A major misconception held by many aspiring writers involves the amount of promotion a first-time author can expect from the publisher. Many dream of book tours and media appearances, or they expect their agent to act as their publicist. Although I’m sure that does happen for a very small number of debut writers, I can assure you that the vast majority of us must do the bulk of our own public relations work.
Consider my experience. I signed a two book deal with Delacorte/Random House and received an advance well above the average for a debut novelist. I was assigned an in-house publicist, who in addition to my novel, SO SHELLY, was responsible for promoting the work of a stable of authors. Her efforts were primarily and properly directed towards gaining prominent space for my novel in industry catalogs and at promoting it at domestic and international book festivals with her target being those who purchase in large numbers, not the individual readers who purchase books in stores and online. Like it or not, except for the writer who has a large and built-in audience or who has a pre-established media platform, it will always be the author’s responsibility to market himself and his work to individual book buyers. The question is how to do so.
In the six months since the release of SO SHELLY, I have tried and continue to experiment with a number of marketing strategies. The easiest, least expensive, and most utilized is social networking. For me, Facebook, much more than Twitter, has translated into sales. Facebook friends are much more often actual friends or people with whom I have a shared present or past. These friends sincerely want to see me succeed and to be part of that success. Though much appreciated, my Twitter contacts tend to be those with their own interests in mind and products and services to sell.
Book store signings have also proven successful for me, but on each occasion, I’ve had to work the floor, offering book browsers insight on various authors and books and often making recommendations other than my own. I’ve even steered potential buyers away from my novel if I felt it didn’t match what they’d shared with me as their preferred style of reading. Don’t expect to sit at a table with a line of book buyers waiting for your signature.
I’ve done a number of library readings with varied success. In the days immediately following my novel’s release, a local bookstore sent a salesperson directly to the libraries to make sales. These early readings were well-attended and quite a few sales were made. However, after a few months, the attendance at my library readings has dwindled. I actually had an appearance to which no one came. I didn’t regret it at all. An occasional humbling is beneficial, and I just think of all of the superstar musicians who tell stories of playing in empty bars for years before ever playing an arena show. I still will never turn down a library reading. I have found, however, that it has helped to change from doing a reading from my novel to doing a presentation on the publishing/writing process in general. This draws from a much larger pool than the genre in which I write.
A practice I’m committed to that many will find uncomfortable for themselves is personal signings. I’ve met a number of my readers at coffee shops, bookstores, even in my home for a conversation and to sign their book. In the process, I have reestablished relationships and made new friends. These personal signings have not resulted in a single negative experience. Just think how powerful of a champion those readers have become for me and my book out among the reading public. The positive word-of-mouth these champions generate is priceless.
In recent months, I’ve been featured in the alumni magazines of both my high school and my university. One sought me out; the other, I contacted. I actually appeared on the cover of my high school’s magazine, which may sound trivial; however, it was a direct mailing into literally thousands of homes across the country, as was the college publication. I couldn’t afford to buy that kind of publicity, but I got it for free. I have also done two local radio appearances for which a surprising number of people stop to tell me they heard me on the radio then went and bought my book.
On the heels of being named one of 2011’s top “New Voices in YA Literature” by the American Booksellers Association, I’m currently trying to jump start sales in a number of ways. I ordered postcards with the cover image of SO SHELLY and the ABA’s recognition, which I’m mailing to independent bookstore owners to encourage them to stock SO SHELLY and promote it to their customers. I have also begun to seek inclusion in various book/literary festivals across the country. So far, I’ve been invited to present at one, and I am being considered for several others. A final strategy I’ve begun to employ is the offering of myself as a guest lecturer in creative writing classrooms at local universities. One has offered me the opportunity to do an evening reading and presentation for which they have offered an honorarium.
The reality is that the author must assume the responsibility forreaching readers and selling books. The number of ways to do so are unlimited, and no way is too small or unworthy of the effort. We are all trying to light those small purchase fires that we hope will combine and spread into a conflagration of sales. Borrow promotional ideas from others and try a few of your own. Whatever you do, don’t sit back and expect your book to magically find an audience or for your publisher to do the hard sales for you. If a writer does his side of promotion well and the book is truly deserving of finding an audience, I sincerely believe it will.
In a recent interview, I was asked how I decide which portion of my novel to perform during a public reading. I used the word “perform” because for a reading to be successful, it must be a performance. This can be a major block for authors lacking a theatrical flair. It’s exceedingly difficult enough to pry people from off their couches and from their computers to take the trouble of getting themselves to a local library, university, or bookstore for a reading. If all the author provides is a vocalization of what the reader could have done for himself at home, there is very little likelihood that reader will be entertained or ever attend another reading. The best readings I’ve attended have been like one-man plays in which the author adapts his voice, facial expressions, and body language to match the characters for whom he speaks. Therefore, my first criteria for choosing an excerpt for reading is to choose a section heavy in dialogue and play the roles I’ve created. Said another way, I avoid reading long blocks of explanatory text, especially that which does little more than establish setting or directly characterize.
A second criterion pertains to how long the book has been available to the public. If the reading is to take place in the weeks to first few months after the novel’s release, I prefer to read from the beginning. There is no better place to start, and the reading will often serve to whet the appetite of the audience and to inspire their purchase of the novel. However, if the novel has been on shelves for months, and there is a good likelihood that a large portion of the audience will already have read the book, I like to choose a section that works as a self-contained mini-narrative even when excised from the story as a whole. I often find these excerpts buried in the sub-plot of the novel. I have found this sort of audience to find greater satisfaction by such a reading.
A third consideration is the make-up of the audience. I often change my choice of material at the very last minute based upon those actually in attendance rather than those “ideal readers,” to borrow Stephen King’s title,” I had imagined would fill the seats. For example, in my debut novel, So Shelly, the teenage characters use a fair amount of what many would consider vulgar language, including the “F”-word. If I notice a number of young children or elderly patrons, who are typically the ones most offended, I will read from a sectionthat makes minimal use of that sort of language. Although I relish the opportunity to offend my readers beliefs and values as a means of forcing them to examine them more closely, offending the reader or audience through the use of vulgarities is a cheap trick of little substantive value.
Finally, the most important criterion in choosing an excerpt for performance in a public setting is to select a portion which can be read in no more than fifteen minutes. If I go beyond that, I find some grow restless and lose interest. Remember, these are readers. Let them read.
I’ve been notified by my editor that the American Booksellers Associaion, by virtue of its committee’s reading of SO SHELLY, has chosen me as one of its “New Voices in YA.” I’ve always believed that Shelly has something unique to offer the YA community, but I also knew that its uniqueness might also be a hindrance as it searched for an audience. However, I kept the faith that, more-often-than-not, if a work of art is truly deserving, it will find its audience and be recognized. I absolutely trust the marketplace of ideas and artistic taste. Hopefully, the “New Voices” recognition will inspire additional bookstores to fully stock Shelly, international publishers to show greater interest, and, most importantly, more readers to give her a whirl and those, who have already read Shelly, to read it again.
The news couldn’t have come at a better time. These past few months have been a struggle as I’ve worked on finishing a second novel. I’ve actually completed and set aside one novel in order to write another which, I think, shows greater promise for successful publication. There have been many, many moments in which I haven’t felt much like a writer at all. This recognition, if nothing else, reaffirms that at least on one occasion, I was a writer.
I would be more than remiss if I didn’t thank my agent, Katherine Boyle of Veritas Literary Agency, and my editor at Random House/Delacorte, Michelle Poploff. Without their vision and talents, this award would never have been earned. When the complete list is announce on August 25th, I’ll provide a link to the ABA website.