Author Marketing in a Recession

This article first appeared in the Tennessee Writers Alliance Fall Newsletter. It’s salient enough that I thought I’d share it here too.

Times are tough.

Publishers are cutting back on just about everything: coop, author tours, marketing dollars, heck, their staffs… Newspapers are jettisoning their book sections. Magazines are going bankrupt, writing programs are being restructured, conferences are being cancelled. It is undeniably rough out there.

So what’s an author to do in the face of all this adversity?

Take advantage of the situation at hand, of course. There’s never been a better time to create your niche. The Internet is an overwhelmingly underused resource for authors who want to market themselves. And the best part? It’s free.

That’s right. You can launch a full-blown marketing campaign for free, and increase your reach for pennies more a day.

How?

By being smart about how you approach your marketing efforts.

We’ve all seen the authors who are simply out there screaming me, me me!!! They’re a big turnoff, right? They aren’t giving anything back to the community, they just want to foist their latest book on anyone and everyone they can possibly contact. They “borrow” mailing lists from listserves and spam the recipients with their newsletters, privately inbox regularly on Facebook, ask for followers on Twitter. They are no fun.

You, on the other hand, are a glorious new author with something to say. So how do you go about saying it, getting your message out there, getting your book into the hands of loyal readers, without paying exorbitant prices and alienating possible friends and readers?

Very carefully.

While the Internet is free, the price you pay for misusing it can be deadly to your career. Every positive the Internet provides has a negative as well.

The first rule of Internet marketing? Everything you say, EVERYTHING, is recorded in perpetuity. That slam on your editor? That nasty comment about your old teacher? The displeasure you have with… well… anything, all of that gets logged somewhere. Websites cache their material, which means even if you’ve gone back and deleted something, a version continues to live on. So be careful what you say. Think before you comment. Follow the adage your mom always taught: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. You never know what sort of impact even the most casual negative comment can have.

Another quick bit of advice? Don’t ever, EVER engage a reviewer over a negative review. Yes, it sucks that you got a one-star on Amazon. Get over it. That’s one person’s very subjective opinion. Unless the comments are slanderous or libelous (which is rarely the case) you need to let them go. If they are edging toward actual illegality, you can complain to the site owner. But don’t engage the reviewer.

I digress. I know some authors feel that being a lightning rod gains them readers. I don’t agree. I think the way you gain a readership is by doing two things: one, writing the absolute best book you can possibly write, and two, being a value-add author. What do I mean by that? Let me give you a brief background on how I went about creating a platform for my work, and you’ll see for yourself.

In an industry that relies on the kindness of strangers, I’ve been incredibly lucky. Before I had an agent, I had a solid critique group, a membership in Sisters in Crime, a national organization that accepts published and unpublished writers, and a webpage on Publishers Marketplace, our bible. That’s how I got my agent, by the way. He saw my webpage on Publishers Marketplace and asked for my manuscript. Serendipity aside (I’d been writing him a query letter at that very moment) how did he find me on PM? My webpage was consistently in the top ten viewed pages. How did I manage that? I started a relatively one-sided conversation called “The Best Book I Read This Week.” At the time, no one was doing it. People tuned in to see what I was saying, and voila: page views translated into momentum. (Momentum is hugely important to your career, so tuck that into your caps for a moment.)

Suddenly, I had an agent, my book was out on submission, and I needed to work on my platform. Sisters in Crime wasn’t enough anymore, I needed to raise my profile. I joined Mystery Writers of America, got involved at DororthyL (a mystery listserve with thousands of active members) started making some friends out in the Internet world. When I saw something that caught my eye, I reached out. I found a cool PR site called Bad Girls PR, run by a lovely woman named Pari Noskin Taichert. I sent her a note, complimented the site, said I hoped I’d be a bad enough girl to need her services some day, and went about my business. But Pari responded, we started chatting, and several months later, when she decided to start a marketing blog, I came to mind. (Four years later, our blog, Murderati, has been nominated for awards and is one of the longest-running group blogs in crime fiction.)

Momentum. My first manuscript didn’t sell, and everything seemed to come to a screeching halt. My agent suggested I try writing a new book, which I did. During that time, though, I didn’t abandon my online efforts. I kept up with Murderati, DorothyL, and several other listserves. I continued my weekly book picks on PM. I started writing short stories and placing them in e-zines, raising my profile even more. And I volunteered to be a book reviewer for an online site, which enabled me to read everything I could get my hands on, knowing that reading is the key to better writing.

