5 Reasons It’s Hard to Market Indie Fiction and What to Do About It

by | Jan 9, 2013

by Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle)

I met Rachelle at the recent Fremont Writers Self-Publishing Conference. After finding out that she has spent quite a bit of time marketing her fiction, I asked her to share with you what she’s found that works for fiction authors when it comes time to dive into book marketing. Here’s her response.

  1. Fiction Marketing is Hard.
    No one HAS to read fiction, period. Unlike readers of non-fiction, who have a concrete objective to search out a book, fiction readers browse and graze. They are not under a deadline to learn about a specific topic, or figure out how to fix a whatchamacallit. Reading fiction is a pastime, an optional activity. It competes with other sources of entertainment or doing nothing at all.

    What to do: Fiction readers are looking for excitement or escape. Your job as a writer of fiction is to promise the reader an excellent emotional experience. The first impression may be the only one you’ll get. Your cover must be worth a second look, and your summary has to grab and spark curiosity. Story problem, dilemma, and question begging to be answered—the big “what if.” Short and sweet. Internet attention span is only a few simple sentences long.
  2. Finding a Target Audience is Hard.
    Publishers have sliced and diced fiction into genres and subgenres and sub-subgenres. The goal is to classify books so that prospective readers know what to expect. Unfortunately, all of these designations are subjective. Your idea of an urban fantasy involving shape-shifting thunderbirds may be my idea of a fantasy romance with psychologically disturbed teenagers.

    What to do: Be honest with your genre. You’ve heard people suggest finding obscure non-fiction genres to put their fiction books in to gain a high category ranking. Don’t do it. Disappointed readers do not hesitate to leave bad reviews. It is okay to experiment with genre slices and see what resonates, however the first two categories you choose must match conventional wisdom.

  3. Getting Discovered is Hard.
    With the advent of self-publishing, ebookstores are awash with free and inexpensive e-books clamoring for attention. Unless you already have name recognition, you are going to be yet another anonymous author vying to have your story read.

    What to do: Exposure, exposure, exposure. Literally your book must be everywhere prospective readers gather, from online forums to offline venues such as book clubs. Studies have shown that the average reader has to see your book three to seven times before buying it. They are also much more likely to buy your book if their friends are talking about it. Going free is an excellent way to increase exposure. Many websites list free books and many people download free books, increasing the chance someone will read your book and talk about it. Buying ads will help only if the site has readers actively engaging with it. Do your research on Alexa rankings and Page Rank and observe the percentage of fans “talking about” a Facebook page before plunking down your money for an ad.
  4. Branding is Hard.
    If you’re reading this, you’re most likely not a well known author with a huge brand, you know, the household name whose books dominate the shelves in physical bookstores. But if you’re in this business for more than one book, you must develop your brand and leverage your image.

    What to do: Your name is your brand. Aim for consistency that is uniquely yours. This means being true to your own writing style and interests. Some writers stick to the same genre, whereas others don’t hesitate to mix, blend or hop genres. The key is to manage reader expectation between your books, even if it means expecting the unexpected. While you don’t have to stick to the same script, your voice and level of drama and heat should be recognizably yours. When readers buy your next book, they are trusting that you will deliver the same or higher level of satisfaction as the last book they read.
  5. Keeping Readers Engaged is Hard.
    Readers can read faster than writers can write, and today they have a multitude of choices. Gone are the days when readers patiently waited every year for the new Agatha Christie. Readers can disappear faster than a jackrabbit on a date if you don’t keep them engaged between book releases.

    What to do: The opportunities with social networking are greater today than ever. Encourage your readers to talk back to you, whether in writing reviews, or commenting on your Facebook page. Run contests or games, post missing chapters or inside secrets on your blog and above all, be accessible. Don’t bombard readers with promotional e-mails and posts. Instead, listen and answer questions. Above all, be authentic. Show who you are as a human being and don’t be afraid to go off-message and post something personal every once in a while. Once the reader is interested in you, he’ll be interested in what your next book has to say.

