The first time I ever appeared in a bookstore to promote a book, it was my first novel, Lyrec, and by the end self-immolation was starting to sound reasonable. In the two hours I sat at a table in the front of a mall bookstore, perhaps a dozen people paused at the table. Most of the passersby responded to my placement as they would have to strolling past the monkey house at the zoo–the slow scan that figures out what you are and then just wants to make certain you’re not about to fling poo in their direction. I’m sure I thought, “Wow, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
The thing about doing this sort of promotion is, it’s kind of analogous to writing the book in the first place, in that you are putting yourself out there. As my esteemed colleague, Mr. McGoran, has pointed out in his own post, it’s some kind of act of bravery just to show what you’ve written to someone whose judgment matters to you. Sitting in a bookstore like this is if anything more crippling than having someone you’ve entrusted privately with your soul say “You know, the pacing’s kind of off.”
Thing is, if you go out and interact with the public, sooner or later you will have this kind of experience. Do not for a moment let yourself pretend that you won’t. I know of best-selling authors who’ve sat in big chain bookstores for three hours and sold exactly two books for their trouble. I know one New York Times bestselling thriller writer who showed up at a Borders store for his signing and was led into the back office to meet the manager and assistant manager who proceeded to begin interviewing him for a job: He had a scheduled appearance there and the management of the store didn’t even know his name. If you can beat that story, go ahead. I can’t.
The point is, where self-promotion is concerned (and in today’s publishing world 90% of your promotion is going to be self-promotion unless you’ve become a major best-selling author), understand that none of this is an assessment of a)how well you tell a story, or b)what sort of person you are. Small authors can have signings with a large turnout. Big authors can bomb on tour. The likelihood, however, is that with bookstore events you will suffer more indignities than you will triumphs where your hand gets tired from signing your name. Bookstore events are unreliable at best–even when you, the publisher, and the bookstore have all done your jobs in preparation.
There are, however, a few things you should consider. First, think of yourself as the brand you want to sell. What impression do you want to leave your potential readers with? Should they been meeting a person dressed in a three-piece suit with a gold watch fob, or a Hawaiian shirt, jeans, and chukka boots? Should the surface be slick and shiny or should you look like you just rode in on the noon stage? Seriously, depending on what you are promoting, both of those could be viable impressions.
Second, don’t just sit there are some poor schlub. Get up and step in front of your table. Or perch on the corner of it and greet people. Or better still, bring someone along with you who has no problem with walking around and handing out fliers and announcing that you, the great and powerful Oz, will be signing copies of your spectacular book(s)!
The thing about signing books that’s true of marketing yourself in general is that you want to be distinct and distinguished. Ask yourself if there’s something you can do in your promotion that nobody else is doing right now. Some years back at fantasy and science fiction conventions, I found that I got a much bigger audience for my readings when I let it be known that there would be a bottle of good scotch on hand for the listeners. Yes, they have to sit and listen to me, so I’d better have an act worth hearing–but that’s a much more interesting challenge than is trying to decide if an audience of one person to whom you’re married really qualifies as a reading.
My pal Robert Crais talked about this process of promotion to a group of my students once. Bob explained that back when the idea of having a website was new, he and Janet Evanovich were two of the first mystery writers to put theirs up, and it promoted them way out in front of everybody else. Likewise when blogging caught fire, it was smart to have a blog. Nowadays, while you still need a web presence and in all likelihood a blog, you’re just one among thousands and thousands of competing voices. So we have book trailers now, and already every book that comes out feels as if some little snippet of video must be tied to it, promoting it, and so once again that’s not going to make you stand out in the crowd. The question is, as it has always been, how do you promote yourself effectively to the audience you want to have? And the answer, as always, will remain a moving target. The thing to remember, though, is don’t take it personally when an event or promotional scheme doesn’t work. You wrote a damn fine book. Keep that in mind when you interface with your audience and make sure they can feel that, too.
Gregory Frost is the eminent , vivacious author of the highly regarded Shadowbridge duology for adults and young adults, the dark fantasy novel Fitcher’s Brides, and 5 more books besides. His latest short story is “The Comeuppance of Creegus Maxin,” for the Young Adult anthology, The Beastly Bride (Viking). Frost has just been interviewed regarding this story here. His website is www.gregoryfrost.com
This post is part of an ongoing series by members of The Liars Club about writing and publishing. Check out prior posts–after all, we wouldn’t lie. Or you could subscribe to this site…