by JT Ellison
Promotion. It's a dirty word to many of us – a necessary evil, but an evil, nonetheless.
I was in South Carolina this past weekend at the incredibly awesome South Carolina Literary Festival, and found myself engaging in several different types of promotion, all of which are vital skills that every author attending these events need to master. Promotion is, at its heart, relationship management. In this brave new world, where social networks allow unprecedented access to authors and touring isn't as frequent, you need to maintain the relationships with your readers. A newsletter is a must, I think, as is a website with all of your relevant information. The social network sites have exploded, but they are as much of a time suck as a means to an end. I doubt we'll all ever agree on what works and what doesn't, because it's different for each writer. Do what works for you, and don't feel pressured to worry about every shiny new toy the internet produces.
Thankfully, there are still plenty of opportunities to do the face-to-face promotion (and folks, I'm not talking about the kind of promotion when you're acting like a used-car salesman for your books) I'm simply talking about being nice to your readers. Being nice goes a long way. We all have bad days, and the strain of being "on" can be overwhelming at times. But there's just no excuse be arrogant, or sit behind the signing table looking at your line and saying – "Oh, I wish I didn't have to sit here and sign all these books." (Yes, I've seen it, and it wasn't pretty. I'll never read THAT author.)
It's really such a basic thing, when you think about it. A smile and kind word can go miles toward maintaining a reader-writer relationship. Twittering and Facebooking and MySpacing and GoodReading and Blogging aside, there's nothing like meeting your readers in person. I highly recommend you do so at every feasible opportunity, even if it's just going to a conference. Go in with an open mind, don't try to cram your thoughts down everyone's throats, don't do stupid stuff, and you'll be just fine. Listening is 9/10th of the law at a conference. Follow that formula and you'll be the kind of author that gets invited to more and more events.
THE MOVEABLE FEAST
One aspect of conference promotion that I'm finding not everyone is aware of is called the Moveable Feast. At many conferences and festivals, attendees will spend good money to come to these events. I was thrilled to be one of the authors participating in the Moveable Feast on Sunday morning in South Carolina. I've done this format before, but this particular event absolutely rocked. I passed out postcards with all of my current books on them, talked about Taylor Jackson, my path to writing, all that good stuff. But what I also did was listen. These readers are there because they want to learn something unique about you, something that they can walk away and know that only they are aware of. It's a special bond, and if you work it correctly, you'll gain readers for life.
When the authors who were participating gathered to have breakfast beforehand, I was surprised to hear that several of them didn't know what the moveable feast was, nor how to approach it. The authors who did filled them in, and everyone went in somewhat prepared. But I figured if they didn't know, other authors don't either, especially newbies who've not been thrust into this format yet.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a moveable feast (sometimes called a round robin) places one author at a table of readers for a limited amount of time. The basic structure is usually the same – you have ten minutes to pitch yourself to the table, then you move to the next. On Sunday, I spoke to seven tables, and let me tell you, it's exhausting work.
But I always feel like this is the very best format to really meet readers. I don't like to sit down and fly into my spiel right away. I usually introduce myself, and ask them what them enjoy reading. When you're having a dialogue, instead of talking at readers, it's more fun for everyone.
You also have to be prepared to talk for the whole ten minutes. Usually these readers will pepper you with questions, and the time flies. But I've been at tables where the readers either don't like psychological thrillers, or are terribly shy, or just don't take to me. Engaging folks who don't read your kind of work can be difficult, so instead of pitching them, I try to talk about the kinds of books we can all agree on. At one of my tables this weekend, we talked almost the entire time about THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY. But each person at the table came and bought my book afterward, and had me sign. Again, the lesson is clear – discretion is the better part of valor. Don't force yourself on people, they don't like it. Be subtle, humble and kind, and you'll find a way to break in.
I'm not a big fan of swag – the millions of "things" authors carry with them and give out to their readers at signings and conferences. I've seen some very clever items – William Conescu carries pencils with his name and book title on them – imminently USEFUL, which is a bonus, Erica Spindler carries hard copies of her newsletter and adorable light bulb magnets that instruct the reader to leave the light on. Alex Kava has bookmarks that have forensic terms and their definitions parading up and down – which I'm definitely stealing one day. But I do usually carry postcards – my current one, seen here, has all my available titles:
It's handy, and helps me point out titles that the booksellers might not have brought to the festival or conference. The back is blank except for a watermark of a bullet and a Glock, and can be used to jot down useful things. I use OvernightPrints.com, buy 100 at a time so I'm always running low instead of having millions of cards laying around, and generally change the card up after each book comes out. Yes, they're bigger than bookmarks, but I've had several people tell me they like them, so I keep putting them together.
Whatever you choose to have on hand, you should have something. I passed out at least 80 postcards at the festival this weekend – a number of those fine folks bought my books at the festival, but the ones who didn't have the covers and my website ready to hand, and I saw a massive spike in my numbers this week, so it must have worked.
I adore being on panels. My first of the weekend was with three authors I've never met the lovely Karen White, Jack Riggs, and Grace Octavia. We got together at the request of our wonderful moderator Valerie 30 minutes prior to showtime, found we all had rather perverted senses of humor, went into the panel and had the audience engaged and laughing the whole time. Our moderator was excellent – she'd done her homework, had specific questions relating to our work, and was wise enough to step out of the way when we got on a roll and deviated from the plan.
My second panel was with dear friends CJ Lyons and Our Alex (note her new name – we've all gotten so possessive of you, my dear) moderated by a lurker here at Murderati (Debby – show yourself!) It was absolutely fascinating. Talk about three writers who take a very different approach to their craft. Again, the moderator was prepared, funny, and willing to let the authors take the stage. Good moderation is vital to the author's ability to give good panel. We're only as good as the directly we're being led. You'll hear it time and again: when you're moderating, the panel isn't about YOU, it's about the panel. Sadly, many, many moderators forget that, or choose to disregard, to the detriment of everyone involved.
This really goes without saying, but show your booksellers some love. Booksellers at festivals and conferences are putting in long hours, dealing with snafus and belligerent buyers, and generally getting kicked around. Treat them well. Make a point of introducing yourself, give them your business card. Offer to sign stock for them to take back to their stores. If they look haggard and thirsty, get them a drink. Kindness to your readers shouldn't stop at the ones who are opening their wallets.
CONFERENCE & FESTIVAL ORGANIZERS
Talk about people who are underpaid and overworked. Many of the people running these events are doing so as volunteers. Treat them with respect, thank them for their time and effort. Listen to them when they ask you to sit a specific place, follow their guidelines for how long you should sign. In general, make their lives easier by not being difficult. Did I say thank them? Oh yeah, don't forget to THANK THEM!
I'm going to go all debutante on you for a moment. WRITE A THANK YOU NOTE. This little nicety will be greatly appreciated.
So that's it, just a quick and dirty guide to some of the niceties you should endeavor to whilst conferencing. I would love to hear from our 'Rati commenters today:
Best experience at a conference or festival? Worst? Have you ever seen an author do something that endeared you immediately? Turned you off?
Wine of the Week: 2002 Hundred Acre Cabernet Sauvignon My brother had this in Vegas and it was ridiculously expensive, so it's definitely a special occasion bottle.