Thursday, August 11, 2005

Buzz, Balls, and Self-Promotion

Barry Eisler is guest blogging at MJ Rose's well known site, and he's sharing his take on marketing for writers.

Pretty much all of what he says is on the money and worth studying. But I don't think he takes his comments as far as he should.

One of the things Barry and I agree on is investing in your own career as if it were stock.

Investing in yourself does two major things. First, it compounds your publisher's efforts in getting your name out there, establishing a brand, and selling books. Second, it shows your publisher that you're willing to invest your own time and money into building a career.

I invest between 1/3 and 1/2 of my income on promotion. Most of it goes toward travel. I think conventions are essential in my genre (mystery/thriller). So are the several dozen indie bookstores that specialize in mystery. These should be visited.

I spend a lot of time and money doing online promotion, have an extensive mailing list, and am always running contests on my own dime.

I was fortunate that my publisher sent me on an eight city tour. While they set up 8 events in 11 days, I used the time to sign stock at 97 other stores in the areas they sent me.

Were they impressed? Yes.

The single most important thing an author must do is to make sure their publisher is happy. That means earning out your advance, being gracious and easy to work with, and making an effort promoting and marketing.

It's hard work, and I'd rather spend the money on bills, but at this early stage in the game I have to show my publisher what I can, and will, do in order to succeed.

I know too many mid-list authors who are wondering why their careers are stalled---or finished. I don't want to be one of them.

Which is why I'm continuing my drive-by signing campaign, planning onhitting 300 more bookstores in the upcoming months.

Though having co-op placement (window, register, dump box, new release table, and end cap space that your publisher pays for) allows for a higher profile display and likelier customer purchase (and signed copies add to that), you don't have to have ten books in the store to benefit from a drop-in signing. Even Mary Midlist with two paperbacks in the Romance section can benefit.

Never underestimate the importance of the human contact, in this case author/bookstore employee. Impress someone working the register at a Border's, and she'll read your book. Once she's read you, she's a fan. She can handsell you. She can keep your books on the shelf even when the home office says they need to be stripped. She can reorder more copies even though the computer says she shouldn't.

I've had bookstores handsell dozens, even hundreds, of my books. All because they met me.

Plus, in almost every drive-by I did, once the books were signed the employees promised they'd be prominantly displayed. I didn't even have to ask. Though I'm fortunate to have some co-op placement, in many cases my books were spine-out in the Mystery section. But once I signed them, they were moved to an end cap by the bookseller.

Booksellers like to meet authors, and they like to display signed books. It shows customers that they have a connection with authors, and that authors value their store enough to sign there.
Remember--my publisher didn't tour me for my first book, and I had no co-op. But I did a lot of drop-ins, and my publisher noticed, leading to a larger print run, more co-op and advertising, and a publisher tour.

Recruiting your publisher is hugely important. But selling those extra books is important too, even if it is only a few hundred.

Let's say you have a two book hard/soft deal.

Book #1 has a print run of 15,000. Your publisher expects to sell half of that, 7500, which is a standard sell-through for a new author.

But because there wasn't a lot of promotion, or co-op, you only sell 7000. Still respectable, but you aren't knocking their socks off.

Book #1 goes into paperback. They might have projected a 50k print run, but because hardback sales were weak, this drops to 40k. That means less promo dollars, less in-house enthusiasm, less puch from the sales reps to get the book into stores. No one wants to back a loser.

And for Book #2, the hardcover run also goes down, to 12k. Book buyers see this, view what sold previously, and buy less. Again, you have a smaller promo budget, less in-house enthusiasm, and your chances for a second contract don't look good.

The key to fixing this is promotion. Getting your name, and yourself, out there and selling the books. Ads, reviews, library talks, conferences, conventions, internet marketing, snail mail campaigns, website contests and booksignings. Meeting the booksellers and the fans is what can make the difference.

The Whiskey Sour paperback was released 2 months ago, but the hardcover hasn't been remaindered yet, even though it's been out for 15 months, because it is still selling. Because I'm the one selling it. Slowly but surely.

I'll be super candid here; this business scares the crap out of me. I spend hours in bookstores, hand selling, and am shocked by how few books sell. Those that do sell are because the buyer knows of the author, either by reading previous books or hearing about the books some how. The amount of books sold to browsers---those folks who will plunk down $25 on a new author they've never heard of---is very tiny.

Even a recent NYT bestseller sold 4900 paperbacks in Waldenbooks chain in 3 weeks.
Do the math. There are 700 Waldenbooks stores nationwide. Each sold about seven books in 21 days, or a book every 3 days.

One book every three days is not a lot (and these are paperbacks). Each day had ten hours worth of traffic--between 300 and 1000 customers a day, and for two out of every three days, her new book went unsold.

And she's a known name with a huge fanbase. She'll sell better than any of us.

Chances are, Waldenbooks will get two or three copies of your book, where they'll sit on a shelf for 4 months, then get returned for credit. because no one is going to buy your book if they've never heard of you.

Go to a bookstore. Look at the bestseller rack. Sit and watch it for eight hours (I've done this dozens of times). See how many copies of Lee Child's new one sell. You'll be lucky to see one get sold. And he's Lee Child.

