It took me 23 years (and seven rejected novels) to get published from the time I wrote my first novel, aged 17. Since being published almost ten years ago, I’ve learned a lot about the industry. Here’s some advice. I hope you find it useful!
How authors are marketed depends a great deal on whether they are traditionally published or self-published, whether they are with a big or small publisher, the size of their advance, whether they are a debut or several books in. A bigger advance usually commands a bigger marketing and PR budget. I am with a big 5 publisher and so am lucky to have a publicist and a decent marketing campaign for each book. But there are things I have done over the years off my own back to help build my profile. I describe these below:
Social media is not for everyone and can seem like a toxic hellhole, at times. But these days readers engage with writers they enjoy reading via social media, so you do need a profile on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – whichever you can handle. You need to post regularly (one post daily, I’d say) and not just ‘buy my book’ posts. Post things about your life, your interests, other things you find intriguing. Social media is also a great place to network with other writers, bloggers, and booksellers.
I attend lots of events and it is at these events that I have made friends with many writers, reviewers, bloggers and event organisers who have helped my career in the long run. It’s an investment that is important. Not everyone is comfortable networking, but just be yourself. You can’t change your personality so work within it. Being amiable and just talking about your passions can take you a long way!
Have a professional looking website
This is a no brainer. It’s your shop window. Make sure there are clear calls to action e.g. Links to where people can buy your book, how to join your newsletter. You can find lots of advice about this on the Internet so I don’t need to labour the point. Here’s my website: www.vaseemkhan.com
Build a newsletter.
I’ll focus a little more on this last point as I think it is so important. I’ve had a newsletter for nine odd years, since my first book came out. It is the single most powerful tool (outside of my publisher’s marketing and PR efforts) that I have to get readers to buy books, and, more importantly to spread the word about my books. I send it quarterly, but with occasional additional special updates. It has grown consistently over the years by:
- It grows organically by having clear ‘join my newsletter’ posting on my website
- I give away short stories to encourage people to join
- I write a lot of blog pieces on various subjects which I promote via social media and which all contain an encouragement to join the newsletter
In terms of content, I have:
- current book news, awards news, etc
- events I’ve spoken at or will be speaking at
- fun/interesting personal news e.g. updates on my season playing cricket
- a competition to win a free book (or something else)
- news about other books I’m reading and TV/film I’ve just watched
- news about science articles that have caught my eye (I love science; this is not related to my books at all)
- encouragement to buy my backlist
The tone is fun and I get a lot of feedback each time I send one out. My open rates are far higher than industry standard (industry standard for author newsletters is around 20-40%, depending on whose stats you quote). But … EACH NEWSLETTER DOES TAKE TIME, EFFORT, AND HEADSPACE. Which is hard to find when you have deadlines looming. The way to look at it is in marketing terminology: newsletters help to create a personal connection with your readers and make them long term loyal followers of your books – that’s worth the effort, I’d say.
You can check out my newsletter by joining it here: https://vaseemkhan.com/book-club/
My Top Tips
The main reason agents reject novels is because they are not up to publishable standard. I believe that quality matters; that means quality in prose, plot, and the characters you bring to life in your books. Authenticity is also very important in the industry right now. What does this mean? It means that if you can write about something you care about, something that you may have insider knowledge of something that captures a theme, you may find a more receptive audience among both industry gatekeepers and readers.
It also makes marketing easier, because you will have more to talk about and more to hang marketing efforts around. I can use myself as an example to demonstrate this.
Your relationship with your stories
I lived in Bombay for ten years in my twenties and those incredible memories power my writing. My first series (known as the Baby Ganesh Agency novels), starting with The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, is about a middle-aged policeman who retires and solves murders while having to look after a baby elephant. The book was selected by The Sunday Times as one of the 40 best crime novels published 2015-20.
Those books are set in modern Mumbai. But my latest series, the Malabar House novels, are set in 1950s Bombay, and look at the foundation of the modern India we see today. That post-Independence era was a complicated time in India, not least because places like Bombay were still highly cosmopolitan and India was renegotiating her relationship with Britain.
The Malabar House series was born of my desire to explore India just after Independence. Beginning with Midnight at Malabar House (which won the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger), we witness a nation still reeling in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination and the horrors of Partition. My lead character is Persis, India’s first female police detective, determined to prove herself in a man’s world, is banished to Bombay’s smallest police station, Malabar House, populated by rejects and misfits. The murder of an English diplomat falls into her lap, and she must work with an English forensic scientist named Archie Blackfinch, deputed to Bombay from London’s Met Police.
It’s an uncomfortable, will they-won’t-they relationship. After all, how can an Indian woman in post-colonial India consider an Englishman as anything more than a colleague…?
The latest book in the series, Death of a Lesser God, asks a simple question – can post-colonial societies treat their former colonisers justly? James Whitby is an Englishman born in India during the Raj, convicted in post-Independence India of murdering a prominent Indian lawyer. He claims he is innocent, the victim of a form of ‘reverse racism’. My lead character, Persis, India’s first female police detective – working with Archie Blackfinch, an English forensic scientist in Bombay – has eleven days to find out if Whitby is innocent or guilty before he is hanged. The clock is ticking!
Both my series explore themes that I can talk about (e.g. post-colonialism, globalisation, women’s rights in India) and that give my marketing efforts a real fillip.
Income may vary…
I earn money from advances, royalties, and payments for events. I also earn money from side projects that crop up now and again e.g. being asked to edit an anthology.
Advances are dependent on several factors – mainly your sales track record, but also how publishers feel they can recoup their investment on you. In the old days publishers were more willing to nurture writers; now they expect returns a little bit quicker.
Golden Rules for Events
When it comes to events, the golden rule is that doing a good job brings more offers. I have done a LOT of events over the past decade; I also now sit on the steering committee of one of the world’s biggest crime fiction festivals, Theakston’s Old Peculier Festival at the Old Swan in Harrogate (It’s the hotel Agatha Christie went to when she vanished for 11 days). It’s been going for 20 years and showcases the world’s biggest writers. Here is what I can tell you about festivals (and events in general):
Festivals want names that they think they can market so that they can recover the costs of putting on the event.
This means authors who have some traction – a debut that has attracted attention, a book that has generated word of mouth buzz, a book that has been well reviewed by critics, a book that has won an award, a book that is hitting a topical theme, a book that has a TV adaptation out.
Organisers want writers who they can TRUST.
That means they invite people who have a reputation for being professional, for turning up on time, for not pulling out, for not saying offensive things on stage (it happens!), and for being pleasant to work with.
Writers with ‘charisma’ will find themselves invited back and also invited to other events – because event organisers talk to each other!
Everyone quickly finds out who is good on stage and who bores the hell out of audiences. So, if you get invited make sure you practise what you might say and have some engaging anecdotes at the ready. Everyone loves a writer who is charming, has a sense of humour, and can talk intelligently about the world of their book. No one likes an author who is surly, who wants to bore everyone with a 20 minute reading, and who hogs the stage from his fellow panelists.
If you’re invited to moderate/chair a panel … accept with good grace and do a great job.
Read the damn books! Great chairs are invaluable and it’s a great way to get in with festival organisers. Even the most famous writers in the world occasionally chair.
Invites to events are not a given. But it still requires you to build contacts and then build a reputation for being an excellent speaker.