Thursday, August 25, 2005

David Morrell Part Deux: The Publicist Speaks

In the previous blog entry (an interview with David Morrell), David commented on the state of the publishing industry, talked about his new book, CREEPERS (buy it right now, it's amazing,) and had some interesting things to say about book marketing and publicity.

I also tapped his publicist, Sarie Morrell-Sanchez, for her insights into the new way books are promoted.

JA: How has publicizing authors changed in the last fifteen years?

SARIE: I started my career as a publicist for Random House in 1989 and worked in both the New York and West Coast offices - a time when publishing and publicity were on the cusp of major changes. The internet did not exist: the typical publicity campaign involved print, radio and television interviews. Author tours were not uncommon. Lavish launch parties were staged. Campaigns usually started a few months in advance. Only a few ARCs were printed (at most 100-200). Press kits were very simple, just a press release and pitch letter.

In the media, advertising campaigns were becoming quite innovative. One day a phone call came in to the publicity offices from GAP. The company was creating a revolutionary ad campaign (a version of which they use today) which would highlight “hot” upcoming people from every industry (music, literature, etc.) in their print ads. They asked to use one of our authors; it was up to our department to figure out whom. The author selected was not chosen because of his literary skills (he had only published one book at that point, with moderate success) but because he had the “look” - young, good looking, edgy. I clearly remember thinking that this would be the wave of the future, that books would be promoted more because of the author’s platform than the merit of the work.

Today, publicity is entirely different. Major changes in publishing over the last ten years mean that authors at every level can not rely solely on the support of their publisher for book promotion. Because I am the daughter of best-selling author David Morrell, I have the unique opportunity to see firsthand how this affects writers, both from my father’s standpoint and my personal viewpoint as a publicist, as well as authors I work with through my own company.

Authors sign contracts with the expectation that their publisher will promote the heck out of their book in an effort to increase sales and make the bestseller list. This is not the case, for a variety of reasons beyond anyone’s control - including the publishers’.

On the flip side of this, promoting a book has become very elaborate. It takes much more nowadays than a press release and a pitch letter to get noticed. My advice is that authors should expect to do a large portion of their own publicity. Ask questions. Find out exactly what the publisher plans to do and create a marketing and promotional plan of your own. Even if you feel satisfied with what they are doing, there is always more that can be done - for either a lot of money or virtually nothing. Whether you decide to hire someone to help you with this or not, an author should expect to invest a significant amount of their own time prior to and after publication date to promote their book.

JA: As a publicist, what things do you focus on? What are your goals?

SARIE: My campaigns begin months in advance of publication, covering a spectrum of print, radio, internet and television (although this increasingly is the hardest to get).

I feel it is very important to increase an author’s relationship with bookstores and book buyers. Bookstores receive dozens of catalogs featuring hundreds of titles. How can I get them to notice this book? If they stock it, how can I get them to feature it prominently and not bury it in the back? If it isn’t by an established author, how can I get them to commit to stocking an unknown? I never assume that booksellers have the time or means to keep track of upcoming titles, the choices are overwhelming to them. Every author, whether established or up-and-coming, needs to make the effort to connect with booksellers.

I also have a background in public relations, marketing and advertising, which provides me another perspective. While it is not a pleasant thought, we have to remind ourselves that books, in addition to being an important art form, are also a commodity. For publishers and bookstores, shelf space is valuable real estate. A publicist in many ways is also a sales rep. I have to sell the stores on both an idea and a tangible object.

The second challenge is to get readers to buy the book. I want the book talked about or featured in as many places as possible, through every medium (print, broadcast and internet, as well as non-traditional promotions). A fan can’t buy a book if they don’t know it exists. An author can’t attract new readers, or readers from one genre to another, if I don’t find a way to tell them about the author and interest them in the book. This applies to every author, even those with a large fan base and a web site. I constantly look to find new ways to attract readers.

Authors shouldn’t assume, for example, that because they’ve traditionally written mysteries that their fans/readers won’t be interest in reading their latest novel in another genre. I try to find topics within the book that are interesting or newsworthy. I target relevant media/groups. And above all, I network.

JA: Your publicity campaign for CREEPERS is unique. Can you tell us a little about some of the things you’re doing?

SARIE: When I began planning the marketing and publicity campaign for CREEPERS in early 2005, my first priority was to ask myself where this book fit into the literary “landscape”. CREEPERS didn’t fit neatly into any one category: it is a “cross-genre” book. This was a major influence in my publicity/marketing campaign and opened up a lot of possibilities. My father and I have worked closely with the publisher to create a vision for CREEPERS. It has proven to be a very productive and unique relationship, under the leadership of Elizabeth Whiting at CDS Books. She is virtually unflappable and has brought in a level of enthusiasm, energy and support to CREEPERS which is not typical in modern publishing. Dad and I have had input at every level, including cover art.

