A long time ago, when I moved in to live with a boyfriend, my father said to me, "Why pay the cow, when you can get the milk for free?"
Okay, there was too much wrong with his offensive question, but . . .
I’ve been wondering about writers, money and the whole PR thing lately.
For years, I’ve been the poster girl for the "Everything-You-Do-Is-PR — Everything-You-Do-Is-Worth-It" school. I’ve gone to any event to which I was invited, simply because it was "good publicity." I’ve prepared talks, bought nice clothes and makeup, ordered promotional materials — just to put on a good show.
Yet, I’ve gotten the sense during the last few months that a lot of this effort has merely been a distraction (kind of like what J.T. wrote about internet social networking on Friday). It’s taking me away from writing and returning little of value professionally, socially or emotionally.
Worse, it may be damaging. If I’m willing to do all of this for free, how much are my time, words and work really worth?
These questions really hit me last Wednesday when I was a panelist at a professional women’s luncheon. The organizers were delighted with a much larger than normal turnout. We authors were a draw. We were given a paltry lunch (not even chocolate in the dessert) and had to sit through at least 30 minutes of oral ads and testimonials about the organization. And then, poof, we were the entertainment.
Few books sold.
Three hours down the drain.
What good came of it, other than making some nice women laugh?
Compound this with the compelling arguments I’ve heard from people I respect — people who are making money writing fiction — about how we writers should spend our time writing, producing product. Their view is that the business end of pr/marketing should still be the purview of publishers.
I’m flummoxed, bamboozled, confused.
When did we novelists begin to buy into the idea that we needed to spend our own cash to market our works? Has this model always been so? It’s incredibly counterintuitive when you consider how much most of us actually make. Go here to see romance author Brenda Hiatt’s impressive brass tacks info about advances and royalties at many publishings houses.
Then, I ran across this YouTube video with screenwriter Harlan Ellison. There’s strong language in it, but his point is well taken. Why do we writers give our words away for free?
Ah, the old refrain: "It’s good publicity."
These questions come at a lousy time in my career. Right now, the University of New Mexico Press and I are lining up out-of-state booksignings for THE SOCORRO BLAST. I’ve signed up for three conventions in ’08 and may go to more. I’ve ordered 5,000 postcards and have come up with at least as many new PR ideas.
Am I being stupid?
Should authors hop on planes, pay for hotel rooms, rent cars and sell the heck out of their books when these actitivies keep them from doing their real work — writing?
Have we backed ourselves into this corner? Is it a corner? Do we even want to get out?
Again, I don’t know.
The ego and social parts of me love doing public events and going to conventions. I adore making people laugh and think.
And then there are the friendships cultivated and nurtured through these on-site trips. They’re worth so much to the quality of my life.
But . . .
The business side of me — and my husband, the accountant — wonder what the hell I’m doing.
Should we authors spend so much time giving our milk away for free?
Ouch! I feel your dilemma–and you’re one of the authors with a track record and a readership, and a press who is willing to help. Pity us poor newbies who are clueless. Reading across the mystery blogs and loops, it is clear that there is no consensus among writers about the best way to market yourself. Go to conferences and schmooze; no, don’t waste the money. Make a book trailer; no, readers don’t look at those. Approach libraries and/or bookstores; no, too little return for your efforts (what, you sold three books?).
We want to feel like we have some control over the process, and maybe if we do everything right, we’ll sell lots of books. I suspect the truth is different. But it doesn’t stop us from writing, does it? And hoping?
Pari, the Harlan Ellison video struck home to me. I don’t do a lot of promo, but I do give away a lot of books and I’ve paid for a few things like AuthorBuzz–knowing, however, that my publisher was putting some muscle behind the book (co-op, ARCs, etc.)
However, I have always spoken for free (or, rather a free lunch!) and when I go to conferences to speak, I donate the speaking fee back to the organization. My theory was, IF I had the time to speak, I would be happy to do so as long as it was no money out of my pocket (airfare, etc).
As far as writing organizations go (like RWA chapters), I’ll probably keep that policy, but since I only do 1-2 a year it’s okay. But for everything else–I’ve been where you were–great turnout, minimal sales, all with the hope that they’d remember me and buy my books later.
