Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Trios: The White Road and Other Stories, by Tania Hershman: Self-Promotion

Tania Hershman is a former science journalist who has recently been commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Her first short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction (and has been very favourably reviewed by Sally Zigmond, who comments here regularly). Her short stories have been widely published in print journals and online, and she is the founder and editor of The Short Review, a site dedicated to reviewing short story collections and anthologies. She has generously offered to give away a signed copy of The White Road to one of my readers: you'll find the details at the end of this piece. My thanks to her for contributing.


My first book, The White Road and Other Stories, was published in September 2008 by Salt Publishing, a small press based in the UK. I was delighted when they offered me a book deal. After having had an agent for several years with no result (she dealt only with mainstream publishers and they all told her, "come back when she's written a novel,") I decided to take matters into my own hands and submit stories myself to Salt. The agent and I have now parted ways amicably.

Being published by a small press has meant for me that I have a personal connection with my editor, Jen Hamilton-Emery, rather than feeling lost in a large publishing house. I made suggestions about the book cover, and Salt came up with what I consider the perfect cover. I chose what stories to include and proofed the manuscript several times, but apart from that didn't have any other input into the process, which was fine by me. I was thrilled when the book was published, I think it is beautiful.

Jen made it very clear to me, and to fellow Salt authors I am in touch with, that Salt doesn’t have the resources to do much promotion and that I would need to be very involved in this. Before the book came out I was given a long author questionnaire to fill out listing potential reviewers, competitions the book could be submitted to, author events I might appear at, and other ideas for promotion.

I wasn't quite prepared for how much work promoting a book would be and in some ways it has been overwhelming. I had experience building websites, I built my own site and the online review journal I edit, The Short Review, so I always planned to build a website for the book. This has links to excerpts of the stories, videos of me reading at a short story conference, some of the stories which having been broadcast on BBC Radio and podcasts, and it also has some background and "added value" material about the book. Half the stories in my book are inspired by articles from the weekly UK magazine New Scientist so I created a page explaining my concept of "science-inspired fiction", with links to other books and websites that I see as fitting into this category. Another page explains flash fiction (which is the other half of my book), with links to many online literary magazines that publish flash fiction. I get a lot of hits to the website from people searching for "flash fiction", so I am doing more than just selling my book, I am providing resources for writers.

Another good idea was my partnering with Eco-Libris, a company which "balances out" the trees used to print books by planting a tree for every book. I pay them a small sum per copy printed, and they plant a tree. They are very active online, they took part in my Virtual Book Tour (see below) and they publicised my book on green websites far and wide. I joined forces with them because I hated to think of the amount of paper involved in my book, and our partnership has exceeded my expectations!

In terms of reviews, Salt has been fabulous, sending out review copies to anyone I've asked them to send to, wherever in the world, and this, together with my nudging of the reviewers, has resulted in quite a few reviews. Because of the connection to their articles, I was very eager that New Scientist see the book, and hoped they would review it. Getting them a review copy was a struggle, the books kept getting lost, but Jen persevered and I kept in close contact with them to ensure they remembered who I was. This paid off: not only did they reprint the title story, The White Road, on their website, with a link to the article that had inspired it, they reviewed the book in their Christmas Books Special: Best of 2008! I sold two hundred copies in one week at Christmas and was for a time in Amazon UK's Top Ten Bestselling Short Story Collections, and I believe this was down to the New Scientist review.

Reviews are vital, especially for short story collections which get far less attention than novels, and this was why I set up The Short Review eighteen months ago to focus exclusively on reviewing short story collections. I now have over forty reviewers worldwide reviewing ten books, new and older, every month. In the end, I decided I couldn't commission anyone to review my book for the site, this smacked too much of nepotism, but I have received a lot of attention because of The Short Review, which was wonderful yet unexpected, and this has definitely had a positive effect on my book, with reviewers asking for a review copy of my book to "return the good karma".

Being a small press with limited resources, Salt have seized the opportunities the Internet provides, and are very dynamic and active on their website, blogs and Facebook pages. I have also been one of Salt's "guinea pigs" for their Cyclone Virtual Book Tour program: I found eleven blogs willing to host a stop on my tour, and was interviewed by a blog a week over eleven weeks, about various aspects of my writing, my reading, my life — anything and everything. This was wonderful, yet exhausting, even though I didn't have to travel anywhere! I am not sure how much this translated into direct sales, but I strongly believe it created a buzz. I used my websites, my blog, Facebook, MySpace, RedRoom (a website for authors), and various online writing communities (WriteWords, Zoetrope), to publicise every leg of the tour, as well as any reviews the book receives. I also signed up to be an Amazon author, and blogged on Amazon.com's page for my book. A recent review on Amazon (by someone I don't know) mentioned "the hype on the internet and in New Scientist", so I guess something is working!

