Communication and perseverance. These are the two words that most come to mind when I look back at a week where I did five book signings, two book talks, and two radio interviews. A debut author is in a unique position in that no one knows her. After she launches several books and they do well, booksellers smile and even invite her to come. Not so with debut novelists. So what did I learn from this past whirlwind of a week after my book, Three May Keep a Secret, launched?
First, the devil truly is in the details. A sad truth of book selling is that YOU have the most to gain or lose, so you are the one who is going to care about the details. If you have food catered or plan to sell books at a book talk, it’s hard to know quantities of either. I usually order too much food and have too many books, but I think that beats running out. I have learned to carry extra books in my car just in case I sell more than I thought I would. I also take a checklist of items I need to have with me.
Also, don’t depend on faxes or email. Unfortunately, in the publishing industry, email is the preferred method of communication. I’m here to tell you that it isn’t the most accurate. It’s important to know that the person you are depending on at the other end actually got your message. One of my faxes to order books went astray, and I didn’t know it until it was too late. So always, always, use the phone when you can, and ask for a return email saying the recipient got your message. Follow up on the details.
Be sure to know the location of your talk or signing and do a dry run if you’re not sure. One of my book talks was at a library I’d been to before, and the state was building a new highway that bypassed the town just in time for my second trip. By the time I realized I had gone past the exit because it had no signage, I was late for my talk. At least they did find it humorous when I explained that someone had moved the town. I wasn’t the first one to notice that.
The best way to get people to come to your event is to make sure the media publishes multiple stories or calendar prompts in advance. This is another situation where you might not get a call back or an email. You must persevere and keep after them. In this age of mass media and technology, actually talking to someone and following up is the best way to make sure you don’t end up with a disaster.
Second, it really does take a community to sell a book. I am fortunate in that I live in a small community with an amazing library, and I have a lot of personal contacts. That, of course, isn’t going to help me in the greater reading world. Word-of-mouth is a great sales tool, but do not hesitate to ask people (nay, beg them) to go online and do a review, even if it’s only filling in stars. Reviews make a great deal of difference in the publishing/book-selling world. Last, prepare to surprised. I did a signing at a local bank, and because I live in a small town, people still come into the bank in person. It was my highest sales day. Thank you, Security Savings Bank.
Third, be grateful to people who buy and read your books and to people who help you. And, seriously, I don’t mean this from a profit motive. A note or email to thank them is a good start. Taking a plate of Christmas cookies at this time of year is also a helpful thing to do. I’ve discovered that door prizes at my talks are a lot of fun, and the audience enjoys getting something for coming to my talk. It’s surprising and it’s a way to say “thanks.” Finding a cause you can help that promotes books or the arts is also a way to say “thank you.” We raised money for arts programs in our area by auctioning off names of characters in my next book. People don’t expect you to act as if the world revolves around your writing career. It doesn’t.
Fourth, shut up. This is a good rule to remember when you plan a book talk. Just because you have a captive audience you might think you can go on forever. Not so. Plan ahead for your book talk and use notes to keep you on track. I prefer large notecards. Practice so you know what you’re going to say; nothing is more boring than someone who reads a speech.
Fit the subject to your audience. For example, in my current town I did a talk where I answered five questions that people often ask writers. In my home town, in a couple of months, I plan to talk about how my early years there influenced my writing.
Finally, 20 to 30 minutes is probably a good length to speak. I always cut back my talk so it isn’t too long, and I watch my audience to make sure they aren’t yawning. This comes from forty-plus years of watching high school and college students yawning; but of course, they could look forward to a quiz.
Fifth, and last, don’t get mad, get even [although it’s only in your head.] This is especially true for debut novelists like me. It is not unusual for people to tell you, “No, we can’t have you do a talk because no one knows you, and it’s a waste of our time.” I’ve been rejected from book festivals and libraries and stores regularly. Before Christmas, the events manager at a big box bookstore an hour away told me no one would come to a book signing a couple of weeks before Christmas. I had a Walter Mitty moment and thought about becoming famous, buying the store, and firing the events manager who was totally rude and discouraging. I guess selling books that people might want to give as gifts weren’t important to her work in a store that sells books. But, again, perseverance is the word, and debut writers must be experts in that word. [Even so, I’m still taking names.]