Josiah Bancroft originally self-published his book, Senlin Ascends, in 2013. It was by no means an instant success. Bancroft estimates it sold just 250 copies in its first three years. Last year, after the book caught the attention of some high-profile fans, it was sold to Orbit (an imprint of Hachette Book Group), which re-released it in January. As part of the re-release, Orbit covered the galley in Goodreads reviews. “Senlin Ascends is a word-of-mouth hit and the best way to show that was by sharing what readers were saying on Goodreads, explains Alex Lencicki, Marketing and Publicity Director at Orbit. “We also liked how all those quotes stacked up into a “babel” of voices. “Everyone is talking,” like in the myth.”
Josiah already shared some tidbits about his publishing experience in an interview with Goodreads last month, but we wanted to dig a little deeper to find out what advice he has for other self-published writers.
Can you tell us a little about your process of self-publishing Senlin Ascends?
When I first started writing Senlin Ascends, I was part of a small writing group called the Ides. We had been meeting for many years at that point, and I showed them the first fifty pages or so of the draft. After getting their feedback, which was perfectly fine and salient, I came to the realization that I wanted to continue writing the story on my own. I think there’s a good case to be made for writing groups and beta readers, and I’ve benefited from both over the years. But I also think that, for some writers, there comes a point when they need to strike out on their own, make their own mistakes, and pursue their own weirdness.
The cover art was created by Ian Leino, who has been my best friend since childhood. Ian is a fulltime professional graphic designer and artist. Other than my wife, Sharon, there has been no one who’s been more supportive of my writing efforts over the years. We discussed a few ideas for the cover, but the aesthetic and image he eventually produced were entirely his own. But he did more than create the face of the series. He also brought me along with him to comic conventions. He helped me come up with my sales patter, and he jumped in when I struggled to deliver it. He was there when I sold my first copy to someone. Without Ian, I truly don’t think there would be any Books of Babel. When my publisher Orbit informed me that they would be using Ian’s artwork for the republished covers, I was ecstatic.
You mention focusing on a few online platforms to promote yourself. What activities on Goodreads did you end up doing that you enjoyed the most? Any advice for authors who are not comfortable promoting themselves online?
I took advantage of Goodreads’ giveaways on several occasions. In my experience, the program was useful. It connected me with several readers who remain avid fans to this day. I’ve also dabbled with blogging on Goodreads, though I’ve come to realize that blogging isn’t my forte. Which leads me to the best advice I can give someone who’s a little leery of public exposure, self-promotion, and social media: Don’t try to do everything. Find the platform that suits your skills and your interests best and focus on it.
When I self-published Senlin Ascends I tried to do it all: blogging, tweeting, a professional website, Facebook, Reddit, newsletters, press-releases, and, a little later on, Instagram. I stretched myself very thin, which only made me feel more anxious and unready. I think if your goal is to build an audience, the most important things are consistency and focus. There will always be someone standing by to tell you you’re doing everything wrong. Take their advice with a grain of salt, and don’t lose faith in your method to your madness.
After you had submitted the book for a contest, the author Mark Lawrence picked it up and decided to become the books ‘champion.’ This opened a lot of doors for you. Can you tell us a little more about the role he played and why that was a turning point in your publishing story?
It would be hard to overstate Mark’s role in getting Senlin Ascends published. After discovering the book through his Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) contest, he shared the book with everyone he knew, including his writer friends and his agent, Ian Drury, who would eventually become my own agent. He blogged about it on his site, and he flogged it on Reddit’s r/fantasy forum, Facebook, and Twitter. His publicizing efforts had their intended effect. After three years of languishing, my book began to sell.
Behind the scenes, Mark offered me a ton of invaluable advice, from pointing out a dead link on my Goodreads page to explaining how I should interpret trends and sales. I like to think I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity he provided me, but I have no illusion that my success is owed entirely to the luck of my book finding its way into Mark’s hands. This is both the most discouraging and, potentially, the most liberating aspect of publishing: Luck is the primary variable in the equation of success.
Are there specific book publishing and promotion resources you can recommend for self-published authors?
Probably the most productive thing a self-publisher can do is to find a community to contribute to and converse with. I learned this lesson late, but there’s nothing more helpful and hopeful than sharing your work with an active and healthy community. I think it’s best if that community isn’t only composed of writers, but really, the composition of the community is not as important as its culture. I found a supportive community of readers, bloggers, and writers through Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO and in r/fantasy. It took me a while to figure out how to interact with them; I am not the most socially adept person. But I discovered that a little politeness goes a long way.
How has working with a traditional publisher like Orbit helped expand the audience for your book?
Orbit has put a ton of effort into getting the book into the hands of authors, reviewers, and national publications, which has resulted in some lovely press for Senlin Ascends, including a write up in the Washington Post and a blurb in the Toronto Star. The fine folks at Orbit gave me the opportunity to speak to their sales force and to a room full of book buyers, which was an incredible experience. They produced a promotional video and organized many interviews with bloggers and venerable sites like Goodreads. They ran contests and placed some prominent ads, and they’re working to organize panels and other in-person engagements later this year. Working with professionals has taught me that I am a very good writer and a terrible publicist. Having their help has been transformative.
Senlin Ascends is available now. Be sure to follow Josiah Bancroft to see his activity on Goodreads!
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posted by Cynthia
on February, 01