It's been six months and while the Virtual Tour is over, book promotion goes on and several reviews have just been published, in an Australian print magazine and two book blogs, with others forthcoming in the US, Canada and the UK, I hope. I was recently in the UK and took part in the launch of a short story anthology at Jewish Book Week, and although that wasn't about my book, they stocked The White Road and Other Stories in the festival bookshop, and I talked about it during the event. I also went back to my high school in London and spoke to a group of 14-year-olds about writing. I was trying to think "out of the box" about book promotion and had seen from their website that they had a creative writing society so I wrote to them and offered to come. They were thrilled, it was a wonderful experience — and I was amazed when three of them bought books! They have invited me to come back and do a flash fiction workshop next time I am in England. I also alerted the universities I studied at and the mentioned me in their alumni newsletters, from which my websites have had a number of hits.

So, to sum up, promoting a book is hard work, and not, I believe, just for those published by small presses. Authors have to do a lot these days, whoever the publisher is and whether it is a short story collection or a novel. I expect to be promoting my books for many more months, if not a year or two. I put all the time and effort into writing the stories, Salt put all the time, money and effort into producing the book, the least I can do is try and do what I can to get copies sold, from the point of view of my royalties as well as readership. I am trying not to let this interfere too much with my current writing, but it does, there is no getting away from that. That is part of having a book, and I wouldn't have it any other way. However continuing to write and publish new short stories, and enter into short story competitions, also serves to publicise my book.
Next week we hear from Jen Hamilton-Emery of Salt Publishing, when she discusses the difficulties involved in running an independent press; and the week after it's Sara Crowley's turn, when she reveals how a good bookseller can make all the difference to the sales of a book.

If you'd like to be in with a chance to win a copy of The White Road and Other Stories, then answer this question: which magazine's articles inspired many of the stories in Tania's collection? Answers to tania@thewhiteroadandotherstories.com. You have until May 27 to get your emails to her, after which time she will select one winner at random from all of the entries she receives.

18 comments:

Philip Sington said...

Interesting piece. The author has clearly developed a well-informed strategy, and it has borne fruit.
The key targets for book promotion are, at least traditionally, TV coverage, press coverage and radio coverage, in roughly that order. However, all these potential avenues have become narrower in recent years. It's no wonder publishers and authors are turning to the Internet. The difficulty there, is knowing how to focus efforts effectively when there are so many millions of sites jostling for attention. Many books and web sites claim to have the answers (advice on the subject has become a minor industry in itself); but in practice, few, if any, do.
I also can't help feeling that the DIY nature of much web-based output gives publishers an excuse to offload promotion work onto authors. Publishing is, and should be, about more than physically producing books. It is also about placing those books where potentially interested readers can see them. In the film business any producer who blows his whole budget on making the movie, and doesn't leave a big chunk of money for promoting it, is asking for trouble. In my experience, authors are very willing to undertake promotional work, but it should be under the direction of an experienced in-house professional.

Helena Halme said...

Tania, It's very interesting to read about the process leading up to publication and the promotion afterwards. I know you work very hard for this, but, as the Orange Prize commendation shows, it's your writing that is important. It's a shame the promotion of The White Road takes you away from concentrating on your writing. Helena xx

Fiona said...

Tania obviously puts a tremendous amount of energy into self promotion. This not only helps her - although her work is so good it shouldn't need it - but it helps other writers too.

I entered my first competiton, The Fish One Page story, and am a runner up.

There, that's my bit of self promotion.

BuffySquirrel said...

It's in my TBR stack :).

Well, okay, it WAS a stack before the cat donned her crampons.

Tania Hershman said...

Philip,
thank you for commenting, glad you found my piece interesting. Your point is well taken, but doesn't apply equally to all publishers. My publishers, Salt, don't have the funds to employ a marketing person, and given that they do an enormous amount. I know they and I both wish they did have some dedicated to promoting their books. Jen Hamilton-Emery from Salt will be on this blog shortly, so you can discuss it directly with her. And - I must say that I didn't have a well-informed strategy at all! I was totally playing it by ear, trying everything, with no clue what might happen!

Helena,
lovely to see you here - and yes, book promotion is distracting, but also very important otherwise a book can easily disappear without trace, without any reviews. Now, seven months later, I am exhausted but my efforts seem to be bearing fruit, which is very rewarding.

Fiona - congratulations!!

BuffySquirrel, delighted to be in your TBR stack!

annie clarkson said...

I think you are fairly unique Tania when it comes to the level of promotion you do. I know many writers who either leave it to their publishers, or who set up one website about their book and wait for it to be discovered, well doen you for the hard work, it's paid off, and I bet there are a lot of people who found about your book and loved it, who are very grateful that you spread the word

mags said...

Great article, Tania. Informative and, for me, timely and hugely useful given I'm already promoting my debut novel, to be published by Macmillan New Writing in June. They have a publicist and she does what she can, but it's still tough to get effective coverage.

I'm English, but live in the States and will be flying home for the launch, packing as much as possible into less than 3 weeks with several book signings and a couple of library events I set up myself, and two writers' workshops with my editor. I also set up a web site that people have told me is interesting, easy to navigate, and fun to visit.

As a new author, it's truly daunting, trying to figure out which way to go with all this promotion business. What's the best return on effort? And how can you tell what's working and what isn't? Not living in the country where one's book is published presents (as I imagine Tania found) another layer of difficulty.

In the end, it comes down to booksellers and nothing can beat the personal approach: dropping into bookshops and meeting those who're selling your books.

