Monday, September 18, 2006

Come Blow Your Horn: Do-It-Yourself Book Promotion for Authors


If authors share one complaint, it's that publishers don't do enough to promote their books. What will a publisher do to publicize a book by a new author? The answer is, not very much--unless a lot of money was advanced to the author against anticipated royalties. A publisher's' willingness to promote a "title" (the term publishers prefer to us to refer to a book) will often be proportional to how much a publisher has invested in the book in the form of such advances.

This, by the way, is the single best reason for authors--or their literary agents, if they have managed to get a reputable agent to handle their work--to try for sizable advance when negotiating a book contract. But remember that a publisher will not advance more than a book will generate in royalties and sales of subsidiary rights (i.e., paperback, book club and foreign rights). Book publishing can be a risky business, and some books disappoint both author and publisher by failing to earn their advances.

Dozens of new titles are added to major publishers' lists each season. Such numbers make it impossible for any publishing house to get behind every book. As a result, works by new authors often languish while so-called "blockbusters" get all the attention. Frustrated authors are convinced that their books would earn more if publishers had simply advertised them more. Not necessarily, say publishers. For every book that becomes a bestseller because of advertising, they can point to another that failed in spite of heavy promotion.

Consider two classic case histories: In 1985, after resigning as Ronald Reagan's budget director, David A. Stockman signed a contract with Harper and Row, said to be worth more than $2 million--then the largest advance that publisher had ever paid for a book. Thanks to an all-out publicity campaign, The Triumph of Politics, Stockman's kiss-and-tell account of life inside the Reagan administration, started out as number one on bestseller lists. However, when readers discovered that Stockman had little new to say about how the massive deficit he masterminded had gotten so far out of control, his heavy-handed book dropped from the top spot a scant two weeks later.

Other titles have climbed the bestseller charts without benefit of advertising. An often-cited example is Blue Highways, whose author, William Least Heat-Moon, rewrote the manuscript eight times before selling it. Published in 1982 by Little, Brown and Company, this account of one man's travels in a battered van named "Ghost Dancing" over the back roads of America--the ones printed in blue on road maps that were once the main arteries of early travel and now only link backwater towns--aroused strong feelings in readers. Of English-Irish and Osage Indian ancestry, the author's curious surname, Heat-Moon, is the Sioux name for the moon of midsummer nights.

After the nearly simultaneous loss of his college teaching job and the failure of his marriage, he embarked on a 13,000-mile trip across America, visiting forgotten small towns and talking to their colorful inhabitants. The book's initial promotion had been limited to an excerpt in The Atlantic Monthly. But readers who bought Blue Highways discovered that, as the Chicago Tribune said, it was "better than Kerouac." Reviewer Robert Penn Warren called the book "a masterpiece. [The author] has a genius for finding people who have not even found themselves." Other enthusiastic newspaper reviews made Blue Highways into what the book trade calls a "sleeper," and booksellers' orders surged. Only then did the surprised publisher crank up an ad campaign to match its bestseller status.

The Business of Bookselling
Bookselling operates like no other business model. Moreover, most authors are abysmally ignorant about book publishing, an industry still largely saddled with practices dating back to the early 20th century. Chief among these is the privilege publishers accord to booksellers of returning unsold books for creditagainst future orders..

In recent years, the number of unsold books reached uneconomical proportions, with as many as 50% of books ordered by booksellers remaining on store shelves. This figure has since dropped to 40% as a consequence of more prudent ordering on the part of retailers, but it still means four out of every ten books ordered are being returned to distributors or publishers. These books are then replaced in stock and used to fill future orders . When the time comes to declare a book "out of print," publishers sell the remaining copies in large lots to specialized dealers as "remainders." These are then retailed at reduced prices to readers through specialized catalogs . Authors get no royalties on remaindered books. Perhaps if writers better understood how books are merchandised, friction between authors and publishers would diminish. Similarly, with more and more authors embarking on self- publishing ventures, awareness of the intricacies of retail bookselling can help to avoid headaches.

