Sunday, March 09, 2008

Effective Marketing

First: What do Kurt Vonnegut, Naomi Novik, Michael Chabon, John Scalzi, Neil Gaimon, Joe Hill and Terry Pratchett all have in common?

Along with many other authors, they’re all contenders in the Fantasy Bookspot 2007 tournaments. There are two tournaments, an all-time (classic) tournament and a 2007 tournament, and the winner of the 2007 tournament gets to claim the honour of being the book tournament winner.

For those of you who cross the genre lines, you’ll want to check this out, and for the crime fiction crowd, I’ll come back to the book tournament toward the end of my post, with a relevant note for crime fiction authors and readers.

*****

The other day, I got an e-mail from my favourite radio station, from one of the three members of The Odd Squad. They’d seen the old photo of Deric I posted, and mentioned they’d just been playing his latest single the other day and saying it had been far too long since they had a chance to talk to him.

It made me smile, and took me back to something that happened a few years ago.

The time: mid-September, 2003
The place: Ranchman’s, Calgary
The event: Deric Ruttan and Doc Walker perform and signs CDs

After Deric’s set and signing, he sat down with my brother-in-law and I and caught up. In fact, that was the night that I kicked my own backside about actually writing a book, because after what Deric had gone through, to get his record deal, I knew I had it easy. If you don’t try, you never know…

But that wasn’t what Doug’s e-mail made me think about. It was one small part of the exchange, when I said to Deric that he should try to come to Stampede. He hesitated, and said it wasn’t likely that he’d come for the next one. “Market saturation,” he explained. If people get used to the idea that they can see you any time, it stops being important to try to make it to your concerts and signings.

I could see the sense of what he was saying. After all, concerts usually cost money. Spending $15 or $20 at Ranchman’s back then was peanuts but concerts often cost considerably more.

The other factor about Stampede is that there are a lot of concerts, and not just country concerts. Nashville North has two acts every night. The Coca Cola stage has performances in the afternoon and evening. There are always a couple big shows at the Saddledome. And places like Cowboy’s and Ranchman’s put on shows too, for those who don’t want to deal with the crowds at the Stampede grounds.

As a new artist building profile, Deric understood that it would be harder to make an impact at a time when the market was saturated with musicians and concerts… and he also understood that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

I think every single person would agree that if they’re doing book signings they’d rather do one with ten people than two with five, if at all possible.

I’m not saying that only big signings are important. However, every moment an author spends on promotion is one less they’re spending on writing, and the majority of us are spending our own money to travel. Our resources are limited.

The radio station made me think about this for other reasons. One of the things they have now is a tag that says “Back to the music faster” and they have the commercials that follow limited to two minutes.

The inference is obvious: People don’t want ads. They want substance.

I expressed some of my irritation with overkill marketing last week, and part of the reason I did it is because most authors seem to fall into one of two distinct categories. Either they never talk about marketing or they push marketing to the point that it gives newer, unknowing authors the belief that they’re expected to promote-promote-promote.

Have you ever been around someone who just fell in love? They can’t shut up about that wonderful person. He’s everything from dreamy to a stud to a gentleman to perfect and within a few weeks even most friends are sick of hearing about God’s gift to men.

Now, think of how you feel when someone continuously tries to sell you on something. You get an e-mail from an author telling you in a week, they’ll be in your town. Although you never signed up for their newsletter, they remind you three days before their visit as well.

Those three days go by - and yes, there was another e-mail that morning, saying “Today’s the day!” - you’re at home, having dinner with your family when there’s a knock on the door. You glance out the window and can see the author there, book in hand… and return to the table to eat with your SO and kids.

And they bang on the door and call out, “I know you’re in there! I can see the lights on!”

You’re either laughing or rolling your eyes at the extreme example, but the thing is, we’re just one step removed from telemarketing calls promoting books and door-to-door salespeople. In fact, I have heard of authors going door to door already.

I’m not going to make sweeping generalizations. I’m not going to say such approaches will never be effective. The questions authors have to ask themselves are how often they’ll be effective, and how positive is the cost-benefit analysis.

The problem is, the mantra has been PROMOTE- PROMOTE – PROMOTE.

The mantra should be promote effectively.

Okay… I’m not crazy about marketing. I maintain if I wanted to be a salesperson, that’s what I’d be (and I’d make a lot more money at it). I’m an author because I love to write, not because I love to get in your face and tell you to buy my book. Marketing is, however, a necessary evil.

Unfortunately, the zeal for promotion often takes on that “falling in love enthusiasm” and overrides common sense. Authors fail to realize when they’re going overboard. They only look at the five books sold instead of the twenty-five people walking away scowling, empty-handed. They don’t even see the ones who’ve altered their course to avoid the author.

I have always liked keeping in touch with people via their blogs, and since I know what it’s like to be inundated with e-mails sometimes, if I have something to say I usually put it as a comment instead of e-mailing. My objective isn’t promotion, or I’d probably not say 2/3 of the things I do online. However, just the nature of my presence can be interpreted as a promotional effort, and I have had people suggest I comment less because I’m too omnipresent online.

