Self-Promotion for Writers

Congratulations! Your book is about to be published.

Now you have to sell the darn thing.

Whether you are working with a big house or a small publisher, you will be expected to promote your book. The bad news? You may no know how to promote your book. The good news? No one is better qualified than you to promote your book.

Of course, book promotion starts with the writing. A splashy campaign or author notoriety may create an initial buzz, but won’t carry a book if it isn’t well-written. As you write, it’s okay to fantasize about book signings, author receptions and award presentations. It may help motivate you to keep writing! But if the thought of public appearances chills your soul, fear not. There are less public ways to promote your book as well. Choose activities that are a natural outgrowth of your personality, talents and interests. Not everything will work, of course, but some things will work beyond your expectations.

Self-promotion for the brave of heart
Open yourself to opportunities that have nothing to go with your book. I once spoke at a workshop for college registrars, not about writing, but about leaving regular employment to pursue a dream. At the book signing which followed I was mobbed, to my surprise and delight.

Here are some additional ways of thinking about self-promotion for the brave of heart. Remember, whatever you think is over the top in self-promotion?isn’t.

  • Arrange invitation-only book signings in the homes of friends and relatives.
  • Enclose your book’s praise sheet (endorsements) and order form with holiday greetings or family newsletters.
  • Design a bookmark as a giveaway, or ask your publisher to design one featuring several books, including yours.
  • Purchase your book at a ‘discount from the publisher and resell it at presentations at libraries, service clubs, schools, trade association meetings, alumni gatherings, readers’ groups, etc.
  • Attend author fairs in your area, introduce yourself to the coordinator and ask to be invited to next year’s fair.
  • Parlay your expert status (You’ve been published!) into paid speaking assignments. Speaking fees often exceed royalties from book sales at such events.
  • Solicit a commercial sponsor for a book tour.

Self-promotion for the not so brave of heart
Many writers hate making personal appearances or putting themselves forward in social situations. Maybe that’s one of the masons you write. Okay, but you can still promote your book. Here are some suggestions.

  • Provide your publisher with a mailing list of friends and relatives for mail-order solicitations.
  • Provide your publisher with a list of contacts in the publishing industry who should receive review copies.
  • Send announcements about your book to alumni associations, service clubs, trade unions or other organizations of which you are a member. Better yet, write a short feature for the organization’s publication on some aspect of the book or the writing process.
  • Publish short articles or stand-alone excerpts, with the book’s title and publisher mentioned in the author tagline.
  • Offer your book as a prize in a contest sponsored by a magazine, newsletter or website.
  • Set up a website with excerpts, endorsements, reviews, author notes, ordering information and a link to your publisher’s website.
  • Invite friends and relatives to write reviews for bookstore websites such as Amazon.com.

Setting up bookstore signings
The most frequent form of author self-promotion is the personal appearance. But a national book tour, arranged and paid for by a publisher, is about as rare as a polished first draft. More likely, the publisher will ask you to share travel costs or piggy-back signings onto your personal travel. Or the publisher may ask you to set up a series of signings within a day’s drive of your home.

If you telephone the bookstore, ask for the person who handles signings, usually the manager or community relations coordinator (CRC). Introduce yourself, give the title of your book and the publisher’s name. Offer to do a presentation or demonstration with Q&a and a signing. The more useful or intriguing the presentation, the better your draw. At my signings for The Writer’s Little Instruction Book, the presentation which has drawn best is “How to Publish Something Every Ten Days.”

If you’ve arranged signings at stores in the same chain in that area, say so. If you haven’t been to the store, ask for directions and check the directions against a map. If you visit the store in person, show a copy of your book. Give the manager or CRC a flyer with endorsements and publishing information, and business cards for you and your publisher.

The manager or CRC will ask for the ISBN and check the store’s computer to see if your book can be ordered. If your publisher is using a regional distributor, give the distributor’s name and contact information.