The selling of a book actually starts many months before it is published. At sales conferences held twice a year, usually at a hotel near the publisher's offices, editors "present" forthcoming titles to their sales staff. Originally called "book travelers," sales people are today more prosaically described as sales reps, publishing consultants or even account managers.

Following these meetings, the publisher's specialized sales force fans out across broad territories to call on a dwindling number of independent booksellers. At each outlet, they echo those presentations in negotiations with bookstore owners or book buyers for chain stores, soliciting--even pleading for--orders. Predicting customer interest in a title not yet set in type can be a gamble for individual bookstore owners and chain-store book buyers. Yet it is these advance orders from booksellers that govern the size of the initial press run for each title.

In the United States, 190,478 individual titles were published in 2004, the latest year for which firm statistics are available. Of these, 24,159 were so-called trade books (fiction and nonfiction sold in bookstores, as contrasted with specialized professional, technical and reference books). Preliminary figures for 2005 indicate slippage in the total number of titles--some 18,000 fewer titles were published last year--an unsurprising reduction considering the steadily rising costs of paper, presswork and binding. Competing with such an avalanche of new titles in any year are several hundred thousand previously published titles still in print, referred to as the publisher's "backlist." With so many books clamoring for the limited space on bookstore shelves and for the reading public's attention, the chances that any bookseller will order a new title by a first-time author are exceedingly small.

Advice from Literary Agents
What can an author do when a publisher budgets next to nothing for advertising and does little in the way of promotion? New York literary agent Bill Adler advises: "The first rule for success in book publishing is that the best person to promote your book is you. Don't count on the publisher to do it for you."

Another New York agent, Richard Curtis, is equally emphatic: "If you feel that the only thing holding book back from success is the expenditure of a little money, and you can't persuade your publisher to spend it--then spend it yourself." Good advice. But don't rush out to buy advertising. Your money will go farther if spent in other ways. Besides, if your book isn't in local bookstores, any money you spend on advertising will be wasted. Readers who have been made eager to read a book don't want to hear the disappointing words, "Sorry, we don't have that title in stock--but we can order it for you."

Once a date has been set for publication of your book (called the "pub date" by publishers), you, the author, must move swiftly. The initial thrust of your self-promotion should be to increase awareness of your book within the book trade, with specialized review and media outlets, and among librarians in the crucial period leading up to your book's pub date. A book that's not on the shelves of most retailers on its pub date and that has escaped the notice of reviewers and librarians is a sure bet to be overlooked by readers. After publication, you should shift your attention to the media and to media personalities likely to give your book a post-publication push with the reading public.

Do-It-Yourself Promotion

The ideal self-promotional tool for authors, whether published by a traditional publisher or self-published, is direct mail, the second-largest advertising medium in use today. Direct mail's success stems from its ability to command instant attention from specifically targeted recipients at comparatively low-cost. With the explosion of vanity press and print-on-demand books, a promotional campaign of direct mailings in advance of publication is really the only medium open to authors of self-published books.

Can direct-mailings by an author pay dividends? You bet. Consider the experience of novelist Terry McMillan. Because Houghton Mifflin, publisher of her first novel, Mama, had planned virtually no publicity, McMillan launched a letter-writing campaign to booksellers and reviewers. In addition, she arranged and paid for a post-publication reading tour to promote her story of a poverty-stricken unmarried black mother's struggle to raise five children.

That was in 1987. Two years later, unhappy with her original publisher, the 37-year-old African-American writer took her second novel, Disappearing Acts, to Viking Press, where it became a bestseller. Without the first novel's successful publicity generated by author McMillan's own self-promotion efforts, it's unlikely she would have earned strong publisher support for her second novel. In 1992, to promote her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, Viking Press paid for an intensive six-week, 20-city author tour, and her book skyrocketed to near the top of fiction bestseller lists. Pocket Books bought paperback rights for a cool $2.64 million.

