Advice for Authors

Choosing the Topic of Your Book

Hugely important! Your topic can determine whether the media give you free publicity by writing about your book, or whether they will ignore it. Media love travel memoirs, and tested cookery books with local, South African content.

They are not keen on poetry, self-help, inspirational or religious titles. Personal memoirs have to be topical or have a focus – preferably, but not exclusively, in a South African context and setting.

Scroll down for info on these topics…

1. Self-publishing versus Traditional Publishing

2. Publicity

3. Marketing & Promotion

4. Distribution & Getting to Market

5. Book Design

I hope these tips help you!


1. Self-publishing versus Traditional Publishing

What are the benefits of self-publishing?

The main benefit is that authors have a chance to publish books that traditional publishers might reject.

Their rejection is often not based on the quality of the book, but on economics. Publishers have to look at their bottom line and expect a minimum return on their investments; otherwise they are not likely to take a risk on a new author.

Another big area is subject matter: every publisher specializes in a particular genre. They reject books which are not don’t match their area of expertise. Self-publishing gives the author the opportunity of introducing fresh topics to readers.

The economics of the traditional industry can mean that unknown authors, niche-market books, and off-topic subjects stand a good chance of being rejected.

Going with a publisher is preferable as they have the editing, printing, sales and marketing staff at their disposal – it’s difficult for a self-published author to get the exposure they need on their own bat. So going with an established publisher is definitely easier, cheaper and less stressful, but royalties are low.

It takes a lot of passion, drive, time, and money to self-publish. But if you have your heart set on self-publishing, make sure you go about it the right way or you could become disillusioned and lose a lot of money.

Either way, the book needs media publicity; otherwise, it’s not likely to sell.

How can self-published books avoid the “vanity” label?

This term is almost outdated and irrelevant as more and more good books are being self-published.

However, self-published books still don’t have the prestige of a publisher’s book based on four overlooked areas that have brought self-publishing into disrepute, they are:

• Books are usually not proofread by a professional
• Editing is nonexistent
• Often the font and/or paper are inappropriate
• The cover designs are amateurish

Proofreading by a professional is particularly important. There is absolutely nothing a publicist can do with a book that has punctuation, spell-check (correct spelling but wrong meaning) and spelling errors, no matter how well written it is. Do not proofread yourself; don’t ask your high-school teacher to proofread for you because she’s good at English. Get a PROFESSIONAL to review your work. Even if a story is brilliantly told, if the grammar and punctuation are wrong then people will not read it!

The author must ensure his book is crisply edited, exceptionally well proof-read, and professionally printed in a legible font. Failure in one or all these areas has given self-published books a bad name.


2. Publicity

What are the benefits of book publicity?

The singular aim of publicity is to let the book-buying public know that your book exists. If people don’t know about the book, even if it’s in a bookshop, sales of more than a couple of copies are unlikely.

Each mention in the media in articles or reviews is worth thousands of rands (pounds, dollars) in advertising space. Find out how much a small ad would cost to place in your favorite magazine – you’ll be astounded!

Obviously, the more book reviews, the greater the likelihood of sales.

Can self-published authors do their own publicity?

I’m sure they could if they had the time and inclination to spend months marketing their books, and more importantly, were able to get their hands on a comprehensive media list.

During my career, I’ve built up a list of almost 600 names of media in radio, television, magazines, and newspapers throughout South Africa.

The two most important advantages that publicists have, and authors and the general public do not, are:

A comprehensive list of media
Solid relationships with media built over years

No amount of training will give them the first, and I’m willing to bet most authors would far rather be writing their next book than contacting and badgering media.

Do self-published authors face a stigma when pursuing publicity?

Not a stigma, but as the media don’t have time, getting their attention without a publicist is difficult – unless the book has particular relevance to the publication or location. Also, media do not like dealing with authors directly, it’s too time consuming and many authors just don’t know when to back off.

I get excellent support from the local media (newspapers, magazines, television, and especially radio) based on my existing relationships as well as the trust I have built by promoting only well-written, well-edited self-published books.

What benefits do authors gain by hiring a publicist?

