The hardest part of our job as writers is to become known, to connect with our readers or potential readers. No matter how big or small your publisher, your marketing budget has finite limits. With small publishers, though, it’s particularly difficult—not only doesn’t the publisher pay for much in the way of publicity or promotion, but advances are so small that it’s difficult to decide where to spend that hard-earned money.
The man who first piqued my interest in writing fiction was John Nichols, author of The Sterile Cuckoo. Back in my college years, before he published The Milagro Beanfield War, I took a creative writing course from John. He told the class about how he’d become a novelist. It all sounded so easy and romantic—write a book, sell it to a publisher and watch it become an instant best-seller, reap the financial rewards of a movie deal and move to Taos and contemplate your next novel. John’s experience, of course, was as harsh as it was romantic.
While trying to find a publisher for my first novel, I used to joke with people about living a scenario similar to the one outlined above. What fascinated me was that when my first novel finally was published, people naturally assumed that my advance would allow me to purchase a villa in Provence and live the high life. Most of us know how far from the truth that is.
So, how to budget for marketing? For my next book, I put on my PR agency account executive hat and developed a plan, including pre-publication activities like sending out ARCs to mystery magazines, major metro daily newspapers and online reviewers the publisher doesn’t cover, developing press kit and book club materials to send out, and writing articles for pubs like Mystery Scene; publicity activities like a publication announcement press release, a book release notice to online sites, social networks and interested pubs like alumni magazines; the usual promotional stuff like sending post cards to bookstores and libraries; and post-pub activities like setting up bookstore signings and attending conferences.
Most of these tactics are relatively inexpensive, but add them up and they start to run into real money. I asked someone who specializes in promoting authors what I was missing, how I could create more “buzz.” She responded:
“…it would be good for you to be more visible. Print coverage is harder to get than ever these days and not being with a major publisher will affect that, as I'm sure you know. The best compensation for getting attention these days is to be pro-active. Get visible within the mystery community and the industry at large.”
Sound advice. When my series was first published, I joined MWA, became an officer of the Midwest chapter, attended national board meetings, went to the Edgars, participated on panels at conferences like Bouchercon and Dark & Stormy, and toured bookstores and libraries throughout the Midwest with several other mystery authors as often as I could. (Travel was relatively cheap as I was married to a flight attendant at the time.)
Did that raise my visibility in the mystery community? Absolutely. Did I sell more books as a result? Nope.
Now I don’t have the luxury of airline passes. And it’s been well more than a decade since I served as an officer of MWA. So, I wrestle with decisions like whether or not it’s worth registering for LCC 2008 in Denver in hopes that I’ll get on a panel, when I know the cost of attending that conference alone will eat up my entire advance.
I often wonder how many authors afford to fly around the country attending conferences and doing tours that their publishers aren’t paying for. I suppose like me, many of them haven’t quit their day jobs.