There are some writers — Kate Messner, Chris Barton, Cynthia Lord, and Katie Davis spring to mind — who seem exceptionally capable when it comes to book promotion. They offer something more to indie booksellers and readers than the simple bookmarks or postcards that many of us rely on, and those extras help make events and book sales pop.
YA and MG author Eric Luper (Jeremy Bender and the Cupcake Cadets, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, May 2011) is such an author, with a knack for coming up with creative ways to get out the word about his books. To me, he seems poised to hit the mainstream, and I think his efforts have a lot to offer both booksellers and up-and-coming authors.
I’ve run across Luper at a few writing conferences over the years, and always gotten a kick out of his laid-back manner and wry sense of humor. I had heard of (not read) his first novel, Big Slick (FSG, 2007), but I didn’t really catch on to his literary prowess until 2009, when his second YA novel for FSG, Bug Boy, started getting some critical attention. (No stars, by the way, for those following the starred-review-list discussion, but it got glowing write-ups all around, which propelled the book to the top of my reading pile.) It was terrific — fresh and fast-paced, tightly written and different from anything else I’d read. Then I read 2010’s Seth Baumgartner’s Love Manifesto (Balzer + Bray) last fall, and loved it — so funny and endearing. (This book deserves a much wider reading audience; try it with fans of David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, John Green, E. Lockhart, David Klass, Ellen Wittlinger, David Lubar, and Neal Shusterman.)
Those back-to-back solid hitters made me eager to read the next title. Luper’s new book marks his first foray into middle-grade fiction and is a slapstick farce for kids who like Gordon Korman, Christopher Paul Curtis’s Mr Chickee series, and Lisa Yee’s Bobby books, though a bit older than the last. Unlike the quieter releases of his prior novels, I’ve been hearing a lot about this one — most of it due to Luper’s own promotional efforts. Bug Boy had led me to “friend” Eric on Facebook, which is where I started noticing his interesting promotional ideas. Then, when our bookstore invited him to do a reading and signing this summer, I was surprised by the number of great ideas he had for the event, and how helpful he was in providing promotional materials for it. He also mentioned some of the unusual events he had coming up to promote Jeremy Bender, and they so impressed me that I invited him to share his promotional process with you all.
He responded with the following:
My first novel came out in 2007 and even in that short period of time the landscape has changed when it comes to book promotion. When Big Slick released, the expectation was to show up at a few book signings, sign a bunch of books and go home.
Over the years, and, more importantly, through the release of three more books, I’ve come to learn there is a great deal more to it than this. Sure, there are authors who still show up with nothing more than a pen in hand, but how can these people expect anyone to show up beyond friends and family if there is no outreach?
These past five years have shown me that a little homework, a little groundwork and a little legwork can lead to far more successful events, and this benefits everyone.
I sort of fly by the seat of my pants when it comes to marketing and promotion. So far, every book has been different and I learn things with each book that I can take on to the next. I also discard a whole lot. I like to be experimental when it comes to marketing and promotion.
I try my best to link my efforts to the nature of the book I have coming out. This permeates all aspects of my marketing. So, when I have a humorous book coming out, I try to engage potential readers with humor, I try to make them laugh. When I have a more serious book coming out, I try to raise awareness about whatever the issues I’ve worked into my book. It’s a matter of engaging potential readers with attitude and information that is going to draw them toward the book I’ve written.
Using Jeremy Bender and the Cupcake Cadets as an example, I focused a great deal on humor with Facebook and Twitter. Several times a day, I posted something I found amusing: a quirky thought, an funny article or even a link to something funny someone else said (why reinvent the wheel, right?). Interspersed between those things, I put links to reviews with an engaging quote or some positive thing about my book. I also focused on having a unique and funny book trailer (actually, I left it to my brilliant videographer to make me funny). Both of these have been proving to be really useful.
The interesting thing is that all of these efforts build on one another. So, something positive on Facebook translates well to Twitter or feeding somehow into my website. And great reviews can go anywhere!
Just like authors, local business owners are always looking for ways to get the word out about their product or service inexpensively. That is where cross-promotional marketing can be really useful.
People consider it thinking ‘out of the box’ but I consider it second nature. Businesses work together all the time to cross promote and having a book out on the shelves is no different. For Big Slick, I had a signing in the main poker room at Foxwood’s Casino. That’s where they have the World Series of Poker! When Bug Boy came out, I did events that related to horseracing. I had an event at the National Museum of Racing. I held events at fundraisers related to racing, at the track and even at an OTB. For Jeremy Bender, I decided to approach cupcake bakeries. Most were more than eager to work on cross-promotional events. For one signing, a bakery is donating trays of cupcakes in exchange for me putting out some signage and coupons for their business. Another bakery is showing up at a different signing with their cupcake bus! The great thing is that cross-promotional marketing can work both ways. Just like I will advertise the event to my own friends, the other company is going to want to do the same. In the case of the cupcake bakery, they have over 2500 Facebook friends and twice as many Twitter followers that would not have otherwise heard of my book. And those people are all local!
Another thing I like to do is have events at fundraisers or donate money to an appropriate charity. With so much information readily available, press releases announcing new books typically go unanswered, especially when your press release reads like an advertisement. However, I’ve found linking a book release and signing to a charity will garner much better press coverage. It works especially well if the charity is somehow thematically related to your book. Have a book about bullying? Donate a portion of the book sales to an anti-bullying charity. And here’s a little secret: sometimes the bookstore will agree to do this as well. Sure, it cuts into your bottom line, but I’ve found the publicity is worth the cost.
