In light of yesterday's post about networking, I thought I ought to talk about a specific subset of networking: book promotion, or how to promote yourself and your books using networking tactics without being a jerk. The following is based on what works for me in my own promotions and what works for and annoys me as a reader. I probably err on the side of caution, as I'm a very reserved person and I spent much of my career doing public relations for Ericsson. The Swedes are very leery of marketing. In fact, they have an underlying suspicion (with a colorful Swedish idiom about it that I don't quite recall) that anyone who promotes themselves too much probably isn't very good because if whatever they did was any good, it would speak for itself and wouldn't need all that promotion. Yeah, that was a fun job doing public relations for people with that attitude. While that belief isn't entirely true because people have to know about you in the first place to discover if your work is any good, there is some truth to it, and the spate of publishing scams means there are a lot of desperate authors out there trying to hawk books out of the trunk of their car after their "publisher" made them buy a bunch of copies, so I think there's perhaps a suspicion in the marketplace that anyone who seems to be working too hard may be one of those people. Meanwhile, these days even the legitimate publishers are more or less outsourcing promotion to the authors themselves, except for the big stars who get promo budgets. How do you strike a balance and find ways of promoting your work without turning people off?
Here is the Gospel of Shanna. Your mileage may vary.
1) Your address book should not be your promotional list. Set up a newsletter list, Yahoo list or some other method for sending out promotional notices and let people sign up for it themselves. Do not just put people's addresses on that list unless they've asked you to. You can use your address book once, and that is to notify people about how to sign up for your promotional list. Sending all your promotional notices to everyone in your address book or subscribing your entire address book to your promo list is a good way to piss people off, and the more remote your relationship, the more likely they are to be annoyed. I've found myself on the mailing list of someone who once wrote to me and to whom I responded, and that is the extent of our relationship. That tends to generate a "what the huh?" reaction when I get a newsletter or promotional mailing rather than a "ooh, new book" reaction.
2) Don't spam mailing lists. If you're posting to a mailing list, you're already hitting multiple people with one message, so it won't kill you to write a message specifically for each list instead of just sending out one blanket e-mail and copying a bunch of lists. That allows you to target your message specifically to that group. You should have different information for people you actually know in real life who are local, aspiring writers, published authors, readers of various genres, fan groups, social groups, etc. You'll get far better results with a targeted message, plus, if someone is in multiple groups with you, they won't get repeats of the same message and will get slightly different information each time. Of course, you should only post promotional messages if the group's rules allow it, and you should actually participate in the group beyond posting promo messages.
3) Take it easy when promoting your blog. Someone must have written an article about this as a great idea because lately every writing-related mailing list I'm on has become little more than a listing of "I blogged about this topic today" posts, either promoting the author's own blog or her participation at a group blog. Stop. It. Please. I've withdrawn from a lot of lists I used to enjoy because of this practice. I especially find it annoying if the list is discussing a topic and someone's response is to say "I blogged about this today" with a link, and that's all that's in the message. The discussion group exists to, ya know, discuss, not drive traffic to your blog. In fact, the attempt to drive traffic to your blog may even be counterproductive. I'm probably not going to follow the link to the blog, but I would have read what you had to say if you'd posted it in the group. Just posting a link means I'll ignore your post. And, really, driving those people from the list to your blog doesn't do you any additional good because, hello! they're already seeing your name in the group.
Now, if you did happen to blog about something that's being discussed, you could mention that, then provide the gist of what you said that's relevant to the discussion, and then give a link to your blog and say that there's more there, or that the comments are interesting, or whatever. That way, you've contributed to the discussion in the group and even people who don't want to follow the link can continue the discussion based on what you posted, but those who want to see more have the option. A good rule of thumb is that anything you post to a message board or mailing list should have some content other than just a link to a blog post you've made either at your own blog or at some group blog.
4) Don't hijack other authors' efforts. This can happen online and in real life. It makes sense that people who are interested in another author's books might be interested in your books, especially if they're similar, so being present at things that author does can promote you. That can actually be a smart strategy, but you have to be very, very careful because it can also make you look like a massive jerk. Here's what to do (and not to do):
- Don't post your own promo messages on other authors' blogs, MySpace pages, Facebook pages, etc. I don't approve MySpace comments that are nothing more than promotion for the commenter. My MySpace page is about me. It's not a promotional forum for other authors or publishers. But if you post something about me and your name and avatar show up, people will see that. If it's something you want me to see, send me a message. Putting it up as a public comment on my page means you're doing it for my readers to see, which is hijacking my page.
- Do participate in discussions on other authors' blogs. Most blogging platforms allow you to link to your own blog or URL in some way when you make a comment, and if you say something relevant, clever, witty or insightful, then people will be able to figure out who you are (especially if your user name is related to your real name). You may even be able to use your book cover as an icon or avatar. Trust me, people who care will track back to you. You don't have to wave a flag saying you're an author. But make whatever you post be more about what the host author said than about yourself. Ditto with commenting on MySpace or Facebook pages. Make what you say about the author, not about yourself.
