Sunday, August 16, 2009

To Promote or not to Promote

This past week has been one where real life interfered to the point where there was little time to focus on writing. Even so, I managed to send out a short story -- fingers crossed -- and a handful of queries -- fingers and toes crossed. As I filled in the on-line submission forms for agents and publishers, and as I read the blogs and Baen's Bar, one theme seemed to jump out at me: promotion. Hence, this blog entry.

I've long known that, more and more, the promotion of a book is falling to the author. Publishers don't put a lot of time or money into promoting mid-list or first time authors any more. The size of the book review section in any major newspaper has shrunk to, unfortunately, non-existence in too many cases. The New York Times Book Review is no longer large enough to use as a doorstop. Of the two major papers in my area, the Fort Worth Star Telegram rarely has more than a page of reviews on Sunday, including large graphics and the best sellers lists. The Dallas Morning News is better, usually offering 4 pages or so on Sundays. Still, it is a far cry from what it used to be. In other words, one of the long-standing means of book promotion is dying.

So I wasn't really surprised when, reading the submission guidelines for certain publishers, it was recommended that I include marketing ideas for my book in my query. Nor was I particularly surprised when it was also recommended that I tell the publisher just how much I'd be willing to do on my own (read, at my own cost) to promote my book. What did surprise me, however, were the number of agents who asked as part of their on-line submission forms for the marketing plans I'd already devised for my book.

Then something happened on Baen's Bar. Someone new to the Bar plastered what could only be called ads for his book in a number of conferences. Mind you, it was a book he'd just submitted into the slush pile. His hubris in doing so earned him more than a few knocks, as well as a number of suggestions on how to submit it where most of those on the Bar could read it and give him feedback. When asked why he took this particular tact, he said he felt that it was a good way to create word of mouth and push his manuscript up the slush pile quicker -- whether it works or not, I can't say and won't speculate. Nor will I comment on his submission in the Bar slush forum for the simple reason that I haven't read it.

All of this brings to mind the question of what are the best ways to promote your book. How effective are on-line sites such as Facebook , LiveJournal or MySpace? How about author blogs? Drive by signings? On the flip side, what keeps you going back to an author's website or blog/FB/MySpace/LJ? And, for the agents out there, how important is it to you that a perspective client presents a marketing plan at the same time they submit their initial query?

19 comments:

Anton Gully said...

Jeeze, that sounds harsh. I thought it would be tough enough just writing a book, never mind you're expected to market it as well.

Aside from here and a number of aspiring writer blogs I visit, the one site I go back to on a regular basis is Charle's Stross' site, but that's because he's as likely to be talking open open-source software, gadgets or old computers, as he is to be talking about writing.

Oh actually I also read Jerry Pournelle's postings quite regularly, but that's more to get a sane conservative view on issues, to balance my own more liberal leanings.

Um, so I visit their sites for everything but the writing.

Mike said...

S.C. Butler over here is mulling some of the same issues, but his answer is "write another book." http://www.sfnovelists.com/2009/08/15/write-another-book/

Kate said...

Frankly, I think fully fledged marketing plans for an unsold book are premature. Typically we authors aren't really in tune with how that side of the business works, and not many of us have a clue how to get the book off shelves and into the hot little hands of buyers.

Actually, I gather that it's even harder to get the damn things on the shelves in the first place, something we authors can't control - another reason a fully fledged marketing plan is a tad excessive.

That said, "marketing" in the sense of "this book is ideal for convention-going fans" or "it's got a kick-ass female lead and a hot vampire she's lusting after" can be useful tools to direct marketing.

Some of the more interesting marketing efforts I've seen from authors are Mad Mike Williamson's shameless pimping of Freehold to the extent that he sold the entire print run - unheard of for a first novel. Of course, Mike is the kind of outgoing guy who can pimp his books at anyone and everyone.

Larry Correia is doing something similar with his Monster Hunter International. He's got a facebook page for it, and he's posting to facebook at least twice a day, usually with some kind of trivia related to the book. He's also run competitions for swag.

