Monday, April 25, 2011

Guest Blogger Donna Gephart: 6 1/2 Thoughts on Marketing & Promotion

Now that I’ve sold three novels, I wish I could talk to myself when my first book came out.  I’d tell myself:

“Stop freaking out! People will read the book.  You will get amazing e-mails from young fans, teachers, librarians and old boyfriends.  You will even win a couple lovely awards.” 
To you, dear reader, I say, “Do what feels comfortable.  Say, “Yes” a lot.  Let people know about your book and about you as a speaker, then move on and write the next book.  If contemplating marketing and promoting gives you hives, think about the process as connecting and giving.”
Here are some examples from my experience that may be helpful:

School Visits:

When a friend told me a local middle school library was desperately in need of books, I gathered a bag of books our kids were not using as well as copies of my two novels and headed over there.  

The librarian and I hit it off immediately.  She was friendly and enthusiastic and really appreciated the donation of books.  When she found out I did school visits, she invited me to give a (paid) presentation to the entire sixth grade class (about 400 students) and sign books at the school’s book fair.
A win for both of us.

Since that time, I’ve gone in to help her encourage reluctant readers to find books they’ll enjoy.

Media Attention:

A friend, Janeen Mason, suggested I contact her friend, Marilyn Bauer, who writes a local arts column blog for an area newspaper.

Marilyn is lovely!  After she wrote about me, a reporter from that paper read my novel, How to Survive Middle School, enjoyed it and wrote a review in the newspaper, saying my book was good for both children and adults.  (He even posted the review on Amazon.)

A parent read that review and told her group about me when they were looking for a keynote speaker for an event they were hosting.  I spoke to that group about surviving parenting a middle schooler.
 Another time, I wrote to a local reporter, telling her how much I enjoy her weekly “Meet Your Neighbor” feature.  I’d been reading and enjoying it for years.  The reporter asked if I’d consider being featured in the newspaper.

Of course I agreed.  

After that article came out, I was contacted by several area schools about author visits.


I’ve been blogging since 2007. 

A favorite feature is my 6-1/2 list – a cleverly disguised guest blog.  Here are a few examples:
1.  Erin Murphy and author Audrey Vernick give great tips about how to elevate quiet books. 
2.  Cynthia Leitich Smith discusses How to Promote Your Book Like a Pro 
3.  Cynthia Lord shares tips on creating great school visits.

Don’t blog in a vacuum.  Follow and comment on other blogs.  Doing guest blog posts is a great idea because it gives you the opportunity to connect with new readers.  Thanks, Robin!

Your Book is Your Best Promotion Tool:

When you hear the advice, “Write the best book you can,” there’s a reason.  Once your book comes out, it must stand on its own merits.  Take my word for it, you’ll be glad you spent that extra time revising. 
 My first book, As if Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President! had a lot of support from Random House.  They flew me to Philadelphia to meet with influential librarians at a cocktail party during ALA.  They promoted the book in print.  They even gave out “Vote for Mom” buttons at a few large shopping malls across the country.
With all that support from Random House plus all my promotional efforts, the book did NOT break any sales records.
But instead of spending all my time and energy promoting that book, I did exactly what I was supposed to do.  I wrote the next book.

ARCs of How to Survive Middle School were sent to reviewers by Random House.  That’s it.  I sent out an e-mail letting people know my book was out.  And not a whole lot more.

Guess what?

How to Survive Middle School got starred reviews right out of the gate.  It landed on the Texas Lone Star Reading List.  

Before long, I got the happy news that it had gone into its FIFTH printing and sold out its advance.  And it hasn’t even been out a year.

That had very little to do with what I or Random House did to promote it.

It was the book not than the promotion that made those things happen.

So, here are my 6-1/2 tips for you: 

1.  Write the best book you can.

2.  Spend as much time as needed to revise and polish your book. 

3.  Instead of thinking about what you’d like to get (book sales), think about what you can give -- your time, advice, expertise, etc. 