Rachelle AyalaRachelle Ayala was a software engineer until she discovered storytelling works better in fiction than real code. She has over thirty years of writing experience and has always lived in a multi-cultural environment. Rachelle is an active member of online critique group, Critique Circle, and a volunteer for the World Literary Cafe. She is a very happy woman and lives in California with her husband. She has three children and has taught violin and made mountain dulcimers. Visit her at: https://www.rachelleayala.com or follow @AyalaRachelle on Twitter.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Antara

    I totally agree. The only way out is to produce more quality content.
    Write- publish – repeat

  2. Deborah Smith

    This is all very well-intended advice but the harsh truth is: unless your novel is well above average and especially compelling and you have a fortune to spend on marketing, your chances of being discovered as an indie author are next to zero.

    With that said, the other harsh truth is: you can succeed if 1. you’re a prolific and skilled writer, 2. you pick a very specific sub-set of a popular genre 3. which, of course, you read sincerely, research widely and appreciate deeply as a reader

    You then take your research a step further, to the bestseller lists in ebook at Amazon, the big kahuna of stardom. You track down the authors who are 1. debut, name-unknown successes 2. based on their first three books or less 3. in your chosen sub-set

    You buy their books and analyze them. Common themes, Common character types, plots, language, etc. How long are the books? Were they published a month apart or a year apart? (Probably the former.) Dissect them as if they are the engineering plans for a beautiful machine.

    What you’ll find (often) in genre fiction per the quick-catch world of ebooks is a a savvy game plan of serial novels written up front for a 1-2-3 of monthly release to garner big attention for a genre series.

    It is that kind of plan that jumpstarts the sales for indie books in most cases.

  3. Landon D. Andrews

    This is great stuff! Thank you for your input. it is greatly appreciated!

  4. Adam

    I am currently writing my first novel. My plan is to finish the draft and then work on a short story prequel, which I will release free. Working on both together will help be to ensure the consistency of the story and characters, and giving away a short story is almost as beneficial for promoting your paid work as a free novel, but takes much less time to complete.

    • Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle)

      Hi Adam, that is a good strategy. Some people will read the prequel first and go on to the novel. Good luck, and thanks for dropping by, Rachelle

  5. Garry Rodgers

    You’re right on, Rachelle,

    Something else that readers expect of fiction, besides excitement & escape, is enlightenment. They want to extract from the experience; something to take-away that they hadn’t thought of, didn’t know, or never experienced – something to remember.

    There’s a thing called ‘setting 100 small fires’ – you’ll never know which one might light an explosion. It’s all about exposure, for sure, and it takes a plan plus a lot of perseverance to get that exposure. So you have to set a lot of fires to be noticed.

    • Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle)

      Hi Garry, I believe you’re right about the small fires. Which is why we write about what we’re passionate about. I truly believe if you’re authentic in your fiction, people will respond. I’ve broken genre rules and taken risks not for the sake of risk taking, but because that was the story I was telling at the time. I immerse myself into my character’s life and if there is too much sex, or too many Bible verses, it is because that is real for my character and real for me in that particular story.

      Some of the small fires may offend certain people, but hook others who’re thinking, hey, that’s how I am or that’s the type of person I can relate to. As you know, if you’re not dealing with averages, you will turn off the same number of people you turn on. That’s because if you take a stand one direction, it necessarily removes you from the opposite one.

      Exposure will get the audience that resonates/explodes with you, which might not resonate with the next writer. There’s enough room on the Ark for all of us, in all our diversity to set as many fires as we can.

      Thanks for your wisdom, Rachelle

  6. John Richardson

    As a personal development blogger, I’ve found that trying to get my audience to read my fiction books is much harder than non-fiction. It’s like reading a fiction book from one of the talk show guys… Different genre. I think one tip would be to have people that are popular in your fiction genre possibly review your book. It’s also a good idea to have friends add keywords to their reviews on Amazon so that people can find it. Keyword phrases like “similar to hunger games” would be helpful in search.

    • Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle)

      Hi John, thanks for the good suggestions. I believe a lot of this takes time and elbow grease. After all, I’m a newcomer too. I can’t expect to pop on the scene in a year and have name recognition enough for people to consistently visit my blog. As it is, I hope to deliver content that interests them with book features for other authors and guest posts in addition to my own writing.

