Marketing Outside of the Box

I recently gave a presentation to the Bucks County Romance Writers group about “Marketing Outside of the Box: Bringing your Book to Life and Keeping it Alive,” and it stirred up some common misconceptions about just what an author can and can’t do to promote her book.  Mainly, there is a pervasive belief that promotion is entirely up to the publisher, and the actions of the author can make no difference one way or the other in the success of a novel.

Okay, I think that used to be true to some extent. But these days a few things have changed.  First of all, all publishers are doing less and less for their authors. They tend to put their marketing muscle and dollars behind that huge book at their house that got the big advance…mainly because they don’t want to lose their shirts on it.  And for the rest of the books? Well….  You get in their catalog. Advanced Reader Copies get sent out for reviews. Um, and? Well, good luck to you!

I equate it to throwing spaghetti onto the wall and seeing which bits stick.  If a book gets a starred review and happens to win a major award, then cool.  Otherwise, push it aside for the next batch a mere 3 months later.  But if a book is beautiful enough for a company to accept it and to spend a year editing and producing it, isn’t it worth putting a bit more effort into? And if an author has poured her heart and soul into that work, isn’t it worth the author’s time to do whatever she can to be sure that the book doesn’t go quietly into the night?

Publishers are now banking on just that.  Why waste their precious resources on things like booking signings and sending out press, when the author could do that herself? Clever, right?  Now this isn’t exactly a spoken policy, and authors don’t all do this, but I think if you have a book out, or coming out, you need the whole eyes wide open approach, and you need to get busy.

You will have to work with your publisher to let them know what you’re doing.  At the outset, you should have a frank talk with your publicist at your publishing house about what you would like to handle, and how to do it without stepping on toes, or repeating what they do. You might find at first some resistance to having you handle some things, but since they aren’t handling them, what the heck? I think they are afraid that some authors may represent themselves badly, but once you show that you are professional and courteous, and once they have moved on to the next season’s lists, you’ll probably see that they are glad of what you are doing, and will be happy to get occasional “keep you in the loop” emails about what’s going on.

There’s a notion out there that you should take a good part or at least some of your advance and hire a publicist with it to get the word out. Nice. But what if you actually need the money for like, say, living? And what can you really get with that money that you can’t provide yourself?

photo by Pat Achilles cropped

photo by Pat Achilles

I decided I could promote WHAT I MEANT… on my own, and I have done this quite successfully at almost zero cost. Yeah, it takes tons of time, but I’d already spent tons of time writing the thing, right? And I have two things that a publicist does not: 1. Absolute passion for my book.  Remember, no one (not even your mother) will love your book the way that you do, and be driven to promote it the way you will; and 2. I have unlimited access to the author!  I can quote her in releases and features, book her at appearances, and connect her with readers in a positive way.

Just a few years ago, having passion and author access wasn’t enough.  You needed contacts. You needed a huge budget to print up ad materials, posters, bookmarks. You needed to go out on tour. You needed to cozy up to book reviewers.  Today, contacts in the media are readily found online. Okay, I’m not talking Oprah, I’m talking newspaper folk, radio folk, bloggers, book reviewers, etc.  Easy to find. Easy to send a personal note to, or a feature story to about an upcoming signing (with images of yourself and your book cover attached, of course).

And these days, it’s also easy to book signings yourself.  I’ve done SO many signings over the past few years, and I’ve booked every single one myself. Forget the cold call. Personally go to every bookstore within driving range, and introduce yourself, drop off info on your book (which you have printed up beautifully on your computer), and chat with the manager, asking if they would like to do a signing with you.   I’m sure if you were willing to travel, you could email stores in different areas and book a string of signings that way, and ta-da! You’re on tour.  This will cost you in terms of travel expenses, of course.  Remember that independent bookstores will be your most ardent supporters, so be sure to build your relationships with them (and shop at indies, and include a link to indiebound.org on your website so folks can buy your book through them!).

I tell booksellers that I will send out press to area media about the event, and wow, are they happy to hear that.  A few weeks before any signing, I create a nice feature story about the event and my novel, and send it out with pix. I ALWAYS get coverage. So if you don’t know how to format and write a press release, a public service announcement and a feature story, learn. Now.  The library has books that will show you how.