4.  Connect in ways that feel comfortable and meaningful.  Blogs, FB, Twitter, school visits, library workshops, articles for magazines – whatever works for you.

5.  Don’t be shy.  Let your friends, family and colleagues know about how excited you are about your new book.  Give out your business cards liberally.  Include your book and Web site/blog information in your signature line on every e-mail you send out. 

6.  If you’re introverted, get thee to Shrinking Violet Promotions. (Ha! We didn't even pay her to say that!)

6-1/2.  Here’s the most important advice.  My agent reminds me of it every now and again.  Don’t get so caught up in worrying about sales and marketing and promotion that you neglect to do the most important thing for a long, healthy writing career:  WRITE THE NEXT BOOK.

Donna Gephart tries to remember to WRITE THE NEXT BOOK from her home in South Florida.  Her newest book, Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, about a girl determined to get on the TV quiz show, Jeopardy!, comes out in 2012.  Visit Donna online at

Monday, April 18, 2011

Debut Novel Expectations

Dear R. L.

My debut middle grade novel has been out for a few months now, and I must say, the initial numbers are discouraging. It makes me wonder if I had unrealistic expectations in the first place. What are reasonable expectations for a debut middle grade novel? Can you share some thoughts on what a successful debut might look like?

This is such a great question that I thought I’d talk about it here, because so few debut authors have any idea on what to expect, either experience-wise or sales-wise. This is made even worse by the fact that so much of official marketing and promotion is about smoke and mirrors: it’s about making the book look more popular and ‘must-have’ than perhaps it really is.

So how can authors possibly gauge how well their book is doing? As we've touched on in a couple of recent posts (one by agent Erin Murphy and another by Sarah Prineas) there are so very many expectations a publisher might have for a book, and how success is defined by your publisher (and therefore you, to some degree) will depend upon those.

Middle grade novels in particular, rarely come out of the gate with the same big splash potential that YA novels can engender. I’m trying to think if any middle grade debut novels have ever hit a bestseller list. J. K. Rowling did, and so have Rick Riordan and Jeff Kinney, but not right out of the gate with their first book. Their first books did get there eventually, but it took a while. Okay, I just quickly consulted the PW 2010 Kid's Book Sales list and there are two: Big Nate by Lincoln Peirce and The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angelberger.

This is in large part because the end user isn’t the one buying the books, and is, in fact, not very plugged into the information streams along which books news travels. It takes a while to get word out to the gatekeepers, and then passed from the gatekeepers on to young readers. Younger middle grade novels can take even longer to find their audience because their niche is so specialized (emerging, independent readers) who stay at that reading level for only a short while.

Some publishers know this and actually plan for it, knowing there will be a slow-but-steady build for a given title. Other publishers, however, do still acquire books intending to use the Spaghetti Against the Wall approach (throw a bunch of stuff out there and see what sticks). Which is one of the reasons you hear so many insistent voices saying that the authors themselves must promote, promote, promote. And why others insist that authors write such a kick @ss book that the publisher will be compelled to do something different.

Part of your expectations will have to do with the size and nature of your publisher. Some publishers are big, bestseller producers, some are more backlist builders, and others are small independent publishers trying new things. This is where the advice and knowledge of an agent can be invaluable—recognizing what sort of book yours is, then matching it to the right type of publisher.

With middle grade especially, the first book is about laying the groundwork for your career. Because middle grade builds much more slowly, there are less flashy initial expectations. Especially when in hardback, the biggest initial consumers for these books are libraries and schools, and the wheels of book purchasing in institutions move slowly.

With the huge popularity of YA, the sales expectations for those books often come closer to the immediate gratification expectations of the adult book market.

