a few random thoughts on publicity

Yesterday, someone asked: I’ve heard of authors spending the whole of their advance, many thousands, on publicity. (Long distance travel, contests, free gifts..) Do the author’s own efforts truly pay off in the long run? Do you think publishers are doing enough for new authors?

Sad to say, most publishers spend only the bare minimal amount in giving new authors any sort of publicity. If that. They may place ads in industry magazines, for instance, or send out copies for review attention. In my opinion, those early days are largely up to the author. As suricattus pointed out, you should have a long range plan and not just focus on promoting one book, but also on the future. Writing the next book is the most important priority.

mevennen said: “I’m afraid I take the view that it is a market, and your work will either become critically acclaimed, or commercially successful (and hopefully both) on its own merits.” That sentiment is often expressed, and largely true, though I’m not sure I agree with it entirely 100%. It is, perhaps, too absolute. It is ultimately the readers who are your final audience and who will determine whether you sell enough copies to continue. They’re going to decide that based on their reading, or perhaps on the word of a friend urging them to buy your book. Connecting with readers is where it’s at, but they have to know you exist. That’s what any sort of publicity might accomplish.

For my money, the single best thing you do is build a web presence. Have a good website and participate in online forums. Word of mouth is far more valuable than ad space at this stage of the game. Secondly, start local. Grass roots publishing, as it were. Sign in all the bookstores within driving distance of your home. Build connections with booksellers, and those who are responsible for ordering your book into the stores. If they don’t make your book available enough, you can’t build a readership. If you are really serious and have the cash to do it, there are publicity companies that specialize in helping authors with promotion, but I feel they are more useful for later books rather than earlier ones unless you have what they call “a good platform.” Overall – spend carefully and wisely, but remember that if you are intent on building a career as a writer that reinvesting in your business is the first piece of advice most financial planners will give you.

On the other hand, I also tell authors that they should take at least a small bit of that money and spend it on something special that gives back to themselves. Working long and hard to have made it that far deserves a reward.

Edited to add: Great minds think alike. Kristin just wrote an entry about publicity and publishing too.

17 responses to “a few random thoughts on publicity

  1. I wrestle with promotion issues. I don’t think I lack for visibility, but I sometimes wonder what else I should (or shouldn’t) be doing. There’s always something new…

  2. an author’s efforts
    in publicity can be a huge help, IMHO, with getting a book noticed and keeping it alive. I think it is best when it works hand-in-hand with a publisher’s efforts though. It’s frustrating to be a lower rung author, willing to promote, invest in oneself, etc, and then have a publisher bascially do no more than put your book in their catalog. I can understand it (been there, done that) but it is still frustrating. I work my tail off, web prescence, innovative ideas, local bookstore connections, but one never can really tell if it makes a difference.
    I am beginning to wonder if writers ever have or should consider buying their own ads in some of the magazines with the big guns in order to help spread the word. Have you ever heard of writers doing that?

    • Re: an author’s efforts
      I hear your frustration, and have felt the same. No matter how many times the editor and publisher explain to me the issues of their side of promotion. It would be nice if they could give every book the same attention, but the odds simply aren’t in favor of it. And it is hard to tell whether it makes a difference for one book. But I think it does have some effect over the course of a career as a writer.
      As for your question, yes, I know there are authors who have taken out ads in magazines. I don’t think it’s the most efficient way to promote. I still think a more grass roots approach will yield better results over the course of time. Think about growth. Not just about the brass ring.

      • Re: an author’s efforts
        Good point about grass roots. Oddly enough, I don’t have any hard feelings about the huge publisher that pubbed my book, put it in a catalog and then didn’t really do much of anything else. I knew it going in and I am grateful that they brought out a beautiful book because it makes it easier for me to sell. And hey, it came out in 1999 and is still in print and selling. I take some credit for keeping it going. My results with other publishers have varied. I think it’s different from picture books to novels (I write for kids) and with a novel coming out in the fall I can see and feel the difference in how both I am approaching the marketing ideas as is the publisher. My agent had been telling me to focus on novels for a while and now I feel like I understand more behind her comments. It’s easier to brand someone with novels, than with picture books.

      • Re: an author’s efforts
        Print ads are a remarkably ineffective way for a publisher to spend money on a beginning author. 99 times out of 100, that money would be far better spent on securing better bookstore display, or (for mass-market paperbacks) incentives for wider ID distribution.
        Of course, these things aren’t as easy as a print ad to show off to Mom.

