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Random Thursday: Ask Not What Alpennia Can Do For You

Thursday, April 9, 2015 - 10:52
Anyone who know me at all personally knows how uncomfortable I am with self-promotion. I’m going to say some very uncomfortably self-serving things in this blog. (When I want to draw attention, I normally fall back on doing or making something so totally fabulous that everyone will just naturally want to be my friend and talk to me…which evidently makes me too scary or intimidating to talk to, but that’s an entirely different essay.) So you needn’t fear that essays like this one will become a common feature on my blog. But book releases are a special thing—a thing that only ever happens once for each book. As I’ve frequently mentioned, when Daughter of Mystery was released last year, I really wasn’t sure what to expect or what the rules were and I missed a lot of opportunities and made a lot of mistakes. Perhaps mistakes that couldn’t have been avoided. No doubt this time I’ll make an entirely different set of mistakes. But the one mistake I’m going to try not to make is to believe that if I just let my book sit there on the shelf being its utterly fabulous self, that the sheer fabulosity will make it successful. Bullshit. Fabulous things get overlooked all the time. And quietly fabulous things get overlooked a lot. So here’s where you—my readers and fans—come in. I’ve frequently mentioned how tickled I am that my reader reviews are so overwhelmingly literate and articulate. I think a well-written review helps persuade potential readers more than a simple “OMG this is great!” does. But you know what else helps persuade readers? Numbers. A year and a quarter out, Daughter of Mystery has exactly 21 Amazon reviews. (It would have had 22, but I think they took my brother’s review down because he was honest enough to mention the relationship.) That’s actually pretty pathetic numbers. Books that are a tenth as good as mine have ten times the number of reviews. You know why? Because they have energized fan bases. Amazon reviews drive visibility on the site. They matter. Daughter of Mystery has 14 Goodreads reviews. (More ratings, because Goodreads lets you rate without reviewing.) That’s really pathetic. Obviously, I’m happy about the people who have left reviews. But I get rather depressed about my book’s apparent inability to get more people excited enough to talk about it. Excitement spreads interest. Interest generates curiosity. Curiosity leads to people checking the book out. And I can’t count the number of people I’ve heard say, “I wouldn’t ordinarily have read something like this, but so-and-so convinced me to try it and I absolutely loved it!” I can’t get those readers if my greatest fans are just quietly appreciating the books in private as if they were a guilty pleasure. Discoverability is a major problem for small press books and for niche genres. Let’s be brutally honest here: my publisher doesn’t do any promotion outside the lesbian fiction market—and that market is pretty much assumed to be a closed class who only need to be provided with the information of a book’s existence. All the promotion outside that narrow market is on my head, and it pretty much means that I’m hand-selling books one at a time and desperately hoping that someone else will love the book enough to spread the word. That’s where you all come in. Here are some very specific things you can do to help The Mystic Marriage be a success—assuming that you’d like it to be a success. Keep in mind that success is essential to having book series continue to be published. If the Alpennia books are very much outsiders in the larger world of SFF publishing, keep in mind that serious historic fantasy is just as much an outsider in the world of lesbian fiction, which is dominated by contemporary settings, category romance, and erotica. A lot of lesfic readers who will reflexively buy every new contemporary erotic romance, give Daughter of Mystery a pass because they don’t know what to do with it. So I need that cross-over appeal. I write niche books and I need to find and fill that niche in every reading community it exists in. So that’s the pep talk. What can you do?
  • Read the books – OK, that sounds like a no brainer. I assume that people who read this blog do so because they enjoy my writing and my ideas and are predisposed to like my fiction as well. But it’s not actually a given. So I’m going to make a personal, emotional appeal: I will never judge anyone by whether they’ve read my books or not, but if you have ever tried someone’s books or stories solely because you liked them as a person and wanted to support their creative work, I’m not proud. I’ll gladly take that as a reason for having you read mine. And past evidence has indicated that you’re more likely to be glad you did than sorry, so it's not a big risk.
  • Tell people if you enjoyed the books – In person, in your social media, everywhere. Be as enthusiastic as your conscience will allow. Not just, “Hey what are you reading?” “Oh, this thing my friend Heather wrote.” but “It’s this great book [title]! It has [favorite story features] and I love the [best parts]! And it’s a series—I just finished the second book and I can’t wait for her to finish the next one!”