And I’m not even trying to raise my internet profile. There are people who deliberately set aside time for such things, and comment in “all the right places” to get their name out there.

I made remarks lately, expressing the feeling that many blogs are, essentially, landfill. I have a genuine appreciation for Crimespot and drop by several times a day to see if there’s anything of interest there. However, it magnifies the issue when authors do blog tours and you see the same person talking about their book over and over and over again. I automatically skip the host blog that day. I understand that many blogs have different audiences, but when someone suggested I do a blog tour my response was an emphatic no. I will be guest-blogging two or three places next month, and that’s my limit. They have also been very strategically selected. I will not be recycling news about my book release and why you should buy the book. I will be talking about different things I think people might find interesting.

I have also decided not to host blog tours on my blog. Originally, I was on the fence, but after a number of people put pressure on me about this, I fell to one side. Would I host an author here? Absolutely. A blog tour specifically? No. If I’m going to have someone here there needs to be a reason. It also needs to be someone whose work I’m familiar with.

As a reviewer, familiarity comes through ARCs. As an editor, it also comes through short stories that are published. I keep thinking about Country 105’s tag line – back to the music faster – and isn’t that what we all want? Substance instead of a sales pitch.

How can authors effectively market themselves?

1. Get short stories published in a range of markets, online and in print. (This showcases your writing – which is what you’re selling, after all – and it also gets you on the radar of editors. Some of them do interviews and look for authors to profile. If they like your work they’re more likely to want to interview you and feature you when your book comes out, and you won’t have to ask.)

2. Be more than a walking advertisement. When I go to conventions and end up at a panel where someone just keeps plugging their book, I lose all interest. It’s like that friend in love and in week 10 of the super-gush mode – autopilot “uh huh, uh huh, uh huh” responses ready as needed but I’m not really listening by this point. I go to hear about a topic, and if I think an author is interesting/intelligent I’ll check out their work. If I think they’re dull as dishwater they end up on my mental ‘avoid’ list.

3. Consider market saturation. I’ve thought about this a lot this year. I have two books coming out, six months apart. As a result, I actually don’t want every site under the sun to review the first one, because it will make it a lot harder to get reviews for the second book. If I was Michael Connelly I wouldn’t need to care about that because I’d get the reviews anyway, but I’m not, and besides, if I was I wouldn’t need to give a second thought to marketing.

4. Participate in the community. This goes to my life philosophy, about giving, not just taking. We live in a self-absorbed ME-ME-ME era, and that’s carried over to the world of books. (There’s a fine line between legitimate concerns about business and being overbearing and overly demanding. In other words, if you publisher isn’t going to send out review copies at all, I understand why you have concerns. But if you’re whining because they sent out 100 but you wanted them to do the 10,000 Dan Brown got for DaVinci Code, I’m not too sympathetic. You have to look at what’s typical, not what’s exceptional.)

The main point here is that many authors expect to get, but when asked to do something for someone else they automatically refuse. Too busy, too important, too self-absorbed… whatever. Yes, you’re allowed to say no sometimes because you’re busy. I’m not criticizing people for saying no sometimes – the criticism goes to those who always say no. They expect to get without giving anything back. I’ve seen this with new authors who want blurbs and reviews, but asked later to consider blurbing someone else they say they aren’t blurbing. Anyone who deals with the business side of the equation knows the people I’m talking about – they show up when they want something but should you ever be looking for an author to write a memorial tribute to someone who’s passed away, or to discuss an issue in an interview (as opposed to their book) you know better than to call them.

5. Wherever possible, honour your commitments. I realize it’s a bit different where conventions are concerned, because we often book months (if not years) in advance for financial reasons, and then sometimes things come up that prevent us from following through. But if you commit to putting a short story in a magazine, or writing an article for them, either follow through or have the decency to cancel when you realize you can’t make the deadline. Don’t leave them hanging, because that will leave a bad taste in their mouth.

6. Look for the effective opportunities instead of just running crazy doing anything and everything. Using a simplistic example, if I was blogging to sell books, I’d be the first to say I’m an idiot. An unbelievably small percentage of books are sold because of blogs. Furthermore, many readers of my blog are the same regulars. If I blog five days a week and get 500 hits, I’m really just getting about 120-150 distinct visitors, with the balance of the hits being repeat traffic over the week. If I blog one day a week and get 110 hits, I’ve used 1/5 of the time investment and reached almost the same audience. Is five times the work really effective for the additional hits? No.

Now, I blog for different reasons, which is why I turn up whenever I feel like it, but if your objective is sell-sell-sell, mega-blogging is just dumb-dumb-dumb.

7. Always leave them wanting more. Musicians don’t play all their biggest hits. They leave the stage with the audience still fired up for more. And we call them back. Best encore I remember was Annie Lennox at the Saddledome, coming back on stage to do Sweet Dreams. You think the audience is screamed out, but the roar of the crowd reaches a whole new level.

