Tuesday 22 February 2022

Indie-Spotlight: Selling Books with Asian Main Characters - Part II


Indie Spotlight is a column by WWII historical fiction author Alexa Kang. The column regularly features hot new releases and noteworthy indie-published books, and popular authors who have found success in the new creative world of independent publishing.

In Part I last week, I talked about the sales challenges that indie authors face, and the importance of selling to your genre rather than focusing on diversity as the selling point. In this Part II, I will share how I promoted my Shanghai Story trilogy, and look at some strategies that worked for other authors.



Emphasize the Familiar


As fiction writers, we know that a good story should be an immersive experience. Readers feel closest to the story when they can visualize themselves in place of the main character. A story with an Asian protagonist written to the Western market, on its face, stands in contrast to that. Instead of offering readers the familiar and comfortable, and a fantasy escape of themselves as the main character, an Asian protagonist demands that readers break out of their comfort zones and to read from a perspective about experiences unlike their own. Again, diversity is a noble goal, but it is hardly something that motivates us when we curl up under the toasty blanket to catch another chapter before we go to sleep.


Rather than forcing readers out of their comfort zones, we need to warm them to what they think is a foreign experience. We need to create common grounds to make our Asian characters relatable to non-Asian readers. When our readers can identify with our characters and stand in their shoes, then they’re ready to embark on our characters’ journeys.


When I launched my Shanghai Story trilogy, a WWII historical fiction, my marketing plan was very deliberate. To begin, I had already built an initial following and a presence in WWII fiction spaces and social media platforms. My debut series, Rose of Anzio, fits comfortably in the genre, with traditional tropes and characters. By establishing myself as a WWII fiction author instead of an Asian books author, my readers—many being 65+ and not normally a demographic looking for diverse reads—were ready and open to read my next story.

But I still had to warm my audience, and make a story set in China instead of Europe appealing. My story had the added challenges of an Asian male protagonist and a political theme. Asian-themed WWII fiction, rare as they are, typically features Asian female protagonists and their personal drama. Furthermore, my story has a romance subplot between an Asian man and a Jewish woman. At the time when I launched Book One (2018), other indie authors had told me interracial romance with an Asian man didn’t sell well. 


To make my story relatable to my readers, I chose a setting and created a main character with traits that could bridge the cultural gap. Pre-war, Shanghai was a glamorous, international, cosmopolitan city. Leading up to the official release of my book, I sent out monthly newsletters to my readers to introduce them to the Western side of Old Shanghai along with the East. I shared with them photos of Shanghai architecture and places, with foreign expats, wealthy Chinese industrialists, and local Chinese people together on the streets, in cafes and restaurants, and at parties. I talked about how the Westerners and the Chinese lived their daily lives. The visuals were important because my readers could now picture themselves in 1930s Shanghai.


My story also has a Jewish female protagonist, Eden. WWII fiction readers love to read about the Jewish experience during the war. In my newsletters, I told them about the little-known history of European Jews fleeing to Shanghai, with teasers about her and Clark, my male protagonist. Clark is a Chinese young man who attended college in the United States. His education abroad in America made him less foreign to my Western readers. Lastly, although Clark is the primary lead in the story, I chose a Caucasian woman for the cover of Book One. My readers are mostly women. My book cover was not a statement, but a signal to invite them to come into the story. By the time Book One was published, my readers no longer thought of it as an “Asian story”, but a WWII story. They were ready to dive in. When they began writing to me asking when Book Two would come out because they wanted to see Clark and Eden get together, I knew my efforts had paid off. 


Aside from warming my readers, I promoted my book to maximize exposure in the right places. I hosted a WWII Spring New Release cross promo with other WWII fiction authors. The cross promo enabled me to show Shanghai Story alongside other WWII new releases, and the Asian theme stood out as new and intriguing, instead of unfamiliar and niche as it would have appeared on its own. It piqued readers’ curiosity to know more about the war in the Pacific. I also submitted my book for a review by Discovering Diamond, the historical fiction review site run by Helen Hollick, who formerly managed indie book reviews for the Historical Novel Society. In the weeks following my release, I networked with indie WWII fiction author friends to mutually promote our books to our followers.

