I’ve come to realize that I don’t hate advertising so much as have an allergic reaction to a high-hype-to-low-content ratio: like when the inner ear is imbalanced, when marketing TALKS LOUD and SAYS NOTHING NEW it induces what I call hype nausea. So promoting my books was initially a challenge for me. But since I wrote my first DIY Book Promo article five years ago, I’ve brought public attention to three more novels and now quite enjoy it. Here’s some of the things I think about when I craft a promotional campaign.
A few years ago I can clearly remember watching a video documentation of performance art — and unlike most performance art, I really liked it. I was also a bit bamboozled by how the artist would have come up with the idea to do it. As a person who regularly had ideas for stories pop into his head, I knew it wasn’t simply a lack of creativity on my part: it was more an unfamiliarity with the medium that made it seem so difficult to imagine doing myself.
However, it opened up a curiosity about working in that medium, and once I started thinking along those lines my creativity kind of grew in that direction. I’ve talked with people who originally never could have imagined making a short movie, but once they made one they were “hooked” and constantly had ideas of new vids to make. Most artists have one medium that their creativity flows through, like a main river: working in different mediums is like digging tributaries to irrigate different parts of the brain.
I’ve come to treat promotion as a medium in its own right. When I realized I could use the same creative muscle I use to write my books in promoting them, and that I could control the hype-to-content ratio as I saw fit, promotion became an interesting creative challenge.
Years later, people are still coming across Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask in libraries and bookstores and picking it up for the title alone. You don’t want to use a catchy title simply for catchiness’ sake, but if you can get one that’s both interesting and reflective of its content then you’re set.
This seems self-evident, but the cover of a book is its face to the world, and a key promotional tool. Go to a bookstore with a mockup and put it on the new arrivals stack, see how it looks. Would you pick it up? It may be beautifully and cunningly detailed, but keep in mind it has to work both close up and far away. Pay attention to the spine too, since that’s going to see a lot of face time and is often just an afterthought.
On another level, you want the cover to be both reflective of the content and compelling in some way. It can be both, and should be. If you go with a fluorescent colours with a half-naked girl on the cover, you might get a high percentage of males picking it up: but unless that’s reflective of the content, they’ll put it down just as quickly. An appropriate, engaging cover will get a high percentage of the kinds of people who would like the book to pick it up.
I’ve been torn about the use of blurbs in the past, and have used them sometimes and not others. Essentially author blurbs and media blurbs are votes of confidence and credibility, and complement the back cover copy rather than repeat it. However, I do think it helps if, again, it’s appropriate: don’t ask Clive Barker for a blurb if your work wouldn’t appeal to fans of Clive Barker. If there’s some shared sensibility between your work and an author you like, you can ask if it’d be alright to send a copy of your book out to them. In the letter, let them know why you are asking them; no one likes to feel used.
This is a challenge: how to summarize 100,000 words into about ten. But again, think of it as an adaptation that reflects the gist of the content. One of the easiest books to promote was Angry Young Spaceman, which was “about a guy who goes to another planet to teach English.” It gets across the gist of the book but also gives a flavour of the kind of humour in it. (I also think that the lighter and shinier the description is, the more easily it will flit around via word of mouth.) I sit down and brainstorm ways to describe my work in progress early on since people inevitably ask me about it at parties and whatnot, and it’s more fun to try out a one-liner than a mumbled and dull summary.
Everyone In Silico defied my best attempts at summary, so I sent letters to the companies I’d mentioned in the book and invoiced them for product placement. The Past Due letters project stemmed from a feeling that I wanted to take these companies to task more directly than I could in the novel, which was more about the absence of corporate critique. This made for a good performance (see below) and also allowed me to make political points with a promotional campaign — adding substantial content to the hype. It felt like I was able to hook up a payload of agit-prop to a capitalist engine.This combination not only made me more engaged, but was a great reason for media to cover me and my book in a story about product placement. (Conflict, or even perceived conflict, is a great attractor for media.) It wasn’t the kind of campaign that a marketing department would have been likely to come up with: the idea came about from my immersion in the material as the creator.
There’s really no need to add another dull reading to the pile. Especially when you’re starting out, people aren’t fixated on hearing a certain passage from your books: in fact, they probably don’t care if you read at all. Show a slide show of photos from the country that inspired the setting of the book, or do covers of the songs that your main character sings. People come to get a sense of your personality, and what you’re like in person. The majority of readings are boring, for lots of reasons, one of which is simply technical: it’s confusing for the listeners to shift between dialogue and exposition, it’s easy to get lost and zone out.
Look at your performance as an adaptation of the material in the book for a theatrical setting. For Angry Young Spaceman, I did a fake slideshow/info session on how you! can teach English on other planets, and included interactive alien artifacts liike the one pictured at right; for Everyone In Silico I read the Past Due letters; and for An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil I did rituals of the urban occult. Even with my limited talent in performance, I was able to get more attention for my books (and have more fun doing it) than if I’d just read from the book. There are exceptions to the rule — the talented Joe Meno does straight readings from his book and because his material works so well being read aloud, he has people bumrushing the merch table like he’d just played a rock show.