Most signings are scheduled two or three months in advance. Telephone the bookstore at least a week in advance of your signing to confirm that they are expecting you and your books are in stock. Remember, you may be speaking with a clerk who has a line of people waiting at the cash register or a manager who has six things crashing in on her. You must remain patient, pleasant and professional with all your contacts in the bookstores. Still, you must make sure your books are in stock or on order. Be persistent but not pushy.

If you arrange a signing in a bookstore that publishes a newsletter, request a signing in the middle of the month. The calendar is usually not available until near the end of the previous month, so a signing early in the month might not get much advance notice. And by the end of the month, newsletter readers may have forgotten about your signing.

Before your signing, draft at least three sample inscriptions. An inscription is simply a personal message you write to accompany your autograph. I often use an excerpt from my book, such as, “No fair hiding stuff in the drawer,” for writers who are uneasy about sending their work out to market. Or, “Don’t deny the world your talent,” for reluctant writers.

Building an audience
In addition to offering presentations or demonstrations, you and your publisher can build an audience for your signings in several ways.

  • Arrange local radio and television interviews on the day of the signing, especially in smaller markets. For example, my publisher arranged appearances on KAIT-TV in Jonesboro, Arkansas, for each of two signings at Hastings Books-Music-Video, and several customers mentioned the interviews at my signings.
  • Loan the store one or two 8 x 10 counter signs with a photo of you and/or your book cover, with the caption, “Have you met our visiting author?”
  • As you travel, mention your appearance at motels, restaurants and shops, particularly on the day of the signing. At a small-town restaurant in Arkansas, I introduced myself to a teacher leading a group of high school students on a field trip. After lunch, she brought the whole troop over to my signing at a nearby bookstore.
  • Alert friends and relatives that you’ll be signing at a bookstore in their area. Even if they already have copies of your book, invite them to stop by. Las Vegas casinos sometimes use “shills,” house employees, to attract players to empty gaming tables. One or two friends examining your book and talking about it will help draw passers-by to your table.
  • Wear a “Visiting Author” name tag as you walk through the mall and whenever you take a break.

Don’t expect bookstores to promote your signings, but be prepared to offer suggestions. Depending on budget and the manager’s enthusiasm, the bookstore may:

  • Mail out postcards to your friends and relatives in the area, using address labels you provide.
  • Publicize your signing in the store’s newsletter or mailer.
  • Display a poster on the day of your signing and perhaps for several days in advance. Mall bookstores also will sometimes display posters at mall entrances and at the food court. You or your publisher provide the poster, or the bookstore may print it using your photo and cover flat.
  • Display a notice of your signing where your book is shelved.
  • Provide information on your signing to local media, especially the events calendar for local newspapers. At the Davis-Kidd Bookstore in Memphis, a store employee announced my signing on his weekly radio spot.
  • Include information about your signing in their regular advertising. Do not expect the store to place advertisements specifically to promote your signing.
  • Insert “bag stuffers” with customer purchases for several days prior to your signing.
  • Display your book at the cash register, help desk or “Staff Recommendations” shelf prior to your signing.
  • Make in-store announcements during your signing.
  • Mention your signing to customers at the cash register and help desk, particularly if your are not in a highly visible location.

At the signing
As I approached a BookStar outlet in Nashville, housed in a vintage movie theater, I was delighted to see my signing announced on the marquee. My name in lights!

Your reception at a bookstore will vary from wine-and-cheese, balloons, fresh flowers, linen tablecloths and scented candles to, “What is your book again? Let me see if we have it in the back room.”

When you arrive at the bookstore for your signing, introduce yourself to staff members but don’t intrude upon their work. The manager or CRC may not be on duty the day of your signing. Don’t expect someone to be there to hold your hand, unless you bring along your own personal hand-holder, which is not a bad idea.

Your host at the bookstore may present you with a gift in appreciation of your visit, perhaps a T-shirt, coffee mug, one-day discount or free beverages. Page One, an independent bookstore in Albuquerque, presented me with a distinctive pen with a southwest motif.

