Self-Publishing Literary Fiction: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Cari Noga Reveals All to The Book Doctors
The Book Doctors met Cari Noga in 2011, when she won our National Novel Writing Month Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books). Her pitch was spectacular, haunting and superbly crafted. Her story is about a 12-year-old boy with autism who witnesses the Miracle on the Hudson plane crash, and how he and other crash witnesses and survivors find their lives intersecting and transformed by the extraordinary event—and by each other. We worked with her on her novel Sparrow Migrations and discovered it was a richly wrought tapestry of human emotion, both beautifully plotted and a delightful read. The novel was a semifinalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, and the spring 2013 winner of the ForeWord Firsts contest sponsored by ForeWord Reviews. Cari herself was already a published author (Road Biking Michigan with Globe-Pequot Press in 2005). When we sent her book out to our agent and publishing contacts, we were shocked that no one snapped it up. The problem is she’s not famous. There are no zombies or werewolves in her book. No S&M involving rich people. Just a great story with great characters about a world-famous event. So Cari decided to self-publish in April, 2013. Sparrow Migrations was just named a literary fiction category semi-finalist in the Kindle Book Review’s 2014 Kindle Book Awards. So we thought we’d pick her brain and the beauties and terrors of self-publishing literary fiction.
The Book Doctors: The general wisdom is that self-publishing literary fiction is especially difficult. Do you agree with this wisdom? If so, how have you gotten around these difficulties? If not, why not?
Cari Noga: I think publishing anything that isn’t directly aimed at a genre-specific audience is more difficult, whether you go the self-pub route or traditional. The upside is that if you do reach a literary audience, the potential is much wider. I seem to have found a niche with book clubs, starting right in my own community, and rippling outward—I just did a Skype chat with a club in Phoenix. My town has a strong sense of locavorism –people like to buy local, eat local, etc. I think that extends to reading, too. One suggestion to make locavorism work for you: Check whether your library offers book club kits – multiple copies of the same book, available for simultaneous checkout. Mine does, and when I did an appearance, I asked that they create a kit
TBD: What has been the single most difficult thing about self-publishing?
CN: Retail distribution. I was aware that I would have to offer discounts, but I did not appreciate enough the importance of offering returns. My book is available through Ingram & Baker and Taylor, but as a POD book there is no way to return it.
TBD: What has been the single best thing?
CN: Hearing from readers, especially in the book club settings. Free time is my own most prized resource, so to know that people are spending theirs reading my book is incredibly gratifying. Hearing that they like it, that the characters resonate authentically, and that they’ve learned something – whether about autism, birds, or something else – is like having my cake, icing and ice cream, too.
TBD: What marketing strategy has been most successful? What has been least successful?
CN: Most successful by a longshot: Kindle giveaways. I’ve done two (June 2013, 5,400 copies downloaded; Jan. 2014, 33,600 copies downloaded.) Paid sales increased after each and reviews soared. The January one was advertised on Bookbub, which I also recommend.
Least successful: Advertising in trade journals like PW Select. Not because the ads were bad or poorly designed, but the brick-and-mortar bookseller audience that reads them are predisposed against self-published books, especially POD like mine, due to the inability to return unsold copies and the inconvenience of dealing with an individual publisher.
Book clubs are still proving a good audience – I’m a guest at three different live discussions here in town next month and my first by Skype, with a club in Phoenix that somehow latched onto it.
TBD: How have you convinced independent bookstores to carry your book?
CN: Goes back to locavorism. I have two indie stores in my town that are both eager to work with local authors. I had a relationship with one (Horizon Books) going back to a nonfiction book (Road Biking Michigan) I published traditionally ten years ago and was fortunate to have one staff member be a beta reader. They have two other stores in northern Michigan as well. The other newer store is Brilliant Books, a cozy, customer-centric place that hosted my launch. I showed them both copies while in proof stage, asked them to carry it and offered industry standard discounts. Another store contacted me after reading local media coverage. A few other stores have been receptive to cold calls.