All of that paid off. When my agent took the second book out onto submission, I now had a solid online platform. I was a crime blogger, a reviewer, a participant. The editors at the houses knew I was plugged in to the crime fiction network, that I had built myself a base of followers even before I sold my first book. And it worked. My first deal was for three books. So was my second.

Momentum. In this industry, it means a lot.

The beautiful thing about the Internet is how it’s grown in the past few years. Twitter, Facebook, RedRoom, Good Reads, Shelfari… I could go on and on. The places to market yourself are out there for the taking. There are still a million listserves catering to every genre imaginable. Organizations abound. Volunteer opportunities exist. If you build it, they will come.

And since the Internet is a virtually cost-free marketing tool, anyone can do this. Just be smart about what you do. Don’t push yourself on people, be a value-add author. Give them something back. Give them something they didn’t know they needed in the first place, and you’ve conquered what marketing is all about. Because isn’t that what we do every time we write a book or a story? We create something from nothing, and work to get that into the hands of people who didn’t realize they wanted it in the first place. Crazy, huh?

Things to remember about marketing online:

Respect your lists

If you send out too many notifications, people simply tune you out. My newsletter goes out quarterly. Publishing works slowly enough that you don’t need much more than that to get your news out. Everyone’s time is precious: if you treat them with respect, you’ll get respect.

What Works For One Won’t Always Work For Others

As frustrating as this may be, it’s the truth. You can follow in every single step I took online and still not see the benefits. The trick is to be original, be open and willing, and be flexible. You never know where that next opportunity may come from.

Don’t Compare or Compete

Professional jealousy is an occupational hazard. Don’t fall into that trap. Each book, each author, is wildly different. Jealousy causes negative energy, which will trickle out in your attitude. Remember that comparing yourself to another author is like comparing apples and oranges – they don’t measure up properly.

Be Polite

Always. Don’t engage, don’t be mean and spiteful, don’t gang up on people. Cyber-bullying isn’t just a problem in our schools. And especially don’t put your woes and frustrations online. Limit those conversations to your trusted friends. The Internet is not a giant group psychotherapy session, nor a group hug.

Don’t Give Up

When one door closes, a window opens. Things fall through. Media doesn’t get played, articles don’t get placed, short stories get bumped. Promises, sadly, do sometimes get broken, but if you can keep a healthy perspective on the industry, you’ll do fine.

Be Open to New Experiences

This is a foreign landscape for many people. If you limit yourself from the beginning, you may miss out on things.

What about you, ‘Rati? What little tricks and tips do you have for getting your name out there when times are tough?

Wine of the Week: Elio Altare Dolcetto d’Alba 

Also, just an FYI, I’m keeping a journal of sorts over on my website. It’s not a blog exactly, more of a place for me to explore my personal zeitgeist in much shorter spurts. I’d love for you to stop by, or sign up for the RSS feed here.

16 thoughts on “Author Marketing in a Recession

  1. Chris Hamilton

    Always look for a way to bring value to any engagement you have. And be present when good things happen. A person could read JT’s story and assume there was luck involved, but she had to be there for the luck to strike her.

    Reply
  2. JD Rhoades

    Excellent advice, JT. And let me add one thing: don’t engage reviewers over your friends’ bad Amazon/Goodreads/etc reviews, either. As much as you may love your fellow author, and as unfair as you may think the review is, at some point, the reviewer will Google you, start whining that your friend has recruited people to pile on, they’ll get their friends involved…it never works out well for either you or your friend. Best thing you can do is post your own good review and move on.

    Reply
  3. Alafair Burke

    Great advice, JT. I have no advice to give because I consider myself fairly bumbling in this area. I think writers can only do what they’re comfortable with. Your online activities should be organic and reflect who you really are. And pushiness, I agree, is yucky.

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  4. JT Ellison

    Chris, you’ve heard the adage you make your own luck? I fully believe that. That said, I have been inordinately lucky to be surrounded by individuals who’ve taken it upon themselves to educate me – from my agent and editor to my mentors to my friends here at Murderati.

    Dusty, yeah. When Twitter is exploding with the news of authors duking it out with reviewers, you know it’s time to step away. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the Internet seems to be a place where people forget their manners.

    Kaye, darling, thank you. If you think it’s worthwhile, I’ll post it to my website for future use.

