What follows is what we’ve learned over the past 35 years when it comes to promoting and selling books. This may or may not be helpful, many of the things I’d suggest seem self-evident, but I think they are worth thinking about. I should also add that the vast majority of the books we publish are fiction, and we try to select artfully written titles, be they mysteries or general fiction: books that are character driven and outside the realm of what the conglomerates generally select. The Big Five Conglomerates who, with 250 or more imprints, produce 85% of the books sold in America. By and large they tend to go for the lowest common denominator—for the widest audience—while our target audience is for the more thoughtful and sophisticated reader. The Big Guys publish name-brand writers. We don’t. We simply pick from among the 5,000 queries and submission we receive each year and publish the best 12 to 16 manuscripts we read. So I offer this information to one and all—but particularly to small presses not associated with the Big Five—and if it is helpful to any of you, that is reward enough.
Selling books depends on reaching potential readers, and that starts with review coverage. Since my wife and I began The Permanent Press in 1978, there have been many changes in the way one finds an audience. Once upon a time there were newspapers who covered books and had book editors who respected and helped get-the-word-out for quality writing that came from small independent presses written by relatively unknown writers. That marketing strategy hardly works anymore, as so many newspapers have down-sized, closed, or use wire-service reviews. In these hard times the biggest newspapers still standing tend to cover books from large publishers who take out ads that a smaller house can ill afford. So one has to look for alternatives: people and reviewers who aren’t swayed by where a book comes from, or who wrote it, or who advertises, but by the quality of the work itself.
Tops for open hearted and open minded print coverage are the four pre-publication journals, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. Make sure you print and send out advance galleys to them—and anyone else on your review lists—at least four months before publication date, and try to hold your output to one or two titles a month at best. Given the huge numbers of books Random House or the other giants publish, only a small percent will gain any serious review coverage. By limiting submissions, if the editors at these journals feel your titles have merit and you don’t overwhelm them, your review percentage will be higher. The point here is: don’t publish more books than that annually, just keep upgrading those titles you do select. And pick your target audience. Libraries are still the repository of good writing, another reason to value these four pre-publication journals.
For all the talk of publishing “electronic” books only, this is a mistake in our opinion. Few electronic-only publishers will get reviews, and those that do publish works by famous writers of yesteryears whose works are no longer in copyright. This will hardly do if you are searching for original voices by contemporary writers.
Resources should be spent to make the galleys you publish attractive. Don’t use the generic colored paper cover with the title printed on the top, but use the art that you will use on your finished books, including flap copy. An artful cover has much greater appeal than a dull one, since reviewers have so many titles to choose from. Should you get coverage in one or more of these journals, save excerpts and put them on the back cover or dustjacket of your finished copy. Here is also where it makes sense to advertise, depending on your budget. You can take as little as a sixth of a page out in any of these publications, and print out the excerpts from the other early reviews for their readers. You’ll also be helping to support the most influential and non-corruptible people in the business.
Another strategy is considering producing 200 to 300 extra galleys that Library Journal and Booklist will send out four or five times a year to key librarians, a perfect target audience for interesting titles: more non-corruptible people. And send these out at the same time as you send your advance galleys out elsewhere else.
You should also collect the best bloggers you can find for on-line reviewing. One way to get started with this is to join Library Thing or Good Reads and offer 20 or 30 galleys to the first 20 or 30 people who request copies, and see how many reviews of your books are posted there, and then contact those reviewers who write well and also have their own blogsites for future submissions. We’ve collected and value about two dozen such reviewers. It’s easy to see how they write for an audience of serious readers. Getting coverage in these places, if each one only results in 20 sales, is more important than spending to much time soliciting newspapers, for these bloggers are the sort of people who are respected and help spread the word. I won’t share our lists with you because you’ve got to do the work and find your own compatible bloggers. But I can tell you that if your books are well written, some blog sites that are particularly influential are Small Press Reviews, New York Journal of Books, and San Francisco Book Reviews (not only that, but we were so impressed by the writing of some of these reviewers that we’ve signed on novels written by two authors from the New York Journal of Books, and one author from Small Press Reviews). And when you place ads in any of the pre-pub journals, feel free to use excerpts from these sources as well.
The final uncorruptibles for spreading-the-word are book awards, as their judges have no vested interest in picking anything but good books from whatever quarter, and being selected as a finalist or winner can pay very big dividends. In 2012 we published seven mystery writers, and three of them are among the five finalists for three important mystery awards this year: Howard Owen’s Oregon Hill for the Hammett Prize, Jaden Terrell’s Racing the Devil for the Shamus Award, and Chris Knopf’s Dead Anyway for the Nero Award. This will attract readers and sales far more than reviews in the most widely read newspapers. Advertising these titles in the pre-pub journals and in the best mystery magazine, Mystery Scene, is relatively inexpensive and most worthwhile. At the very least, even without becoming a finalist, you will have introduced your books to good writers and critics who will be more aware of what you do.
Advertising expenses incurred for doing the sort of ads we do 18 or 20 times a year are far more effective than spending the same amount for one full book ad in the New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Los Angeles Times combined, and will help out those publications who support you.
Just one anecdote worth mentioning here: Back in 1991 we published Sandra Scofield’s Beyond Deserving—a time when newspapers were more accepting of covering good fiction from small presses. The novel had a fine review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, but no review at all appeared in their daily paper, which is subsumed by their Culture Desk. Then, big surprise, it became a finalist for The National Book Award. We informed the book editor of the Culture Desk about this a couple of months before the winner was to be chosen, without any response. After the winner was announced at a gala setting, the Culture Desk justified non-coverage because Beyond Deserving didn’t win the award. Just being judged as one of the five best novels was not enough. (In fact, we’ve never had a full review in the daily Times except one in our first year—35 years ago). Still, we send one review copy to their desk without any expectations and at minimum expense (via Media Mail, not UPS) in case God wants to make a miracle happen. Sorry to say, in today’s world that’s the case with most newspaper and magazine coverage. But here again, being a finalist for this award sold more copies of the book than all the newspaper reviews combined.
Another resource we’ve been making use of is sharing new books with our old authors—well over 100 of them—by sending them electronic files to read and pass on to their friends. It’s had an excellent effect, not only furthering a communal effort, but has resulted in a fuller awareness of one another’s talents which have increased sales.
My final suggestion is this: pay reasonable entrance fees for all sorts of awards. Many, like the PEN Awards and The National Book Critics Circle Awards, and the Chautauqua Prize, require no entrance fee at all. ForeWord Magazine, which covers small presses and posts well written reviews, also has their own awards at the end of every year. There is a steep price to pay for entering, and you might need to limit what you submit, for entrance fees for their prizes are steep. Yet coming in first, second or third in any of the dozen or more “categories” they cover is another worthwhile investment. We’ve had a couple of finalists for the categories prizes, a runner-up for their Grand Prize, and a winner for their Grand Prize last year—Leonard Rosen’s All Cry Chaos—which made all those investments worth it.
I look forward to hearing your feedback or your own experiences in selling good books. I also hope you will click on The Permanent Press’ August Newsletter to see what’s been happening with our titles since our last posting.