Author Marketing and the Independent Publisher: An Interview with Karen Sullivan

Karen Sullivan is not the type of person to be intimidated by a challenge. As founder of Orenda Books, she has published a list of literary fiction titles with a heavy emphasis on crime fiction, half of which are in translation. Regardless of the challenges of producing such a list, she has experienced dazzling success in 2016. Four of her titles were in the Not the Booker Shortlist for 2016, Orenda Books was shortlisted for the IPG Newcomer of the Year Award and Karen was named a Bookseller Rising Star for 2016.

In this interview, Karen told me about what she expects from her authors in terms of digital marketing before, during and after a book launch.

Laurie: I come across a lot of remarks online about how authors won’t be taken seriously by publishers if they don’t already have an active platform before they even submit a manuscript. Do you think this is true of independent publishers or any publishers for that matter?

Karen: Not at all. I have a number of authors who are international, and any social media they undertake is often in another language, so pretty much useless. In fact, one of my authors was a social media ‘addict’ and renounced all internet platforms years ago. It doesn’t matter to me, although I will concede that it can be useful! I have considered setting up and monitoring twitter accounts for a few non-tweeting authors, just to keep up the momentum and help readers to ‘connect’, which can build ‘brand loyalty’; however, I haven’t done this yet.

Laurie: When you sign an author do you expect them to build up their platform in the lead up to publishing a book? Do you expect them to do anything in particular?

Karen: If they are on social media, I would expect them to engage with readers and to talk about their books in a general, non-intrusive, friendly way. We all have authors who take things to extremes and end up spamming, which is NOT the aim! This makes it very hard to promote them because people tune out. We usually announce new books in the trade press and from that point on authors can become as involved as they feel comfortable! We do cover reveals and put out the ebooks early, too, so they can share the news with their own supporters and friends. This obviously helps. I use social media often to talk about the books in advance of publication, and when anything exciting happens. Authors will often get involved in this but, as I mentioned above, it’s not essential.

Laurie: What role does the author play in marketing your book launches?

Karen: I organise one or two launches for my authors, and give them the ‘poster’ and invitation to invite their own friends, followers and colleagues. If they have a Facebook page, they might set up an event. I do the same, or share theirs (or the reverse) and get it up on my events page on my website, so they can share that, too! It’s a collaborative effort. Again, because a lot of my authors are international, they will likely have few connections here, so little expected!

Laurie: After publishing a book, what sort of marketing activity do you expect from your authors?

Karen: I like them to engage with readers, thank them for reviews, comment on nice reviews, mention and support things like ebook promotions and really just be a solid member of the community. I bring all of my authors over for a wide variety of events and festivals, and do expect them to travel and to spend time with readers, reviewers, other authors, etc., and to network. This can make a big difference to the success of the book. Anything they do around that, as above, is brilliant.

Laurie: It must be really exciting to have four titles in the 2016 Not the Booker Prize longlist and I love that two of them are by women as well! You must be great at marketing your books. Do you have any trade secrets you can share with us?

Karen: Yes, it was exciting, and because these things are reader voted, they are very meaningful. I suppose I spend too much time on social media! But it is a great resource for a small company, with a tiny marketing budget. It’s all about discoverability. If people know a book is there, they can buy it, talk about it, recommend it. So we do lots of talking, special offers, blog tours, author Q&As, guest posts, giveaways, extracts and events – bring the authors to the readers! I make sure I thank everyone who takes the time to review, and put all of our social media details (and the author’s) in or on the books, so they have an easy way to connect! That makes a difference! And it is VERY important not to underestimate the importance of bloggers. I can see ratings soar when they start talking enthusiastically about a book. Many purchases are made online, and with a good or even controversial review, you can get a one-click sale. It’s a little like a brilliant bookseller hand selling! I give away far too many books to bloggers and influential readers, but again, that gets people talking. Other than that, nothing special! Bookmarks, sponsoring a few low-key events, postcards, samplers, that sort of thing! I send a lot of reading copies to the book trade – individual bookshops, etc.!

Laurie: I really like literary historical fiction. I want history to read like a novel but be intellectually challenging as well. Which one of your titles should I read?

Karen: I don’t really do historical fiction as such, but you might like Louise Beech’s How To Be Brave. There are two true stories interwoven (one from the second world war) and she has written a beautiful, emotive and very readable novel (a Guardian Readers’ Pick for last year). If you like challenging, try Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless or her new one, The Exiled. She is an award-winning Finnish author who is unafraid to address serious social issues in her fiction. She challenges the reader to give up their preconceived ideas, while writing page-turning fiction! I’ve got some good and wonderfully challenging reads. Most of my books do have serious themes underpinning them, and they are enlightening, beautifully written and terrifyingly page-turning. Try Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus or Jihadi by Yusuf Toropov. Mind-blowing stuff, but BRILLIANT reads!