When Facely-the-Ferret wants my attention, he simply pounces on my feet and jumps back a few steps looking up at me expectantly. Unless I'm in the middle of something, like writing an article for the Bulletin, this generally works. Self-promotion, for authors, is a bit more complicated. (Though Facely volunteers to come to your signings and pounce on the feet of likely buyers to get their attention, as long as there's something in it for him. Ferrets are notoriously mercenary.)
So, let's talk about how you can best get readers' attention. The first thing you're going to want to do, of course, is talk with your publicist at your publishing house to find out what they'll be doing for your book and how best to coordinate your efforts. There are a good number of things that a publisher can do for you that you can't do for yourself, like arrange for coop advertising (otherwise known as pay-for-play).
The trick with this is that while the publisher recommends books they feel would benefit from prominent placement and pays for the privilege, the bookstores can decide whether to take one book over another, based on how well they think the books will sell in their market. Also, publishers can offer things like standees (those floor displays that can hold several books in a series or by a particular author). Again, it's up to the bookstores to take them up on this. Many of the chain stores are resistant to authors calling to arrange their own signings, but they're something that can easily be arranged through corporate, especially at the behest of the publisher's publicity department.
Publishers are also instrumental in gathering quotes for the covers of new releases, getting galleys and ARCs (advance reading copies) out to influential reviewers and placing ads. As far as ads and tours go, it seems that more and more publishers are finding that their money is better spent on blog tours, banner ads and imprints, podcasts and other forms of virtual touring than on traditional print or in-person advertising. They can get a bigger bang (or at least reach more potential readers) for less promotional buck.
Print ads have not disappeared entirely, however. Neither have bookmarks, postcards, posters for your signings and other swag that publishers will often either pay for or at least design for the authors. (Facely-the-Ferret often steals these for nesting material, and asks that you keep them coming. He also likes carpet and my couch stuffing. I've consoled myself by calling what he does "recycling.") I've seen other fantastic promotional swag that Facely turns up his nose at — from water bottles to Frisbees, pens, coasters, red hots, nail files ("for nail-biting suspense"), notebooks, magnets, chocolates, and even condoms, though I'm pretty sure the publisher didn't cover the cost of the latter!
But unless you're one of the publisher's New York Times bestsellers, it's unlikely that they have a huge budget allocated to promoting your work. You're probably going to have to pick up some of the slack.
So now for the moment you've all been waiting for. I give you Self-Promotion! And the crowd goes…wait, wait, come back! It's supposed to be the crowd goes wild, not missing! I know, we've all had these conversations until we're blue in the face about what works and how to stretch the promotional budget, especially in the current economy.
Blogging is on the tip of everyone's tongue, and can be a wonderful way to get the word out, but it's not for everyone. First, you have to genuinely have something to say that people want to hear. "Buy my book" is good for a post or two, but what will you do to get people coming back. The way I look at it, you can be funny or you can be informative. If you can be both…well, that's icing on the cake. Give people something—laughs, advice, information, resources, commiseration. Give them a reason to link back and refer others. The same goes for a website. The content should be kept fresh and interesting. Giveaways, contests, free wallpaper or fiction are all great ways to keep readers coming back for more. Or think about how brilliantly The Blair Witch Project handled promotion, where the website was a vehicle to add to the mythos of The Blair Witch. It was spooky and realistic and created the sense that this was a real thing. The movie was only part of the story. The film and web promotion fed into each other. The Project was a tremendous success.
So, what do you do if you're not a born blogger. If the very thought of trying to say something pithy or amusing on a daily basis makes your mouth go dry and your feet sweat? Well, you're in luck. The biggest seller of books is word of mouth. Write a kick-ass (sorry, kick-butt) novel that really fires up people's imaginations, gets their blood pumping, their stomachs clenching, their tear ducts working overtime and people will talk. They'll blog. They'll put reviews up on BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com. They'll buy them as stocking stuffers and insist their book clubs read along with them. That kind of publicity you can't pay for.
You know what else you can't pay for? Celebrity. Use anything you've got. Are you a local author? Do you have any contacts at schools where you can give talks? At newspapers or local magazines that might want to do a piece on a local guy or gal made good? How many places can you be considered local? The town you were born, the place you wrote sections of the book, the city you live in now…. What about alumni newsletters (high school and college)? Pull out all the stops. Even before your book comes out you should be working on a list of contacts – places, people, libraries, communities to which you have a tie and could present a special marketing angle for your book. Prep your pitch, post cards, press releases or whathaveyou to go out a few months early, about the time when the catalogues with your cover are on people's desks and orders are being placed. Follow up with a similar promotional mailing just as your book comes out. Targeted marketing is much more effective and much less costly than blasting mailings out to kingdom come.
Build or join communities on sites like Facebook, MySpace, LiveJournal, Blogspot and many, many others. For most of these you get out of them what you put into them and while they can be labor intensive, they can also be very rewarding. The trick with any sort of web promotion is to balance it with your writing time. Remember, you first have to write those fantastic novels you want everyone to rave about. Promotion, like research, can be addictive.
Sing a song of signings, a pocket full of rye…. Sorry, sometimes the sassy little songspinner in my brain works overtime. So, signings. Love them, hate them. Either way, chances are you won't be able to avoid them forever. So, how do you make the most of them? Well, it helps to either a) be an NYT bestselling author who will draw a huge audience on your name alone or b) have a gimmick or shill to bring people over to the table. By that I mean, give people a reason to come to your signing or your table, whether it be a talk, a workshop or a reading, or free chocolates. A friend or relative or pocket pup (if they're allowed) who's smiling, approachable, chatty even, can direct traffic and certainly makes things a lot less lonely than sitting there by yourself as people breeze by. Posters that you can sit on or beside the table or that the bookstores can post in the window for promotion are also a big help. Before your signing, it's a good idea to check in and make sure nothing has slipped through the cracks. Your books have been ordered, the staff is aware, etc. You wouldn't believe the horror stories. Or maybe you would. Afterward, offer to sign whatever stock is left over so that the staff can place your books up front with "Autographed" stickers prominently attached.
I've been hearing a lot about street teams lately – more in young adult than adult fiction. The idea behind this is to get a group of motivated individuals creating a buzz about your work, recommending it to others, getting the word out, a kind of grass roots promotional effort. This is wonderful if you can get it. Offer freebees and special things they can't find anywhere else. Give them a "uniform" of free T-shirts with your cover or series logo printed on it. Have them, as previously discussed, go forth and blog! A team, a posse, an entourage, can do so much more than one person alone, as energetic as you might be.
Book trailers have also been much on people's minds. Are they worth the time and expense? So far I can't say that I've seen a huge return on the investment. However, publishers have said that the format that works best seems to be live action (as opposed to static pictures and scrolling text) of about 60 seconds in length. Longer and you risk losing viewers' short attention spans. Some bookstores and on-line venues are starting to view these as good marketing tools and they give you the added ability to get the word out on high-traffic sites like YouTube.
Last, but certainly not least, short fiction and non-fiction can be a great way of getting exposure to readers who might not otherwise be familiar with your work. You might even get paid to promote by selling your work to anthologies, magazines, newspapers or even e-zines. It's a win-win situation.
Yes, it's possible to go insane trying to find time to promote and write your work, which is why many authors hire a publicist or virtual assistant to take some of the load off. A professional can coordinate with your publisher and help you get the word out. I've read in article after article that authors often spend the advance of their first book on promotion as an investment in their careers. If you can afford to do that, great. With computerization and the all powerful numbers, it's very important to start off on the right foot. However, there are some low-cost alternatives that I've offered up here that you can give a try.
May the Force be with you.