and Other Secrets of the Trade
Book Marketing for Independent Publishers
by Jessica Powers
When I started my job at Cinco Puntos Press, I didn’t have the slightest idea how to do marketing and publicity. Even if I did, the publishing business was a complete mystery to me. I didn’t know what I was getting into and I wasn’t certain I had what it took. I had a few skills, which had served me well as a graduate student: I could read and write and edit. I knew how to use the computer and do research. I could make small talk with almost anybody you might imagine. And I knew I was smart enough to learn other skills.
It turns out I had everything you need to market books and to market them well.
It’s All About the Relationship
The most fundamental aspects of marketing are pretty mundane. “There’s a number of very, very boring things you have to keep in mind, like consistency,” says Mike O’Connor of Insomniac Press in Toronto, Canada. “Hone relationships with bookstores and various publications. Keep people up to date with what you’re doing.”
This is probably the most fundamental aspect of marketing—developing relationships. If that seems like a waste of time to you, you’re in the wrong business.
“There is no substitute for the ability to call a critic or any member of the media to tell them about a project you are excited about,” says Ira Wood, publisher of Leapfrog Press. “They may choose not to cover it, and this you must accept graciously, because there is always a next time.” He adds that marketing is not about getting coverage for one specific project. “Remember, a book is only Front list for one season; it may have years of Back list life. What the media may not cover today, they may discover tomorrow...but if you do not have a relationship with them, you don't have a chance.”
Building relationships is time-consuming, but it’s cheap and that’s one thing that all independent publishers need to keep in mind. Whatever else marketing plans might entail, no matter how much time marketing takes, it should not cost a lot of money.
“There’s all sorts of ways [to save money],” says O’Connor. “A lot of it relies on maintaining relations with the media and things like that, finding out what they need, what they’re looking for, how you can help them find what they’re looking for. Review copies are cheaper than buying a full-page ad in the New York Times.”
The Book Review:
Just How Important Is It?
Ah, yes, the ubiquitous book review, one of the most important elements of marketing books. But, and here’s the catch, are they ubiquitous? And does anybody actually read them?
“Review space is shrinking,” declares Alexander Taylor of Curbstone Press. “If you’re in a major commercial house and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising, they can hardly afford to overlook you. It’s not surprising when you surf the web on Sunday, everybody’s reviewing the same book. That’s the result of massive marketing monetary power.”
The solution for a small press without a lot of money is, once again, found in the power of personal relationships. “We try to spend a very great amount of time talking to reviewers, visiting with reviewers, following up,” says Taylor. “But these reviewers are suffering from burn-out because many of these places are cutting their staff. There’s stress and slippage so it’s even more important now to follow up, not just send the book out. You have to figure out which reviewers want to be emailed, which don’t, etc. We try to keep track of their preferences and see as many of these reviewers as possible. You’re an advocate of your writer in this way. Someone once accused me of sitting on a reviewer’s desk until he said yes, but that’s an exaggeration.”
Okay, so if they’re not ubiquitous, are they effective? Taylor admits, “Reviews don’t have as much impact as they did 20 years ago. We’ve had books reviewed 65 times and we still don’t sell the 4000-5000 copies [that we print]. So imagine how many they’d sell if we didn’t have those reviews.”
In other words, they may not have the desired results, but they’re better than nothing or, to put it more strongly, they’re still the best marketing tool we have.
Don’t Forget the Back of the Book
Believe it or not, when Cinco Puntos Press had events for librarians and school teachers, many of those individuals would discuss our latest book covers with me—whether they liked it, whether they didn’t, why they liked it, why they didn’t. I had never realized how much people noticed the book cover until those parties.
Marketing begins before the book is even printed. A good book cover will help sell books.
“When we first started Curbstone,” says Taylor, “we were just English majors. What did we know about business? So we went to booksellers and we said, ‘We really need some guidance, we need some help,’ and the first thing they told us was that we needed better covers. The cover is the first thing people see. Since then, we’ve spent a lot of time on our covers, and people have told us they can recognize a Curbstone book by the design. That’s an important lesson to learn early—your books have to be attractive enough to get people to pick them up and know.”
While you’re at it, don’t forget the back of the book either.
“We do our best to get good blurbs for the covers,” says Taylor. “A blurb from a major writer will attract attention, though they’re difficult to get. We’ve been fortunate in getting Maxine Hong Kingston and Grace Paley to give us blurbs, but that’s because they buy into our mission, they like what we’re doing. Testimonials that this is worth reading is an important way to increase readership.”
Readings and Performances
Authors may not always understand the impact readings can have on sales, in an indirect way. Although turnout may be small, and writers don’t often get paid for such readings, any publicity is good publicity.
Ira Wood says one of the most successful books he ever marketed was The German Money by Lev Raphael. “Lev was the most active, savvy and energetic author I've ever worked with. More than a year before The German Money was released we sent out beautiful mailings to every Jewish community center in the country in order to get Lev invited to some of the hundreds of Jewish Book Fairs around the country. Lev ended up with a 30-city tour, and of course, each visit had media interviews, author breakfasts, book store signings—whatever we could tack on—associated with it. The book became a BookSense 76 Pick for the Christmas/Hanukah season, got fabulous reviews (and a lot of them). As a consequence we're publishing another book of his next season, Secret Anniversaries of the Heart, a collection of 25 of his best short stories.”
Wood’s success story is just one example of how important readings are for getting the word out. It is sometimes important to emphasize this to writers—the fact that they need to give as many readings as possible, even if they don’t get paid for it.
But giving a reading in a bookstore is only one piece of the “readings” pie.
