Being My Own Book Publicist
by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson
from WRITER, INC.
Most writers I know have a distaste for self-promotion. Many of us have chosen to speak through the page for a reason. We want to be Oz, The Great and Terrible—but from behind the curtain. I remember those MFA dreams of New York City publishers who would sweep me away. These mythical creatures would care for my Art, and manage all that distasteful book-peddling.
When I signed with Press 53, a small press, I had to kiss certain dreams goodbye. I would not come out in hardback. I would not be distributed in Barnes & Noble bookstores. I would have neither publicist nor publicity budget. I would not be reviewed by Publishers Weekly. I would not be reviewed by anyone unless I convinced the reviewer personally. I was provided a professional product (the book), the street cred of a professional press, eight promotional copies, a stack of glossy postcards, and assistance setting up a few readings in North Carolina, home of the press.
On October 1, 2011, Press 53 released My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself. What follows is my trial-by-fire advice based on a two-week crash course in book publicity.
Do what you can before the book release.
Tasks include the following:
- Make a promotional folder that contains a press release, author photo, author bio, book cover PDF, book blurbs, review blurbs, and book excerpts.
- Create (or commission) an author website.
- Brainstorm a list of your particular markets (more on this later), something that will help you with 4, 5, and 6 below.
- Identify potential reviewers.
- Set up readings.
- See who will let you guest-blog.
- Establish a Twitter following and a Goodreads presence (more on this later).
- Maintain an active Facebook page.
Granted, each item on this list is an article unto itself. Know that all the above tasks are even more time-consuming than you can imagine. I am way behind. My website took four months from conception to completion, and I paid a designer. I am still struggling to set up readings and solicit reviews. I admit that until the publication date, I was focused on the book itself. Mentally, I couldn’t handle promotion when I was still agonizing over line edits. While writing the book, I did maintain a “Laura Promo Ideas” Word document to record ideas as they came to me. I turn to this list when I’m wondering what I should do next. (Note to self: Remember to check Laura Promo Ideas list).
The benefit of publishing with a small press is that I don’t have a “three-month push.” In NYC publishing, you have three months to prove your worth or Barnes & Noble yanks your book from its coveted shelf space. That my book publicity is a work in progress isn’t a disaster. I can continue to sell my book over time without fear of cold storage.
It might help if you treat your book and your author persona as a product.
My book cover is a picture of myself on the Ingalls Homestead in South Dakota in a prairie dress. I have wondered (as I grip the guilt stitch in my side), “What kind of egomaniac puts herself on the cover of her own book?” And yet, that cover is exactly the right cover for the book. My friends insist that they love it but even if they’re lying I can’t change anything. Right now, I have a stack of “me” on my desk and a case of “me” to the right, and no time to cringe. Instead I play the mental game of pretending I’m a book publicist working for an author.
The world of publishing and book sales is shifting beneath your feet.
No, I don’t have to worry about Barnes & Noble yanking my book because I was never there in the first place. People mourn the death of the browsing bookstore, but the rise of online sales is great for a small press author such as myself. With my press, I can purchase books at cost. That means if I give a reading at an art gallery or a coffee shop, I can sell books and I don’t have to split the revenue 80/20 or 60/40 with a bookstore. I can even accept credit cards with a device that hooks onto my iPod! (Note to self: Figure out how credit card–thingy works). I’ve also been told that library readings are very successful if the library will let you sell books. (Note to self: set up readings at libraries).
“What about independent bookstores?” you ask.
I admit I had this image of independent bookstores and small presses triumphing over big business. I was naïve. So far, I’ve found that booksellers and small presses are often at odds with one another. I suspect the problem is scarcity; everyone is scrambling to stay alive. Booksellers still rely on The Help for sales, whereas small presses need their books to be hand-sold with love. Booksellers can’t afford to carry product that doesn’t move and small presses can’t survive returns.
What all this has meant for me is that after two weeks my book is carried by three bookstores, all located in cities where I have lived. I went to each store and visited the owner, book in hand. One store took one book on consignment. Another took three with great enthusiasm. The third took two… with a raised eyebrow and sigh of resignation. Probably other bookstores will carry me. But it is up to me to contact each and every one. (Note to self: Make list of independent bookstores and contact them).
You are alone. All alone in this cold, cruel world.
Don’t waste time whining about what people aren’t doing for you. Maybe Beyoncé and Margaret Atwood have an entourage, but I find myself muttering the prelude to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” the part where he shouts, “ ’Cause in this life, things are much harder than the afterworld. In this life, you’re on your own.” Or as my mom would say, “Buck up, little Buckaroo!”
From what I hear, a NYC deal is no guarantee of publicity. I’ve had friends with major publishers report that all their publicists did was claim they had solicited reviews and show up for a few readings. That I had zero expectation of help might even be to my advantage. I haven’t waited around for anyone to take care of business for me.
Why am I on the Ohio University and Montana English department websites? Because I sent them a PDF of the book cover and asked. Why was I interviewed for the Ohio paper and the local news? Because I looked up the contact information and wrote an email. Etc., etc., etc.
You have friends! They love you!
Yes, I lied. You aren’t really on your own, because you have a community of amazing people who want to help. In the past month I’ve learned something new about the usefulness of writing groups, the MFA, and the PhD. Over the past five years, I’ve made literary friends. These are people who read and buy books to support the world of words.
