Self-Publishing in the Digital Age: How the Wrong Marketing can Kill Your Book

English: From the public domain book, "Th...Dickens: the Myth. He achieved Eternal Fame with his Pickwick Papers published one chapter at a time in a monthly magazine (Image via Wikipedia) Don't we all wish we could duplicate that!

Newbies beware!  The wrong marketing strategy can kill your book. Self-publishing is not all roses and the learning curve is very, very steep.  We've all heard that the DIY road to publishing is just a matter of hard work: write a great book, produce it professionally and sell it like a marketing guru! Then run laughing to the bank and watch your account swell and swell, right? All you need to be is a Digital Age Dickens!

Wrong! It's not that easy. Of course not all of us are Dickens. But just look at a situation where in principle you, the author, have everything under control:
1. You've written a great book. It's in top shape, editing-wise and content-wise, real bestseller stuff: check. 
2. You've converted the files to digital professionally and got a great book cover (you've heard that's important even in the digital world): check.
3. You've got a blog going and a reasonable presence on Internet, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and even in reading communities like Goodreads: check.
4. Publish, market and win fame!

Not so fast. Consider my experience.  I think (but perhaps I delude myself) that I'm an entrepreneurial, risk-taking individual. So after a couple of years of queries leading me nowhere - querying is hell and it sure looks like a lottery! You get a distinct impression that agents don't go past the first five words - I decided to take the big jump into digital self-publishing. I went to BookBaby for file conversion and putting the titles on my book (just the title because I'm a painter and did the illustration), figuring they were the professionals and I wasn't. That was my first mistake. It meant I put someone between me and Amazon (to the extent that I can't get my sales number directly!) so I lost right there a big piece of control.

More traps opened up under my feet as I tried to market my book. I figured I should (1) write a trilogy because that's what was selling (vide Amanda Hocking's Trylle Trilogy) and (2) classify my book in a "hot" genre, and of course like everyone and his uncle I picked YA. 

Nine months later (meaning now) I realized the mistakes I'd made. My book, sure, is a coming of age story but it doesn't fit the YA audience strictly defined (meaning 14-18 years old). People likely to enjoy my book are adults, mature types, not young adults unless you define them as being between the age of 18 and 25. Then I compounded the mistakes by coming out with the three books at three months' intervals! I should have waited to finish all three and then uploaded them on that virtual shelf within maximum a month's time between each - just like Dickens came out with his Pickwick Papers a chapter at a time, yes, but on a monthly basis (since he published them in a monthly magazine).

So now I have to take big decisions: should my book Fear of the Past be considered a trilogy or a novel? Is it YA or literary? 

OK, after a lot of anxious self-searching and questioning, here's the verdict: it's a novel and not a trilogy. Because if you stop at the first book you only get one third of the story arc: the protagonist comes of age only in the third book. Ergo, call Fear of the Past a novel. That to me was a compelling reason to retitle the book and adjust the cover accordingly:

And yes, it's more literary than YA...I'm humbled by this because classifying my own work as literary sounds like I'm immodestly shooting for the stars. But believe me, I don't delude myself into thinking I'm another Dickens. Of course, I'm not. But the book doesn't fit any genre (it's historical, paranormal, romance, techno-thriller, coming-of-age...). Not only that, but it is experimental in at least two ways: in part 1 (or book 1) Forget the Past, it includes playwriting techniques along with standard novel writing (playlets are inserted right in the text); in part 2 (or book 2) Reclaim the Present, it moves between two points of views both written in the first person because when the protagonist is trapped in the mind of his great-great-grandfather, the world around them is seen from two different first person points of views, quite a feat to pull off without confusing the reader!  

Lesson in all this? The learning curve is so steep that one can make very serious book packaging/marketing mistakes and that's where the experience of a good agent could be really helpful...I know that I now regret I never had the ear of a friendly, experienced agent. She could have helped me and prevented me from mis-marketing my book and wasting time. Because even those who dare to self-publish need advice!

Alan Rinzler in his excellent blog, the Book Deal, recently investigated the question with 4 major literary agents: Candice Fuhrman, Andrea Brown, Andrea Hurst and Bonnie Solow. This is a post you want to read. It gives the point of view of agents on the question and the conclusion is inescapable: literary agents still act as "gatekeepers" for authors seeking traditional deals. They have a role as long as publishers are paying advances and publishing books, but also - and this is the novelty - as advisers to self-published authors: they can help with the editing and even the publishing process. This latter activity has raised some eyebrows: many have argued that was going against their basic agent role as go-between the author and publisher. 

But who ever said that a literary agent had to be just a go-between? I believe agents in this new digital age would have a very real role as publishing consultant/adviser. What is your take on this? I'd love to hear your views and if you've made marketing mistakes like I have, please share and let us know what you've learned!

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