TBD: Would you still like to see your book published by a major publisher? If so, why?
CN: I would like to see my book in more bookstores. At the book clubs I visit, more people bring paper copies than Kindle, so I’m concluding there’s more potential for the paper copy than I’m getting in my half-dozen stores and on Amazon. However, I’d be much more cautious about the deal I’d sign than I would have two years ago. More than a publisher, right now I would like an agent who could advise me about the best moves to make not only for this book, but career-wise.
TBD: Are you working on a next book? If so, what is it about? Tentatively titled Tres Vidas, my next novel is, like Sparrow Migrations, a story about relationships. The three lives that intersect are Lucy, a suddenly-orphaned 9-year-old who must leave her NYC home to live on a northern Michigan farm with her prickly aunt Jane, and Miguel, a migrant worker who becomes a bridge between the two.
CN: How did you get 180 reviews of your book on Amazon?
TBD: Reviews spiked after the giveaways. After the initial release in April 2013, when I ran into people who told me they liked the book – in person, by email, on social media –my standard reply was to ask them to write a review on Amazon or Goodreads. A surprising number actually did, and I got up to about 20 reviews that way. That doubled after the first giveaway. After the second giveaway, timed to the fifth anniversary of the Miracle on the Hudson plane crash, which is the starting incident in the book, they just came pouring in. I’ve not solicited any reviews in months.
TBD: You enrolled in Amazon’s KDP select program. Was the exclusivity they requested worth it?
CN: Yes – see the giveaway results above. I do plan to expand to other platforms (Nook, Kobo) this year.
TBD: We can’t help but ask how you view the Amazon/Hachette tug of war since you used Amazon’s publishing program. Thoughts?
CN: I think there are far more shades of gray to the situation than have emerged in the mainstream narrative (Amazon: evil corporate behemoth; Hachette, guardians and saviors of literature.)
J.A. Konrath http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/ says that in this mad, crazy publishing world of the moment, the only two people who matter are the writer and the reader. Everyone else in a middleman who has to prove their value. Right now, Amazon is connecting those two best. They also treat authors better financially (Both my books are priced at $14.95. I get about $4 per novel sold vs. 75 cents for my Road Biking book, which was taken out of print.*) More people are reading, thanks to the Kindle, which has added another revenue stream for authors.
Meanwhile, the ranks of indie bookstores are actually growing as they embrace what they do best: curation and customer service. In my town, Brilliant Books, for example, offers free shipping. At Horizon, membership program fees drop by a dollar every year, encouraging renewals. Healthy marketplaces do generally have more players vs. fewer, so I hope Hachette and the Big Five can survive. But in terms of blame for the situation they’re in, as others have said (See exhibits A was, B and C ) I’d point to the mirror as much as Amazon.
Cari Noga self-published her debut novel, Sparrow Migrations, in April 2013. The novel was a semifinalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, the spring 2013 winner of the ForeWord Firsts contest sponsored by ForeWord Reviews, and was just named a literary fiction category semi-finalist in the Kindle Book Review’s 2014 Kindle Book Awards. A former journalist, she also traditionally published Road Biking Michigan with Globe-Pequot Press in 2005. Read her blog or sign up for her author newsletter at www.carinoga.com.
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010).
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It’s the greatest time in history to be a writer. There are more ways now to get published than ever before. Yes, it’s great to have so many options, but they’re all so confusing. That’s where The Book Doctors come in, with a prescription for making your book a rousing success.
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In addition, three writers will be chosen at random to pitch their books in 1 MINUTE. We will then break down (in a kind and gentle manner!) the strengths and weaknesses of the pitch, and then use these pitches to help workshop attendees to understand which path (traditional, independent, or self-publishing) would be appropriate for each kind of book. Whether you get to pitch or not, we can assure you that you’ll come away with an understanding of which path(s) will be appropriate for your book as well. There will also be a question and answer period, so come prepared.
