When I made my last writing post about planning your publicity efforts, I got some questions about what kind of things a writer might do about publicity. So, this week I'll talk about some of the things I've done, with some tips on how to make them work. Remember that everyone's different, so what works for me may not work for other writers who write different kinds of things or who have a different personality. The other thing to remember is that it's almost impossible to know which publicity tactics actually work. You may hear from someone who lets you know how they learned about your book, but you can't know if that's the only person who bought the book because of that or if there are dozens you never heard from who found it a different way. In general, publicity is all about making something familiar enough that it sticks in the brain. Supposedly, it takes at least three exposures to something before a person remembers it, and this is all about creating that exposure. Ideally, it would make someone so excited that they'll go straight to a bookstore or online bookseller and buy the book, but realistically, it's more about making your book vaguely familiar, so that when someone is in a bookstore your book jumps out and catches the eye.
Depending on the publisher, you may have an in-house publicist who does stuff like send out review copies and set up booksignings. Unless you've got a lead title or are already a bestseller, that's about all you'll get, and you're expected to do some promotional work on your own. The bad news is that the kinds of things you can do on your own won't sell the number of books it would take to make you a bestseller, but the good news is that at the print run of a midlist author these days, even the small amount of sales you can influence will make a noticeable impact on your sales numbers.
Here are a few publicity tactics:
1) A Web site -- This is fairly essential because if you don't exist on the web, you risk looking invisible. Some unpublished writers like to get a site up with some information about themselves in case editors or agents do a search after looking at a submission, but this isn't essential. If you do put up a site before you're published, make sure it's something that wouldn't freak out a prospective editor or agent. It's a good idea to go ahead and secure the domain name that goes with the name you plan to write under, whether or not you actually build the site at this time.
When you do have a book coming out, try to have more to your web site than just the information you could find if you had the book -- the author bio and back cover copy. My experience and research has found that, aside from media, most people who seek out an author's web site have already read the book. They're looking for more information. You need information to help sell the book, but then you should try to have something extra to keep readers engaged, as well as information on the next book.
2) A blog -- This is one of those things that doesn't work for everyone. It really depends on how much you can keep up with it and whether it fits your personality. A blog can help build a community around you and your work and keep your readers informed and engaged between books, but if you're too sporadic about posting or if your posts don't give a reason to keep reading, you may see people fade away. The tone of your blog should be similar to the tone of your books because this can serve as a writing sample. It doesn't have to be identical, but it shouldn't give readers whiplash. There was an author whose blog I started reading before her first book was published, and it was so funny I was usually shaking with laughter and had tears running down my face. Then her books turned out to be serious literary works about death, suffering and injustice, and I was so disappointed. You can incorporate your blog into your web site or do it through a social networking community like LiveJournal, Facebook or MySpace. The up side of the social networking approach is that the network can allow you to build a readership before anyone would know who you are to seek out a web site blog.
3) Bookmarks -- I honestly don't know how effective these are for selling books, but I find them convenient for telling people about my books. When I meet someone, the "what do you do?" question tends to come up, and then when I say I'm a writer, the next question is "what do you write?" so it's handy to have something to give them, and you can fit more info on a bookmark than on a business card. They're also handy to have as giveaways at booksignings or to put on swag tables at conventions. I occasionally send packets of them to writing conferences to put in goody bags or to booksellers who request promo material. I put info about the whole series on my bookmarks, so they serve as a convenient reference for keeping track of the series books. I don't know if any of this has resulted in sales or if anyone actually looks at the bookmarks in conference goody bags, but I figure it falls into the category of exposure and familiarity. (If you've discovered my series due to a bookmark, I'd love to hear about it.)
4) Booksignings -- Booksignings are one of those things aspiring authors often fantasize about because they're a sure sign that you've actually made it -- you're there in a store with your book. The reality can be less exciting, especially for a first book when it's just your friends and family there. But even if no one shows up, there can be benefits to doing signings. For one thing, they order more copies of your book than they otherwise would, and they're often displayed prominently before and after the signing, so you're briefly getting the kind of store placement the big names get. At one signing I did, the store manager told me the number of copies that sold from the display before the signing, and it was more than the store would have had in stock if there hadn't been a signing, so I was ahead of the game before I even got to the store. Unfortunately, you can't stack the deck by arranging signings at absolutely every store.
5) Stock signings -- While you can't do booksignings at every store, you can visit stores and sign the stock they have on hand. I've heard of authors who call the stores ahead of time and arrange a visit, but I'm a big weenie about the telephone, so generally what I do is go to the store, find my books on the shelves, bring a few copies to the information desk, tell them I'm the author and ask if they'd like me to sign their stock. Then I sign them, stick in my bookmarks, and the store usually has an "autographed copy" sticker for the cover. This allows me to meet the staff of the store and bring my book to their attention. There have been times when my books weren't displayed up front on the new releases table, but once they're stickered and autographed, the staff puts them there. I've also heard from booksellers who went on to read the book once I brought it to their attention, so they became fans and then began handselling and recommending the books. I've also heard from people who saw me in the store, got curious and ended up buying books. The big chains have a handy search function on their web sites that allow you to see if your books are in stock before you go there, so you can save yourself some time. I do this locally with as many stores as I can hit around the release time, and then when I go out of town, I try to hit as many stores there as possible.
6) Conventions and conferences -- if you've got good people skills, these are a great way to build a following, depending on your genre. There are a lot of science fiction/fantasy conventions. In the romance world, it seems to focus more on writing, but there are a few fan-focused events. There are also mystery conventions. You can e-mail the programming director at a convention you want to attend with your credentials and you may get some programming slots. Make sure you meet the booksellers in the dealers' room, while you're at it.
7) Blog tours and other online outreach -- Most print publications have pulled back their book coverage to next to nothing, and if you write genre fiction or are published in paperback, you're likely to be ignored. The book review and coverage world has moved online, and there are tons of general and genre-specific book blogs. Then there are fan-oriented blogs, author blogs and topic-specific blogs. That gives you a lot of potential venues for visibility. There are formal blog circles, where the members of the group promote each others' books in a "tour" or you can approach individual bloggers about interviews, reviews or guest blogs. This can be very time consuming, but it can pay off. If you're lining this up yourself, be sure you're familiar with the blog, the blogger, the usual content and the blogger's likes/dislikes instead of making a random approach based on a Google search. It helps to be a regular reader who has made appropriate non-promotional comments in the past. Then you're part of the community instead of a publicity hound.
8) Traditional media -- see above about limited book coverage. Your chances increase with smaller venues. A major metropolitan daily newspaper or major market TV station is less likely to feature a local author without another news hook, but a suburban or small-town paper may make you the lead story. This is another case where it helps to follow the publication to see who writes the kinds of stories you might fit into. I did get featured in the major metro daily around here -- on the third book, when I'd been tracking that writer for years and knew how to approach her based on what she tended to write about.
A lot of authors love contests, but I haven't seen much benefit from them. I don't really use my mailing list because I'm paranoid about looking like a spammer, so that means I don't have much use for the addresses I collect when doing a contest. I've never made a book trailer or video, so I don't know how effective that might be. I never watch other authors' trailers, so I tend to suspect they don't do a lot of good. I haven't done a lot of advertising, but have considered looking into an online ad campaign in the future. This all goes back to what I said in my last writing post, that you need to think when planning and do something because you have a good sense that it will reach your target audience, not just because everyone's doing it or because it would be cool.