I felt it important to create a stand-out comprehensive press kit, which proved to be a great tool for the CDS sales force. Dad and I have had a lot of fun developing the campaign, I’ve been able to bring into play nearly every marketing idea we’ve come up with. I’ve worked with web sites and book stores to create various CREEPERS contests and developed giveaway items including a survival kit containing a keychain LED flashlight and first-aid kit, both of which are emblazoned with CREEPERS.

Early on I marketed to bookstores and began researching national media and planning the tour. (I have more than 30 events scheduled nationwide as well as media,) Nanci Kalanta (who runs a fantastic site called Horror World) has been a fan of my father’s work for years. When they met at World Horror this past April, Dad asked Nanci if she wanted to help with the internet campaign. She has volunteered a great deal of time and talent to assist us with CREEPERS. My goal for the publicity campaign has been to create an early “buzz” to culminate with publication date (and beyond).

JA: What is viral marketing and how does it work?

SARIE: Viral marketing works much like it sounds – it involves the spread of information on the internet (though this could easily apply to traditional forms of publicity as well). The idea is to target a group or audience to whom you want to market then find key sites which serve as “hosts”. Once you gain visibility on the central sites, the information will spread from one place to other. The more people see/hear about your book, the more opportunities there are to gain readership.

If you are an author with a book coming out soon, try this experiment. Search yourself out. Look for your title. Pretend you don’t know anything about yourself or the book. Wherever your book or your name doesn’t appear where it should (for example mystery sites if you are a mystery writer) that is where you need to target. At the beginning of the CREEPERS campaign virtually nothing about the book was on the internet, now there are hundreds of hits under searches.

JA: How much is David involved with his publicity?

SARIE: He is heavily involved with his publicity on every level, from brainstorming, planning - all the way up to doing interviews and events. These days an author’s job doesn’t end when the book is finished. An author can spend nearly as much time promoting a book as it takes to write, if you factor in that publicity campaigns begin 4-6 months before publication date, even earlier if you consider the marketing planning. Book publicity is a team effort between author and publicist.

JA: Any predictions for the future of publicity?

SARIE: Place yourself in the shoes of the publisher. While it is romantic to think that publishers view a novel as art, to them the bottom line is will this book sell. Why should they invest in your novel? An author has to sell the book on its marketability even before it is published – publishers want to know how the book can be sold well before the deal is inked.

Traditional publicity venues are becoming more challenging, especially for fiction authors. It is harder than ever for an author to get promoted in print, radio and television, unless he or she has a “platform” (young, female, controversial, cutting-edge or newsworthy). This is something even highly successful authors are noticing. The trick is to find non-traditional methods of promotion. Publicity doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Time can be an author’s most valuable investment.

(Sarie mentioned Nanci Kalanta at Horror World, who is assisting with the internet campaign. I hit her up with some questions.)

JA: What are the secrets to a successful author website?

NANCI: The same model holds true for all websites: easy to navigate, updated content, interactivity. It is extremely important that your site is "clean". You don't want to clutter it up with lots of banners or advertising - the real content will get lost if there is too much going on on your page.

Your links should be easy to find, your content should be updated, at a minimum, once a month.

A message board is a great feature to have since it allows you to interact with your readers but doesn't tie you up answering individual emails -- taking you away from what's most important: writing stories. One of our most popular authors, Jack Ketchum, only spends about an hour a week with his message board. He answers all inquiries every Saturday and has consistently been one of our Top Ten boards. The fact that he does visit once a week keeps his readers coming back even when he's between books.

JA: How do you draw people to your site? What kind of publicity do you use?

NANCI: Horror World has a long history. I'm actually a "new" owner. I took over Horror World 2 years ago and moved it from a free hosted site (with advertising) to its own web address. Horror World came with its own goodwill and I built on that. New content is what brings people back from month to month. I offer a new original fiction story, new columns (by Author Matthew Warner), new reviews and a new author interview every month.

The real draw has always been the Message Boards but I'm seeing more and more activity with the content. I've taken out ads in the genre newsletters like Cemetery Dance and Black October and, when I do my updates, I send out a press release to the genre community.

I also try to hit all the major conventions - World Horror, NECon, and Horrorfind.