Julie Czerneda has taken a different tack - she has made her forum on sff.net a no-politics, no-nastiness-allowed floating workshop. She runs competitions there for copies of her books, regularly posts about all manner of writing and editing topics, as well as anything she finds interesting or thinks would interest her audience. The group has recently hit ten years and is pretty active - and has started several new writers on their careers as well as won Julie quite a few new readers.

From what I can see, the common thread here is that if we've got a blog, we need to post on it, often. Frequent facebook updates if we use that, or twitter, or any of the other social network thingummies. Respond to reader questions politely, insist on a set of basic courtesy rules so the blog/whatever doesn't degenerate into a running flamewar.

And snippet often. They don't need to be great swathes of text, but just enough to tease, tittilate and tantalize.

The other thing that seems to be most effective, long term, is Julie's approach - helping others by providing a friendly venue, posting commentary about the business side, and so forth.

Okay. I admit it. I really don't have a clue.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Funny you should post this, Kate.

I've just spent the weekend at Romance Writers of Australia's national conference, where there were two panels on promotion, one on traditional media and one on internet.

The traditional media one was run by a journalist who has since had around 12 fiction books published and been on the other side of the fence, being interviewed. She said journos aren't interested in what people are saying on their blogs. They don't have time to trawl web sites etc. So set up some useful, easy to find, traditional media stuff on your web site. And be prepared for interviews with some good quotes.

And the panel on internet promotion basically came down to, if you don't enjoy it and it takes time out from your writing don't do it. It can be a good tool for reaching people, but no one knows if it actually helps book sales.

In fact, no one knows if reviews of any sort help book sales. When I did my little impromptu survey, I found most people bought books going on word of mouth, or the cover combined with the blur and first page.

Before anything else happens you have to have a good book and that is the one part of the equation you have control over. So write a damn good book!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Doh!

It was Amanda's post and Kate's comment. Still a bit brain dead after the convention!

Yes, Anton, it is scary, having to promote your book. Most writers are writers because they like to observe people. They don't like to be the one who is being observed.

Dave Freer said...

I'm going to stick my neck out here: It's a rank stupidity we have to put up with. Look, the time and effort needed to self-promote - especially as we're amatuers without resources or the skills, subtracts directly from the time and effort the writer cand put into writing. A day is only just so long: and using that time for something the writer is unskilled at is brutally unflattering of both the skills a writer should possess and publisher and retailer should possess. Try it in different terms - it's like Porko city council saying : "Oh you're a brain-surgeon? Well you'd better buy some big rubber boots and go down in the sewer to sto stop the toilet in your practice backing up." For one, the brain surgeon is not likely to much good at plumbing, secondly while he's plumbing he isn't working as brain surgeon (we hope), and thirdly Porko City council is supposed to employ plumbers in exchange for the taxes they charge the brain surgeon and others - a plumber who has to know more about this than the brain surgeon.

But that's not way it is. They're looking for brain surgeons who are also good plumbers - which excludes a lot of great brain surgeons. But that is the status quo. So I suggest you invest in rubber boots (or a blog).

Mike said...

The image of self-promotion as stomping around in rubber boots in the sewer trying to unstop toilets... that's going to stick with me, Dave. Thanks, I think. :-)

Dave Freer said...

You can tell self-promo is something I am naturally good at, eh, Mike! Actually I'm not a bad plumber, It's a pity I suck at brain-surgery.

Amanda Green said...

Anton, it is actually more scary for me than harsh. After all, when I'm first submitting a book, especially if I'm just submitting it to an agent, I don't know enough to give a well thought out marketing plan. I don't know who is publishing the book, what format it will be in, the number of copies that will be run, when it will be released and where, etc. So, if I don't give a detailed answer, is this agent going to give my book less consideration than someone who puts out a BS marketing plan? Or are they simply looking for someone who says they are willing to do cons, driveby signings, formal signings at local bookstores, etc.?

Amanda Green said...

