Debut authors bring risk and reward to publishers and retailers.
The adage “It takes a village to raise a child” could also be applied to launching a new book and author into the world.
“The whole company gets involved,” says Beth Adams, executive editor for Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. “One of the best things we do is try to get everyone in-house excited. When the manuscript is ready, we deliver it to the sales force and walk copies around the office.”
She introduces the book to the audio team, the international sales team, and on down to the marketing assistants who are reading the book to create memes for social media.
“It really helps when all these people are reading the book and loving it,” says Adams.
Amy Green, fiction publicist at Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, agrees.
“It really is a team effort, from members of the original pub board who decide on the contract, to the sales team who will sell the book to retailers and make sure it gets the emphasis it deserves; from the editorial team honing the author’s story and voice, to the marketing team who will position and design and tell others about the book,” she says. “It’s helpful to have everyone on the same page working to support a new author.”
The base of any great book launch, of course, is the author. Publishers big and small are looking for great writing and an author willing to dive in and help with the launch.
“We’re looking for energy. Whether the author is writing fiction or nonfiction, it’s important that they’re enthusiastic about their book and committed to whatever it takes to get it into the hands of readers,” says Dawn Anderson, senior editor at Kregel Publications.
“For the newer generation of authors, [helping with the book launch] is like breathing to them,” says Barb Sherrill, senior editor at Harvest House. “When we ask them to do XYZ, they don’t flinch.”
Adams asks authors, even before a contract, to reach out to influencers, create contacts and, for fiction authors especially, contact potential readers and endorsers.
“Authors need to use the time before the book comes out to build excitement through their blogs, speaking, and media contacts,” says Adams. “Anything they can do to get preorders.”
Bethany House has its newbies—usually 1-2 a year—go through a “New Author Boot Camp” that introduces staff, provides a timeline of the marketing process, and explains what the house needs from the authors.
Green also asks for a list of local media outlets and connections the author has and/or influencers connected with the author to whom the publicity people can pitch.
Harvest House plans to experiment in 2018 with creating an “experience that’s more than a book signing” for some of their new authors, tapping into local media and retail environments, allowing their new authors to get some face time and build personal connections.
Noelle Pedersen is publicity manager at Kregel Publications. She likes to see debut authors who’ve put thought into why readers will want their books and how they’ll reach those readers. Often this means setting up a website, being active on social media, and/or speaking.
“Every book has a unique ministry, so we try to work with the author to identify the best ways to reach their base,” says Pedersen.
While each publisher is different in how they specifically implement a publishing plan for debut authors, they won’t (and can’t) put a concrete dollar amount on the cost of launching them. But all agree it’s lots of time and effort for a worthy cause.
When asked how many hours her team spends on a new book launch, Pedersen says, “Enough that I would rather not keep track!”
Adams asks, “How do you quantify that? There’s a lot of money spent that authors don’t realize, such as Christian catalog placement, discounts for retailers, mailing out galleys and finished books to the media and reviewers, swag boxes to influencers, etc. A lot of investment goes into a book launch; I think people would be surprised at the cost to publish a debut author.”
Green says, “I can only say that we’ll often devote as much time and effort into launching a new author as we would promoting the release of one of our ‘Top Three’ best-selling authors—or more. For new authors, we’re trying to set them up to become tomorrow’s best-selling author, but we have to convince readers why they deserve that spot.”
All publishers create specific marketing strategies that can include mailings to store managers, libraries, and book clubs, catalog placement, strategic ad placements in print and online, e-blasts, cross-promotion with other authors of similar titles, advance copies to influencers and publications that review books, co-op agreements with retailers, getting the book on NetGalley, ensuring online reviews, and active social media campaigns.
From hand selling to shelf placement, from discounts to author events, retailers play a key role in fiction and nonfiction launches.
For Chris Jager, long-time fiction buyer for Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, new book launches depend in part on discounts available from publishers and in how much emphasis the publisher puts on the new author.
“If a publisher will give me a discount, I’ll offer the book right off at a deeper discount than usual,” she says. “And if publishers really back a new author, I pay attention. Publishers show me they’re backing a book by offering discounts, advanced information and/or advance reader copies, and help setting up interviews or events.”
Jager reads as many books in advance as possible in order to offer customers good information, especially on debut authors. She searches out new authors herself on websites such as GoodReads and Facebook’s Avid Readers of Christian Fiction, and watches social media to see what books are getting attention from bloggers and other buyers.
“I work hard for that loyalty from customers and readers, so I have to make sure I know books are good,” she says.
Bethany Martin is manager of Faith & Life Bookstore in Newton, Kansas. She and her staff discover debut authors through publisher reps, customers, and, particularly for nonfiction, magazines such as Christian MARKET, Ingram/Spring Arbor trade publications such as Christian Advance, or Christianity Today and others.
Discounts on debut author books “definitely help,” she says. “People are more likely to take a chance on a book if it’s on sale, and discounts help us sell more.”
When a new author seems like a great fit for the store and its customers, it’s all hands on deck.
“We do lots of social media on Facebook and Instagram,” says Martin. “We offer giveaways and ask questions on Facebook to make it interactive. People thank us all the time for posting about a new book because that’s how they learn about it.”
Introducing a new author and a new book to the public is not without struggles. One of the biggest is that readers don’t recognize a new author’s name; another is helping readers discover that new author amid the myriad other voices out there.
“Traditionally we’ve relied on publicity [from traditional media], but the news cycle this past year has been unrelenting,” says Adams.
For Sherrill, it’s “getting enough eyeballs on the book when it’s published. But we were saying this 30 years ago, too. We were asking who’s speaking and contributing to magazines; now we’re talking about bloggers and podcasters. The struggle is getting to the group to start the kindling going.”
Harvest House leverages author platforms as well as its partnership with retailers.
“We’re always asking retailers what they’re missing, what do they want,” says Sherrill. “They say they need new voices in favorite categories. When we have a new voice, the sales people can go back to the retailers and tell them about that author.”
Harvest House partners with all retailers, particularly brick and mortar stores, to help the discoverability process “in a way that Amazon never can,” says Sherrill. “It’s the same way it was years ago—hand selling in the store. It may be online sales through the store website, but that store is still a trusted voice in readers’ lives. Consumers like to shop online—we’re never going to change that. Now it’s a battle of how to make [online shopping] a pleasant experience.”
Green says, “the struggles in launching a new author aren’t unique, but more critical because the author typically doesn’t have a loyal fan base waiting for the next book.” She speaks of the need for a “remarkable” cover, great back cover copy, characters and plot that resonate, and marketing that “convinces readers to give their hard-earned money to take a chance on someone new.”
Bethany House often asks the author to write a novella that serves as a prequel to their debut novel or series, which is offered for free on all e-book platforms and includes several chapters of the upcoming debut novel.
“The stats don’t lie: this strategy has led to stronger sales, especially first-month e-book sales, than debut authors who didn’t launch with a novella,” says Green.
Finding the joy
Publishers agree that launching a new author is exciting and fun.
“I love the excitement of the authors,” says Pedersen. “Their first book is often their heart. They’ve worked on it and engaged with the topic for years. We love bringing those ministries to light.”
For Green, “At the end of the day, it’s the author’s unique voice and story that will keep readers coming back for more. A strong debut novel will be its own recommendation.”
Sherrill has heard people say that it’s hard to do a debut author but, “publishers aren’t afraid of debut authors; they just don’t expect to sell a million books. Our goal is to build a long-tailed career. We need to make the investment and are willing to make it. Established, best-selling authors were all debut authors once.
“If we had a formula [for creating bestsellers] we’d keep pumping them out,” she says. “There is joy in the risk.”