An Author’s Efforts to Build Reader Loyalty and Perception
|Mark Di Vincenzo|
by Mark Di Vincenzo
The email came from a former colleague of mine, not someone I knew very well. In fact, the longest conversation we ever had was an argument. I was metro editor at a mid-sized newspaper in a shipyard town in southeast Virginia , and she worked as a copy editor. She had inserted something I didn’t like into one of my reporter’s stories, and my boss told me to go talk to her about it. The conversation went something like this:
Me: I really don’t understand why you thought that was a good change. I want to understand it, so explain your thinking to me.
(Yeah, I know – not the most tactful way I could have said it.)
She: I really believe I improved the story, and I have to say that in all my years of editing, I’ve never been questioned about a change I made in a story.
Me: Your kidding! I’m questioned every day about the things I do to stories.
(Silence from her and a look of pity.)
Not an end-of-the-world argument by any means, but I was still surprised years later to get her email, a request from her – now a public affairs person for the city library system -- to speak at my neighborhood library about my book, which was a surprise New York Times best-seller. Surprise, by the way, is a monumental understatement. I didn’t even think the book would get published, let alone attract the attention of an agent and bid on by HarperCollins, Random House and two other publishers.
The book, Buy Ketchup In May And Fly At Noon: A Guide To The Best Time To Buy This, Do That And Go There, offers tips on, among other things, the best time to buy things, and it came out in the fall of 2009 -- at the best possible time, as it turned out -- in the midst of what economists call the worst recession since the Great Depression. The initial reaction to the book was tremendous. I hawked the book on three national TV shows and 10 national radio shows. Reporters from 11 national magazines and dozens of newspapers and TV and radio stations interviewed me.
But by Christmas, the publicist assigned to the book had quietly moved on to other books, and I was on my own, promoting the book.
The talk to the library patrons occurred in June 2010, sadly on one of the most beautiful summer afternoons of the year, and when I walked in the room, I saw maybe 10 people, including the former colleague, and 120 or so empty chairs.
As an author trying to make a go at it these days, the nearly empty library meeting room is the norm. The Rachael Ray Show, the 700 Club, National Public Radio’s :All Things Considered and Esquire and Entertainment Weekly are not.
Although my experience as a first-time author may not be the norm, I’ll take you on my journey, and you can still get a sense for how incredibly difficult it is to promote a book and try to build reader loyalty.
I can’t remember when I heard the news, but it came from my agent: HarperCollins assigned a publicist to my book. I very quickly became aware how rare it is for a first-time author with zero name recognition to get help from a publicist. (The irony is we’re the ones who need publicists the most, not the VIP authors who write memoir after memoir because they sell.) Mine was Joseph Papa, a young but smart and savvy Virginian and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. I went to New York City in August of 2009, two months before my book was released, so Joseph could make a videotape to send to TV shows. It was never sent to anyone. Joseph blamed it on the quality of the tape, but I’m convinced he was too polite to tell me I really sucked at pitching the book back then.
Tape or no tape, my big break came when Maggie Barnes, a producer for the Rachael Ray Show, got hold of the book and became “obsessed with it.” Maggie got me on the show, and the day it aired, Buy Ketchup In May And Fly At Noon was #18 on Amazon. Sometimes when a national TV show decides to do a piece on your book, everyone else figures it must be good, and they should do something, too. The next day ESPN host Colin Cowherd told his national audience the book is “brilliant.” A few weeks later I was back in New York City, appearing on CBS’s Early Show. Many other interviews followed.
Even the newspaper where I worked for 21 years decided it could no longer ignore me. A reporter found me as I was walking through the Financial District in lower Manhattan.
Things slowed down, as I knew they would. HarperCollins, the publisher, was the first to see the sales numbers slip.
When you have a publicist and then you don’t, no one calls you up and says, “Hey, you’re on your own now. The publicist is working with other authors.” You just kind of figure it out. In my case, I kept hearing, “Joseph is very busy. Joseph is very easy.” My agent assured me that two and a half months is a long time to have a publicist. I was flattered to have a publicist for a week, so I wasn’t complaining.
But what do I do now? Swim or drown. Translation: Work your butt off and try to attract more media or watch your sales drop to where you’re ranked #2,344,599 on Amazon. I, of course, tried swimming. I worked as a newspaper guy for nearly a quarter century and I had media contacts, but more than anything else that time as a journalist gave me the confidence to approach anyone to pitch my book.
I initially focused on editors at national magazines and big newspapers and TV producers. The best media for selling books, in this order, is national TV, national magazines, large newspapers, national radio, mid-sized newspapers, local TV, small newspapers and local radio. This is not based on any scientific studies as much as on my experience.
