Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Marketing The Monster, Part Two

Okay, so I've obviously been avoiding this post for some time now, not for lack of desire, but because it's such a large amount of information to approach. There are literally as many ways to market a book as you can think of, depending on the depth and breadth of your imagination (and mine is vastly overactive). But to help you along, I will attempt to offer here something of an overview of what you might expect to try at various points in the promotion of a self-published work, based on what I've done myself so far with some success.

As I may have said before, marketing non-fiction is vastly easier than it is for those of us who dwell within imaginary realms. Every subject has its audience, and successful marketing is more than not about defining and then finding that potential market, and only afterwards in setting out your wares for display. You could, of course, just set your book up on a shelf and hope a given number of random hands will stumble upon it. But that is as near a guarantee for failure as I can imagine. A market plan based entirely on luck is not a plan at all.

I only mention this seemingly obvious fact because everything else that comes after should be targeted to a particular market, and the narrower your focus the more likely your efforts will prove fruitful. Much of the time this will be accomplished through the use of keywords in your ad campaigns, but more often you will have to do the footwork yourself, searching out the likeliest of places that your target crowd might congregate. Only then should you implement your battle strategy, which is exactly what an ad campaign is like - the term "campaign" implying an inherently aggressive effort here.

1. Book Listing Data

The first thing you need to do, even before your book is published, is determine its market value. That is, what will you charge for it? This will be based on two things: 1) how much it costs to manufacture each copy, and 2) what similar competing works are selling (or not selling) for.

During the process of setting up your title for printing, you will need to enter a wealth of information about it, all of which you must decide yourself as the publisher: the most relevant to these being the book's page count, page size, cover type, and paper type, and then whether you will accept returns, and what your trade discount will be.

The main factor to consider here with regard to marketing is how best to be competitive. Clearly you want to make as much as you possibly can, but if you overprice your book and it doesn't sell, you won't make anything at all, so aim low; you can always raise the retail price later (that is, if you don't have it printed on the cover with the barcode, which I recommend you don't do for this very reason).

The other factor of major consideration in this equation is whether or not you will target brick-and-mortar book stores. With my debut novel, due to its high cost to print, this was not an option. Retail outlets require a standard trade discount of 55-65% off the cover price, as well as accepting returns on any unsold quantities they no longer want sometime down the line. If your book is something less than 350 pages or so in black & white you can manage this discount, but above that becomes prohibitive, requiring a relative increase in your suggested retail that will price you right out of the market.

As far as returns are concerned, all I can say is don't spend all the money Barnes & Noble give you for that fifteen hundred copy order, because they might well want it back. Your best bet there is to set up a savings account in reserve for just such a likelihood. You'll have to decide for yourself when and how much you can safely withdraw. But you should take into consideration a certain percentage of damaged copies among the returns, and the cost of shipping, which may not make it worth your while. Those costs come out of your profits, if you have any. This is why most trade publishers implemented the policy of "stripping," which is where the book store literally tears the cover off a book and throws the rest away, returning just the cover to the publisher to save on shipping costs. It's cheaper to burn the book than pay for its return. Of course, that won't apply to you if you self-publish, as the cost of each book will be vastly higher than what the big boys pay.

2. Bookstore Sales

So let's say you've decided to give up a majority of your profits and accept returns to give your book a chance out in the "real" world. This is a reasonable assumption, since after all that's where good books belong, right? (actually, they belong in readers' hands, but this is one way you can try to get them there.) Assuming you've decided it's worth your while to try, then try you must. So how do you go about it?

This is one of the main places where Lightning Source has a vast advantage over every other self-publication venue out there, because Lightning Source is a sister company of Ingram Books, who are the foremost supplier of books to bookstore and libraries throughout North America. Putting your work out through Lightning Source gets you an automatic listing in Ingram's catalog, and from there into the databases of nearly every major retail buyer in the country. That doesn't mean they'll stock your book, of course, or even ever see your listing. But it will be there if they look, and so it's your job to make them do so. When you set your title up, you can pay to have it given ad space in Ingram's print catalog that goes out to retailers, but I didn't do this, since I wasn't aiming at that market, so I can't tell you if it's worth the cost. Those who know seem to think it's not really worth the money, but then it couldn't really hurt anything either (except your budget, of course).

