Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Do Something

Many writers, both newbies and pros, engage in some sort of self-promotion.

The reason for this seems obvious: the more you do, the more books you'll potentially sell.

But the vast majority of those who self-promote are doing so with ignorance. They feel they must do something to help their careers, so they look around at what other authors are doing and adopt their methods.

The word lemmings comes to mind.

While I am a stalwart proponant of bettering your career through self-promotion, I've noticed that the difficulty--and resulting dissapointment--most writers are encountering has less to to with their hard work than their apparent lack of goals.

I can say, "Go self-promote," but that doesn't mean anything unless a writer has specific goals in mind, and a plan to attain those goals.

In other words, writers who feel compelled to do something will go out and do something, but their something does nothing for their career.

You must start with a plan. And the plan must be carefully thought-out, with goals more specific than "sell some books."

Let's look at a few standard writer self-promotion strategies, and why they suck. Then let's see if we can make them not suck so bad.


  • Doing a Booksigning. Bestselling authors and booklaunch parties aside, why do writers believe they'll actually get a crowd at a signing? Have you ever been to a booksigning by an unknown author? If so, how many people were there with you? What brought you there---publicity, or random chance?

    While on my tour, I ran into six other signings. One was a multiple author event, with seven authors at tables near the front of a large chain store.

    None of these signings attracted even the smallest of crowds, and in each case I handsold more books in each of these stores than the author did, and I was only there for 15 minutes.
  • Revised Goal. Assume every booksigning you attend will be dead. What should you do? The secret to a successful signing isn't a bowl of candy, or a big poster, or a lot of publicty. The secret is getting up out of the chair and shaking the hand of everyone who walks into the store. If you can't do that, don't do booksignings until you're an NYT bestseller and will draw a crowd. Save your time.

    If the thought of meeting strangers terrifies you, use something to break the ice. I give out signed drink coasters. Bob Morris fries up conch fritters and mixes rum drinks (this costs some bucks, but he always sells well.) Brian Pinkerton stays a minimum of four hours, often longer, and passes out bookmarks made from laminated strips of his handwritten first drafts. The writer needs something to say other than "Buy my book." What is it you're going to say?
  • Touring. Book tours cost mega dollars, and recoup very little. Yet writers are conditioned to believe that they need to tour. Let's break a tour down, cost-wise. Eight cities, eight scheduled events.

    Let's go cheap, and figure each plane ticket is $150. Times nine (which is the trip back home) is $1350. A rental car at each location is $40, coop for each bookstore is $50, and a food stipend is $30 per day. Hotels can range from $50 to $150, depending on the city, so let's average it to $100. So the minimum cost of this tour is $3110.

    A publisher profits about what you do per book, about $3 a hardcover, sixty cents a paperback.

    In order to justify the cost of the tour, you'd have to sell 1036 hardcovers, or 129 in each location.

    If you sell thirty at a location, you're doing very well. Consistently selling over a hundred hardcovers is almost unheard of.

    Now there are some intangible benefits to touring, just as media exposure and publicity, meeting some booksellers and some fans, and signing stock. But I still find it hard to justify the cost vs. benefit.

  • Revised Goal. Decide what the point of touring is. Getting publicity is always good, but there are a lot of hurdles a reader must overcome to go from hearing you on the radio to visiting you at a signing. Meeting fans is great, but meeting people who have never heard of you may be even more effective. And if those people are booksellers, you've recruited a sales force. Selling books is important, but chances are you won't sell many, and certainly not enough to justify the cost of the tour. Signing stock may help your sell-trhough, but if the stock is more than 20 copies you're probably going to get returns.

    My goals for my last tour were specific. I wanted to meet as many booksellers as I could and explain my series to them. I wanted to sign stock and encourage them to keep me stocked. And I wanted to impress my publisher.