Hmm, then on the flipside, one of those events I went to got me a huge write up in a local paper.
I’ve confused myself. Back to writing.
I did a whole lot for free this first year – I just wanted to be out there and try everything.
This year I’m not doing any events that don’t pay me, except for the big conventions, which I think are worth their weight in gold, and booksignings that can be scheduled for places I’m going to be anyway or am already being paid to go to.
I’m able to do that because I did so much the first year that I made enough contacts to be offered paying gigs – so my POV is that it’s crucial to do enough for free in the beginning to build to the point that you’re being offered enough to choose only the paying gigs.
I’m cutting way back, though, so I can do more writing this year.
Sheila,Boy, do I know what you’re talking about. There’s so much contradiction out there. I remember being desperate to have it all make sense, to have rules by which I could guide my career. Now, almost four years into it, I’m even more confused.
But I do still subscribe to the idea that nothing is truly wasted. So, take hope from that.
Even if I find myself questioning the wisdom — in retrospect — of agreeing to speak at certain events, I know that more goes on than what I see in that moment.
Take heart. We’re all learning on this road.
My only true advice is to watch out for people who believe they have all the answers and that their answers will work for everyone else.
Allison,You astound me with your energy and wisdom. I really look up to you and value your input/perspective.
You’ve got an interesting advantage because of that publisher power behind your books. I like how you’ve set your boundaries and what you’re comfortable with.
As to the write up in the paper . . . I’ve had a lot of success with that kind of media — radio seems to be one of my biggies — but the whole business of being “top-of-mind” needs to translate into sales at some point. Otherwise, it’s just a nice ego boost.
That’s what I’m wondering about now.
I’m pretty well known in many mystery circles, have had features written about me in different regions of the country, and yet . . . here I am, wondering about their professional worth.
As I said before, I’m confused, too.
Alex,You’ve truly impressed me with your ability and dedication to “getting out there” during your first year of publication.
I think it will serve you well in the long run.
I had a similar strategy, though not as extensive in travel as yours, and I think it’s helped.
With the release of SOCORRO, I’ll better be able to gauge if my efforts can hold true becuase I haven’t been on the road in a major way during this year.
It’s going to be an interesting New Year.
Pari, I was committed to not touring for the release of ATPG. It was a decision Mira and I made together. As a debut, what’s the point? I can’t see that it’s remotely cost effective. Then I got an invitation I couldn’t refuse and suddenly had six signings, then eight, and another — but, I’m not making any special trips on my own for things I’ve pursued. And thus far, it’s been well worth the effort.
I was invited to a wonderful event in Lakeland, and when I got there and saw the program I flipped. It said I was embarking on a nine-state tour for my book. What? How did they get that? Well, when I went into my schedule, they were right, over the course of the first year of my writing career, post-publication, from Nov 2007- Oct 2008 I am actually hitting ten states (including my TN events) — a combination of signings, book festivals and conferences. Halfway through I’ll start promoting the next book (probably July ish) to get the most bang for the buck.This from the writer who swore up and down she wasn’t going to tour.
But the dates are spread out enough that I’ll have plenty of time between events. Several are paid, or partially paid for by honorariums. The signings have been invitations from bookstores — Borders has been unbelievably kind to me, sending me out regionally to their heavy crime fiction stores.
My plan from the beginning was to annually attend Thrillerfest and Boucheron, then rotate one other conference through the schedule. Three cons is more than enough. I still feel that way — though I did add some library events and two more book festivals, but those aren’t heavy time commitments.
I’d love to get to the point that I write for 10 months out of the year, promote heavily for one, and take one off. It’s a crazy balancing act. But, no matter what, the writing is the most important thing. If you don’t have a great book to promote, there’s just no point.
And I see I didn’t answer the question. Should we be giving it away for free? No. We don’t ask doctors or dentists or chefs or gas station attendants or movie theater owners to give their livelihood away. Why should we?
No chocolate? Screw that! Seems to me J.D. Rhoades had a great idea to do a book signing at a mall book store on the one day of the year when the store was guaranteed to be packed – Black Friday.
And J.A. Konrath has done several blogs about what’s worthwhile PR-wise and what ain’t. Check out what he has to say.
