Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pssst! Wanna Buy a Book?

“The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.” —Charley from Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Let’s take a poll. How many of you started writing so that you could eventually achieve your life-long dream of pestering strangers to buy your books? Raise your hands. Anyone?
That’s what I thought.

Traditional publishers still promote their authors, although it’s expected that those authors will work equally as hard – if not harder – to sell books. And if you go the self-published route, expect to do more promotion than writing. (After all, indie writers, you have to find some way to get readers’ attention. Amazon’s magic search algorithms can only do so much.)

So what advice can I offer to help you promote your work effectively? Damned if I know. But I can tell you a few things not to do (mostly because I’ve done them).

Now You Look Like an Author!
That’s what the administrative assistant in the English Department where I teach said several years back when I returned from break sporting a mustache and goatee. One aspect of promotion is looking the part – although people’s expectations can vary as to exactly what an author should look like. And if you’re a contrary fellow like me, you hate letting other people’s perceptions make choices for you. Nevertheless, looking the part can help.

I’m forty-nine now. When I was thirty-one I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The doctors caught it early, surgery took care of it, and I’ve been fine ever since. But for a few years after my cancer scare, I was a risk-taker. I’d beaten the Big C, so I wasn’t afraid to try anything. Around this time I started attending the World Fantasy Convention, and – reading somewhere that it was important for writers to create a memorable look for themselves – I bought some weird ties (ones with skulls on them, etc.) and decided to wear them with nice shirts, slacks, and shoes.

World Fantasy, for those of you who don’t know, is a huge gathering of writers, publishers, editors, and agents in the field of speculative fiction. No fans, just pros. Lots of business gets done at this con every year, and it’s an excellent place to network and make connections. The bar is a great place to network, as are publishers’ parties – especially the invitation-only parties. One year, I’d learned where a private party was taking place (offsite at another hotel), and I convinced some friends to crash it with me. We hopped in a cab, found the hotel, located the party suite, and entered. No one asked who we were and if we were supposed to be there. My friends were nervous, but I – being full of cocky self-confidence – felt relaxed and self-satisfied. I’d been aggressive, rolled the dice, and here I was at a real publisher’s party.

It was a small party, with lots of drinking and conversation going on. And everyone wanted to talk to me. And I mean everyone. An attractive and somewhat inebriated editor spent some time chatting me up, only to abruptly turn away when she found out I was married. (“How nice for you!” she said before turning her back on me.) Agents pulled me aside to chat, and while I already had an agent, I was happy to get to speak with them and hear their take on the current state of the publishing industry. One writer, who I’d met the previous night, spent some time telling me about his idea for a young adult novel. It was an interesting idea, but I couldn’t figure out why the writer seemed so eager, and somewhat nervous, to talk to me about it. In fact, as the party wound down, I began to wonder why everyone seemed so eager to get to know me. No one was wearing nametags, and even if I had been, no one would’ve recognized my name, not back then.

The next day the writer who told me about his YA book approached me in the hotel lobby and apologized. Not only had he been somewhat tipsy at the party, he’d forgotten that we’d been previously introduced, and because I’d been wearing a tie, he’d assumed I was a new editor who’d just started working for the publisher. He hadn’t been telling me about his book. He’d been pitching it to me.

That’s when I understood what had happened at the party. Because of the way I was dressed, all the editors thought I was an agent, and all the writers and agents thought I was an editor. No one at the party thought I was a writer. If they had, they probably wouldn’t have spoken with me at all.

At the next World Fantasy Convention, I wore turtlenecks, jeans, and tennis shoes, and everybody knew I was a writer.

Despite what we may wish, appearances matter when it comes to promotion. I’ve given up trying to wear the equivalent of costumes, though, and just dress like myself. The last event I went to, I sat on a panel about fiction writing with several other writers, three of whom were literary writers who taught in university creative writing programs, and one of whom was a script writer. They all wore nice suits of varying types. I showed up in a polo shirt, and the aforementioned jeans and tennis shoes. These days, I’ll dress up for an awards banquet, but that’s about it.

You need to think about what signals your “look” will send to readers, too. Among women writers especially, there’s some debate about whether and how much to use your sexuality as a marketing tool. Do you wear a low-cut dress or not? A lot of makeup or a little? As a male in my culture, these aren’t choices I’ve ever had to wrestle with, but I know that many women do.

