Book Promotion: Farming vs. Construction

Every afternoon at 4 p.m. EST, there is a thing on Twitter called Book Market Chat.

For those of you who are Twitter-challenged (I’m still struggling to stay on the horse, myself) all you do is sign on to Twitter, then do a search in the search box for #bookmarket.  It will then show you the conversation:  everyone who is participating will add #bookmarket to their tweets.

If you want to ask a question of the speaker, you can start with his or her name (or simply include it) then ask the question… just make sure you add #bookmarket to the end of the tweet, so they’ll see it.

It can be a little chaotic, but it’s a lot of fun — and you can get some interesting perspective on book marketing.  Also, they have some rockin’ guests.  (For example, June 23rd will have Charlotte Abbott & Kat Meyer on publishing trends, and June 30th will have Ruth Seeley talking about effective ways to use Goodreads… and if that doesn’t fascinate you, you don’t care about selling books.)

Anyway, last Thursday’s guest was Dan Blank, from the renowned We Grow Media.  Again, if you care about selling books, this guy’s clutch.  Seriously.  He knows his stuff.

He was talking about building an author platform.  Now, you guys know how I feel about platform building.  I was trying to share the same theory with him, only in under 140 tweets (even less, since I had to tack on “#bookmarket”)  and I basically said I had a problem with the metaphor of building a platform, that I preferred the verb “growing.”  My exact tweet:

“Growing” is organic. “Building”… you’re smacking somethin’ with a hammer.

It’s a bit glib, but I do believe the analogy is sound.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that book promotion really is a lot more like farming than construction — and too many authors go into it with a contractor’s mindset rather than a farmer’s.

Why it’s like farming:

1.  You can only control some of the elements involved.

You can know what crop you want to grow.  You can fertilize it, water it, weed it, tend to it. You can choose where your farm is located.

Or, in our case, you can choose what genre to write in. For your craft, you can take classes, work with an editor, revise constantly. For book promotion, you can choose where you’re going to promote: who you’re going to approach for reviews, what ads you might buy, what your website looks like, how often you blog/tweet/shout out your window (the Luddite social media.)

2.  The elements you can’t control, you really can’t control.

Hailstorms. Locusts.  Bees vanishing.  Force majeure, my friend.  If nothing else, the crop of super-hybrid seeds you purchased could just squat in the dirt and scorn you… or come out really funky, small, and pitiful.

The writer’s version:  for whatever reason, reviewers might ignore your book.  Booksellers might not pick it up for distribution… I once had a book accidentally get left out of my publisher’s sales list, and consequently it never made it into Barnes & Noble at all.  And that was the release I’d hired a publicist for.  Ouch.  (Of course, the genre Chick Lit was shot in the head soon afterward, so it didn’t make that much of a difference.)

I’m sure these analogies comes as no surprise to any of you.  Here’s the thing:

We keep thinking in terms of construction.

If you’re a contractor, the same sort of things can happen to you.  Crazy rainstorms,  delayed building permits, wrong material.

Here’s the difference:  when a contractor gets hit with those things, he can choose to wait it out or build around it.  And he knows that, if he has the right material, the right workers, and enough pressure, eventually he is going to have a house, damn it.

Then he’s done. He can build another house.

He also knows that, at the end of the day, he’s not going to go in with the blueprint for a mansion and come out with a tiki hut.  There’s a guarantee there.

I have seen too many authors think there’s a blueprint for making sales.

“I’m getting on social media, so I can build my author platform!  That’s how I’ll become a bestseller!”

“I still need a website, and a blog, and I’m supposed to be Twittering, and I’ve got a job, and kids…  I don’t even know how I’m going to have the time to write!  But if I don’t do all this, I won’t sell!

“I’m going to go to XYZ conference; I’m printing up bookmarks; I’ve got 666 friends on Goodreads!”

I’m certainly not saying don’t do anything.  Your efforts matter.  Growing your tribe, while both genuine and organic, also needs to be consistent and deliberate.  Like any good farmer can tell you, there needs to be routine nurturing, and there’s a cycle to it.

It’s not a set of steps.  There is no blueprint.  And there’s no concrete end product.

It’s something that you take care of, that will bear fruit gradually, and continuously.

Organic, not constructed.

If you feel like a farmer (or know some contractors who might want to have a word with me,) please re-tweet.  🙂




The Zen of Book Promotion

I am writing this post for myself.

It’s eleven thirty-five, PST. I half-watched a movie with my husband, but mostly I was on my floor with a ginormous sketch pad of paper and a rainbow pack of magic markers that I borrowed from my four year old.

What am I doing?

I’m wrapping my arms around the fact that I’ve got five authors launching in six months.  Two of them have near back-to-back series, pop-pop-pop, three months in a row for each.

