Every day in winter, I make up a fire in the fireplace. Without it, this house would be even colder than it is. There is a technique to getting the fire going which I have perfected over the years. You need a firelighter and some kindling. Light the firelighter, put the kindling on top and add a log or two, then close the door of the fire and leave open the little sliding thing at the bottom so that it can create some updraft. When it is all roaring merrily, you can open the door and enjoy your open fireplace. Keep adding logs.
But some days, this doesn’t work very well. There are days when the wind blows in the wrong direction, or too strongly, or not strongly enough and the fire really struggles to get going. Another major cause of this is not having enough small bits of wood to get the logs to burst into flame. You need a certain amount of heat, or it just never happens. Sometimes the lack of kindling wood is caused by my own apathy: I think I can get away with the little that is already in the basket without having to freeze to death in the woodshed getting more. I am quite often wrong. And if the fire refuses to get going, it frequently just goes out. If this happens, you pretty much have to start from scratch: new firelighter, more small bits of wood, much more.
I can’t help thinking of this as I attempt to market my Christmas tale, Claus and Claws, on Amazon. Not only am I responsible for writing it, I’m now responsible for selling it; no one else is going to do this job. There is no publishing house, no army of reps. Bearing in mind that I have no money and little influence, how do I go about it? Your firelighter, small in the scheme of things but hard to put out, is your circle of friends. These are people who are well-enough disposed towards you that they might even be interested in reading your book and even if they aren’t, they may well download it from Amazon just to help you out. Then what you need is for them to write reviews of the book, assuming they actually read it and liked it, and stick them up on Amazon to convince the wider buying public, the logs on our fire, to actually put their hands in their pockets to buy the book.
I can’t really see any other way. Yes, no doubt you can contact bloggers and book sites and suggest they review it. It’s probably a good idea, but don’t expect too much. For a start, they are deluged with requests, like agents, and may well not wish to meet your suggestion. Then again, how much influence do they have? It’s probably not like dowsing your fire in petrol, more like adding another small piece of plywood.
So, I set out to light my fire. I organised it with Amazon Kindle (the amusing parallel in their name has only just hit me) so that the book can be free for 5 days in the first 90 it is commercialised, just so long as it is an Amazon exclusive. It seems a step too far for me that you should actually expect your friends to pay for your literary creation. Then I emailed everyone with MailChimp, having first spent hours manipulating and cleaning my database, to tell them the good news that they should download the book, read and review it. I was able to contact about 200 people who I know very well, well, or tenuously. Many of the email addresses were invalid of course – people change jobs as the years trickle by. I made similar exhortations on Facebook (I’m not that big on Facebook) and on a motorbike forum I frequent (which obviously has a limited interest in Christmas tales).
Results were far more encouraging than I expected. In the 3 days the book was free (I’m keeping the other 2 up my sleeve for nearer Christmas), the book was downloaded about 120 times. Friends were kind enough to send me words of encouragement and enthusiasm. The Ducati forum members downloaded about 20 copies – amazing. I suspect that a lot of the 120 downloads were from Amazon customers I don’t even know, however tenuously. The book briefly became the No.1 “bestseller” (remember, no one had actually bought anything) on the Amazon Kindle Satire list. People left 8 reviews on Amazon.co.uk and another 2 on Amazon.com. The kindling seemed to have caught and the fire was well underway. But then, just like a straw fire, it sputtered and died. In the 2 days after the free period a week ago, I sold, for money, precisely 3 copies. And then nothing. The book has now slipped, unsurprisingly, to No. 198 on the Satire list and No. 492 in Fairly Tales. It has become, in a word, invisible. It is as if, to take a bookshop analogy, it has been removed from the window display and been returned to an anonymous bookshelf where it will only be found by someone who is actually looking for it.
It’s the vicious circle: you need sales to get visibility and visibility to get sales. You need a fire already burning logs to be able to put more logs on it and keep warm. So what happens now? Well, I have reduced the price to encourage “spontaneous purchase”, in other words a “what the hell” attitude amongst buyers who may happen to see it. But as no one is seeing it, this has had no effect. What I need is another firelighter and some more kindling. Unfortunately, I only have the same circle of friends and acquaintances and I’ve already asked them. I will now have to ask them again, which is unpleasant and will probably be like a desperate attempt to add a couple of sticks to the embers that my nascent fire has become. Unlikely to have any effect. The only upside is that on Wednesday I am due to appear on World Radio Switzerland to talk about my book for a few minutes. World Radio Switzerland is an English-language radio station that serves the principally ex-pat community in Switzerland. Will this spark my fire into life again and get the book to catch on? Who knows, but I definitely don’t have a better idea.
People uninvolved in marketing have no idea how hard it is. Marketing is all about getting consumers to change their behaviour and that involves overcoming resistance. It means getting people to part with money, which they are loath to do, for a possible upside. Book marketing (not that I know anything about it, professionally) is even more problematic because you can’t generate any word-of-mouth (which is the best marketing tool) until people have read the book, and that takes time. Time which a Christmas book doesn’t really have. People may start to get enthusiastic about it on December 23rd, but come the 15th of January, they will be over Christmas and have moved on to something else. Dickens was already a literary superstar when A Christmas Carol was published just before Christmas 1843. His new story was news. He didn’t have to start hassling his friends. I am suspecting that if Claus and Claws doesn’t sell this Christmas, there is no reason why it should suddenly be super visible next Christmas unless I too have become a literary superstar in the interim. I am getting the impression that a Christmas tale is not the best thing to kickstart your literary career. It seemed like a good idea at the time…
By the way, the only reason I am writing this is that once again, I seem to find futile endeavour ironically amusing. I’m not trying to engender pity. Who’s got time for that?