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 www.johngilstrap.com, 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?