Within five days of posting “I Amazon Therefore I Am” as a Facebook status update, my Amazon sales rankings leapt from #249,000 to a peak of #12,000. #12,000! My press thought my book was “catching” but I knew this sales increase was all because of friends and colleagues. How am I so sure? The bottom of my Amazon page reads “Customers who bought this item bought The MLA Handbook of Style.” As a side note: I was amazed at how much an Amazon page gave my book credibility. People love to hate corporations, but Amazon is brand name recognition (and three-click shopping) and people respond.
I have a friend in Mobile who is a fan of my writing and writes book reviews for the local paper. I have another friend who has a friend in New York who might be willing to throw me a book reading party. While I have been sad to see my MFA and PhD friends scatter, it is an advantage to know people all over the country. Book tours are often unprofitable but I don’t mind combining travel to see friends with the opportunity to read.
Brainstorm your particular markets.
These markets, of course, are different for every author. Unique markets for me include (1) schools I have attended, (2) Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, and (3) places I’ve lived.
I’m still figuring this part out. I threw a pioneer-themed book launch party here in Athens and the Ohio University English Department supported me with posters, a few NPR spots, their bodily presence, and cash sales. (That I bribed grad students with ham probably didn’t hurt.) I asked a former Montana professor to recommend me to the Montana Festival of the Book coordinators. They said yes, so I flew out to Missoula and read (using student travel funds). I have been interviewed for the website “Beyond Little House: America’s most comprehensive site dedicated to the life, literature, and many homes of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I plan to present at a Wilder conference, Laurapalooza, this summer. (Note to self: Don’t forget to brainstorm more particular markets. AND don’t forget to consult alumni magazines—try to get a profile or at least a mention.)
Sorry. All that social networking matters.
“When I think about all the tweeting and blogging and Skyping we’re expected to do, I can’t help feeling slightly jealous of those writers of yore, the ones who lived in plague-infested squalor and worked by candlelight and died of tuberculosis before the age of thirty-five,” Aryn Kyle, author of The God of Animals.
The typical complaint is that all this writing and networking detracts from creating new work, which it does, completely. The last time I worked on anything besides my book and/or publicity-related writing was last spring. Social networking exhausts my words. I mean, how many adorable, witty anecdotes is one person supposed to provide a day? But I spent five years of my life on this book, from start to publication. I refuse to drop the ball now.
How I socially network: An incomplete guide.
Since 2008, I have maintained my Facebook account. I post updates and pictures. Note: I do not post on Facebook only for my book. Most of my Facebook friends are actual friends, or at least actual respected acquaintances. I’ve been known to block writers that I have never met who friend me only so they can let me know about every reading, review, blog update, and so on, especially if they abuse the feed. At the same time, maybe people want to know my news. I created a “My Life as Laura” fan page, but it’s difficult to get all of my Facebook friends to “like” my fan page. My plan was to post writer updates only on my writer’s page. But I just posted a blog update to my status, so I broke my rule.
I set up a Goodreads account with an author page and book page. My Goodreads profile is a work in progress, but it turns out I enjoy reading and writing about books. My goal is to write a little mini-review once a week. Now that I’ve marked Nabokov’s Pale Fire as “to read,” I have a sense of accountability and connection with a writing community who has read the same book. I also plan to review books in the Laura canon. Who knows? Maybe I’ll catch a few Laurafans along the way.
With much feet dragging and whinging, I caved to Twitter and created a “handle.” Lauren Cerand writes in her July/August 2011 Poets & Writers article about Twitter that one should Tweet twice a day. Again, how to Tweet is another article—I suggest the one by Cerand. In a nutshell, the rationale for using Twitter is that the feed reaches strangers (we’ll call these people “potential fans”). Although I have a whopping sixty followers (it’s only been a few weeks, okay?), I have been “Retweeted” and “Favorited” by people with larger followings.
I also blog at my website. While every author needs a website, I don’t know that a blog is for everyone. I wrote a nonfiction book about a specific subject that lends itself to posts about pioneer life, Laura Ingalls Wilder news, as well as author news. I question whether another blog about a writer writing about her writing would generate much traffic. But it might. If you blog, post at least once a week. And post on Mondays. Everyone is bored at work.
How do I know that all this social networking matters? (1) Remember that Facebook status update, “I Amazon Therefore I Am”? (2) On my WordPress Stats Counter Plugin (it pained me to type that), I can see that when I post a blog update, the number of daily visitors shoots up from eight to around fifty to seventy. I can see how viewers were directed from Twitter or my Facebook page. I can also track the exit links, which often go to places my book is sold.
In conclusion: The days of expecting sales by exuding a JD Salinger mystique are over.
Maybe Jonathan Franzen gets to live the dream of the aloof genius pecking madly away at his antique typewriter. The rest of us have to “get out there.” The above is some of what I’ve figured out but I’m still trying to find the exact location of “out there” and determine just what I’m supposed to do when I get there.
I am fortunate in that years of performance (twenty years of playing in bands and waiting tables, and now five years of teaching) have prepared me for the worst. More often you expect anger and receive apathy. You can’t fight apathy. Last week at the Montana Festival of the Book Bookfair, I watched someone pick up my book, shrug, and put it back. I burst out laughing. My friend standing next to me gasped and wondered how I could stand it. I’m not sure why I thought this was so funny but I’ll part with this: Understanding that you aren’t the only or most important writer in the world helps.