Five Simple Ways To Be An Effective Promotor

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.


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, 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.


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.

27 thoughts on “Five Simple Ways To Be An Effective Promotor

  1. Chuck

    Hi JT:

    I’ve saved this blog edition for later, and it’s interesting stuff. IMO, you do a fine job of keeping yourself out there. Wish I would have had occasion to make the ninety-minute drive down last weekend. Am sandwiched between two long biz trips and doubt my pregnant, morning-sick wife chasing our toddler would have been too pleased. Now…if I had a published book to promote…

    Mmmmm, the cab sounds yummy. Just looked it up. If the economy wasn’t so bad, I might be able to find a client to expense it on.

    Good to read you! 🙂

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    One of my favorite moments came at one of those Moveable Feasts that was put on by a small bookstore in Topsail Beach, NC. Not only was it a great event, they put all the writers up at a beach house for the weekend. It was very very cool.

    Anyway, most of the tables were older women or couples, but one was occupied by a group of attractive young women. As I sat down, one of them smiled and said “We’ve decided we all want to sleep with Jack Keller.” That was fun.

  3. Dana

    Great pots, JT. I’ve read scores of articles and blog posts on promotion, but this sums them up well, and in one point: use some common courtesy. Be nice to people, listen to what they have to say. Remember what it was like when you were the fan, approaching a favorite author and not knowing how you’ll be received.

    While people may not buy your book just because they liked you at a brief encounter, they will definitely not buy your book if they didn’t like you.

  4. Dana

    Damn, I had a nice comment written, but Type Pad ate it.

    I have thought for a long time–and you have reinforced it today–that the best thing for an author to remember when meeting readers is to use some common courtesy. A potential may not buy your book just because you treated them well, but they will definitely not buy your book if you don’t.

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Interesting post. I use individual business cards with the book covers on instead of postcards or bookmarks, which I find people like because they’re small enough to fit in a wallet without folding, and make good bookmarks as well. And pens with just the website address on.

    It’s not only moderators who can sometimes forget the panel isn’t just about them. I’ve moderated panels where occasionally – and it is only occasionally, thank goodness – a panelist wouldn’t play ball by providing me with background info, a book, requested info, nor would they even come to the green room half an hour beforehand.

    No, I won’t be buying their books, either …

    And Dusty – ‘As I sat down, one of them smiled and said “We’ve decided we all want to sleep with Jack Keller.”‘

    Well, who wouldn’t? ;-]

  6. Debby Johnson

    What JT failed to say is that not only was she absolutely fabulous as a panelist, she and CJ Lyons and this group’s very own Alexandra Sokoloff braved the threat of a snow storm (that never appeared) and risked being tramped by the hoards of South Carolinians hell bent on denuding grocery store shelves of every loaf of bread and gallon of milk in sight. We take winter seriously here.

    JT, you three writers did a super job. Your insight into character development was wonderful, your willingness to answer audience questions was so very generous, and the sex talk…well, that was just an added bonus to the panel.

    Thanks for the plug for the SC Book Festival. It’s much appreciated. Hope to see more of the Murderati crew here soon.

  7. Mark Terry

    I love your postcard. How’d you do the layout like that. I’ve got the third novel in a series coming out next May and I’d love to have a card like that–especially if I can order than 100 at a time instead of 2000 at a time.

  8. J.T. Ellison

    Morning, glories!

    Chuck, I’m sorry to have missed you too, but we’ll get our chance. I admire that you put your family first – good man. No matter what happens, they’re the ones who will be the cheerleaders, there to pick you up when you fall and celebrate when you succeed. Family should always come first. And thanks for the kind words – I try. Public speaking, as we all know, was an anathema to me, so I’m just glad I can show up and not faint. : )

    Dusty, the author I mentioned above, Karen White, is doing the Topsail event this weekend. It sounds like great fun. I’d love to hang in a beach house with my compatriots, stewing up good ways to entertain our tables. May have to look into that one.

    Dana, I’m continually shocked at how naughty some authors can be. I’ve found that mystery conferences are the most fun because the authors are there to meet readers and enjoy themselves. There’s not as much elitism, I think.

  9. J.T. Ellison

    Z, I so hear you. I think we’ve all been on a panel that is taken over by the panel hog – and that’s also the moderator’s problem – knowing when to shut someone up.

