Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What Works?

I believe the main hurdle the publishing industry has to overcome in the upcoming years, perhaps even bigger than embracing technology, is the ability to learn from its successes and mistakes.

This isn't easy. A book is a one-time unreproducible phenomenon, with many factors that ultimately lead to its profitability or lack thereof. There are no controls in the grand publishing experiment--if a book does well, you can't truly understand why, especially since many of those things done to promote that book were done for other books which didn't do well.

So learning is tough to do, especially in a business model that still relies on returns and offset printing.

As authors, we can't do much to fix the industry. But we have the same hurdle to overcome.

As a reader of this blog, you know I believe self-promotion is essential for authors. I report here on my successes, and try to offer practical information about what works and more importantly why it works. Or, why it doesn't work. No effort is wasted if we learn from it, but are we truly learning?

Here are several things I've done on the self-promotion front, and my honest evaluation of if they've worked or not.

1. Visiting Bookstores for Stock Signings

I know this works. Not in every case, but in enough of them to be worthwhile. Booksellers remember me, and they handsell the books. Of course it helps if you have free books to give away to them, and if you keep in touch periodically with emails or thank them by name in your acknowledgements.

What is the percentage of the worthwhile ones? I'd say one out of four.

2. Having a Booklaunch Party

This is certainly fun, and a nice way to kill a few hours with family, friends, and fans, but it never justifies the expense. Sure, you can write it off, but it's a lot of effort for only a few books sold to people who would probably buy them anyway.

3. Having a MySpace Page

I'm still amazed that I had MySpace Friends show up at my booksigings in Italy. MySpace is better than any newsletter or mailing list I've ever used. But it is a time black hole, and you'll spend weeks and weeks gathering up a Friend list before it becomes worthwhile. When it does start to pay off, you can meet hundreds, even thousands, of new readers, but you have to put in the effort to make that happen.

4. Selling Articles and Short Stories

This works better than anything else you can do. Get into as many anthologies, magazines, and webzines as you can. I'm constantly hearing from people who read my short stuff, which leads them to my longer stuff.

5. Giving It Away

This works. In the past few weeks, people have downloaded 600 free copies of Whiskey Sour on my website. Six hundred may not seem like a lot, but the majority of people visiting my website already know who I am, and they've already read Whiskey Sour. So these are brand new readers, which cost me nothing to find. And many of them are later buying the books--I know this, because they email. I've received no less than a hundred emails from folks who have enjoyed the download and then said they were going out to find more of my work.

6. Mass Mailings

Last year, with fellow scribe Julia Spencer-Fleming, I mailed out more than 7000 letters to libraries. This was very expensive, incredibly time-consuming, and while it got me some publicity, and while it introduced many librarians to my series, I didn't see enough results to say it was worth the effort.

That said, I've never bought a book because the author sent me a postcard either. Snail mail is easy to ignore, and I don't recommend it.

7. Conventions and Conferences

I used to be a convention whore, and attend all of them. These days, not so many.

At the start of your career, it's important to attend writing conventions. You meet your peers, and fans, and the occasional reviewer or media person, and you expand your base readership. But after a few years, meeting the same people again and again, going to a convention is more about the fun than about the self-promotion. You'll never sell more than a few dozen books, and unless you're invited and get a free ride (or paid to speak), it's impossible to justify the several hundred to several thousand dollar cost of attending.

After you visit a few conventions, use your promotional time and dollar to travel and visit bookstores instead.

Of course, if you have a free ride, always take it.

8. Libraries, Bookfairs, and Other Speaking Engagements

This is a crapshoot. Sometimes a lot of people show up. Sometimes very few. I do them because I'm still flattered that anyone would want me to speak anywhere, but I go into these believing they're a way to give back to the community rather than to sell books.

Sometimes, I get paid a lot and have a huge turnout. Sometimes, I get paid nothing and have a nice one-on-one with the event organizer. It's about 50/50.

9. Scheduled Booksigings

These are only worthwhile if you're a big enough name already, or if you're planning on staying for four hours and handselling books. If not, expect a humiliating experience where you don't sell many books, which costs you time and your publisher coop money.

10. Newsletters and Mass Emails

I do one a year, and that seems to be enough. It's important to have a newsletter, and to have a space on your website where people sign up for it. But don't bombard them with an email every week. A mass mailing, announcing your latest book, is effective, but I question the effectiveness of any other use.

11. A Blog

Yes, you need a website. But do you need a blog?

This blog gets anywhere from 300 to 1500 unique hits a day, though it averages about 600. When I post more often, the number goes up. But even if I don't post for a week or two, the numbers stay pretty consistent.