Most of them are debut, or relative newbies.

All of them are trusting me to help them succeed.  And I want to.  I’ve been going to bed late, getting up early, thinking about it. Obsessing about it, really.

So was I creating a book promotion plan for each?

Well, I thought so.

But as I doodled lines and noodled “systems,” and some film where Leonardo di Caprio worked for the CIA blared in the background, I noticed a certain symmetry between my plans, and the fictional CIA’s plans.

It suddenly occurred to me why the violence in the background and the cheerful quasi-cartoons in front of me were strangely, almost sickly, in sync.

I wasn’t just setting up a book promotion plan.

I was setting up a war room.

I say this with love: I come from a family of Machiavellian business people.

My Dad was a corporate controller, and every day at the dinner table, he’d talk shop: the details of various corporate intrigue, watching your back while gleefully making the numbers.

My mom was a tough enough negotiator that the man who sold us all our cars asked her to accompany him when making an offer on his house.

My brother and I had a shaved ice stand one summer.  He took the profits and, I swear to God, paid me a salary.

I got a degree in Art History, and since I got it in Berkeley, I cemented my rep as the soft-hearted hippie of an otherwise conservative family tree.  I became a romance novelist.

My family thought I was nuts.  Still do, and they say it with love.

I thought I was a hippie, too. A rebel. An artist.

Except that when it came to business, my DNA seemed to kick in.  I had the uncanny and unsettling habit of shifting from the path of Zen to the path of “oh, it’s on, bitch!”

I call it the Patton approach.

The problem there?

In the long run, the Patton approach almost never, ever works.

The Zen of Book Promotion

I work hard, and I believe in hustling.  I think that fortune favors the prepared.  And when it comes to people I think of as mine — as, honestly, I feel about the authors I’m doing publicity for, and the publishing company I’ve signed on with — I get very enmeshed in outcomes.

After over a decade in the business, I should know better.

You can’t control outcomes.

You might be able to influence outcomes, sure.  But the minute you think you can master it — that, if you just have the bulletproof plan, the right reviewers, the perfect storm of buzz and coverage and cover art you’ll somehow guarantee a slam dunk — that’s when you’re committing hubris.

Like Icarus, you fly too high, your plans melt, and you wind up in the drink.  I know this, damn it.

Does that mean you shouldn’t plan?

Of course not.  Planning is awesome.  It can give you focus, a path to place your feet.  I certainly do not advocate the “if you write it, they will come” school of thought. Having a consistent plan of building awareness and connecting with your tribe is crucial.

Plans, on the other hand, suck.  You get too married to the plan, to the outcome, and you lose crucial flexibility.  You lose perspective.

It’s like being too married to a plot outline.  If I get myopic about my admittedly detailed plot outlines, I might find myself forcing scenes even after I find in the draft that they aren’t working.  If I get too focused on the idea that I need to write a success, I find myself not writing at all.

If I get too married to the details of how I’m going to “make these authors successes!!!” then I will do all of us a disservice.  While I’d love to see each and every one of them on the NYT, that’s not my job.

What is my job?

My job is to recognize what makes each author’s novel special.

To help them identify and connect with their right readers.

To develop awareness, and encourage word of mouth.

To polish up what makes them who they are as writers, and to let them shine.  Then, to let that shine attract those that will truly appreciate them.

To wear my White Hat, damn it.

I sincerely hope that this will lead to overwhelming success.  God, I want that.

But it’s not about me, or what I want.  It’s about helping them succeed.  Helping. To provide support, assistance, and guidance where I can.  To spread the word.  To love their work enough to let that be a beacon.

Not controlling.  Not achieving objectives. Not thinking attack plans or war strategies or crushing competition.

Tomorrow, I work out the details of my plan, and schedule the calls that will help me connect with these authors.  I’ll appreciate them.  Ask where they’re scared.  Help where they need it, with clear steps, reassuring systems, and by reaching out to people I think will care about them as much as I do.

Tomorrow, the war room shuts down.  Patton retires.

And, God willing, I find a new, kinder, more Zen metaphor to work with. 😀

The Foundation of Non-Evil Book Promotion.

Non-Evil Book Promotion

Can you have a kick ass book promotion plan without being evil?

The tagline here is “sell a lot, without selling out” because I think that you want to be authentic, and… well, non-evil.  (“Sell a lot without being evil” just doesn’t have the same ring.  Also, I think Google’s mission statement already uses it.)

“If you write it, they will come.”

In one of the comments in my last post, DeeAnna Galbraith mentioned that “if it’s a good book, it will find a solid audience.”

I love the hope in this mentality, and I think that the book must come first, period.  If you don’t focus on improving your craft, there’s no point in promoting, because you either won’t have enough to promote (too busy promoting, not enough writing) or the stuff you write won’t stand up to scrutiny.