The most commonly mentioned gauge of success for books is earning out the advance. Most publishers of middle grade books will be very happy if the author earns out the advance in the first 12 months. Some are happy if it earns out in the first 12-18 months. To know how many copies your book will have to sell, divide your advance by the per book royalty rate. If your book sells for $15.99 and your royalty rate is 8%, that’s a $1.28 per book. If your advance was $7,500, you need to sell about 6,000 copies to earn that back. If you get a $2,000 advance, your sales expectations are probably more in the 1500 copy range.

However, I have also heard that publisher can make money even if your advance doesn’t earn out, but I’m guessing that is for the larger advance amounts. I really don’t know where that profit/no profit line is for any publisher or specific book.

Many times with middle grade books, publishers will give an author a couple of books to build their readership, again because the advances tend to be lower and it takes a while for the gatekeepers to become aware of the books. They also know that if readers like your second book, they will often go back and look for your first book. Note that this is not a rapid trajectory to the bestseller lists, but a slow steady way to begin building a career.

This also gives you the time to lay the groundwork/foundation of your promotional efforts through making contact with librarians and schools, doing a few visits, building your new skill set. Very little of this can be done prior to having the book out, and then these connections don’t bear fruit overnight, so again, slow and steady is the keyword here.

Another thing to keep in mind here is that, unlike adult books, which are usually given about six weeks to take off, there are many opportunities for upticks in sales for kids books. State lists, reading lists, book club sales, book fair sales, etc. all provide additional chances for something good to happen. (Can you tell I'm an optimist?)

If you have an agent, see if they can have a conversation with your editor about what in house expectations are. If the editor isn’t forthcoming, then you will just have to rely on the first print run numbers being the best indicator of their expectations. 

To show your publisher that you are, indeed, using this time to build your career, make up an overview of everything you are doing or have scheduled to promote your book. I would update them every six months on this so you keep them in the loop but don’t overwhelm.

And lastly, write that next book and see what ways you can push yourself and grow as a writer and make it even better than the first.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Twelve Tips For Twitterphobes

It is no great secret that it took me a while to warm up to Twitter. And I am fully aware that I have probably not maximized it’s effectiveness in terms of marketing and promotion potential.

We talked last week about how it can be really important for introverts to learn to master skills they aren’t comfortable with before deciding certain activities aren’t for them; how competence can make you far more comfortable with an activity, which in turn might surprise you by actually being something you like.

So today’s post is for those of you out there who haven’t yet tried Twitter or who have given up on it or who are just plain flummoxed by it. Yes, I think one can have a perfectly fine marketing/promotional strategy without it, but as with most things, it’s best to fully understand and be comfortable with a tool before deciding not to use it.

Twelve Tips for Twitterphobes

1.  If you’re not comfortable with the idea of a broadcast medium, don’t use it that way. Use it as a way to connect with other readers and writers on subjects that are of interest to you.

2.  Do NOT pay attention to follower numbers. Remember, you're not using it as a tool just yet. You're simply exploring it as an option and getting comfortable with it.

3.  Pick some role models of big, successful Tweeters you admire and study their strategy. Some of mine are Mitali Perkins, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Meg Cabot (I love that as successful and ‘big’ as she is, she follows everyone back.) It’s just such an inclusive strategy.

4.  Try to talk a buddy or critique partner or two into doing it with you. That way you will have someone to have a conversation with.

5.  Practice in private. Before going official, practice making small random observations and wry, ironic quips about life and jotting them down. And they don’t really even have to be ironic. Entertaining or relatable also work. I know it’s a big joke how everyone doesn’t need to know about what you had for breakfast, but honestly, sometimes those posts—wittily expressed or touching on the human condition in general—generate the biggest amount of conversation.

6.  Find friendly people to follow. They don’t necessarily have to be people who follow you back, but people who at least respond to @theirname replies are good. It's easy to get one's feelings hurt to keep trying to connect with someone and have them ignore you, so just realize they're on Twitter for different reasons than you and move on to friendlier people with similar goals.  

