Promo: tales from the eleventh hour

- by Sharon Ashwood

I’ve noticed the topic of author promotion coming up again and again on various writer loops, and often it seems that the same ground is being covered. If I, new to this industry, am recognizing the arguments floating past, that’s saying something! But I can understand the high level of interest in this topic, because it impacts everyone with a book for sale.

When I first got involved in this publication game, I missed the Handbook of Clever Author Promo Know-How, and dropped the ball. My idea of slick marketing was making my own website. Branding happened to cattle. A modest mail-out once in a while was as far as I could see going.

I’m not trying to run myself down – I was taking the advice of those I deemed knew best. My first agent advised against doing author promo and my editor never really addressed the issue. To cut a long story short, eventually I figured it out. I had to get the word out about my books, and fast, because the sell-through clock was already ticking.

It was just dumb luck that around the same time I had been taking a marketing course for my day job. It really helped me understand where I needed to focus my energy and what questions to ask. Yeah, occasionally the universe does give us the tools we need in the nick of time.

There are three points on self-promo that come up again and again on author loops. One is: should an author hire a publicity expert? I don’t think there is a definitive answer here, but I can share my experience. After weighing my time, resources and expertise against the urgency of the situation, I hired a pro. They were able to accomplish in a relatively short time far more than I could have myself. They had the big ideas, made arrangements, and I did the rest—it was an efficient, economical team system that played to my strengths and gave me the freedom to pursue what I wanted on my own. I looked at it as if I were hiring any other expert, be it a plumber, electrician or mechanic. I left the heavy lifting to the people with the right tools because there was no time to mess around.

Question two: What kind of promo is effective and what isn’t? From my own limited experience, I think the answer is whatever puts you in contact with readers. The big splash is necessary to catch the world’s attention, but it’s the personal touch that has folks coming back. Giving away books and getting readers to talk about them to their friends is, in my opinion, the obvious goal. Really what I was after was not to MAKE the public read my book, but to FIND the readers who just didn’t know they were looking for me. I just had to figure out where those people hung out and go scoop them up.

And the question I hear most often on the loops: should authors have to tackle this at all? My personal feeling is that I should not. However, in the battle between reality and personal feelings, my opinion isn’t worth beans. If I’d known I would be my own marketing department, I probably would never have bothered going the publication route, but here I am. I can leave or suck it up. Once I’m so famous that I don’t need to do this anymore, no doubt the Powers that Be will leap in and start doing stuff on my behalf because, y’know, life is perverse that way.

The punchline to all this is that I did get my tail feathers out of the fire and lived to publish another day. I do think this is a case where author promo worked, with clear before and after shots of the results. Yes, a good book is important to good sales. However, a critical mass of people must find it before the word will spread. Drawing a figurative map with a big arrow that says, “great book this way,” is just one more item on the author’s checklist. We have to do it or delegate it, but we can’t ignore it.

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