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Report - 10 Ways to Promote Your Book without Paying ... Much
by Michael A. Banks

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Unless your first (or most recent) book advance was in the high five figures, your contract probably doesn't call for an advertising budget. Nor will you, as a new or midlist author, see much in the way of advertising and promotion for your book in any event. Most publishers give lead titles by big-name authors the lion's share of promotion and advertising, giving the rest of their titles with mention in announcement brochures, catalogs, and group ads at most.

Thus, the majority of books are left to sink or swim, as it were, an unfortunate fact of life that all writers learn sooner or later--though many deny or ignore it. But it doesn't mean that your book has to go without promotion. With a little enterprise and creativity, you can promote your book at little or no cost, using one or more of the techniques I'll discuss here.  I've used several of these myself, to good effect, and know authors who have used others. 

1. TAKE A FLYER

Promotional flyers, order forms, and/or bookmarks are among the best promotional tools an author can have. You can often get your publisher to print these for you, if you provide some indication as to how they will be used.

As for how you can use these promotional tools, if you do a lot of speaking--at writers' conferences, meetings or conventions of groups whose interests coincide with your book's topic, etc.-- they make excellent handouts. They're also handy in responding to inquiries about your work, and to present with a list of your credentials when you're approaching a new (to you) publisher or agent with a project.

Other uses for such items include giving them to individuals who intend to buy your book (so they don't forget!), and supplying them to local bookstores (or bookstores in cities you may be visiting) to serve as check-out counter handouts. And, if you really want to push a book, slip a flyer or bookmark into each piece of your outgoing mail. (A prolific writer of my acquaintance includes a flyer or bookmark with each and every piece of outgoing mail--even monthly bill payments! He swears it helps sales.) You might also consider selling your book yourself via such order forms (see accompanying sidebar).

Most publishers won't balk at this idea (none of mine have). The cost is usually extremely low if the production is done in - house. And from the publisher's viewpoint, supplying you withsuch materials means that you'll be doing part of the publisher's job. 

Doing it Yourself

If your publisher won't spring for the flyers or bookmarks, look into having them printed yourself (and perhaps the publisher will pay at least part of the cost). Flyers can cost as little as four cents each (even in small quantities), and bookmarks can cost even less. If you have several books out, you might create a flyer/order form that lists them all.

At the very least, you can photocopy info about your book from your publisher's sales brochure or catalog.

You might also consider advertising specialties--if you have an effective means of distributing them. Advertising specialties include items such as calendars, pencils, ink pens, and even business cards, imprinted with information about a product.

With the exception of business cards, such items are relatively expensive, so it is best to get into them only if you have an effective venue for distributing them--such as at trade shows and conventions of the type discussed in the next few pages. 

2. MAKE A LIST

This may be stating the obvious, but reviewers can often make (or break) a book. There are several techniques which you, the author, can use to make sure the right reviewers get a copy of your book--and notice it.

Most publishers use a set review list, which may or may not include special-interest publications or key reviewers who will be interested in your book. If your publisher sends out review copies, provide your editor with a supplemental list of reviewers who will have an interest in your book. Your additions will usually be accepted by the publisher--as long as you don't overdo the list by including your friends and relatives and small-press publications. When you offer to provide the list, remind your editor that it may come in handy in promoting other books.

(Hint: If you provide the list in the form of mailing labels, those on your list are even more likely to receive copies of your book. I had a rather large list--80--of important reviewers and quantity buyers for a book on rocketry that I sent to Prentice Hall in the form of mailing labels. Not only did everyone on that list get review copies, but I also received a nice letter from the PR director, thanking me for helping him do his job. And, the review copies resulted in positive reviews and quantity orders.)

Most magazine editors and book reviewers are deluged with copies of books to review every month. This reduces the chance of your book being reviewed. However, where very important reviewers or publications are involved, you can enhance the probability that you book will get noticed and reviewed by writing a note to the editor or reviewer in question, asking that he or she take the time to look at your book. Keep the letter brief, polite, and respectful. Don't hype your book, don't demand, and don't beg. (My own approach is to note that, among the tens of thousands of new books published each year, many good books go unnoticed--this by way of justifying my contacting the reviewer. If relevant, I note that the book in question is not the beneficiary of a major advertising campaign. I then politely request that the reviewer take a look at my book and judge it on its own merits. It works.)