“We have writers come in to talk to the high schools,” says Alexander Taylor. “We have one major high school we work with. We bring in 8-10 writers a year for workshops and they work with the kids on writing as well as being role models, since our writers are multicultural. Ninety percent of the teachers in our surveys have said that it significantly contributes to the curriculum. But it’s hard to measure spiritual things!” He laughs. “How many kids when they grow up say, ‘Oh, that one person turned my life around.’ Still, you can un-become something. Luis J. Rodriguez was here and one student came over and said, ‘I want you to know I was going to join a gang this Friday, but now I’m not going to after hearing you speak.’ That doesn’t often happen, but that’s an amazing result.”
For Curbstone Press, the program in the schools contributes to sales directly. First of all, they get government grants that pay for writers to give school workshops. Second, the grants pay for copies of the writers’ books, which are given free to the students. “We give over 2000 copies away,” says Taylor, “so it becomes a sale in a way and the authors get royalties from those books. But the other aspect is that these kids share those books with their parents—we’re better known here because of our programs than because of our publications, in our particular community at least.”
These programs are an important part of marketing. Although the publicity may not be as direct as an advertisement for a particular publishing company’s book, or a specific book review, “It’s all mixed up because funding follows publicity,” says Taylor. “We’ve gotten some major grants because people have talked about the impact of these programs. I encourage all non-profit presses to do this.”
Create a Literary Newsletter
(And Get An Intern or Two to Boot)
One of Curbstone’s successful strategies has been to create a newsletter, INK, which serves as a marketing tool but is more interesting to read than a catalog description of the books.
“We make INK more literary than commercial,” says Taylor, “but it’s still something. It goes to 15,000, people and that’s a way to build name recognition for the entire list, but we also try to present in an interesting way what the books are about. We use interviews, poetry excerpts—surprisingly, some of those interviews are republished later on. We give people blanket permission to re-use what’s in INK. I think that’s important. In this age of media culture, we can have an author talk at length.”
If this seems like one more list of things to do on an already overwhelming list of things, Curbstone’s solution is for interns to create the newsletter. Though interns don’t get paid, they get college credit for their time at the press. Allowing them to write, edit, and print INK means that the newsletter doesn’t take away from any full-time employee’s usual tasks.
Guerilla Marketing: Above All, Be Creative
Marketing is about relationships, book reviews, and readings, but it’s also about fearlessness, claims Mike O’Connor. “Don’t be afraid [to do something that seems weird],” he says. “If there’s some sort of opportunity to promote the book, go out there and do it even if other people aren’t doing it. For instance, we published a book of poetry by a performance group called AWOL Love Vibe. They were very much into voodoo, so we put together a charm, a kind of chant, to promote book sales. [We claimed that] if you played this in your bookstores, it would increase your book sales tremendously. And it worked, as long as they kept playing the chant. We also sent out voodoo chants to prevent low returns. People could also write in and put together love or hate charms.”
Insomniac Press seems to specialize in unusual marketing plans. “A couple of years ago, we published a collection called The Necrophiles,” says O’Connor. “Oddly enough, the author was a semi-professional mud wrestler. So for the launch, she wanted to mud wrestle and read from the book at the same time. She memorized the work and as she wrestled, she read from it.”
Not every press is willing to create voodoo charms or allow their writers to mud-wrestle at the same time as they “read” from the book that’s just been published. These sorts of marketing strategies or book launches are certainly different, and creative, though they might not qualify as “guerilla marketing,” which can be defined as doing anything it takes to sell a book without spending a single penny.
Guerilla marketing, says O’Connor, is “ground level” marketing and tailored to the individual book. “You’re trying to take an audience by surprise in some way where they least expect a book to turn up or that particular book to turn up. Guerilla marketing has that element of surprise as one of the prevailing characteristics.”
In other words, encourage all of your authors to do what it takes to get books in the hands of potential buyers.
I didn’t know it was guerilla marketing, but shortly after my hiking guide was published, I went into the local Barnes and Noble, removed a couple copies of the book from the “local authors” section, and placed them face outwards in the hiking section. True, I was a local author, but I didn’t think people who were looking for hiking guides to the region where I live would necessarily be looking for it in the local authors section.
Don’t Give Up, But Don’t Be A Pest
There may be a lot of things to do in order to market a book, but there is just one simple thing not to do.
“You never want to give up...but you never want to be a pest,” says Wood. “To many members of the media, a publicist is like an adolescent boy who wants to score. His burning desire is to get into bed, his hormones are raging...much like a publicist who craves a review. Better always to become a friend, build a relationship. Hang around. Be trusted. You'll get your media attention eventually, if not for this project then for another. A NO is a NO. Just make sure you remain friends.”
“The critic you annoy, the reporter you pester, the 'big name' you attack, the arts editor you lie to when promising an exclusive, are NOT going away,” he adds. “They'll be there next year, for your next campaign, and they won't forget you.”
A Book is Like a Child
The truth about marketing is that there are no secrets. Everybody does the same thing except occasionally when someone has a stroke of genius. The most important thing to remember with marketing is not to neglect your book once it’s published.
“A book is like a child,” says O’Connor. “It’s going to do things that you’re kind of embarrassed about, that make you angry, and it will go off and live its own life and every once in awhile you’ll hear back from it and be amazed where it has gone and what it has done. It takes on a life of its own. But you do have to actively promote it. You don’t turn a child into the street and say, ‘Good luck!’ What do you think is going to happen?” He laughs. “You take care of it, do the best you can, and sometimes, it really surprises you, but first, you gotta do the legwork.”
Jessica Powers is a freelance writer who lives in the tiny corner of the U.S. where New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico meet. She may be reached for comments at jlpowers at evaporites.com. You can read her African History column at www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/african_history.