With color printers, you can make your own publicity info.  Printing bookmarks through a company is pretty cheap to do, but I haven’t done this.  Personally, I’ve never bought a book because I’ve gotten a bookmark…  I’ve created great signs on my computer and brought the file to Staples, and had them create large posters, mounted on foam core, that I display on an easel at my events.  This is all nickle and dime stuff, folks.

As you market, you need to think of who your audience is, what is your book’s angle, and how do you reach your audience in an unorthodox way?  You don’t want to be a spammer, or to spend a fortune creating junk mail that ends up in the circular file. My approach is to be the anti-spammer, meaning that I make an effort to contact people personally. And I use their name in my note. It takes a lot of time, but I don’t care. I’m asking for their time when they read a note from me, aren’t I? It’s old school, and that makes it retro and charming.

Author J. A. Konrath is a gifted promoter with a personal touch. His website (which he’s changed since I first found it) is loaded with advice on how to personally make a difference in the life of your book, especially if you follow the link to his tips page.  Start with Self Promotion for Authors Tip 6 by clicking here, and read on from there, going to more tips at the bottom of this page. His ideas are wise and witty and absolutely on target.

Aside from making personal contacts, another “outside of the box” way I found to reach my audience of teen readers is through workshops that I offer them to help teen scouts earn badges they need for important awards like the gold award.  It’s been unbelievably successful, and I’m in reprint again!  Because they were unusual, my workshops were also featured in Publisher’s Weekly’s Children’s Bookshelf and at shelfawareness.com, so remember that a quirky promotion can be news in itself.

Since my book features a biracial character who is half Indian, I contacted the international publication of India Abroad, and they ran a huge cover story about it.  I also contacted lots of great people who write about the mixed race experience, and they were really responsive. I was featured at AsiansofMixedRace.com, did a podcast with Mixed Chicks Chat, and in the UK, WHAT I MEANT… was a featured book on the site Intermix.com.uk.  I also contacted librarians via email who were in areas with high concentrations of Indian populations. The best part of all this has been the personal relationships that I’ve built with all of these talented and wonderful people and their organizations.  In the end it’s not just about selling a product, it’s about becoming a part of a community. You are building a future in the book-reading world.

So, what angles are in your book? What organizations out there would be interested? Can you write for their newsletter or blog, relating your personal experiences that tie into your book? Can you create a great presentation for their chapter meetings? Give an inspiring speech at their conventions? Give an honest piece of yourself to your readership, and they will respond to you.

This post would be woefully remiss if I didn’t mention a bunch of on-line stuff.  First of all, your website. You have to have one. That’s all there is to it.  But you can do what I’ve done and easily make your blog your website. It does all I want it to do, plus I can control it myself, plus it’s FREE! Then if you purchase your domain from a site like bluehost.com, they have a free redirect service. In my case, everyone who types http://www.marielamba.com arrives here. Can’t get any cheaper and easier than that, folks.

You have to get onto facebook.com.  The best feature on this is the event invite.  Create invites for all of your signings and appearances, and invite folks.  Pimp up your invite with added pix, links, and remember that once someone rsvp’s, they can then invite all their friends to the event too.  This has worked out amazingly, especially when I tell bookstores with facebook pages to do this.  My last event was able to send out over 500 invites!  A few days before the actual event, you can go to the invite page and message all invited with a cheerful reminder note.

Twitter.com can work in tandem with your invites, and press, etc.  Build up your follow list with librarians, booksellers, publishers, editors, reviewers, readers.  Then post on twitter links to your facebook events, or any online press you get.  Keep it short. If you leave at least 40 characters remaining, folks can easily retweet it to their buds.  And you can shorten your links by going here.

Don’t be a shmo. Also use these sites to promote other writers, other events, to praise books that you’ve read.  Balance is key, and you are part of a wide-spread community, so share the love.

Reader-oriented sites offer a great way to connect with your audience. Create an author page. Friend folks who have read your book. Friend folks who have read a competitor’s book and suggest they check yours out!  Here are the sites I spend time on: librarything.com, shelfari.com, goodreads.com.  Librarything and goodreads also let you post your events. Also, join indiebound.org and friend all your fav bookstores.

Booktour.com is an amazing site. Create an author page, and type in all of your appearances. They will automatically send out your appearances to a huge number of online sites.  And, I also suggest you go onto your book’s page at amazon.com and click on your author page. You can now add a picture, a bio, and link your blog posts here.  PLUS booktour.com will make sure that your appearances appear there as well.

