Book Promotion: Part 1

When people think about doing book promotions, they often think of an author going on a book tour. Doing a book signing or sitting at an author’s table at a convention or book store means you get to talk to a lot of new people and (hopefully) get your books into the hands of new readers who’ve been impressed by your approachability and charm. This can be a lot of fun, especially if you’re an extrovert who gets energized by meeting new people.

But even for the most gregarious among us, working a book table is also likely to test your reserves.

The simple act of sitting behind a book table — whether you’re actually selling any of your books or are just there to sign copies — trips a certain circuit in a certain type of narrow skull. Namely, it triggers the conviction that you, the author, are a mere sales clerk, and therefore not a real person this Rudy McRuderson needs to show any basic courtesy toward.

When I shared a book table with my husband Gary Braunbeck, a guy in a suit came up, pointed at one of his Leisure titles, and said “Ooo, that looks like a spooooky book!” and wandered off making idiotic cartoon ghost noises. At a recent local book fair, a well-dressed soccer mom picked up my book Sparks and Shadows, read the back, then tossed it down on the table with the queenly disdainful announcement “I don’t like short stories!”

More commonly, someone will shuffle up to your table, disinterestedly glance over the books you sweated blood to finish on deadline, and then say, “I’ve never heard of you.”

And upon hearing this, your job, dear signing table author, is to give them your most dazzling smile and brightly reply, “Well, now you have! Would you like a bookmark?”

And that cuts to the most basic purpose of book promotion: it’s how you let people know that your book exists, why they might want to pick up a copy, and where they can get it. And you try not to alienate anyone (including yourself) in the process.

Make no mistake: promoting your book is work. My first job involved scraping dried poo out of the bottom of snake cages; the darkest depths of book promo can seem comparable. However, the snakes never once thanked me for a clean cage, whereas I have gotten emails from people who’ve picked up my work at a convention as a result of seeing me read or seeing my materials and consequently became fans.

I can see some of you shaking your heads, resisting my crazy notions. Surely you would never have to stoop to the literary equivalent of scraping snake poop! Isn’t writing a good book hard enough? Surely well-written books just naturally rise to the top of any book stack and find their audience like dandelions finding the sun! Isn’t all that icky, tiresome promo stuff the publisher’s job?

Sure. And it would be great if your publishers threw all their money and effort into promoting your book … but what if they don’t? It would be great if the big book chains automatically ordered a zillion copies of your book and put them up front for all to see … but what if they don’t? What if the publisher gets cold feet about your book’s sales chances and releases it as a POD, and now no brick-and-mortar stores will stock it at all?

What then? How is your book going to fare against the hundreds of other books that are published in the U.S. and U.K. each day?

I won’t stand here and tell that you actually have to do anything. You still have a book, and what you do with it is entirely up to you.

For instance, you can just be thrilled that you beat the odds and got a book published, send your author’s copies to your friends and family, and let the book market remain a black-box mystery you don’t involve yourself with. You’ve got a pretty nice life, and you reached your goal of becoming a Published Author. So what if low sales and low involvement will prevent you from selling another book to that publisher? One book’s enough, right?

Alternately, you can feel cheated that your publisher dropped the promotions ball, and bitter that people aren’t flocking to the book you poured your heart and soul into. You can wail and gnash your teeth and throw up your hands in defeat. Later, after you’ve pulled yourself from your inactive funk, you start work on your next project, hoping your first failure hasn’t doomed your hoped-for career as a writer. You can always get a fresh start with a pseudonym, right?

Or you can say to yourself, “Hm. This isn’t going like I thought it would, but I refuse to let my book go down as a failure without a fight. This is my book, and I know in my heart there’s an audience for it out there, and dammit, I’m going to find it!”

And when you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and help your book perform as well as it possibly can, that’s when you need to start considering what you can do to promote it.

The first, most basic step is one I’ve already touched on: write a good book. Write the best book you possibly can.

You are, first and foremost, a writer. Worry about promotions after you’ve taken care of your craft and your deadlines. You can surely do a hard sell and essentially trick somebody into buying a mediocre book, but that reader isn’t likely to come back for seconds.

The second step is this: never, ever get stuck with a bad cover.

In this instance, “bad” can mean an ugly cover, but it can also means a cover that doesn’t speak to the target audience’s aesthetic sensibility, or which greatly misleads readers into thinking the book will be something it’s not. The old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is widely and utterly ignored by the reading public. People buy or ignore books all the time based purely on the cover art; buyers for book chains may double an order of a book that has a cover they think is especially appealing.

Yes, this is shallow and horrifying, but it’s how the world works. A bad cover can kill your book dead. So don’t let a bad cover happen to your book if you can help it.

Most big publishers have professional design staff, but these pros often work under crushing deadlines and consequently they do make mistakes. Look at their past offerings and try to get a cover approval clause written into your contract if you have any doubt that they’ll give you a good cover. Small-press publishers may or may not be run by people with good art sense, but they’ll generally be perfectly willing to work with you if you approach them politely with suggestions.

Not sure if you know what separates a good cover from a bad one? Then take some time to learn a little about the basics of graphic design and typography. Being “artistic” is as much a learned skill as it is a natural instinct; even if you think you’re art blind, you probably can learn the basics of good design. And if after Art 101 you’re still convinced that covers featuring bluish Poser people trapped in the Uncanny Valley look just fine … make friends with an artist who likes to read the kind of books you like to write. They can help warn you when a bad cover is about to happen to you.

Developing your graphic design sense and acquiring skills with programs like Adobe InDesign and Photoshop will serve you well as you move on to more advanced book promotion tactics … but I’m going to save that and more for future entries.


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