Since blogs and myspace are free, and you can reach a ton of people who already have some interest in you if they “friend” you or drop by your blog even if it’s just to lurk (and you don’t have to get dressed or put on make-up to sit at the computer)- it seems the best way to go. That and doing a live promo event where a HUGE audience is guaranteed (like maybe a big name conference?) as opposed to a little luncheon group.
J.T.,We’ve spoken about this before. I think your model will work well because of the superb distribution that Mira has. For those of us who have publishers without this magnificent reach, it’s a different equation.
I’m just not sure what the equation is . . .
And, I adore your idea of the ideal work year. Wow.
Josephine,I agree that the internet has tremendous potential — but, while it’s often free financially, there’s a tremendous time cost to making it work professionally.
There are also some events where large crowds are guaranteed — such as being a keynoter for a conference or convention. But, even the largest mystery conventions don’t have those kinds of guarantees if you’re on any kind of a panel. It depends on what other panels are running concurrently and who is on yours.
Conferences such as Murder in the Magic City in Birmingham, AL might only have 135 people, but since the panels run sequentially, you have that full audience.
And, number can be deceiving. I’ve spoken at gatherings of 35 where I’ve sold close to 70 books AND gatherings of 500 where I’ve sold 35. You just never know . . .
RE: Joe Konrath — and Barry Eisler, Tess Gerritsen and MJ Rose — all of these authors have tremendous wisdom and are generous to share it.
I still believe that the basic marketing model shifts depending on the publishers’ distribution power though.
Damn good questions today, Pari. (And while I agree wholeheartedly with the Ellison video, I had to laugh about him wanting a free copy of the DVD he didn’t contribute to.)
I, too, pulled all the stops out on promoting the first book. I think I’m spending my money more wisely with the second.
But it’s all a supply and demand question, isn’t it? Because the supply of good manuscripts available is higher than the available publishing slots for them, we’ll continue to give away our services and take fewer dollars in advances.
I agree with Alex’s approach about investing in promotion in the beginning of your career.
That’s the time to do it–nobody really knows who you are and your publisher is waiting to see how you, an unknown commodity, will do out in the mystery market. That’s why I think doing a Bouchercon early is useful. You get to meet lots of people, including agents, editors, and reviewers. You never know how and when your paths might cross again.
One kind of workshop I’m going to do less of is anything related to how to get published. I’ve spearheaded these kind of seminars as a community service, and it’s been rewarding. But that’s separate from book promotion.
I do think mystery writers have a tendency to give away their milk for free. Since I’ll be entering the children’s book market in 2008, I see that many writers in this genre charge good money ranging from $500-$2,500 a day to speak to schools and even libraries (this is excluding reimbursement for travel expenses). The talks are indeed demanding, sometimes to multiple classes and/or an assembly. And a talk for “education” versus “recreation” is obviously viewed differently. But it does make me wonder–are mystery writers devaluing themselves?
Louise,I wonder about that whole supply vs. demand thing.
Naomi’s comments are interesting because she delves into some of my fundamental questions.
Sure there are many writers out there — and, as Louise says, there are far more good manuscripts than publishing slots available.
But . . .
The same is true in every genre and as Naomi notes, some communities of authors are far less willing to do the kinds of talks I’m talking about .
To me, when I’m earning an income talking that is far more attractive than being the free entertainment to benefit someone/something else.
Of course there are exceptions!
But, that’s where I get stumped.
What’s truly worth my time away from writing?
Again, the same refrain, “I don’t know.”
I guess I’m really just wondering about the value of getting your name out all over the place when it’s at the detriment of producing your product.
GOOD PUBLICITY can be had from paying gigs too.
Naomi,Thank you for your insights. I addressed several of them in the response to Louise, but realized I hadn’t thanked you, m’dear.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a cost benefit vs. possible reward analysis. If there isn’t a strong enough case I don’t do it. There is a point where it doesn’t make sense. I know it sounds mean but where in any other job would you expect to give your time for free and worse still spend thousands of dollars doing it.
Also, it’s surprising that when you decide to ask for compensation for your time, you do start to get it.