Mike, I agree with the "write another book" advice. You have to. But the marketing question is showing up more and more often when you look at submission guidelines for publishers and, unfortunately, for agents as well. And, after having worked with several published -- many times published -- authors, marketing is something they have to think about, be it finding really effective cover quotes to organizing personal appearances, con appearances, etc. I just find it daunting to have to think about the marketing issue when I am first submitting a project to an agent.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, YES! I have no problem telling an agent or publisher that I will be more than glad to go to area/regional bookstores and do signings, talk to local reader groups or crit groups, do cons, etc. But to put out a full-fledged marketing plans without knowing the details about the publication of the book, well, that's sort of putting the cart before the horse, imo. I just don't want to be penalized and not have my book given the same consideration because my brain doesn't work in a way that lets me put together this huge marketing plan based on pre-what ifs (those you have to formulate without knowing the basic details of who is publishing the book, what format it will be released in, how many copies will be run, etc)

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, I think most people do go by word of mouth for book recommendations. I do. However, those of a literary bent do still rely to a great extent on reviews. Also, a number of libraries will order a book based on published reviews. Book clubs also choose their books to read and discuss that way. Not a lot of sales, I know, but any sale helps imo.

I also happen to like the idea of having a press kit on your site as an author. It can really be of help when you are going to be somewhere for a workshop or conference and the local media is pulling together a story.

As for writing a damned good book -- absolutely. But, from what I'm seeing, then you have to be prepared to spend part of each week doing some sort of promotion, whether it's doing a blog, updating your website, doing local meetings/signings/etc, cons. I'm not sure how it is in OZ, but here, with publishers spending less and less to promote books, it's falling to the authors to do. That's why there's been an abundance of YouTube promo vids, etc. Still, as a new writer, it's a daunting task and very, very scary at times.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, lolol. Yes. But, instead of rubber boots to slog through the, er, crap, can I invest in a rubber hose to beat some sense into those trying to enforce the status quo?

As for rank stupidity, I won't name the site or even if it was an agent or a publisher, but one asked for the standard name, email, home address, info and then let you give them a 500 word description of your book you are querying. THEN they wanted your market plan and there was no word limit on that. Needless to say, I passed on that particular entity because their sense of what is important seemed a bit skewed.

Amanda Green said...

Uh, Dave, since I'm good at plumbing as well, does that mean I have a chance in this strange field of ours? Or should I just buy a new "snake" and give real plumbing a try? ;-p

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, firstly you could say that you are a contributor to this blog which has given you access to a number of authors, who can provide you with cover quotes, secondly you're an active part of various sf/fantasy lists, thirdly do a sample press release (I'll pass on a few tips), fourthlycommit to attending suitable cons (shows you know what they are) and look at ideas like prizes and swag for historical competitions. Offer some authentic period russian menus on your site.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda: Nix on the beatings unless you're selling S&M books. And plumbing or writing - it will involve knowing that the stuff that flows downhill ain't all water.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, thanks for the advice. When the time comes, I will definitely take you up on it.

As for nixing the beatings unless I'm writing S&M, well, I'll try. But there really are more than a few I'd like to beat, but then, I was raised not to beat dumb animals so I guess I won't. Sigh.

Mike said...

As Dave pointed out, this blog should be part of your marketing plan. Also sites like http://www.romance-ffp.com/ which apparently requires that you be a RWA member (some of you may be) and then for $15 a year lets you put up book notices and such.

I guess I'd tackle it in parts. The "normal" physical promotion -- signings, etc. -- plus the online promotion -- blogs, sites, etc. Heck, it's a proposal, right? Dream a bit, but show that you know what you are talking about. Ask what they are going to be doing?

Amanda Green said...

Mike, you're right about using the blog. I think we all do. As for the query, my general approach is to basically show them enough to let them know I'm willing to work hard, within reason. However, at the query stage -- and I may be wrong here but... -- I don't ask them what they are going to do for me. In my mind, that's the wrong time to do it. The publisher or agent aren't interested in a give and take at that stage, merely in knowing I can write a ripping good yarn and am willing to pimp myself out to sell it, in a manner of speaking. I'll ask what they will do re: promotion when we move on to the next phase of the relationship.