When movie rights were sold to this story of four females friends looking for love, 20th Century-Fox allotted a mere $15 million to the production budget, not expecting it to have much "crossover" appeal for white audiences. The 1995 film, directed by Forest Whitaker and starring Whitney Houston, Angela Basset, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon, became a surprise hit, grossing almost $68 million domestically. The budding novelist and self-promoter suddenly became a millionaire.

The success of McMillan's books and films made her a hot property. In 1996, her novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back, about the relationship between a woman and a much younger man, became an instant bestseller, and movie rights were snapped up by 20th Century-Fox. Produced for $20 million, the 1998 grossed nearly $38 million. Terry McMillan co-wrote the screenplays of both films. Film rights to her second novel, Disappearing Acts,were bought by MGM and later resold to an independent production company. The resulting 2000 TV movie, with sizzling performances by Wesley Snipes and Sanaa Lathan, was shown on HBO.

Mailing Lists and Letters
The renting of mailing lists is the cornerstone of direct mail. But ours is a mobile society, and rented lists quickly become dated unless their names and addresses have been verified recently--the procedure is called "cleaning." Some letters will inevitably be returned because of what mailers call "bum addresses." The objective of list cleaning is to keep these to a minimum. List rental can be expensive, too--averaging about $100 per 1,000 names.

One low-cost solution is to prepare your own mailing lists. Drawing names from the directories listed at the end of this article, you can compile your own local, regional and national lists of booksellers, wholesalers, book reviewers, librarians, radio and TV talk-show hosts or program directors. Don't overlook off-trail possibilities. If your book is a history of cutlery thought the ages, you'd be wise to compile lists of organizations with interests in knives and cutlery, particularly those that publish newsletters or bulletins for members.

Resist the urge to pick up the phone to call persons on the lists you compile. Unsolicited telephone calls are intrusive and often result in a negative response. A well-organized letter touting your book is always better. In the public relations field, these are called "pitch letters." With your computer's mail-merge program, you can easily generate personalized letters, labels and envelopes. For the ultimate in personalization, addressing your envelopes by hand will spark curiosity and increase the chances that the letter will reach the addressee and be opened. Make your pitch short and to the point. Keep your letters positive in tone. Their sole purpose is to create interest in your book--and in you. Remember that successful direct mail always promises benefits to the recipient.

When writing to librarians and book reviewers, make your book sound interesting or exciting. To newspaper feature editors, make your book--and you--the focus of the story. When pitching booksellers, emphasize its sales appeal and the intensive publicity campaign you are mounting. Letters to radio and TV program directors should portray your book as all of the above, and present you as a colorful, lively and desirable guest. Avoid the pedestrian. Be imaginative. Lead off in the first paragraph with a challenging fact or provocative statistic to catch attention. Nonfiction writers will recognize this as "the hook," a time-honored technique for beginning an article.

The body of your letters should describe in broad terms what makes your book--and you--noteworthy. Summarize its theme, offer supporting facts, quote critics' advance praise, highlight the importance of the subject, underscore your availability and stress the book's reader appeal or listener interest. Your letters should also make clear exactly what you're asking for: a book review; an order; a meeting; an interview with a reporter and a feature story; an appearance on a radio or TV show. Conclude letters addressed locally by saying that you will telephone in a few days to follow up. Pitching letters to big names also can be fruitful. A well-known expert might be willing to read the manuscript or galleys of your book and write a foreword or jacket blurb. Imagine what a few kind words from Dr. C. Everett Koop, would do for the sales of a book on health care. Remember, it costs almost nothing to ask.

Pitching to Booksellers

Your letters to booksellers should, of course, encourage them to order your book. Dealers who neglected to stock it may be prompted to do so by a strong pitch letter. Dealers who ordered only a few copies may decide to increase their order. Only when your book is widely available in bookstores should you think about spending money on advertising.

