This past weekend the Canadian Small Press Book Fair took place in Ottawa. I had the pleasure of going as a freelancer and blogger, and got to meet some wonderful people as well as spend time with my colleagues from the Ottawa Arts Review. I learned a lot at the book fair — what kind of pitches work, what small presses think of the industry, and what indies did before the advent of ebook publishing. I was one of the youngest people at the fair, something that was remarked upon several times (fair warning: next time someone says, “You look so young,” I’m going to say, “And you look so old.”), and in talking to people I realized that I have a completely different set of skills than the people who started doing the same things ten or twenty years ago. Things that seem obvious to me are foreign or “worthless” to them.
Things like use Twitter. I’m the administrator for three websites, and my traffic mostly comes from three sources:
- Subscriptions via email
- Search engines / SEO
I was baffled by small businesses and authors that weren’t using Twitter to drive their products, services, and events. Maybe it’s just a generational thing, or maybe something as “mainstream” as Twitter doesn’t fit with the indie / hipster image, but if you’re a business owner and you don’t use Twitter, get on it. Once you start using it properly, you’ll never go back.
Goodreads was another under-appreciated resource, as were its comp sites Shelfari and LibraryThing. If you can get people to talk about your book and syndicate their ratings and comments with their social media accounts, why wouldn’t you? It’s free advertising!
Sell your books on Amazon. Sell them on Barnes & Noble and Indigo and every other big chain retailer. They don’t have the intimate feel of indie bookstores and their sales commission won’t go towards supporting a budding entrepreneur, but these channels have a direct link to huge audiences of potential readers. You might not like them on principle, but you need them in order to achieve any kind of financial success through indie publishing.
And what is with the fear of ebooks? I do ebook conversion services as part of my business, so I had a Kindle sitting on my display table to show samples of my past work. I had people ask me if it was real or cardboard. When I tried to hand the device to people so they could look at the samples, some had no idea how ereaders worked. There is a huge market for electronic book sales, particularly for short books, genre romance, and erotica — the latter two have had the highest sales on Amazon of any genre, ever — so why not learn about that market? Corner it.
I attended the book fair not only to promote myself as a freelancer, but to get some local interest in my blog. I got to speak with people who didn’t even know that blogs are a viable resource for promotion. In the not too distant past the way to get promotion was through print advertising, which could be quite expensive, but that’s no longer the case. You can get ten well-respected bloggers to review your book and broadcast that review to thousands of people who love to read for less than one hundred dollars, if you play your cards right. So why not?
Content over visual presentation is also something that made me feel like an oddball. I approach publishing like a reader, perhaps because I’m also a book blogger, and I’m keenly aware of how much book buyers are driven by cover image and flap copy. The CTR on the websites I administer is far higher on books that have compelling covers and professionally developed cover copy. I got the sense from some companies I came across at the fair that there still exists a belief in content over presentation; that it doesn’t matter how something is packaged, if it’s truly good it will find its audience and sell well. I disagree. Covers are important. Web design is important. Take a good author photo and perfect your elevator pitch.
My novel is roughly 700 pages. I’ve reduced it to a single sentence so that when I tell people about it, I don’t bore them or confuse them: “Wake is about life after cancer.” I heard roughly twenty pitches in the six hours I was at the fair. I confidently understood what five of them were saying, ten I was shaky on and five more I’m not at all sure what the books were about. There comes a point in a weak pitch when the potential reader just doesn’t want to ask for clarification anymore, and the sale slips away.
I realize at this point that I probably sound like a preachy little upstart. I botched my share of things at the fair too. I talked too fast. I forgot names midway through some conversations. I pitched too much too fast, or let interactions slip away by not saying the right thing in the limited time that visitors were at my table. My strengths as a publisher and marketer are largely online. I need to work on my in-person strategy, but I’m confident that by next year I’ll be able to bring more to the table. I learned what I’m doing wrong, but I also learned where this industry is going and how to be on the forward edge of that curve.