Radio and TV Coverage
Whenever I set my mind to getting an interview (radio, television or print), I think about what the consumer would want to hear about. I have no illusions about my celebrity. I’m not nearly as famous as most toll booth collectors. People are not going to tune in to hear me talk. I get much better traction with press releases where the book comes second to a sexy topic. I look for current articles and studies relevant to the themes I cover in my books. I quote the article and make that the thrust. As a secondary mention, I segue into the “local author” who has written a book on the topic. This lobs a softball to the news people. It makes it easy for them to envision the story, along with the ‘news angle’.
I make sure to follow up my contact with a nice email or note thanking them for their time. After a few good interviews, I become a ‘friend of the show’ and they are happy to hear from me when my next book hits the shelves.
Events with Independent Bookstores
Bookstores rock, and I’m not saying that just to suck up to bookstores (although a little sucking up never hurts!). Doing a signing at a bookstore works for the author in so many ways. It’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Of course, at a signing you get to meet fans and grab a few passers-by who might find interest in your book. But bookstore employees tend to be book lovers themselves. And book lovers tend to know other book lovers. It’s also their job to make book recommendations to teachers and librarians and parents and kids. If you and your writing make a good impression on a bookstore owner, your book will be flying off the shelves long after you’re gone.
The manager of my local indie has also been a valuable resource when it comes to ideas. I look at it as a partnership. We both want my book to become popular and sell. She has offered me her opinions on what has worked for other authors and what hasn’t. She has given me ideas on how to reach out to the community and how to turn simple book signings into ‘happenings’. And this has been happening!
Before a Signing
In advance of my signings, there is a lot of work to be done.
The first is my postcards. It’s not often a publisher will send out postcards to an author’s personal contacts. I have been compiling my list for several years and I am continually adding to it. Whenever I go to an event or do a public speaking engagement, I bring my clipboard and place it in front of me. Even if I neglect to mention anything, people inevitably wander up and write down their contact information. If someone is interested enough to write down his or her contact information, that person will be inclined to come to a future book signing. I am in the process of shifting from postcards to an email newsletter, but the concept is the same.
Most authors (just like many bookstores) have Facebook pages and blogs. With only a few keystrokes, an author can reach out to his or her entire ‘friends’ list to notify everyone about where he or she will be appearing. If I had to hazard a guess, I would imagine this is my number one way of attracting fans to a signing.
I never assume a bookstore has the time to promote my signing the way I would like it to be promoted. Typically, I will design small, eye-catching posters to announce my event and forward them along to the bookstore with a polite note. Of course, I’ll include date and time, but I will also include book jacket, author photo and a few review blurbs. I am considering adding smaller signing announcements that booksellers can tuck into bags along with the receipt. In most cases, the posters are appreciated (and used)!
If I have the luxury of several months notice before my signing, I will sometimes go to the lengths of setting up Skype visits with schools and libraries in the region surrounding the book signing. Typically, the bookstore owner knows the proactive teachers and librarians in the area to reach out to and this has been a reasonably successful effort. A few 20-minute Skype visits with some very engaged groups can lead to a pleasant surprise on signing day.
A few days before the signing, I’ll usually post a note on Facebook and Twitter to remind people about the signing and also offer to personalize any pre-sold copies for fans even if they can’t make it to the event. This way, they can call the bookstore, pay with a credit card, and pick up the book at their leisure.
During a Signing
A book signing does not just have to be a book signing. Try to think out of the box. For Big Slick, I held a teen poker tournament. For Bug Boy, I had a miniature horse outside to raise awareness for the humane treatment of animals. For Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets, there is the cupcake bus! Make the event a true event and even passers-by will wander in. Of course, it’s always about the books but it never hurts to draw them in with something fun and flashy.
Many authors feel that once he is planted in the chair next to the stack of books, his responsibility is done and the biggest worry is whether or not he remembered his favorite signing pen. I always take a few moments to utilize Facebook and Twitter to my advantage, to remind others who might be in the area that they should stop by. Often, people have every intention of coming to a book signing, but the day slips by before they remember to drive over. A simple tweet or a photo posted on Facebook is usually enough to nudge those fence sitters to come on down. No one likes to miss a party!
In planning a book signing, consider a multi-author event. Most authors feel threatened by another author in the room, but I look at it as an opportunity to gain new fans. Whether it’s a friend or a sibling or a spouse of my author buddy’s fan, my book might appeal to someone else. And in dealing with children’s books, it’s tough to buy one kid a book and deny another! Look for author pairings that have a similar genre but markedly different appeal (i.e. slightly different age group, style, gender of protagonist, etc). I can’t tell you how often I’ll see a little kid come in with his big sister and I’ll send the mother over to the other author’s table to get him a signed picture book.
As I said earlier, I never go to an event without my trusty clipboard. If they came to one signing, they’re likely to come to another. It may be the next book, but these things tend to snowball. Sometimes the same people will come to another signing at a different bookstore (of course, once the person read the book, they’ll want copies for every friend and relative, right?).
After a Signing
What ever happened to the ancient art of the thank-you note? I always follow up a book signing with a hand-written thank you note to the bookseller. I make sure to thank not only the owner, but also the staff who made the event so successful. It might not help promote that particular event, but it does help remind those people who work so hard to support us that we appreciate what they do every day.
I also make sure to post a note on Facebook as well to thank the bookstore and all the fans who came out to see me. Nothing encourages them to come to the next event than making them feel like they missed something. Plus, when the inevitable notes come back saying that they meant to get down there but couldn’t find the time, I can tell them that I’ve left a number of signed copies at the store.
Nota bene: We reassure you that this blog post was entirely our idea. It was not one of Mr. Luper’s promotional schemes; we cannot be bought! Even with cupcakes. No matter how good they are. But I’ll bet you even money he’ll have Tweeted this link long before I get around to it.