There are exceptions. The Traveller. The Historian. DaVinci Code. Potter. 5 People in Heaven. But it's doubtful you'll be an exception.

So who is going to sell these books?

You are. That means meeting the booksellers. Meeting the fans. Signing stock. Doing drop-ins.
Signed books have a better chance at selling. Signed books that the bookseller recommends are an even better bet.

Do this as often as you can.

Of course, the single greatest form of advertising in the publishing business is... short story sales.

By the end of the year, I'll have had stories and articles in 4 issues of Ellery Queen (250k circultation each), 3 issues of Writer's Digest (180k circ. each), 1 issue of Alfred Hitchcock (250k circ), 1 issue of The Strand (50k circ,) 20 other magazines and anthologies (150k circ.) including the upcoming THRILLER anthology edited by James Patterson (which sold for the biggest advance in the history of anthologies and will get huge press and a huge release.)

That's my name in almost 2 million magazines and books. But not just my name---my writing. And my writing is a much better form of advertising than any three color brochure or tiny b/w ad in the back of Mystery Scene.

If people read and enjoy a short story, they'll seek out the books. I have 1000's of emails from fans that back this statement up.

Cost to author: free, or you get paid. There's a time investment, but spending a week on a story that reaches two hundred thousand people seems to be a good return, plus you have the story forever. Writer's Digest reprinted my first article in two other publications (Novel Writing Magazine and Selling Your First Book magazine).

Which brings up the hackneyed expression "think outside the box."

The more that you learn about the way publishing works, the more that ideas spring to mind about who to best exploit it.

I found an agent in an unconventional way. I studied the industry and figured out what should work, even though all the how-to books said otherwise.

I've been selling my books in unconventional ways as well. I'll spend 6-8 hours in a bookstore, shaking the hand of everyone who walks in. I've met thousands of people, and sold thousands of books. Not too many other authors take this approach.

I consider short story sales and drive-by signings essential to a career, and I've been preaching this for a while. Not because Writer's Digest told me so. Because I looked at the industry, found a niche to exploit, and exploited it.

These methods may not work for everyone. But other methods could.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and authors need to find better ways to sell their books, or else they won't last long in this business.

Learn all you can about publishing. Not only from the outside, but from the inside as well.
You're a consumer, as well as a writer. What makes you buy a book? Figure that out, and concentrate your efforts on reproducing that effect for other consumers.


Anonymous said...

Just a tired, rambling thought. Would it be a help, if other writers/readers/acquaintances went to stores you haven't already visited. Say this pitch is something like this - "I personally know this author, have read the book and think it would do well to spend some time on this table over here. I might even be able to get some signed promotional items from the author." Like a network of PR people. Of course, payment in like-kind exchange or beer only. :D

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Great post, Joe. I never stop learning from your website. Some of what you say is a little depressing, however. I never realized so few books sell -- maybe because I buy like crazy and have a house full of them.

I'm also conerned about the short story angle. I've never really been a short story kind of guy. Guess that'll have to change.

Anonymous said...

The other thing that sells books is good writing. I'm almost through Whiskey Sour, and the writing will bring me back for more.

Anonymous said...

Joe, you've already been compared to James Brown, " The hardest working man in show business.." I'll just add that you're the KISS of author self-promotion. Rock and roll all night and sign books every day. Congrats on the new deal. --john--

Anonymous said...

I'm a Therapist in a children's mental health program. My first novel, "Rarity from the Hollow" is now for sale at It's the first in a series entitled, "Lacy Dawn Adventures." The protagonist is an empowered victim who saves the universe (science fiction). A percentage of any proceeds will prevent child abuse in West Virginia where I work. More significantly, it was written to enrage readers about the social issue.

I'm writing to request that you tell your members, staff, volunteers, and friends about the novel. While heart-felt, it’s a fun read for anybody interested in the genre. I don't make enough money to properly promote this project and, therefore, depend on people like you.


Robert Eggleton

Anonymous said...

"... begins with two impoverished schoolgirls (from the Hollow of the title) studying together and spelling the word for an adult sex toy. It was quirky, profane, disturbing.... I liked Lacy, who lives in a world of poverty, classmates with precocious sexual knowledge and/or experience, unemployed men, worn-down women and cruelty so casual that it’s more knee-jerk than intentional. Maybe I was just too bothered by the content.... Rarity From the Hollow a plug. Among its strengths are an ultra-convincing depiction of the lives, especially the inner lives, of the Appalachian protagonists. The grim details of their existence are delivered with such flat understatement that at times they almost become comic. And just when you think enough is enough, this world is just too ugly, Lacy’s father (who is being “fixed” with DotCom’s help) gets a job and Lacy, her mother and her dog take off for a trip to the mall “out of state” with Lacy’s android friend, now her “fiancĂ©” (though as Lacy’s mother points out, he doesn’t have any private parts, not even “a bump.”) In the space between a few lines we go from hardscrabble realism to pure sci-fi/fantasy. It’s quite a trip. .... Robert’s book deserves your attention. Check it out." Evelyn Somers, The Missouri Review