When writer Brunonia Barry wanted to write about her town of Salem, Mass., she decided to borrow a trick from an established playbook: test it on the ultimate consumers, the readers. Local book groups provided her with the feedback she was looking for to make her debut, The Lace Reader, a word-of-mouth success. While Indie publishing has really taken off since Barry’s initial forays around seven years ago, some rules, she says, remain unchanged. She talked to Kirkus about her unusual entry into Indie and her strategies for success.
Can you describe how you got into book publishing? Why did you decide to self-publish at first?
My husband and I were entertainment software publishers. Eventually, our line of products was licensed by Hasbro, and we were looking for a new project. I was working on a novel about our city, Salem, MA. Emboldened by our ignorance, we thought it would be a short step from marketing software to marketing books. We created an imprint, hoping to launch a local hit and then sell to a larger publisher, the same way we had done with the software business.
How did having a software business help you in the process?
We had learned how to launch a product: hiring editors and PR consultants, then marketing and selling into the retail channel. We knew what we were looking for in terms of cover design, and we knew how to write ad copy, so we had a set of skills that made things easier than they might have been otherwise.
You first reached out to book clubs with your book draft. Why? Did they suggest any critiques that you implemented in revisions?
Book clubs are some of the best readers out there. I initially approached my local independent bookstore and asked if they knew of a club that might read an unpublished novel. The purpose was to test the manuscript rather than to market it, which was similar to the focus groups we’d conducted with our software products. The book club had some great suggestions. Their feedback was so helpful that I repeated the process with two other local groups before my final revision of the manuscript. The big question I always asked was: Where did you stop reading? Where there was consensus, I knew I had a pacing problem. The final question I’ve always asked any focus group is: “Would you recommend this to a friend?” They all said they would.
How did your book gain recognition nationally? How did the deal with a traditional publisher come about?
The PR firm we hired sent it to Kirkus Discovery [the precursor to Kirkus Indie], which gave it a great review, and then to Publishers Weekly, where it received a starred review. We started getting calls from agents, not from NY book agents as we had hoped, but from Hollywood. Since I didn’t know any of them, I called a screenwriter friend in Los Angeles to ask for a recommendation. She offered to send the book to her agency (Endeavor at the time, now WME). They put it out for bid, and I was able to talk to most of the bidders, eventually going with William Morrow, who presented the most comprehensive marketing plan. They did a great job, and the book made the New York Times bestseller list.
What’s been the most pleasing or revelatory aspect of self-publishing for you? What are the differences you have noticed from the traditional model?
I loved working with the editors we hired, the cover designer, and the PR agency. I even wrote the marketing copy. This was back in 2008 when print-on-demand was not widely accepted, so we opted for a traditional printer out of the Midwest. We had to oversee every step. My husband even typeset the book himself (in MS Word, something we still joke about). I liked the control and the involvement. When you turn your book over to a larger publisher, you have access to their expertise and their influence, which are extensive, but you do give up control.
What has been the most difficult aspect of self-publishing?
Initially, finding a distributor was the most challenging. Most of them wanted an imprint that had at least two books available for distribution. We had only one, but we were lucky; they really liked the book, so they agreed to carry it. It was difficult getting the attention we needed for a self-published book in traditional media. We couldn’t afford the promotional programs that larger publishers provide. And, since e-books were not as accessible then, success provided another problem, because it meant we had to manufacture more books, a good problem to have, but expensive. Cash flow is always an issue for a small company.
What is your advice to other writers considering self-publishing?
I think it‘s a wonderful time to self-publish, but I would stick to e-books, at least at first. Fiction is more difficult to market than non-fiction, and getting the word out is the biggest challenge of all. The real key to success is to somehow distinguish your book from the thousands of other releases. Marketing and PR are incredibly important.
How critical a role has marketing played in your success? What steps have you taken to market your books once published?
Traditional marketing and public relations have played equal parts in making my books successful. Social media has been helpful as well, though lately, while working on my current novel, I haven’t been as active as I should be. I regularly contribute to the Writer Unboxed blog, Skype with or visit book clubs, and have many speaking engagements.
Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelancer with a passion for books.