Monday, September 16, 2013

The Literary Mercenary's Guide to Shameless Self Promotion

There's a popular myth in some writing circles that all you have to do is write a solid, entertaining book, and everything else will take care of itself. With very few exceptions, this is a sure-fire way to commit career suicide. Writing the book is important, it's necessary, but it's only the first leg of the journey. The next step is letting people know you actually have a book for sale.

Or two, or three... hundred.
But wait, isn't that the publisher's job? Isn't that the whole reason that you give the publisher such a big cut of the sales, so that they do all the promotional work for your book and you can just sit back and collect royalties? In some ideal, golden-aged world that would be true. For those of us who haven't been made the gilded child of a massive corporation looking for a new book sale messiah, and who don't have a famous name that's pulling people in like flies to honey, it's your collective job to reach out to your potential fan base. It isn't going to be easy, it probably isn't going to be fun, but if you want to grow your following and actually sell books, then you're going to have to learn how to promote.

Setting Up Events

Events are typically what people think of when they think of book promotion. An author reads a short story to an eager audience on open-mic night, or holds a book signing at the local store with crowds of curious fans. These are good ideas, and they've become industry standards because they actually work. However, there's no reason to limit yourself when thinking about different venues to get yourself and your work out there.

Always sign the book... even if it's not yours.
Ask yourself who your audience is, and then look for opportunities to reach out directly to that demographic. If you write science fiction or fantasy, then you should look into becoming a panelist at a convention where you can weigh in on industry issues connected to your work. If you're a young adult author, then make sure local high schools and middle schools in your area know you live nearby, and offer to speak to students if the school would like to have you in. If you're any kind of successful then organizations like colleges, local writing groups, and other sorts of people collections will typically be more than happy to have you come on over and speak. In fact, if you know how to make up fliers, you can even get a space at your local library free of cost (in most places) and see who's willing to come in and listen to you talk.

Traditional Media

Though we live in a world of instant gratification and 100 character updates, don't count traditional media out when it comes to your writing career. Most writers who don't have a big name, a blockbuster novel, or real clout (see for example most writers who are self-published, or who work mostly with small presses) will probably find a lot of doors shut in their faces when it comes to this step. Newspapers don't want to waste word count on an author no one's heard of, and magazines won't grant an interview to a nobody. However, sometimes being a local is enough to get their attention. Once you have the attention of an editor, if you can make a good case you can expect at least a little ink to flow your way in fairly short order.

Where the hell is the refresh button?
Persistence is the key when it comes to traditional media. Check with all newspapers and magazines no matter how big or small they are. Talk to your local radio stations both private and public to see what they have to say about your work and if they'll have you on as a guest. Professional tip: If you have a local event going on, traditional media is much more likely to cover you. An author they've never heard of has released the first book in an epic trilogy? Yawn. There's going to be an event at the local Barnes and Noble you say? If we can get some pictures, maybe that would interest some people over in the Arts and Entertainment pages...

Social Media

This is where a lot of authors unfortunately lose their minds, as well as any sight of their goals. Social media is like a bloody battle where making any progress at all is likely just as much an accident of your backswing as it is due to the countless hours that you practiced and refined your pitch so it would thrust home with your audience. While it's possible to save a lot of frustration by avoiding social media, this is a prime example of no guts, no glory. You need to be on as many stages as possible if people are going to notice you.

Your career moves at the speed of Google. Watch for trees.
Where should you go? Well, Facebook is a good start (you can find my author page there, for instance), along with Tumblr (my personal favorite), and the professional social media page LinkedIn (yes, I'm there as well). There's also Twitter, the recently re-invigorated MySpace for those who enjoy a dash of undeath with their social media, and as a place just for authors, Goodreads (you knew this link was coming).

Just having a social media presence isn't enough though; any 12-year-old can manage that. What you need to do, as the author, is to wrangle your audience and to keep them entertained. Let them know who you are, and what you're about. Update with news about your projects, your upcoming events, and post links to your stories, your reviews, and any write-ups about your events (see how cyclical this madman's mess is becoming?). Answer their questions, build a rapport, and try to recruit folks by always, always, always including links to your social media in articles published about you, or which you write yourself. Lead by example when possible.

Forums, Blogs, and Video Channels

The natural extension of social media is, well, the rest of the goddamn Internet. Climbing electronic Everest isn't going to be easy though, and it's very likely you'll have to fight hordes of trolls, deal with storms of withering abuse, and comment sections a mile long about how incompetent you are, and how unoriginal your stories and opinions are. I suggest you wear goggles and cover your mouth, this part gets nasty.

This guy's got the right idea.
If you have a forum presence as it is, then you're ahead of the game. Whether you talk about gaming, cosplaying, cross-stitch, ritual mutilation, or some other activity, you have a voice in a community. Use that voice! This is key for any forum you go to, or any comment board you stake your flag on; don't just shout advertising in their faces. If you do that you're going to alienate your audience at best, get banned from the forums as a spammer at worst. Instead, talk to the community like you're a real person. When they acknowledge your right to be there, mention that you're an author. Field some questions, and only when you're sure they won't go for your jugular should you post a link to your book(s). It's slow, but it's a decent way to find new fans who at least share an interest with you.