The Aborted Launch

The book launch is something that new writers love to do. If you’re a first-time novelist, why wouldn’t you want to mark the release of your first book with an event? After all, it’s sure as hell an event to you! Books launches can be fun, and you can take pictures or video to post on your website or social media sites, so even if you don’t sell a ton of books, you can still get promotional value from the event.

I’ve done one book launch. One.

My first published novel was a humorous erotic mystery called Dying for It. I wrote it because the editor, Russell Davis, and I had previously collaborated on a short story featuring Xena the Warrior Princess for an anthology. Russell contacted me, said he was working as an editor for a new small-press publisher of erotica targeted to married couples, and would I like to pitch some ideas to him? I said sure, partially because the project would pay a professional-level advance, but mostly because it sounded like a fun challenge. Could I write an erotic mystery? Could I write a good one? And what the hell would a “good one” be, anyway?

When the book came out, I contacted a local bookstore known for not only hosting events for authors on major book tours, but also supporting local authors. The events coordinator was happy to have me come to her store, a time for the event was set, and several weeks later, I showed up, ready to talk about my book, do a reading from a non-erotic passage (the reading was in public, after all, and kids might be walking past), and hopefully sell and sign a few books. I knew mostly friends, family, and coworkers were going to be in the audience, so I had no illusions this was going to be a promotional event of any real magnitude, but I was looking forward to experiencing what a book launch was like, especially with a supportive audience.

But as soon as I arrived at the store, the events coordinator came up to me, obviously nervous, and told me that since I was a writing teacher, the people who showed up tonight would be more interested in getting advice on how to publish their writing than in hearing me read from my book. So that’s what I should do: talk about writing and publishing. Not talk about Dying for It, and I especially shouldn’t read from it.

I realized then what had happened. The events coordinator hadn’t actually read my book until close to the event, and perhaps she’d only skimmed it that morning. Once she knew it was a book with S-E-X in it, she panicked. That didn’t bother me. What did brother me was that she didn’t come out and tell me what the problem was. I’m a big boy. I could’ve taken it.

Anyway, I stepped up onto the stage (yes, they actually had a stage dedicated for special events) in front of a dozen or more people, almost all of whom I knew, without any idea what the hell I was going to say. I made it through the hour, but it was not a particularly comfortable experience for me – especially when at one point one of my friends called out, “When are you going to read from your book?” which caused the event coordinator, who was sitting in the back, to go pale. Since then I haven’t bothered with book launches – and especially not at that store.

So what are your take-aways from this story? Tell the goddamned people at the bookstore what your book is about, for one – and make sure they understand you. If your book has any content that might be R or X-rated, I wouldn’t read from those sections unless that’s what the audience is expecting. Most of all, be ready to roll with whatever might go wrong with the event because something will. Sometimes the best way to promote yourself to readers is to show them that not only are you human too, you can be flexible and good-humored when things go wrong.

Readings, Nothing More Than Readings

I may not do book launches per se anymore, but I still do readings, mostly at conferences. I’ve read to a few dozen people before, I’ve read to one person before, and I’ve sat in an empty room for a while before giving up and leaving. Why do I do it? It’s fun (when someone shows up, that is), and it’s an easy promotional activity since I don’t get stage fright. (Teaching for thirty years is a big help in that department.) And I get to list my readings on my merit pay application at my school every year as scholarly activities. Cha-ching!

Readings at cons can be a mixed bag. One year I did a reading next door to a performance of a Klingon opera. A very LOUD performance. One year I did a reading at nine a.m. on a Sunday at major con, after everyone had been up all night partying. As you might imagine, I didn’t exactly have a packed house that morning.

Once I gave a reading at my college. I was going to read a horror story, and a woman came in with her two preschool age children and sat in the front row. I told her that I was going to be reading a story with adult content, and she assured me that her children would be fine. I shrugged, began reading, and the woman hurried her children out of there before I was finished with the first sentence.

