Friday, April 21, 2006

Spreading the Word

First, a work status report (mostly for Mom): still not quite done yet. I swear, this is the book that wouldn't die. I came up with a plot twist last night that makes everything else fall into place and make sense, but it also complicates matters a bit. I resorted to sitting down with pen and paper to figure it all out. I listed all the people involved and what was going on behind the scenes with each of them, including their motivations, plan A and plan B, and what they hoped to get out of the situation. Then I came up with a timeline of who did what and when. Next I may resort to drawing Xs and Os like I'm planning a football play. It's hard to plan written chaos so that it will make sense to someone who's reading it.

Second, thanks to everyone for the votes of confidence. It looks like I could go just about everywhere except my hometown and have at least one person want to meet me, which is cool. Unfortunately, what book touring I'm doing is strictly on my own dime right now, so I'm not getting too far afield. There's always the chance that if this book sells surprisingly well, my publisher might spring for a book tour on the next book.

Which brings me to my next topic. A discussion got going in the comments on my LiveJournal yesterday about how people who don't live near where there's a signing can still show their support. I used to have something about this on my web site, but it didn't make it onto this version of the site because I was afraid it made me sound kind of needy.

Believe it or not, you, the reader, are the single most powerful marketing force in the publishing industry. Word of mouth has more to do with what books become hits than reviews, ads or just about anything else other than print run and bookstore buy-in -- and you can even have an effect on that. You can take a book from obscurity to bestseller status, and you can even undermine the splashiest promotional campaign around if you get the word out that a much-hyped book isn't all it's cracked up to be. Just be sure to use your power for good rather than evil, okay? And don't let it go to your head. Superhero outfits involving tights are just tacky for daytime wear.

Here are some tips for the best ways you can develop and use this power, and it doesn't just apply to my books. It applies to any other books, or even reading in general.

1) Buy the book. New.
Used book sales are invisible to the publishing industry, so they have very little impact on a book's success. Plus, the author and publisher receive absolutely no money from the sale of a used book. Think of it as like calling in to cast your vote on American Idol. When you buy a book, you're sending a message to the bookstore and to the publishing industry about what you like to read and want to see more of. Publishers are like lemmings. If a certain type of book gets big sales, they'll give you more like that.

2) If a bookstore doesn't have what you're looking for, ask for it.
This is very important because if the book isn't on store shelves, word of mouth doesn't do much good (unless the word of mouth is so persuasive that it makes people go out of their way to order or request a book). If you don't find the book on the shelf, there are several things that could have happened.
The shipment may not have come in yet -- my last book came out the day after Memorial Day, so some stores didn't get it until late in the week. If a bookseller knows that people are already asking for a book, chances are better that when the book does arrive, it will be shelved as soon as possible.
The book could still be sitting in boxes in receiving, and they haven't gotten around to shelving it -- If people are asking for a book, that will more or less force them to open the box and put it on the shelf.
The store may not have ordered it at all, or it may have sold out and hasn't been reordered -- If people ask for it, the bookseller may consider ordering it or restocking it, which means it will then be there for other people to be able to find it.
The store may have it, but not in the place where you were looking for it -- in that case, the bookseller can help you find the book, and if you mention the perfectly logical place you were looking for it without finding it, a very enterprising bookseller may consider shelving some copies there in the future. (My books may cross the line between chick lit, fantasy and romance, but they're most often shelved in general fiction.)

3) Be enthusiastic about the book when you buy it.
Dances of joy in the bookstore when you see the book you want are optional. But it doesn't hurt to mention how much you've been looking forward to a book to the bookseller as you pay for your purchase. For the most part, people who work in bookstores like books, but they may not know everything about every book being published. They like to know what their customers are excited about because that points them to a book they may be able to sell to other people (and enjoy, themselves). Of course, don't start a long book discussion if there's a line of people behind you waiting to check out. Your interest in a book may also spread to other customers. If you do much people watching in a bookstore, you may notice that if there are a few people browsing those front tables where the books are stacked up, if one of those people picks up a book, the other people will eventually work their way around to that stack and pick up a copy, as if they have to check out what that first person was so interested in.

4) Tell other people about the book.
This is the core of word of mouth. People are more likely to trust the recommendation of people they know than they are the word of critics or ads. You can also engage in a dialogue that finds selling points unique to the interests of that individual, while a review or an ad can't talk back if it doesn't immediately catch someone's interest. When enough people tell enough people, buzz starts building, and that's what ultimately can make a book a hit, when people have heard about it from multiple sources, so they know it's got to be hot. That's also when the media may take notice, which then vaults things to a whole new level.
Blog about the book. Mention it on your MySpace page or your web site. Mention it in relevant message board discussions or on mailing lists (just don't spam or be rude or violate the list or board rules). Talk to your friends, family or co-workers about it. You may have to mention it several times for it to sink in. Generally, people have to hear a message three times before they start to notice it.

5) Post a review at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble, as well as any other online places that allow customer reviews.
Be honest and straightforward here. People have learned to tune out reviews that sound like they were written by the author's mother or by the author herself under an assumed name. For the most part, it's the volume of reviews and the average rating that catches people's eye. A lot of reviews means a lot of people are talking about the book, which makes it look noteworthy.

6) If you know or know of any journalists, radio personalities or other public figures who like that sort of thing or who you think might be interested in the book, shoot them an e-mail.
Reporters are more likely to cover something their audience finds interesting, and a writer for a newspaper book section (if you can find one who acknowledges the existence of anything other than highbrow literary fiction) or person who chooses talk show guests will probably take more notice of a reader saying, "Hey, you should check this book out," than they would of a publicist saying the same thing. (Forget about contacting Oprah about books, though. She's swamped and has her own selection process.)

7) Read the book in public with the cover visible.
Read in the bookstore cafe, at Starbucks, while getting your hair done, in the waiting room at the dentist's office. Read on airplanes, trains, subways and buses. Read in airports, train stations, outdoor cafes, the park. You get the idea. It's like visual word of mouth. When you see a book everywhere, you're more likely to check it out, yourself (unless you're one of those people who's turned off by anything that looks too popular -- but I seriously doubt my books have hit that level yet). I'd love to see more people reading books of all kinds in public -- give the impression that everyone who's anyone is doing it and help make reading look more popular. All the cool people are doing it!

I don't really recommend rearranging bookstore shelves to make a book more prominent because booksellers hate that. You're better off bringing it to the bookseller's attention and then letting them make the decision to feature the book. In some cases, buying the book in the first week of release is best because it increases the chances of it making the bestseller list. I'm not one of those cases because my print run is such that if every single copy they printed sold in the first week, it still wouldn't hit a bestseller list. My goal is more sell-through, to have a larger percentage of the printed books sell over time. A big spike that causes a bestseller placement is nice, but consistent sales over time are also good.

Anyone else have any other word of mouth ideas they'd like to share? I read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point last fall, and he has some fascinating ideas of what goes into word of mouth spreading to the point of something becoming a hit, so I've started trying to study word of mouth to see what, if anything I can do to encourage it. I still think it's mostly up to you guys.

You might start seeing copies of Once Upon Stilettos in some stores as early as today. I was getting reports on the last book of people who bought it on Friday before the release date. If you see it anywhere, let me know! I'm curious about where and when it starts popping up.


Angie said...

I was travelling this weekend and hoped I might find it in one of the airport bookstores to enjoy on the way back. Unfortunately those bookstores didn't have it yet. :(

Shanna Swendson said...

I'm hearing now that they're enforcing a "hard street date" for this one, for whatever reason. But it should be in stores tomorrow!