    I really liked William Conescu’s pencils – I’m a pencil fan, so it was fun. have business cards too – I’ll alternate between postcard and business card depending on the person.

    Debbie – that’s the problem with the three of us, we can’ be in a room together for more than five minutes without the conversation devolving into sex. (Stringer Bell 4Evah!) It was a wonderful panel – your lead, your questions, everything was perfect. Much fun, and thank you!

  10. J.T. Ellison

    Mark – in a word, PowerPoint 2007. I have about the same design capacity as the elephants who paint with their trunks, so I rely on the programs to help me along. Input the cover, then under shape effects select your reflection plus a 3-D rotation to turn them. Simple as pie.

  11. Louise Ure

    JT, I did a Moveable Feast like yours for the Sacramento Library and loved it … with one exception. The tables were so big that you had to shout to be heard and it was total cacophony by the end of evening.

    Thank you for all the good convention advice here, as I’m heading west to Hawaii for Left Coast Crime today. I should print it out as hand outs to all attendees!

  12. Cornelia Read

    What a wonderful post, JT. I think my motto for promotion has become “the older I get, the more ‘nice’ matters.” When I meet other authors, it’s the kind ones I remember, even before the witty ones.

    I’m so glad you guys had fun in South Carolina, and isn’t Debby great fun? I bet your panels were splendid (AND witty!)

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Debby is a great moderator and kept the focus of the panel squarely where it belonged – on sex. I mean, right, character development.

    What a lovely festival that is – everyone was so friendly and so many people turned out in the pouring rain. I had a great time!

  14. Jeff Abbott

    My favorite bad signing experience was the children’s author who complained about his long line. A LONG LINE OF EAGER, EXCITED CHILDREN CLUTCHING BOOKS. Let me tell you, the kids didn’t hear his tantrum, but some mothers did. And book-buying mamas talk amongst themselves. He’s lucky he didn’t have a voodoo doll fashioned out of him, crushed under remainders.

  15. Mary-Frances Makichen

    Hey JT,The South Carolina Festival sounds wonderful–lots of opportunities for good conversations. Thanks for this post. It’s a great reminder about the importance of getting out there and meeting people. Especially when you have a good promo strategy in place.

  16. J.T. Ellison

    Louise, the ambient noise is the one drawback, I was a little hoarse after Sunday brunch from raising my voice to be heard. It is a bit like talking through a cloud of bees…

    Cornelia, I agree wholeheartedly. I’m much more interested in meeting nice people. Like you!

    X, it was so good to see you, albeit it briefly. Glad you made it home okay and didn’t get caught in the blizzard.

    Jeff, I remember you telling me that story – it’s endemic, it seems. My God, if you hate these events, don’t do them. You’ll cost yourself readers instead of growing your base.

    Mary-Frances, having met you at a conference, you already have all of this down pat. ; )

  17. Naomi

    I’ve come to loathe the term, “author promotion,” because to me it evokes a cookie-cutter formula, a standard recipe to move debut/midlist books. I recently read an agent state that it was imperative for books “to find their audience” and that concept makes more sense to me. Who’s your book’s core readership? Are they twittering or are they going to book clubs or other special-interest groups? (BTW, for a great success story of twittering in selling food, check this out–watch the video–it’s all the rage in L.A.! .)

    I’ve come to have a new thought about mystery conventions–if you can’t commit to going to same convention more than once in a three, four year span, then it’s better not to go. You do build relationships at these gatherings, so it makes sense to invest in them on a semi-regular basis.

    We are the door-to-door salespeople, the Willie Lomans of our books. With our ear to the ground, we should have some idea who are reading our books.

  18. Jake Nantz

    JT,Fun post! While I can’t speak to conferences, I can at least relate something I wrote about a while back on my blog. I went to a signing by one of my idols and favorite authors, and it was shortly after I found out my first story would be coming out in Spinetingler. Jeffery Deaver was signing for THE BODIES LEFT BEHIND up in North Raleigh, so I went to hear him speak and pick up the new hardcover and get it signed.

    I was last in line, and when I got up there I gave him the, “You probably don’t remember me, but…” line. He squinted and said he thought he did, but couldn’t place the name. I mentioned about writing and that I’d spoken to him during his SLEEPING DOLL tour. He was gracious, seemed to remember me, and was wonderfully encouraging.