In some few instances, I have sent out a copy of the book myself, with a similar cover letter. (I've found that I can get copies for this purpose from my publishers. Here again, I'm
doing the publisher a favor.) 


3. PRESS FOR RELEASE

Some publishers send out press releases for every book they publish, and some don't. If your publisher doesn't do this, try to get the PR person or your editor to make up a release to send to publications and reviewers (and possible quantity buyers) who aren't on the review copy list. If the publisher does send press releases, provide a list of secondary, special-interest
publications, organizations, and individuals to send the releases to. (As with the review copy list, don't overdo this.)

Depending on the publication and the type of book you've written, press releases not only have the potential to generate reviews, but also "new product" or "news" mentions. Such mentions are often as valuable as a full review.

Use Writer's Market, Literary Market Place, and Magazine Market Place to compile a list of special publications and reviewers. (And don't neglect TV and radio talk show hosts, daily newspapers of over 50,000 circulation, or book review syndicates--they're all in Literary Market Place.)

If your publisher isn't sending out review copies, you might suggest that the release include an invitation to potential reviewers to request a review copy. Even the most frugal publisher will usually send out a copy of a book to a reviewer who requests one.

If your publisher is sending out review copies, include the publications and reviewers that you couldn't get on the review - copy list (perhaps due to a limit on the number of books going out). Here again, try to get the release worded so that it is clear that review copies are available.


4. LOCAL AND REGIONAL PUBLICITY

Getting local and regional publicity is fairly easy. The relative effectiveness (as gauged by number of books sold) may be disappointing, however. Success depends in part on the kind of book you've written. Books on general-interest topics and books dealing with the local area tend to garner a better response through local publicity than do novels or special-interest books. Newspapers

The first place to look for publicity is among your local weekly and daily newspapers. Make sure the appropriate editors or writers are on the supplementary review list you give your publisher, and contact the editor or publisher in question at each paper a couple of weeks before--and after--the review copies are due to go out. Let him or her know who you are, and describe your book in brief. Ask whether the paper will consider reviewing your book, and make it known that you're available for an interview or feature writeup. (Keep the ego down, though.)

Such contacts have resulted in in-depth features being written about me in all my local papers, which usually highlight the current book and mention other of my books in print. Although I haven't been able to trace a connection between the write-ups and book sales, I'm sure there is one. And I have benefited from the appearance of such articles, in the form of paid local speaking engagements.

And, even if local newspaper reviews or interviews don't result in increased sales, the reviews themselves can be useful. Favorable reviews can be used when you're pitching a new book (to demonstrate the fact that you write good books), and to impress overseas publishers when you're trying to sell foreign rights (odd as it may seem, any favorable review looks good to editors at a publishing house in England or Japan, no matter what the source). Television and Radio

Local TV talk shows were once a dying breed, but they are making a comeback. If one or more exists in your area, you are likely to be received as a celebrity of sorts just for being a published writer (though you can trade a bit on the expertise represented by your book's topic--if any). The same is true of radio talk shows. (My own experience as a guest on local TV and radio talk shows was that the host and audience were more interested in the writing process and how to get published than anything else, however.)

To line up a guest spot on a local talk show, call or write the show's producer or the station program director, and present yourself as a local author interested in being a guest on the show in question. If you're making your contact by mail, it doesn't hurt to send along an autographed copy of your book. (NOTE: If you live in a heavily-populated city like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, you may find it difficult to get on a local talk show, mainly because there are so many other authors--many well-established--in your area.) 

Bookstores

The reaction of a bookstore owner or manager to an author can vary greatly. You'll run into some (especially those who have never met an author before) who will be so thrilled to meet you that they'll make you feel like you're Stephen King, Janet Daily, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Erma Bombeck, and your favorite author all rolled into one. Others will make you feel like an illiterate bum. The typical reception will be somewhere between those extremes, like: "Nice to meet you. Who did you say your publisher is? Do you have any other books out or coming out? Maybe we can do an autograph session ..."

Unless you're a total barbarian, it's easy to establish a nice relationship with a bookstore, one that will result in your books being put on display and/or labeled as by a local author (and don't forget those bookmarks or flyers!) You might set up an autograph session, though bookstore autograph sessions usually end up being boring social occasions where you spend more time talking with would-be writers than book-buyers--when you talk with anyone at all. You might offer to autograph the copies of your book in stock, too.

