AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: TOM McKAY – in his own words

This month’s author spotlight articles features a guest post by author, Tom McKay, who for full disclosure, was published by 918studio press, the selective subsidized publisher I co-own with Lori Perkins.

In Tom’s Words:

I am the author of two novels.  West Fork was published in 2014 by East Hall Press at Augustana College.  918studio press published Another Life in 2016.  For each novel, I focused on commissioning an attractive cover design and writing engaging back cover descriptions as ways to capture attention from prospective buyers.

West Fork has a two paragraph description for the back cover:

“In 1968, Jim Blair comes to teach in the tiny crossroads hamlet of West Fork with no idea that he will give his heart to the community and to a woman.  Through events he cannot foresee, both great loves turn to loss.

After twenty-seven years in West Fork, the relentless pace of farm consolidation has drained the landscape of population and left the community without a viable role in rural life.  Jim must start anew with only the unknown ahead in his life.”

The description on the back cover of Another Life is shorter:

“How long does a high school crush last?  One year? Ten?  Twenty?  Forty?  Small-college basketball coach Matt Cooper is about to find out as Kim Gustafson, the cutest girl from high school, re-enters his life.”

In the case of both books, the largest number of sales were made during author appearances through signings at bookstores, readings and programs at libraries, and local author fairs sponsored by libraries.  In all of these settings, an attractive cover is the first step in getting the attention of prospective buyers.  The back cover description also plays an important role in making a sale.  I routinely hand the novels to people who show an interest so that they can read the descriptions.  In many cases, this is better than an attempt by me to tell the reader about the book.  Reading a synopsis can lead to further discussion and give prospective buyers a chance to consider the purchase.  The interaction can become a friendly discussion rather feeling like a hard sell.  If the potential buyer invests in the discussion, the possibility of a sale increases.

Goals

In marketing books that are self-published or published through a small press, it is important to consider whether the primary goal of the author is to have his/her book read or to generate income through sales.  Clearly, all authors would like to do both, but deciding if one goal is the higher priority may impact decisions such as the size of the print run, primary methods of distribution, and marketing strategy.

Authors should realize in advance that books with small print runs and relatively unknown authors typically do not earn a profit.  The goal of selling enough books to recover printing and production costs is often difficult to achieve.  There are examples of self-published books that have sold very well and made significant profits for the authors.  These are rare outliers.

For my first novel, West Fork, my primary concern was to have the book read.  Though the plot of the book develops around a love story, its central message is about the effect on Midwestern culture of farm consolidation and the precipitous decline in rural population during the last three decades of the twentieth century.  I felt this was a huge and often overlooked change.  I decided to use fiction to examine this change.  I hoped to have as many readers as possible.  With this goal in mind, I donated copies of West Fork to 250 libraries in western Illinois, eastern Iowa, and southern Wisconsin.

On its face, giving away books costs money rather than earning money.  In the case of West Fork, I offered to do a reading or program for any library to which I donated the book.  Eventually, I did 20 library programs.  At the conclusions of the programs, I signed books. Through these programs, I sold a total of 81 copies.  I sold books but did not charge for the programs.  Three libraries did give me honorariums by their own choice.  The money earned through library programs covered all but $100 of the cost of the 250 books given for their collections.

Staff members in a library where I have a close connection made occasional spot checks on the number of times West Fork was checked out at libraries in the regional system.  I was very pleased with the readership the novel gained.  More than once, I have had chance meetings with people who have read the novel including a man from Canton, Illinois who checked out the book on interlibrary loan.  Another time, I saw a post online from a person in the state of Oregon who had read West Fork.  The readership through library copies was far greater than I could have achieved through book sales alone.

Marketing through Bookstores

The primary method of marketing both West Fork and Another Life has been through independent bookstores.  Most independent bookstores owners and managers are supportive of books from local authors and presses. They provide shelf space for these books even though sales are generally small.  Most independent bookstores group such books in a local authors section.  Typically, these sections of the store receive less attention from shoppers than larger sections such as fiction, biography, self-help, etc. 

With a few exceptions, independent bookstores take the books they place in the local authors’ section on consignment.  Authors may sell as few as two or three books in a year.  At some point, the bookstore will wish to terminate the consignment and have the author arrange the pickup of the unsold books.

All of my consignments with independent bookstores have been made through face-to-face contact.  When I travel by car, a supply of my books travels with me.  I do not make special trips to sell the books because the volume of sales would not justify the travel cost.

Copies of my books have been sold in 35 stores.  These stores range in several directions from the Quad Cities including Des Moines, Macomb, Peoria, suburban Milwaukee, and even Rhinelander, Wisconsin.  Within this broad area, all of the stores have one thing in common.  They are located in places that my normal travel will take me within a year.  My books are in bookstores in suburban Milwaukee because my sons live in the city, and I travel there frequently.  There are more bookstores in suburban Chicago, and they are closer to the Quad Cities.  However, I rarely travel to Chicago and would not recoup travel costs of special trips to place my books in stores in that area.

The best marketing of books in independent bookstores is done through book signings and participation in special events arranged by the stores.  On a trip I had planned to Rhinelander, I sold fourteen copies of West Fork on a Friday evening in February.  The Chamber of Commerce was sponsoring a special “Taste of Chocolate” event that night in honor of Valentine’s Day.  I have sold books several times at signings for bookstores in December.  The various signings have all taken place on Saturdays leading up to Christmas.  I sold nineteen books in one store and fourteen books in another.  It is also true that I sold only two books in another store.  Each of these signings was at a store within an hour of the Quad Cities.