Linkedin.com is a more professional site, meaning you can’t just friend, or connect, with everyone.  But join some groups, like one for bookstores or libraries or publishing, and then you can use that connection when you invite someone to connect to you.  Create a beautiful profile, and link your blog to it so that the content is always interesting and changing.  They give you a really simple way to do this.

Now, back to the human side of things… Involve your friends and family everywhere to help you in your promotion.  Like I said before, I’ve never bought a book because I’ve gotten a bookmark, but I have bought a book because someone recommended it to me.  I think J.A. Konrath wisely pointed this out on his site, and it really stuck with me.  So do encourage folks to write reviews for barnesandnoble.com, amazon.com, and on goodreads and shelfari.  Enlist this army of supporters to request your book be purchased at their libraries (most library sites allow this on their online sites, and require a library card number). Have them visit their local bookstores and put your book face out, instead of just spine out.  Hem, hem.  This comment may get some flak from the industry that actually pays to have a title face out on a shelf so it’ll get noticed faster, but if Aunt Minny quietly goes into a bookstore and does this, no harm, no foul I say.

Liars club25One more thing. There is definitely power in numbers. If you can create a group of writers who will blog together, or do panels and talks together, you can turn any event into something noticeable and special.  I’m a proud member of the Philly Liars Club, and it has been an incredible journey. We support each other, and we are able to support independent bookstores through our special truth tour events. Are there other debut novelists that you can link up with? Other authors you know in your genre who could do a panel with you at the next huge convention? Power in numbers, baby!

So you can see there is a lot that you can do, most of it while sitting at home in your jammies in front of your laptop.  After I gave this talk about marketing (not in my jammies), the members of the Bucks County Romance Writers group all wanted to know when I actually found time to write.  I told them that in the last two years I’d done all this promotion, AND written two additional novels. I encouraged them to get to work.

I’m pretty sure they will.

“Truth Tour” Celebrates Independent Bookstores

Philly Liars Club members Marie Lamba, Kelly Simmons, Dennis Tafoya, Jon McGoran (D.H. Dublin) and Jonathan Maberry

Philly Liars Club members Marie Lamba, Kelly Simmons, Dennis Tafoya, Jon McGoran (D.H. Dublin) and Jonathan Maberry

Something unusual is brewing at the Doylestown Bookshop, and it involves wacky games, a bunch of liars and one fuzzy dog.

The Philly Liar’s Club is hosting a party called “Liars Tell the Truth about the Doylestown Bookshop,” which will be held at the store, located on 16 South Main Street in Doylestown, on Saturday, May 2nd from 2-4 p.m. This event, which is free and open to the public, features free food, tons of authors, and chances to win prizes that include signed books and an appearance on the canine web comedy It’s Todd’s Show.

The Philly Liar’s Club is a group of professional writers that I now belong to. We basically lie for a living. It’s cool belonging to a group like this. They are all witty and talented, and working together we can really make things happen, like this bookshop party. My only objection is that they are also all really tall, and this is slightly embarrassing when it comes to group photos. Fortunately some of them will crouch beside me to make me feel less, er, fun-sized?

Anyways, the Doylestown event is our first stop on what we call our “Truth Tour.”  This is a series of parties that we are throwing for independent bookstores. It gives us all a chance to celebrate indies and spread the word about everything that is amazing about them — their personality, great selection, amazing service, and their support for local authors and artists. With the rise of online bookselling, and the dominance of big chain bookstores, independent bookstores have been really challenged to stay afloat.  But independents like the Doylestown Bookshop offer everything the competition does, plus more. And we never want to live without them!

Our Philly Liars Club members include:

New York Times best selling author L.A. Banks (The Thirteenth, St. Martin’s Griffin)
Bram Stoker award-winner Jonathan Maberry (Patient Zero, St. Martin’s)
young adult author Marie Lamba…er, me… (What I Meant…, Random House)
New York Times best selling thriller author William Lashner (Blood and Bone, Morrow)
debut crime novelist Dennis Tafoya (Dope Thief, St. Martin’s)
mystery author Jon McGoran who writes as D.H. Dublin (Freezer Burn, Berkley)
fantasy author Gregory Frost (Lord Tophet, Del Rey/Random House)
novelist Kelly Simmons (Standing Still, Washington Square Press)
mystery author Merry Jones (The Borrowed and Blue Murders, Minotaur Books),
historical author Keith Strunk (Prallsville Mills and Stockton, Arcadia Publishing Images of America Series)
Poe scholar Ed Pettit
social media guru Don Lafferty
Emmy Award winning producer Laura Schrock (shows include Alf, Golden Girls, and It’s Todd’s Show)

Visitors to the May 2nd celebration will get to shake paws with Todd, the It’s Todd’s Show’s four-legged star, they will play truth or lie games for prizes, and will enjoy hanging out with the Liars.