You know, Simon,I think you’ve hit on a couple of really good points:
cost-benefit analysis:At this point in my career, there needs to be a more direct answer to this than merely “good publicity.” Ya know?
asking for compensation:Yep. I know that I was invited to one event that would have required quite a bit of prep time and travel. I asked about compensation; the organizer was stunned and said no one had ever asked about that before. And, well, there wasn’t going to be any.
Although it might have been fun AND I might have met some great people, I realized I could achieve the same benefits much closer to home.
This doesn’t mean I’m not going to travel. It just means I’m going to value my own time a bit more. If I do, others will, too.
Max Barry, the guy who wrote Syrup, Jennifer Government, and Company, got dropped from his publisher after Syrup and then Jennifer Government was a breakout hit.
Because of Nation States, partially. An online game Max created to help promote the book. Millions of accounts have been created since he started the game, and many, many, many Max fans count Nation States among their first contact points.
I think the point I’m trying to make is, it’s not the quantity of the publicity that matters, it’s the quality, the drawing power.
Why do we writers give away our words for free? Because we love to write. I’m giving you free words right now, you gave me free words in your blog. Did you do that because you wanted me to buy your book, or because you had something to say? Answers are obvious, or should be.
I don’t have experience yet with book marketing/publicity, but I’ve struggled with this with my private practice.
Clients pay for sessions, and most want me to file their insurance, which takes time, often repeated filing of claims, and often pays far less than my fee.
I used to get called to testify in court at the drop of a hat, and that always took up a whole day at the least, and forced me to spend money in the meantime for parking, lunch, loss of billable hours in my office.
I finally got savvy and did what Simon suggests. I asked for payment for my time. Not just the 20 minutes for testimony, but the entire time I had to sit and wait, etc. Reimbursement for travel and expenses.
I have mostly stopped filing insurance. I ask clients to pay for their sessions and I provide paperwork they can file for reimbursement.
Amazingly, once I began to value my own time and ask for what I consider very reasonable compensation, I GOT it.
And in an odd way, I think people value my services more.
I hope this experience serves me well as a published author – we’ll see.
G.T.,You’re absolutely right. It’s not the quantity, but the quality. I’m going to have to check out more about Max Barry; he sounds fascinating.
Billie . . .
All I can say is, “Yes!”
Excellent post, Pari. I guess the hope is if we do enough promotion early on we’ll reach a point where we don’t have to do as much later. In my own case my first two books were published by small publishers with little distribution and even less promotion, so spending my time trying to convince bookstores to do signings or to try cracking the Boston media for interviews/reviews didn’t seem all that worthwhile. With my next three coming from a larger publisher that has pretty marketing and good distribution I’ve started doing some cost-effective (cheap!) promotion for my second book more for the experience than anything else–library talks, book signings, articles in local papers. None of it has sold many books, but I figure it will help get me ready for when my first Serpent’s Tail book is out.
There is a double-edged sword when it comes to the question of promotion.
On the one hand, I completely agree with not giving it away. Every investment, be it of time or money, has to be measured. The writing must remain the priority or there won’t be published books to promote.
And I am also convinced that the push on authors to spend their whole advance (or more) promoting and to do more, more, more has only served to justify the the lack of action of some publishers who do little/nothing to promote their authors. I’ve stated this on my own blog, the majority of ARCs we’re offered come directly from the authors and a high percentage of the time when a publisher is supposed to send a review copy they never do. And I’m talking about big, reputable NYC publishers. I’m not really keen on taking on reviewers anymore, because they commit themselves to a book, thus passing on other books, and it never comes anyway, and all it does it waste my time coordinating that.
But on the other hand, when people don’t do things, others always step up. I think what’s driving most people is the constant talk of the state of the industry, of declining book sales, of how hard it is to stay alive in the marketplace. We’re selling a culture of fear to each other, whether it’s valid or not. The result is panicked authors running around like chickens with their heads cut off. And if one turns down an offer, someone else will take it up. You never know when it might be the time a newspaper picks up on a story about an event or whatever.
I don’t think authors should be paid to do every event – certainly we don’t get paid for B’con for example. We pay for it. Every business involves start-up costs and investments that have to be seen as paying off in the long term.