These kinds of contacts probably won't push your sales up significantly, but when pursued in numbers, they have been known to pay off for writers. Fantasy author Raymond E. Feist (whose works regularly make the chain-bookstore and other bestseller lists) credits a good portion of his success to the fact that, early in his writing career, he spent several weeks visiting bookstores up and down the coast of California. Feist is amiable and quite impressive in person, and he succeeded in impressing enough bookstore owners and managers that a noticeable demand was created for his first novels. This in turn resulted in his publisher pushing his novels harder. 


Department stores

Ha! I'll bet that one caught you off guard. As unlikely as it seems, local and regional department store chains can be a good source of promotion--and sales. (I'm not talking Sears and JC Penney here, of course. The chains I mean are the ones with a downtown "base" location and stores in all the malls within 50 miles or so). After all, most department stores do sell books, and most differ from bookstores in that they employ advertising and promotion professionals who are always on the lookout for promotional opportunities.

With a little finagling, it's possible to line up a department store autograph session--and an autograph session sponsored by a large department store chain will be quite different from one sponsored by a bookstore, for several reasons. First, department stores have quite a bit more "traffic" than bookstores, and customers are used to seeing and responding to promotions (fashion shows, concerts, autographings, etc.) in such stores. Department stores will also advertise such a special event heavily, whereas bookstores will do little or no advertising.

Making contact is simple: find out who the chain's book buyer is, then send him or her a letter identifying yourself as a local author. Include an autographed copy of your book, too. Even if you don't set up an autographing, you may generate an order for a few hundred (or a few thousand) books.

As with other forms of local promotion, general- or regional-interest books are more rewarding in terms of sales results. Too, if the topic of your book ties in with a type of merchandise carried by the store--even remotely--you'll have a more successful promotion.

A final note on department and bookstore autographings and promotions: Be sure to let your publisher know when one is to occur. The publisher may be able to help out with catalogs, brochures, sample copies of your book for "door prize" giveaways, and special discounts to the sponsoring store.


5. "ON THE AIR, COAST TO COAST"

The discussion of local TV and radio talk shows a few paragraphs back probably started you thinking about national TV and radio shows. National Television

Before you set your sights on a guest spot with Johnny Carson or David Letterman, eat a little humble pie (hm... maybe you'd better eat the whole pie). No matter how vital/timely/important/earthshaking/literary your masterpiece may be, there are a few score (or thousand) other writers with the same sentiments (right or wrong) about their own work, hoping for the attentions of the producers of popular national TV and radio shows. A lot of them have bigger names, better works, or hotter topics than you. Combine this with the fact that almost every crackpot or rational person with a cause or gimmick is trying to get on such shows, and you have a level competition that makes selling an article to Playboy or Redbook look easy. Certainly, it's worth a shot, but don't be disappointed if you are turned down. National Radio

On the other hand, I think you'll find a fairly receptive market in regional and some national radio talk shows. Literary Market Place has a special listing of national and regional TV and radio talk shows that feature authors as guests. A letter to the producer (not the host) of these shows is a good place to start--again accompanied by a copy of your book.

Once of the nice things about being "on" a radio talk show is that you usually don't have to travel at all. Guest spots on radio are more often than not accomplished by telephone hookup--
and the station pays the phone bill!

If possible, present yourself as an expert on a topic, in addition to being an author. Talk show producers and hosts (and audiences) find author/experts to be far more interesting guests than "just authors." (If you've listened to/watched talk shows very much, you've undoubtedly noticed that discussions with authors concentrate more on the topic of the book than on the author--author like Shelley Winters excepted, of course.)


6. "YOU SCRATCH MY BACK, AND I'LL SCRATCH YOURS ..."

"Networking" is a time-honored tradition in all trades and professions (ask a professional chef if you don't believe it), and can be effective among writers--when it's handled properly.

I'm not talking about bribery here, nor even "cultivation"-- though both of those are used. Basically, the kind of networking I'm talking about is ethical. That is, making and developing the kind of contacts--be it by telephone, letter, in-person meetings at conferences, or electronic mail--that you know will result down the line in your book getting a fair reading. (As opposed to getting a guaranteed positive review in exchange for you doing the same for the reviewer at a future date, or because of undue and insincere flattery.)