        • Re: an author’s efforts
          Print ads are a remarkably ineffective way for a publisher to spend money on a beginning author.
          Sad, but true. One of the most effective ways I’ve ever seen money spent, on the other hand, was excerpt booklets — the literary equivelent of food samples in the grocery store, except it lasts longer. It’s also a relatively simple and cost-effective thing for authors to do on their own (or with a few others with similar pub dates).
          It has a potential downside as well, of course — be sure you’re ready for reader feedback off that excerpt, one way or the other…

        • Re: an author’s efforts
          The primary purpose of print ads (IMO) for non-big name authors is to show the industry (booksellers and head buyers) that the publisher is serious about pushing the book. It’s sort of like, “Our sales people told you we were serious–here’s the ad to prove it.”

  3. I would say that the most effective publicity an author can give herself entails being a visibly interesting person, with an understanding that an online (or convention!) “presence” that consists of nothing but Me, My Book, My Book, My Book, Me, isn’t really very effective.
    Unfortunately, this is the kind of advice that tends to wound the heart of authors who don’t need to worry about it, while going right over the head of those who most desperately do.

    • It also depends which country you’re in. In the UK, ‘Me, My Book…’ etc will not win you any friends or influence people. Being self deprecating, however insincere, (‘I just happen to have written this, but you probably won’t think much of it’) is a better approach. Doing the ‘I the Great Author’ bit will get you hated.
      A parallel example is the view taken of poor Kenneth Branagh.

  4. bookstore connections
    I’ve heard that for authors who have just been published for only the first or second (or third) time that having scheduled booksignings aren’t necessarily the best thing to do unless you already have a very large local support system ready to buy your book. I’ve been told that this is because if the bookseller buys 30 or so copies of your book, but you only get, maybe, 5 people in, they’re stuck with 25 copies of the book that they can’t return if you’ve already signed them. The alternative to this scenario is to make contact with the booksellers, notify them of your book, see if they have any in stock (or encourage them to bring in a few copies) and offer to come in and sign what copies they do have on hand. This way they’re not bringing in extra copies of a book they may not be able to sell, but you’re making the contacts and building the author/bookseller relationship and the readers will get a nice surprise when they discover that the book is signed.

    • Re: bookstore connections
      My understanding is much the same.

    • Re: bookstore connections
      Most signed books are returnable under the same policy as unsiged ones — although most chains have a policy of holding onto them longer than unsigned copies.
      The real downside to a failed signing is that the return rate will probably go up, if the store over-ordered, which will hurt the buy-in on your next book. I try to be honest with the community relations person when I set up signings — “I have a very small fan base here” versus “Hel-LO Boston!” (my extended family is centered in New England, and they know what’s expected of them). The bookseller may not listen to you, but you’re on record as having been up-front and helpful.
      (I also found that bringing a gift of edibles for the bookstore staff as well as any signees who stop by is often greatly appreciated… I offered chocolates to the girl behind the counter of the cafe, and wound up with free refills on my drink the entire afternoon I was there, and she bought a book!)

      • Re: bookstore connections
        (I also found that bringing a gift of edibles for the bookstore staff as well as any signees who stop by is often greatly appreciated… I offered chocolates to the girl behind the counter of the cafe, and wound up with free refills on my drink the entire afternoon I was there, and she bought a book!)
        OOOH! I like this advice… and so timely considering I’m going to be spreading the Writers of the Future love around NJ over the next few weeks. (wanna come point and laugh? I’ll bring chocolate!) 😉

    • Re: bookstore connections
      We’ve found that even unknown authors can sell a few books and get started on developing their fan base if they sign with a group that includes someone like Jim Butcher…or how about the time my friend sold 25 copies of her book because she was sitting next to Mercedes Lackey at a signing we put on? Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!
      Buzz helps. I like to go talk to the bookstore owners/employees when my friends’ books are about to come out. Make sure they’re ordering some. Make sure they’re faced out, even if they get reshelved accidentally to be at eye level in, say, B&N or Borders. Make sure the University Bookstore understands that Paranormal Romance, even though they have never sold romance before, will sell and they should get on the bus. Duane keeps thanking me for telling him about CE Murphy’s Urban Shaman…he can’t keep it in the store. While this is a small, local bookstore…folks talk. Word spreads. Dynasties are built…mwa-ha-ha…

  5. publicity
    Ads are an ineffective–and expensive–way to publicize your book. Most ads don’t tell enough about the book to catch readers’ attention. Consider that ONE little ad (which makes very little impression) in the NYT Book Review or New Yorker costs about the same as a 3-MONTH campaign with a good independent publicist.
    –Bella Stander http://www.bookpromotion101.com

  6. websites
    I absolutely agree that a website is the best value for an author’s promotional dollar. I spent more money on my website than on any one ticket item. I’ve had authors think I’m crazy for forking over the fee, but I haven’t regretted it for one minute. I think my website shows that I’m professional and serious. I received a lot of positive feedback before my books came out, and even more now. My editor was pleased with the site, too, and I put it on all my promotional material, and it’s on the back cover of my books.
    Bookmarks, on the other hand . . . I doubt I’ll print those again.

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