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped dozens and dozens of talented writers and experts become professionally published authors. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for over 20 years at The Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. She is also the author of nine books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 16 books, on a wide variety of subject including memoir, sports, YA fiction and reference. They have taught their workshop on how to get published everywhere from Stanford University to Smith College. They have appeared everywhere from The New York Times to NPR’s Morning Edition to USA Today.
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“A must-have for every aspiring writer.” – Khaled Hosseini, New York Times bestselling author of The Kite Runner
The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published
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We’ve been to almost 50 states talking to thousands of authors—amateurs and professionals—and we’re still shocked that one particular fantasy still exists and persists: “My publisher is going to put together and implement a publicity and marketing plan that will rocket my book to the top of bestseller lists.”
Clearly, most authors who still harbor this fantasy are unfamiliar with publishing in the 21st century (or publishing at any time, for that matter). To paraphrase best-selling author and marketing guru Seth Godin, the writer who starts developing her community as her book is coming out and just hopes that her publisher will get her on Oprah is in for a rude awakening. You simply cannot sit around waiting for your publisher to hand you a publicity and marketing plan, because there’s a good chance this publicity and marketing plan may never arrive. Except in rare circumstances, the authors that make it big (or just make it), are the ones who are busy planning their own publicity and marketing long before their books are published.
The relationship between author and publisher is much like a marriage. It usually starts with a great honeymoon phase, often cools when the partners see each other’s warts, only works with lots of give-and-take, and both sides take it for granted after a while. That’s why it’s important to go into your relationship with a sort of publicity-and-marketing “dowry.” The more you’ve done to beef up this dowry, the better things will go for your book. Yes, this publicity and marketing plan is a work in progress that will be revised and refined up until and even beyond your book’s publication. But it sets the bar for action on both sides.
So what do put in your marketing and publicity plan? Here’s a quick primer:
1) Your pitch. You know how to pitch your book better than anyone else—or you should. Hopefully, you’ve been developing your pitch from the moment you told someone you had an idea for a book and they asked, “So, what’s your book about?”
2) A summary of your strategy and goals for publication. What are your expectations? Just be sure these are realistic, not “Get me on Fresh Air and the cover of The New York Times Book Review while I am wooed by Hollywood.”
3) What you’ve done already to prime the pump. Do you have a social media following of any kind? Have you made contacts at local or national media? Do you have endorsers ready to blurb? Do you have a workshop schedule already in place? Display your platform proudly.
4) Identify media (traditional and social) opportunities—big and small. You know your subject and your audience better than your publisher does. Most trade publishers are generalists, and while they know how to get your book into trade publications and mainstream media (whether actually do so is another question!), they probably won’t know about the niche media, bloggers, tweeters, etc that are speaking to your audience every day.
5) Identify cross-promotional opportunities with other authors on your publisher’s list. It always helps to be in the company of more-established authors. Seek out other people who are doing similar work, especially on your publisher’s list. See if your publisher can put you on a panel with like-minded authors, ask if you can guest blog on another author’s site — anything that will help raise your profile, and get the word out.
Many authors to whom we deliver this primer look at us with bunny-in-headlights eyes and protest, “I’m no marketing expert!”. That may be true right now, but if you want your book to be the success you hoped for, you’re going to have to learn the particulars about your audience, and how to find, woo, and wow them. The good news is that if you do, and if you put this information into your publisher’s hands, they may even agree to do a big chunk of this work for you. As in marriage, if you pick the right partner you can give birth to a happy, healthy, thriving book that will give both of you pleasure and coin for decades to come.
ARIELLE ECKSTUT, cofounder of LittleMissMatched, an iconic brand with stores in Disneyland and Grand Central Station, is a writer, entrepreneur, and agent-at-large for the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. She is the author of Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen
DAVID HENRY STERRY is the coeditor of Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys (front page review, The New York Times Book Review) and author of Master of Ceremonies, Chicken, Satchel Sez, and most recently, The Glorious World Cup. He is also an actor, media coach, book doctor, Huffington Post regular and activist. The authors are married and live in Montclair, New Jersey,