Marketing is an issue for most authors these days, not just for those like me who self-publish. Only those lucky enough to be given full support from a big publisher can sit back and let it happen, but they are the chosen few. The costs of extensive advertising, and of paying bookstores to feature books in displays, are beyond the reach of individuals or small publishers, and even the big publishers have to be selective.
So the great majority of authors have to spend time on boosting their own chances of success. The traditional routes are well known, the main one being to send out review copies to all appropriate paper and electronic journals (but there are far more books than there are review slots, and well-known authors and big publishers tend to take precedence). The internet permits other alternatives, such as websites, MySpace, blogs like this one, and book discussion forums (although most of the forums understandably take a dim view of authors trying to promote their own work). Perhaps one of the best routes, particularly for those of us who use POD publishing and rely on on-line sales, is to accumulate a lot of reviews from satisfied readers on amazon. Even that has its downside, however, with the unscrupulous getting their friends and family to post glowing reviews (something which amazon is trying to address). There is also, of course, a Catch-22 with amazon reviews: getting many good ones probably boosts sales a lot, but since only a tiny percentage of readers bothers to comment, you need a lot of sales before you can get those reviews.
The problem for authors is that however much effort you put into marketing, the results are completely unpredictable. I have been reflecting on this lately due to the varied fortunes of my two novels. At the time that the first one, 'The Foresight War', was published at the end of 2004, I knew little about fiction publishing, and decided to self-publish because I wanted to hit a particular publication date (the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War 2). I put very little effort into marketing: a few review copies, a few mentions on websites, and that was all. Yet the book started selling immediately and has sold steadily ever since. Despite the fact that I paid for a full service from my publishers (Authors Online), profits from book sales recovered those costs some time ago and continue to deliver a small but steady income.
For my second novel, 'Scales', I was much more organised. To minimise the costs, I did more of the preparatory work myself (and a special thank-you to Oleg Volk, who designed the cover for me), and I took a much more systematic approach to marketing, sending out a lot more review copies and providing details to many different booksellers. I was even lucky enough to be interviewed for a podcast on 'The Writing Show', as I described in an earlier post. However, the book's sales since its publication earlier this year have so far been depressingly slow. More experienced self-published authors tell me that this is normal, that I should be patient, and that I was lucky the first time, but I can't help thinking that something more than luck is involved.
One possible variable is of course the quality of the work, but I doubt that is a factor. 'The Foresight War' is actually weak on some of the usual elements of fiction, particularly characterisation, because I wrote it in order to explore ideas about an alternative World War 2, so the characters are mainly there to carry the plot. 'Scales' is much more focused on the principal character (and the story is told in the first person to emphasise this), and the feedback I have had from those who have read both is that it is a much better novel. It did get off to an unfortunate start with one reviewer who took a great dislike to it (it happens; something which all authors have to live with) but the few reviews posted since then have been much more favourable.
The conclusion which I have come to is that it is the plot which makes the difference. While 'The Foresight War' is probably of little interest to most readers of fiction, it appeals strongly to those fascinated by the Second World War, and particularly those who enjoy discussing the "what ifs" of that conflict. There are discussion forums which focus on just that, and their members are interested in hearing about novels on the subject. In fact, there aren't that many novels published which deal with such 'alternative WW2' scenarios, so there is little competition.
'Scales', on the other hand, fits into the mainstream SF category. It's set in the present day and concerns what happens to a man who acquires non-human characteristics and abilities as a result of an accident. It is, I am told, much more interesting and enjoyable for non-WW2 enthusiasts than 'The Foresight War'. However, it is battling for attention with countless others and, being self-published, has a much lower profile. It's simply getting lost in the sea of fiction.
So what lessons can be drawn from this?
The first is that success (particularly for self-published works) is more likely if a story appeals to a niche market which can be identified and reached.
The second is that it is easier to build sales if succeeding novels are in the same genre; and easier still if they form a series, which is why publishers like authors to write sequels to successful novels.
Finally, a philosophical approach is required. Most novels (whether traditionally or self-published) lose money, which is why publishers put such a lot of effort into identifying and promoting the few best-sellers which make all of the profit.
To sum up; write if you must, publish if you can, market as vigorously as you feel able to, but keep your expectations low and be prepared to be very patient and persistent!