Monday, May 14, 2007

Getting Out of the Loop

I'm a bit less stupid today. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that I'm less tired. I took all of Sunday off -- didn't do anything even remotely work-related. The Saturday signing in Fort Worth was good in its own way. Nobody showed up just to see me, but I ended up selling a good number of books -- almost all Enchanted, Inc., which means they were all new recruits. There seem to be two main kinds of booksignings. There are the ones where fans show up to meet me, so the focus is more on chatting. I come back from those a weird combination of tired and wired, exhausted, but still excited. Then there are the ones where I essentially spend two hours handselling, talking to people and persuading them to give the book a chance. Those are just exhausting, even if the results are good, because I'm not much of a salesperson. I found it draining and stressful selling Girl Scout cookies, and if you can't work up the nerve to ask people to buy Thin Mints, which practically throw themselves at people and sell themselves, then handselling is probably not your ideal thing.

What I find interesting is how receptive people are to my books once they're brought to their attention. As soon as people really get a look at the covers and read the back cover or even really hear what the books are about, they're all over them. I keep hearing people say that sounds like just their thing, and they wonder why they haven't heard of these books. I guess that shows that even with the publicity I've had, the word still hasn't spread to the mainstream. I'm actually surprised at how little impact having that big article and photo in the Dallas Morning News has had. Other than a few people who came to that first booksigning, I haven't yet run into anyone I didn't already know who recognizes or remembers me from the newspaper. No one at a bookstore other than the one where I was signing that night was aware of the newspaper article (if I were working in a bookstore, I'd make a point of reading the arts section every morning to see if there was something in there customers might be asking for.) Meanwhile, there was also an article and photo on the front page of the weekly newspaper for this general suburban area, and I'm a little surprised that no one at, say, church has recognized me as the person in the newspaper. Do people just not expect people who are in the newspaper to be out and about town like everyone else? Even with the kind of press I'm getting and with books out in stores, this isn't the most famous I've been. My biggest fame spell came when I was in college in Austin. I was interviewed by a crew for a story in a local TV newscast, and since I was actually a broadcast news major I guess I gave them a really good sound bite because it not only ended up in the story, but then they used that clip for the station's promos (the "we're covering the local news that matters to you" kind of thing), and for several months, I couldn't go anywhere around Austin without someone recognizing me and asking if I was the girl in the news commercials.

So, with getting some press, and with the books being something that should be hot, given market trends and the kind of interest they generate, why haven't they hit bigger? What is it that makes the difference between a bestseller and an also-ran? I probably spend way too much time thinking about that, but it's a fascinating topic. To a large extent, publishers help decide what will be a bestseller. Some books get the star treatment, with all kinds of promo goodies sent to key accounts and a fairly hard sell instead of it just being in the catalog. The publishers pay for prime store placement, which ensures a certain level of orders. Then there's advertising and other marketing. Even there, it may or may not work. There was an article in The New York Times about what a crap shoot it is.

Even when it comes to books that are bestsellers, I'm not sure how the word really gets out because as clued into the book business as I am, there are a lot I don't hear much about. Suite Francais is really hitting the bestseller lists now in trade paperback, and I only discovered that book when it was just sitting on the "new fiction" table at a store where I was having a signing last year. I didn't read it for months, and I didn't start hearing buzz about it until I'd read it. Naomi Novik's Temeraire books hit really big, and I found out about those through the Del Rey Internet Newsletter, when they did a special edition just about that series. But I didn't see special placement in stores. In fact, the second book in the series had the same release date as my last book, and I didn't find it in most stores when I was out signing stock. I did hear some online buzz after I'd already read the first book, and it appears that she attends ComicCon. She also has a LiveJournal and averages at least 50 comments whenever she makes a post (I feel so inadequate). My books have been featured in the publisher's newsletters (though not with an entire issue devoted to them) and I certainly didn't get the same result. I heard about Love Walked In via a review at Trashionista but didn't hear much other buzz about it until I started spreading it myself. That book took off in trade paperback, and from what I understand (I have a wee bit of insider info on that), the paperback success was something of a surprise, and that was when they sent the author out on a big book tour (I got a copy as a thank-you gift for helping with the buzz. Now, if I can help get someone else on a bestseller list, why can't I do that for myself?).

I loved Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, which is about how trends spread and how word of mouth works. It's not so much the "I told two friends and they told two friends" thing like in the shampoo commercial from the 70s. Word of mouth can spread that way, but that's really too slow to make a real impact in today's entertainment industries where they want instant results. Where you get real word of mouth is with the right people. Gladwell identifies certain types. There are Connectors, who seem to know everyone, especially other Connectors who can influence their own groups (and to show how connected these people are, I've actually met -- went to a party at his house -- the person used as an example of a Connector in the book). There are Mavens, the people others look to as experts on a topic and who therefore have a lot of influence. And then there are Salespeople, who can persuade people to take action on a particular issue or topic. The trick is to find the right combination of these people -- maybe a Salesperson influences a Maven to whom a Connector goes for advice, and then the Connector spreads the word to another Salesperson, who spreads it far and wide. You might run into one of these people eventually through all the friends telling friends process, but it works better if you can find and identify them and go straight to them.

The problem with word of mouth for an ongoing thing is that it's very easy to get into a closed loop where you get to the point you're not reaching anyone new, just reinforcing the message to the same group of people. That was the problem with the way Universal marketed the movie Serenity. They had all those advance screenings that got filled with Browncoats, with the idea that the troops would be all fired up and ready to spread the word. Well, we were already fired up. Seeing the screenings didn't change anything for most of us. We had the Firefly DVDs and had shown them to anyone we knew already. As a result, the movie really only got promoted within that same closed loop. What needs to happen is to find a way to leapfrog out of that loop and into another loop. Usually, there's some crossover between loops, like a Venn diagram where there are members that belong to two sets.

So, that's what I've been trying to do with the Great Blog Campaign. I feel like I've already reached everyone I can, so that I'm mostly just preaching to the choir. The hope is that some of you may overlap loops, and maybe someone in your other set will pick up on it and spread more within that other loop or maybe even cross over to yet another loop. Media coverage does help with that because it spreads information widely, and then there's the hope that someone with connections or influence within a group will pick up on it and start spreading word within that loop.

Have I ever mentioned that I suspect I'm pretty balanced left brain and right brain? I do all that fuzzy creative writing type stuff, and then I go all analytical about it. No wonder I'm insane. I should probably focus on writing books instead of trying to map the dispersal of word of mouth promotion.

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