Thursday, July 7, 2011

Non-Obnoxious Book Promotion, Part Two

Originally, I hadn't planned on giving any "dos" and "don'ts" tips and advice on how to promote your book without being obnoxious. What I had in mind was re-framing the way I think about book promotion, taking into account the changing technology of book publication and distribution, as well as the hugely expanded conversation about books. To be honest, I don't have the answer as to what works and what doesn't. (I don't think anyone does, beyond pointing out things that are incredibly annoying, or things that have succeeded spectacularly for other people under special circumstances.) One of the worst aspects of relentless self-promotion is the gnawing insecurity it generates in others, as if failure to be spectacularly successful is your own fault. That sense of desperation is not only toxic, it's contagious. For me, a playful and cooperative approach helps defuse the pressure to follow someone else's strategy. One size does not fit all, especially at the cost of precious creative energy.

(I know what I feel comfortable with and what drives me nuts. I also am not big on rules, especially rules handed down by someone else. Whenever I read Authoritative Advice, I want to prove it wrong.) Here are a few ideas, as they pop into my brain.

If you're on a panel:
Avoid the "Wall'O'Books," a solid mass of every publication you have, often spilling over into the space of the panelists to either side. If you're next to a better-known author who merely mentions her latest release during the introductions, you'll look like an amateur and a braggart. Speaking of introductions, I heard Madeleine L'Engle say of herself on a panel: "I write books." That was it. Period. I thought, How incredibly classy. But then, you say, she's Madeleine L'Engle, who needs no introduction. I suspect that in many cases, the stature of the writer is in inverse relation to the number of books displayed. Most of us do well to give the audience something to go on, so wave about that gorgeous cover flat and then put it down. Let the audience see your face, not a blur of covers.

Please, please don't refer to your unpublished work as if the audience already knows it. In fact, it's better not to refer to it at all, unless in the service of a greater point. (For example, research methods.) Or if someone asks you specifically what you're working on, and then do be brief.

Remember that the panel is a conversation, not a series of monologs. Listening and asking follow-up questions creates an even better impression than steamrollering right over the other panelists. It's useful to assume the audience has not come to hear you, they've come to hear everyone else, so the more content you can add to the discussion, the better you establish yourself as a Person With Interesting Ideas.

When encountering fans elsewhere in the convention or bookstore, perhaps the most helpful piece of advice is to give them an opening to gracefully disengage. Exert no coercion. Start by having your pitch ready and polished, acknowledge the fan's interest, and give her a way to leave if she's not interested.
  • "Yes, I'm a writer.  My latest book is Twitch, a coming-of-age story in a world where the government has outlawed heterosexuality and rollerskating. Are you on your way to a panel, or do you have a moment to hear more?"
  • "Thanks for chatting with me. Would you like a bookmark to take away?"
  • "I appreciate your taking the time to listen. If you're interested, Borderlands in the dealer's room has signed copies and I'd be happy to personalize one for you."

On the internet:
Here's where I experience the greatest degree of "nobody knows what works" and "your tolerance may vary." There's so much you can do to create and develop "an internet presence." For myself, I need to be vigilant about time and energy boundaries or all my writing time can go into noodling around the blogosphere.

I think it's a good idea to compartmentalize: this is talking about my stories; that is talking about writing in general or politics or anything else besides my specific works. I get irate when I begin to read a post that promises to be an interesting discussion and ends up being a sales pitch. Don't bait and switch.

I like the idea of exchanging reviews, as long as they're honest opinions. Some people think it's internet favoritism, so don't do it if you're not comfortable. If a book isn't my cup of tea, I'm likely to politely decline to comment on it, although sometimes looking at what I don't care for leads to interesting stuff, better framed in a discussion of its own. I think it's fine to approach blog reviewers and offer them review copies. (Again, having a succinct pitch is a good idea.)

A variation of the "Wall'O'Books" is the sidebar or separate page with publications and purchasing links. I don't find this objectionable (in fact, it's often useful), so I do it myself. If you have a different experience and suggestions, do let me know!

Any other ideas of what works for you or what should be permanently banned?

The illustration is by Gerard Dou (1613 – 1674)


  1. Dang, I was hoping you'd say authors shouldn't have to do it at all because we all sound obnoxious hawking our own wares! Right now, even I'm tired of hearing me. But you're right and reasonable and I'll head back to the treadmill now.

  2. For me, that feeling of being sick of my own voice is a red flag that either I'm doing too much or doing the wrong things. Yes, there are aspects of this writerly business that feel more like work than others, but I try to limit those that do not feed me. Schmoozing with other writers and talking with fans -- telling impromptu stories -- leave me energized and charged up to write. When something makes me feel drained and weary, I might want to reconsider if that's healthy.