But I have noted that a number of the books I’ve read that have been sloppy, filled with typos and other mistakes, have come to me as a result of more diligent self promoters. Coincidence? I think not.
Add in this: People are ridiculous about knowing who they’re targeting with all this promotion. I get postcards from authors for books not for sale in Canada. Now, I order books from the US and the UK, but anything recyclable goes in the bin at the post office (mail does not come to my door here) so that I don’t have to pay to recycle it. So, is it a good idea to send one to me? Probably not.
Add in another fact – we spend way too much time preaching to the choir and promoting to other authors. What matters is getting your book in stores and getting your name recognized so that people will pick your book up. That means being known to readers, not spending all your time with authors, much as I love them. And if a con has a really high author ratio for attendance, it probably isn’t worth the time and financial cost, fun as they are.
Two other things that come into play in promotion for me:
1) geography. I live in a fairly remote area. It’s six hours one way in the car to another city of any size which has a bookstore. I don’t have 50 stores within 50 miles. Airfare is astronomical. With the Julie Collins books I’m with a small publisher who does not pay for any type of book tour (happily, they feel print advertising is what works best for them at this point, and I agree) But if a library is willing to pay to have me come there and speak, and a local bookseller is willing to set up shop, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. As long as I’m not under deadline. As long as it doesn’t conflict with the other main part of my life – not writing, and that is:
2) family. We have three children, my main job has always been staying home raising them, not alone thank GOD, but it is a full time job. Is my writing a career? Absolutely. But if I have to choose whether to spend money on a family vacation or a conference, family wins every time. If I have to choose between having time to write, or promotion, writing wins, hands down, every time. If there’s a cool conference, and a child has a scheduled function (not something easy, but like senior prom or an important recital or a tournament) I’ll pick that every time. I’m in this career for the long haul, my children will be grown and out of the house far too soon, and I’ll still be writing. There will still be conferences. There will still be pressure to promote.
I wish I could do it all, I can’t. I don’t want to. There comes a point where you have to ignore what everyone else is doing for promo (except what your publisher tells you to do) and focus on what’s important. For me, that’s the process of parenting and writing. Period.
Boy,I should stay away longer during the day . . .
Dave and Lori,I’m going to be very interested to know how your experience changes — and how the expectations change — when you get into full swing with bigger publishers. Please report back to us . . .
Dave,I doubt you need any “experience.” You’re a great storyteller and I bet that translates into your personal appearances as well.
Sandra,Wow. Thank you for your considered post. You bring up so many good points, I don’t know where to begin.
Perhaps the comment about the kind of peer pressure that’s out there — if you don’t step up, someone else will — is too true.
And, yet, if we authors ever tried to join ranks for change, I bet we’d have an impact.
Personally, I wish every novelist would stand up and educate readers about book swapping and lending (other than in libraries). This is true about used books as well. Both of these practices — when the books are in print — serve to cut sales numbers and torpedo careers. I know too many good authors who have been dropped — or their lines have been discontinued — due to shrinking numbers. And yet their fans protest that they adore their books.
oh, oh. I’m going on a tangent here.
better stop while I’m ahead.
Lori,Your priorities are very similar to mine. Kids first. Travel and promotion have to take a back seat to family needs.
That said, I just booked an appearance at a bookstore in the Bay Area. Yeah, it’s far from home, but this one is worth it . . .
BTW: Congrats on the great, great news.
Anyone who is interested in Lori’s wonderful news should watch this most excellent video:http://firstoffenders.typepad.com/offenders/2007/11/big-big-big-new.html
If you decide you want to speak to people at a library group or at a school for free, do it to contribute something to the community. If you get annoyed because your main reason for being there is to sell books and you don’t sell enough to make it worth it, then … don’t. If you decide to make money as a speaker for hire, okay, go for it.
But, you know? I’m sensing more and more hostility to readers of the world because they are so crass they check books out of the library or buy them used or give them to one another or think you might sign their baseball (oh wait…)
I don’t think telling readers that they shouldn’t buy books used or share them with other people is a good strategy. Giving them value added for buying a book new – yes, sure. But don’t discourage or scold them if they don’t. I totally agree with Sandra – we’re succumbing to a culture of fear. And mindless competition. Let’s just celebrate reading and do some writing instead of all the selling.
