Star Tracks: Innovative Ideas for Publishing
How to Promote Your Book and Yourself
by Meg Cox
During the 5 years I covered book publishing for the Wall Street Journal in the '90s, I thought I knew a lot about the book business. Then I became an author and discovered how much I had to learn.
This essay won't cover everything you need to know about writing a book and getting it published. But assuming you've already got that part done-or at least partly done-I'll share what I've learned about how to get people to notice and buy your book.
It didn't take me long to learn that publishers are better at buying books from authors than they are at selling them to readers. But the more important and harder lesson is that selling books is not their job-it's my job and your job as authors. Just accept that basic truth, and you'll be much better prepared. It's like the publisher drives you to the beach, but YOU have to do all the swimming.
Unless you are already a famous person, there is little your publisher will do for you except send out press releases and some free copies of your book to reviewers and media producers. The publisher might send you on a modest tour, but don't count on it. And again, unless you're already famous, your odds of getting media attention are doubtful. You might get lucky, but most of us don't. (There's the absence of good luck, and then there is outright bad luck-I actually got called by the producers of Oprah about appearing to discuss "back-to-school rituals" but was in the middle of moving my aged father into a nursing home, and had to say no.)
I thought I was in Author Heaven when my first book was bought for a fairly handsome sum by publishing giant Random House. They gave me a lovely book party and sent me on a first-class tour across the country. But that doesn't guarantee sales, as I soon learned. For example: I was flown to Kansas City, Mo. where a beloved local independent bookstore advertised my appearance. But only two people showed up (neither bought a book) because Mitch Albom, author of the mega-bestseller "Tuesdays With Morrie" was also in town, speaking the same night.
Not that the trip was a total catastrophe. Also in Kansas City, I was asked to give a lunchtime lecture to some of the creative staff at Hallmark Cards. These people create cards based on how and what families celebrate, so they were eager to hear what I'd learned by interviewing 300 families. They could eat lunch and listen simultaneously. And roughly every third person listening to me bought at least one copy of my book.
From this I learned the No. 1 lesson for unknown authors: GRAB A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE ANYTIME YOU CAN GET ONE, by which I mean a group of people who have to be somewhere for some other activity or purpose. To motivate busy people to leave their homes just to meet some author whose name they never heard is a losing proposition. But if you can tag along somewhere they're already visiting, your message and your book will seem like icing on the cake.
This is a point made very well in a terrific free e-mail newsletter for writers published by Dan Poynter (the guy is a guru of self-publishing, but I find useful tips in almost every bi-weekly newsletter even though I'm not self-published.) Poynter hammers his message again and again that "bookstores are lousy places to sell books," and this is absolutely true, with some notable exceptions.
The exceptions: I have found that it's generally a success if you can alert all your friends and acquaintances to come to your local bookstore for an appearance. Also, the "Captive Audience" rule applies here: most independent bookstores and even some Barnes & Noble bookstores still have local managers who are allowed tremendous leeway to create their own events, and when I've been invited to give a presentation at special evenings organized for a specific audience, such as community teachers or local home-schooling families, I've sold tons of books.
Mostly, it's a classic Catch-22: you can't sell books if you're not a Famous Author and you can't become a Famous Author unless you sell lots of books.
My advice is to forget fame. Concentrate on being appreciated, rather than famous, and build up from there. You'll be more prepared, not to mention more humble, if true fame ever strikes. Even if it doesn't, you'll feel the deep satisfaction of getting your book into the hands and minds of a receptive audience.
There are three basic steps in becoming an appreciated author:
Step One: Figure out the categories of audiences for your book. They might be from specific demographic groups or come from certain professions. They might be sports fans or teachers or people who like to cook gourmet meals. For me, the biggest potential audience is parents, particularly first-time parents of young children.
- You need to PINPOINT YOUR CORE AUDIENCE, the people who would probably love your book-if only they knew it existed.
- You need to HONE YOUR MESSAGE AND SPEAKING ABILITY until you become a formidable speaker. By becoming a good speaker, you'll soon get to the point where you get paid twice for appearances: both for your speech, and by selling copies of your book.
- Do anything and everything you can to ENHANCE YOUR VISIBILITY AS AN EXPERT. This can lead to paycheck opportunities above and beyond speaking fees and royalties, such as being hired as a corporate spokesperson.
But knowing your potential audience is just the start. In my case, for example, I've learned that it's hard to get the attention of busy young mothers. My book is full of practical, useful information and costs less than $15 a copy, but if they don't hear about it, they'll never pick it up.
I've tried many different ways to reach this audience, and I haven't given up trying to find more. Women with small children don't have time to attend bookstore lectures, so I try to speak where they do meet. I have even given copies of my book free to beauty salons, with information pasted to the back of the book about where to buy it locally.