    The cost of me visiting each store was $5.91, compared to $388.75 per store for a tradional tour. In some cases, I recouped the cost immediately, by selling a few books, or getting a free cappucino. A few hundred of the stores ordered more copies of my books after having met me. I met 950 booksellers (compared to perhaps 40 on a traditional tour) who now know me and my books.

    The immediate effects of my tour were free coop placement in high traffic areas, 4000+ signed books which will have a better sell-through than unsigned books, and future word-of-mouth sales from the booksellers, including several who will go on to sell hundreds of my titles.

    The long-term benefits can include broader name recognition, future speaking opportunities, a buzz in the writing community, a lot of word-of-mouth among fans and peers, and hopefully a bigger promotional budget for my next book.

  • Mass Mailings. Authors get ahold of mailing lists, either through a writer's organization, buying the list, or compiling it themselves. Then, when a book comes out, they send out a newsletter or postcard.

    Mailings are notoriously poor ways to sell books, and I've heard statistics that they only have between a 2% to 12% success rate. Crunch those numbers. With stamps at 39 cents, and the cost of printing postcards or newsletters, you can be spending 70 cents to hopefully sell a paperback that will give you 60 cents in royalties. And this will only happen, at best, 12% of the time.

    Have you ever bought a book because you received a mailing? I haven't. The slickest of them (I'm on Evanovich's mailing list) are mini magazines, offerening articles, reports, tour dates, and info about current and upcoming books. The Janet can afford to send this out. Chances are, you can't. Nor will yours be as effective, because The Janet has name recognition, 30 books in print, and keeps the costs down my mailing 300,000.
  • Revised Goal. If you're going to target someone with a mass mailing, target what Julia Spencer-Fleming calls the force multimpliers. These are librarians and booksellers. In fact, while on tour, I was at an indie store in Florida when the mail came, and watched the bookseller open up one of Julia's mailings, which reminded the booksellers that Julia's new book was coming out. This is a much more effective use of your mailing dollar.

    Like The Janet, Julia had more in her mailing than just a jacket photo and some blurbs. She had an interview with another author, some reviews, and a detailed description of her backlist. Plus, sharing costs with another author made the mailing twice as effective, but half as expensive.
  • Build an Internet Presence. You've heard it many times. All writers need a website. All writers need a blog. All writers need to belong to mesaage boards and listserv and newsgroups. All writers need a MySpace account.

    Well... why? What is the reason you have any of those things? If it's to sell books, you're mistaken. A very small percentage of books are sold on the Internet (I've heard that all Internet sales combined account for less than 10% of books sold.)

    These days, everyone is on the net. Everyone has some cyber real estate. But this doesn't directly lead to book sales. It probably won't even lead to return visits, unless you have something that keeps people coming back.
  • Revised Goal. Target a demographic. The fact is, most writing blogs are read by the same 400 people in the publishing industry, and most author websites are simply 24 hour brochures for their books. Neither will help increase your fanbase.

    MJ Rose, who knows a bit about self-promotion, understands this. She realizes that an Internet presence is a way to build name recognition and brand awareness, along with buzz. She also realizes that shouting "Buy My Book" has no effect at all on sales. So MJ's focus online is to offer information and expertise. People continually revist her blogs to learn things, and each day new people find her via search engines, links, and word of mouth. When she does a promotion, as with her current book The Venus Fix, it becomes an event, complete with contests, give-aways, charity donations, and the cutting edge of Internet technology. MJ isn't targeting the writing community with her Vidlit book trailer---she's targeting everyday people who aren't involved in publishing.

    Being online isn't enough. You have to have a reason for being online, and give people a reason to visit you. It's about what you have to offer, not what you have to sell.
  • Giveaways. Bookmarks. Postcards. Business cards. Flyers. Pens. Food items featuring your name. T-shirts featuring your book cover. How many of these things have you gotten? How many have you kept? How many have made you buy the book they're promoting?

    At a booksigning, it's good to have something to give to browsers that they can look at while shopping. It's also smart to have something for the goodie table when you attend conferences. But if it costs more than a few cents, you're losing money on the transaction.

