Shirley Kennett, author of the P. J. Gray series, left this comment on a Suspense/Thriller Writers discussion on Facebook, and I wanted to make it available to all writers who are embarking on this business of book marketing. Shirley wrote:
Booksellers should be the primary target of your promotion instead of individual readers. Word of mouth recommendations about your book among individual readers is great; among booksellers, priceless.
With six books published and a seventh on the way, I’ve tried a lot of approaches to promotion. Bookmarks, postcards, promotional items, you name it, I’ve tried it at one time or another. I’ve learned that the most productive thing I can do is have direct contact with booksellers. In person if possible, by phone otherwise. A store might junk an email from you without reading it, so start using that unlimited long distance on your phone plan.
Reluctant to call up strangers and pimp your book, as a dear friend of mine calls it? Okay, put a little money where your mouth isn’t. Buy copies of your book with your author’s discount or at a discounted retail or online store, and mail bookstores a free copy of your book. It won’t end up in the trash. Bookstore people can’t help themselves. They love books. With your book in their hands, the quality of the book has a chance to do its job. Even better, deliver the book in person. You have an immediate ice-breaker: a book to give away. Start locally for a confidence booster. You’d be surprised how thrilled people can be just meeting an author who lives in their town and not in an ivory tower.
With most of your effort channeled toward booksellers, you should still try to make it to conferences. Just look at all those potential fans of yours gathered in one spot, and that includes all of the other authors there.
One of the best ways to overcome shyness at these events is to volunteer, both in advance of the event working behind the scenes and right at the conference, greeting people at the registration desk or anything else that puts you in a position where you’ll meet people. Having served as registrar for ThrillerFest (a plug: http://www.thrillerfest.org) for three years in a row, I work behind the scenes months before the conference, building relationships with everyone from bestselling novelists to librarians, bookstore owners, agents, editors, publicists, and of course readers. Then at the conference, everybody comes to the registration desk, and there I am, already a familiar name before I say a word.
This year, I’m conference chair, and I can say my address book is overflowing with new contacts of all types. So get out there and volunteer, and don’t be afraid to step up to a more responsible job after you’ve gotten your feet wet.
Ah, signings. Worth it or not? It’s up to the individual. Yes, you can build a relationship with the bookstore, but if you’re doing it for the sales, I don’t think it’s worth it. It’s expensive, it’s time away from your writing, and unless you’re already a mega selling author, you’re not going to draw large crowds of non-relatives to your signings. If you don’t have the hide of a rhino, it’s going to hurt to sit there all by yourself at the signing table. Instead, you could visit 10 booksellers in a city in a day and hand out 10 free books. Say 7 of them think your book is great (can’t please everyone), and begin handselling, which happens even in chains. That could snowball into a lot of sales. Maybe then they’ll be calling you, pleading for you to come for a signing!
If you do have signings, here are some tips. Don’t take for granted that everything is going smoothly on the store’s side or you could show up with no one expecting you and none of your books in stock. Really, truly. Contact the store 2-3 weeks in advance confirming the plans you made 3 months ago, and then phone the day before you arrive to make sure whoever is working on the day of your signing is aware of the big event.
Here’s the hard part–don’t sit silently behind your table waiting for people to miraculously notice you and buy your book. If you do that, it is possible that the only person who comes to your table will want to know where the ladies’ room is. Stand up. Talk to people as they pass by. Make sure your table is in a high-traffic area and not stuffed back in the corner with the reference books. If you’re nervous doing this, have something in your hands at all times to ease your way. Say hi and offer a bookmark or a pen. Yes, the steely ones will resist eye contact and move on. But most people will reach out to accept something being handed to them in a non-threatening way.
Once the item changes hands, you have at least a short time to chat about what type of books the person likes. Initially, make it about the reader and not about you, if you are shy. Don’t go for the hard sell. You’ve already got your advertising in their hands, so let it do the job of selling. If you’re lucky, you’ll get asked about the book and then you’re on comfortable ground. You can bring a friend or relative with you to the store to cruise around talking with readers and handing out bookmarks. Be sure to clear that with the store manager, and make sure your friend isn’t obnoxious.
Try to have your picture taken at your table with a few people around. This is great for your website and for one other use. Follow up with a thank you note to your contact at the store. A real note, not a quickly-tossed-off email. If you want to spend some money on it, print note cards with your book cover on the front. In the note, include a copy of the picture taken in the store. (Crop it to make it look more flattering if you have to.) That photo might go in a store newsletter or on a bulletin board or sit on the counter for a little time.
If you belong to any writing groups that have chapters in the city you’re visiting, be sure to notify them. Chapter members may turn out in support of you.
If you end up with up with zero sales–and it is bound to happen sometime–be gracious about it.
One more thing: when the signing is over, you should ask if you can sign the remaining stock of books. You may be shy getting started in this make-yourself-known process, but amazingly, a lot of readers are too shy to talk to the Big Important Author face-to-face. They’ll come in after the signing, and your signed book will be available. Be cautious with this and don’t press the store to let you sign these books. Once signed, they are not returnable and realistically might gather dust rather than kudos. Best of all is when a store manager or owner asks you to sign the remaining stock, rather than the other way around!