Since publication, the positive reviews from my readers have helped me pull in new readers when I ran ads on this series. They also gave me the sales history and social proof to get a Bookbub feature for Book One when I released the final book in the trilogy. The series sold well enough to get the Amazon algorithm’s attention, and Amazon selected Book One for its Prime Read. All of these helped to widen my audience, and I had brought a dose of diversity to a genre too.

By targeting my genre and cultivating my audience, I have built a readership with an active interest in reading more books featuring Asian characters. My current work in progress is the Nisei War Series, a collection of stories about second-generation Japanese-Americans in various war situations around the world during WWII. This time around, I had no qualm serving up stories with Asian protagonists and themes. The American background of my characters still provides a relatable link to my Western readers. For the launch of the first two books in this series, Last Night with Tokyo Rose and The Girl with A Star-Spangled Heart, I still did the work of warming my audience by introducing the Nisei’s history through my newsletters. But more and more, I feel confident I can release a new book even if it has an entirely foreign cast of characters and setting. For my readers, the barrier of unfamiliarity has been removed. 

Writing to the Hot Niches

If you find the work of warming the audience in mainstream genres too burdensome, an easier path may be to write in hot niche genres where Asian characters are intrinsic to the stories. Tao Wong, author of the Xianxia novel series A Thousand Li, told me his readers expect an Asian character, so having one is a non-issue. “Xianxia is a high fantasy genre featuring stories about Daoist immortals set in a Chinese secondary world," he said. "There are works that introduce a white character that have done well, but in the majority, the expectation is there so it's a non-issue.”


When I asked Tao whether that makes marketing and selling easier for him, he said, “I'm not sure if it makes it easy for me.” Like all indie authors, he does the necessary groundwork. “I make sure covers, blurb, etc. are in alignment and clear what [the readers] will get. In terms of actual advertising, the usual levers of Facebook, AMS ads, newsletters work well for me.” For new authors, he advises, “read and read widely. Get used to the tropes before you write in it. Get involved in the community.” He recommended r/progressionfantasy on Reddit and Facebook groups such as Cultivation Novels as a good start. “You can't sell if no one knows who you are or what your book is. There’s no easy dropping the book and hoping to sell, at least at any decent quantities. If it's your first book in a new genre, build a social media presence first, build a website and newsletter. Get to know some of the authors writing in the genre so that hopefully they'll be willing to promote you, but don't be skeezy about it. Then launch with the book.” 

His advice to network was echoed by Walt Mussell, author of Samurai’s Heart. “On Twitter, I've made acquaintances located in the county where my novels are set,” he said. “One of them was willing to post about my recent book. For 1/4 of a day, I was even outselling Diana Gabaldon among foreigners living in Japan.” 


Momentary sales boosts aside, success is ultimately a long game. Even in his genre, Tao wrote extensively for two years, releasing six to seven books a year to feed his audience so he could keep the momentum. “Often, you need to not do ads but wait till you have a backlist. Social media and older fans, if you have any, will be your sales multipliers. Keep writing to get Book Two and three out as soon as possible. Be ready to end the story at Book Three if it doesn't sell well, and try again with a different series. With three books, you can start using FB advertising and AMS and hopefully make a profit.”


Indie writing is not for the faint of heart. We will always have to do the usual hard work to get a new release off and running. When we give our books an Asian spin, we'll need to adjust our marketing strategies accordingly to the indie publishing landscape. While we don't have the top-down clout of traditional publishing, we also have the advantage of deviating from trends and try-and-true tropes as I did with Shanghai Story. We can also capitalizing on and dominating hot new niche genres, as Tao Wong did with his LitRPG and Xianxia novels. These advantages can themselves be very rewarding.

To find out more about authors who shared their insights in this blog post and their books:

Alexa Kang

The Nisei War Series


Tao Wong:

A Thousand Li


Walt Mussell

A Samurai's Heart