We all know that writing is a lonely business, and most all writers like to have contact with other writers--especially other writers who have read their work. So, if you have read and enjoyed the work of certain columnists and reviewers, don't hesitate to contact them and let them know it. In the process, you can let them know about your new book, and ask if they'd like to receive a review copy. Don't count on a positive review--it's enough that your acquaintance takes notice your book out of the dozens or hundreds he or she receives monthly. Pressing for a glowing review or asking the reviewer to compromise his or her standards is unethical and personally insulting to most writers.

Of course, you do run the risk to appearing to be "stroking" the columnist or reviewer in question in initiating such a contact. To avoid this, you do need to be sincere in your compliments, and it certainly helps to make acquaintances on a writer-to-writer basis first (which means that you should get to know the other writer over a couple of meetings, calls, or letters before you mention your upcoming book). You can be mercenary and try to manipulate a columnist or reviewer if you like--and it may work. Then again, it might backfire and get you
a bad review or no review. (And if you are that kind of person, please don't bother to contact me. I consider that sort of manipulation to be indicative of a reptilian nature--and I don't get along well with snakes.) 


7. "RECOMMENDED BY ..."

The number of endorsements by name authors and experts on book covers nowadays might indicate that publishers are tripping over themselves to woo "names" and experts into endorsing books, and maybe even paying for the endorsements. However, this is not always true; most endorsements are solicited by the authors themselves (or by editors who feel a "name" author whose work they edit will appreciate a particular book by an unknown). 

Getting Personal

Before you send your latest novel to Isaac Asimov, Dr. Ruth, or Tom Clancy to read and approve, let me hasten to add that almost all endorsements from name authors are the result of a personal acquaintance. For example, my newest book (The Modem Book, just out from Brady Books/Simon & Schuster) has been endorsed and literally said to be "the best" ("...he wrote modestly...") by an author friend who has not only made the New York Times bestseller list, but is also the most-read and respected authority on small computers in the world, and something of a popular legend among personal computer users. He also happens to write for the largest computer magazine in the U.S. Moreover, he is very honest and hard-nosed about endorsements (if asked to review something, he looks for the bad elements first).

Obviously, his is an extremely valuable endorsement. (It is, in fact, an endorsement which publishers and manufacturers have offered to buy--without success). But note that I did not phone or write this individual "out of the blue." I've known him for several years, and asked him if he would look at the manuscript informally and possibly provide some quotes to use on the cover--if he liked the book. He ended up doing far more than that--but only because he liked the book, not because of our acquaintance. (As I implied earlier, I don't go along with stretching professional ethics. And I have respect enough for this author--and for myself--that I wouldn't want an endorsement from him if it was not sincere.)

The point is, you cannot expect to get an endorsement from just anyone--author or expert--just because your book is "great" and you think an endorsement from A. Famous Author would be a good idea. A personal or professional relationship must exist. (There are, of course, exceptions to this.)


8. GRASS ROOTS--GETTING TO THE "END-USER"

Although you'll most likely concentrate on getting the word about your book out to readers, you may also want to approach first-line market for your books: those who actually buy the book in quantity from your publisher. I've already touched on a couple of buyers in that category (bookstore operators and department store buyers) but if you're deadly serious about getting your book out there and noticed, you might find it useful to go to the book distributors and chain-bookstore buyers. 

Book Distributors

There are a number of national and regional book distributors. The major national distributors are Ingram's in Nashville, Tennessee, and Baker & Taylor in New York City (get their telephone numbers through directory assistance). Regional and local distributors (called "independent distributors," or "IDs") are listed in local yellow pages. (IDs are the ones responsible for servicing book racks in grocery stores, drugstores, convenience stores, and other non-bookstores, as well as many smaller bookstores.)

Working with distributors involves far more than making a phone call or writing a letter, though. You should first find out which distributors your publisher works with. Then, make a few calls to learn who at each distributor buys books of the type you have written. After that, it's up to you. You can contact the buyer by mail, phone, or in person, but don't count on a friendly reception, or results. A science fiction author of my acquaintance who at one time worked for an ID and therefore knew the territory visited IDs in several states and succeeded in significantly increasing the sales of two of his novels. (He put a lot of time and effort into it--even to the point of going out with the delivery drivers.) But another author who tried to follow his lead by calling on IDs from Boston to Washington, D.C. realized no benefits. 