The authors who place stories with me advertise in their newsletters which brings new people to the site.

JA: Can we talk numbers? How many unique hits does Horror World average weekly? Is it a business, or non-profit? Where does the money come from to keep it going?

NANCI: Our daily hits have gone from an average of 150 a day (November '04) to an average of 412 per day (July '05) . We started out with 200,000 hits the first month at our new address and are looking at close to 500,000 hits this month. The site is a labor of love (read: money pit ).

I have sponsors from the specialty press like Necessary Evil, Delirium Books and Earthling Publications - these guys produce some of the finest signed/limited and lettered books out there. Leisure Press (subsidiary of Dorchester Publishing) also helps sponsor part of the site.

Since this is my first year out, I'll wind up in the red but as the site gains more popularity, I'm hoping to break even.

JA: How can dark fiction authors use Horror World for their campaigns?

NANCI: We could showcase an author with an interview, book review, and design an appropriate contest and advertise it in all the 'right places' based on the book's demographics. We can also fix the author up with a message board to interact with their readers.

JA: How did Horror World get involved with David Morrell and the CREEPERS campaign?

NANCI: I was introduced to David by one of his students (Matthew Warner) in the Writer's Bootcamp he did for Borderlands Books. I had been speaking to Matt about getting a few A list authors for the second year of Horror World and he suggested David Morrell. I told him that I thought he was nuts, that David Morrell wouldn't consider doing a story for an on-line 'zine.

Well, Matt approached him and I received an email from David in January. We corresponded back and forth and met face to face at World Horror. We discussed virtual marketing and I offered to help him out. I was a huge fan of his work (and still am) and jumped at the chance to work with him and Sarie. His stories, as it turned out, would be too long for the site -- but having the CREEPERS campaign more than makes up for that.

JA: Explain the CREEPERS GAME.

NANCI: After reading the story I realized that we could create a simple, low resolution game based on the storyline. I don't want to give too much away but the Creepers needed to infiltrate the Paragon Hotel and to avoid the pitfalls that one might experience when entering an old abandoned building. I contacted author Brian Knight to help build the game - I kept it low resolution so that dial-up users wouldn't be frustrated by long loading times. I think he did a great job.... have you played it yet?

JA: I have played it---it reminded me of those Choose Your Own Adventure books from my youth. It's also an inexpensive way to promote a book online, while being different and fun. And anyone with a basic understand of websites and HTML could make one---no Flash or Java required.

Thanks to David, Sarie, and Nanci for taking time to expalin this unique and novel approach to book marketing.

Haven't bought CREEPERS yet? What are you waiting for?


Rob Gregory Browne said...

I guess my instinct that it's never to early to start promoting your book was pretty dead on. I'm still about a year and a half away from publication and I've already started the ground work -- thanks to the generosity of folks like you and David, et al.

Looks like this is going to be a very busy year.

Anonymous said...

"Authors sign contracts with the expectation that their publisher will promote the heck out of their book in an effort to increase sales and make the bestseller list. This is not the case, for a variety of reasons beyond anyone’s control - including the publishers’."

Everything in this interview was great--except this statement of Sarie's. Do the Random House authors really live in caves? Are they this naive? Publishers Weekly and Writers Digest and just about everybody else in publishing has been saying that publishers don't do much to promote most authors for the last 10, 15 years. Probably longer. Clearly there have been changes as Sarie points out--and probably will be more in the future as the Web becomes overwhelmed by promotional sites (on my favorites I've got about 40 or more author sites alone, but that doesn't mean they manage to sell me their books). Interesting, though. Thanks for the interviews.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Sarie is right. In my experience, the vast majority of authors don't realize how little their publisher is going to do for them, and how much they need to do themselves. This is still a very common mis-belief.

This is a subject I've been thinking about a lot lately in preparation for a talk I'm giving at Bouchercon on "How to get your book reviewed."

One of the things that I'm encouraged by is that people like Joe and David and M.J. Rose are not only thinking of new and different ways to promote their work, but they're sharing the benefits of their experience with others.

I'm a firm believer that authors are not in competition with each other. Rather we all need to work together to increase the potential pool of buyers. We don't have to settle for selling this book or that one. We can sell them both and have the reader coming back for more.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Re: Mark's comment:

I have to admit that when I signed with St. Martin's I had little or knowledge about the publishing world and have been struggling to catch up ever since.

I assumed that most of the book selling would be done by the publisher, so I guess I was living in a cave, too. :)

Thanks to Joe and many other generous authors, I'm starting to learn about this industry. It's certainly a far cry from Hollywood....