My advice for readings? Go into them without any expectations. They’ll hurt less that way. As with other events, have someone take pictures or video that you can use later. Even if you end up reading to an empty room, that doesn’t have to show up on the pics or the video. Have some kind of simple promotional material for people to take with them that has your website address and social media contact info on it. Bookmarks, fliers, etc. Author Mike Resnick autographs the hardcopy of his story when he’s done with a reading and gives it to someone in the audience. If you do this, make sure your address isn’t on the manuscript! Even if you’re at a con that has a dealers room, it’s not a bad idea to bring some books to sell. And if you do, get one of those cool card reader thingies you can use to take debit/credit card payments with your phone. (I need to get off my ass and get one myself.) Having business cards for people to take with them is good, and again, make sure your website address, etc. is on the card. Don’t put any contact info on your card you don’t want assorted strangers, stalkers, and creepers to have, however.

Serving as a panelist at conferences is similar to giving a reading, only you’re talking about a particular topic related to writing or a specific genre like science fiction, and you’re not the only person on the panel. Some people like to prepare for panels. I just show up and do my best to contribute to the conversation. Like readings, the size of the audience varies. Unlike readings, you need to be able to share the time with your fellow panelists and not be a jerk. Have the same promotional materials to pass out afterward as you do for readings. Don’t feel like you’ve published enough to qualify for a panel? All you really need is to be willing to share your thoughts and feelings about the topic. People are more interested in what you have to say rather than what you’ve done.

Book Fairs, Schmook Fairs

Last weekend, I attended an author festival/book fair at a library about three-and-a-half hours’ drive from where I live. Why did I go? Simple: they asked me. And I’d never done any kind of promotional events in the northern part of my state, so I figured I’d schlep on up there and see what it was like.

I didn’t have to bring my own books, which was nice. A local bookseller brought books for those attendees who weren’t self-published. (The bookseller, unsurprisingly, didn’t have to bring many books.) There were probably two dozen authors in attendance, almost all of them were self-published, and their promotional displays ranged from professionally done to – I kid you not – printouts of text taped to poster board. The library staff did their best to promote the event, but during the three hours it lasted, very few patrons came into the room where the event was being held, and those who did browsed without buying. Mostly, authors wandered around the room, talking to each other and networking.

One author told me he was planning a twenty-six to thirty-four book series, and that he wanted to find a publisher because he wanted to focus all his time on writing the books rather than trying to sell them himself.

Several writers asked me if I knew of any other good book fairs or events where they could sell their work. There were a lot of conversations like that going on around me. What could I say to them? “Um . . . my books come out from real publishers who pay me advances and then market my books, so I don’t usually do events like this because, you know, I don’t have to.”  I don’t think so.

A writer was visiting tables because she was writing an article on whether editing was important for writers, and she wanted to get quotes from all the authors there. (My answer to her question: Yes. Hell, yes.)

The bookseller, for whatever reason, didn’t have copies of one of the few professionally published writers in attendance, a literary author named Pauline Chen. Ms. Chen quite classily took this development in stride, smiled, told the bookseller that was okay, then gathered her promotional materials and left. Why should she stick around if she didn’t have any books to sell? (I suspect by that point she’d gotten a read on the room, realized that most everyone was a newbie self-pubber, and that almost no one was going to show up to the event, and she was happy to have an excuse to beat feet.)

I made a round trip of about seven hours, and I sold no books that day. (The most common comment I got from browsers was some variation of: “Horror, huh? I don’t read that stuff. Keeps me up at night.”) I didn’t really expect to sell any, to be honest. It was just an experiment, and it turned out pretty much the way I thought it would. I was surprised that there were so many self-published writers who seemed clueless about . . . well, everything to do with publishing and promoting. It’s not as if they can’t find out information about promoting books by hitting the Internet. I wasn’t surprised that the people who did show up didn’t buy books (not just from me, but from most of the other writers, too). It was a library, after all. And I wasn’t surprised that no one was interested in horror. It’s a genre for readers with more refined tastes, after all. (Taste in what, precisely, I’ll leave you to ponder.) But it did reinforce one of my beliefs about mass events like this. It may seem like the more authors in attendance, the more attractive the event will be to readers. But readers only have so much money to spread around, and they certainly don’t want to have to avoid eye contact with every desperate author there who gives them a hard-sell about his or her book. A lot of folks just stay away from such events. At a genre-focused conference, having shared signings or even mass signings can work well. Some of the attendees came to the con in order to meet writers and get books signed, after all. But the random book fair in small-town America? It might be a good place to get some practice promoting (and more importantly do some networking with other writers) when you’re starting out – and you can still get those pics and vids of yourself in action for later use. But otherwise . . . I wouldn’t recommend them.

