"So, what will your publisher do to promote your book?" a friend asked when I sold my second novel.
Truthfully, I had no idea what the plan was. Something, I hoped. It has taken me two decades to start selling fiction. In that time, I've seen writer friends publish novels that bring in royalties by the fistful, while others despair as their books sink like concrete blocks tossed into icy quarries.
What makes the difference between a book that sells and one that tanks?
The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to prove to my publisher that my novels were a worthy investment. For my first novel, I created a website, wrote guest posts for book blogs, built a Twitter following, and arranged my own tour of literary festivals, book clubs and libraries. Now I had to think about what stones, or even pebbles, I'd left unturned.
"Maybe you should hire an outside publicist," another friend suggested.
My husband was appalled. "How can you justify the expense?" he wanted to know. "Will you actually earn back that money if you spend it on a publicist?"
That, of course, is the million-dollar question in advertising. It's difficult to quantify just what your marketing dollars will buy when you're selling any product. To support my fiction habit, I've been a college marketing writer for years. I know the admissions "yield" of any brochure, billboard or postcard is uncertain. At the same time, getting a college's name out there is essential if the school is going to survive.
"I think I have to try it," I told him. "Fiction is my business now, and every business has to invest money in publicity."
Of course, I had no idea how much money a publicist would cost, and I was gobsmacked by their fees. Many outside book publicists require contracts of six months to a year, and their rates are high enough to bring a struggling novelist to her knees. Finally, though, I found a publicist who used to work at a big traditional house and seemed experienced and smart. Even better, she charged by the hour, with only a 10-hour minimum. I decided I could afford those 10 hours and hired her six months ahead of the release time for my new novel, Beach Plum Island. Here's what I've learned in that time:
1. Be up front with your in-house publicist. If you're lucky enough to have an in-house publicist, as I do, tell her you're hiring backup and ask what specific things she'll be doing so your outside publicist won't duplicate her efforts (and cost you valuable hours). If you're an indie author, no worries!
2. An outside publicist can fill in gaps. Once I knew what my in-house publicist was doing, it was easy to work with my outside publicist to create a list of additional web sites and blogs related to themes relevant to Beach Plum Island. For instance, the in-house publicist hit up fiction blogs while we contacted parenting sites. The in-house publicist also took on the trade magazines and national media, so my outside publicist and I went to work on local media and Internet radio. Writers of self-published books should split their tasks with publicists the same way. What do you feel comfortable doing, and what would you rather hire outside help to do?
3. Keep up your own efforts. You can't fade into the woodwork just because you have a publicist. Recently, I had a writer pal over for dinner who complained because her publisher "did next to nothing to promote my book." The truth is that all publishers will promote their books to some degree, but they have limited budgets just like we do. These days, every writer, indie or traditionally-published, should commit to interacting with readers and dedicating a little time each day to social media through blogging, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever else you have fun doing. Don't forget to introduce yourself to every bookseller within driving distance, too.
4. Update your team regularly. Once a month, I put together a memo summarizing what both publicists and I have done and send it to both publicists -- as well as to my agent and editor.
6. Take the snowball marketing approach. It used to be that publishers launched a book with advertising and an author tour, then moved on to other titles. This is still true, with one big difference: most authors no longer have their tours paid for by their publishers unless they're Stephen King. I'd suggest visiting libraries and bookstores wherever you have friends and family to put you up for a night and wherever you can fill chairs, whether that's through book clubs, literary festivals, or appearing in towns where people already know you. Otherwise, don't bother. Either of your publicists will help you arrange these events, or you can do the footwork yourself. Many venues love it when authors team up, too, so see if you have any writer friends with books that would appeal to a similar audience and arrange to do panels and discussions instead of individual readings. The good thing about all of this is that, thanks to the digital age, writers can take a snowball marketing approach. Long after your in-house publicist has moved on to promote other books, you and your outside publicist can keep promoting your book through different channels.
7. Don't beat yourself up. It's easy to despair (especially if you're spending money on publicity) when your efforts seem to come to nothing. But don't beat yourself up over it. You can't know which promotions worked and which didn't. Sometimes the payoff is down the line, and a lot of what ultimately happens with your book sales will boil down to luck. The important thing is to be in all of the places where luck can strike.