An Author’s Life of Snakes and Ladders - Guest Post by Mary Cavanagh

The Good Old Days: Forty years ago my home town of Oxford had a small WHSmith and the truly brilliant Blackwell’s; a large established family bookshop that catered for the academic side of the University, and also offered several floors of fiction and non-fiction. This was a rare luxury, and whilst other towns might have only had a WHS, they would have had one or two excellent independents as well. Authors were managed by the many long-established publishing firms who fully supported them, took responsibility for sales and marketing, and took a great deal of interest in their careers. Yes, of course, there was a sector of high commercialism and pocket romances, but on the whole good quality reading was the order of the day.

Thatcher’s Britain: From the nineteen-eighties onward, in response to the boom times of economic growth, competition in the form of large chain stores arrived. Oxford was blessed with an enormous Waterstones, and even larger Borders. This pattern was reflected nationwide, including two other chains, Dillons and Ottakar’s, all of whom pushed hard for space in the smaller market towns, ousting many independents who couldn’t compete. They all catered to mass market tastes, their stock was controlled from their head offices, and each branch, in each town, seemed to be a cloned twin. Behind the scenes, of course, competition drove the pace, and publishers paid large fees for the privilege of high-profile displays. Figures I’ve heard for those days were tens of thousands for a major London window display at Christmas, several thousand for a ‘three-for-two’ deal, and even a large fee for the book to be ‘outward facing’. These times were the salad days of conventional book selling, and there was no such thing as self-published authors, or online discounting. In fact, the only outlet for the self-publisher was the sneered at ‘vanity publishing’.

All Change: Ah, but how the mighty are fallen, and there came three things; the advent of Amazon and other online selling facilities, the economic downturn, and the end of the Net Book Agreement. The NBA, which had operated since 1900, meant that all booksellers were bound to display a uniform retail price, but in 1997 it ended. This meant a ‘free-for-all’ in undercutting. Online retailers and supermarkets were able to offer rock bottom prices, and gradually, although battling to survive, Borders went to the wall, Dillons and Ottakars were absorbed into Waterstones, and Waterstones (apart from WHSmith) was the only survivor. Also, a huge percentage of the remaining independents were forced to close, dumbing the industry down even further. With cheaper books came a rise of serious cut-throat competition, and what was seen as ‘market opportunities’. With increased book sales many new publishers sprang up, to initially thrive (but quickly wither). Gradually, self-publishing began to gain ground and many worthy ‘old name’ publishers and imprints failed to compete and began going to the wall.

It was into this world of new opportunities, and wide-reaching changes that my life as a novelist began.

Ladder: My first novel, The Crowded Bed (2007) was published by the newly formed Transita, and sold 2500 copies.
Snake:  They quickly ceased to trade and I lost my contract for a second book.
Ladder: I found a prestigious literary agent who ‘absolutely adored’ my second book, A Man Like Any Other, and sent me away to do minor changes.
Snake: He didn’t like the changes and dumped me.
Ladder(s): In 2008 self-publishing was becoming big business. I signed A Man Like Any Other up for a litho-print deal with Matador and sold 800, which was excellent news. With their other ‘hat’, as mainstream Troubador, they published my self-help textbook, A Seriously Useful Authors Guide to Marketing and Publicising Book. It sold very well, and in the interim I completed another full-length novel, Who Was AngelaZendalic. In 2009 I was taken on by another literary agent who ‘loved’ Angela Zendalic and signed me up.
Snake: It became obvious, after two wasted years, that the agent was doing nothing to sell my book and had lost interest in me. We parted company. Then came my wilderness years. I never stopped writing but my published career had come to a grinding halt.
Ladder: In 2012 I secured a three-book deal with Thames River Press. My old self-published novel (A Man) was issued under a new title, The Priest, His Lady and The Drowned Child, and Who Was Angela Zendalic came out in 2013.
Snake: Despite my best efforts and a huge sales campaign in all the areas that had worked before (Facebook, bookshops, libraries, reading groups, talks etc) sales for both books were very poor, and three months ago we parted company.

