TIPS TO SURVIVING BOOK PROMOTION
(How to have fun storycatching too!!!)
by Kerry Madden
"Usually, a new book comes out like cat paws...then it just goes away." This is what Judith Freeman, who wrote, THE LONG EMBRACE: RAYMOND CHANDLER AND THE WOMAN HE LOVED, told me when I attended her reading and signing at Vroman's in Pasadena several years ago - a very apt description. Cat paws. The roar of silence.
I get asked a lot about book promotion, so I wrote up this list of tips to book promotion a good while ago, and now some of it seems downright dated. So I've tried to update it and comment on what worked and what did not work. Somebody called me a "marathoner" in this business, because I've been at it for a long time. Maybe so, but I'm definitely a mid-list marathoner (with unimpressive sales on venues like BOOK-SCAN) but everyday, I work hard at being a writer.
A Very Short Preamble: In 1996 my growing-up-in-football novel, OFFSIDES, was published and optioned by Diane Keaton and Jim Henson Productions for a film/TV show and went through Hollywood MILL for four years. This was long before the days of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. I was also sent by my publisher, William Morrow, on a book tour to football towns mostly in the South and Midwest where I stayed with family and friends, and even at St. Mary's Convent in Leavenworth, Kansas where my cousin is a Sister of Charity. At a Books-A-Million signing in Bossier City, LA where NO ONE showed, a clerk said, "Well, why don't you read over the loudspeaker and maybe that will drum up some interest."
I am ashamed to admit I did.
It did not drum up interest.
OFFSIDES did well critically, but was out of print in less than two years. I learned so much from that experience that I was determined to give my next novel, GENTLE'S HOLLER, published almost a DECADE later by Viking Children's Books, Penguin, at least the fighting chance of a longer shelf life. It paid off because Viking bought two more books in the Maggie Valley Series: LOUISIANA'S SONG and JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN, and invited me to write a biography of Harper Lee for teens.
And so that none you may ever be called upon to read your novels over the loudspeaker in a warehouse of books, I offer these tips to grassroots book promotion. And I will say quite honestly that I did some of them more than others...I think we have to find what we can do comfortably as authors...and yet also get out of the "comfort zone" too.
TIPS TO SURVIVE SELLING YOUR BOOK
1. Set up writing workshops for kids in schools, libraries, and bookstores. This way you are pretty much guaranteed an audience and you'll be able to get the kids to write their own stories and poems. I set up writing workshops for both teens and younger kids. I always made sure art supplies were on hand so the kids could illustrate their stories and poems. Offer to publish their stories on your blog or website if they email them to you. Most bookstores require the purchase of a book the author's book to participate in the writing workshop. These workshops I did have led to "artist-in-residencies" at schools and school visits as well as author talks for garden clubs, the United Way, Friends of the Library, and at-risk youth after school programs. In other words, put yourself out there!
2. Make postcards and/or bookmarks. They do help. I printed 5,000 and went through them pretty quickly. A friend (who became my publicist) was traveling through the South three months before GENTLE'S HOLLER was published and she left stacks in bookstores, restaurants, libraries. I printed another 5,000 and I still have plenty of those left. I give them out in schools to kids for bookmarks if the kids want them. I mostly use bookmarks now, but I think both are helpful.
3. Set up a website (this seems PAINFULLY OBVIOUS) where kids can write to you and learn more about the world of the book and what you do as an author. Peruse other author sites to give you ideas. Join a YA and middle-grade fiction writers' list-serves. The Child_Lit Serve out of Rutgers is another great list-serve of authors, professors, librarians. Study Cynthia Leitich Smith's website which has a font of information about the world of children's literature. I did not discover it until long after my book was published, but she invited me to do an author interview, and I constantly refer people to her site. www.cynthialeitichsmith.com
4. Understand that your publisher probably won't be able to send you on a book tour (ANOTHER PAINFULLY OBVIOUS AND OUTDATED NOTION) but that doesn't mean you can't create one for yourself. Stay with friends and family. Rent the cheapest rental car and airline tickets through Orbitz or Cheap Tickets. My novel was set in the Smoky Mountains, so I set up writing workshops for kids in the South. I also set up readings and writing workshops locally in Los Angeles. This takes a while, but about nine months before my book was published, I visited bookstores in North Carolina and Tennessee and showed them the galleys. I set up email correspondence with each clerk, and over the next few months, we set up dates for the booksignings/writing workshops. If you just have a handful of galleys, make photo copies and get them out to select book reviewers. Again, I chose more regional newspapers because the LA market is so glutted and the LA Times Book Review rarely reviews children's books. Finally, I also began doing ONLINE BOOK TOURS and SKYPING with classes of kids. That is the way to go these days, but nothing beats face-to-face, so try to do a combination of both as much you can do so and keep your sanity.
