Most anyone will tell you that even big multi-million dollar publishing houses no longer do a whole lot of promotion for their authors’ books.
With so many self-promotional tools available online, writers are increasingly responsible for getting their names and books titles out there for the reading masses. With that in mind, StoryStudio’s one night DIY Publicity class, to be held on November 10, is designed to give writers the tools for book publicity from the most basic social media tactics to highly nuanced know-how that only comes from experience.
An accomplished duo – author and School of the Art Institute professor Eileen Favorite, and Triumph Books’ marketing coordinator, Andrea Pelose – will teach the course armed with knowledge from within the business.
They took the time to speak with us about the class, and about the changing tides of publishing:
CG: What is it about publishing right now that makes self-promotion so necessary? Is it more important than ever?
EF: I do think it’s more important than ever. It’s also crucial for the first-time author to understand how little traditional publishers are willing to do to promote books. They will send galleys (and often e-galleys) to reviewers; they may send you on a local book tour. But if your book isn’t deemed to be the book they “get behind,” this season, you may be out of luck. Authors and individual books are treated very differently within the same publishing house. I remember how shocked I was when my publicist at Scribner said I had about one month to promote my novel, The Heroines. My agent said, “Oh, no, you have at least two months.” I had worked on this book for years, and now it was down to six weeks of promotion. I trust that these professionals know what they’re talking about, but at the same time, it’s important for authors to take their books back and continue to seek out venues for promotion.
Since my novel was released in paperback in 2009, Simon and Schuster has developed an author portal that helps authors to link their websites and social media. The publishers understand that using social media is a way to create free advertising, but they don’t have the staff to cover this for every author beyond the current season. Many publishers have guidelines for their authors on how to navigate social media. Building a platform well before a book is published is crucial. If you wait till after the book is out, or even get started a couple months ahead of the release date, you’ll be always playing catch up. Many publicists submit galleys to bloggers, and you can be sure they’ll be checking your website as soon as they receive them. The website must be up-to-date, interesting, with content that’s not strictly self-promotional.
AP: I’m not sure that self-promotion is more crucial now than ever, but it’s certainly more accessible, if you know how to facilitate it, thanks to social media.
The evolution of publishing has changed drastically since the “Good Old Days.” While it prides itself on being a business of creativity, it is, in fact, still a business, which means profit is always a consideration. In the last 2-3 years especially, the publishing industry, like most, can finance fewer jobs. This puts a huge burden on publishers, and consequently on its authors, to navigate the promotion of a new novel.
In any given season, 2-3 big books pay for the allowance of the rest of the titles. These big books may not be of the utmost interest to the publisher — in fact, typically they are not. Ask anyone in editing, acquisitions, or marketing, and more often than not they’ll tell you it’s the smaller projects they value most. The trouble is, again, it’s a business, so they’re all directed to focus on what is most financially sound.
As a marketing coordinator for Triumph Books, I have 40 titles on my Fall list for which I’m solely responsible. That’s 40 titles, in one season, that need marketing, social media attention, and author tours. It’s a hard truth, but when you have that many titles, as most marketing coordinators and publicists do, there’s little time for checking back on the progress of books from the previous season. That’s why I spend time with each of my authors trying to teach them to make themselves relevant prior to their season and once it has concluded. And as Eileen said, the better your online and community presence pre-publication, the more attention you’ll get upon your work’s release, which is why self-promotion is key.
CG: What would you say to a writer who is reluctant to get into Twitter? What might you say to soften the social media blow if it’s really not somebody’s thing?
EF: I do think it’s important for people to use social media in a way that feels authentic to them. Engaging with something that doesn’t feel right or genuinely work for you means that your presence may not be particularly compelling. That’s why it’s important to test social media platforms or blogging and see which works best for you in advance of your release date. There’s a lot of trial and error at work. There isn’t really a blueprint for success. I attended a conference with three bloggers who got book deals, and they all said the number one component of your online identity had to be authenticity. If you try to game the market, to guess what the next new thing will be, you probably won’t succeed.
AP: Twitter is a funny outlet. It’s so popular and yet more than half of the authors I work with are highly against it, at least initially. I encourage social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook, for two reasons First, the higher your number of followers the more likely people are to pay attention to you. It shows you have an established audience. Second, it is a way to connect with your fans that never used to be possible. You can spend two seconds responding to a tweet from a fanwhowas touched by your book, and it will make their entire day. I think people forget that aspect of it—Twitter is truly a means to form connections. Most people seem to confuse it with an outlet for useless ramblingsbut I always tell my authors that it’s not for sharing that you had chocolate milk that day. No one cares. But it can be an effective outlet for sharing glimpses of your writing, thoughts on various societal and industry topics, and a sliver of your life. Eileen is a hundred percent correct thatyou have to be comfortable, and shouldn’t force it. If you’re uncomfortable with one outlet, try a different one. There are several options out there.
CG: What professional experiences have cemented the importance of self-promotion for authors for you?
EF: Writing a book takes many years, and between books, an author can disappear from the literary conversation. Most writers are reluctant to self-promote; others are pros at it, and they have no qualm about spending more time on promotion than they do on writing. For some people, promotion is just a distraction from the hard work of writing, and they have to simmer down about promotion and get back to their desks. Other writers would rather crawl into a hole and avoid the whole dirty business. It’s important to push yourself in the direction that you’re most reluctant to go.