So, with my contract reversed, what on earth could I do now to try and boost sales of my books? Having just carried out a comprehensive update of my Publicity and Marketing textbook (hopefully to be published later this year) I became aware that eBook sales were beginning to overtake those of standard print. I had also spoken to several successful author friends who spoke very enthusiastically about the various eBook ‘sales sites’ that were springing up in the USA. These sites operate by having large lists of subscribers who sign up for daily eBook deals to be emailed to them, and thus, authors are offered the opportunity to showcase their books.

The sites that I discovered were: BookBub, Ebooksoda, The Fussy Librarian, Booksends, Ereader News TodayBookGorilla and BKnights. BookBub (the most expensive) has up to a million on-line subscribers, but most of them have at least 100,000. Each company has differing promotion rates and genre/category criteria, and you can thus choose which one your book would most likely slot into. One universal thing is that the price needs to be set at an attractive bargain rate – usually not more than $3.99 – and  the only ‘qualifications’ needed are that they insist on ‘a certain amount of Amazon 5 star ratings’ and ‘good reviews’.

A typical eBook promotion works like this. You apply on-line, and if they accept your submission you pay the agreed fee. This is paid easily through PayPal and instantly converted to U.S. dollars. You will be given a one-off promotion date in your chosen genre category, and on this date your book will be emailed to their long list of subscribers for one day only. Thereafter, it will be included on a monthly backlist.

As a British author this sounded great, as the U.S. market is, predictably, huge. I was seriously interested as one friend, who wrote in my ‘genre’, had secured sales of several thousands and another told me that she’d never known of anyone who didn’t get their money back.

Right – I had the star reviews, and it sounded as if the odds were great, so I decided to take a gamble. I republished all three of my novels with Oxford eBooks Ltd, complete with brand new eye-catching covers, at a total cost of £250 each. The results were excellent, and I thoroughly recommend Andy Severne and his team. I included endorsement ‘puffs’ on the covers, and put positive reviews on the opening pages to take advantage of the Look Inside feature on Amazon.

I signed up The Crowded Bed with X company (I have to allow it to remain anonymous) for £14 ($9.00), and dropped the price to $2.99, confident that by exposing it to 100,000 subscribers I would, by the law of averages, surely sell at least a few hundred copies. Even these modest amounts would bag me an excellent return, and I would have reached a wide new audience. I couldn’t wait for the day to come, and I was bursting with excitement.

So how did I get on? Dim the lights, start the drum roll, and hold your breath.  . . . . . I sold 4 copies. Yes – that’s right. Only 4 copies! The law of averages certainly didn’t work for me, and I was gutted. Why did ‘everyone else’s’ books do well and mine didn’t. Search me.

I really wish that I could have ended this article on a high note, and endorse that eBook sales sites are the miracle that we authors need, but it seems not (well in my case, not).

If anyone does choose to go down this route, just for the hell of it (and if your eBook is already produced then it’s cheap enough to register it on most sites), I wish you huge good luck. Meanwhile, I sit here, at the bottom of another huge snake, licking my wounds!


Lynne Garner said…
Getting noticed is one of the biggest hurdles of self publishing. When I published my first book I used every social media trick that was 'bound to increase sales.' I spent hours and made a few sales. I decided to give the social media a rest and I found my sales didn't drop. In fact each year sales have slowly grown. The income my books generate hasn't allowed me to give up my 'proper' job but I have proved a book that 'won't sell' does.

