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Book Publicity, Part 2: What Works & What Doesn't
If we want book publishing to change, we must be honest about book promotion.
Last week, I wrote the first installment of what does and does not work for book publicity. I’ll include additional publicity elements in today's newsletter and add marketing information. There will always be some people who disagree with my assessment, and that is okay. My approach to publicity and marketing is author-centered and sales-oriented. When you work for a publisher, the sales team wants a list of confirmed publicity to share with their accounts (bookstores and other retailers). The problem is that sales and their accounts aren’t necessarily looking at confirmed publicity through a lens of what will sell copies of a particular book. An issue I’ve encountered over the years is a disconnect between sales/their accounts and the current media landscape. I have gone head-to-head with many a sales director while working in-house because it was frustrating to sit through meetings and be told what publicity my staff should focus on for a book. You must spend time in the trenches to know what can boost book sales. You must also know what doesn’t increase sales to correct course.
As I wrote in last week’s newsletter, no one knows what will guarantee a book’s success. The following is a general overview taken from my three decades in the publishing industry. While it may not apply to all authors, it certainly applies to a large swath of them. I can’t emphasize this enough: If a publisher sees a long list of media bookings for an author but weak sales, they will hesitate to acquire the author’s next book. This is especially true if the book had a great cover, and the writing was top-notch. A good publisher will examine the media bookings and marketing, assess its effectiveness, and make an informed decision. Sales data doesn’t tell the whole story of a book’s publication.
Let’s dig in:
Author events are complicated. For years, book tours were the standard, and publishers shelled out a lot of money to make them happen. That has changed, and the pandemic is not the only culprit. Bookstores want people to attend events and buy books. Authors and publishers wish to do that, too. If you approach a bookstore about hosting an event, you should be prepared to tell them you have an audience willing to attend it. Here are some tips:
· Bookstores are stretched thin and can’t do every event that is requested. Don’t take it personally if a bookstore declines to host you.
· It’s never a bad idea to introduce yourself to your local bookseller.
· Before approaching a bookstore about an event, look at their online calendar to see who else is scheduled for events the week you would like yours. If a prominent author or celebrity is there the same week, chances are you won’t draw a crowd. Why? Because they’ve already spent money for a night out at another booksigning.
· Understand the consumer. People value their time. To attend a booksigning, most people must spend money on gas or public transportation, food, a babysitter, and a book. That’s expensive. If people spend money to go out, they want an experience, which brings me to the next.
· Make it interesting. I’m not saying to learn to juggle, but that isn’t a bad idea. If you can manage to be in conversation with someone notable, the event becomes more interesting.
· Think about why you want to do a booksigning. Generally, booksignings don’t translate into big book sales. It depends on the author, but I’d ask you to consider that book signings are no longer a rite of passage. There is no cost benefit to selling ten books at an event that costs you several hundred dollars in travel expenses.
· Do not do drop-in signings without consulting with your publisher. I am not a fan of drop-in signings (when an author is in town and decides to stop by bookstores randomly to sign copies of their book). They aren’t a good use of time, and often, bookstores either have a couple of copies of a book or no copies. The hard truth is that bookstores can only stock a certain number of titles. Yours may not be one of them.
· Virtual events don’t sell books.
· Don’t take it personally if a bookstore doesn’t know who you are. They deal with numerous authors.
· Be kind and considerate to the bookstore staff.
There was a time when we could send authors on book tours and schedule a full day of local media for them in the city they visited. Local press has been gutted over the past few years, so most cities have slim pickings. This also explains why publishers aren’t sending as many authors on tour. It’s not to say there isn’t any local media—there is—but the staff are small, and covering authors isn’t a priority. Last summer, I was in upstate New York and saw a front-page story about an author in a local newspaper. I was thrilled. Local media isn’t dead. It’s understaffed and underfunded.
Book Launch Parties
If you would like a book launch party, here is what you need to know:
· The publisher won’t pay much if they pay at all.
· Launch parties do not sell books.
· You won’t get a lot of media coverage. You may not get any media coverage. Media people will attend book parties for their colleagues and other high-profile authors. Still, even then, it’s not a guarantee they’ll show.
· It is tough to entice people to attend a book party.
· There are better ways to spend money to promote your book.
· If money isn’t an issue and you have nice friends have at it.
There are three book festivals I’d love to attend: The National Book Festival in D.C., the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in L.A., and the Miami Book Fair in Miami. They seem fun and always have great author events. There are several book festivals in the U.S. every year—some big, some small. I’m a proponent of them! They confirm authors early, so if you’re interested in participating in one of them, discuss it with your publicist. Here’s what you need to know:
· Book festivals want to know what you, the author, can bring to the event. The most effective way to participate is to be on a panel. Discuss what topics from your writing are ripe for discussion with your publicist/publisher.
· Publishers don’t always pay for authors to attend book festivals.
· Book festivals don’t usually pay for authors to attend.
· Booksignings at book festivals can be hit or miss because so much else is happening.