Several book bloggers have offered to review the novel, as has a Cornish magazine (part of my story takes place in Cornwall). Like most authors, I'm a little uncomfortable about approaching people and asking for a review; I'd rather be writing the next one, but there won't BE a next one unless this one does well enough that my editor wants to publish the next one.

One unexpected bonus from all this PR work: I've connected with some fabulous people I wouldn't ordinarily have met, so for that I'm very thankful and appreciative of their interest in me and my writing.

Wow, this has turned into rather a long post. Sorry for rambling, and thanks for listening.

Jocelyn's stories said...

Tania,
I think it makes a ton of sense, and is worthwhile, that you've worked so hard to promote yourself. I think many folks underestimate the amount of dedication and hard work that goes into to finding readers, even for a lovely, unique book like yours.
Best!
Jocelyn

catdownunder said...

I am not in the happy position of having had a book published but I wonder how Tania would have fared here in Australia if she had been expected to do the same level of self-promotion. I agree that authors have to make themselves available outside the printed page but there are hundreds of miles between just the capital cities of Australian - let alone the regions. As events are usually held in the evenings it means overnight stays etc. That can be very expensive in money and time.
It raises the question, what can you do if you really cannot make it there in person?

Tania Hershman said...

Hi Annie,
I know quite a few other very hard-working writers, they were my inspiration, so I don't think it's just me, but something is going well, so that's good!

Mags, congratulations and best of luck with your book. Since I live in Israel and there are few bookshops, that hasn't been something I've done, well only once actually... I've been selling my book myself, which, given my author discount, has made me a little bit of money. I would suggest you definitely push for reviews... that is something I did very early on, getting in touch with magazines who had published my short stories or editors I knew, as well as book blogs. I have had 11 reviews so far, the latest last week, so it is a process that keeps on giving! Of course, you have to be prepared for the fact that they might not like your book, but I think it is worth the risk, and the effort.

Jocelyn, yes, people don't prepare you for how much work it is going to be - or perhaps, like with having a child, you don't believe them! Thanks so much and best of luck with your own collection!

Hi Cat,
I did most of my promotion online, but I agree that having to do readings across Australia would have been very difficult and probably expensive. I have managed to get quite a lot done without showing up in person, I think it is possible, thanks in great part to Facebook, an invaluable promotional tool.

Lauri Kubuitsile said...

Very thorough description of your experience Tania. I'm sure writers will appreciate it.

You have done an extraoridinary amount of marketing and it has really paid off which is great. I wonder if it matters that you were with a small publisher who made you aware of the situation going in. I do agree a bit with Phillip- writers should help publishers market, not have to carry the burden alone.

Sally Zigmond said...

Marketing and promotion is essential but the bottom line is great writing. And as far as The White Road is concerned, it's the writing and the mind behind it that bowled me over. Then again, I wouldn't ever have heard of TWR had Tania hadn't promoted it.

Swings and Roundabouts indeed but none of it will work unless the writing is top notch.

It is. More, please, Tania.

Tania Hershman said...

Lauri - it really helped that Salt made me aware when I signed with them that I would have to come up with a lot of ideas for marketing and reviews etc... That forced me to start thinking in that way, which wasn't something that came naturally to me.

Sally - thank you! But yes, if I hadn't found this blog, and hadn't emailed Jane, she wouldn't have suggested I send you my book, etc... etc... There is a lot of synchronicity here, which can be manufactured, to an extent, or at least set in motion!

Sarah Salway said...

Great piece. But one thing I think she's modest about is how much she does for other writers too - her 'self-promotion' is only a small bit of how she supports good writing through her Short Story work, and also putting up competition details etc for everyone to share. Definitely an inspiration!

Jane Smith said...

When Tania first sent me this piece I was amazed by how much she'd achieved, and how hard she'd worked to promote her book. I think her success with it is down to several factors.

1) Tania's writing is just wonderful. People have a genuine enthusiasm for Tania's writing, and that translates into good reviews and contributes to the buzz about her book.

2) The White Road And Other Stories has a fascinating hook--I love the idea of a series of short stories resulting from New Scientist articles; it's a brilliant premise and it grabbed my attention right from the start.

3) Not only is Tania very enthusiastic about writing and reading in general, she is a genuinely nice person. Her short story review site is fantastic, and she's a joy to deal with. And that makes ALL the difference.

Thanks for sending me this piece, Tania; I wish you the very best of luck with the book. When's your next one coming out?

Tania Hershman said...

Ok, Sarah and Jane, you are too kind, I'm bright red right now. Jane, thank you so much for this opportunity, for giving me space on your wonderful blog, which provides such a great resource for us all. Next book? All depends on potential agent! Fingers crossed, watch my blog for updates.

Jocelyn's stories said...

One more thing, Tania...how did you identify blogs to work with on your virtual book tour? Were they already blog friends, did SALT help? Any other thoughts on that?

Tania Hershman said...

Jocelyn,
I found all the blogs myself, some were friends, some were just blogs I liked and I approached them, several were writers whose books we'd reviewed on the Short Review, so those contacts came in very handy - and still do, I've met wonderful writers that way!