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Achieving More with Author Questionnaires

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Every author dreams of selling huge quantities of his or her creative opus. And
every publisher shares this dream, although perhaps with greater realism. How can the author and publisher combine forces to generate the most sales? How does an effective promotional campaign begin? Where can you uncover the secrets that will help in reaching special sales accounts and new avenues for distribution?

Allworth Press is a nonfiction publisher. Our authors are usually extremely knowledgeable in their fields and possess information that can help us formulate a strategy for positioning a book in the marketplace. The most effective way to collect valuable information from them is through a detailed Author’s Questionnaire. Long before one of our books reaches the copyediting and proofreading stages, we need the questionnaire to meet our deadlines for the promotional campaign.

Inside the gold mine

Our Author’s Questionnaire has evolved into four sections. Originally we asked for the author’s ideas on the book’s sales strategy, marketing, and publicity. Several years ago, we added a fourth section on Web site promotion, which complements our e-commerce efforts. The Author’s Questionnaire provides us with a gold mine of information that becomes the basis for everything we do to promote and sell the book; these efforts include title information sheets, catalog and jacket copy, advertisements, press releases, and more.

Defining the target audience for a book is perhaps the most important step toward eventual success. An author does not need to be a sales expert to help here. The sales strategy section of our questionnaire asks for the author’s insight into the book’s potential readers. We ask what he or she sees as competing titles in the market. For each one of our books, we ask the author for unique features and key selling points. Often the author has spent years reading on the topic and has grown frustrated with the deficiencies in other books. Many of our authors have written manuscripts to fill such a void! Obviously, this scenario provides the ideal answer on what sets a book apart from its competition.

For the kinds of “niche” titles we publish, marketing is often a matter of finding new and untapped sources for potential sales. Someone knowledgeable in a given field can be extraordinarily well connected, and we do all we can to benefit from these connections. If the author teaches courses or gives seminars, we contact the school or organization to explore the book’s potential as a course text. We ask if the author is involved with exhibitions or conferences that might make the book available. These inquiries have led us to organizations interested in buying books in quantity for in-house use or to give to their customers. We encourage our authors to list affiliations with all pertinent professional associations and articles and reviews in trade newsletters that reach exactly the potential buyers that we seek. If a professional group the author belongs to appears to be a prime audience for the book, we may send press releases or flyers to the entire membership

Because book publicity depends on making contacts, we ask for copies of the author’s past reviews and articles. What made the author interesting and newsworthy in the past can open new doors for pitching stories related to the current work. By asking for the names of the author’s hometown newspapers, we can shape a press release with an angle that entices the hometown media. (Of course, this approach is most effective in smaller markets. It didn’t work for the Manhattan author who hesitantly asked us, “Is The New York Times my hometown paper?”) We also ask for the author’s alma mater since alumni associations routinely reach out to thousands of people. By tailoring a press release to emphasize an author’s educational background, we have secured prominent mentions in alumni publications.

Just as authors can be instrumental in defining a book’s audience, they may have a firm grasp of the audience’s mindset. We involve the author in the serialization campaign by asking what section of the book would be most attractive to likely readers and what publications might be interested in first serial rights.

Greasing the talk-show wheels

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that every author longs for television interviews. One author was probably speaking for all his peers when he unabashedly remarked that he expected to appear on Oprah but that he would also settle for an interview with Barbara Walters on 20/20. For a more realistic, if smaller, start, we probe the author’s past experience for contacts. Family connections are welcome. The DJ sister or the weather-forecaster cousin can lead to good contacts. If the author has had previous attention from the broadcast media, we ask for a full history of appearances-including local news and interviews on local talk shows as well as past work that has been mentioned on the air. Then we make each show aware of the new book. Contacting a producer because a past guest has done something new and exciting provides a hook that a “cold call” does not.

If the book’s subject matter lends itself to broadcast interviews, a tape of highlights from past appearances is indispensable in making the new pitch. When asked for tapes of past interviews, several authors have replied, “My mom might have them.” We haven’t added any questions for authors’ moms-at least not yet.

When toks ard work pays off and we land interviews for the author, many programs ask for sample questions. We include a space on the questionnaire for the author’s suggested interview questions. Because many guest bookings take place at the last minute, we like to avoid composing questions during the crunch. Also, having the questions in advance allows us to develop different sets of questions to match with different story angles we use to pitch the media.

We modify our Author’s Questionnaire nearly every season. We have added new questions when other answers opened our eyes to new possibilities and when we learned lessons the hard way. Technology has had an unmistakable impact on the questionnaire. Where we once asked for black-and-white prints of an author’s picture, we now ask for electronic photo files. Likewise, we used to ask if authors had e-mail addresses at all, and now we encourage links through authors’ Web sites to our own and try to increase cybertraffic with authors’ online updates and articles. If our authors have their own Web sites, they are eligible to join our affiliates program and earn extra income whenever a buyer coming off their sites purchases a book from ours. Such changes serve to remind us that the Author’s Questionnaire, like the publishing business itself, is forever a work in progress.

Tad Crawford is the Founder, President, and Publisher of Allworth Press in New York City (www.allworth.com). Author of a dozen books on business and the creative professions, Crawford has penned titles that include “The Writer’s Legal Guide,””Business and Legal Forms for Authors and Self-Publishers,” and “The Money Mentor: A Tale of Finding Financial Freedom.” Michael Madole works in the publicity department for Allworth Press.

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