Marketing lesson: Promoting ‘upscale’ independent fiction


At the end of this week, Amazon will be running a special price promotion for Wives of the Saints, and it goes like this: Friday and Saturday (the 17th and 18th), the book (normally priced at $3.99 and $14.99) will be available for only 99 cents. Then Sunday and Monday, it will be $1.99. Tuesday and Wednesday it becomes $2.99, and by Thursday the 23rd it’s back to its normal price.  This is all a big experiment for me, but I think I may have hit on something: I’m already experiencing a modest rise in sales this past week, because I’ve made an interesting discovery. Either that, or books sales in general are starting to recover…

With my other books, I chose the ‘freebie’ promotion option, in which you literally give away your books in hopes of a big ranking boost and subsequent sales. It has never worked that way for me; I usually end up with a few paltry sales, and the book gets pirated and sold on shady Internet sites. The problem with these and other promotions on Amazon is that you, in turn, have to promote the promotions. And most promotions—which basically involves hiring a third party to tweet and publicize for you—are almost completely devoted to genre fiction. And I realized this, slowly, as I tried to book them in advance, and found I was either being rejected, or being forced into the Romance categories.

So for the sake of argument, let’s not call my book ‘literary’—it really isn’t, but it’s not typically genre fiction, either. There is actually an established, trad-pub category for my book, it’s called Upscale Women’s Fiction, and it’s a very big and bountiful category in that world. But there are very few independent or self-publishing authors doing this kind of fiction, because it’s a very hard thing to do well. You can’t just knock it off. The intended audience is usually comprised of educated or professional women, who know something about very good fiction, yet still long for the tales being told in romance and saga-type novels. As always, the primacy of story and character rules here as well. But this audience wants attention to things like structure, grammar, etc. I don’t want to list authors here, because this is a very diverse reading group: They might read Joyce Carol Oates or Alice Munro at home, but grab Danielle Steel to read on a plane.  They are the kind of women  who join book clubs. It takes more to engage them than your typical romance novel.

There’s no real marketing platform in place in the self-publishing industry for this type of fiction. Mainly because of lot of these readers will shun self-published work, on the assumption that it’s all bad. They don’t have the time or patience to ferret out the hidden gems. I don’t know how you overcome those obstacles, but I do realize now—ironically, just as I’m about to exit self-publishing—that it takes a very different marketing approach than the ones you read about on Kindleboards and other author forums. Basically, the promo sites—BookBub, Fussy Librarian, Book Gorilla, you name them—don’t work for us. Nor do mailing lists, or raffles or contests or giving away plush prizes, or  the other things (mostly romance or fantasy) writers do to snag readers. And even in genre fiction, they will only work well for a small group of writers, and not everyone.

This is what seems to work: Key words. I’ve always been wary of key words, and could never think of any that could describe my book in any coherent way, when Amazon demands seven of them for your product description. Oddly enough, I teach this concept in my language classes, trying to show my students how to pick out the most important words in a reading, words that are hints to its meaning. Yet, it’s so simple. Reduce my novel to a set of words and you have: Husbands, wives, marriage, friendship, love, faith. Then you can add specifics: Summer, secrets, fidelity (or infidelity), Catholics. And then so on…The more, the better. The AMS campaign allows up to 1,000! I used all these in my most recent Amazon product placement ads (very affordable, usually under 25 cents per click, and about 5 to 10 clicks generally lead to a sale) I also had the brilliant idea to use other authors as key words (which you can do without penalty), and your little baby ad will turn up on their bestselling sites. Successful authors are nice, but if you pick an author you think possesses your target readership, you’ll do especially well—One of my best ‘partners’ so far is Elizabeth Berg, who I personally love as a reader, so I’m very happy about that. The AMS analytics will show you exactly which key words bring in the sales.  And right now the two biggest are ‘husbands’ and ‘secrets.’

So I’m not worried about not having snagged a ‘BookBub’, which seems to be the status symbol for a self-pubbed author. I’ll just put my pennies in advertising (it is a lot like playing the penny slots at Vegas) and see how the weekend pans out. Anyway, I’m a biographer now, LOL, so I’m not going to worry excessively anymore about how my fiction succeeds. Even with help from key words and such, it’s still largely the luck of the draw…

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