Lesson #1 of Book Festivals: There is no cosplay. Good thing I left my Katniss Everdeen costume at home.
My first panel of the day was at 10am, Book Promotion for the 21st Century, and I have to say, I'm really glad I went, even though the panel had a heavy non-fiction tilt. The panelists were Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Carleen Brice, author of Orange Mint and Honey and creator of the blog White Readers Meet Black Authors, publicist Kelly Powers, and the author of I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, Jag Bhalla. And yes, one of these authors got themselves featured in Oprah's magazine. Dun, dun, dun!
Before I go on, I'd just like to state that besides all the great information I got about publicity, I learned from Jag Bhalla, whose book is about amusing idioms found around the world, that the Germans have a saying, "Living like a maggot in bacon." How can I work this into my everyday conversation?
Listening to the panelists, four common themes jumped out at me:
- You're going to have to do a lot of legwork yourself. Pub house publicists are going to do their best to help you, but they're insanely busy people. They might have dozens of other books they have to promote at the same time as yours. Unless you're already a big name with a track record of success, they're probably only going to be able to devote a limited amount of time to you and your book. The industry standard for how long a publicist will work on your book is also about 120 days, which leads to the next point...
- You should be working on publicity months, even years, before your book ever comes out and for months after it's published. Publicity requires long-term thinking and network-building well in advance of the actual pub date.
- Be creative, use every angle you can to promote your book. Don't unintentionally limit your options. For example, as I mentioned, Jag Bhalla's book is about idioms around the world. Because a lot of those idioms are food-based, he approached food and cooking magazines and pitched stories to them. He also went to NPR and volunteered to write an entire episode of the quiz show "Wait wait..don't tell me" based around his book.
- Tailor your pitches. Don't just send a book to the Washington Post, for example, and hope it'll get reviewed. Give the person on the other end a reason to care, a reason to be intrigued. In some ways, it's a lot like writing query letters, you don't write a generic query letter and send it to every agent in the universe (OK, you SHOULDN'T do that, if you are, please don't). You research the agents' individual tastes, find out if they represent your genre, and adjust your query letter accordingly. When trying to publicize your book, make your pitch specific to that person or organization.
* Don't have a platform? Then build one. It took author Rebecca Skloot about ten years for her book to get published (it truly is an epic saga, involving one editor getting temporary amnesia and one of her publishers going out of business, amongst other mishaps) and during that time, she worked on her platform by doing freelance writing for magazines, hosting panels at book conferences, and networking in the scientific community.
* This is also how Rebecca got her current agent. She would host these conference panels and would usually be invited out to lunch beforehand to do some panel prep. Well, panel prep lasted about 5 minutes, at which point the editor or agent would ask her what projects she was working on. She'd tell them about her book and then they'd ask her who her agent was. She'd smile innocently and say, "Oh, I don't have one yet!"
* Web sites are essential. Other social media sites like Twitter can be helpful, but first and foremost, you need a good web site. Also, keep your blogroll updated (peers at own blogroll...yeah, I need to work on that one).
* Consider hiring your own publicist. What do publicists do? They help strategize and coordinate and can draw upon their own network of contacts to promote your book.
* Get booksellers and libraries on your side. Build these networks long before your book ever comes out. Bribery in the form of donuts and baked goods is surprisingly effective.
* Whatever you do, it's important to be comfortable doing it. I think this is especially important for us shy writers out there (people = scary, SCARY). Remember why you wanted to write in the first place, focus more on telling your amazing story and less on selling the book. You'll actually sell more books that way.
* Do book reviews, become part of the writing community and part of the conversation. Send out ARCs to book bloggers. The panelists also mentioned goodreads.com and booktour.com.
* Amazon pre-sale numbers can be very important. If you can get 1,000 or more pre-orders on Amazon, that can really help build buzz for your book.
* Don't just take, give! Build relationships. Maybe if an independent bookstore promotes your book, you'll come and do free signings and point people towards their store.
* Sales representatives can really help to push your book, but most people don't even know they exist (I didn't know about them!). Sales reps are employed by publishing houses, work by region, and are responsible for selling the publisher's books to retailers. If you can get them on your side, they can convince retailers to purchase more of your books.
* Keep your expectations in check. One media exposure does not necessarily equal sales. For example, Carleen Brice got a full feature in Essence magazine, but it didn't send her sales skyrocketing. Rather, you need to keep building on the publicity you receive, and as always, repetition, repetition, repetition is the key. Maybe the first time someone reads about your book in a magazine, they won't buy it. But the second, third or fourth time they hear about it, they might decide to check it out.
* Your resources, and that includes time, is finite. Choose wisely where you spend it.
* Publishers follow success rather than create it.
All right, so that author who got her book featured in Oprah's magazine? If you said Rebecca Skloot and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you guessed right! How'd she snag Oprah's much sought after seal of approval? Well, it took a lot of work, planning, and a well-tailored pitch.
When she was building her platform and working as a freelancer, Rebecca did some writing for O Magazine and got to know the editors there. Months before its release date, she was able to pitch the book to the editors and suggest they do a feature. Given the subject matter, the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black farmer who died from cervical cancer, and whose cells ended up revolutionizing the field of medicine, she knew it'd be a perfect fit for the magazine. The editors agreed.
Next up: My report on the festival's YA panels, how I got within five feet of the legendary literary agent Laura Rennert and totally did not tackle her, and an interview with YA author Amy Brecount White! Also, I'll be updating my blogroll.