Always Be Marketing

By John Gilstrap

When a writer decides to produce books and articles as his primary source of revenue, he has, in effect, started an independently-owned small business. All the elements are there, from product development to design to distribution and sales. If the company owner doesn’t tend to the details, then who will? The burden of such things arguably falls more heavily on indie authors, but even those of us who ply the trade via the traditional publishing route have to keep a strong hand on the tiller if we’re going to have adequate funds in the till.

Last month marked the publication of Final Target, the eleventh entry in the Jonathan Grave thriller series. I’m delighted to report that I’ve seen more copies in grocery stores and what I call secondary venues than I ever have with any of my previous books. This story also is published simultaneously in both hardcover and paperback (and e-book and audio . . .) so there should be no sticker shock for those readers who’ve come to read about Jonathan’s adventures as a paperback original.

I’m calling this post “Always Be Marketing” because that’s what I always feel I’m doing this time of the year, immediately after publication. With two decades of this business under my belt, I thought I’d share some marketing strategies that have worked for me, and those which I consider to be utter duds.

First, the duds:

Bookmarks. These have never made sense to me. While I’m a big believer in bookmarks–and I believe there’s a special place in hell for readers who turn down pages to mark their place–no bookmark I use has any value to me. It could just as well be my most recent airline boarding pass, a napkin, or my own business card. I cannot imagine a circumstance where a bookmark with an author’s name on it would inspire me to buy a book.

At writers’ conferences, hungry authors hand out their custom-made bookmarks like candy. “Here, have five of them.” They litter the swag tables near the registration desk. Some writers hand them out as business cards. Think about that last one. Business cards need to fit into business card-shaped wallet slots. More on that later.

On the other hand, I think that bookmarks are brilliant marketing gimmicks for bookstores themselves. If I enjoyed the customer service, I would most definitely go back.

Big Box in-store signings. I avoid them these days. It’s hard to conceive of a more soul-sucking experience than sitting in the middle of a store, surrounded by stacks of my own books while people avoid eye contact on their way to the science fiction section. Or maybe the bathroom. Case in point: early on, I was signing in a Walden Bookstore in a mall–essentially blocking everyone’s entry through the door–when a distressed woman approached me and asked where the manager was because she wanted to return this terrible book. It was mine. Ouch.

Book trailers. These have never made sense to me. First of all, in my experience, 90-plus percent of book trailers I’ve seen have horrible production values and are ten clicks too self-reverential. Stock art combined with poor acting and royalty-free music are not effective vectors to direct me to buy a book from an author I don’t know. Besides, movies and books are entirely different art forms.

Now, let’s shift to the positive, stuff that has worked for me:

Business cards. I put this at the top just to counter my shot at bookmarks. Actually, I believe in carrying several business cards–and the design of the cards depends on where a writer is in his or her career. If you’re new to the business, in that stage where you’re trying to find an agent or a publisher, then I think the business card should be of the standard format: Your name, address, phone number, email–as many ways to reach you as possible. Because at this stage, your prospective customers are industry people, not the public.

Later, in the time after you’ve got a deal and a career, I believe in two different business cards which you can have either custom made through business card providers similar to Metal Kards: One is for industry people or research sources, where you want to make yourself as accessible as possible. This card will be more or less the same as the one you used in your rookie years. The second card you need is a “fan” card, one that you hand out to people you meet who want to stay in touch, but fall outside the category of people you want knowing your cell phone number. To these folks, I hand out a card that introduces me as “John Gilstrap, author of the Jonathan Grave Thriller series”, and gives my contact information as my email address. That’s plenty. Oh, and there’s a list on the reverse side of my last 10 titles, more or less. If you’re looking for a service to complete your business printing needs, look into companies like Print Management Companies London.

Something special for every book. Currently, for Final Target, I’ve laid in a couple hundred pens that are marked with, and also have a built-in flashlight. The theory is that when I sign a book, I will hand the buyer the pen with which I signed it.

A high-value giveaway for special people. Some people need a very special thank-you because they have done something very special to help you out. They need a cool bit of swag. For this corner of my universe, I designed the Jonathan Grave Challenge Coin, of which there are very few, and whose distribution I take very seriously. Follow the link if you think you might be interested in owning one.

Really cool book launch party. No book-selling event ever pays for itself in real time with book sales. Not one. Book events are about giving fans and friends a good time, and providing an opportunity for them to buy a lot of books. With this in mind, my wife and I budget for a blow-out party that is attendant to the release of every new book. We’ve thrown parties at restaurants, wineries, coffee shops, and, most recently, at our home. Roughly a hundred people showed up, and everyone had a terrific time, complete with catered food and open bar. And the bookseller we brought in to provide the books–One More Page Books in Falls Church, VA–had a very good sales day. That’s always a good thing.

