My Fumble Recovery

By John Gilstrap
www.johngilstrap.com

A couple of months ago, I ran into a longtime friend I hadn’t seen in years, and he asked me why I’d stopped writing. The last book of mine that he’d read was Scott Free, which came out in 2003. When I told him that I’d written two books since then, he expressed shock and asked why I hadn’t told him.

In the pantheon of really good questions, that one shoots right to the top. I thought I had told him. I mean, I’m on Facebook, right? And I tweet and I’ve got a website. I spent a lot of money on publicity and advertising for No Mercy. How could he not know? Even as I type those words, I realize how impossibly naïve I sound.

When At All Costs was published in 1998, my wife and I developed a comprehensive mailing list of 1,500 people. This included everyone from family to old high school classmates I hadn’t spoken to in years. It even included my wife’s old classmates. We entered all of the data into a mailing list program, and we mailed a ton of postcards announcing the birth of the book. Hands down, At All Costs was my bestselling book.

Running into this longtime buddy was my wake-up call to how thoroughly my publicity efforts have deteriorated. When I really looked, it’s obvious where I dropped the ball.

In retrospect, I made a couple of critical errors. First, it was a mistake to use a mailing list program instead of a simple Excel spreadsheet. After a series of computer upgrades, the mailing list became unreadable. We failed to collect email addresses at all, but given that it was 1998 and email was not the ubiquitous presence that it is today, I cut myself a break there. Finally, we had no way to keep track of people as they moved. If you don’t actively farm your mailing list, it becomes useless with astonishing speed.

My biggest mistake along these lines came in 2004 with the publication of Six Minutes to Freedom, my nonfiction collaboration on the rescue of Kurt Muse from a Panamanian prison. I talked myself into ceding the lion’s share of promotion to Kurt himself, figuring that people would rather hear from the coauthor who actually lived the story than the guy who merely put it in writing. I neglected to consider that my fans are my fans, not Kurt’s.

As a practical matter, then, until No Mercy was released last summer, fans of my work thought I’d disappeared for six years. And publishing years are like dog years. Never again.

A week ago, I sent my first email newsletter. Even though I’ve lost most of my old snail mail list, I’ve captured lots and lots of email addresses over the years, and I’m letting everybody know what’s going on in my writing life. I haven’t yet decided how often the newsletter will come out, but I’m pledging two things: 1) that I won’t release one unless I have something to say; and 2) it will never be longer than a single page.

I’ve been resistant to such emails in the past primarily because of the hassle of keeping the mailing list current. Who needs the agony of removing people who unsubscribe, or culling the addresses that are no longer valid? Even adding individual subscribers is ultimately time consuming.

Well, wouldn’t you know? There are websites that do all of that for you. I found one that is extraordinarily affordable. Of the 1,200 addresses in my initial email list, 200 turned out to be bad, and the program eliminated them. Twenty or so have asked to be removed from the list, and the program handled that, too. Thirty-five people have clicked the link to subscribe, which means that they’ve either visited my website or clicked the newsletter link to see a sample and subscribe.

Best of all, I’ve received emails from several dozen people who were unaware that I was still writing books. Of course, that didn’t touch the number of people who wrote to tell me about the typo in the first news item. Hey, at least they’re reading.

I’m sure there are a number of sites that do this sort of thing, but I’ll be happy to share this particular site with anyone who drops me an email.

So what about you? How do you keep in touch with your long-time fans? Do you like author newsletters, or are they annoying pains in the hindquarters? (I can go either way on that one.) Let us hear from you.

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Social Networking Showdown

by Michelle Gagnon

At Left Coast Crime a few weeks ago, I was part of a great panel on utilizing the Internet to market your book. This is a bit of a double-edged sword: now that much of the marketing burden falls on authors’ shoulders, being able to reach people without an insanely expensive direct mailing is invaluable. However, online networking can also become a tremendous time suck, drawing valuable hours away from what writers should primarily focus on: their manuscripts. Today I’ll discuss which sites I’ve found most valuable in a head-to-head match up, as well as sharing how I stay on top of them without losing my mind.

facebookFacebook vs. MySpace

I confess to being one of the “old people who joined up and ruined Facebook.” I now have more than a thousand friends, and probably post something to the page once or twice a week. I’m also on MySpace, but have found Facebook to be far more user-friendly to someone as technologically challenged as myself. (However, if I was working on a YA novel, MySpace would probably be where I devoted more of my focus). A couple of things to bear in mind when using these or other social networking sites:

  • Public vs. Private: I keep my pages public, and will friend anyone who asks. So anything that’s truly personal, such as family photos, etc, doesn’t get posted there. And if anyone tags me or mine in such a photo, I immediately remove the tag. myspace
  • In order to maintain my sanity, I go onto each site once a week (Facebook on Mondays, MySpace on Tuesdays). That’s when I accept friends, answer emails, and respond to comments. If I stumble across an interesting article online, I have the “share on facebook” tab incorporated into my browser, which makes it oh-so-easy to post it to my page (another clear benefit of Facebook over MySpace).
  • The cocktail party rule: I rarely post anything political on any of my pages. Again, this is a matter of personal preference, but I would rather discuss my books or interesting developments in publishing than who I voted for.

Shelfari vs. GoodReads

shelfari The trick to these is joining groups that read books similar to yours. I’ve generally found Shelfari to be more useful, although I do get updates from GoodReads discussions as well. The Shelfari groups just seem to more active, especially the “Suspense/Thrillers” one, which graciously invited me to lead a discussion of Boneyard last August. Every so often I’ll remember to log in and update my home page with the books I’ve read recently.

  • One caveat: if I don’t like a book, I don’t review it, period. Other authors have no problem posting negative reviews, so it’s largely a matter of personal goodreads preference. But I know authors whose feelings were hurt when one of their peers negatively reviewed their book on these sites, and figure it’s better to follow the, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” rule. The crime fiction writing community is a small one, filled with people who possess an encyclopedic knowledge base of how to kill someone and get away with it. Bear that in mind when you’re considering giving a book one star out of five.
  • I join in whenever people are discussing a book I really enjoyed, or an author whose work I admired. After all, I’m a reader as well as a writer.
  • Be careful in how you participate. When someone I’ve never heard of joins one of the discussions and proceeds to blatantly flog their own work, it’s a huge turn off. Probably better not to participate than to do that. This isn’t to say that you should never mention your book- but other members will be more receptive if you’re someone they’re already familiar with.

Twitter

twitter I’m not a big tweeter. I post links to my Kill Zone posts (and guest posts,) and occasionally link to articles or posts that I found interesting, but I simply don’t have time to announce what I had for lunch every day.

siamese Crimespace et al

I know other crime fiction authors love Crimespace, but I haven’t used it much. Most of the Ning circles (and I’m part of five) don’t seem very active to me. This could be my own failing- I find them challenging to navigate, and frankly my other pages are so easier I forget about these. Same goes for Gather, Bebo, Linked In, etc. You might have better luck. If you write books with a Siamese Cat sleuth, and there’s a Siamese cat appreciation group on one of the social networks, by all means take advantage.

Newsletters:

I have a pet peeve. Say we met at a conference and chatted about marketing. I offered to continue the discussion by email. Then, I find myself getting a deluge of newsletters from you, none of which I signed up for. Or worse yet, you mined my email address from a mass email sent by a mutual friend (note: always bcc people on those emails). This has happened to me more times than I can count. DO NOT add people to your newsletter unless they have specifically asked to be included. Have a sign up sheet on your website, and make it easy for people to unsubscribe.

And that’s my two cents. So what have the rest of you found to be useful? Any tips to share?

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