Monday, February 7, 2011

Guest Post: The Life Cycle of the Small Fish in the Big Pond

Don't miss our chat with LATE RAIN author, Lynn Kostoff here

Guest Post
By Eric Beetner and JB Kohl co-authors of Borrowed Trouble
Eric: We have a publisher, Second Wind. They are, contrary to most stories of the publishing industry, the nicest bunch of gentle southern folk you’d ever care to meet. So none of this is a complaint. We’re published and we’re grateful. There are quite a few great mystery books on our imprint. You should check them out.
Here’s the thing though – you gotta go find them. If I don’t tell you about them, or our books, you’d never find them. There’s a reason the publisher’s motto is “The best authors you haven’t read, yet!” Welcome to the world of independent publishing. 
Again, not a complaint, just the facts of the biz when you swim in the kiddie pool. We’re not self-published – that scarlet letter of the book world that, if you ask me, is quickly losing its kryptonite power over book sales – but there are times when it feels like we do so much on our own that we’re self-everything else.
Indie publishing is a tough racket. You have to be a writer, publicist, art director, new media consultant and car salesman. Quite often Writer falls to the back of the line.
It becomes doubly hard when you don’t particularly like shilling your wares like a snake oil salesman to all who will listen. I truly believe in our books, both of them One Too Many Blows To The Head and the brand new one, Borrowed Trouble. (Snake oil sales tip – mention the product often) I’ve put myself out there more than I’m comfortable with simply because I truly think I’m selling a quality product here. And meeting readers and other writers while being out and about at conferences and such is pretty damn cool, I will say. I’m just lousy at closing the sale. I’m much more likely to tell someone about the new Victor Gischler book or, “Hey did you see Dope is back in print,” than to shove our own book on someone’s hand.
I’ll say this, it makes every single sale very special when you meet the readers who are buying your books or hear of a bookseller who recommended your book to someone in Italy (as happened to us once).
Jennifer: Gotta go find them is right. I remember doing the queries for One Too Many Blows To The Head and when I found these guys I wasn't sure if we should even submit. Our book seemed a little to edgy for this particular publishing house. The one who reviewed our book indicated in his comments that this wasn't the sort of book he'd ever read, but he felt there was an audience out there for it. 
Okay, great . . . so how does a writer published with a small indie press go about getting an audience? I agree with you, Eric, it's hard. A lot of it is by peddling on the internet . . . web site, blog, e-mail. As a writer you don't want to be out there to the point of nauseating your potential readers, but you also want to let them know there's a new book out and it's one worth reading. 
I used to spend a lot of time on MySpace, back when it was still a viable use of my time, and there were writers on there that plugged their stuff to the point of irritation. It got to be so I viewed any e-mail from them in the same way I viewed a telemarketing call during dinner. It was annoying. I no longer cared if they had anything worth reading because I just wanted them to go away. Forever. 
But take a blog, or a book signing, or a web site – someplace I can voluntarily go to check things out and I'm there. I want to know what's been written and where and when I can get it. I love to read blogs by other writers because they usually write about what they're reading and so many recommendations come to me through word of mouth. I buy my books based on reviews and recommendations from family and friends. But that brings up still another issue: how do family and friends find out about a book if there's no way for them to find out it's there. 
And while we're on the subject, what's the sound of one hand clapping?
EB: Well, that gets to the heart of why being on a bestseller list is a perpetual motion machine. People who don’t know what to read next go look at the NYT top ten and pick from that and look no further. I don’t blame them. Most people don’t have time to find out about the thousands of books that come out each year. 
The thing that has been fascinating for me in our experience has been how being on a small press lets us do more to have control over our book. For example, we’ve done our own covers for both books. I sucked a friend into painting the One Too Many Blows To The Head cover which we added all the type and layout to, then I sent you, what, five different designs to choose from for Borrowed Trouble and we created that entirely ourselves (plus one tiny image I pilfered from an old pulp magazine from the 40s.) Would St. Martin’s Minotaur let us do that? I doubt it. The good news is we’ve gotten many compliments on the artwork which is nice because bad cover art is a dead giveaway for a small press. 
We created our own book trailers, which I could do for free since I am a TV editor by trade. If we had to pay for one I wouldn’t do it. I think they can be a waste of time and money and there are more bad trailers out there than bad covers. I like ours thought.
This stop off at Do Some Damage is just one of many we are doing in our “blog tour”, surely a phrase that didn’t exist even two or three years ago. But it’s all about finding as many ways to get out there as you can. 
One surprising thing I have found is that most authors I talk to, even those on the big boys, are always wanting more promotion. They do the same tricks we do to get noticed. This is not an indie press vs. large press problem anymore. If you want your book to get noticed you have to be out there actively promoting it. 