Before you ever got to this stage, however, you will already have procured an ISBN with Bowker, and this will also have gotten you a listing in another of the major book databases in the U.S., which is linked with the Library of Congress catalog. But bookstores don't do their shopping in Washington, so this will likely not avail you much, except that your book will be searchable in certain databases, if not through Ingram. How you get into Ingram if you're published through someone other than Lightning Source I don't know, but I suggest you find out, or change your publishing partnership. Unless bookstores can readily get your book wholesale there's little point in approaching them, and you'll want to make it as easy of possible for them to boot. If it's going to be some special order only item, you can bet the sales will be few, and the sales clerks' efforts to promote it even less.

3. Press Kit

This brings us to your first real marketing tool, the Press Kit, sometimes called a Media Kit (since it's intended for more than just the press). This will be your workhorse: a multi-faceted powerhouse that's designed to make a big impression on whomever you might give it to. Depending on the focus of your marketing campaign at any given moment, the press kit might contain any number of things, but here is a list of what it should contain at the very least:
  1. As concise and powerful a description of your book as you can manage, including cover art;
  2. An excerpt or two from the book;
  3. A data sheet with all the pertinent info listed, including title, genre, ISBN, publication date, formats available, page count, publisher, distributors, and retail price, as well as all your contact information;
  4. An author biography, with a nice, clear picture of the perpetrator (you);
  5. A list of endorsements and advance reviews, which you should have got by now (I didn't);
  6. An official "Press Release" written in standard journalistic prose, given as it might be printed in a newspaper (because if you're so lucky it probably will be lifted wholesale);
  7. FAQ's or interview questions, with your answers, obviously;
  8. Anything else you can think of that might be a useful sales tool, including but not limited to cds with promotional videos and/or audio readings of your book, promotional bookmarks, additional artwork, prior press clippings and/or listings of media appearances, etc.
These can be presented in any number of ways, but among the best is in a standard report-type binder with a full size sheet or half-page fliers for each element, with a business card attached. Make up lots of these, you'll want them. Every bookstore where you hope to do a signing gets one. Every library where you might give a talk or reading gets one. Every gamer hangout or writers' workshop you walk into should be left with a reminder that you were there. Bring your book, too, while you're at it. It's a pretty good sales tool in itself. Nothing says "I'm an author" quite like a book with your name on it.

In connection with this is a general broadcast of your press release, which you can have sent out to any or every contact in the world through email these days using any of a number of services (free or otherwise) like PRWeb to get word out about your book. Send it to radio stations and newspapers and book reviewers and college professors and TV talk show hosts and whoever else might show some interest. It's probably a good practice to also send out hard copies to your top choices, just in case their email filter is better than mine.

4. Web Presence

There should be an online equivalent to the Press Kit as well, and here I've gotten a little out of order, really, because WEBSITE should have been #1 back up there at the top. Get a website up post-haste, and be serious about it. This is your storefront, and your book's home turf. Here you can post up not just e-docs of all your press kit stuff, but every other thing that you can dream up. Go take a look at mine for a few ideas (fantasycastlebooks.com in case you were sleeping all the other times I listed it). My website is beginning to approach absurdity in quantity of stuff, and pretty soon I'll have to overhaul it to make it easier to navigate, but probably not until I start to promote The Jester's Quest(that's a plug, well in advance, for the sake of keyword density if nothing else).

I based my website around my publisher name rather than my own, since I'm not well-known and no one will be searching for me yet. This way I can put all my books up on the publisher site as they come out, and keep it nice and professional.

For a more personal side I suggest you start a blog. This gives you a chance to just blather on and be yourself, chatting about whatever thoughts are on your mind and what you like (or dislike, although I would keep it upbeat, since depression and bitterness wear thin real fast, unless that's the audience you're aiming for). A blog will give you greater visibility on the web, and soon you'll have a built-in audience who will come to you as soon as your next book hits the printer (wishful thinking there).

By the way, you should put links to your online marketing tools in all your email correspondence, like all those press releases that you're sending out.

5. Social Networking

Along this line of thinking are all the social network sites that are flourishing these days - MySpace and Facebook and Twitter and Grouply and whatnot. This includes discussion boards and Yahoo groups and all of that. There is no shortage of places to look (or talk, as it were), and there will only be more with every passing day. Get involved.