So keep going you'll get there.
Andrew Crofts said…
I loved this piece; a perfect vignette of the modern writer's life. I'm sure it will ring many bells for many fellow travellers.
Dennis Hamley said…
I agree, Andrew. And, for those of you who doesn't know Mary, she's a terrific writer. Who Was Angela Zendalic? is an absorbing, wonderful book. I have a review in preparation for Eclectic Electric. A Seriously Useful Authors Guide has served many writers well. I'm glad to have Mary's cautionary tale. I was looking at these sites myself. But sadly I've ceased to believe in many of these stories of fortune-earning ebook sales. I was lucky - I enjoyed the experience of a conventional, comfortable writing career which seemed would never end but inevitably did. I suppose I can cheerfully say that when reality kicks in you must just grin and bear it. But I know that for many this is not true.
Dennis Hamley said…
'Don't, not 'doesn't.' How true Daniel's blog yesterday is.
Wendy H. Jones said…
This has been really interesting for me. Being fairly new to this I appreciate your insight. I will be on Fussy Librarian on 12th April. It's the only one I've tried. I am under no illusions I am likely to get a huge sales boost but one can only live in hope
Bill Kirton said…
A neat, excellent summary of how it was and how it is, Mary. The 'snakes and ladders' sequence brought wry smiles of recognition at every move. Of course, there is a way of selling loads of books - be a celebrity first.
Chris Longmuir said…
Promotion doesn't tick any boxes with me. My one and only Kindle Countdown resulted in only 5 sales the week of the deal I had done better the week before and again it picked up the week after. Another time I lowered the price on the first book of my Dundee Crime Series, did a free promotion with 'Indie Book Bargains' - sales zilch - Did a paid one with 'Dirt Cheap Mystery Books' a newsletter that popped into my inbox regularly and I thought was a good platform to advertise, but again - sales zilch during the offer period. And this is for a book that sells well at full price all year round! There must be some kind of reverse psychology in play there! So, I don't think I'll be chasing advertising any time soon.
Congratulations on an interesting post, Mary. I liked your snakes and ladders take on the whole thing. Don't hit me if I borrow it sometime.
Mari Biella said…
Very interesting post, Mary - and snakes and ladders is a very apt comparison! I haven't tried any of these promotional routes myself, mainly because I've always been a bit sceptical of some of the claims made for them. Some writers have reported a big increase in sales as a result, but we're all different and what works for one person probably won't work for another...
I love the snakes and ladders analogy and agree with you about it. Personally, I was glad to see the back of the Net Book Agreement - there was no way it was going to survive in the modern world. Also, I don't think it was the advent of online purchases that messed up publishing for mid-listers like me, so much as amalgamations and those mega publishing corporations that took over the smaller and more caring publishers. It happened to me mid publication - The Bodley Head was bought over by Random House and proved to be a disaster for me and many others, even though we were being told it would be good for us. It wasn't. Similarly, my local and lovely independent bookshop was closed down not by Amazon which wasn't even a gleam in Bezos's eye at that point, but by one of the big book chains moving in over the road and undercutting them in all possible ways. I couldn't find it in my heart to lament their subsequent troubles at the hands of an even bigger fish and now smaller indie bookshops seem to be springing up all over the place, offering exactly the kind of friendly, targeted service that survives - the equivalent I suppose of the small local deli! I've tried a few promotional ventures with mixed results. Countdown has been excellent for me but I do think this depends very much on genre. I also think in order for a promotion to 'stick' your promo price has to be somewhere around the 99p or 99 cents mark. $2.99 is full price for a lot of people for an eBook. Even my traditional publisher for one of my novels has it at £2.99 and it sells fairly steadily at that price.
glitter noir said…
You've struck a major chord for most of us. Thanks for sharing--and the great analogy.
Lydia Bennet said…
Yes I've been up and down like a... sorry, all the similes that occur to me are rude so let's stick with snakes and ladders! It seems to be just part of being a writer, and a lot of the snakiness at the mo is just the sheer volume of writers out there clamouring for attention. Here's hoping you get your foot on a ladder soon.

Yes, that game is only too familiar. My first stories were published in the early 90's, my first novel in 1999, and there have been many snakes and ladders on route, to say nothing of a frustrating pre-publication decade trying to find the right agent/publisher for my work.

But look on the bright side... there are only so many snakes on the board (even though publishing appears to have more than its fair share of them!), and when you reach the bottom there's only one way to go. Up another ladder!
Unknown said…
A really interesting article, Mary. Thank you for posting your experiences.

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