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 exp
erience — 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.