This is kind of a big general grouping, but the idea is to get out there and interact with people. These are your potential readers. And don't just talk up your book ad nauseum - no one's interested in a book by someone they don't know - you just want to meet and greet and get to know some folks with similar interests to your own, and when you find a reader you will know, and so will they. This is a long-haul proposition, by the way, so get started!
I belong to so many groups on one topic or another that I can't possibly keep up on them all. And in fact, I've been remiss of late, ironically, when now is the time I should be most on top of it. But the list is long and the days are short, as the saying goes. Getting a book put together and published is no small chore, and really I'd just like to take a nap. But unfortunately I'm not even halfway down my list yet.

6. Book Signings

Now, I haven't done any of these, so I'm not going to go into great length about it here. But it should be mentioned, obviously, that if you're aiming at the brick-and-mortar stores you need to focus a good deal of your marketing campaign in that direction, and the foremost way to do that is through readings and signings of your book. That is, make a personal appearance.

Even if you're too shy or busy to sit for several hours in a bookstore, you might at least put in an appearance for the sake of the manager and staff, just to sign whatever copies they have on the shelves just then, or maybe more if you can make arrangements with them in advance. Print up some posters and take a stack of fliers to them for their counter, and maybe a good handful of bookmarks, whatever you can persuade them take that has your name and book art on it. Mail them out to all the rest, and call to follow up, even if it's just a counter person that you say hello to - at the very least they'll remember you when your fliers show up on the counter right in front of them.

Signings are certainly not necessary, and often not even practical, at least for any but the nearest of outlets. However, you should at least make an effort to gain some footing on your own turf, using the "local author" angle if you have to. Either way, the process is the same. Armed with your trusty Press Kit, you send it or take it to the manager along with your best sales pitch, delivered with enthusiasm and an offer of personal promotion, which the overburdened bookstore drudge will greet with either frank derision (as yet more work that they would have to do) or absolute relief (for those who need a way to appease the corporate forces bearing down on them to meet this month's projected sales - can you tell I've worked in bookstores before?).

Whatever the outcome, be forewarned: you will have to do virtually ALL of the promotion for any such events that you set up. Do not count on them to do anything. In fact, assume that they will not, and do it all yourself in any case. Bring a table in the back of your beat up truck if you have one, and make sure that there are listings in the local entertainment guides well in advance. Make up posters with your name and date and cover art and take or send them in. Call to make sure extra books are ordered, and bring some of your own in any case. Never do a bookstore tour without a trunk full of backup copies. How embarrassing would it be to have no books to sell to a line of waiting fans (not to mention the loss of income)? Bring your own pens. Bring some extra fliers and bookmarks, because hopefully the first batch will all be gone by now. I've been to signings where the author had no pen, no business card, no bookmarks, not even cookies, and then they took my pen and kept it. And the book sucked too, but I was nice and bought it anyway, because I thought it might be good for my karma, if nothing else. Well, if ever I do a signing of my own, I'll let you know if that pans out.

7. Book Reviews

This is way out of order, but better here than not at all. This is sort of how the process goes - you just do what you can when you think of it. If you're well organized it likely makes some sense, but chaos works quite nicely, too. Anyway, as I said before, you should have gotten some reviews WAY before now. Like months ago at this point. Like I said, I didn't. Next time I'll know better. I could have used my social networking connections to get them easily enough, but I was so focused on just writing the damned thing that I really didn't even think of it until it was way too late. But better late than never, as they say.

I've already talked a bit about Amazon reviews in my prior postings, but I'll mention here a bit about how I went about it. Given this is a self-published work none of the major trade publications, save one (Midwest Book Review), are available to me, since they state outright that they do not review self-published works. That is, of course, if they know the work is self-published, which I suppose there's no real reason they need know up front, although I've never tried to hide the fact. Since I wasn't aiming at the bookstores, I figured it didn't matter anyway. And given that I didn't even think about marketing until the book was done and on it's way to press, it was way too late by then at any rate. I did, however, send two copies to the Midwest Book Review, who are the only major trade that openly courts self-publishers, and I highly recommend you do so too. I haven't heard back from them yet, and don't honestly expect to anytime soon.