I agree with you though that you don’t want it to seem like that’s all you do. Hopefully we can get away with it for this month since it is our book release month. I’ll go back to Facebook updates about my kids on March 1st, I promise.
One thing I feel a little dirty about flogging is our “story” of having never met. I will say, though, that I see it as a marketing tool in our toolbox. If we can get a little human interest that gets people to notice the book it sure beats moving to Sweden and dying just to push the old Amazon sales ranking. 
And your question about one hand clapping? That’s the sound of an author with no support system. I feel so grateful that we seem to have a cascading applause of goodwill out there. Part of it is based on good writing, part of it based on being good people and dealing with good people which the crime fiction community is full of. The crime/mystery community is the absolute best place for small press authors, I think. No one looks down on us because we’re not in hardcover at every Walmart in America.
Jennifer: One of my favorite things about our publisher, Second Wind, is that they have a brick and mortar bookstore in Winston-Salem (called Barnhill's) where they carry titles from small presses. The store is located in what I'd classify an art district in the center of the city, filled with eclectic shops run by local artists. There's such an appreciation of one another's work down there--whether the artist is a painter, a writer, a clothier, a sculptor, or a collector searching for something new. And I have to confess, when I travel, I always look for bookstores, and I always look for the ones off the beaten path, run by people who do it because they love it and not because it's a paycheck. It's these little places that carry obscure titles printed in limited runs where you can actually meet some of the great authors who appreciate what it is to have an audience. As a writer I'm always looking for inspiration but as a reader I'm always looking for a good book. Unfortunately, independent bookstores are few and far between and you really have to be looking for one in order to find it. 
I guess that leads me to another thought--and that is that the writing world, when you get down to it, is sort of small. We tend to brush up against one another in cyberspace periodically and read each other's blogs and work, etc. It's the voices of other writers I tend to listen to when I'm wondering what I should read next. Of course I listen to readers too. . . I mean of course I read the reviews on Amazon . . . but seriously, I'd much rather know what people who write the same sort of stuff I write are reading. I think that's a seriously viable form of publicity in and of itself. If you can impress your peers then you've got talent regardless of whether or not you're on NYT bestsellers list. And that has to be worth a little something. 
Eric: At Bouchercon this past year Eddie Muller said to me that it was, “Writers selling to other writers.” And it’s true that the most avid readers I know (aside from my sister) are other authors. 
In the end I doubt there is a writer in the world who is satisfied with his or her book sales or profile in the literary world. Being entirely responsible for your own marketing and promotion is a daunting task that can suck some of the fun out of writing. It only takes one positive Amazon review or one mention on a blog to boost me back up though. Having people drive out of their way to come to a signing is incredible. Having booksellers I respect give me the time out of their busy schedules is amazing. It’s what we have to do – dive into the deep end and keep treading water until you can hopefully start to ride a current of word of mouth and good reviews to bigger sales numbers. 
I’m going to go ahead a beat the metaphor to death here and say that I’m more than happy to be swimming alongside so many writers I like and respect and who I consider friends. I’ll do my best to be out there shilling your works alongside my own. For us small press folks we are our own best allies – sometimes the only ones we get.
So here’s to the independents. The no-promo-budget, not-in-stock-at-Borders, scraping-for-each-Twitter-mention among us. We do it because we love books, we love words and we love writers. We won’t stop just because it’s hard. 
We encourage you to check out our book Borrowed Trouble, even urge you to start with the first book, One Too Many Blows To The Head. Trust us. The snake oil we’re selling really works.


Mike Dennis said...

Excellent post, Eric and Jennifer. My noir novel is out under a small press, too, and being a one-man sales force just wears me out sometimes. I've got a nice website with intelligent and interesting content, I've left articulate comments on the blogs, I've been on panels at Bouchercon and LCC, I'm on facebook, and...I'm nowhere. My Amazon rankings are lower than whale shit.

But like you say, "dive into the deep end and keep treading water" till something happens. I'll just have to keep plugging away, I guess.

Chris said...

Great post. I just bumped One Too Many Blows to the Head to the top of my TBR pile, and Borrowed Trouble will be the next book I buy. Some of the best books I've read in the past couple years have been on small presses, and I see that only being more and more common. Good luck with the book!

Eric Beetner said...

Hope you enjoy them Chris. Just like music some of the best stuff is happening a little below the radar. You have to seek it out but the reward is worth the hunt.

Sheila Deeth said...

Great post, and great to get an inside look into small publishing. Still dreaming...