Chain Bookstore Buyers

Promoting your book (and yourself) to chain bookstore buyers is a questionable enterprise. Success depends on the individual with whom you're dealing (and, as with distributors, you have to contact the person who buys books of the type you've written). Personalities count for a lot, and whether you're contacting the buyer at a bad time, how he or she gets along with your publisher, and many other unpredictable factors can affect the value of such contacts.

The fact that the chain store buyers meet authors frequently, while distributors do not, enters into the equation, too. (Which is to say, chain store buyers aren't impressed simply by meeting an author.) And some dislike an author stepping between them and the publisher. 

Trade Shows

Trade shows and professional conventions can be an excellent place to make contact with quantity book buyers. Not only do interested individuals attend such conventions, but also a number of booksellers, who typically set up a bourse to offer their wares to the attendees. At a national convention of science teachers, for instance, I met with several book distributors who specialized in selling books to schools. This resulted in additional sales for one of my books (written for teachers as well as the general public).

If your book is on an extremely specialized subject (say, architectural specification writing), you probably already know about national conventions that attract people interested in your book's topic. However, you'll find a wealth of information on trade shows and special-interest conventions in Literary Market Place.

Where fiction is concerned, you'll probably find it more difficult to locate conventions that tie in with your book (science fiction, romance, mystery, and western genres excepted). However, no matter what kind of book you have to push, the American Booksellers Association's national convention (aka "the ABA") is the place to go. Held in a major city each year, the ABA attracts thousands of distributors, chain store buyers, and individual bookstore buyers with whom you may make personal contact and/or provide information about your book.

Although the ABA is nominally for booksellers and publishers only, many publishers bring authors in to help showcase new releases. Only the big names and top sellers have their expenses paid, but it is possible to get into the ABA under the auspices of your publisher. (The same is true of any trade show or convention.) 


9. TAKING IT TO THE STREETS

I probably don't need to tell you this, but I will, anyway: You should let as many people as possible know that you have a book out. For example, the woman in the seat next to you on a
plane, or the guy to whom you are introduced to at a party, could turn out to be a buyer for a book or department store chain. Or, your doctor's brother-in-law might own a book distribution
company, and like that. (I recommend that you approach spreading the word in a low-key manner, though; most people are turned off by big egos.) 

Direct Salesmanship

Convincing individuals to buy your book can be gratifying to your ego, but the return for the time spent is ridiculously low. Consider: your royalty on a mass-market paperback might be 18 cents, while your royalty on a trade paperback or hardcover might be a dollar, tops. Estimate twenty to thirty minutes per "sale," and it's easy to see that you could better spend the time writing another book.

However, relatives, friends, colleagues, and new acquaintances often do that sort of thing for you, which is fine. 

Actually selling copies of your book that you've bought is another matter entirely. 


10. FREE SAMPLES?

If your publisher sends out review copies, he or she is, in effect, giving away copies of your book. You may have to do the same if you promote your book much at all. And you may need copies of your books to give away for other reasons, so always keep a supply on hand.

To whom might you give copies of your book, and why? 

Here are a few suggestions:

* Other publishers to whom you are trying to sell a new manuscript, as samples of your work.
* Distributor and chain-store book buyers.
* Media people (as noted earlier) from whom you hope to get free publicity.
* Organizers of conventions, trade shows, or speaking engagements--either as a "thank you," or as a door prize.
* Any other potential quantity buyers of your book, bookstore or non-bookstore retailers.

Lest you despair over the potential cost of giving away a large number of books (even though you can, as the author, buy them at a discount), I should note that publishers will usually provide sample books to potential quantity buyers, and can often be persuaded to donate one or two of your books to give away at a convention, in exchange for PR value.
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What and how much you do in promoting your book is entirely up to you, and may well be limited by the time you have available, finances, or other factors. However, I strongly recommend that you do as much self-promotion as you can reasonably handle. The right kind of promotion can indeed have a positive effect on sales, and positive feedback of any kind certainly won't hurt your professional status and self-image. 

Michael A. Banks 1998, 2001

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Michael A. Banks is the author of 38 books, and more than 3,000 magazine articles and short stories. A full-time freelance writer and editor since 1983, he has written for most major computer magazines, and has served as a Contributing Editor for such publications as Windows Magazine, Computer Shopper, Connect Magazine, and others. His current book project is a how-to on the subject of writing for a living. Tentatively titled Working Without a Net, the book will be published by Kalmbach Books/The Writer in Summer, 2002. His web-site is at http://w3.one.net/~banks/index.htm 
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