I think it’s healthy to scale back on promotion if it’s not rewarding in what ever way you measure it. There’s way too much of it out there, anyway.
Oh boy, am I cranky or what? Sorry. ‘Tis the season.
Harlan Ellison said the amateurs make it hard for the professionals because they’re just thrilled to get published and they’d do it for free.
That’s a great point, and I admire him for saying it. One of my publishers has hit upon hard times, and she’s advertising everywhere for writers. You know why? Because there are tons who’ll write for a penny per word. Heck, they’d write for nothing per word.
It all comes down to the bottom line. If she buys enough of my stuff to keep her readers (but not as much as I’d like or our readers would like), and supplements it with penny writers, then she can stay in business.
Honestly, we writers need to educate each other a little more. Undercutting each other, to a certain extent, harms each other AND the genre. I honestly believe those penny writers have no idea what they’re doing; they’re just amateurs on a lark and are thrilled out of their mind to get published. I don’t blame them, really.
It’s a difficult situation.
When it comes to events, that’s tougher. Yes, we need to pay for advertising, but where is that line? We need to pay for publicity, and sometimes do events for free for publicity, but where is that line?
On the other hand, penny writers or for-nothing writers force those of us who DO want to make a living to write better. We HAVE to write better in order to rise above that level and create the demand for our product.
But sh*t, if it doesn’t feel like that “line” keeps creeping up and up and up and up.
One of my biggest pet peeves is that tons of well-meaning writers tell newbies “don’t quit your day job” and “don’t expect to make a living at this.” I think that’s the wrong approach. We need to band together and INSIST that we make a living from this. Telling newbies such things just furthers the impression that our craft, our trade, is unworthy of making a living.
We should be telling newbies, “Don’t write for less than X money,” and “Insist upon this and this in your contracts.” And “undercutting on this point will lessen the ability for ALL writers to make a living at this craft.”
Just my two cents.
Barbara,We both went on a tirade, no?
I don’t feel hostility at all towards readers; without them, I probably wouldn’t write novels. (I’d still be writing something.) But, I think many don’t realize that when they share in-print books ad nauseum, they’re really shooting themselves in the foot too. Only the biggest of the big authors can afford to lose sale after sale. That’s the reality.
I don’t begrudge anyone who is on a tight budget or uses the library. But, in my experience, the people who go to used bookstores the most are those who are looking for bargains — not to support writers. It’s a different mindset.
Please don’t take offense . . . it’s just what I’ve noticed during the last few years.
Believe me, I’m grateful for every reader I have.
Re: promotionYep. That’s one of the points of the post — but no one has ventured a guess as to when the responsibility shifted from the publishing houses more and more to the writers. I’d be really curious.
SpyScribbler,Yeah, that’s what I was talking about re: writers uniting. Wouldn’t that be an astounding thing?
I haven’t the first idea how to make it happen though. Too many of us with too many disparate interests and concerns.
Those penny writers want to break in. They figure if they start small, they might make it big.
Heck, it’s a strategy that’s worked for some.
Last week I wrote about writers and respect from others. Now, I guess this week’s post was about writers and their own self-respect.
Hum . . .
One last comment for this eve . . .
I remain undecided and confused by this whole issue; that’s why I wrote about it.
My publisher has been pretty darn good to me. I’m not making mega bucks, but I’m treated very well, have a say in my covers and the book’s marketing.
Though I hope to make more at my chosen profession, I’m one of the lucky ones right now.
If I did no promotion at all, UNMP would probably still publish me.
But, where is the balance? What’s reasonable to expect from writers, publishers, readers?
I just don’t know.
Thanks for the great conversation. I hope we can continue it in the days and months to come.
Pari, & all the wonderful gang of contributors:
Thanks so much for bringing up this topic! I’m as yet unpublished, but of course already worried about the ins-and-outs of PR, the future of publishing, and the bottom line…the do-re-mi, to quote Woody Guthrie!
So much to ponder.
Lynn,The best advice I’ve gotten is to worry about the writing, the product. The PR and marketing come later.