A Conversation with Author Helen Matthews (by G J Stevens)

Helen contacted me on Twitter to ask a few questions about my upcoming book signing with WHSmith and we got into a conversation about post-publication book promotion events. As we chatted I saw this would make a great post to share with everyone. So after Helen kindly added in a few more details, here’s the result

GJ: Firstly can you introduce yourself?

HM: Thanks for inviting me onto your blog, Gareth. I’ve been writing since childhood and always wanted to be an author but life got in the way. My first degree was in English but I ended up working in a profession that was about as far from creative as you can get. I wrote in my day job – reports, legal documents, strategy papers and financial analysis and it impacted on my ability to be imaginative though I wrote stories and articles during those years. Eventually I fled corporate life to do an MA in Creative Writing and changed career direction to freelance copywriting which fits well with writing fiction.

I write suspense thrillers, book club fiction and contemporary women’s fiction spliced with domestic noir. My debut novel After Leaving the Village won the novel prize at Winchester Writers’ Festival and was published in October 2017 by Hashtag Press. My next book Lies Behind the Ruin is being published on 25 April 2019.  

GJ: What activities and events have you taken part in to promote your book over the past year?

HM: My publisher was very proactive and organised a publicist, Literally PR, to support me in the run up to publication. They were great and successfully arranged local media coverage, an interview on BBC local radio, articles in Female First and Shortlist, organised a blog tour and placed a short story of mine in a national Sunday newspaper. They continue to promote my books on social media and often invite me to events where I can network with journalists and reviewers.

After that it was up to me. Social media was an obvious place to start but it takes a while to build a social media platform and attract a following. I have an author website, with online shop and a blog. I follow other writers and book bloggers on Twitter and belong to several book groups on Facebook, where I interact with readers and authors and try to share quality content. One of the Facebook groups I belong to is the UK Crime Book Club.

In the real world, I started with book launches in two branches of Waterstones. My friends and family turned out in force to enjoy wine and cake and we didn’t have space for members of the public. Although we sold lots of books on the evenings, these were bought by people who would probably have supported me anyway, so I suggest public signing events would probably be a better option.

I approached independent booksellers offering to do an event or author panel with mixed success. It was hard to know if I was too early or too late! One brilliant indie bookseller has championed my novel hosting two signings and inviting me to appear at a book club he organises in a vineyard.

I pitched to my local library service in Hampshire and was asked to find two other authors and put together a panel. We were then offered three events where we spoke and answered audience questions and were able to sign our books afterwards, plus the county library service bought 14 copies of my novel. Getting your book into libraries can be tough (even my publisher finds it difficult) due to library budget cuts. If several copies of your book are in stock it makes it an attractive read for book clubs as not everyone can afford to buy a new book each month.

Literary festivals are very hard to break into. My publisher pitches their authors but nothing came up through them so I tried myself and was generally ignored. Then out of the blue, I had a call from a literary festival organiser in Woking. One of their interviewers had to cancel at short notice. “You write crime, don’t you?” she asked. “Err, yes.” “How would you like to interview best-selling crime writer, Tim Weaver at our festival on stage and in front of a live audience?” Would I? Of course. It was one of the most memorable gigs I did all year. Tim was fascinating and the venue took some copies of my books for their pop up shop and have continued to sell them over the following months.

A couple more radio interviews came my way. One was a follow up request from the BBC radio station, where I was invited onto a book group panel. The others were community radio and internet radio. When you do events, it gives you something to talk about on social media and you’ll often get a link to the clip of your interview and can share it with followers. It’s great practice for that day when we’re invited to appear on Mariela Frostrup’s Open Book!

Book fests, often organised by indie authors and linked to a small festival, can be fun. The format is that you pay for a table, say, £20 and turn up with your stock and hope the organisers have done enough publicity to drag customers in from the street. The best one I attended was in Bridport in December 2017. Two others in Winchester and Hastings didn’t cover their costs but I enjoyed them as I met some interesting authors and made new contacts.

My first book After Leaving the Village is a suspense thriller and has themes of modern slavery and human trafficking. The anti-slavery charity, Unseen helped me with my research and have appointed me an ambassador. I now give talks to clubs, book groups and other  organisations about my writing journey and about human trafficking and include a book signing. I did around a dozen talks in 2018 and have ten lined up so far in 2019. I’ve found that, even when talking to a small group in someone’s sitting room, between a third and a half of attendees will buy a book so 5-6 on average per event.

GJ: Which of these activities would you widely recommend?

HM: It’s quite hard to link some of the activities, for example, radio interviews, directly to book sales so if you have limited time and sales are your objective, stick with social media and targeted events in libraries or bookshops where you’ll get an audience of readers. Many events, such as book fests and open mike sessions, are opportunities for networking with other authors, who are generous in supporting one another. You may have to give them a free book but there’s a good chance they will review it for you on Amazon or Goodreads and that’s invaluable.

Once a book has been around for a year, sales naturally drop so I’ve found that doing talks for groups  is a good way to keep sales ticking over.  

GJ: How did you go about organising a stall at a Christmas Fair?

HM: The largest Christmas fairs start taking bookings for stalls early in January each year but they are commercial enterprises and the cost of a table or pitch is likely to be upwards of £50 and unaffordable for an author. I didn’t start looking until around November of 2017 but I found local fairs – one in a pottery, one in a large leisure centre plus a Christmas market in the village where I live, where prices for a pitch or table were in the £10-£20 range. I then tried to bargain for a lower prices on the basis I didn’t need much space.  I knew the organiser of the one at the pottery and got a pitch for free (and sold 12 books) and the leisure centre fair I got for £10 instead of £15 (sold 8 books).

Our village Christmas market has great footfall and I had the idea of teaming up with a friend, who owns a dress shop on the high street. We laid on Prosecco and publicised to her customers on social media. On the night we were warm and dry, partying inside her lovely shop, while the market stallholders were outside in the cold and wet. I sold 16 books that evening.

GJ: Thank you Helen for taking the time to give this comprehensive download. You’ve certainly convinced me to look into book fairs / fests over the coming month. To find out more about Helen, take a look at her website at www.helenmatthewswriter.com and the eBook of After Leaving the Village is currently on a 99p deal at Amazon (this may end soon) and Lies Behind the Ruin can be pre-ordered here.

If anyone has attended a book fair or similar as an author I’d love to hear all about your experience in the comments.

If you enjoyed this interview then why not subscribe to my mailing list to be notified of every article I post. I regularly interview authors and those in the publishing industry, along with providing an insight into my own experiences of publishing my debut novel, In The End, an apocalyptic thriller that will leave you breathless.

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