Please welcome Monica Bhide to Writer Unboxed as our newest regular contributor! Monica is is an award winning writer, literary coach, poet, storyteller, and educator. She is the author of the novel Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken, which has just been nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards, fiction category! (Congratulations, Monica!)
As a bestselling fiction and internationally renowned cookbook author, she is known for sharing food, culture, mystery, and love in her writing. That’s why we thought a column on recipes for writing success seemed ideal. Welcome, Monica!
I was a traditionally published nonfiction author, by Simon & Schuster and other houses. I wrote for major newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune) and magazines (Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Parents). People in my industry were aware of my work. And then, in 2014, I wrote and independently published a collection of short stories. When I reached out to dozens of traditional media for reviews—or even just to ask them to take a peek at the book—I was mostly met by closed doors. The reason: “We don’t consider independently published books.”
After hearing so many nos when I’d hoped for yeses, I thought perhaps I had made a mistake writing fiction. So I focused anew on my well-established platform of food writing. I published a memoir featuring my food essays that had appeared in various traditional publications. In late 2014 and early 2015, I pitched the book to multiple outlets. The response was a little better—the Washington Post and Mint (a leading Indian business newspaper) gave it good consideration—but I got the same negative reply from many others: “We do not cover independently published books.” Everyone had said having a platform would help, but it did not.
Marketing my books was proving to be a discouraging challenge. I was disappointed and, honestly, had begun to doubt myself and my decision to become an indie author.
Then I had a revelation: If I was going to publish nontraditionally, then I had to market nontraditionally.
When I released Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken, my debut food fiction, in late 2016, I changed my marketing approach. I am sharing my experiences here in the hope that they will inspire and motivate you to create your own nontraditional marketing plan. Mine now includes the following elements.
- Contact Organizations: For all of my six previous books, I had focused solely on traditional print media, hoping that reviews and/or interviews would sell books. For Karma, too, I created a press release—but in the end I did not send it out. Instead, I began to think about how I could go directly to my readers. Since the book is food fiction, I approached food retailing chains and food event organizers, as well as book fairs and institutions like the National Press Club and the Smithsonian (I live in the Washington, DC area). These all have mailing lists and can reach a large audience. I already had relationships with some of them, but not all. I prepared a strong pitch on why my book would be interesting to their audiences and then came up with a unique angle (what my old boss used to call “the difference that makes the difference”). The novel is about a young man who wants to start a charity kitchen, so in my pitch I suggested menus he might create. This worked well as it made the novel “come to life” in the form of a meal. I am happy to report it worked: the Smithsonian, National Press Club, University Club Book Fair, Virginia Festival of Books, and many other organizations agreed to host events for me, as did Whole Foods (more on that later). The key was to approach them with a professional product and a good business idea. Think about your novel from a reader’s perspective: Who are the likely readers, and where are they to be found? Then focus on pitching your book to those organizations and events.
- Create Add-Ons: I decided to create merchandise around the book. Most people will tell you to wait until you have a million followers before you do any such thing; I decided to start where I was. I created a free e-cookbook to pair with my novel so that book club members could actually taste my hero’s food while discussing the book. I also asked a friend to create a jewelry line to match the jewelry depicted on the book cover. This was not a financial arrangement, but rather a way for both of us to get publicity for our new ventures. Think about whom you could partner with for your book: Who would make a great companion for the protagonist in the book? What are the merchandizing opportunities for your book? See if you can create three add-ons for your book that will make it stand out from the crowd.
- Reach Out to Related Retailers: Since my previous books were on food, I approached branches of stores like Whole Foods Market to see if they would be willing to host an event with me discussing the novel and offering a food pairing to go with it. This was tremendously successful locally, and I am now working on regional and national levels. Ask yourself if you can work with a tea shop, wine store, art gallery, hair salon, gift shop, craft store, painting workshop . . . Depending on what’s in your book, the possibilities are endless.
- Meet with Book Clubs: I used Facebook a lot for this. I reached out to book clubs that had read my previous books, and to new ones, to ask if they would like to have me talk with them. Many of them were delighted by the idea of getting the free e-cookbook and making a simple Indian meal, then having me over (in person or on the phone) to discuss the book with them. This was one of the most rewarding experiences for me. There are many of ways to find book clubs. The best way I know is to just ask friends who like to read, and go from there.
- Visit Independent Bookstores: Finally, I tried the one thing I was terrified of doing as I did not want to hear yet another “no”: I reached out to small, independent bookstores to see if they would be willing to host a ticketed dinner at a local restaurant, highlighting my book. This worked in Richmond, Virginia, with a sold-out event by the wonderful Fountain Books. Having events at an independent store may be a baby step for big houses, but for an indie like me, it was a huge step. Reach out to your local bookstores; many of them are just wonderful to work with. Talk to them about doing readings, Q&A sessions, food pairings with your book, demonstrations, etc. . . Some bookstores will do a wine pairing or let you demo a craft that supports your book.
I have just one request: Don’t throw out any of these approaches before studying it to see if it is worth your time to follow up on it. Think about your own book with out-of-the-box marketing ideas. Some may work, and some may not. But don’t dismiss anything until you consider it fully.
And for those of you wondering if I hired a publicist . . . it is as an old friend said: “Trust Allah, but tie your camel.”
 I had to excuse myself from this event as I am dealing with a medical issue at home.