    Alafair, this plays into your post a few weeks ago about your online persona. Bumbling is hardly the word I’d use to describe your efforts. Organic, yes, and engaging. It’s all about finding your voice in the online community.

    Reply
  5. pari noskin taichert

    JT,
    This is simply a must-read piece. Very well done.

    I guess I do have one piece of advice that could sort of fit in to the lists concept and/or the be polite area:

    Don’t turn absolutely everything — every conversation, every post, every comment — back to you and your books. It’s tempting, of course, because we’re all so interesting to ourselves.

    However, if you only have one dimension (ie marketing and me me me) that’s all people will perceive.

    Reply
  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great, great post, JT. Thank you for it. You are certainly an author who "gives back."
    I was so fortunate to fall in with a group of fellow authors who reached out to me, who gave me the greatest opportunity a debut author could have, and it came in the invitation to join Murderati. I walked into something that was already fully-formed, with a great, loyal readership, and it created pre-orders for my book before the book was even released. It has also plugged me into a network of ideas and valuable information that I would otherwise have missed.
    Your post reveals your amazing character, JT. You didn’t wait for someone to give you a career. Instead, you built the foundation that, ultimately, became your career. You made it inevitable.

    Reply
  7. toni mcgee causey

    Wonderful post, JT — please do post it on your site for permanent reference.

    I love that you started off spreading positive word of mouth and promoting books you’d enjoyed. I think in all of the hurly burly of "yikes, I’ve got to Market my book, dear God," that authors tend to forget that other people are feeling the same terror. It’s always a great thing to reach out and promote other authors, whenever you get the chance. Because honestly, avid readers are going to read more than one book a year. Not every reader is right for every book. There are readers who will read a wide variety of genres and others who have stricter, specific tastes. Statistically, there are plenty of readers to go around–so promote someone else’s book. In doing so, you may not gain a reader for yourself, but you’ve gained someone who trusts your judgment… which is a very valuable thing in and of itself. That author will send readers somewhere… and the next… and someone will send readers to you. It’s not a zero sum game. Other authors are not competition–they are your teammates. (The competition is other media–video games, TV, etc., and other activities that take time away from reading. We’re in this together to show that reading is amazing.)

    The only other thing I’d add to your list is to recognize that you can’t–and shouldn’t–do everything that’s available. For starters, you’ll wear yourself out, especially in the first month or two prior to and just after your release. Additionally, trying to hit every opportunity probably means not excelling at a few, and a scattershot approach rarely works best. So out of all of the venues and opportunities, feel free to choose which of those feels more comfortable for you, your personality, your available time. There’s nothing wrong with tailoring what you do to what you would enjoy doing–because people can sense when you’re enjoying something vs. when you’re just doing it because you think you ought to do it.

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  8. Lance C.

    This is fine, but…how do you maintain a full-time job, a family and a life, haunt half a dozen blogs/bulletin boards, keep your website/Facebook page fresh, read multiple books (so your "Best Book I Read This Week" doesn’t become the "Only Book I Read This Week"), and still have time to do some actual writing?

    This sounds like the regimen of a full-time writer, not a normal Joe trying to break in. Or is sleep really that overrated?

    Reply
  9. JT Ellison

    Lance, you raise a very interesting and valid point. I am utterly blessed to be a full-time writer. I’ve been full-time from the start, I was lucky enough to have a spouse who was willing to support me while I threw myself into this. We don’t have kids either, so that’s a help. But there are plenty of working writers who manage to find the time to write (and sleep.) The trick is to pick one or two networking venues and focus on them exclusively. Choose the place you feel the most comfortable and work the hell out of it. And as far as writing, as little as an hour a day of real, focused effort adds up to about 1,000 words. If you do it daily, you’ll have a first draft in 3 months. It’s all about focus, discipline and the desire to make it work. I’ve talked before about setting boundaries, with yourself, your family, your life. When you’re a working writer, you just have to manage your time more carefully. Remember, the number one goal is to write the best book you can possibly write. The networking comes in a distant second to that.

    Reply
  10. JT Ellison

    Pari, I think that tip is wonderful – and shouldn’t be limited to online interactions. How many conversations do we have with people that we are formulating our response in our head while they’re still talking? Really listening to someone, online and in person, makes a lot of difference.