On the Internet, No One Knows You’re a Dog

Experts – whoever the hell they are – say that for every sales message you put out into the virtual world, you should put out five non-sales messages. If you’re a relentless self-promotion machine, people quickly tune you out. There’s one gentleman on Facebook who every year posts a birthday message on my page. It goes something like this: “On your special day, why not treat yourself to some great fiction? I’ve recently published A LIST OF BOOKS ABOUT A MILE LONG. Enjoy!” I will never read this guy’s books. Never. Ever. Why don’t I just unfriend him? I’m a nice guy. Besides, he only posts a message like that on my page once a year. If he did it more often, I’d defriend and block him. And perhaps it’s occurred to me that by allowing him to make a jackass of himself on my page, I get the pleasure of watching him cut his own throat sales-wise. Then again, maybe that hasn’t occurred to me. Like I said, I’m a nice guy.

Watch out for being viewed as a spammer on message boards. When my third Leisure novel Darkness Wakes came out, I was told that if it didn’t sell well enough, they wouldn’t publish a fourth novel from me. So I decided to quit being lazy about promoting online (this was pre-Facebook) and dropped by various message boards letting folks know about my novel. I wasn’t always an established member of these communities and people pointed at me like Donald Sutherland in the 1970’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and screamed “Spaaaaaammer!” I then made the mistake of replying to one of those threads and explained why I was so clumsily trying to drum up sales for Darkness Wakes. This resulted in a number of people who thought they were coming to my aid posting on various sites – including Leisure’s – about how stupid Leisure was to treat one of their authors this way, that they would be morons to let me go, etc. The folks at Leisure Were Not Amused. I didn’t get to do another novel for them (which turned out to a blessing considering how their company imploded not too long afterward). Did they drop me partially because of the bad publicity I unknowingly engendered, minor though it was? Probably not. But my advice is to tread carefully and mindfully when promoting on the Interwebz.

Oh, and about blogs? It might be a good idea to write one more than once every few months. (And maybe someday I’ll actually listen to my own advice.)

Workshop Til You Drop

I was having coffee with author Ty Schwamberger the other day, and we were talking about promotional events. He mentioned he was thinking of setting up a signing at a bookstore when his next book was released. I suggested he offer a talk on publishing or maybe a workshop of some kind as well. I told him that people aren’t interested in what we have to sell to them. They want to get something other than a sales message, especially something they can use.

Teaching other people to write can be a great way to promote your own work while serving others, which as far as I’m concerned is a win-win for everyone involved. I don’t use the college classes I teach as promotional venues, however, because that would be unethical. I donate copies of my books to the college library so that any students interested in my work can check it out without having to buy it. But doing workshops at conferences and other events can be a great way to promote your writing.

Recommended Resource

There are tons of how-to-promote-your-writing books out there, but my favorite is Guerilla Marketing for Writers. It has hundreds of ideas for marketing and promotion, and best of all, they’re categorized in terms of how much effort and money they take – which makes this book perfect for all kinds of writers.

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

My novel Supernatural: Carved in Flesh has just been released in both print and ebook formats. Follow hunters Sam and Dean Winchester as they discover the sinister truth behind the Frankenstein legend!

“What Once Was Flesh” appears in Vampires Don’t Sparkle.

“The Great Ocean of Truth” appears in Fear the Abyss.

“Thou Art God” appears in Dark Faith: Invocations.

And speaking of promotional activities, I’ll be attending the World Horror Convention/Bram Stoker Awards Weekend in New Orleans June 13-16. I’ll be doing a reading, participating in the mass autograph signing, and serving on panels. And who knows? Maybe I’ll crash a private party or two for old times’ sake.


  1. Very helpful tips. The Leisure story was interesting. I would have never thought self-promotion to lead down such a path! :)

  2. Interesting, darkly comic, and deeply dispiriting for an introvert : ) I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.