    And now that I think about it, he pretty much let me fill in all the gaps, so he may really have remembered me, or he may not have known me from Adam’s housecat. But because of the way he handled it, it FELT like one of my favorite authors specifically remembered me, which is HUGE for a reader.

    So yeah JT, I think you are absolutely right in saying that the best way to build marketable relationships with fans is kindness. I think about baseball players who will sign stuff for a few minutes and then split, because a lot of the people getting signatures are just going to hawk it later for a buck. Then I think of Cal Ripken Jr. The guy was famous for signing for HOURS after others had left, because he never wanted a kid who could’ve been a fan of his to go home disappointed. I know authors don’t get the money, or fame, or even have the time pro ballplayers do. But even so, I hope to always be like Cal if I get published, and it really means a lot to me as a fan when the authors I’m there to see are like Cal too.

  19. pari

    JT,You’re such a wonderful example of what you preach. I’ve constantly been amazed at your ability to keep getting yourself out there and to do it with such grace.

    This was a beautiful and useful post.

    Thank you.

  20. B.G. Ritts

    Turned you off? — Yep.

    At a B’con, a best selling author was walking out of the book room [lots of unspecified detail], I was getting ready to walk in. I put on a smile and got ready to nod as we passed and the author, just as we’d probably have looked at each other, looked away and down at something or other so as not to have to speak to me I guess. I was a bit surprised. It’s the only such instance that’s happened to me at a con. I can’t seem to get interested in the author’s books any longer.

  21. Fran

    Smile and be nice. I know it can be hard, but oh how it matters!

    We had a Big Name in a few years ago. Top Tier Name. And yeah, we’re a small shop, but we had people lined up all around the shop and out the door. It was a big deal to us, and for them.

    And she was on the phone the entire time, complaining to her agent about what a pain it was to have to be there. Loudly.

    Our sales of her books have dropped dramatically, which hasn’t hurt her in the slightest, of course. But that’s not the point.

    Be nice. Even if it’s hard, be nice. It matters.

  22. Becky Hutchison

    Great blog, JT!

    The best promo I’ve seen at any conferences is Hank Philippi Ryan’s lip balm in a lipstick tube. It’s favored and has her current book cover pictured on the outside along with her web address. The balm works, it tastes good and you see the book’s cover every time you use it.

    Also, one of the best moderators at B’con was Madeira James, an awesome website designer, who made sure that all the panelists talked directly into the microphones. So many times I’m interested in hearing what a panel member has to say and then can’t even hear the person. Madeira made sure that every panelist spoke up and that all the audience could easily hear the discussions.

  23. J.T. Ellison

    Sorry to have disappeared – I was finishing the galleys for EDGE OF BLACK and got a bit lost in the time/space continuum, then had a dinner to go to. I’m back now…

    Naomi, it’s great to see you here! I know what you mean about the cons – there’s a camaraderie that builds between the attendees of these conferences, inside jokes and experiences that make each year richer than the last. An excellent point.

    Jake, I’m SO glad you mentioned this. I am absolutely HORRIBLE with names. I need to see them written on a name tag, and see them a few times, to remember them. Faces, on the other hand, are much easier. I always introduce myself, and when I’m getting a book signed, spell my name for the author so they don’t have to ask. I also ask for every name;s spelling so I don’t mess it up. I try to remember all the names, but I’m just bad at it. I’m working on it…

    That Jeff Deaver has mastered the grace of handling this doesn’t surprise me.

    Pari, thank you. I studied from some masters, you included!

  24. J.T. Ellison

    Chester, thank you! It’s so nice to have folks who’ve been there with me from the very beginning – those who know my real name… ; )

    BG, eye contact is vital for me, only because I love to see what’s hiding in people’s faces. I’m sorry you had that experience – poo on them!

    Fran, unbelievable. If I’m ever that rude, someone slap me, okay? Glad that you’re not rewarding the bad behavior, too!

    Becky, another good point – speaking into the mic is a must. At our reading, one of the authors sat very far away from hers and no one in the last three rows could hear her – which was a shame, because her work was good!

  25. Geoff Talbot

    Hi JT,

    Likewise great blog! Really good advise too. Although I am a filmmaker and not an author (not yet), your sound advice on humility and friendliness crosses in to just about every area of life. I like it a lot.



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