Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: book marketing

A high viewpoint looks down on the formidable gates of a stronghold, where a small, armored figure has pushed the gates partway open.

“We can’t market this”

“We can’t market this” is a reason for rejection that I’ve heard for decades. It says “your book/story doesn’t fit into our pre-made boxes.”

Innovation is sometimes the stuff of new bestsellers, although I’d argue that a book’s worth isn’t always or only revealed by its sales figures. But it admittedly is much harder to sell square pegs when your marketing is solely designed to appeal to round holes.

Gatekeepers

An image, reminiscent of the gated entrance to a millionaire’s estate, forms the words, “The Gate Keepers.”
Image from “Cold Call Coach” website.

The literary world is famously full of multiply-rejected books that later became bestsellers considered classics. But you also might note that their authors, once they finally were published, overwhelmingly tended to be White, and predominantly (though not exclusively) male. This begs the question of who, outside of this privileged subset, can write risky things that eventually are allowed to succeed to their potential.

Whenever we talk about access to markets (and to marketing dollars), we must talk about gatekeepers. In the US today, we’re still having that conversation, because our gatekeepers remain overwhelmingly white, and predominantly male.

It shows up in the bestseller lists. It shows up in the ethnic makeup of mainline publishers, and famously in the Oscars, and the projects that get the largest budgets.

Family stories

The idea for this post began during a recent conversation I had with G. S. Norwood. She wrote a collection of novels during the 1990s that racked up persistent rejections. The editors to whom she submitted them generally thought they were great stories, well written, and with wonderful characters—“but we can’t market this.”

This was a period when the hottest (and by far the biggest) market was in romances. G.’s novels tried to be romances, but in one way or another they didn’t conform to the expectations of the market. She’s now reviewing them, and revising as she sees the need. We’re preparing to offer them as contemporary women’s fiction, the niche where I’ve always thought they belonged.

We have another family story related to this topic of gatekeepers and markets. One of Warren C. Norwood’s last novels, a story deeply rooted in Chaos Theory, apparently confused the editors to whom he pitched it. They might be science fiction editors by title, but they also were recent graduates of Vassar and Brown. Their intellectual roots sank deeper into English literature than into the mathematical modeling of dynamical systems.

This is a photo of the author Warren C. Norwood.
Photo of Warren C. Norwood courtesy of G. S. Norwood.

A couple of decades later, another nerdy novel, The Martian, started out as a blog, then became a self-published ebook, and eventually went on to far more fame and movie rights than it might have had, if there’d been more gatekeepers in play.

Contrast the story of American Dirt, which still persists on Amazon Top-100 lists, despite its inauthenticity.

Self-serving excuses

“We can’t market this” is the classic excuse of the misogynist, the racist, the classist, the formula-slave, the gatekeeper who has outlived his/her usefulness.

It’s the excuse that has dictated decades—no, centuries—of whitewashing. I remember back when the complaint was that “female protagonists don’t sell.” “Black/Latin/Asian/LGBTQAI+ protagonists won’t sell.” “You can’t put a black/Latin/Asian in a central position on the cover because it won’t sell.” This, of course, is all hogwash.

But it banishes women, and all persons of color, from leading roles, cover imagery, and headliner status. Oh, and purely coincidentally of course, it preserves male, White, dominant-culture privilege. I mean, really. Can white dudes help it, if they wrote all the truly great literature, and painted all the great art, while everybody else just couldn’t measure up?

Yeah, right.

This is the mindset that left Artemesia Gentileschi “undiscovered” by the wider public until recently. It’s the kind of erasure that goaded Mary Ann Evans, AKA George Elliot, to use a male pen name. And it’s the mindset that inspired Borders Books (remember them?) to put the African-American romance books way back at the back of the store, far removed from the White romances. Those got more central display.

Myths and prejudices

The myth persists (despite plenty of examples to the contrary) that Black, Asian, or Latin main characters, starring actors, and even book cover characters, don’t sell as well as those featuring White people (Just don’t try to convince Black Panther of that).

The 1971 mass market paperback of Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” was released in 6 different colors of cover. This photo shows them. They were white, green, pink, orange, blue, and yellow.
Photo courtesy of “Fonts in Use” blog, via Goodreads and Amazon.