    The fact is, no freebie in the world can make someone buy a book.
  • Revised Goal. Make sure your freebies are cheap, and offer enough information to pique the interest of someone who likes your kind of book. Flyers are the best. I also like chapbooks, as nothing can sell a book like a sample of the writing.

    I give away signed coasters, which are gimmicky but cheap. They feature my covers, and my URL. Signing them means they're less likely to be thrown away, and a coaster actually has a practical application. Do they sell books? No. Do they get people curious about my books? Perhaps.

    Tim Dorsey takes it to the next level. Rather than give things away, he sells them. And does well at it, too. When people are paying you to advertise your books, you've hit upon a genius idea.
  • Conferences. No matter your genre, there are many conferences each year. Many authors get uptight about what panels they'll be on, or when their scheduled signing time is. The fact is, even if you're a huge bestseller, a conference will never pay for itself in the number of books you sell. The networking and fan-meeting is good for your career, and you can learn a lot in a short amount of time.

    Conferences can teach you how to speak in public, help you understand the business, and assist in building name recognition. But after a dozen or so conventions, the benefits are questionable. You're seeing the same group over and over, you're no longer actively learning anything, and they become an expensive way to drink with your friends rather than a powerful tool for building your career.
  • Revised Goal. If you're a new writer, or an unpublished writer, attend as many conferences as you can afford. But after you've been doing it for a while, start to get choosey. Pick conferences you've never been to before, rather than the same one year after year. Perhaps only go to conferences that pay your way. Consider trade shows, and chain store manager meetings, and industry conventions as alternatives.

    When you do attend conferences, concentrate on meeting new people, not hanging out with those you already know. And remember to schmooze the booksellers.
  • Hire a Publicist. Many writers believe that the first thing they should do after they sign a book deal is hire a publicist. They think that getting on the radio and TV and setting up signings will sell books.

    And it might, but probably not enough to cover the cost of the publicist you hired.

    A publicist, as the name implies, gets you publicity. Publicity, like advertising, doesn't necessarily sell books. It informs people that you and your books exist, which is helpful. But it doesn't herd them into the nearest bookstore and place a copy of your book in their hands. You could spend an awful lot of money on a publicist, and have very little to show for it.
  • Revised Goal. If you hire a publicist, decide exactly what you want her to do, and try to only pay for results rather than attempts. I'm considering hiring a publicist for DIRTY MARTINI, because my previous novels haven't gotten a lot of reviews. This is something my publisher hasn't really been able to do for me, and for my next book I'd like to have a lot of newspaper saturation.

    While reviews can sell books, I don't have much faith that radio or advertising does. At least, I haven't seen their effectiveness when it comes to my own career. Hiring a publicist to get you on NPR could pay off considerably. But getting on Good Morning Sheboygan might not be the best use of your time and money.

If you're going to self-promote, you need to understand what it is you're doing, and why you're doing it. Spending time and money on vague concepts that you feel you should be doing, without understanding their effects, is pointless and stupid.

I just received an email from someone I don't know hawking a new book which details how to promote your mysteries. A few things struck me immediately when visiting their website.

First, I didn't recognize any of the contributors. I know a lot of folks in the mystery community, but to not recognize any of them makes me wonder how effective they are at self-promoting.

Second, though they have a website, there is very little of substance on it. You'd think a book about how to promote would share some of those tips as a teaser to get you to buy the book. They don't even list a table of contents or an overview of subjects covered. There are four super-brief articles you can click on, but the information they cover is either obvious, small potatoes, or contrary to what I've learned about the business.

But you know what? What I've learned about the business may be contrary to what you've learned about the business. My way certainly isn't the only way, and may not be the right way for you.

Try different things. Figure out for yourself what works. Take advice, and hone it.

If you write books, you should do something to help promote them. Just make sure you understand what it is you're doing, and why.