Mostly my work was in vain. One day I sent a blind-copy blast email to features editors at most of the 100 largest newspapers in the country, and only one person, a lady from the Omaha World-Herald, replied that she wanted a copy of the book. Another day I sent a personalized letter and a book to editors at 13 national women’s magazines. No one bit. Another day I sent my book to the five top executives at Heinz. (Remember the book is called Buy Ketchup In May And….) Wouldn’t the book make a great gift for your 40 zillion employees? I wrote. No luck there.
I lucked out a few times. My biggest break came when I called the Christian Broadcasting Network, just down the road from me, in Virginia Beach. Less than a week later, I had appeared on CBN’s Newswatch show and then, because that appearance went well, I sat with Pat Robertson, who interviewed me on The 700 Club, and Pat kindly urged his viewers to buy the book.
The bottom line is when you’re hawking your book, you have to treat it as a full-time job, if you have that luxury, or at least as a part-time job.
I also can’t stress enough the importance of using a website to promote books. My first website -- http://www.buyketchupinmay.com/ -- worked for me while I was asleep. I can’t tell you how many mornings I woke up to find emails in my box from reporters at mammoth organizations (ABC) to smaller ones (Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel), asking for interviews or information about the book. Twenty-one months after the release of Buy Ketchup, I still receive the occasional call from a reporter somewhere who stumbled upon the site and requested an interview.
The website also served as an easy way for readers to contact me to make suggestions or criticize the book or offer praise, and that’s an easy way to build a following. I almost always replied to emails from readers, and many of them replied to thank me and say they never thought I would bother to do that. (It amazes me that so many people act like writing a book is a rarity that happens only a few times a year, and they treat authors like royalty. Which is another irony because many of us make so little money writing.) I’m convinced that replying to emails from readers helped me sell more books. I’m convinced because they told me so. Maybe you’ve heard about the studies that show doctors with the best bedside manner are sued less often than arrogant doctors. Being considerate pays off whether you’re a doctor or a writer.
A brief digression to clear up a common misperception about literary agents: It’s great to have one. They help you find a publisher, and they do your blocking and tackling during contract negotiations, but they typically play a negligible role in getting authors publicity. They really are more liaisons between authors and publishing companies. If, for example, you have a complaint about your publicist, you could tell your agent, and he or she can raise hell with the publisher. On rare occasions a journalist will email an agent to find out how to get a book or reach an author, but for the most part agents don't have much contact with reviewers or reporters, and they don’t seek them out. My agent, Michelle Wolfson, is more proactive than most when it comes to publicity. She wants to know who has interviewed me or reviewed one of my books so she can spread the news. She has embraced Twitter and has nearly 6,000 followers. Not only does she re-tweet some of her authors’ tweets, but she often uses Twitter to share news about her clients' books, appearances and interviews. One time she tweeted that the price for the e-book version of Buy Ketchup was lowered from $9.99 to $2.99, and so many copies sold at $2.99 that the price was raised to $9.99 a day or so later.
As the interview requests from reporters dwindled, I began reaching out to bookstores that might want me to come for a signing event and to clubs that need speakers. I spoke at Rotary and Kiwanis meetings, sometimes in front of as few as a handful of people.
I remember getting an invitation to speak at Langley Air Force Base, a huge place, where fighter pilots and thousands of others work. I was hoping to walk into an auditorium crammed with hundreds of people. I was a little disappointed to get ushered into a classroom on base, where six ladies awaited my arrival. I faithfully did my PowerPoint presentation, as usual, and the ladies were very gracious, and a few said they planned to buy my book. As I was leaving, the lady who organized the event stopped me in the hallway and asked me the best way to go about making a bulk purchase. She said she was director of a department that had a surplus she had to spend and she wanted to buy 500 copies to give away as gifts. I gulped. Who would have guessed that this talk in front of six ladies would have led to such a big sale?
As it turned out, she never made the purchase, but the experience taught me a lesson to never turn down a speaking request -- because you never know.
That’s the thing about promoting a book. You never know.
You tweet because you never know how often your tweet will get re-tweeted, and you never know who will see it.
You post on Facebook because you never know where your message or your link will end up.
You do the interview with the radio station in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories – yes, I did – because you never know who might be listening.
You bring extra copies of your book on business trips and vacations because you never know who might sit next to you on the airplane or on the train.
Promoting a book is as hard as writing one, and it’s harder for those of us who never had the foresight to take a marketing class in college. But in the 21st century, authors who want to sell their books must double as marketers.
It’s not publish or perish, as it is in academia.
It’s publish -- and promote -- or perish.
A great post over at The Blog is Dead has a list of 8 ways to get your message out. Put this on your "Tools I need to promote my book" list