It reminds me of the “green book covers don’t sell” myth, purportedly based on sales of Future Shock, a pop-psychology phenomenon of the early 1970s (yes, I really am older than dirt). The publishers billed it as “a study of mass bewilderment in the face of accelerating change.” I remember people talking about it more as “that book about how we have too many choices.”

It was published in covers of six different colors in 1971 (woah, man, so meta). According to some study somewhere, the green cover sold less well, so it became a “thing” for a while that green covers don’t sell. But then life moved on. Eventually people figured out that beautiful and dynamic green covers actually sell just fine. Who could have seen that coming?

Gatekeepers and Awards

We already mentioned #OscarsSoWhite. An Academy Award has long been considered a pinnacle of achievement (and bankability) within the movie industry. Any theatrical professional locked out of the chance to receive one is automatically barred from the top echelon on the profession.

The Edgar Awards

Literary awards have followed a similar trajectory, because they also purport to be about quality. Prejudices persist, and sometimes that doubles up on the gatekeepers. One case in point: the Edgar Awards. These are the most prestigious awards in mystery writing, but the gatekeeping is notably strict. According to the rules:

“All works submitted for consideration must meet the requirements for Active Status membership as described in the membership guidelines. At this time, self-published work is not eligible for Edgar Award consideration.”

The requirements for Active Status membership in Mystery Writers of America reinforce a narrow list of publishers considered “good enough” to warrant membership. It also places would-be MWA members (and potential Edgar nominees) at the mercy of whatever the gatekeepers think is appropriate.

Does that guarantee higher quality? Maybe. Does it enforce a certain homogeneity? That’s much more likely.

The RITA Awards

The Romance Writers of America have far more inclusive membership requirements, but that hasn’t kept them out of trouble. Controversy over the non-inclusivity of their RITA Awards nearly tore the organization apart last year. (The RITAs are no longer being awarded).

The illustration shows a RITA Award statuette on its side with its head broken off at the shoulders.
Image courtesy of Vox. No illustrator credited.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Recognitions

The Nebula Awards of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (and SFWA membership requirements) are much more open to a variety of backgrounds.

But science fiction’s even-more-famous Hugo Awards fended off a different kind of gatekeeping attempt. a few years ago. The self-styled “Sad Puppies” tried to hijack the Hugos, and thereby stifle more diverse voices. They presented themselves as a threat in 2015 and 2016, but ultimately failed. Turned out the Force—not to mention SF & F fandom—just wasn’t with them.

Nor was it with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, after Jeanette Ng had her say about Campbell’s racism, misogyny, and imperialist sympathies. It’s now the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, embracing an inclusiveness Campbell himself would never have imagined or countenanced.

Beyond Gatekeepers

Traditional publishing and prestigious awards will always, by their nature, have gatekeepers. People whose inclinations and imaginations are limited by “we can’t market this” remain a fact of life. There also are only so many projects any publisher can fund.

I think Indie publishing (independent publishing) is today’s best answer for silenced voices and authors with smaller (but no less vibrant) niches. Other avenues may open in the future. But for now, here’s a venue where new niches can open and new voices seek out an audience.

A high viewpoint looks down on the formidable gates of a stronghold, where a small, armored figure has pushed the gates partway open.
Image by “WiseWizard” via Steam.

It’s very far from an easy path to success. Those gates are darned heavy. When you move away from having others market (or not market) your work, there’s suddenly a lot to learn. You may not hear “we can’t market this” from others, but not everything finds a market. Not everyone (in fact, not most “Indies”) can learn to thrive as entrepreneurs-of-necessity in the independent publishing world.

Can you market this?

Taken overall, self-published writers release a fair amount of dreck each year. Many haven’t done their due diligence, or haven’t learned their craft. Maybe they grew impatient with apprenticeship. Took critiques too personally, and stopped seeking them. Maybe they wearied of rejection after rejection, or couldn’t wait through the long turnaround-times of traditional publishing. Perhaps they published something simply to say they’re an author.

But a lot of writers do have great stories to tell, and strong writing skills. Some have previously been published traditionally. But all, for any of a range of reasons, found the experience unsatisfactory.

It’s possible the gatekeepers didn’t value their visions and their voices. Maybe they were pigeonholed as “just a midlist writer,” and therefore not worth promoting much. Perhaps they heard, “too niche,” or “too far off-genre” just a few too many times.