Unlike some non-fiction authors, we aren’t able to cruise on our reputations as experts, dining out on speaking tours and partnerships, seminars and licensing. We’re novelists, fiction writers and our books are our livelihoods.

Does cream rise to the top?

Alas, I don’t believe “good books find an audience”  is necessarily true.  I’ve had many friends who have written wonderful books. However, for lack of consistent or effective publishing efforts (on their part or the part of their publishers) they were unable to connect with readers.

Consequently, they didn’t “make their numbers.”

For those in traditional publishing especially, if you don’t sell a certain number of copies (usually sell-through, or a percentage of number printed and distributed vs. number actually sold) then you’re suddenly on a slippery slope.  Bookstores will return you, and when your next title comes up, they will check your name, and see what your last sell-through was.  Low sell through = fewer or no copies of future books.  Publishers also look at this, and when your next contract comes up, they may decide to pass.

What about e-publishing?

Admittedly, with the boom of e-publishing, you no longer have to fight for limited shelf-space.  But with the deluge of offerings, it’s harder and harder for good books to be noticed.  If you aren’t doing something for promotion, then your masterpiece may languish in Amazon limbo, selling two copies a quarter.

So we’re back to push-push-sell-sell?

Yes, you need to promote.You should have a plan to promote.  Yes, you can decide you want to be a huge, screaming, set-the-world-ablaze success.

No, you don’t need to be evil to carry this out.

The whole point of White Hat promo is to think of your reader first.  Consequently, all of your promotional efforts, and the foundation of your whole book promotion plan, is going to focus on your Right Reader.

You need a comprehensive plan to effectively promote your book.  To do that, you’re going to need the following foundation:

1.  Look at your work.  What genre are you in?  What makes you unique?  (In business jargon, they call this your USP, or Unique Selling Point.)

This can be hard to pin down, especially if you’re writing a very popular genre.  Let’s say you’re writing a cozy mystery.  What’s the hook?  Some examples: “crafty” (knitting, scrapbooks, decoupage); foodie (cupcakes, chefs, recipes);  or role (debutante, maid, traveling clown.  Okay, I made that last one up.)

The idea is to drill down in your niche.  It’s not enough to say you write cozy mysteries, or romantic comedy, or horror.  You write cozy mysteries about a pet psychic.  You write romantic comedy like modern day Kate Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movies.  You write gritty, violent horror stories that take place in the Mojave Desert. Why?  because you want to make it as easy as possible for a Right Reader to be intrigued — and a Wrong Reader to go away.

2.  Draw a sketch of your Right Reader.  Remember: this is someone who is desperately searching for what you’re writing, rather than someone who would enjoy it if they gave it a chance.  The clearer you can visualize this reader, the easier it’s going to be to make decisions about how to design your website, and what to write for your newsletter, blog, posts, and tweets.  In every communication, you want to pretend you’re communicating with your Right Reader alone.  One size does not fit all.  Communication that tries to cater to Every Reader tends to be a bland pap that attracts no one.

3.  Go native.  Once you’ve identified your Right Reader, find out where she hangs out.  Go to a book club.  Lurk in some forums.  Read book blogs.  Remember:  this is a recon mission! Right now, you care enough about your Right Reader to be interested in who she is, what she wants, and what has disappointed her in the past.  Read what she’s suggesting.  If you find stuff you love that’s applicable, share it.  Become known as “that person who knows great books/has funny insights/is kind” rather than “that author who makes every comment a way to talk about her book coming out.”

4.  Be consistent.  This means visually, in your copywriting, and in any communication you do. Again, you’re making it easier for your Right Reader to be attracted and find out more.  If you write violent, gritty, modern horror that takes place in the Mojave, then maybe instead of the usual Gothic fonts, graveyards,  and blood splatter on a black background, go for shades of gray and really creepy desert imagery.  If you’re writing Hepburn/Tracy styled rom com, maybe have pictures of a man and a woman, with smirks of challenge, facing each other from either side of your header.  Make the motif match the USP.

Also, have your website match your social media, your newsletter, your business cards, your newsletter.  Be visually consistent.  Also, use the same “voice” across the board.  Don’t write your newsletter as if it’s coming from a company, your bio as if your publicist wrote it, your tweets as if you’re talking to your high school pals, and your blog as if you’re Sybil, complete with multiple personalities.  Consistency is key.

What do you think?  Does this still feel “evil” to you, or does it make sense?  If you wanted to write a non-evil book promotion plan, what else would you want to know?

If this resonates, please re-tweet.  Likewise, please comment or contact me if you have any questions. I love hearing the feedback, and I want to post stuff that helps! 🙂