The impact of online sales has put pressure on brick-and-mortar bookstores.  The closing of the BookWorld chain of bookstores eliminated the stores that were the best selling locations for both West Fork and Another Life.  I had both books in five BookWorld locations.  Since 2014, those stores and four additional independent bookstores that sold West Fork and Another Life have closed.

Independent bookstores remain a significant element in marketing books from local authors and small presses.  Contact information for many independent bookstores can be found at MidwestBooksellers.org.  This is a good starting point for locating stores, but it is not a comprehensive list. Only nine of the nineteen bookstores that currently sell Another Life appear on the list.

Marketing Plan

The marketing plan for Another Life was the result of working with 918studio press.  It emphasized relationships with independent bookstores as described above. It also included the use of contacts with libraries made when promoting West Fork.  Both strategies produced sales, though most of the library programs for Another Life involved book club discussions rather than readings.  The result has been fewer sales of Another Life.  The reason is self-evident.  Readings from West Fork piqued interest and stimulated sales.  Book club members have already read the book which they usually obtain through interlibrary loan.  Sales are limited in most cases to a person who has read the book and wants to give it as a gift.

The marketing plan for Another Life focused on libraries as outlets for public programs.  Authors of other books can consider whether the topic of the book might have a specific appeal to other types of organizations devoted an ethnic heritage, a charitable cause, a geographical area, or other interests.  Programs for such groups are promising opportunities for sales.  I had the opportunity to speak about West Fork to a cultural center in one small town and business association in another.  Each resulted in the sale of eight books.

Social Media and Online Sales

I do not have a social media presence.  The online profile for Another Life has been created by the 918studio press website.  I do keep 918studio press informed of any readings, signings, or book club discussions where I will appear. 

918studio press has also arranged for the platforms that sell Another Life online as hard copy or an e-book.  The sales have been modest, but they do reach a wider geographical market.  The e-book version also makes the novel available to readers who have vision limitations and need larger print.  Sales through online platforms have been a bonus to me as an author, though they have provided a limited return to the publisher.

West Fork was not sold as an e-book or through online orders of hard copies.  I did have a simple website created for West Fork.  Visitors to the site could read the prologue, learn about me as an author, find bookstores that sold the novel, and print a form to order copies by mail.  I received ten orders for the book by mail on the forms available to print from the website.

Targeted social media efforts can generate sales of books from local authors and small presses.  The illustrator who created the cover art for Another Life and West Fork recently did the illustrations for a children’s picture book from an Australian publisher.  The book does not have a distributor in the United States. 

My friend has marketed the book on her own.  The book recounts traditional Norwegian troll tales.  Many of her sales have through Norwegian heritage organizations in Wisconsin and Iowa.  Before Christmas, she put social media to work.  She posted information on a neighborhood Facebook page and a social media site called Next Door that is designed to reach people nearby.  This effort resulted in the sale of a dozen books.

Paid Advertising

I have not created a business card for myself.  Given the relatively low cost of business cards, this might be a worthwhile step.  In seeking library programs, my contacts have generally been made face-to-face during my regular travels.  I have carried a small letter describing the novel in question and giving my contact information.  I believe a full sheet of paper is less likely to be misplaced or overlooked than a business card.

I have used paid advertising twice.  The Wapsipinicon Almanac is a magazine published in Anamosa, Iowa that I admire very much.  I purchased a modestly priced ad in the Almanac for West Fork that listed all the bookstores in Iowa that sold the novel.  This was a way to support the Almanac and say thank you to the bookstores.  I had no way of measuring the impact on sales.

I also purchased an advertisement for West Fork in the weekly Madison, Wisconsin newspaper, Isthmus.  The paper had done an investigative report on a regional supermarket chain that manipulated its employment practices to prevent low-paid workers from receiving benefits.  I purchased an ad in Isthmus purely to support the newspaper.  West Fork was for sale in three Madison bookstores at the time.  If the ad had an impact on sales of the book, it was not enough to pay for the cost of the advertisement.

Newspaper Publicity

Newspaper coverage equates to free advertising for a book, but newspapers print only what they identify as newsworthy.  In 2014, two Quad City newspapers ran short feature articles on West Fork.  The book was written by a local author and published by a local college.  Its focus on the change in the regional landscape and culture resulting from farm consolidation was a topic of interest to readers in the service areas of the papers.  That constituted three reasons to make the publication of the novel newsworthy.

Another Life did not generate as much newspaper coverage in part because the theme of the novel did not have the same type of direct relevance to an issue in the region.  In addition, readership of newspapers has continued to decline, and the papers can afford to print fewer pages.

Most local newspapers are cooperative in running short notices about signings in bookstores and programs in libraries.  Most have online forms to complete when submitting news releases.  If possible, try to find a local connection to include in releases sent to newspapers.  For any release I send to a newspaper in Iowa, I always include the fact that the story is set in Iowa.  I did a signing in Clinton and noted that the co-owner of 918studio press, which published Another Life, grew up in the Clinton area.  The newspaper published the release and included that information.

Final Thoughts

Because most of my marketing has involved face-to-face contact, I have enjoyed meeting and working with a significant number of librarians and bookstore owners and managers.  The overwhelming number have been helpful and supportive.  The people who operate bookstores are excited when they discover a local author or small press that is producing good work.  Conversely, they are placed in an awkward position if a person comes in with a poorly written or produced book.

All authors should remember that good marketing starts with a quality book.  Writing creatively, revising thoughtfully, proofreading painstakingly, and designing attractively are the first steps in successful marketing.

Thank you, Tom, for your thoughtful and detailed article. Learn more about Tom at 918studio press here and on his West Fork website here.

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