For those of you who do intend to go that route and approach the major trades, you should send out advance copies for review well in advance - say six months at the very least, if not a year. Since you're producing your own book, that means you'll simply have to sit on it for all that time when it could be out on the market making sales and gaining visibility all the while, so I don't know if that's a worthwhile route to go, especially since you can get reviews so many other ways. Some of these contacts will accept ebook editions for review, but most will want Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) in print form, and many will require two. And be forewarned that most of them will never read your book. Some will end up in the trash, others in the used book bin. Write it off as part of the ad budget, and use it on your taxes.
Other places you can get reviews are any professional contacts you have in either the literary field or any area of expertise your book might cover (historians in the case of historical fiction, for example, or aliens that you might know if you're writing science fiction), other published writers in your genre, people in the media if you know any, basically anyone with any sort of professional platform to support your work. I don't know any aliens, but I sent a copy to my medieval lit professor. She ignored me so far as I can tell.

The other source is book reviewers themselves in other than the major trades, and these can be in smaller independent rags or, more likely, online. You can even buy reviews from a vast array of businesses whose sole source of income is from struggling writers like ourselves, but I wouldn't recommend it, if only because your money could be better spent almost anywhere else, but mainly because the review you get won't be worth the paper it's written on: a paid review cannot be taken seriously as an honest opinion of your work, which is what you (and the review's other readers) truly want. Paid reviews will probably sound false and hollow anyway, and chances are the reviewer will have skimmed the work just enough to get a sense of what the story is in order to write a summary, which is almost all the review will consist of (and this you will have already done far better yourself in your promotional book description).

By the way, I should have mentioned up there in the Book Listing Data section that you will need to write a really smoking promo for your story for inclusion in the description field of the title listing with Lightning Source (or whoever you should choose to produce it) - this will be picked up in every listing of your book in every catalog and all the hundreds of e-retailers that will suddenly be "stocking" it, even though they don't actually have a single copy in their warehouse. This happens on Amazon as well, where your book will almost immediately have a dozen or so "new and used" copies for sale, even before a single copy has been sold anywhere.

But back to the reviewers. You have several options here, foremost among which are Amazon reviewers, book review bloggers, and discussion group reviewers, each of which I'll mention in a bit more detail here.

To approach Amazon reviewers you can either look up books that are like your own and see who has reviewed them in the recent past (their contact link is right there with the review, so use it), or you can go to the Amazon reviewers listing page at www.amazon.com/review/top-reviewers.html, where the Top Reviewers are ranked by both the new and old criteria. Then you look for likely candidates and either send them a "friend request" or look up their contact info (if given) on their profile page. You can also do some web searching using "Amazon Reviewer" and your book genre as your keyword search.

Related to this are discussion group reviewers, if only because there is an Amazon Book Reviewers discussion group, to which you can post a message offering up copies of your book to any takers, which I did, and from it got about a half a dozen replies. This is how my main man Justin Gaines was found. Listing there also got me posted on LibraryThing and GoodReads discussion boards, as well as a number of other book related sites and blogs, each of which garnered a few more takers, and more leads. It sort of works that way, like fishing, only in a really really really big pond, and with a little more than worms for bait. LibraryThing, by the way, is a must for anyone connected in any way to books. You won't find a place with more readers circled round than you will there.

MiniBookExpo is another place to post some books in exchange for reviews. I put three up there and they were gone within a day. I'm still waiting for the reviews, but with a book as long as mine it's bound to take a while. Also I'm sure like most reviewers my book is not the only one in their stack. This is why it's a good idea to send them out well in advance.
Bloggers are another great source both for reviews and for promotion in general, and will become one of your major outlets down the road when it comes time to do a virtual book tour (but more on that another day). For now just contact the better of the bloggers you can find for your genre and offer them a copy of your book, an interview, a free copy to give away in a drawing, or whatever. It will get you featured on their daily post, and create links both to your website and to Amazon. And all good blogs have still another feature which makes them preeminent in website networking, and that's the blogroll: the list of the blog host's favorite other blogs. Once you find one good blog you'll be hard pressed to run out of links to follow up on, and pretty soon you'll get a sense of who the top blogs are. Read them. Link to them. Subscribe to their RSS feed, and follow it. This you should be doing long ago as well.
Other than that you're limited to readers, but these are probably the best reviews that you can get, because they'll be completely objective, based on actual reading experience and nothing more. But these you'll simply have to wait for.

* * *

Okay, so this post has covered more or less all the things I didn't do, plus a few of those I did. Next time I'll talk about online marketing specifically, and give you details about many of the ways to get your book promoted in the virtual world, with special emphasis placed on how to tweak and utilize the vast range of tools for marketing that Amazon puts at your disposal once you become a publisher.