Selling Historical Fiction – Part II

A few days ago, I wrote about the HNS conference presentation on Selling Historical Fiction, which sparked interest and comments on various social media forums. Tony Riches encouraged me to add ‘bubbles’ representing Amazon (all 12 sites) and the other main online retailers that enable writers to reach an international audience. On Facebook Dianna Rostad, Sarah Johnson and Rachel Bodner chatted about the importance of cover design and sub-genre to attracting an audience.

I promised another diagram to explore the topic of connecting writers with readers in the self-publishing realm. Having spent twenty years in consulting, I find diagrams illuminating although I am aware that some see them as simplistic and that it is difficult to show all the subtleties of a situation in one single diagram. Consider this one a work in progress.

Selling HF to readers

One of the outcomes of my 2013 historical fiction survey was a very long list of online sources readers use to find book recommendations. Almost 700 of them, in fact. Investigating the list – a laborious process – has allowed me to categorize them according to broad purpose or functionality as shown in the ‘bubbles’ that facilitate connections between writers and readers. (I’ve excluded some sources such as publisher sites, newspaper sites and librarian services from the diagram because they are not typically available to indie authors.) Self-published authors who cannot exploit the agent-editor-publisher-retailer chain, must decide the best combination of influencers to approach to get news of their books out to the market.

Bombarded as we are with messages and imagery, individuals pause only briefly to  assess interest, which means the book’s cover and title must arrest the reader and convey something about its subject. Rachel Bodner offers her personal experience in a very interesting blog post.

It’s also worth reflecting on the answers readers gave when asked to comment on the importance of several factors in choosing a book. Here’s the breakdown:

Factors influencing book choiceAdding ‘very important’ and ‘extremely important’, subject matter comes out on top, followed by author, trusted recommendation and price.

A few reflections:

  • choose online sources to feature your book that suit its subject matter
  • a trusted author might be willing to lend their brand to your novel but you have to earn that privilege
  • as noted above, cover art must convey subject matter
  • book blurb and tag line also have to grab attention
  • you need a combination of online influencers to reach an audience of any size at all

I think I’ll look for correlations between factors that go into choosing a book and other responses such as preference for e-book or print, age, gender, and number of annual book consumption.

That’s it for now. Your thoughts, critique and suggestions are very welcome.


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15 Responses

  1. Hi Mary,

    Just a couple thoughts.

    I think your addition to the graphic would be more effective if it were represented as an interconnected network of actions rather than a blob.

    There’s also something missing. Publishing is not a dichotomy between big publishers and self-publishing. I went with a little publisher, so my trajectory is more like Writer to Editor to Publisher to Actions Shown in Your Graphic to Readers.

    1. Great to have your comments, Ruth. In my own mind, the ‘blob’ implies interconnectedness, but I will endeavour to make it more explicit. Regarding variations like the small publisher concept you mention, I think there’s value in first exploring the major differences, the dichotomy, if you will. But your suggestion makes me think of exploring the topic further using a multi-dimensional perspective. How would you draw the diagram?? Interested in your thoughts!!

  2. Possibly leave it a dichotomy but in the lower curve, add a stage between writer and the blob, which would be (Small Press or Self-Publishing Platform). That way all the indie writers feel included. I don’t think it’s necessary to add all the editorial and design steps for either.

    To turn the blob into a network, you just need something like the one in the upper left:

    I think it fits because there is a lot of interplay between things like FB, blogs, Twitter, blog tours, etc.

  3. I found it eye-opening that the majority of respondents said the only aspect they thought “extremely important” was the subject matter of the book! I would have thought price & cover also fall under “extremely important”, if not “very important”. (They are for me.) And how do we explain that a whopping 81% attached almost no importance to the cover, and 73% attached almost no importance to the price! The recent Amazon/Hachette pricing dispute would beg to differ on that point.

    According to Amazon’s research, price is extremely important when deciding whether or not to buy a book. They found that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. They’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.

    It’s a lot harder to quantify book cover art in terms of sales. You just have to go with your gut plus a lot of research and leg work.

    There’s also the “serendipity” factor in selling books. Does anyone remember that photo of Sarah Jessica Parker clutching a copy of “Gone Girl” that launched a million books? If anyone has Sarah Jessica’s mailing address, please forward it to me…

    1. Love your perspective, Rachel. If we consider that subject matter refers to story – it doesn’t surprise me that it’s the most important factor. Cover draws the eye, of course, but isn’t likely to be the primary reason a person buys. I’m going to dig deeper to see if I can illuminate the answers by correlating to other factors. The data could be wrong, of course, although with a sample size of over 2400 it should be relevant 🙂

  4. I find all this so interesting. I think this genre isn’t a huge niche. It a favorite of mine. So from a readers side, if your book is good then it can really go a long way. I have been reading and suggestion Kent Hinckley and his book Hearts, Minds and Coffee. A novel on the Vietnam war looked at from both sides. He’s got a great book, is his site. Authors like him need to get rewarded by book sales, he’s got the writing down!

  5. Having loaded up my reading pile with used books last month while on holiday I thought it timely this morning, the day after the Booker Prize result, to look around my local Waterstones – the last surviving firm of national chains of large bookshops in the UK. I found many lovely new books and many existing titles I would be tempted to buy … but for the price … even those on special offer. Perhaps I am showing my age to recall what £5 or £10 used to buy. I cannot recall my answers to the survey. As a reader I would put price first now simply because of the competition for my money and scarce reading time. The second would be content – as I am constantly looking for books that I want to keep and re-read. I detect a drift in my likes from story to character interaction and educational aspects of the technical background of each book, perhaps the latter reflecting my lifetime preference for non fiction books. Thriller fatigue is with me again.The only current books on my used books to buy list are those I have read on Kindle and wish for on my shelves … mostly those self published which are scarce as used books. However, I am prepared to be patient to wait and watch out for used books to appear eg I am currently reading used copies Pat Barker’s historical WW1 fact/fiction books published in the 1990s. I would add another bubble in your diagram – Film of your book – just look at Gone Girl sales again! Price used online similar to new Kindle version. Sorry I have rambled on again.

  6. The interesting thing I see in your data is that while respondents say the cover art is not important, subject matter and author are, which is what a cover is designed to impart with economy. Do you think people are more influenced by the cover than they realize? The cover definitely gets my attention because it tells me so much quickly, genre, setting and tone, but of course it will always be the writing that keeps me reading. Great post! I love that you share this data with us. Your past life comes in handy!

    1. Many thanks, Dianna. The importance of cover intrigues me too. I wonder if participants interpreted the question more as ‘what prompts you to purchase’ rather than ‘what captures your interest’. Clearly covers make people stop to pick up a book – either literally or figuratively. I’m glad you find my data of interest. Perhaps I should start collecting questions for a survey in 2015!!

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