Book Promotion 101

By Victor DiGenti

There’s no sure-fire way to make your new book a success. Of course, nothing beats the efforts of a committed publisher. Publishers with deep pockets support their top authors with advertising, prime shelf space in the book stores (yes, they pay for that), along with special displays, end caps, co-op money and bonuses for large orders. But few of us have earned this kind of support and we must find other ways to expose our books to the reading public.

While James Patterson’s frequent releases are front and center in every book store, our books, if we’re lucky to have a few copies in the store, are hidden somewhere in the back. As published authors, it’s not only our responsibility to promote our books, but we’re also the best equipped to do it. Who knows more about the book than the author? Most of us have read one or more marketing books providing tons of promotional ideas. One thing they don’t dwell on though is the fact it will cost you money. There’s an old saw that says you have to spend money to make money, and it’s as true for selling books as any other product.

I started thinking about this after reading a thread on Murder Must Advertise, an email discussion list for mystery authors looking for marketing tips. It concerned a Publishers Weekly survey reporting on how much authors spent to promote their books. I believe it was around $4,600 per year. This didn’t include the cost of purchasing printing and publishing for self-publishers, or buying copies from your publisher, but strictly the ancillary costs revolving around the business of marketing our books.

Thinking about this made me pull out my 2006 IRS file and review my writing expenses. A few one-time costs skewed the numbers, and put me over the $4,600 average. Of course, when you’re looking to balance a higher income on a joint return it’s always best to have more expenses.

When I first started dipping my toes in the crazy publishing waters, I surveyed various authors so I wouldn’t reinvent the wheel. Along with practical advice I also heard a few horror stories. One writer told me she estimated she’d spent between $30,000 and $50,000 on website designers, publicists and other “professionals” who proved to be of little value.

Money has a way of slipping through our fingers if we’re not careful. George Raft, the noted Hollywood actor known for his gangster roles, was once asked how he could have squandered the millions of dollars he made during his long career. His answer was, “Part of the $10 million I spent on gambling, part on booze and part on women. The rest I spent foolishly.”

Some authors will do anything and go anywhere for the opportunity to sell a few books. Others are more circumspect, calculating the return on investment, the wear and tear to their vehicles, the time spent away from family and their writing. Since my first book was published in 2004 I’ve had the opportunity to see both sides of that coin and now find myself squarely in the middle.

My Windrusher books naturally attract cat lovers. I learned early on the ideal place to find potential buyers was not necessarily a book store but a cat show. The first 14 months after Windrusher was published I attended nearly a dozen cat shows as a vendor, hawking the book to everyone within earshot. I drove to Atlanta, St. Petersburg, Melbourne, Daytona Beach, Savannah, and many other cities. This meant an investment of my time and resources to pay for gas, hotel and meals for me and my wife who often accompanied me on these weekend trips.

While I sold many more books than I normally would at a traditional book signing, I learned that not all cat shows are equal. The next year I only attended four shows and last year only two. Still, I was able to build a large mailing list of buyers who are now part of my marketing efforts and will hopefully purchase the next in the series.

Publishers usually won’t pay for expenses surrounding book tours, but they expect authors to get out and market themselves as far and as wide as possible. There have been incredible stories of mind-boggling book tours. The most amazing one I heard was JA Konrath’s Rusty Nail 500 tour. Konrath is the author of the Jack Daniels mysteries and last summer embarked on a cross country tour to visit 500 books stores. On his website he explained that these were not scheduled signings but, “…the publishing equivalent of a drive-by. I stop in, say hello, sign some stock, and get on my way.”

You’re probably not planning anything on the scale of a cross-country tour, but it would help to have some guidance on where to spend your hard-earned dollars. We’re all individuals and attack promotion in different ways, but these are some of the areas you might want to build into your marketing plan.

  1. Printing. Spend money on well-designed, attention-grabbing promotional materials. Just as you want the best cover for your book, your business cards, bookmarks, post cards, and sell sheets should be equally professional. Pay for a good graphic designer if your publisher doesn’t supply this service, but shop around for the best printing prices. There are a slew of online printers offering high-quality, quick turn-around printing at far better prices than your neighborhood Jiffy Print.
  2. Promotional kits. These can be done economically by buying pocket folders, pasting color copies of your cover on the front, and stuffing them with reviews, articles, your bio, photo, etc. Hand carry these to every book store in your area and introduce yourself to the managers.
  3. Web sites. Yes, you should have one. You don’t need to know html these days as there are many sites offering tool kits of templates for us computer illiterates. You can pay from zero to several hundred dollars for hosting sites. The pricier ones usually include bundles of services and more sophisticated tools.
  4. Travel. You will travel. To book stores, libraries, the post office, conferences, FWA meetings. Be sure to keep track of your mileage. Almost everything you do as a working writer can be deducted. This includes flying to Rome to research your next book.
  5. Mass Mailings. I’ve done my share of mass mailings to book stores, libraries, and retailers specializing in merchandise for cat lovers. I’ve picked up a few orders here and there, but I’m not sure it was worth the effort and dollars. If you have a good mailing list and a few extra bucks, though, go ahead and give it a try.
  6. Advanced Reader Copies or ARCs. Your publisher should print a quantity of these for you, but if not it might be a good investment. These can be used to obtain advance reviews and blurbs. But they can also be sent to key book stores and those special people Malcolm Gladwell calls “Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen” to help generate a buzz for your book.
  7. Conferences and Book Festivals. In your first couple of years you’ll probably attend as many as possible. Try to get on panels, be a moderator, network and be nice to people. Don’t expect to sell a lot of books, but it’s one way to get your name out there.

You’ll find dozens of other ways to spend your money, but these cover many of the essentials. Set yourself a goal to break even by the end of the year. It’s possible with hard work and by taking advantage of the many free and low cost promotion techniques. But that will have to wait for another column.

This article first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. My column, The First Million Words, has appeared in the magazine since 2006.

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