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Should I Re-Issue My Novels?
I recently documented the marketing mistakes that I made when I released my novels. I have been very fortunate to receive some great marketing coaching from Octavia Randolph, author of the Circle of Ceridwen saga — a series of eleven novels set, like my Cuthbert’s People novels, in the Anglo-Saxon period in England. After extensive discussions, Octavia Randolph has made a number of suggestions about how my series should have been marketed, and I am considering reissuing the books with a number of changes in order to take advantage of that advice and hopefully grow my audience and my sales. However, these changes are not without cost or consequences, and I don’t want to get it wrong again, and that includes marketing them in a way that is not consistent with my long-term goals and interests.
Here I want to describe the changes I might make in the re-issue, explain the reasons for them, their costs, and any potential drawbacks, and get your feedback on them. I will list them starting with the simplest and least expensive. The main focus is on The Wistful and the Good, but all three books in the series would be involved in the reissue.
Revising the book descriptions
The job of a book description is to allow a potential reader to decide if this is a book they might want to read. That means not just describing its themes or plot elements, for instance, but locating it in its genre, where genre is something much more specific than simply “historical fiction” but describes the particular tastes of its target readership.
Historical fiction readers are often interested in particular places and particular periods and my current book descriptions don’t give the full who, what, when, where, how that such readers are looking for. Octavia Randolph also thinks they give away too much of the plot, which is probably fair.
This is an easy change to make. I just have to edit the book descriptions on the cover and on the online stores. There’s no real downside to this, as long as the change is actually an improvement. This is the proposed revised description for The Wistful and the Good.
Before the Vikings set foot on English soil, the Northern kingdom of Northumbria knew a golden age, an age of artists and poets, of scholars and saints. Elswyth of Twyford was the golden child of that golden age, blessed with beauty, charm, and a gift for entertaining and peace-making in the halls of great lords. Though her father’s name has never been heard in the counsel of kings, Elswyth is promised to an Ealdorman's son and will one day host kings at her table. But in the year of grace 793, the peace of Northumbria is shattered by the vicious Viking raid on its greatest jewel, the rich monastery of Lindisfarne. People ask if God himself has abandoned them, and great lords thirst for any chance to spill Norse blood. And Elswyth finds herself caught between old friends suddenly cast in the image of devils incarnate, and the lust for vengeance of the man she is to marry. One false step could lead to the loss of the promised marriage and the death or enslavement of people she loves, both English and Norse.
What do you think?
Changing the series title
The current series title is Cuthbert’s People, a reference to St. Cuthbert, the patron saint of Northumbria. Octavia Randolph feels this has too much of a religious connotation while not telling readers what to expect from the series. Also, the series follows multiple people rather than a single character, so it is a good idea to prepare people for this in the series title. Changing the series title is inexpensive, again just a matter of changing covers and the metadata in the online stores.
The current candidate for the revised series title is The Daughters of Twyford. What do you think?
Changing the cover illustration
I’ve written before about why I chose to design my own covers, and generally speaking people think they look quite handsome.
The problem is, as with the book descriptions, they don’t immediately place the books in their genre. That is, the covers don’t immediately shout, “historical fiction about the Anglo-Saxon period” to readers familiar with that period, unlike the covers of other authors writing about the period, like Octavia Randolph or Bernard Cornwell.
Creating covers like these requires more design and illustration skills than I possess, so immediately there is the expense of hiring people to do those things for me, times three to cover all three books, plus the same again for any subsequent books in the series. Other than that, though, and unlike some of the possible changes to come, it would not affect the amount of marketing capital — reviews and name recognition — that I have already accumulated. However, some of those changes could significantly affect the choice of cover design.
There is another problem with the cover design. As you can see above, most books set in the Anglo-Saxon period tend to feature artifacts rather than human figures or faces. This is because they are mostly concerned with war or with times of war, specifically the long period of war between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the invading Viking armies, which culminated in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. But my books are set before those wars began (as the book description above notes). Nor are the books concerned with war and battles. Images such as the above would not be a good fit.
The other reason you see a lot of artifacts on the covers of both histories and novels of this period is that much of what we know about the period comes from archeology and particularly the striking treasure hoards of such finds as Sutton Hoo. Those images shout “Anglo-Saxon period” louder than anything else.
Pitching an historical novel to readers interested in its period is clearly the correct marketing strategy for an historical fiction author, the method calculated to find the most readers at the least cost. Even the Historical Novels Review, the premier journal of historical fiction, arranges its reviews by period. Nevertheless, I regard the period as perhaps the least important thing about my books, and I have no intention of writing exclusively about the Anglo-Saxon period. Already I have published a literary fairytale, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, and I have plans for historical novels set in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as a contemporary novel.
My interests lie in common themes, not common subject matter, and most of my current readers, as far as I can tell, are not reading my books because they are fans of 8th-century Northumbria. In fact, I get a lot of “this is not the sort of thing I usually read, but…” comments, and I am quite public with my dismay at how the publishing industry tries to channel readers into genre ghettoes. Encouraging people to read broadly is a key priority for me, as you will have gathered from reading this newsletter.
I do want those 8th-century fans, of course, but I also want readers who will read across all the things I write because they are interested in the common themes, or just (he says, wistfully) fans of my writing. Specifically, I am interested in the way that people's circumstances, both personal and societal, influence their moral reasoning. Historical fiction is an ideal form for exploring this, but so are fairy tales, and many other genres. If I go all out to capture the Anglo-Saxon historical fiction fans, will I end up losing, or failing to attract, all those other thematic-based readers I want to find? As a commercial proposition, the answer to this question is perfectly clear: go for genre identity. It’s the way the industry works. But in terms of my literary ambitions, which run counter to how the industry works, it is much less clear.