7.  Just play with it for five minutes each day (it doesn’t have to be more than that initially) to scan the tweets of the people you follow. See if you can find just one thing that’s interesting enough to retweet.

8.  To get started, you can ease into it by simply giving a shout out to a book you’ve recently read and enjoyed. If the author is on Twitter, you can say Just finished The Second Duchess by @elizabethloupas and loved it. (Which is mostly true, btw, only I haven't quite finished it yet. DO love it, though!)

9.  If you read blogs or news sites or anything on the web, try linking to just one article you think others might find of interest. (To save characters, you can link using bitly or owly.)

10. One of the things that kept hanging me up was if we all follow each other, and we all retweet the same tweet that we find interesting, there’s a lot of overlap, but that’s just the way it works, so I had to let go of that repeating ourselves thing.

11.  Not sure who to follow? Pick a peer or acquaintance and check out their follower list. Or pick an author you admire and see who they follow. There are also tons of lists out there that you can peruse. there are also Twitter directories where you can list yourself and your interests, as well as see who else shares your interest. Organizations such as SCBWI or Publisher's Weekly or Zen Moments are also fun and informative to follow.

12.  Also? If you have a couple of separate interests, say in addition to being a writer, your day job is as a teacher, and look for people from both groups to follow and connect with, for that is the strength of Twitter: it’s ability to connect and tap into previous un-connected groups of people.

And that’s it. I can’t promise you fame, fortune, and unlimited book sales, but I can safely say if you give yourself two months, you will find that you are much more comfortable with it—and then you can make an informed decision if it is really for you.

Anyone else out there have some good tips for Twitterphobes?

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Uniquely Introverted Approach?

In the comments a couple of week’s ago, someone said they were still looking for a uniquely introverted approach to being an author rather than settling for Extrovert Lite, and I thought that was an interesting point. It got me to thinking, what would a uniquely introverted presence look and feel like? Is there a way to craft presence that is truly based on introvert strengths and not Extrovert Lite?

If one’s idea of an introvert presence is to have to do absolutely no engaging or connecting, the answer is probably not. One exception to this might be if you wrote such a dynamic, compelling kick @ss book that the publisher gets behind it in a BIG way and does all the heavy lifting for you. Even then, they will most likely want you to have some presence, some way of your readers to find you, a web site, a Facebook or Twitter account, or a blog. But how you use them is up to you.

So how does an introvert take these tools and use them wholly in their own way?

I think part of that answer is to use them with a different end in mind; to connect with readers rather than to draw and create new readers. It is a small thing really, a shift in perspective, but one that is based solidly in the introvert’s personality and strengths.

Introvert strengths that can be used to connect with readers are:
1. We are good at connecting deeply and meaningfully with people.
2. We like to think and talk about big, important things and ideas. Not chit chat, but deep conversations.
3. While we do like to connect with people, it needs to be in keeping with our own energy levels. This is why the internet is such a huge breakthrough for introverts.

So we build our marketing presence on those three principles. In fact, it will not so much be a marketing presence but more about creating opportunities to connect. It might seem like a matter of semantics, but it radically shifts the focus and the goal of what you’re doing—and that goes a long way to taking it out of the Extrovert Lite category and putting it solidly into the Truly Introvert category.

The thing is, if you’re a writer, I’m guessing that means you had something to say, something that compelled you to give voice to the ideas and thoughts in your head. Connecting in an introverted way is simply about extending that at the edges, just a little bit.

As an introvert:
DON’T pay attention to numbers and visitor counters.
DON’T promote your work or put a scintilla of pressure on yourself to shill your books.
DON’T feel  like the focus has to be all about you.

DO pay attention to each reader that stops by—answer their comments, create a relationship.
DO have your book cover and title and appropriate links somewhere on your site or FB page, just as one additional aspect of who you are.
DO focus on and talk about things that move you, things that you care about and are passionately involved in. Chances are, those issues touch your work in some way and can be a faintly connecting thread.