The number of retail book outlets, especially independent booksellers, fell dramatically in the United States in recent years. An idea of the severity of the decline can be gleaned from the following statistics: In 1995, the American Booksellers Association, based in Tarrytown, N.Y., numbered more than 5,500 members with about 7,000 stores. Five years later membership was down to 3,100 members and 4,000 locations. Today, this trade group of book retailers has only 1,800 members and 2,500 locations. Don't overlook the importance of chain bookstores in book distribution today--including the new superstores--with centralized buying facilities. This means that one buyer does the ordering for many outlets, and any book order will likely be a big one. Major book wholesalers and distributors are desirable contacts, too.

Every author should make friends with local booksellers. Follow up your letters to them with a telephone call and then a visit in person. Having your book in a prized spot in a bookseller's display window can make a big difference in the number of copies sold. Suggest a traditional in-store autographing party. At these, you will talk about the writing of your book, chat with customers and autograph the copies they buy. If wine and cheese are served, your publisher may underwrite that cost.

Because customers rely on their recommendations, independent retailers can still play a major role in a book's success even though their numbers are dwindling. A case in point is Robert James Waller's 1992 novel, The Bridges of Madison County, a tender story of the brief love affair between a lonely Iowa farm wife and a magazine photographer, and how it haunts them for the rest of their lives. As with many other first novels, the publisher, Warner Books, made no special effort to publicize Waller's book. Enter Warren Cassell, owner of Just Books, a tiny independent bookstore in Greenwich, Connecticut. Cassell praised Waller's book in his store's newsletter as "one of the finest first novels we have ever read," certain to be on "our life list of favorite novels." Booksellers everywhere shared his enthusiasm. Word-of-mouth praise kept The Bridges of Madison County on bestseller charts until it reached the number one spot early in 1993 and remained there tenaciously. Just Books, the store that originally ordered only three copies of this unheralded work, eventually sold more than a thousand copies.

Pitching to Librarians
In pitching a direct-mail publicity campaign, don't ignore libraries, especially regional library systems with centralized purchasing. Local public libraries or nearby college and university libraries are also good targets. Librarians like to have the works of local authors represented in their collections. Although librarians are strongly influenced by reviews of forthcoming books in such publications as Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, these publications cannot evaluate every new title. A personal letter from the author can make librarians aware of a new book they otherwise might have overlooked. The buying power of the 34,296 libraries in the United States and Canada is impressive. In fact, librarians buy one of every three trade books published. And, unlike individual book buyers, larger libraries often buy multiple copies of popular titles for their main and branch libraries.

Pitching to Reviewers
It's accepted dogma in publishing that a good review does more for sales than any advertisement. This makes review copies inexpensive tools for self-promotion. All publishers maintain mailing lists of the book reviewers to whom review copies are sent, and they will usually share these lists with their authors. Classified according to size, the publication's circulation and its clout with readers, these are referred to as their A, B and C lists. With them in hand, you can easily compile your own mailing lists of reviewers at newspapers and magazines that are not on the publisher's lists. When a preliminary dummy of your book jacket is available, mail a photocopy of it and the table of contents with a cover letter to such untapped reviewers. Ask them to note at the bottom of your letter whether they would like to receive a review copy, and include a return envelope to make responding easy. Publishers will welcome the names of such reviewers who express an interest in receiving your book--especially if you provide the addresses on peel-off labels. Your publisher can afford to be generous with review copies; authors are paid no royalties on books distributed for promotional purposes.

Other Promotional Possibilities
Sales of subsidiary rights are important sources of additional income for both publishers and authors. These rights can include sales to book clubs, paperback publishers, or movies and TV, as well as the marketing of foreign rights and serial (magazine) rights. Your publisher will probably touch base with the major players in these leagues. But don't be timid about doing a little horn-blowing on your own in the form of personalized letters to book club acquisition editors and other subsidiary rights buyers.