· Before discussing the possibility of attending a book festival with your publisher, look at the festival’s lineup from the previous year. Your panel discussion idea may have already been done.
· Don’t take it personally if you aren’t chosen to participate in a book festival. They receive more submissions than they can handle.
· Book festival events must draw an audience, so getting debut authors on panels takes much work.
Twitter (or X, as it is now called)
Twitter does not sell books. It is also ineffective for preorder campaigns; publishers must face that reality. The algorithm could be better, so even if you have 100K followers, they may not see your tweets. I’ve been on Twitter for 15 years and am spending less and less time there. If you have friends with substantial followings (over 200K), having them post about the book with a buy link might move some copies. I wouldn’t count on it, however.
This might come as a shock, but I am not down on Facebook. It is still a viable platform for book promotion if people take the time to connect with others in Facebook groups. Facebook ads are hit-or-miss. I haven’t seen significant sales conversions from them, but you can spend very little money to test an ad, and if it doesn’t work, it isn’t a considerable loss.
If you haven’t gone down the rabbit hole of BookTube, please do. I find it far more interesting than BookTok. It is becoming more popular with young people. You can read more about it here.
I haven’t done any campaigns with BookTube, but it works like BookTok in that influencers talk about books in videos. The difference is that YouTube videos are longer, so readers get meaty content about books. It’s worth exploring.
Some publishers have their own speaker’s bureau—Penguin Random House is one of them. If you want speaking engagements, you should explore the prospect of speaking agents. It is a competitive endeavor because any organization that pays authors to speak expects a polished, professional presentation. The topics are usually tailored to nonfiction books. Think: thought leadership, business, etc. A speaking agent will negotiate a contract and ensure books are part of the deal.
I have always said that whoever creates a database of every book club in the U.S. with contact information will be wealthy because every publisher would buy it. Bookclubs.com is an excellent place to peruse. There are also companies that market to book clubs. Publicists can’t pitch books to book clubs because they generally don’t want to be pitched. Authors should look at what titles are popular on Bookclubs.com, read the discussion guides, and talk to their agent/editor about whether their book is a good book club candidate. Tip: It is bad form for authors to infiltrate book clubs on their own.
Every streaming service now offers ad-supported subscription tiers. I’m not suggesting publishers should spend millions on Netflix advertising. However, exploring advertising options with other streaming platforms would be prudent. You’d be surprised how affordable Hulu ads are.
Host-read podcast ads are effective, but they are not cheap. Still, it is worth exploring podcast advertising. Consider the podcast's content and identify your audience before inquiring about ads.
NPR requires a minimum spend of over $15K for ad campaigns. They also have a self-serve ad option, which is worth exploring. It’s like advertising on Facebook: you can target an audience. The only consideration is that you can’t control where the self-serve ads will appear on NPR.
NPR affiliates (e.g., Northeast Public Radio, etc.) are affordable. I’d start with your region, see the results, and then expand to other areas. You can gauge results quickly: compare when your ads run versus book sales during that period.
Print advertising is the least effective form of book promotion. Those full-page ads you see in The New York Times Book Review? They are mostly ego-driven. They also cost over $20K. A full-page ad in People magazine? It cost six figures. Print ads are costly, and they don’t sell books.
This is a complex topic that I will write in-depth about at some point. The short answer is that a hefty publisher investment in Amazon advertising is effective. More to come on this.
I love newsletter advertising because it lands directly in the consumer’s email. Some newsletters to consider are the Washington Post’s Book Club newsletter by Ron Charles, The New York Times books newsletter, NPR books newsletter, Katie Couric’s newsletter, and Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper newsletter. These are also great places for book coverage. It is a newsletter world, and we live in it.
I’ve covered a lot in this edition of Publishing Confidential, and I hope it is helpful as you navigate the book world. I am an optimist about the book industry and have remained in it for a long time. I believe I’m more valuable in working on my own and collaborating with others doing the same. The industry needs transformation, and I hope my work sparks discussion.
What I’m Reading: I’m still reading Resist by Ava Harrison. I’m also reading a couple of manuscripts for new clients. You should read this article in The Atlantic about book piracy.
What I’m Watching: I’m writing this on Wednesday night, so I’ll watch the GOP debate at 9pm EST. It’s relevant to some work I’m doing.
What I’m Listening to: Here are some podcast recommendations: Otherppl (Brad Listi’s fabulous podcast), NPR’s Life Kit, On with Kara Swisher, Everything is Fine with Jennifer Romolini and Kim France, More or Less with Jessica Lessin, and Miss Understood with Rachel Uchitel (Forget what you think you know about Rachel—I’ve spoken with her several times and she is a really nice person and a very good podcast host.)
Where I’m Going: I’m a bit sad because I’m heading up to St. Bonaventure in Olean, NY on Friday to drop my eldest off for his sophomore year. I love the campus and school. Go Bonnies! The college years fly by. Sidenote: Ellicotville, NY is delightful and has a fantastic winery. If you want to order a great Riesling, that’s the place.