  • Post reviews – You don’t have to buy a book from Amazon to post a review there. (You do have to set up an account, but that’s trivial.) It’s just as easy to set up a Goodreads account and you can post the same review in both places. And then re-use the review on your personal blog, or facebook wall, or anywhere else. A review doesn’t have to be a formal essay. It doesn’t have to be long. (As noted above, specific observations are better than generic squee. But don’t forget to squee as well!)
  • Add the books to Goodreads lists and best-ofs -- Goodreads has a lot of features for helping people identify books they might enjoy reading. There's simple shelf-tagging. There are theme lists. Daughter of Mystery is currently included in "Lesbian Historic Fiction" and "Lesbian Fantasy". Other lists that it might naturally belong on include "Fantasy of Manners" and "Regency Fantasy". There are book groups with associated recommendation lists. Goodreads also has the option to ask an author questions, or to start discussions related to a specific book. All of these things increase visibility and engage people's interest.
  • Recommend the books – If you encounter people looking for suggestions to read, keep the Alpennia books in mind if they fit what the person is looking for. There’s nothing like the thrill of seeing someone recommend your book to a third party. (And it’s disappointing when someone who says they like your book never seems to remember it exists when they’re making recommendations. See comments about “guilty pleasures”.)
  • Pass on promotional opportunities – Not everyone will be in a position to do this, of course, but if you know someone who does book reviews or book blogs, someone who does book-related podcasts, if you’re part of a book club (either in-person or on-line), suggest the Alpennia books any time they’re relevant. If you’re reasonably local to me, I’m always happy to look into personal appearances. Personal connections got me a library reading, a bookstore reading, and a Q&A session with HS and college students who’d had Daughter of Mystery as assigned reading. The possibilities can be creative.
  • Help get the books into bookstores – Yes, I know, brick-and-mortar stores are so 20th century, and many people no longer have the luxury of having a local bookstore, not even a Barnes & Noble. But physical stores are still a great place for book discoverability, and bookstores rarely stock small press books without a special reason. If you have the opportunity, give them that reason. Special-order my books through your local bookstore and actively suggest that they order extra copies and put them on the shelves. (I had one SFF bookstore tell me, “We didn’t stock your book because we didn’t think it would sell, and since nobody came in and asked for it, obviously we were right not to have stocked it.” Just one person walking in and saying, “Hey, could you order this book for me?” might have gotten me into that store.) And here’s a further detail on discoverability: suggest that they shelve the book in the SFF section…not that one tiny shelf in the far back of the store where they cram all the LGBTQ books. People who buy lesbian fiction will already have heard about my books (it they’re going to hear at all). It’s the fantasy readers who need to be able to stumble across them.
  • Be enthusiastic – I can’t emphasize this enough. The minimal baseline for getting people’s attention for a book these days is “OMG this is the best thing ever! You have to read it!” A recommendation along the lines of, “I rather like it. If you’re into this sort of thing, you might check it out.” might as well be a thumbs-down.
  • Don’t anti-sell – There’s this thing that shows up in reviews sometimes that comes out sounding like, “This book is very good for a lesbian novel” or “If you like lesbian fantasy adventures, you’ll enjoy this.” A lot of potential readers will have a knee-jerk reaction to being told that a story has lesbian characters. “Oh, this isn’t meant for me.” I never want to apologize for my characters being women who love other women. And every time the books get described in a way that prioritizes the “lesbian” label, it feels like a big red warning label is being slapped across the cover. Lots of people have enjoyed Daughter of Mystery who would not have deliberately read a “lesbian novel”. Don’t feel you have to foreground this aspect of the books unless it’s a positive selling point. Because if you do, it comes across as giving your listener an excuse to reject it. And that connects to...
  • Make connections to other things people like -- One of my readers recently recommended, "If you like Ellen Kushner's Privilege of the Sword or Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics, or if you think Georgette Heyer novels would be better with lesbians, Daughter of Mystery is a book for you." Now that's how you sell a book to people! I would love it if more people promoted the connections between the Alpennia books and better-known works that have the same target audience. (I'd love it even more if someone convinced the authors of those better-known similar works to check out Alpennia and if they subsequently recommended my work to their fans. This is, alas, something that is Very Bad Form for an author to do herself.)
So that’s everything I can think of at the moment. I’m sure you’re all creative enough to come up with more. The LHMP100 celebratory contest for a chance to win a e-book of The Mystic Marriage is still running and will be open through April 20. You currently have an excellent chance of winning if you enter (hint, hint). Now I’ll just go back to working on being quietly fabulous until next time.