Or perhaps they heard, “We can’t market this” too often, as my sister did. These days, that doesn’t have to be the final verdict. Independent publishing enables writers to test that “can’t market” analysis for themselves. Maybe it’ll turn out they can market “this,” after all.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to the “Cold Call Coach” website, for the visualization of gatekeeping, and to the “Fonts in Use” blog, via Goodreads and Amazon, for the image of all the 1971 Future Shock covers. G.S. Norwood provided the “Pensive Warren C. Norwood” photo (thanks!). We’re grateful to Vox for the illustration of the broken RITA Award, and the informative article that came with it. And finally, many thanks to the artist “WiseWizard” via Steam, for that evocative image of opening formidable gates.

Signs, books for sale, and badge ribbons, bookmarks, and postcards for the taking, on Jan's Capricon 40 autograph table.

Creating S.W.A.G.

Capricon 40 kicked off my “con season” for 2020 on a high note. Time to get the rest of the reservations, plans, and itineraries in place. And time for creating S.W.A.G.

What is S.W.A.G., you may ask? It is Stuff We All Get (also abbreviated SWAG, without the periods, or spelled with lower-case letters). It’s the “freebies,” the samples, the advertising novelties that are handed out to people at conferences, conventions, and similar events. The stuff designed to help people remember our products and services later, after the event is over. 

S.W.A.G. makes a presence at every science fiction convention. And lately I’ve been handing out a lot of it. 

Jan with her autograph table display
I offered all manner of S.W.A.G. during my autographing at Capricon 40. (Photo by Tyrell E. Gephardt)

SF conventions and sales

It’s hard to measure whether freebies actually sell books. I’ve handed out what feels like bushels of bookmarks and barrels of badge-ribbons, often to enthusiastic recipients–so there’s at least the initial impression that’s positive.

Does that sell books? Maybe. I think both convention-going in general and S.W.A.G. in particular is a brand-building effort, more than a retail opportunity. I did notice a small up-tick in my book sales after Capricon (thank you!!), but even if you count in my art show sales, the cons don’t pay for themselves by the end of the weekend.

That’s okay by me, because I go to conventions for a lot of reasons besides selling books and art. Idea-gathering, networking, seeing old friends, finding material to blog about, discovering new artists and writers, and more fill out my list of reasons. 

Best of all, for me, are the panel discussions, readings, and chances to interact with fans and readers.

"Detectives in the Wild" panel at Capricon 40
I like to participate in panel discussions at sf cons. “Detectives in the Wild” panelists at Capricon 40, L-R: Jan S. Gephardt (Moderator), Deirdre MurphyMark H. Huston, and Clifford Royal Johns. (photo by a kindly audience member who didn’t share his name).

Creating S.W.A.G.

If I’m honest, creating S.W.A.G. is fun. I undoubtedly have too many different badge ribbons, but I’ll keep giving them out (I have lots). Coming up with the slogans to put on them is a creative exercise. My sister discovered that this winter while we were creating S.W.A.G. for her.

I generally like to create three kinds of S.W.A.G.: Postcards, bookmarks, and badge ribbons. Each fulfills a slightly different function.

Postcards 

Jan's current postcard, featuring her novel, "What's Bred in the Bone."
This is my blank postcard before adding the label with specific info about my reading, autographing, and the dealer who carries the books at that convention. (Design by Jan S. GephardtWhat’s Bred in the Bone cover art © 2019 by Jody A. Lee). 

I have a generic postcard that’s been professionally printed, which I customize for each convention. Every year, each convention schedules me for different things at different times. There’s a place designed on the postcard for a label that’s printed with that convention’s specifics.

My postcards generally list when and where my reading is scheduled, when and where I’ll be signing autographs, and (if I can work out a consignment deal ahead of time) what dealer is carrying my books at that convention. 

I hand out postcards everywhere I can, especially in the early part of the convention, because if I can convince interested readers to come to those events and places, I have a better chance to sell them books!

Bookmarks

Bookmarks from Weird Sisters Publishing: back and front sides of the two current bookmark designs.
Both sides of both current bookmarks: Left for What’s Bred in the Bone by 
Jan S. Gephardt
, and right is Deep Ellum Pawn, a novelette by G. S. Norwood. (Design by Jan S. GephardtWhat’s Bred in the Bone cover art © 2019 by Jody A. LeeDeep Ellum Pawn art © 2019 by Chaz Kemp.)

Bookmarks are probably my best overall S.W.A.G. sales tool. And if I do say so myself, my bookmarks are beautiful. 