One of the many things I do is write a free monthly e-mail newsletter about family rituals, which mothers all over the country recommend to friends, who then learn about my book. I have more than 1,000 subscribers, without really working to grow my list (which also goes to journalists and radio producers who have interviewed me, and want to keep track of my work). Many of the nonfiction writers I know offer free e-newsletters, which they also use to announce upcoming appearances. One author, Jennifer Louden, author of "Comfort Secrets for Busy Women" has thousands of subscribers, and urged them all to buy her new book on the same day, making it an instant bestseller at Amazon.com.
I will speak, often without pay, to any group of moms I can drive to while my son is at school. I've presented my credentials to a nationwide chain of daycare centers, and have so far spoken (for a fee) at three in my area.
It isn't always easy. I once spoke to a group of 25 mothers who were chasing 35 kids under three all over the room. Though I had to scream to be heard, I sold a dozen copies.
Some of these groups are small, and sometimes I get discouraged, but taking my
message to my audience usually energizes me and reminds me why I love this topic. My enthusiasm is always rekindled, and I pick up new anecdotes and examples for my speaking and writing wherever I go.
I've also tailored my freelance writing and stopped taking assignments on other topics. I concentrate on this because every time I write an article about family traditions, the title of my book is given and I've reached more of my target audience.
Step Two: Hone your message and speaking ability. I used to be terrified to speak to a crowd, and I still get nervous but it's so much more natural now, even fun. Practice helped a lot, and so did a little book I found called "Be Heard Now!" by Lee Glickstein. One of the main messages of the book is that the conventional wisdom of not looking into the eyes of individual audience members is NONSENSE. Glickstein advises you to pick out just a few select people who are clearly warming up to you, nodding perhaps and concentrating on your words, and briefly lock onto their eyes, now and then. Ever since I started really communicating with actual people, one by one, my style got a lot warmer and more conversational.
Prepare your talk carefully, but prepare for flexibility. You may practice standing up, and then get to a venue without a podium. You may be expecting a decent crowd, and wind up with six people: if that happens, pull some chairs in a circle and get cozy with them.
Whenever possible, bring something to show or demonstrate. This will give you something to do, and make the whole talk so much more vivid. I usually bring props from some of my own family's traditions and celebrations, like a "conversation basket" full of questions to ask at the dinner table.
For the most part, take every speaking gig you possibly can, and beg for more. Over time, you will be sure to have bad hair days, a few hostile questions, and various unpleasant surprises, but you'll learn how to rise above all of these, and still get your message out in a focused way. One benefit: If you ever do get booked on the "Today" show or "Oprah" you'll come off like a solid pro. That's not the place for auditions, but for performers who have paid their dues.
Step Three: Enhance your visibility as an expert. Taking as many speaking gigs as possible is really important, but obviously, you want to develop a national reputation. One major way to work on that is by getting yourself listed at websites such as AuthorsandExperts.com, and SchoolBookings.com. These sites really are checked by people looking for experts, and if they don't easily find your name when they do a quick "Google," you probably won't hear from them.
I myself have paid to be listed both at AuthorsandExperts.com and at Author's Den, because both get picked up often by Internet search engines and because both allow you to write and amend the information that appears yourself.
What sorts of people will be looking for your expertise? For one thing, thousands of journalists all over the country, working for newspapers, magazines, radio, television and the Internet. Journalists are constantly writing trend stories for which they need two things: experts to quote, plus "real people" who have experienced the trend being discussed. Increasingly, the Internet is where they troll for examples and experts.
Because my name appears often in such searches, and because I have a book out, I hear frequently from journalists wanting to interview me for national magazines. But in addition, in recent years I have begun to hear from public relations agencies looking to hire experts for corporate clients.
These are not jobs for which you can apply: they aren't listed anywhere. A company that hires an author/expert for a brief promotional campaign is usually willing to pay $1,000 a day or more for your work. They want to hire you because you're a credible expert and they want to publicize your expertise (and your book), in the context of their products.
For example, I was hired a few years back to do radio and television interviews about a family celebration contest that Pillsbury was promoting, but I never pushed their products, mostly discussing family rituals in my first book. More recently, I was hired by KFC Corp., to do television interviews about the importance of families having dinner together: I stood in a studio next to a bucket of chicken, talking about a number of fun dinner rituals in my new book.
Such jobs, which almost always include specific media training to keep you "on message" while the camera is on, enhance your visibility as an expert and help sell copies of your book.
Finally, don't be afraid to share some of your expertise without charging for it. Community service projects often get wonderful press, and put you in the spotlight as a benefactor as well as an expert.
Meg Cox was a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal for 17 years. Since leaving the paper in 1994, she has written two books, The Heart of a Family (Random House, 1998) and The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays & Everyday (Running Press, 2003). The latter is the best-selling book on family traditions at Amazon.com. Cox has written for many national magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Family Fun, Parents, Ms., Working Mother and Worth. A nationally recognized expert on family traditions, she has been hired as a spokesperson to do short-term promotions by such major companies as Pillsbury and Hallmark Cards.
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