What do you think?
The first book of the series has always been a problem child when it comes to titles. At various points in its evolution, it has been called The Rules of Trade (sounds like an economics text), The Peaceweaver (too many books with similar titles), and The Wistful and the Good. The Wistful and the Good has been a divisive choice. I like it. It has a hint of melancholy about it that speaks to me, and it’s on theme for how circumstances affect moral reasoning. Some of my current readers like it as well. On the other hand, some of my oldest and most faithful writing buddies hate it, and Octavia Randolph says that it “sounds like a novel classified in the ‘clean sweet’ sub-category of Romances.” I have to confess that I can’t see that at all, and the other people who hate it hate it for different reasons. But there it is. Titles are all about first impressions, and about genre identity. The title The Wistful and the Good may not be helping sales (though it is by far my best-selling book).
The problem, of course, is whose first impressions we are concerned with. Does The Wistful and the Good scream “Anglo-Saxon historical fiction?” Clearly not. (We should note that authors with established reputations don’t have to worry so much about this problem. Their names alone scream “Anglo-Saxon historical fiction” or whatever they are known for writing, and they can then title their books anything they like.) But, as I noted above, I am not setting out to build a career as an author of Anglo-Saxon historical fiction. I want to be known as an author of serious popular fiction across multiple genres, and while that is a quixotic ambition, it is my ambition, and I’d be reluctant to do anything to compromise it in my pursuit of the Anglo-Saxon historical fiction readership, much as I would like to have those readers in my camp.
Changing titles is also an expensive proposition — not so much financially, since the main financial costs are the cover design. But changing titles throws away all the accumulated market capital I have. Most particularly, Amazon will not transfer my existing reviews to a new title, and other places that have published reviews may be reluctant to change what they have already published, and almost certainly won’t agree to republish or redistribute their reviews for the new title. I would essentially be starting again from scratch, but without the ability to get new reviews from key sources like The Historical Novel Society.
One of Octavia Randolph’s most generous gifts to me has been to connect me with her cadre of advance readers (people who read a book before it is published, give feedback to the author, and will usually write a review to coincide with the publication date, helping to launch the book successfully). Several of them have agreed to become advance readers for me too, which is fantastic because it means I can rely on getting a number of reviews when my subsequent books come out. I can also contact some of the people who wrote my existing reviews, though I have no way to contact or identify many of the others. So maybe I could get a reasonable number of reviews for the reissue, at least on Amazon. Still, some loss of existing market capital is inevitable. Octavia Randolph assures me I will more than make up for it with the right changes. I’m having a hard time being so optimistic. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Three alternative proposals have emerged for titles.
The first is to retitle The Wistful and the Good to The Widening Sea and leave the other titles alone. The advantages of The Widening Sea are that it fits the novel, it suggests adventure, and it is open-ended, suggesting that the story will continue. It doesn’t have the confusing connotations that some people have found with The Wistful and the Good.
The second is to retitle The Wistful and the Good to The Eagle and the Wren. The Eagle and the Wren is a reference to an image used in the book when Elswyth meets her intended husband, who greatly outranks her.
The third is to retitle The Wistful and the Good to The Eagle and the Wren and then retitle the rest of the books in the same vein, including those still in the planning stage. The titles would then change as follows:
The Wistful and the Good —> The Eagle and the Wren
St. Agnes and the Selkie —> The Hunting of the Wren
The Needle of Avocation —> The Sparrow and the Falcon
The Wanderer and the Way —> The Flight of the Wren
The untitled fifth book —> The Fall of the Eagle
Commercially, this is appealing. It gives a common theme across the whole series and it immediately suggests cover possibilities that would carry across the books, giving the series a unified look. Octavia Randolph thinks this is a great solution, and part of me thinks it is too. But part of me looks at the lost marketing capital and wonders about the other part of my audience and the audience I am trying to reach.
There is also this niggling voice inside me that says that the old titles are more distinctive and that they are more me, whatever that means. I just plain like them. I’m proud of them. The bird titles are clever from a marketing point of view, but in my heart, I know that the books are always going to have their old titles for me.
But if Octavia Randolph is right, a lot more people will buy and read my books if I reissue them with the bird titles. And I do want to be read by more people.
What do you think?
Change My Pen Name
I have published several technical books and many articles under the name Mark Baker, the name I go by. To keep my technical writing and fiction separate, and also because there are way too many authors named Mark Baker on Amazon, I have published my fiction as G. M. Baker. This is not just the novels, but published stories and related essays going back several years. But Octavia Randolph suggests I consider changing it. Female authors often use their initials in pen names because they believe that readers prefer to read books by male authors. Considering that most readers and most writers are women these days, I supposed this would no longer be true. But according to several women writers I have asked about it, it is apparently still the case. Using a clearly male byline might actually help me sell more books.
This change is the most expensive of all since it would kill all the marketing capital around the name G. M. Baker — including, for instance, the name of this newsletter and the domain name of my website. I’m really not sure that the game is worth the candle for this change, but I include it for completeness.
What do you think?
The total picture
This is not just a matter of individual changes considered separately, of course. It is about the overall impression that the cover gives to the reader and whether it inspires them to pick up the book, read the description on the back, and then open and glance at the first chapter. There are a number of ways to address the current deficits. I could, for instance, include the phrase “A novel of Anglo-Saxon England” prominently on the cover to address the genre identification issue. I could put a headshot on the back cover to address the male author issue. All the elements have to work together and there is more than one way to skin a cat.
What do you think?
Thank you for your feedback. It will be genuinely helpful and I will appreciate it very much.