Most of my posts this year have been either craft oriented or driven by larger ideas about why we write, so I thought I’d say something about the business end of writing today. As some of you may know, last week my fantasy adventure Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact was named both one of the nine finalists for the North Carolina Young Adult book of the year for 2012 in the middle grades category, and one of the four finalists for the young adult book of the year by SIBA. The winners will be announced in the next few months. (It should be said that one of the other 3 nominees for the SIBA award is our very own Carrie Ryan, so MW has snagged HALF the YA nominations for the year!). I have no idea who will win, but this really is one of those “it’s an honor just be nominated” deals because of who the awards are organized by.
SIBA is the association of southern independent booksellers—i.e. all the non chain stores throughout the southern states. The NCYA book award is organized by the state’s school library media association. The two organizations are connected, because many school events, including book fairs and author visits, are orchestrated by local independent stores who supply the actual books. Some book fairs are run through chains like B&N, and others are run by publishers like Scholastic (who only carry their own titles), but most go through independent stores and the kind of old school booksellers who actually read and can make informed recommendations to their customers (including schools). It’s a happy marriage that can get a lot of attention for books which might otherwise get missed by the chains whose focus is drawn to the title with the biggest publicity budget. I’m delighted that DARWEN is in the running for these awards because they come from actual readers.
Before I started publishing YA/MG, I had rather given up on the kind of marketing I could do myself. I still do store book signings and presentations at cons because they can be fun, but in real terms they generally don’t generate enough actual book sales to be worth the time. A store signing will take me a couple of hours minimum, during which, on average I might sell 10-15 books, sometimes more, often less. Con numbers, in my experience at least, are comparable, and I’ve long since abandoned the idea that attending cons makes good business sense in terms simply of sales. Yes, I might raise my profile by speaking on panels and such, but for the most part the value of a con is in the hanging out with like-minded people, not selling dozens of books. All told, my experience as a writer of adult fiction suggested that despite all the pressure on authors to do as much as possible to market their work, the return was minimal compared to what a committed publisher could do if they decided to put actual money behind your book.
That, as I say, was before DARWEN, before I realized the power of the school visit. As I suggested above, author appearances at schools are generally driven by a local independent store or book fair company who orchestrate the visit and supply the books. All I have to do is show up, talk to the kids, read a little, answer questions, and sign. On average, one two hour visit (comparable to a store signing) will net an average of about 35 sales (and these are hard covers, mind you), sometimes as much as double that. Apart from the joy of meeting kids who are genuinely enthusiastic about books (and thus treat you as a celebrity), you can field their amazingly frank questions (“How much money do you make?” “Are you a Christian?” etc.) and get to imagine that maybe—just maybe—you just contributed to a formative moment in their lives. How such things translate into your own success is too hard to track, but there is no question that in my case being up for these awards (and the significant jolt in my book’s visibility as a result) is connected to the fact that since October, when the book came out, I have hand sold close to 2,000 copies in local schools. Nothing I have ever done before in terms of my own marketing and publicity has come close to such a number.
Perhaps in the future I’ll post about just how those school visits work and what factors make them especially productive, but for now I simply wanted to raise the (admittedly fairly obvious) point that for middle grade readers (who tend to do less buying of their own books and have a minimal online presence) the all important Word Of Mouth that can really launch a book tends to happen at the school level. The support of teachers and school librarians in this cannot be overemphasized, nor can the continued interest of the local independent stores who sell to their students.
My sales numbers for DARWEN on Amazon are pretty slack, and though the book did well at B&N initially it will be pretty hard to find there till it goes paperback or the appearance of the second book in the series sparks interest again in November. Right now the book is selling at those places where people have actually read it and where they talk about it. For me that means independent booksellers, libraries, and schools, and I am deeply grateful to them.
So what about you? Any formative moments in your past when teachers or librarians introduced you to a neat book, or brought an author to speak to your class? Praise of independent book stores also welcome!
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