5. Begin laying the groundwork for your book promotion six months before your book is published. Write a press release and fax it to newspapers and TV stations closer to the pub date along with a review or two if you have them. The faxes to local media are especially beneficial if your book is more regional. LA ignored all press releases, but Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville, and Asheville were great. (GENTLE'S HOLLER was featured just before the cornbread section on Alive at Five in Knoxville. I had 30 people come to my writing workshop/reading at a bookstore the following night and many had seen the show. But on the other hand, I still don't know who was watching Good Morning Chattanooga at the crack of dawn.)
6. For the writing workshops, bring in a suitcase of props that inspired your book - in other words things that your characters love. I bring in special agate stones, peacock feathers, books, pictures, music, old cow bones, comic books from the 1960s, paintings, drawings, fairy books, The Synonym Finder. The kids love to explore the table of props and it will inspire the shyer kids to ask questions...Often times, librarians or teachers will contact local media to cover your school visit and announce your next signing or even do a story.
7. In the writing workshops, tell the kids they are STORYCATCHERS! Tell them to interview their parents and grandparents - tell them to be THE STORYCATCHERS in their family. I had one boy say, "I am not a writer." (He pronounced it 'rider.') I said, "What do you like to do?" and he said, "Fish." I said, "Well, write about fishing...tell me about night-crawlers, how much does a can of night crawlers cost?" He said, "About a $1.25 a can. Hey, you sayin' I can write about fishing?" I said, "I'm saying you may write about anything you want!" He wound up writing a great story about how he loves to brag when he catches a big bass.
8. Go support other authors. I can't emphasize this enough. If you find success, and I hope you do, please don't covet it so much that you can't get out and support other authors. Show up at their signings and readings and buy their books. Host them in interviews on your website or blog or simply mention their books in a short review. The more we can reach out and support each other, the more we'll get back.
9. Hire a publicist, but if you can't do that, here is what you do...You barter...You find a friend or a student and you offer to edit their stories and novels for free in exchange for helping you do publicity. I know this might sound extreme, but book publicity is such grueling work and it helps so much to have a friend with a sense of humor who "gets it." I was so fortunate that one of my UCLA students became my publicist. She worked incredibly hard helping me with sending press releases, making calls, and fliers, and I will be on board for her as long as she wants with her own fiction. She wanted to learn the ropes of book promotion as she'll be going through it herself one day.
10. Consider having a reading/booksigning at a place other than a bookstore - go for the pancake house or some other non-traditional place. I had a morning reading at a little pancake house in Maggie Valley, Joey's Pancake House, packed with tourists and so forth. Since GENTLE'S HOLLER is set in Maggie Valley, I sold 50 books to locals and to grandparents traveling through town. I also had a little girl, Caroline, read with me, unexpectedly, and she was amazing! Now she's sending me her stories...a tiny little eight-year-old who writes of Egyptian princesses. She was a gift. She had to stand on a chair to be seen, and I held the mic. Brenda who runs the pancake house keeps a stack of my postcards on the counter. I read again at the Pancake House in 2007 and and 2008 and sold 80 books. Now the waitresses of JOEY'S PANCAKE HOUSE want me to come and do a workshop with them and help them with their book: BETWEEN GRITS & GRAVY, and all I can say is - I can't wait to go! I've also read at the Opry-House in Maggie Valley where bluegrass singers and pickers played the music of my novels. Writing those books gave me friends for life, and I will be forever grateful.
11. Write an essay for your alumni magazine about writing for kids or about how you became a writer. My alumni magazine (UT-Knoxville) has a circulation of 66,000. Because of that article, I'll went to South Carolina for a fall Writing Conference and gave the key-note address. (And this was a piece I considered not writing about because I was so busy at the time.) I have since written another piece for the Alumni Magazine, which has opened up even more doors to school visits and workshops for kids in North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and California.
12. Write an essay for any place with a large readership - Salon, SCBWI, etc...I write essays for the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, LA Weekly, Salon, LA Times Sunday Magazine.
