Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Reality of Promotion

Rick here.

The topic of promotion keeps coming up on this and other writers' blogs. There is a reason for this: the publishing industry generally does a pretty rotten job of it – and EVERY author needs promotion.

Case in point #1: A new author finds that while his book is in a lot of the book stores, he's getting no media interviews, doing no book signings, heck, he's not even getting reviewed. "I thought my publisher was supposed to promote my books," he says. "It's going to disappear without a trace if something doesn't happen!"

This happened to me with my third novel, Shooting Straight in the Dark. I was with one of the major Canadian publishers, McClelland and Stewart, and figured their marketing department would handle all of this. With two self-published novels under my belt, I knew the ropes, but I could sit back now and let some pros do the work. Stupid me.

My novel got three reviews, I was sent to Ottawa to the Writers' Festival (now THAT was cool) and that's it. By the time I realized that nothing else was going to be forthcoming, I hired a publicist, but that was an unmitigated disaster, since they proved to be completely inept (this was one of the big shots in town, too).

When RendezVous Crime took my 4th novel, Cemetery of the Nameless (notice how smoothly I'm working in these references to my books), I vowed this wouldn't happen. Since then, I have done as many signings and events as I can afford to do/dig up. It's helped, not as much as I would like since it's me (or the other authors I've toured with) doing all the work. There's very little way we can get the same response from the media a good book publicist can, but it's certainly better than nothing.

It seems to me that the publishing industry has little imagination when it comes to promotion. They're still doing the same things they did fifty years ago and with the same mixed results: throw enough promotional money behind a book with an author who at least looks and sounds good on TV, and it should sell. That means that a few authors – the sure bets – get all the money. Not one of those lucky authors? Gook luck! You're on your own. In some ways this makes sense. I know an author who was told by her publisher, "We put the money behind the authors who will really sell. That way, we can afford to publish people like you."

About the only promotional move forward I've seen is the advent of the 'book trailer'. If you don't know what this is, you could look at Charles' which is really quite slick and effective (http://www.charlesbenoit.com/noble-lies.htm). My publisher also did one for me last fall when my most recent book, When Hell Freezes Over came out. This one is a little more involved in that it has an interview with me, as well as my editor.

What good are these? Well, you can tell prospective readers about it, bookstores where you're scheduled to sign, and of course, the media. It gives a quick promotional hit, and in today's media, that's what it's all about.

That's the good news: the publishing world has (sort of) discovered the Internet – other than having websites. As for their websites, these are no more exciting than Company A's where they sell widgets to make your life better. People get passionate about books; they don't get passionate about widgets. Publisher websites MUST do something to make the reader engaged and interested in what's being published.

So I had the idea of publishers pooling their money to make something the advertising world calls a 'magalog'. I think the first ever one was actually done by HarperCollins years ago, but the magazine industry soon took this form of promotion to heart and it's proven very effective for them.

What is a magalog? It's part magazine/part catalog. I'm sure you've received them in the mail for various publications. You may even have received some that I've worked on (the graphic design firm I work for is heavily into magazine circulation and we've done lots of magalogs – on both sides of the border. In a magalog, you're shown what the magazine is all about in glossy colour. There's usually a letter from the editor or publisher explaining what they offer. There are page images, advertising copy, interesting tidbits of information gleaned from the magazine, cleverly worked out lists of areas they've covered in recent issues, awards won, etc. In 8-12 pages, this little piece of promo is designed to make you interested enough to fill out the enclosed order card (always post-paid) and try a year's subscription at a very good price. You also almost always get some sort of premium if you say yes. It might be a ridiculously good deal on the subscription, or a free gift, but it's something they know you'll want.

There are also tracking codes on the cards, telling the circ department of the magazine from just what list, what newspaper, what store the responder got the magalog from. They want to know that they're hitting their targets, because putting out a magalog is fiendishly expensive. That says a lot. Even though they cost a lot, the magazines still put them out, and believe me, they'll cut something off in a big hurry if it's not pulling in the subscriptions.

McClelland & Stewart also thought this was a good way to sell books. Unfortunately, they really had no idea what they were doing which is what I discovered when I spoke to their head of marketing. It had been a very slick production, but it lacked several key components as I quickly found out when questioning her.

"How effective was it? I asked. "Well, we saw a small upturn in our Christmas sales, but really not very much to warrant the cost." "What sort of tracking device did you use?" "Tracking device? What's that?" I explained, "You want to know if you put 50,000 in bookstore chain A, that people are getting them. You give them something to mail back and it has a code on it saying where it came from." "Really? You can do that? We obviously want them to read about our new books then buy them in the store. What could we give them?" "How about a special M&S bookmark that doubles as a loyalty card for the store? Buy 10 books and get one free. Everybody wins. You are also building up a list of targeted book buyers from the information on the order card." "Those sound like really good ideas. We should have used them." My jaw dropped. "Aren't you going to try this again?" "No, they thought the magalog wasn't worth what we spent on it. Besides, they wouldn't go for your ideas. Books aren't sold that way."

I knew I was fighting a losing battle at that point. A year later, this publisher let go most of their mystery writers and a lot of employees because they were in financial trouble. I hope they've turned things around with their new management team.

Next blog entry: Charles and Rick resurrect the magalog idea.

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