As regular readers of this blog will already know, I’m happy to only sell my books online. I think when you produce paperbacks by Print-On-Demand, the unit costs just aren’t low enough to accommodate both a bookshop’s and a distributor’s cut, and the time it takes to get your book into stores (and keep it there, and chase payment, and collect returns) just isn’t worth it for me. So I was fascinated by fellow Irish self-publisher Sheena Lambert’s account of getting her CreateSpace-produced paperbacks into several major bookstore chains here in Ireland. Today, she shares it with us. Welcome to Catherine, Caffeinated, Sheena! Take it away…
“There are two types of writer.
Yep. Just two.
(Work with me here.)
When asked, those in the first group will, for the most part, purport to have been “writing stories since the age of four”. They are the ones who claim to have spent their awkward teenage years “curled up on a chair with a book”. They read English Lit at Trinity college, went on to get some lowly job in a newspaper/publishing house/advertising agency, and have been trying to write the same novel for the best part of their twenties. When asked, this group has no problem describing themselves as writers. That is what they are. That is what they were born to do. Whether or not they are published, is simply not relevant.
The second type of writer probably did their English homework under duress, and spent little, if any, of their childhoods reading in contorted positions. They most likely studied something sensible like the law, or engineering, and the closest they ever came to being published in their twenties was having a 2-page feature article on bio-waste in a trade magazine.
But then, something happened.
Maybe they attended a Creative Writing course, just to get out of the house for an hour. Maybe they entered a short story competition, and to their own amazement, won it. Maybe they wrote 1,000 words on something that riled them and sent it off to the Irish Times in a huff, never imagining that it would actually be published. For this group, the business of writing crept up on them. For whatever reason, they went from never writing a thing, to carrying around notebooks full of illegible scribbles, having a iPhone full of hastily typed notes and ideas, and spending every spare second plotting or editing or, well, writing. And yet, they would never dream of introducing themselves as “a writer”. When asked, they mutter something about “doing a little bit of writing” and then talk openly about their day job.
I am in this group.
I was an engineer (I suppose technically, I still am), owned a clothes shop and was a stay-at-home mum before I found writing, or it found me. I used to dabble with the odd bit of poetry, but when I started writing in earnest four years ago (yes, I was the one attending the Creative Writing evening class in an attempt to hide from my children) I never expected to find something that I didn’t even know was missing. It might be like discovering religion, or chocolate, for the first time at the age of 34. Wondering how you could possibly have gotten this far through life without it, and knowing that your life was never going to be the same again with it. I have spent these four years writing stories, poetry and short plays in the hours when my boys are at school. I’ve had more articles published (and paid for) online and in the national press. But most significantly of all, I have written and self-published a novel, Alberta Clipper.
I began writing Alberta Clipper as a TV script for fun, and then decided to rework it as a novel. It took me the most part of a year to write (juggling it with a 4 and a 6 year old). When I finished, I set it aside for a couple of months, and wrote other things. Then I gave it to beta readers, insisting that they fill out a form afterwards which required them to give the bad feedback as well as the good. Based on their criticism I reworked parts and edited it.
Then I sent it to a carefully selected list of agents and publishers, and waited.
Now, here’s the thing. If I had gotten a publishing deal, or even an agent at this stage, I would have joined the ranks of the first group of writers. I would have proudly announced that I too was a writer, having been validated by a professional in the business. Instead, of the fifteen or so queries I sent out, I got approximately five “no, thank you” responses, and five “we-really-like-this-but-the-market-for-women’s-fiction-has-tanked-and-we-are-just-not-taking-on-any-new-authors-right-now-unless-you-have-written-The-Bible-or-something-that-might-sell-at-that-level” responses. (The other five responses must have gotten lost in the post.)