AP:My ideal advice is this: when you’re working to get published, set aside an hour a day to write and 30 minutes on self-promotion. Within the months of your book being out, reverse that. Bestsellers are a mix of quality work, promotional efforts, and dumb luck, but among these who wouldn’t want it to be their quality as a writer that takes the focus? Sure in a perfect world, quality would be all it takes, but if you have to choose between the other two, do you really want to rely on dumb luck? Your chances are better to win the lottery. If you’ve spent this much time working on a piece, you should care enough about it to work to promote it. Consider it the next step, not an option.
CG:Talk a little bit about how you expect the class to run and how you’ll leverage your expertise to prepare students. How comprehensive will this one-nighter be–will students be able to translate what they learn into action from this class alone?
EF: This class will emphasize both anecdotal experiences at self-promotion (things Andrea and I have done that have worked or not worked). I’ll talk about my first website, blogging, and developing an online presence through concepts I’ve gleaned from business sources outside of publishing. For instance, it’s vital to cultivate relationships with independent bookstores. We’ll cover the social media available and how to improve your online presence with a steady stream of content.
AP: Eileen and I have a thick mix of experiences, which is why we wanted to teach this class together. While Eileen will talk about self-promotion from the author’s standpoint, I’ll be delivering it from an industry point of view, regarding both publishing, and individual consulting with authors and literary groups. We’re offering a well-rounded view. While there’s a lot to discuss, we’ll be focusing on key items for self-promotion: social media, community building, and event coordination on both an instructional and anecdotal basis. We’ll also be providing useful handouts so that students have additional materials to get started in self-promotion.
CG: At StoryStudio we’re very interested in fostering a strong community of writers to support students through the writing and publishing processes. How might that translate into a self-promotion plan?
AP: Having a network, or backbone of writers, as I like to think of it, is one of the most crucial elements. It’s also something we’ll discuss in our class. A community of writers is goodas a means of support and networking for new opportunitiesIt’s next to impossible to promote yourself in your community without engaging in it.
EF: Having a strong community of writers is especially vital during the writing process. Workshops such as those at StoryStudio are the foundation for developing writers. It’s vital for writers to have a peer group to review their work, and to help them with their first publications.
As for promoting your book, I actually think it’s better for writers to think outside the writing community. There’s a whole world of people out there who read. The literary market is dominated by a handful of established writers, so it can be hard for a newcomer to break in without specific credentials. I would advise writers to think outside their writing community when promoting their book. Try to tap into niche markets that the publicity team at the publishing house may be overlooking. Also, because so few publishers want to fund book tours beyond the local area, authors should connect with friends or family in different parts of the country for housing, etc. Most bookstores are happy to have authors visit, especially those stores in remote areas, and if you can enlist your local friends to enlist their friends, you can wind up with a nice crowd and also hawk a lot of books. This is a fine way to establish a relationship with bookstores and start building a loyal following for the next book. Authors should build a budget and then put themselves on a mini-tour for as little money as possible. I have to say that the three readings I did this year at bookstores always resulted in my biggest sales jumps. Don’t think that stores aren’t interested, simply because your book is several years old. This may be true in New York City, but it won’t be true in Boise.
CG:How important is it that a writer begin to view their own work, or the cultivation of their image, as a business of sorts, especially given the industry shift in the past two or three years?
AP: Again, I think the writing should always come first. I encourage all writers to write something they would want to read. If you look at your work as a moneymaker, you’re likely to lose that part of what makes an individual’s writing great.
Cultivation of one’s image, that’s a whole thing entirely. Think about who you want to be as an artist, and put your effort into becoming the best version of yourself. The more time you put into it, the more likely it is to happen. And that’s when people take notice.
EF: Again, some writers come to this “image” business naturally; others have to work to figure it out. Whatever the case, the writer’s “image” or what I prefer to call their “persona” has to be authentic. This is slightly easier to do if you’re writing nonfiction, as your writing has a clear connection to your self. With memoir, it’s your story. With nonfiction on specific topics (e.g., bullying, cooking, adoption), you’re trotting yourself out as an expert in the material, and donning a professional hat, which is itself a persona, but one that comes with certain readymade trappings. With fiction, it’s trickier, as the author’s self is not literally translated from the text to the person. There’s the work itself, and then there’s who you are in your personal life, and then there’s this public image/persona. These three things are quite distinct. For the public, your persona/image is an aspect of yourself that’s linked to the writing. It’s not all of you; some things are withheld naturally. Many writers don’t bother engaging with the public (DeLillo, Salinger), yet by rejecting publicity they enforce a specific type of persona (Artist above the Fray). Many literary writers are concerned with having their work fall into certain camps–high art vs. commercial; experimental vs. traditional. These discussions are not really relevant to the outside world, but they’re vital in academic circles. Many writers don’t really care if they sell a lot of books, especially if they have tenured teaching positions and get the “right” reviews. Others are more dependent on making their work earn money, and so they may have to broaden their image to reach a bigger audience.
That said, I think a writer has to be ahead of the game in terms of the Internet. The so-called democratic nature of the web makes it so that anybody can hang a shingle and call themselves a book critic. You have to be fully engaged in creating content on your web page and through social media that “outshouts” the noise. Google searches mean that people can find you instantly, and you can’t control what’s said about your work, but you can contribute to the discussion. This is where planning and thinking count the most. There are a host of things to decide, and we’ll talk about these in class. Will you discuss politics? Will you write critiques of others’ works? What are your three main ideas/issues that you want to include as part of your image/persona? And on and on. I think these decisions must be conscious and cultivated. They can shift over time, but it’s difficult to “unsay” something, so be careful from the start, unless generating controversy is part of your persona. Then shout away!
(Photo Credit to Pitel via Creative Commons)