Yes, I know the vast majority of books I sell are ebooks. But people do still buy the “dead trees” versions, and when you’re reading a physical book you need a bookmark.

For a writer, artist, or other creative professional, a bookmark functions much the same way as a business card, but in a number of ways it’s harder to lose and more practical

Maybe I’m weird, but I keep a large collection of bookmarks that also are a little memory trove. Some date back decades–but the ones I tend to keep, use, and enjoy the most are ones I especially like to look at

Bookmarks aren’t just for sf conventions, either. Lately I’ve had a slew of annual checkups, etc. At most of them I’ve found someone who likes science fiction and happily takes my bookmarks. All literate people can use bookmarks. I’m happy to supply them!

Badge ribbons

5 badge ribbon designs inspired by Jan's book, "What's Bred in the Bone."
Here is this year’s crop of What’s Bred in the Boneinspired badge ribbons. (preview images courtesy of P C Nametags).

As I said above, I undoubtedly give out too many badge ribbons. They’re not exactly cheap, and not all of the designs clearly remind people what book they’re promoting.

But I get a kick out of creating them, and many people get a kick out of wearing them at conventions.

Too many badge ribbons on a badge can be impractical–but people adapt. Pro tip: Duct tape on the back can keep a long string from breaking apart. Come prepared!

Even though they’re impractical, they’re quixotic. The silky texture and varied colors are pretty. They add a touch of whimsy. Many are funny, some are cryptic, and they’re altogether fun.

Seriously! What more excuse do you need?

5 badge ribbons inspired by G.S. Norwood's story, "Deep Ellum Pawn."
Here are the badge ribbons my sister and I brainstormed, based on her story Deep Ellum Pawn. (preview images courtesy of P C Nametags).

See you at the convention?

As you see, there are lots of reasons for creating S.W.A.G., and it can be fun to use. If you come to one of the conventions I attend, look for my postcards on the freebie tables and my Art Show display. 

Then come to my reading and/or autographing session, where I’ll have ALL the S.W.A.G.!

And if you’re a creative professional, perhaps you should consider creating S.W.A.G. of your own.

Photo of Jan's autograph table display, with signs, copies of her book, along with badge ribbons, bookmarks, and postcards for the taking.
Here’s another view of my Capricon 40 autograph table display. (Photo by Tyrell E. Gephardt).


IMAGE CREDITS: 

The photos of me with my S.W.A.G. offerings and books at my Capricon 40 autographing, and the detail-photo of the S.W.A.G. and books display, are both courtesy of Tyrell E. Gephardt. Please acknowledge him as photographer and provide a link back to this site if you re-post or reuse it. Thanks!

The photo of the “Detectives in the Wild” panel at Capricon 40 was taken by a kind audience member who did not give me his name–but whom I thank anyway! Please feel free to re-post or re-use it, too, but with an acknowledgement and link back to this post, if possible, please!

The cover art for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee

The cover art for Deep Ellum Pawn is © 2019 by Chaz Kemp

The images of the badge ribbon designs are previews generated by the P C Nametags Custom Badge Ribbons webpage. Many thanks to all!

Is your book a high-value item, or a low-value item?

Last week I attended MidAmericon II, the 74th Worldcon, which was held  in my home metro area of Kansas City.

A very small segment of the MidAmericon II Dealers' Room, including a small press booth.

A very small segment of the MidAmericon II Dealers’ Room, including a small press booth.

As the author of a recently-finished (but not yet published) novel, I was a bit more finely attuned to the crosscurrents (perhaps “riptides” would be a better description) of opinion about publishing that could be observed in action at this convention than I have been in some time.

Between the panels, the readings, the parties (such as they were) and the Dealers’ Room, I encountered a wide cross-section of opinion about the “best practices” in publishing today.

More booksellers--or are they author collectives, or are they small presses?--in the MidAmericon II Dealers' Room.

More booksellers–or are they author collectives, or are they small presses?–in the MidAmericon II Dealers’ Room.

One practice I found particularly curious was the free book giveaways. Many of the smaller operations seemed to think that a good way to attract new readers was to give away books.

Samples, you know? So people can see how “good” we can write, and love us, even though we haven’t had a copyeditor look at our work, much less a competent beta reader–or even (God forbid!) a professional editor.

Yeah, no.