A book needs media publicity, otherwise it’s not likely to sell. A publicist with excellent media contacts is a necessary investment. I specialize in publicity for self-published South African authors and we get excellent support from the local media (newspapers, magazines, TV and especially radio).

Media are too busy meeting deadlines and don’t have time to spend on promoting authors who may or, more likely, may not have a decent book.

A good publicist only promotes well-written, well-edited, and proofread books. Media know this and are more likely to request books for review through a publicist they trust.

Also, the publicist knows exactly what to send the media, such as the right size photos, correct file sizes, specifications, and where interviews take place, etc. The media really appreciate this.

What about the costs, which are prohibitive for many authors?

In my view, even if you can work the social media angle to get followers and get your books noticed, it’s a waste of money to print a book or even publish an ebook without formalized publicity.

If you don’t want to spend the money on a publicist, and also don’t want to spend the time looking up media names and addresses, writing press releases, and following up with the media, I suggest authors consider traditional publishing. The royalty may be lower, but it’s a far cheaper and easier option with fewer headaches than self-publishing and self-promotion.

What do you tell authors about the results they can expect with the services of a professional publicist?

I tell them there are no guarantees. And don’t expect to become a millionaire by writing books!

Are book launch events a good way of generating publicity for my book?

Unless the author belongs to a group or club or has a database of people who are specifically interested in the subject matter, I try to dissuade new authors from doing this as media do not cover these events – and the bookshop customers are there for the snacks and wine!

Book launches are often a disappointment for authors, bookshops, and publicists. Unless, of course, the author just wants to feel special for a night and treat their friends and family, then it’s worth it!

If authors could only do one thing themselves, what book publicity action would you advise them to take?

In general, there is no one thing that will make a difference. You need to get as many reviews in as many places as possible and that takes a lot of hard work, especially if you have few or no contacts in the industry and no prior experience.

Your only hope then is that your book magically goes viral….


3. Marketing & Promotion

Whether your book is professionally or self-published, author activity can never be underestimated!

Working with a publisher

Publishers might kick the book off with one book launch, but not often. Ask if they have a publicist and what they’re going to do to promote your book, then work with them. Publishers will do the initial sales push into bookshops and one launch to the media, then they’re onto the next book. It’s up to you to sell it after the launch.

At that point, hire a publicist who will help you promote your book further. Keep in mind however that any further media promotion will have to be from a new angle because the media won’t want to duplicate a discussion on radio or anything already in print.

Promoting my book as a self-published author

There are a variety of actions you can take to spread the word about your book:

1. Services worth paying for

• A publicist! Investing in a professional can pay dividends, as they have access to media networks that you never will. They provide a variety of services such as:
Promoting your book in the media via a press release.
Having your book reviewed.
Booking you to be interviewed on radio and TV.
Arranging book launch events in local venues.

• A website for your book (if you can’t create one yourself).

2. Costing nothing except your time and effort

Whether you hire a publicist or not, you should take these steps to ensure as much coverage of your book as possible:

• Arrange to give book talks in local bookshops, libraries and coffee shops.

• Independently get onto the radio or local TV stations (after discussing with your publicist to avoid duplicating efforts).

• Use social media to announce the launch, and keep your followers informed.


4. Distribution & Getting to Market

How do I get my book into the market place?

Authors can either choose to go with Kalahari, Loot, Amazon, a dedicated website, etc. and/or get a distribution company, with sales reps, to get the book into bookshops.

How do bookshops choose what books they want?

Each bookshop has its own demographic and good managers know their readers and buy accordingly. For non-fiction titles, most bookshops will take an order half on firm purchase (even if they don’t sell a copy, they have to pay you) and half on sale-or-return (SOR). Fiction on the other hand is always purchased entirely on a SOR basis (so if they sell none, you’ll get them all back as per your agreed time limit). In most bookshops, books on SOR are kept for between three to six months. If they haven’t sold in that time, they’ll all be returned to the publisher who’ll usually pulp all fiction titles and put the non-fiction back into stock.

How do books get a good location in the shop (centre floor, counter top)?

