Promotion (II)

The funny thing is, nobody really knows what works when it comes to selling a book. Because everything publicity-wise is done simultaneously with publication, when they do a NY Times ad or a New Yorker crossword puzzle or a country-wide flying banner, there’e2’80’99s no discernible bump in the numbers to show the result of that particular action. Who knows, the book might have sold just as well without the extra event?

In the end, after sixteen books, twelve years of being published, and thirteen book tours, I’e2’80’99ve decided that promoting a book is a bit like parenting: The main thing is showing up. In parenting, the idea of ‘e2’80’9cquality time’e2’80’9d is a delusion of busy adults, who imagine that there is any short cut around the quantity of time it takes to raise a kid. In publishing, writers like to imagine that there’e2’80’99s a short cut around the well-worn path to establishing a writer, if only they can find it, or their publisher would let them in on it.

I’e2’80’99m afraid that for the majority of us, those who haven’e2’80’99t been born with a famous name or are personal friends with Oprah or have been dropped into circumstances that catch the imagination of a vast slice of the reading public, there simply are no short cuts. You write a book, the best book you possibly can; you manage to sell it to a real publisher; the book sells enough copies to make your publisher interested in the next one, which they buy, and to which they commit a handful of promotion dollars. That one sells a few more, but you still concentrate on writing the very best book you possibly can.

This isn’e2’80’99t to say there isn’e2’80’99t promotional work to be done by the book’e2’80’99s writer. The first book will benefit by personal, local contact’e2’80’94not a nation-wide tour, not big ads, but you, dropping in to booksellers, particularly the independents, in your area during a slack time of their day, carrying a copy of your book and maybe a nicely printed review or bio or something, and shaking the hands of the manager, the buyer, and anyone else who stands still for you. Friendly, chatty, not in the least pushy, just telling them that you’e2’80’99re local, that you set the book in the area, that you have friends and family there. No need to finish the sentence:”…who will come in and buy it.”

You are one of a thousand new writers that manager will come across in the next few months: You can stand out by being obnoxious (‘e2’80’9cYou really need to have some copies of my books up front.’e2’80’9d) or by being really nice. Guess which approach will get that manager to look at the flyer you hand her, and which will spin the flyer into the nearest bin without a glance?

Your local independent will generally do you an event, possibly a group signing with other local writers. Your family will show up, your friends will buy a copy, and you shake the hands of everyone you see and graciously introduce yourself, thanking them for coming.

Next year: repeat.

One reader at a time. One bookstore at a time. It’s mostly a matter of showing up. Go to your local writers group if you like, particularly if you can volunteer some time there. Go to conferences if you can afford it, shake hands and see how other people do it (both the writing thing and the promotion thing.) Be the best writer you can’e2’80’94and the most dependable. A book a year, year in and year out, lovingly written, agonizingly polished, is what it’e2’80’99s about.

One book at a time, one reader at a time. With determination, with luck, with an unending willingness to learn, your readership grows along with your backlist.

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  1. Anonymous on September 12, 2005 at 6:35 pm

    I think you’re right; it is one reader at a time.

    I don’t know if I am typical of prolific readers or not. I read constantly, usually around ten books a week. I read everything–ficion, poetry, biography, travel narratives–What gets me are characters. When I find an author whose characters are more than dialogue, who have depth–even if I don’t like the character–I am hooked. It is like meeting someone new. I go back to that author.

    In terms of promotion, I think I am a weirdo who would skew a survey. Free book contests are good. Published interviews with the author are great. But truthfully, I don’t usually go to meet the author events, I don’t have much to say except “I read your books,” and standing in line for that seems silly. If the author is not reading from the book, but talking, I will go–because that is new and interesting. A reading of material I am going to read anyway doesn’t appeal to me.

    I support authors I like by asking for their stuff at bookstores and libraries. I tell my librarian about good titles and what makes them good. I check out and reread my favorite authors because I know my library bases purchases of new material on circulation numbers for previous books by an author. I buy autographed copies of books I like, usually more than one, because I give them to friends. I feel a responsibility to authors I like. They give me a good story; I give them good press. Promotion seems to me a lot about living up to your last book. A heavy responsility.

  2. Katy on September 12, 2005 at 10:38 pm

    Write a good book, get it published by a semi-reputable publishing house, and I think that the rest will come. There are others out there like me who comb through the shelves in genres that they like, looking for anything interesting, whether its the cover, blurb, or title, (desperately) looking for new authors to discover. I regularly go to bookstores to do just that, after I have read through all of the books on my shelves for the nth time and am dying for something new. I don’t pay attention to adverts, things flying in teh sky, best seller lists. I pay attention to what is on the shelves. I also sometimes pay attention to my recommended list. But only sometimes. If I read an author’s blog and they mention someone they think is the tops, I google them to find out if they might be worth my time. Story and characters are all I care about.

  3. Anonymous on September 12, 2005 at 10:44 pm

    There is an interesting section in Malcom Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, about what makes a book (in this case Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) go from small to large readership.

    I love your books (I have read all of the Mary Russell series), and eagerly await the next one.

  4. Anonymous on September 12, 2005 at 10:49 pm

    I love to read–almost anything except finance. I like consistency. I enjoy the content, which I want to be correct. Years ago I read a great fiction by a young author, waited 10 years for her second book, and was more than disappointed–she crossed decades with the subject, the surroundings, even got history screwed up! I’ll never read her again. I hate when a trusted author fools me—writes true crime instead of mystery or kills a main character or pulls some ‘surprise’that is totally out of character. I may not be selling books but I am buying and know what I like!! I have a group of 50+ friends who share likes and dislikes of reading, so we create quite a large circle of consumers with money to spend, so write, Laurie! We all buy your books and discuss all sorts of tiny bits that you never put a second thought to when writing!

  5. Chris on September 13, 2005 at 10:47 am

    You must have so much patience, in your line of work…It has paid dividends, with some wonderful, and completely justified, reviews over the years.

    The first book of yours I read was “With Child”, which I picked up out of interest in Waterstones back in ’97, as I’d noted the San Francisco setting. I was just about to embark on my first trip to SFO, and liked the idea of reading a story with that setting! The rest, as they say, is history, as I scoured stores for all of your other books, and have been buying them (you’ve guessed it) as they are published, ever since. You converted me to ‘historical’ crime with the Russells, too, by the way…

    I am so pleased that we in the UK no longer lag behind with publications – HC were so slow in publishing the MRs. At least I do have a complete set of all of your books now, in HB form. Is “Keeping Watch” EVER to be published in the UK?

    Meanwhile, as ever, all the best, and enjoy your trip to England!

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