If on the first few pages I encounter characters using each others’ names in dialogue (“Fred, as you know, I always write good,” Ellen cried. / “Why of course, Ellen, your writing is always just dandy,” Fred gushed), and alleged words such as “alright,” then SURE, I’m absolutely going to love it (NOT). In such cases, the free sample is worth every penny I paid for it, and it is going to make me take every effort NOT to bother with that person’s work ever again (even if they later take a writing class and get a clue).

This is the kind of “indie” publishing that gives indie-publishing a bad name, because no gatekeeper–no qualified second opinion–was ever allowed in. This is usually because the author is afraid to do so.

"No! Please! Don't make me edit my book! I might have to murder some darlings!"

“No! Please! Don’t make me edit my book! I might have to murder some darlings!”

“They won’t understand” or “I swear, it gets better by Chapter Five” just doesn’t cut it. For God’s sake, people, study the craft! And beyond that, study best practices in marketing! Yes, I know, you are a Creator, and Heaven forefend that you should have to trammel your muse with such mundane things.

You have a choice: go on giving horrible warnings away for free, and dragging down the value of the product for all the rest of us. Or you can take a different view.

Two kinds of products: High-value and low-value

Okay, I’m taking a deep breath now, centering myself, and thinking calm thoughts. The main purpose of this post is to call attention to a basic marketing guideline I learned years ago when I was a direct marketer.

The rule of thumb goes:

If you are marketing a LOW-VALUE ITEM, you give away free samples and offer discounts. 

If you are marketing a HIGH-VALUE ITEM, you offer premiums, up-sell enhancements, and offer tie-ins. 

How does this work in practice? 

If you are marketing a LOW-VALUE ITEM, you give away free samples and offer discounts. A low-value item is a cheap throw-away. It isn’t worth much, but if you sell a whole honkin’ lot of them, you can make a profit on the cost-markup margin, because of the volume. Such an item doesn’t cost you much to give away a free sample, so it makes sense to give away a few, in the hope that people will like it, tell their friends, and buy more.

This is a standard in the marketing world. Experienced consumers (i.e., most of us) know how to interpret a free giveaway. If you give your book away, it places your book in a category I doubt many indie-pubbers want to be placed into.

If your book is a cheap, throwaway, piece of crap, then perhaps the free-giveaway marketing ploy is your thing. Do you write dozens of them a year, and fail to do any research? Okay, then! You’ve found your strategy! In my humble opinion, if you give your book away, you are as good as labeling it dreck.

Is this what you're selling? Then freebies are probably your best avenue.

Is this what you’re selling? Then freebies are probably your best avenue.

 

 

If you are marketing a HIGH-VALUE ITEM, you offer premiums, up-sell enhancements, and offer tie-ins. In this case, the item itself is far too costly to give away, and has a high intrinsic value. It takes a lot of time, effort and (dare I say) skill to create the item, and it can add lasting value to the owner’s life.

I would like to argue that a well-written book is a high-value item. The author has invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, and effort into it.

A book is a high-value item. It should be marketed that way!

A book is a high-value item.
It should be marketed that way!

First, there have been years of learning the craft and creating the best possible story. Then this author has engaged well-read beta readers, possibly a copyeditor, and ideally an outside, professional editor to vet and perfect the product.

In the marketing phase, discernment and effort have led to the production of a high-quality, well-edited edition, with an attractive, appropriate cover, and high production values.

Appropriate premiums might be a first chapter as a teaser (a time-tested approach used by big-name publishers), an author autograph, or perhaps background, “insider” information. Up-sell might include an illustrated, limited edition, a signed and numbered slipcovered collector’s edition, etc. Tie-ins could include an author’s newsletter, pins, prints of the cover or illustrations, short fiction related to the major work, etc.

Your marketing strategy is up to you, of course. But I’d say it pays to think carefully about your approach.

IMAGES: The photos from MidAmericon II were taken by yours truly. The “Wow! Free Stuff” image is from a UK coupon company page called Wow Free Stuff. The photo of  the distressed writer contemplating editorial scrutiny is from Margaret Snow’s blog post on the Damsel in Distress archetype. The “Horrible Negative Example” quote image is from The Quotery. The ironic sign-failure CRAPBOOKS photo is from the Stuck on Stupid Pinterest Board, via Curiousread.com and Thisisbroken.com. The wonderful image of the girl hugging the book is by ToucanPecan, and may be found on ToucanPecan’s deviantART page. Check out the whole gallery, while you’re there!

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