The same is true for blogs. Starting your own blog is a great first step to building an audience (either that or I'm just sitting here and typing at myself), but it's not the only step. You need to provide something more than a constant barrage of "buy my book"; you need to offer them real information, real entertainment, and the ability to feel connected to you. If you know other bloggers then you should talk with them to try and get yourself, your blog, or your work featured over on their site. Guest blogging for someone that has a bigger audience than you do is a great way to build connections, and maybe to leech off a few of their fans for your own.

Lastly, videos. Not everyone should make videos. If you choose to, even if it's just rolling shots of you reading snippets from your book, make sure that you're smooth, that your lighting is good, and that you take a bit of time to tell the audience who you are, what they're about to hear, and let them know what they're in for. At the end of it all, make sure you thank them for watching, and list any and all pertinent information about yourself, the story, where they can find it, etc. Strike while the iron is hot, and that includes the opinion of people who might have stumbled on you by total accident, and now really, really want to have your book in their hot little hands.

Promotional Material

Seriously, you'll never guess what it's about.
It's an unfortunate truth that most people have the attention span of a goldfish coupled with the memory of an aging poodle. If you had the force, verve, and sheer luck to get someone really interested during a talk, don't just expect them to remember who the hell you are and what the hell you wrote. They won't. That's like feeling a fish bite, then waiting for it to throw itself into your boat. You need to help them along, and the best way to do that is with promo materials.

These things come in all shapes and sizes. Most authors turn their business cards into promotional materials, featuring a design from a cover, and links to their blogs and their published works. That's good, but it's just a start. Several authors I've spoken to swear by promotional bookmarks, where they can list out their credentials as well as hook people with a catchy design on a practical item. Others print up post cards, and others might make up stickers or give away other, small items. What you choose depends on your budget, but once you have them, take them to every meeting and keep a few in your pocket just for good measure. Most of them will probably be thrown in the garbage, but people will have to look at it before they chuck it.

Offline Networking

This strategy is known by many names; communication science, interpersonal studies, and my personal favorite, fucking talking to people. Everyone reading this, even Taliban insurgents living in caves, knows people. You have parents, siblings, co-workers, LARP buddies, sword fighting peers, and a number of other folks primed for conversation. What's more, if you can convert even one of those people into a fan, then they act as a carrier for your message. They tell their friends, their friends tell still more friends, and you've gone old-fashioned viral. Word-of-mouth is a powerful force when it comes to books, and it can often lead to otherwise impossible connections. After all, your mother's best friend's landlord's nephew's fiancé just might have a senior editor at Random House as a father.

There are opportunities every day for making offline networking connections. You might be sitting at lunch chatting with your best friend about your newest plot when someone at the next table leans over and asks if you're a writer. You can smile, say yes, and offer them a bookmark. Hell, sign it for them if they want. It makes people feel special, it wins you admiration, and it could lead to a whole slew of positive results. You just need to make sure you keep your professional face as ready to hand as a business card and a pen.

You'll meet all kinds. Shut up, and take their money.
Other Marketing Tips

Firstly, for those who have an ebook and are looking to get some free marketing for it, I recommend checking out this list from Galley Cat here. There's some good stuff on that list, even if not all of it is right for your particular book.

There are so many things you can do that it can be hard to figure out precisely where you're going to strike gold. However, there are a couple of things you should definitely keep in mind in order to get the best results.

First and foremost, get your face as well as your name out there. Authors aren't typically thought of as on-camera personas, but a lot of the time a reader is buying you just as often as they're buying your book. If you're using a pen name, then create a persona. Make your audience pay attention to that persona, and make it a package deal with your other characters.

You're welcome.
Cut down on your negative statements, particularly about other professionals. No one likes to be trash-talked, and even if you can make a living burning down potential bridges, it isn't always a good idea to do so.

Keep your readers updated, particularly on your social media pages. No matter how great your books, you're bound to lose readers if you don't keep them in the loop about what's going on with you, your career, and your life.

Lastly, and this is a rule not just for you but also for your work. You can do nearly anything as an author. You can be profane, you can be disgusting, you can be controversial; you cannot be boring. As soon as you stop being interesting, that is when your numbers fall to zero, and people move on to find someone else to fulfill their entertainment needs.

As always, thanks for dropping in and staying for the whole of the mission briefing. If you've got any questions or concerns, drop them down in the comments below or put a message in the line at one of my social media pages mentioned above. The Literary Mercenary operates free of charge, but always appreciates support. Prod at the links on the page if you want to keep up going, or check out some of my stories available as ebooks. A good place to start looking is right here on Amazon, for those who are interested.

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