Best Advice Redux

By John Gilstrap

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that today’s post start as a response to Michelle’s post from yesterday regarding the best and worse writing advice we’ve received. Michelle pretty much nailed everything on the head, but there’s one more that plays to the heart of this whole author-as-marketer thing.

When my first book, Nathan’s Run, was published in 1996, the Internet as far as I knew it, consisted of the AOL Writer’s Club—singularly the best virtual writers’ hangout I’ve ever been affiliated with. Those were the days when you paid for online time by the hour. Between the newness of my writing career, the newness of the technology, and the overall coolness factor of it all, I spent a lot of time with my friends in the Writer’s Club. Enough time, in fact, that it prompted my editor at the time to issue the following bit of advice:

Don’t let being a writer interfere with actually writing.

Writing the next book is the single best thing you can do to gain support for the previous book. After a while, an author’s body of work becomes sort of a self-sustaining marketing tool. The poster child my editor named as the antithesis of this advice was Truman Capote, whose writing quality was, he believed and I agree, inversely proportional to his fame.

This advice resonates loudly with me every year when conference season rolls around. Properly selected and managed, I think that conferences are the single greatest marketing tool available to writers—both budding and established. The real work is done in the bar, whether you’re a drinker or a teetotaler. You just need to screw up the courage to talk to people. It’s not the place to pitch your books, but it is the place to meet and impress fans and industry people alike.

Even though I recognize the value of conferences, it would be entirely possible for an author to spend 75% of his annual allotment of weekends traveling the country and talking about himself. There comes a point of diminishing returns. I have my favorites—ThrillerFest, Bouchercon and Magna Cum Murder—which I try to make every year, and I might throw in one or two more if I’m invited or if it’s close to home, but that’s it. It has to be.

Standard book signings are to me a waste of time. Ditto book tours.

Facebook and Twitter are great as tools, but I believe they work best as subliminal pleas for business. If you post and say something smart, I might try your product. If you send me a direct request, the likelihood drops dramatically. For the life of me, I don’t understand why writers flog their work on writers’ boards. One or two posts per day on social media are ideal because I don’t think anyone does more than two things per day that are interesting enough to tweet about.

When all is said and done, I think the truth about effective book marketing is harsh news for new writers: You’ve got to build a fan base, and the only way to do that is to churn out a consistent stream of good product that is appropriately priced. Every minute of self-promotion that takes away from your ability to churn out at least one book per year (but probably no more than two), is doing so little good as to perhaps be doing harm.

JFK Assassination Solved

by John Gilstrap

Actually, today’s entry has nothing to do with the JFK assassination, but after Kathryn’s post on Tuesday, I figured we’d seed our audience with some conspiracy theorists. But since I opened this door, let me share the results of my years of research into the JFK murder (I really have done years of research): I can’t vouch for the why (I suspect the mob, but there’s lots of conflicting data), but as for the how, the evidence is overwhelming that Oswald was the only shooter, and the weapon was the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that was found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

Moving on . . .

I attended my very first Left Coast Crime conference last week, and it was every bit as wonderful as people have been telling me for years. As a return favor, I recommend that all Left Coasties give Magna Cum Murder a try when it comes around at the end of October. Magna is held every year in Muncie, Indiana, and it is, hands down, the best mystery conference around. (Full disclosure: it’s in Muncie, Indiana. I know I mentioned that already, but be forewarned that Muncie ain’t no Los Angeles.) But that’s not what this blog entry is about, either.

Moving on . . .

I attended a panel discussion at LCC about the use of blogs as a means for authors to promote themselves, and I was shocked to hear at least half of the experts say that blogging is a waste of time; that is siphons creative energy away from the creation of good stories. There was some acknowledgement that group blogs like TKZ might be the exception because the burden is spread around, but still, the experts leaned to the negative.

Part of my shock was rooted in the response these same panel of experts received when they asked the audience what single factor is most likely to make them buy one book over another. By an overwhelming margin, people’s primary decision factor is whether or not they “know” the author. Is there a better way to get to know an author–I’m talking the person now; not the work–than by reading his or her blog? Single one-off entries like the ones you get from authors on their blog tour might only project a marketing image; but multiple entries, week after week, year after year, reveal not only the personalities of the bloggers, but of the regular commenters, as well.

While we’re on the subject, let’s address the blog tour for a moment. I think it’s wonderful when someone drops in on a blog to write something substantive and thought-provoking while they happen to be on tour, but is there anything more annoying than the guest blooger with the 500-word advertisement for their latest tome? I hate that.

For me, blogging is like a weekly chat with friends. I get to say what’s on my mind, and listen to what others think of it. Sometimes I’m in a good mood, sometimes not so much. Sometimes I’m harried and sort of dash something out just to fill the space, but mostly I do this with the hope of entertaining people and maybe sparking a discussion that spreads and brings strangers into the fold of friends.

I suspect I’m preaching pretty much to the choir here–except maybe for the visiting conspiracy theorists–but do y’all agree that over time blogging is a form of friendship? Don’t you think it’s a way to get to “know” someone? What one factor above others makes you seek out a particular author’s work? Do you think Jack Ruby worked for the CIA?