    Stephen, the fact that you fit in so seamlessly here should tell you something. This blog especially is a very special place online, a true outlet for friendship and business. Thank you for your kind words, but I must say, they can be directed right back at you.

    Toni, you’ve nailed it on the head. "Other authors are not competition–they are your teammates." Amen, sister. The ones who treat you like competition aren’t the ones you need in your life. We’re so lucky to have a real community of encouragers out there.

    Reply
  11. Chris Hamilton

    Lance,

    I’ve got the same questions because I’m in the same circumstance. My kids are a little older, which is a blessing because my daughter can now drive and they don’t require constant supervision. For me, it’s become a question of how badly I want it. If you want it badly, you’ll figure out a way.

    But you have to believe in it and your ability to achieve it. Sometimes that can be the hardest thing.

    Overall, outside a blog I write (that I hope opens some doors down the road), most of my effort is focused on my WIP. In everything I do, it’s focused there, to the point where I’m reading Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son, which is as far from mystery fiction as one can be, and I’m developing a story idea based on it.

    It’s about choices, though. And at some point, you need a manuscript. So for me, that has to come first.

    Chris

    Reply
  12. J.D. Rhoades

    Lance, Chris: I still have a day job, too, and a time consuming one. The best thing I ever did to manage time was cut way way back on watching TV (except the Daily Show and the Friday movie nights with the offspring). I was amazed at how much time it freed up. And if you already do’t watch much…well, yeah, sleep is overrated :-).

    Reply
  13. PK the Bookeemonster

    As just a reader, here are some online things I look for in an author (some JT has touched upon):

    Turn off: blatant self promotion each and every time you post. I’d like to know that you care and are knowledgeable about the area in which you are writing. I know you don’t have a lot of time to read but you can also talk about your influences and so forth. Side note: I like a particular subgenre of mysteries and while attending my one and only con, I heard one author talk about why he/she chose to write in that subgenre — it was so callous and manipulative that I’ve only read the debut of that author to see if the book overcame the unpleasantness. It didn’t and I’ve not purchased anymore.

    Turn on: your own website must have excerpts from the books you have available. I want to be able to see if your voice and writing style is interesting to me. It’s like browsing in a bookstore and being able to read the first couple pages. I may have been drawn to your name mentioned in other places but I want to make a decision whether to invest in a new author or not. If I like what I read in just a few paragraphs — I’ll go to amazon.com and buy it (or check the library online). Either way, I’ll respond quickly and talk about it. It’s happened many times.

    Turn offs: anything on your site or blogs that talks about your politics or puts down any one else’s political or religious beliefs (remember at this point 50% of the country agrees with you but 50% doesn’t and you can be losing 50% of your readers — can you afford that). I no longer pay any attention whatsoever to two authors I can think of right off the top of my head that I used to be fan of who’s personal beliefs (which they are entitled to have — on their own time) got in the the way online. (As well as one very popular mystery info site) These sites have a purpose: to promote authors (gently), talk about books, and interact in the *book* world.

    Turn on: another fabulous discussion group other than DorothyL is 4MA on yahoo groups. We’re avid and there’s little BSP.

    Oh, there’s more I’m sure but that’s the quickies. πŸ™‚

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  14. Allison Brennan

    Hey PK, great advice as well as JT! (Must be initials. Maybe I should change my name to AL Brennan. Yuck.)

    Nothing annoys me more than drive by promotion–only posting information on a listserve when you have a book out. Urgh.

    The only thing I can add to this is: the book has to come first. Without a good book to market on-line, there’s no reason to market. So write the book, focus on the book, and do everything else AFTER. And, only do the things you like to do. It really shows if you hate something and you find yourself stuck doing it.

    Reply
  15. Shane Gericke

    Kudos on this, JT–brilliant as usual.

    I would add that liking people is the biggest thing asset we have to offer as writers. We have to LIKE the folks we’re selling ourselves to. Not fake-like, as in "my close personal friend so-and-so." That comes through dull but clear, as if a leaden bell. (Leaden bell. Look, Ma, I’m writing!) We have to for-real like them. Maybe not to the point of inviting them for Thanksgiving–my mother in law would croak if I invited all my readers to the house; oy, not enough turkey!–but to genuinely respect them.

    If people who read us feel that we like them, they’ll be kindly disposed to buying our stuff, because they bought US. Win-win–we sell books and meet a buncha people we wouldn’t mind knowing better. And they get to hang out with us, at least in our fictional world.

    Reply

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