Other than preplanned displays, when books are unpacked they’re put into their relevant sections. Display is mostly at the discretion of the unpacker or sales person in front of the shop. If a book is by a well-known author or is pushed as a best seller by the publisher, the bookshop orders lots of copies on sale-or-return (SOR), and they’ll be on display in a big pile in the middle of the floor or in a prominent position. Note that publishers pay a lot of money for the bookshop to display these towers of books!

Often you’ll see these are a non-standard size called Trade Paperback. Publishers print these first and use the smaller traditional novel size (there are many) when they go into a second printing. As there’s a limited amount of space available on shelves, usually no more than five copies land up there. If the book is small then it may get a place on the counter because that’s where it’ll fit without getting lost – however, generally only gift-type books are displayed on counters.

If you choose to self-publish, be careful about printing small-format and/or no spine on fiction novels as the bookshop may not order them at all! So stick to one of the standard novel sizes in paperback.

Can I (the writer) contact a bookshop directly to get them to stock my book?

Bookshops don’t tend to deal with authors directly because there are too many and they have a reputation for being unreliable. For instance, if a bookshop has purchased direct from an author and then wants to reorder or return stock, tracking down that author can be difficult. They might have started a new project, gone on holiday, be distracted with other things or simply have moved house. So bookshop managers prefer to see sales reps that represent publishers and distributors. However, if your book is very specific to the area then they will sometimes make an exception!

Can writers influence booksellers and therefore book buyers?

Your chance of influencing book buyers is well-nigh impossible! If you can, chat with the sales people in the bookshop once the books are in stock…. But beware of being too pushy – it could backfire!

If I self-publish, can I sell directly to a bookshop?

If you’ve written a book relevant to your area then speak to your local bookshop manager. She may take your book on a sale-or-return (SOR) basis or, most likely, on consignment (so you only get paid when the books get sold). You’re unlikely to successfully sell your book to national bookshops on that basis so you need to find someone to market, sell and distribute your book for you. This will cost, but it’ll get your book on the book manager’s system. However, don’t just focus on bookshops. If you’re self-published, get your book into other outlets: coffee shops, restaurants or boutiques for instance. Arrange to have talks and book signings at the library, the garden centre or any other outlet that might stock a book like yours.

How do books get into libraries?

Libraries buy from library suppliers. Most of the time, they work to a budget and will buy from suppliers who give them the best discounts. Irrespective of budget, librarians try to stock the library with books that are in demand, i.e.: by well-known authors, because that’s what their readers ask for. If yours is a local book, then your library will probably pick that up for the local section. Also, most libraries have a manifesto with guidelines on what to buy so there isn’t much leeway for the buyers. Again, if you’re self-publishing, be careful not to make your book too small, too tall or too slim for comfortable display on the shelves.

If I have a series of books to write, is it better to finish them all so the bookshops have the whole series to sell?

A bookshop will most likely buy one copy of each of a series or, if they only have the first in the series, then two or three of the first book. They will only buy more of what sells, so write the first one, get it sold, then write the others!

How does a book become a best seller?

Nothing is guaranteed. A book by a first time novelist could go viral, thanks to social media and word of mouth. It all depends on audience response. If your book hits the right pulse and readers spread the word, then the publisher will see they have something that the public have taken hold of and put money behind it. Unless a book lands in a channel that turns it viral, a reclusive writer is a no-go. To that end, don’t underestimate Twitter and Facebook and other social media. Its marketing and luck. There are tons of great books out there that have never made it. It takes a lot of energy and money to be a bestselling author.


5. Book Design

Does the cover have a big impact on how well the book sells?

In publishing, books are judged by their covers. Book buyers might see up to 40 book reps a month. Most of these reps will have between 10 and 100 new titles each month. That’s a lot of books to choose from! So a great cover has a huge impact. Make sure it’s relevant to the target audience. Don’t make it frilly if you want men to read it. If it’s fiction, don’t make it look like a factual book. Look at other books in your genre to see how trends in cover design change.

If you go through a publisher, they will create the cover for you. You’ll be asked your opinion and if you really hate it, they’ll review it, but they have experts who know how to make the most of the cover and will generally do a great job.

Should a book have a photo of the author on the back cover?

A photo and bio of the author is nice – it helps to make a connection between the reader and the writer.

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