You may be asked to sign a guest book or pose for a photo (ask for a print!). The CRC at a Barnes & Noble outlet in Louisville invited me to sign a wall in the back office. Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas, asked me to sign one of her folding wooden chairs. All the slats on the chair signed by John Grisham were already taken, but what great fun!

During your presentation, invite questions and welcome passers-by to join in. If your appearance is for a signing only, ask for a set-up near the main entrance, cash register or help desk. In mall stores, ask to be set up at the entrance so you can engage passers-by.

Sit, don’t stand. Greet passers-by. “Hi, I’m signing my book today!” Invite passers-by to look at some specific feature of the book. Make eye contact. Ask questions of prospective buyers, related to your book. At signings for The Writer ‘s Little Instruction Book, I ask, “Are you writing something now? Is there someone in your life who writes? What kind of writing?” If nothing else, you can ask, “What are you reading these days?”

Be prepared for light traffic. There is no way of predicting success, but weekends are better than weekdays. Make no assumptions about who will buy. Make yourself approachable to everyone.

On one occasion, a bookstore scheduled a tarot card reader at the same time as my book signing. I was stationed at the entrance and she was buried in the back of the store. All afternoon, she was packing them in while I struggled. So it goes sometimes.

Be prepared for a wide variety of responses to you and your book. Ignore the negative; it likely has nothing to do with you. Remain courteous. Thank those who look but don’t buy. Some will return to buy, maybe just because you said, “Thanks for looking!”

Customers frequently ask, “Have you written anything else?” Or, “How much is your book?” Some will mistake you for a store employee and ask if you have a certain book. They also will ask, “Are these free?” and “Where are the restrooms?” One prospective customer looked over multiple copies of my book and asked, “Did you write all these?” Honest. But my favorite customer question at signings, asked more often than you would suppose, is “Did you write this book?”

Invite customers to sign your mailing list. If the customer buys the book as a gift, ask the customer to list the name and address of the person who will receive the book. Put a heading of PLEASE PRINT on the mailing list. Start it with a dummy entry, so your first customer does not appear to be the first.

Check the spelling of each customer’s or gift recipient’s name before inscribing the book. And check the customer’s address on the mailing list for legibility before the customer leaves your table.

Develop a code for different categories of buyers and note this on your mailing list. To gauge my market for The Writer’s Little Instruction Book, I classified each customer as teacher, writer, young writer, gift for writer or gift for young writer.

Before leaving, sign and attach “autographed-by-author” stickers on as many copies as the manager or CRC requests. Ask the manager or CRC if you may keep any posters announcing your signing; they make great gifts.

Take joy in the process?remind yourself that you are doing what you dreamed of doing as you wrote the book.

Follow-up to signings
Mail a handwritten thank-you note to your contact at the bookstore after each signing. Your publisher or editor may want to do so as weal. If you can, re-visit the stores where you’ve offered signings, say hello to staff members, and check on the display of your book. If your book is displayed spine out, turn it face out.

You will have to give up something in order to make time to promote your book. What’s usually given up is writing time. Be wary of giving up time with family and friends, or all your leisure time. Promotion is an insatiable beast. You will never be able to do all that is possible to promote your book. It is easy to get so caught up in promoting a book that you lose track of priorities. Set limits on the time you devote to promotion. Keep your balance.

And the best way to keep your sanity while trying to sell the darn thing is to write the next darn thing.

Check out Martin’s checklist for authors to review before a booksigning

Paul Raymond Martin is the author of The Writer’s Little Instruction Book: 385 Secrets for Writing Well & Getting Published (Writer’s World Press 1998). Known as “a writer’s writer,” he has published dozens of articles on writing and more than 200 stories, poems and nonfiction pieces. Among the awards he has won for his writing, Martin most treasures the Froggy statuette he was awarded by Scavenger’s Newsletter for his parody of a horror story, “Killer Frog at the ATM.”

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