As for what tools are best suited to introverts, well, I know there are many introverts out there who enjoy Twitter, but an equal number find it distressing. Luckily, there are many other ways to connect. I am one who prefers Facebook to Twitter (although I am on both) because it is mutual and it is less about connecting in real time and just about connecting. It suits my own personal rhythms better.

Blogging is also good because it allows us to have deep, lengthy conversation, rather than quick, shallow sound bytes, which I am not so fond of.

Skyping is my new favorite thing and will, I think, allow introverts to connect in a big way with their younger readers. There is something very intimate about sitting at home in front of your computer with a group of twenty, eight year olds sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor. It feels much more like a conversation than a presentation and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I also highly recommend finding someone to practice with Thank you, Sarah! Thank you, Gbemi!)

In fact, I think that is the secret to getting comfortable with any extroverted activity: practice, practice, practice until it is second nature. You just have to speak in public, network, give a presentation, tell someone your elevator pitch often enough that it is smooth and practiced and all the bumps and kinks are worked out.

When one is lacking a natural affinity for something, rock solid knowledge and familiarity can be a helluva great substitute.

The thing is though, the true trick, is to not give up before you’ve achieved at least technical mastery. That is the secret to Toastmasters—you just stand up and speak in front of people so freakin’ often that you’ve gotten used to it.

It is also hugely important to keep in mind that there are an entire array of non-internet based marketing tools out there, so if any sort of socializing feels like too much, consider one of those. Targeted postcard mailings, extensive ARC and author copy mailings to key libraries, schools, and indie booksellers. For just about the best outline of these sorts of activities, I highly recommend Saundra Mitchell’s Tools for Writers here and here. For an introvert who is just not interested in any sort of connecting or socializing, that might be the most effective use of your time and energy.

I also think that, as an introvert, it is extraordinarily easy to take a lack of comfort with an activity and label it as extroverted. For many introverts, transitions and learning in public is not a comfortable thing. But that is different than not actually enjoying the activity itself, so maybe pick an activity or two and give yourself time to master it to the point of familiarity and competence and see if that changes your view at all.

The thing to keep in mind is that there ARE introverts out there who like to do things that other introverts don’t. So to say that including any of those activities is the equivalent of catering to Extrovert Lite isn’t exactly accurate. There are social, energetic, enthusiastic, communicative introverts out there.  We can learn from them.

Anne Lamott goes out there, warts and all, and is completely authentic; interestingly, one of the things people love most about her is her absolute honesty and vulnerability.

No one can tell me John Green isn’t an introvert. I also find it fascinating that his huge internet presence came out of simply inviting others to participate in the genuine connection between he and his brother. There’s a big lesson there.

Mitali Perkins is an introvert, yet she is a big user of social media—but she uses it to be involved in matters she is hugely passionate about, to connect with readers and writers, and people who care about the same things she does.

Suzanne Collins, Meghan Whalen Turner, Kristen Cashore, all have very quiet internet presences. They’ve also written amazing books that have done very, very well. But even then, Collins ended up having to go on tour to connect with her fans and Cashore speaks and reads at a huge number of events. She even talks about her road to getting comfortable with that, something that did not come easily to her. Turner seems to have been able to maintain a very quiet presence, but she is also a Newberry Medalist, so there is that.

Another approach to help you develop and maintain a more uniquely introverted presence online is to take a cue from Elizabeth Gilbert. A couple of years ago, Mary posted about how Gilbert’s technique of telling her story to just one particular person in her mind, garnered millions of readers.

Most introverts not only have that ability—to talk meaningfully with one person—but actually enjoy that activity. Find out what sorts of conversations you enjoy having, then find a way to gently and quietly bring them to your author presence.

The thing is, the internet is an amazing tool. An important thing to keep in mind is it doesn’t have to be wielded at full blare in order to be effective.

I would love to hear of any people you think have created a uniquely introverted presence, or ideas, suggestions, or tips you have that would help someone do that.