The Doylestown Bookshop is the largest independent bookstore in Bucks County. Still, if you think book orders are limited to what is found on its shelves, you’re mistaken. By going to http://www.doylestownbookshop.com, you can order any title quickly, whether the store stocks it or not. Shipping is free for all orders over $30, and there is no shipping at all on orders you pick up at the store. Best of all, by ordering through them you are benefiting a local business, one that offers a unique shopping experience, and that showcases titles you won’t find in any of those megastores.

Doylestown Bookshop owner Pat Gerney of Wrightstown agrees. “We have a hand-picked selection of books based on what our community wants and needs, unlike chain bookstores that order from a central location that services hundreds of stores.” This translates into a collection that truly caters to the community, including unusual fiction and non-fiction, school reading list titles, shelves dedicated to local authors, and many titles about Bucks County.

“Independent bookstores cater to independent minds,” says author Jonathan Maberry. “It’s more than just about selling books – the Indies cultivate a love and appreciation of books, literacy, learning, reading and intellectual growth in ways the big chain stores don’t – or can’t.” The Doylestown Bookshop has become a cultural hub and a gathering place of sorts. Readers can meet other booklovers by joining book clubs, including a mother/daughter group, one for sci fi/fantasy/horror fans, and a Smart Books for Smart Women group. They even have a book group for food lovers, which meets at the specialty food store Cote and Co. The bookstore also has frequent book signings, and supports local artists with exhibitions, and local musicians with live performances.

“The past ten years have been rough for Independents,” says bookshop manager Shilough Hopwood. “But we’ve prospered and flourished, thanks to our community. A dedicated community really makes a difference in preserving independent stores everywhere.”

We hope everyone comes out May 2nd to show their dedication, and to hang out with the Liars. It’s going to be a blast…and that’s no lie. For more information, or to reserve a copy of an author’s book before the event, call the Doylestown Bookshop at 215-230-7610.

Also, I’ll be sure to post more about our future Truth Tour events here, and on my website www.marielamba.com. In the meantime, go buy a book from an independent bookshop. Now!

On ‘Tweens Reading Young Adult Fiction

School librarians are an incredible resource for our young readers. In fact, I first fell in love with reading and becoming a writer in my own school library at Sicomac Elementary in Wyckoff, NJ!  But school librarians are facing new challenges. A month or two ago, I was asked by the school librarians in my county to attend their in-service meeting. They wanted me to attend because What I Meant… seemed like a great fit for their 6th and some of their 5th grade readers. The novel was challenging and dealt with issues related to self-esteem and independence, plus it was clean. (I’ve just learned that What I Meant… was selected for the Young Adult Fiction Top Forty List 2008 by the Pennsylvania School Library Association. Yeah!!!!)
But school librarians have often run into the problem of how to restrict younger readers in their elementary schools’ libraries from YA titles that might not be appropriate for, say, a 4th grader. Plus, they must deal with the added problems of sometimes shocking content in YAs, and of disgruntled parents.

Attending that informative and fascinating talk with these librarians, I learned of a disturbing trend: more and more often, school librarians are accountable for what exactly is on their shelves. What may be considered great literature to one person, may seem offensive and immoral to another. Librarians are now expected to be knowledgeable and responsible for all the content in any books they order…yet with today’s books, where even the word “scrotum” pops up in a picture book inciting parental panic, this is becoming harder and harder for the librarians to do. How are they to know from the short blurbs in review publications whether a particular parent might find something offensive in a book? How are they supposed to read every single novel coming into the library beforehand?

This is a serious issue, folks. And some librarians have actually lost their jobs over it!  Sadly, elementary school librarians feel the pressure to not take risks in their book ordering, and therefore feel they are not meeting the needs of those eager 6th grade readers who would fall in love with a YA book such as What I Meant…  By middle school, the collection issue seems to ease, but who are we kidding? ‘Tweens LOVE to read YA novels. Kids read up from their age category all the time.