Undeterred, and confident in my product, I decided to self-publish in the autumn of 2012. I read Catherine’s Self-Printed-The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing from cover to cover, prepared my scripts, and went live on the 1st November 2012 via Amazon and Smashwords, in paperback and as an ebook. I remember the moment that Alberta Clipper went live, only for it’s unremarkableness. I was sitting on the couch, watching Friday night TV, glass of wine in hand, laptop beside me when ooops, there it goes. My novel’s gone on sale. Graham Norton just kept on talking. My husband kept on snoring. I’m guessing had I a traditional publishing deal, that moment might have gone a little differently.
Nevertheless, it was here. I now had a book for sale. Electronically and in paperback. I decided at that point to take a break from writing my second novel and focus three months marketing Alberta Clipper. Although this went against all the usual advice you hear about writing, I knew I had a limited amount of time available to me each day, and that I had to use it well. I was only going to launch Alberta Clipper once. And Catherine’s book did say not to lose momentum.
So I devised a marketing plan. Nothing fancy, just a little ‘where I am, where I want to be, and how-the-bloody-hell-do-I-get-there’ plan. Again, against most self-publishing advice, I decided to focus equally on the local paperback sales and the international ebook sales. Because my marketing plan had two goals.
To sell enough books to be a financial success. For me, this would mean generating an income of $5,000 in the first year. (This figure will be different for everyone, but in my head, earning less than that would have been disappointing. And impractical. If I couldn’t make that much in a year from my writing, I’d have to get a real job.)
To increase the chances of getting a traditional publishing deal for my second novel.
Now I know that if my book sold even moderately well electronically, it would be enough to reach my first goal. But even with blog tours, and Amazon Author Pages and Twitter and Facebook, I felt I had very little control over how well the book would sell online. Self-published authors that sell well online almost all have a series of books out. That is a fact. A quick look at the top ten kindle sales in every category will confirm this. And I am not in the business of churning out serialised tomes. It’s just not how I write.
I was also conscious of the fact that Ireland, being Ireland, it was within my reach to get my book noticed, if it was good enough. In Ireland, there are only a handful of bookstore chains, and two major book distributers. So with my firm belief in the appeal of Alberta Clipper as my lynchpin, I approached them all.
My résumé was short. All I had was some newspaper articles and the book itself. In a couple of instances I was turned away for not having a formal marketing and PR campaign planned, complete with TV and radio appearances. But in a couple of cases, the bookstores actually read my book, and within a month of being published online, it was being given a trial run on the shelves of three in a chain of ten bookstores. Their first order of forty books sold out in the three weeks, and they re-ordered Alberta Clipper before Christmas with a view to stocking it in all ten of their shops around Ireland in 2013.
As with all good marketing strategies, success begets success. I got a slot on national radio, the book was profiled in a newspaper, I got the opportunity to write an article in the Irish Independent’s magazine, and six weeks later, one of the two main book distributers in the country wrote to confirm that they wished to stock and distribute my novel.
It’s worth remembering at this point that as a self-pubber, there is almost no margin in getting my book onto the shelves of bookshops in Ireland. The cost of printing the books is simply too high. But what I am doing, is working to attain the second of my marketing goals. I think my book is good enough to be on the shelves of bookshops. And now I can point to professionals in the business who think my book is good enough to be on the shelves of their bookshops.
It’s the validation thing.
I continue to try and reach the first of my two marketing goals. To this end, I am hopeful that someday I might meet a computer hacker who can infiltrate Amazon’s algorithm on my behalf. Stranger things have happened.
In the meantime, I can walk into physical bookshops all around the country, and see my lovely little book with the barometer on the front sitting proudly between Maeve Binchy and the latest Marian Keyes.
And I can at last look people in the eye, and call myself a writer.
Alberta Clipper is available now in paperback and e-book from Amazon and other major online retailers, and in the following bookshops here in Ireland: Antonia’s Bookstore in Trim, Co. Meath, Bookstation outlets and soon, Eason’s nationwide.
What do you think? Is getting your physical book into bookshops worth the time, effort and stress?
Share your thoughts in the comments below…