- Do go to other authors' booksignings. Promotion aside, it's good book karma. Depending on crowd volume, you can chat with the author and bring up who you are or chat with the bookstore staff and mention your own books. If crowds are thin, the author will be delighted to have you there and will be glad to have someone to talk to. If there are big crowds, you can chat with other readers and eventually mention your own books.
- Don't usurp the author who's signing. Remember that it's their signing, not yours. If a reader wants to talk to the signing author, don't jump in to push your own books or hand out bookmarks. This also applies if you're participating in a multi-author signing. The fan who comes to see one author may be interested in other authors' books, but let her talk to the author she came to see without interrupting or barging in. I tend to let the other author be the one to say, "Have you read Shanna's books? If you like mine, I think you'd like hers, too," but that's probably the most cautious approach and you could certainly say something to the reader after she's done with that author without being rude. Whatever you do, NEVER lean over and say, "If you like her books, you'll love mine." (Yes, that actually happened to me once. That same author also once reached over to stick a bookmark in the hand of someone who had come to talk to me, while the person was in mid-sentence, so even if the book comparison comment was a slip of the tongue, it still represented an overall attitude or mindset.) You'll really annoy the other author, and the fan who came to talk to that author isn't going to be favorably inclined toward you if you interrupt the conversation. This is another case where making it about the other author can help. If you're familiar with the work of the other author, then you can join the chat with the reader in discussing those books. That may make the reader realize that she might also like your books, since you have something in common, and you look less like you're hijacking the other author's readers.
I guess it goes back to the networking rule of being more focused on what you can do for others than on what they can do for you. That makes people far more inclined to want to help you.
5) Don't go overboard in blowing your own horn. When discussing your books, it's probably best not to mention your review quotes in every conversation. It's fine to say that you've been fortunate to get good reviews, but if you have the review quotes memorized, that's a bit much. Talking about your book to potential readers is a lot like pitching the book to an editor or agent. You get better results if you start with an elevator pitch and then let other people ask questions if they're interested. If they're not interested and don't ask questions, let it go. Don't waste your time and theirs with the hard sell. If they don't respond to a one or two-sentence description of the book, quoting your reviews isn't going to help. Stalking is right out. If you're being obnoxious and annoying, people aren't going to be interested in your book, even if it might be something they'd like. You don't even have to mention your books in every conversation. "So, what do you do?" is a fairly common question when you're getting to know someone, so it is possible to talk for a while about other things, and someone may eventually ask you what you do, giving you a valid reason to say you're an author. Or if you're at a con, people can map your name from your badge to the program guide without you saying anything, or they may have seen you on panels. You don't have to tell everyone you're an author.
Remember that every reader is important, so don't snub some average guy to go after someone more prominent or prestigious. You get the same royalties/sales numbers if John Doe Fan buys your book as you do if Big Name Famous Author does -- and it's possible that Big Name Famous Author will be able to get a free promo copy from the publisher instead of buying it. Big Name Famous Author might have more of a platform for talking about your book or you might be able to hit him up for a blurb on your next book, but if John Doe Fan feels like you snubbed him to hobnob with important people, he may also be able to spread negative buzz about what a jerk you are (and with the blogosphere, it's possible that a John Doe Fan who's active in fandom could have a broader audience than Big Name Famous Author). If Big Name Author notices that you snubbed a fan to hobnob with him, he may worry that your bad karma cooties will rub off on him, and he may try to disassociate himself with you so John Doe Fan won't think he's a jerk, too.
Also be very, very careful about thinking you're just way too awesome because you're a published author, especially at conventions. That person you've been bragging to about your one book, like you think that the fact that you're published makes you superior, could turn out to be a multi-published bestseller. I have seen it happen in con suites, and it's like a train wreck. You know disaster is inevitable, but you're powerless to prevent it because once one of those blowhards gets going, there's no way to intervene and point out who he's talking to. The best I've been able to manage is to get a word in edgewise and say something to the more prominent author about her books and hope the blowhard gets a clue. I admit that the temptation is there to watch him crash and burn, but I'm too nice for that. Meanwhile, everyone else in earshot will be watching in amusement, and you'll have totally destroyed your credibility with those people.
6) Be patient. Unless you're getting a huge push from your publisher, or unless someone famous with a big platform (like, say, Oprah) starts pushing your book, building buzz takes time, and some of the best buzz happens one person at a time. I'm always hearing from people who bought my books ages ago after meeting me briefly or stumbling across my blog and who then told their friends -- or from people who heard about my books from friends. You never know which contact you make will end up paying off in multiples down the line.