Another book. And then another and another . . . This is the best marketing gimmick of all: Write more books. One of the primary reasons rookie authors find themselves at a disadvantage marketing-wise is that even the most devoted fans have no other books to turn to when they’ve turned the last page of your Opus One. Having done this for as long as I have, when a fan discovers my writing via, say, the 11th book in my Grave series, they have ten more plus four stand-alones and a nonfiction book to consume before they run dry. By the time they get through those, I should have a new one out, and the most effective strategy to reach them is to announce the launch of the new book.

What say you, TKZers? What works and doesn’t work for you as a consumer? As a writer, what do you find to be worthwhile marketing strategies?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

25 thoughts on “Always Be Marketing

  1. I don’t care for bookmarks either, but clearly we’re in the minority. I have a friend who makes and sells them for $10 each and does quite well. Hers really are works of art. I use post it tape flags so I can find exactly where I left off on the page (I usually have 4 or so books going at once).

    I lIke the flashlight idea.

    Congrats on your new book!

    • Okay, if a writer has graphic art skills, then bookmarks really do make a lot of sense. Hell, an additional revenue stream makes a lot of sense!

  2. I’m so with you on book trailers. In the time it takes to watch one (and if I EVER click to see one, the first thing I check is the running time. 30 seconds is my absolute max), I could have read a blurb or sample which is much more effective in making me want more.
    I live in Colorado, where there’s no humidity. I hand out lip balm and it’s a huge hit. Does it sell books? Probably not, but it gets my name out, and people who’ve received it always remember that about me. I use post-it notes, and those are popular, although not permanent. However, it puts my name and logo in front of the user 25 times. I also have pens. I did notepads, but those got expensive.
    Rather than promote books, I use my logo/brand so I don’t have to come up with new promo material all the time. On the back of my business cards I have QR codes to my website and author page at Facebook.

    • The QR code is a great idea, but I’m not sure I understand how the Post-its work. If your logo/brand is on them, how do people write on them?

      • My logo/brand and website are on the bottom of each note, about 1 inch of the 3×3 note. Still leaves enough room to write notes, but is big enough to read. If we could post images here, I’d show you.

  3. Thanks, John, for helpful marketing hints.

    Bookmarks do nothing for me either.

    Good idea about different business cards. It’s time for me to order another version w/o my cell #–yesterday I received two calls from an outfit that wants me to set up an “inmate debit account” for a fellow named Joshua in the Flathead County Jail!

  4. I’m not a fan of cardboard bookmarks, but many readers are. And, since readers are our targets (and I’ve heard many readers talking about how much they love bookmarks), I don’t think they’re a bad investment, if you don’t go overboard. They’re simple and inexpensive.

    I think the most important part of a bookmark – for marketing purposes – is a website. This way, a reader enjoying your book has a reminder all through the book to check your website for other great reads. And if they’re not reading your book – yet – it’s a reminder to check it out.

    I do like the better swag, though – the pens, the lip gloss, etc. Those are more likely to be admired by the reader and those around them.

    Great article. Thank you!

    • Thank, BJ.

      Intuitively, I see your logic regarding bookmarks, but it just seems to me that with my website and email address on the back of every book, that itch gets scratched anyway. I know that I’m in the minority among writers on this.

      My business card doubles for the purpose, I guess, and they’re easy to carry.

  5. I agree with every point you make, John. But am sort of on the fence on book signings. The opportunities are limited for success cuz big box stores don’t do them anymore (unless you’re a huge bestseller in which case you don’t need to do signings). And indie stores are hit and miss depending on the staff and commitment. But over the years, I’ve made contacts at indie stores that I know always come through for me (like Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, Island Bookstore on Mackinac island and Murder on the Beach in Delray Bch, FL. But as you note, it can otherwise be a dispiriting experience.

    Also one thing that has worked for me is a variation on your biz card: Kelly creates small “flier” cards (4×6 with cover and blurb on one side and backlist and website on back) that we hand out at signings as folks come in (ie, go ahead and take a free card and read about our book as you browse…many come back and there’s no high-pressure sales pitch when they walk in the door). These cards also come in handy if I meet folks on planes, at the bagel store or in public and they want to know about what I write. I carry these wherever I go in my purse.

    Only other thing that’s worth spending time and money on: have a good clean easy-to-navigate website with a short bio and high-rez jpegs of your covers and your mug.

  6. The postcard (“flier card”) is a good idea, particularly for those who carry purses. I don’t believe I’m being sexist when I say that purses just don’t look well on me. And those larger format cards don’t ride in back pockets well.

    You bring up a point that needs more thorough attention here, and that’s the importance of nurturing local independent bookstores. They deserve our deepest respect and gratitude. Whenever I speak to a large group, I try to have the nearest indy in the back of the room to sell books. I never sell them myself.

  7. John, as the author of the definitive book on marketing for writers, as well as being one of the most humble, let me say that far and away the best marketing is, in this order, A) another good book; and B) a dedicated fan email list. Everything else is a distant third and below.