Anyone who’s interested in touring should consider signing up for the Perpetual Motion Roadshow, an indie press touring circuit I founded. Touring is an amazing thing.
OUTREACH TO BOOKSELLERS AND READERS
One of the things to keep in mind is that you want your promotional campaign to take into account three audiences: potential readers, booksellers and media. People will often forget about how pivotal the role of booksellers can be: if they don’t order your book and have it on the shelves, a key element in getting your book into the world is missed. I have one bookseller who has hand sold hundreds of my books. Big media hits won’t translate into sales if booksellers haven’t ordered any books, so you’ll want to coordinate distribution beforehand. Sometimes distributors will have programs set up (such as Booksense in the US) that send promo postcards and advance copies to booksellers. You can offer to sign books at your local bookstores and feel out if they’d be interested in hosting an event.
The standard promo that publishers put out for its versatility and cheapness is the postcard, usually with the ISBN and pub date on the back. These have their place but I expect the majority of them get trashed pretty quick. Personally I think that stickers and buttons are more interesting giveaways, and bonus points if there’s a connection to the book. Think about what you’d like to get. And it’s a good idea to make promo items that live on the web (I had a screensaver made for Angry Young Spaceman), but don’t neglect the real world. They reinforce each other. For instance, someone half pays attention to your launch details email, and when they half notice the street poster for it, they talk to the person they’re walking with about maybe going to it.
One of the best promo pieces I had began as a huge mistake. A page number was misprinted in an obvious way in the proof for Everyone In Silico, but the signatures (the little 20-30 page booklets that, bound together and glued, make the book) had already been printed. I had to reprint the first signature (which would cost $250 extra) and was about to get them to trash the first signature when I realized that it ended on a chapter break. So I printed up a cover for it and distributed the signatures as free samples of the beginning of the book, and had 2500 copies to give away for the very reasonable price of $250. I dropped stacks off at bookstores and heard that it was effective from the booksellers as well as getting more people out to the launches. Letting them know you want to be an active part of selling your book, and giving them tools to do it, helps out a lot.
In terms of outreach to readers, one of the hugest assets that I’ve had is direct contact with my readers through an email list. The earlier you start something like this the better. I think a key to a relationship with readers is to provide interesting stuff beyond sales pitches: to have a decent hype-to-content ratio. I post full articles I’ve written, try to share some ideas and strategies through articles like these, and talk about like-minded projects. I’ve offered free buttons in exchange for distributing promo in their town.
I also give away e-books and while it has no perceivable effect on my book sales, it certainly spreads the word to people too broke to buy books. Often people will talk about it with their friends, and other times they’ll buy the next one once they feel it’s a sure bet. My most recent book was written in the form of blog entries, so I made a faux blog and posted one entry a day until the whole book was online.
I send free books to people whose work I really like, both who I know and don’t know. It’s hard to do this when you’ve just paid a printer bill, but here’s what happens when I get a free book I really like: I’ll pass it off to someone I know reviewing books in the media, or at the very least I talk about it a bunch.
Sean Lerner’s done an excellent job writing about media outreach, but here are a couple of things I’ve learned in respect to my books. With one novel, I did 150 mailouts to everyone who’s ever reviewed a book in Canada; with another novel I targeted specific media contacts to save on costs. I think I favour the shotgun rather than the scalpel approach. One reason is turnover: the same mag who didn’t review one book might have a new person in charge now. Another reason is familiarity breeds contempt: a reporter who thrives on novelty won’t be interested in covering you twice (or thrice) while a reporter at a different paper that hasn’t heard of you might be in the mood to heap praise. Big mailouts are expensive, but I look at it as covering my bases.
My media packs consist of a promo piece, a copy of the book and a one page media sheet which has a bunch of hooks or interesting angles for media to write something beyond a review. Media or author blurbs can help build credibility and give confidence to reporters trying to get a story idea approved. Providing an image or a link to a high-res online image of the author or the book or something more creative makes it even more appealing as reporters’ deadlines loom. Another excellent tool is listing a launch party date, or a tour, that can lend a timely hook to covering it as an event. Reporters have ten potential story ideas at one time, and having a date connected to your book gives a rationale for writing about it sooner rather than later. Naturally getting the media pack to them three weeks or a month before the date in question is essential, and you might want to get someone to call and follow up to make sure that the package was received and, if they sound interested, offer to schedule an interview. The follow-up call is the one thing I think is better to have someone else do: a bit of a buffer makes things easier for all parties. You don’t want to guilt a reporter into doing a story, you want them to be as excited as you are.
Again, like the bookstores, you’re trying to make it easy for them to spread the word about your book. They’re your allies in this — their job is writing interesting and exciting stories, so try and make it easy that the story be about you and your book. And when they don’t — because the majority of the time they won’t — try not to be bitter about it. It’s a long life, you’ve got more than one book in you and if you can keep on making stuff and letting people know eventually people take notice.