      It might work well to have topics related to your book on your blog, or things you feel strongly about, which again, may be related to your fictional world, or maybe not. We shall see. My next story is about abortion after a rape. While unpleasant, I was spurred to write a post about violence against women. These non-fiction topics related to your fictional world can engage people as well as involve you to fight for justice, or peace, and other issues you feel strongly about.

      Thanks for the comments, Rachelle

  7. Gregory Randall

    Rachelle and Joel,
    I agree so much with what you said that I referenced it on my own blog. It is all your points and even more. For self-publishers it is also managing costs and data (emails, contacts, etc.) So along with finding an audience there’s the added role of being a publisher. What a tough, but fun, road we travel.

    • Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle)

      Gregory, Thanks for the mention. One of my mantras is “I don’t have to do everything every day.” Keeps me sane. Thanks again, Rachelle

  8. Catana

    The first paragraph says everything about why I’ll never be a success as a writer. I’m the reader who *has* to read fiction. It isn’t something I fit in, casually, between other forms of “entertainment.” For me, reading fiction isn’t entertainment. As a writer, I write for those who feel the same way I do about fiction. I recognize that there aren’t many of us, and I understand that it makes finding my target audience that much more difficult. So be it.

    • Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle)

      Catana, that’s true, but once they find you, they will be hounding you for more and more and more. That’s a great place to be. :)

  9. James Moushon

    Rachelle: This is a must read for new authors and established authors as well. It is all about repeat business and keeping the reader coming back for more. All of your points are HARD to overlook.

    • Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle)

      Thanks a lot, James. In this age of instant information, the limiting factor remains attention span. This makes continued engagement and repeat business even more important.

  10. Carol Brill

    Rachelle, thanks for the reminder that blog niche is harder to create when you write fiction. At first, I thought I was the only novelist who couldn’t figure it out, and it’s nice knowing others also face this challenge.

    • Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle)

      Hi Carol, the important thing is to be authentic. Once you have several novels or a series going, readers might be interested in more details about those stories or characters and reading about what comes next. One experiment I’m doing is serializing my work in progress on my blog. So far, it is generating good number of pageviews.


  11. Carol Brill

    thanks for the reminder that finding that fiction niche is not clear cut. For a while, I thought I was the only one who couldn’t figure it out. It helps knowing others also find it challenging. thaks carol


  12. Matt

    “Studies have shown that the average reader has to see your book three to seven times before buying it.”

    Seems kind of high but probably not when you think about it. You definitely seem to know your stuff, great suggestions, thanks for sharing.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Matt, I’ve seen studies like that although they may have been oriented to general retail sales. Still, the name of the game with fiction is getting your book in front of enough people to start some healthy word of mouth going, and more exposures will definitely help with that.

    • Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle)

      Matt, You’re welcome. Something has to percolate from awareness to the impulse to buy. That’s why companies like McDonald’s and Coca Cola spend so much on advertising to get their product to stick in your mind.

      Thanks, Rachelle

      • Carol Bodensteiner

        Communication research has shown that people have to hear about a product an average of three times before they remember they’ve heard of it at all. And they need to hear an average of seven times before they’re ready to act. That’s why generating buzz is so important. It’s why we hear Burger King commercials a dozen times during every football game.

        Good post, Rachelle!

  13. Serban V.C. Enache

    Ms. Ayala, now this is a most informative article. But the good news is that – in those years between the ASOIAF books, readers are free to try something else. Lucky for us, George RR Martin is a slow writer ^^ Of course, that’s a particular niche, but it’s the one in which I activate. And well said about coming out to readers as a person. There are a lot of authors out there who share close to nothing about themselves and their beliefs. Personally, only talking about coffee, your cat, your dog, and what not are getting very tedious. Dammit, writers! Write something about social issues, about historical issues, about culture and art… but write your own thoughts. Show your readers that you’re not ignorant of every day reality.

    • Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle)

      Hi Serban, that’s for sure. My daughter is trying to get me turned onto George R.R. Martin. It definitely is nice when you have people waiting. Funny how you say to write about social issues because tomorrow on my blog, I’m writing about violence against women and what mothers can do about it.

      thanks for dropping by, Rachelle



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