Publishers are well aware of this, yet there are few novels for this age group in the YA category that even I, a fairly liberal parent, would consider “appropriate” for a 10 year old or 11 year old child.  Shouldn’t there be more clean YA novels for the ‘tweens to read? And how about a way to measure the content of these books to help out the harried librarians and parents in selection? I’d love to hear the thoughts of parents, librarians and authors on this issue.

In 2007, I wrote an article about this very issue from the parent’s (and author’s) point of view, and it appeared in several parenting publications. Thought I’d print it here… so read on:

You’re Reading WHAT?
by Marie Lamba (copyright 2007 M. Lamba)

Your child is growing up and loving reading more than ever. Before you know it, she’ll be branching out from easy readers and middle reader novels about time travel and horses, to those young adult novels in that cool grown-up section of the library or bookstore. She’ll be 11 years old and eager to picture herself as someone who is older and more sophisticated. This is all good. But, what, exactly will she be reading?

As an author, I am against censorship of any book. Let me say that upfront. And I personally believe that by age 13, your child should be picking out his or her own books without restrictions. But when 10, 11 or 12 years olds are reading books labeled for ages 12 and up that turn out to be rife with sex, drugs and alcohol, I as a parent can’t help but cringe.

When I was a ‘tween “back in the day” (as my own kids put it), the most shocking book out there was, Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. We secretly passed it to each other and read it under our blankets with a flashlight. Here was a book about how our bodies were changing. We couldn’t believe it!

But today, everything’s changed. Kids are devouring paperbacks with lurid sex scenes, and the glorified use of drugs and alcohol. It’s fantasy time, and it has nothing to do with time-travel. I know that teens will toy with this sort of delicious rebellion and I’d certainly rather have them reading about it than have them doing any of this themselves. To me, the issue here is how seamier books are marketed toward younger readers. Let’s face it: sex sells. So what happens to an “unsexy” book?

My own first young adult novel, What I Meant… has just come out through Random House Books for Young Readers. It features a 15-year-old girl, a mysterious cute guy, an Indian dad, an American mom, an evil aunt and lots of drama and laughs. The book is getting great reviews, yet from the start it has been in trouble because chain bookstores largely passed on stocking the novel. This means that most folks browsing through the chain stores will never see it. Could these bookstores have passed on it because it was a “clean” novel?

While I can’t know this for sure, I do know that the worlds of publishing and bookselling both certainly see the wild profits associated with titillating teen fiction, and are eager to have a piece of that pie. Most bookstores have a middle reader section and a separate teen section. There is no in between. So where does a clean YA novel suitable for younger readers go? The truth is there’s a limited amount of shelf space in that teen section and lots of books for booksellers to choose from to fill that limited space. If sex sells, and you were a dollars and cents businessperson, what sort of young adult book would you stock there?

What can we parents do? Do we prohibit our ‘tweens from the young adult section of the library or bookstore? If we do, we don’t allow them to mature in their reading, and they will miss out on wonderful books such as Nothing but the Truth (and a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen Headley, and titles by the very funny Sue Limb. Clean titles are out there.

Instead, I think the solution is two-fold. First, scan books that your kids are looking at. If there is an element of sleaze, chances are it’ll be right there on the cover or jacket flaps. Also, ask your librarian or bookseller for recommendations. They know books and can guide you in selecting ones that are at once exciting and challenging, yet appropriate. Just remember though that if your child really wants to read a book you are uncomfortable with, chances are that you will find him under his blanket with a flashlight reading that very same book! In this case, I suggest you read the book in question first yourself, then after he reads it, have a meaningful discussion about what went on in the story.

The second part of the solution is to remember the power that we consumers hold. When you find an author who writes wonderful, clean fiction suitable for your ‘tween, support that person. Write reviews of their books on Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com. Recommend this author’s books to your librarian and to friends. Buy their books for birthday and Christmas presents. Tell your bookseller how much you love these particular titles and why. Believe it or not, this can turn the tide. If everyone reading this article would take these simple steps, perhaps soon we’ll be finding books labeled as ‘tween worthy, and publishers and booksellers eagerly promoting these titles, maybe even carving out a separate section for them in their shops.

The end result? A wider choice of books and better reading for all.