The Truth About Author Tours
Many writers dream of author tours, but a tour can be expensive. Airfares, hotels, meals and incidentals make this a particularly costly form of advertising for publishers. The fact is that certain books--first novels, children's books, and some kinds of nonfiction--often don't lend themselves to all the chores. Moreover as the late Fran Harris, longtime Detroit newscaster and radio and TV interviewer, pointed out to this writer, "many authors simply aren't good at impromptu conversation, or are uncomfortable before a camera or microphone, making them poor candidates for tours." Nevertheless, if you're convinced that a tour is essential to the success of your book and your publisher won't underwrite it, there's nothing stopping you from personally financing the tour.

Writers also can tour their books without even leaving home. "Radio interviews conducted over the telephone are the hottest way of promoting books today," says Rick Frischman, president of Planned TV Arts, a New York and Washington booking agency for author tours. "We've booked authors Bill Moyers, James Michener, Arnold Palmer, Jane Bryant Quinn, Alan Dershowitz, and others on our 'Morning Drive Radio Tours' with great success."

The Wayne Dyer Story
The undisputed all-time self-promotion champ is Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. In 1976, he was an associate professor at St. John's University and a practicing therapist. That year Funk & Wagnalls published his Your Erroneous Zones, a book based on his own experience and describing how to reverse unhealthy behavior patterns .

Convinced that he needed to take control of his life and to stop worrying about being bald or feeling guilty about his divorce, he decided to write a bestseller. After spending two years in reflection, he wrote the book in 13 days. When the prestigious New York Times Book Review failed to review his book, the 36-year-old Dyer decided to do his own promotion. Taking leave from his faculty post as a guidance counselor, he loaded his station wagon with copies of his book and began his self-financed promotional tour that took him to every state in the United States. People magazine called his effort "a self-marketing tour de force."

Making himself available for talk show interviews at any hour of the day or night, he soon propelled his book to the top of bestseller charts and kept it there for well over a year. Avon Books later bought the paperback rights, paying one of the highest prices then on record. Other best-selling self-help titles followed, all promoted by Dyer in the same way. He never returned to teaching and gave up his private practice and moved to Hawaii. Aggressive self-promotion had made him a millionaire. Today, Dyer is a fixture on public television, where he preaches his inspirational philosophy and hawks his books and associated products.

Why Self-promotion?
Unless you're an established author, it's unlikely that any publisher will provide your book with much in the way of advertising and promotion. The publisher's efforts will, in most cases, be perfunctory and largely futile. It's up to you, the author, to do everything you can to promote your book. But you must be ready to move quickly. As in perhaps no other industry, the timing of a book's promotional campaign is critical. The average book has the reading public's attention for only a few weeks or even days. A book's shelf life is--in humorist Calvin Trillin's words--"somewhere between milk and yogurt." The window of opportunity for the promotion of your book will be open ever so briefly. As the author, you must seize the moment. Self-promotion is no longer an option; it's a basic survival tactic.


Build your own mailing lists of booksellers, librarians, book reviewers, and radio and TV programs that feature books and authors by using the following books available from public libraries. Many are also available on databases through regional library systems and larger public libraries.

American Book Trade Directory lists 30,000 retail and antiquarian book dealers in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 wholesalers and paperback distributors.

American Library Directory lists 34,296 U.S. and Canadian libraries, including public, armed forces, government and special libraries.

Bacon's Newspaper/Magazine Directory lists `8,000 trade and consumer magazines, newsletters and journals, including ethnic and university newspapers.
Editor & Publisher International Yearbook lists daily and Sunday newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, weekly newspapers, newspaper syndicates.
Literary Market Place lists selected news services and feature syndicates, book reviewers at newspapers and magazine, and book clubs. Also lists selected radio and TV programs featuring books.
Standard Periodical Directory has more than 56,000 listings of U.S. and Canadian periodicals.
Ulrich's International Periodicals Directory lists more than 280,000 periodicals by 90,000 publishers in over 300 countries.

Bacon's Radio/TV/Cable Directory lists every U.S. and Canadian broadcast outlet, with names of producers, assignment editors and reporters.

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