    It’s true that in the traditional world, there are those in the citadels of the Forbidden City who will pressure a new author to do this and this and this and this, contributing to a sense of dread and, worse, taking precious time and mental energy away from the number one thing, which is A, above. Often, such instruction is given without fully thinking through the effect it may have on their asset, the writer. One of the worst pressures is to build a social media “platform.” Social media is a lousy way to sell books. But if the writer chooses to butter his bread in the Forbidden City, he’s going to have to jam it.

    The successful indie writer keeps his eye on A and B, always. These other things can be added according to time and preference. Social media should be taken on for fun and real building of a brand and trust (avoid political arguments, for instance). I like Twitter and I love blogging here at TKZ, but I know that my main task is writing that next book.

    Congrats on #11, by the way. Wow! It seems like only yesterday that Digger made his debut.

  8. Thanks for chiming in, Jim. How could I have forgotten to include the fan email list? Yes, that’s sort of the point of everything, isn’t it? When people visit a writer’s website, Facebook page or Twitter feed, it should be remarkably easy to join the mailing list.

    In my own writing, I’m having a hard time deciding who/what my “brand” should be, and I’m interested in your thoughts–and everyone else’s. It comes down to this basic decision: Is my most effective brand John Gilstrap, the author, or is it Jonathan Grave, the character?

    • The brand is you, John. You are the name above the title, like Hitchcock.

      If Lee Child ever wrote a stand-alone, even a children’s book, I’d read it.

      Of course most of the time you want to stick with your bread and butter, thrillers. But heck, if you ever write that sensitive coming-of-age story, I’d give it a flyer.

  9. Hi John,
    Good ideas, all. I disagree with you about the bookmarks, though (and I believe we’ve had this conversation before). They’re cheap and easy to design (I use Photoshop and can get 1000 for less than $50), and readers like them (gotta please the readers!). I use them in place of business cards (although I have some of those, too). (Does anyone still use a Rolodex?), and give them away at events, workshops, conferences, author-go-rounds, etc. I include cover art and a website and a list of past titles–all in one handy strip of paper!

    • Hi, Alan.

      I get it, I really do, and I’m clearly in the minority on bookmarks. But there’s nothing you can put on a bookmark that can’t go on a fan-oriented business card–which I guess can also be used as a bookmark. Just speaking to my personal experience, I carry a wallet in one back pocket and a business card folder in the other. When someone gives me a card I intend to keep, I put it in the folder with my own cards for future transfer to the appropriate data base. There is simply no pocket for the bookmark.

  10. Business cards are a great idea. And they can always be used as a bookmark. 🙂

  11. Time to do all these marketing things is my primary wall. After finally getting on with a traditional publisher I can at least share that burden now, but it sure seems like a huge hill to climb for me. Truly a struggle most of the time.

    I really need a wrinkle in time/space so I can double my hours each day for a while.

  12. I have to admit, I’ve invested in bookmarks and trailers, although not extensively. Brad Thor uses trailers, and he’s done pretty well for himself. I also hand out cards for each book, with the cover on one side and blurb on the other, plus a QR code (my wife’s idea) to take the reader immediately to the book’s Amazon ebook page. My latest launch party was at Fall Fest, community festival in Hayward, a town near me in northwest Wisconsin. I’ve been a fixture at Fall Fest for the past four years and will be there again next month.

  13. Man, I wish this format would let us edit comments….
    anyway, continuing my comment from above before accidentally posting it…

    I agree on the cards, having one for books with website and email on front and books and QR code on back. And one for narration.

    I have a hard time keeping up with a mail list, but know I need to.

    Otherwise, after narrating eight of Jonh & Digger’s stories, I agree the best thing is just to keep on writing good books over and over.

    Write them, and write them well, and they will come.

  14. Mr. Basil, did you forget about the highly successful launch parties you’ve done?

    We set up the tables, along with some very sturdy wooden posts and a thick rubber band with a kind of pocket. Sign the book, hand it to the buyer, then let her rip!
    With a big enough rubber band you can really make those fans fly, especially the more aerodynamic ones.

  15. I’m still chuckling over your story of a book signing when you were confronted by the woman wanting to return a book. OMG! You have the best stories. Thanks for sharing that gem.

    I’ve seen quite a number of people reading my books but have never approached them for fear they might give me a bad review, face to face. I heard a story of an author who saw someone considering to buy his book in a store. He approached her & introduced himself as the author & offered to sign it. She said, “No thanks,” put the book back & walked away. Ouch.

  16. This is a great post. Agree completely on the bookmark point. Love Terry’s lip balm idea and PJs flier card too. Thanks for concrete ways to apply the bazillion pieces of marketing advice I’ve read the last year-ish while getting my debut ms ready for the world. Also I’m looking forward to hosting the first of many launch parties. No point doing this if its not fun. On your last question, I think you are the brand not your character.

  17. Hahahaha. The bookstore story…you must have felt like running and hiding. I never understood the bookmark craze until I finally broke down and made some. Fans go nuts over these things. No idea why. I still slip my business card in between the folds as well. The pens are always a smash hit. I do the same as you, sign the book and give them the pen. People love it.

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