This is because my blog contains information that Google regularly searches, so new folks are constantly being directed to old posts. Some of them stay for a while. Some become long term readers. I've sold books, and gotten speaking engagements, because of this blog, so I believe blogs are worthwhile if you have something to offer, like expertise, information, aggregation, or opinion.

That said, go to Statcounter.com, get a free tracker, and see if anyone is reading. If not, your efforts are better spent elsewhere.

12. Contests

I used to think contests were important. Now I think it depends on the contest.

I ran a contest of sorts for Dirty Martini, thanking everyone who reviewed it int he acknowledgements of my next book, and sending them free stuff (it's coming, I swear!) and I got many more online reviews than any of my previous books. That was worth it.

I ran a library contest that garnered a few hundred entries. While I love libraries, the only ones entering were folks who already knew who I was, so this really was more of a way to thank libraries than get new libraries to order my books.

I ran a few writing contests, and while many websites mentioned them, the work to read all the entries was exhausting, and I don't think it did anything for my book sales. I won't do another one.

My publisher has run contests on websites, and I haven't seen any dramatic results from them.

Don't think that just because you're running a contest that people will enter, or that you'll get any publicity for it, or that people entering will buy your book. Contests are more of a "thank you" than a self-promotional tool.

13. Free Stuff

I give away a lot of freebies; signed coasters, magazines, books, etc, although these are more goodwill than fan recruitment. But I'll keep doing this, because my core fans should be rewarded, because they're helping to spread brand awareness and name recognition.

To date, I've given away more than 30,000 signed drink coasters. Do these sell books? No. But they are something novel to give to people I meet so they remember who I am, and unlike a bookmark or business card, they're autographed so people might hold onto them.

I consider the money I spend on coasters to be wasted, but well wasted. It always amuses me when I run into someone who talks about the signed coaster they got from me four years ago that they still have on their desk.

If you want to spend a few bucks on bookmarks, pens, postcards, flyers, keychains, etc, know it's going to be at a 100% loss. A good quality business card with your bookcover on it is all you really need.

14. Advertising

As I've said before, I think that modern human beings are immune to advertising. Those who say it helps to reinforce a brand are correct, it does reinforce a brand. But at what cost vs. what benefits?

My publisher has run some big ads for me. I've run some small ones. I believe their money is better spent on ARCs and coop, and my money is better spent on travelling.

This also applies to Internet advertising. How many times in the past week have you clicked on a pop up or a banner ad? Did it lead you to buying the product?

Of course, advertisers admit that a very small percentage of people exposed to any ad rush out and buy the product, but advertising leads to overall branding and product recognition.

To which I can say that I recognize thousands of products, and can even sing ad jingles from my youth, but I still have yet to buy any of them.

Book trailers have been around for a few years, but writers continue to extol their virtues. Yes, you can put it on YouTube and on your website and MySpace page, and it's pretty cool. But is it a few thousand dollars worth of cool?

I don't have any book trailers, so I don't know how many hits they get. I do have a video of me acting like an idiot on my site, and that gets a few hundred hits a month, along with garners me a lot of email. But that cost me $25, not $2500.

Plus, like everything you put on your site, the people who visit are most likely the people who know about you anyway, so who exactly are you recruiting?

If you want to do a book trailer, be sure you tract the hits it gets, track the email responses you get, Google how many people link to it, then post your honest results here so we can learn from them and figure out if they are worth the cost.

15. Your Publisher's Efforts

Your publisher can do more for your book than you ever could. So it's important to coordinate your efforts with them, keep a line of communication open, and always be gracious, thankful, and polite even if you think they suck. You get more flies with honey than with vinegar, and a rep as someone difficult, unappreciative, and unrealistic can follow you forever.

16. Your Outlook

Winners act like winners. This sounds obvious, but the things you say and do in public can give the impression that you're one to watch or you're one to avoid.

Be one to watch in all of your professional relationships. A smile and a "thank you" is a lot more effective than a million dollar advertising campaign.

Conclusion

The goal is to get read. To be read, people must be made aware of your books. You can't make people buy them, or like them, or tell their friends about them.

But, as writers, we can help make the world aware that our books exist. The above are some of the things I've tried.

I measure a successful effort by the amount of time and money it takes versus the result it produces. I have no rigid method for this. A lot of my advance money goes toward self-promotion, and most of my time does.

Hardly anything pays for itself. But many of the above have intangible, unforeseeable benefits. Whatever you do, the rule seems to follow: the more you do, the more you get.

So take a look at your efforts. Look at the time and money you've spent. Then ask yourself:
What has worked for you and why?

Feel free to share your results here.