goes for all your circles – I once had members of my flamenco class show up at one of my book launches.
And while we’re talking strategy, get creative. I’ve tried many tricks, including leaving a copy of my debut collection of poems (which deals with, among other things, infertility) in my gynaecologist’s waiting-room. By local poetry standards, it’s a bestseller (i.e., it’s actually been reprinted).
Some strategies are obvious. If you’re local, and you don’t have a Books Live microblog, I have no sympathy for your tales of marketing woe. But even here, you need to do two things: post blogs that are NOT always about your book (tell folk what you’re reading, take part in debates about local fiction) – and read and comment on the blogs of others. You may think no-one notices these, but you’d be amazed at who comes browsing by.
This leads to perhaps the most NB advice of all: one of the most underestimated and valuable marketing resources is other writers. I’ve never forgotten a conversation we had where you implied, rather aggressively, that you saw other writers simply as competition. Right then, I had a hunch that your book might not sell.
In most cases, if your book is to succeed, you need other authors. This is where the sincere bit comes in. To gain traction on the local book scene, you have to take part in it – actively and enthusiastically. I think it was Justin Fox who said that the day South African writers stopped buying each other’s books, the local market would collapse, and he has a point. Literary fiction in particular sells to a tiny niche audience in this country, and that audience largely consists of writers and intellectuals.
You need these people to come to your readings and events. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve gone to a launch, sternly telling myself I can’t afford to buy any more books – only to be won over by hearing the author read.
Writers who hear you read and like it will recommend your book to their friends. Who also have friends who read books. And their friends go to book clubs, or write book columns for newspapers, or have book blogs, or belong to social media bookchat groups, or post on Goodreads.
But how do you get the attention of this small but influential bunch? You need to get the ball rolling by going to their book launches in the first place. It’s almost a hanging offence not to go to events featuring your publisher’s other authors. Buy their books, ask them to sign them, read them, and then – this is critical – if you like them, say so. Not just to their faces, but on public platforms.
Plus, your presence at launches and your purchases will not go unnoticed by your local indie bookshop, where most such events are held. Get to know their staff. Tell them about your book, but as part of the local writing scene – who your influences are, and what audience is most likely to buy it. It’s no good saying “I’ve written this amazing book about a boy who can communicate with rhinos”. Say “I’ve written a book set in Nairobi and Joburg that has shades of magic realism, sort of like Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City, but with the same environmental concerns you see in Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness.” Then they’ll know exactly who to sell your book to.
Not only that, you never know when they might organise a festival or an event or even a protest (against rhino poaching) and say, “Hey, why don’t we get that chap who wrote X on a panel with Lauren and Zakes…”
Local writers are your colleagues and potential allies in the great swim-or-sink publishing adventure. Volunteer to read their drafts; congratulate them on their achievements; offer to write prefaces or blurbs for their books. Sign up for every short story or other anthology going, and make it known that you will jump at commissions.
Don’t stop there. Go to book fairs and festivals, attend poetry readings, take part in initiatives like Short Story Day Africa, organise local events for World Book Day, Library Week, NaNoWriMo – the list is endless.
All this bread on the waters will come back to you with jam on it. Through the relationships you build, you’ll be asked to interview other writers or sit on panels with them. Every time this happens, your books go on sale, too.
The connections should run deeper than that, though. It’s other writers who will read your manuscripts and make invaluable suggestions. They’ll put you in touch with excellent cover designers or brilliant development editors. You never know when one with an agent or international publisher might be able to hook you up too. You can weep on their shoulders about bad reviews, even worse royalty statements, and the dread letter putting your beloved book out of print. (Every writer has horror stories along these lines, no matter how successful they may seem.) But all this is based on relationships of sincere reciprocity. No writer is an island, especially not on the African continent.
But, but, you say. You live in the middle of nowhere – no hobnobbing at book events for you. Or you’re too busy (you have a life, a family, a day job). So do almost all the writers I know, including the successful ones. If you have electricity or a generator, a modem or a smartphone, then there is no excuse.
One of the best-connected local writers I know is Lauri Kubuitsile. She has a popular blog, a newspaper column, and is active on Facebook and Twitter. She writes textbooks, romances, YA, short stories and mysteries – and is capable of very fine literary fiction as well. She’s worked with multiple local publishers. She’s been shortlisted for the Caine Prize and won coveted writing residencies. By any accounts, she’s a successful writer. She has an incredibly effective network, mostly via the world-wide web, across Southern Africa. And yet she lives in a village in the Botswana bush.
So: to sell your book, build a network, and then work at maintaining it. Frankly, it’s often the best part of the lonely business of writing. I wish you luck – but remember, we have to make our own luck.
PS: If you found this useful, there’s lots more need-to-know stuff in the Small Publishers’ Catalogue — essential resource for all local writers.