Marketing literary fiction – ‘There are readers who need these stories…’ an interview

Laura Stanfill

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. This is Part 2. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz There’s no getting away from the fact that literary fiction is trickiest to market.

Laura Oh it’s so hard! Every time I create marketing plans and metadata for a new novel, I am envious of publishers putting out subject-based nonfiction books, because it’s so much easier to identify and connect with a target audience.

Novels are tools to build empathy, they are self-care objects, they are escapes and escapades and circuses to entertain your mind. There are readers out there for them, readers who need these stories, who deserve to find themselves in books and those who deserve to escape by reading about people completely unlike them. But if I were doing, say, a paleo cookbook, with a few clicks I could find statistics on the number of people eating that way, do a price comparison and fit my book into a hole I’ve identified in the market.

Literary fiction is trickier. And so many people I meet on my travels say, “How do you find time to read?”

“How can you survive without reading?” I want to ask them, but instead I shrug, and say that I make time.

Roz You’ve found readers, though. I’d guess that’s by building a reputation in the right places?

Laura Yes – the reputation of Forest Ave and our authors. A lot of that, especially after we went national, was connecting with booksellers in other parts of the country, so they could become fans and handsellers of our authors’ titles. Then I started going to national conferences where I could meet more book-related media and other mover-and-shaker types who might choose one of our titles to review, feature, or list in an article.

Forest Ave has gotten a phenomenal amount of press in the past year or two, but we still don’t get a lot of reviews from the established trade journals. That’s frustrating; we make it into these journals as a press, but our books aren’t consistently picked up for reviews.

Roz I’m surprised by that. And I shouldn’t be, if I think about the sheer number of titles being published. I guess this shows how much time it takes to get on reviewers’ radar.

Laura I’m not sure if that’s because we aren’t having New York lunches all the time or if the literary fiction slots are reserved generally for small presses with larger catalogs or what. But I treasure the publications that regularly cover our titles, especially Foreword Reviews, which amplifies new titles by many small presses. And I’m going to keep showing up on the scene and publishing great books.

Roz Slow and steady. Another reminder – as if we needed it – that this is such a long game.

You’ve said that getting word out about your books is essential so that you aren’t swamped with returns and the business remains viable. How do you do that?

Renee Macalino Rutledge launches The Hour of Daydreams

Laura We definitely had a sales lag last year, and in brainstorming with other US fiction publishers, we have theorised it’s due to the 2016 election. Many readers started anxiously following the news instead of picking up another book. Book Riot named one of our titles from 2017, Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams, one of 9 Debut Novels You Might Have Missed Because the World Is on Fire.

Roz You have a distribution deal – how does that work?

Laura Getting distribution totally changed my business—increasing its national and international reach, helping me grow my brand, and allowing me to fulfill my mission of urging readers to buy at indie bookstores. My field sales reps at Publishers Group West do an excellent job getting us shelf space across the US, and that allows me to say ‘find this novel at your local bookstore’. Our titles are also available online, but I want readers to go to their local bookstores, have conversations with authors and other readers, and shop locally. Without distribution, it’d be much harder to make our books available in those channels.

Roz I’m going to say a few words here as an author who’s so far been indie. With Forest Ave you’ve got something that few indie authors can. Availability is one thing – a line in a catalogue, on paper or on line. But you’ve got champions talking about your titles to booksellers, who then recommend them to customers who’ll love them. We’ll talk about this more in later posts, but I wanted to emphasise this. Certain kinds of books thrive with this personal touch; ambassadors do better for them than algorithms.

Coming next time: a week in the life of a small press


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  1. #1 by Anna Dobritt on May 15, 2018 - 11:17 am

    Reblogged this on Anna Dobritt — Author.

  2. #2 by DRMarvello on May 15, 2018 - 1:57 pm

    RE: literary fiction is tricky to market …

    The biggest challenge of publishing any book is marketing. While self-publishing a book has never been easier, finding an audience for it is just as difficult as ever. And most writers are not marketers. The most successful self-published authors are true entrepreneurs who are willing and able to wear every hat in the publishing business, but doing that takes a particular kind of personality as well as a lot of faith and energy.

    Many of the authors who refuse to self-publish and continue to seek traditional representation do so because writing stories is the only role they want to play in the publishing business. Having been down the self-publishing path for six novels now, it’s an easy position for me to understand.

    RE: ambassadors do better than algorithms …

    Retailer algorithms are insufficient because they apply a macro solution to a micro problem. Story builds an emotional connection between author and reader, but it is extremely difficult to capture the essence of story with metadata. I may like some thrillers, but that doesn’t mean I like *every* thriller. Most of the time, “also bought” recommendations for books don’t appeal to me. Books are not widgets, and neither am I.

    So, there’s still a gap between readers and their potential favorite authors. Social networking sites like Goodreads and reader forums try to bridge that gap. This is also a role that independent publishers can fill, as it seems Laura is doing. I’m happy to see this because I don’t think computers are (yet) competent at helping readers find authors they’ll love.

    • #3 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 15, 2018 - 6:49 pm

      Sensible thoughts as always, Daniel. I wonder if this is the case – the more individual the book, the more algorithms will struggle to match readers with it?

    • #4 by DRMarvello on May 16, 2018 - 1:38 pm

      That’s more or less the “micro problem” I was getting at. Authors don’t always anticipate (or fully understand) how and why their audience is drawn to their work. That means the marketing package (metadata, description, cover, etc) may be off-target. In that case, algorithms suffer from the GIGO problem.

      Even if the marketing package is on-target, algorithm-based recommendations are generated from what the majority of other readers are selecting. That approach has an “averaging” effect that quickly loses track of anything “individual” about a book. In other words, the more specific the interests of your audience and the farther those interests depart from the average reader’s, the less useful an algorithm will be.

  3. #6 by Don Massenzio on May 16, 2018 - 10:27 am

    Reblogged this on DSM Publications and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Nail Your Novel blog on marketing literary fiction – an interview

  1. A week in the life of a small press .. an interview | Nail Your Novel
  2. Movements, movers and shakers: publishers and authors as literary citizens .. an interview | Nail Your Novel
  3. Marketing literary fiction – ‘There are readers who need these stories…’ an interview | Odd Sock Proofreading & Copyediting

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