13. Record your book at your local Braille Institute and offer to do a workshop at their summer reading program.
14. Email bookstores with your information (book, website, jacket quotes) and follow up those emails with store-visits or phone calls. Be gracious. Be respectful and NEVER EVER BE PUSHY OR DEMANDING. Booksellers have list-serves, too, and they swap information about which writers who are professional and which ones who are not. Explain how you are able to offer writing workshops for kids instead of traditional readings. Again, be upbeat and professional and GRACIOUS. Try to focus on the independent bookstores if you have no track record because they are the ones who will handsell your book. The chains don't care. All my book tours were at Independent Bookstores! Hooray for Indies!
15. Do as many free writing workshops as you feel you can...do them for foster kids, kids Juvenile Hall - those kids who don't have a chance to meet with writers. Publish their stories and pictures on your blog. ALABAMA VOICES hosted me through a grant to come visit some rural schools to do writing workshops, which later led to a tenure track job in creative writing at the University of Alabama Birmingham? Who knew?
16. Send your press release to your old grade school, high school, college...Offer to meet with students of your schools to talk to them about writing.
17. 826 Valencia is a great place to do free writing workshops for kids, and they will announce your visit on their website which reaches people across the country. www.826valencia.org or www.desertislandsupplyco.com/ which is in Birmingham, Alabama.
18. Set up a six or ten-week writing workshop for teens or adults wanting to write children's stories at a local bookstore. You will be able to charge, of course, and the bookstore will advertise the class and your book on their website and in their newsletter.
19. Update your website regularly - offer creative writing ideas - story prompts & sparks etc.
20. Do email blasts from time-to-time as you feel comfortable. I do about three or four times a year if I have real updates. I am very wary of emailing in bulk too often. (Updates: Katie Davis has a great newsletter, and so does Barbara O'Connor, which I think is a wonderful idea.) Here are some great children's author websites just to a name few!
21. Pitch workshops or classes to Media Bistro or UCLA in town or online. Both places are always looking for instructors, and it's free advertising for you and your book and your class. You also get to meet wonderful students in your workshop.
22. This is not a suggestion but an observation - the more you give of yourself as an author, the more you will connect with your readers at every level. But also give yourself a break and time to be alone to write and just be, so you can gather the stamina needed to get out there again. In other words, go for walks and remember to breathe. I am partial to movies and Junior Mints.
23. Go to ALA or Book Expo or to book festivals on your own dime at least once if have a book coming out that season. Ask your publisher to "badge" you in to ALA and Book Expo if they cannot offer you a signing during the conventions (and most likely they won't). Then go meet people. It's so worth it. You will make connections you cannot make at home emailing. Stay with friends and family (leave flowers or cookies or signed copies of your book as thank you gifts) and tell yourself that one day you will go on a book tour where you won't have to feed and walk the basset hounds as payback. (And I'm not knocking the basset hounds...)
24. Join the SCBWI and find a local chapter near you and offer to do a workshop on setting, plot, voice. I did one in Bakersfield, CA on setting and had a great time with those writers. That has led to workshops in Northern California, Alabama, Texas, and Washington DC.
25. Write thank you notes to everyone - librarians, teachers, booksellers. Be appreciative, don't whine, say thank you. (You can share war stories over cocktails with your friends later.)
26. I am adding a new one: get a GPS (ANOTHER OBVIOUS TIP) that talks to you instead of trying to do it by phone or by Mapquest, which is mostly good, but it led me up a horrifying mountain road in Waynesville, NC where my friend, Ernestine told me later, "A goat wouldn't go up that road!" And she's a Maggie Valley mountain born and bred woman who "bloomed where she was planted."
27. Book trailer? I never made one but I certainly plan to for my next book or I will bribe, rope, threaten, and cajole my kids into doing one.
And one more thing! Don't be afraid to take the back roads! As a principal said to me, "Don't take the ferry! The Alabama River is too high today. Take the backroads. But last six miles, no cell phone. You're on your own! Come on, we'll be waiting!" And they were!
And finally? Remember to have fun doing this otherwise what the heck is the point? You'll see what I mean below and I definitely got carried away with these pictures, but I love what I do!
I can't imagine a better life than writing stories!
LIFE ON THE ROAD AND THE WRITING LIFE AT HOME...
Kerry Madden is the author of six books and an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Alabama Birmingham. www.kerrymadden.com