I think of Doug’s e-mail. The Odd Squad host an enormously popular morning show. If you’re a country artist you don’t come to Calgary without dropping by Country 105. They get calls from musicians all the time…

You don’t want to be the one they say they’re sick of. You want to be the one they say, ”Hey, it’s been a while – would love to talk!”

8. Show interest in something else. People who have more diverse interests are more interesting to listen to. I love traveling, but if I only talked about my trips even I’d be bored before long. Music? I love my music, but same thing. You know the phases of falling in love with a song? It starts of with wow, I really like that song, I have to hear it again and goes to turn it up, turn it up! and then you look for the album (and curse if it isn’t out yet) and then eventually you hit the again? mode. You notice this most often with smash hits that have a lot of hype –Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy and Redneck Woman to name two – where almost equal numbers are turning the radio down and off while others and turning it up. In fact, I remember when Country 105 used to have Christina on at night, and they did pick it or kick it – Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy barely squeaked by with something like 55% of votes in favour of the song.

If you only talk about your book, it gets old. It gets to be like that song on the radio. Hardcore fans will follow you at first, but then lose interest. And in the worst cases, they’ll start being the ones turning the radio down, because they’ve had their fill.

I mean, I love chocolate, but I won’t eat chocolate chip pancakes anymore, not since the time I followed chocolate chip cookies at night by chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast the next day. (It was a sleepover and I was a kid, but just the thought of that stomach ache is enough to put me off.)

9. Look for the original approach instead of just recycling the same-old, same-old. Clever marketing stands out much more than just routine, repetitive marketing tactics everyone else has done. This is why there’s no formula. Think about it – if half the authors out there all did the same things, it would be the ultimate white noise effect – you just tune it all out.

This list isn’t an exhaustive one. It’s about balance. A small bit of slack gets cut for newer authors, because the enthusiasm overrides reason. However, the slack doesn’t extend forever, and even new authors can take it too far and burn bridges.

Reviewers, interviewers, fellow authors and bloggers don’t owe you anything. And while I’m not about just kissing butt for the sake of the favour exchange, I’m more likely to help out someone who’s shown themselves to be generous and to contribute to the community than the person who’s just ME-ME-ME.

Remember, you can catch flies with shit, or with beer or honey. Beer and honey are very effective and don’t smell nearly as bad.

8 comments:

John McFetridge said...

All good points, Sandra.

I think you also have to consider exactly what it is you want, what is 'success' for you.

I wish publishers would be clear up front about what will be a success for them, as well. I mean, I realize they all want a huge bestseller every time, but most publishers have been in business long enough to know they won't all be huge sellers, and is any smaller amount still okay? You know, like a lot of sales offices that have to hit their 'targets' people have to set their own targets and have publishers that are okay with those targets.

Sandra Ruttan said...

And here's the note for authors - we're planning a mystery book tournament as well.

The way to be on our radar is through review copies.

Grant McKenzie said...

That's a good point, John.
If a publisher laid it on the line and said, "We're giving you a $5,000 advance. In return, we want to sell 5,000 copies of your book. If your book sells that number, we'll be excited about publishing your second book and we'll throw some extra money into marketing and promotion. If it sells more than 5,000 copies, we will all do the happy dance and will enter into more generous discussions regarding your third book. If it sells less than 5,000, then we're no longer interested."
This would let us know where we stand without as much guessing. Of course, we would still worry far more than we should.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Unfortunately, we rarely get that kind of breakdown. It would be excellent. It makes for measurable goals. Instead, what often happens is the book does really well and it isn't "it's exceeded our expectations" it's "well, let's see just how well it can do".

Even if you are selling well, you always somehow feel as though you're coming at it from behind.

Amra Pajalic said...

I keep reading about interviews from authors who spend a good chuck of time promoting their book and then don't have time to write a new one. I always think that the best way to promote a book is to have another one published, but it's a catch 22. You won't get a new one published if your first doesn't do well.

This is where your list is a good wake up call about marketing effectively rather than just ticking off a list for the sake of being able to say-I did it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Amra, you're right, it is a catch 22. And that's exactly why it's about balance. Before you decide to do anything you should have a sense of what you hope to accomplish by doing it - and ask yourself that. "What will I gain here?" It may be sometimes, you try things without knowing if there'll be a pay-off, but that should be the rarity. You should have some idea of whether or not a certain action will enable you to reach booksellers, readers or whatever. Being busy just for the sake of being busy is ridiculous.

And real business people out in the real world will tell you that.

Randy Johnson said...

I'm not sure I would equate book promotions with telemarketing(I got on the don't call list as soon as it was established). Books are things I like, as opposed to most telemarketers. I view your blog as a benign self-promotion. I read it because you have something interesting to say. It's there if I want to check it out and I can always skip it if I don't. That makes you different from telemarketers. You don't push your book, but the information is there if I want to look. That's the right approach, I think.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree Randy, and that's why I can live with the blogs.

The telemarketer example really goes over to convention antics, and it brings to mind the author who went on DorothyL talking about sticking his book in people's shopping baskets to get them to buy it.

Going too far...