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The Author Ingredient: How Writers Add Marketing Power

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Looking for ways to improve your marketing? Look at your authors. A savvy, hard-working author can be the crown jewel of your marketing program: a valuable and cost-effective extension of your publicity efforts.

Both publishers and authors probably expect author appearances to be part of the publicity campaign. Publishers may also have factored back-of-the-room sales arranged by an author into anticipated sales. But there is so much more the author can do, especially if the publisher provides appropriate support and reassurance.

If you’re a publisher who’d like to make the best possible use of your authors, here’s what I’d recommend. These suggestions are based on my experience since 1981 as an author of nonfiction, as a self-publisher, and as a marketing consultant to publishers.

Ask your authors to compile mailing lists. Authors who have conducted interviews for their books are likely to have the names of dozens of people who should be contacted–either by you or by them, since people who have developed personal relationships with the author may prefer to buy directly, especially if the books are inscribed.

When I attended company-town reunions for my Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest (University of Washington Press, 2003), I circulated a sign-up sheet asking for attendees’ contact information. When the book was published, I wrote each person on the list, offering the book at a slight discount along with the inscription of their choice. Some people ordered copies for their children, siblings, or former neighbors. As favorable reviews were published, I emailed excerpts to those on the list. A few months after publication, I accompanied a new excerpt with a reminder that this book would make a wonderful gift for grandchildren; that email generated additional sales at no cost except my time.

Ask your authors to identify specialty media and retailers. Especially when books have a geographic, industry, or professional focus, the authors may know more than you do about the publications that serve target markets. Authors can also tell you how press releases should be tailored to each publication. They may even draft the releases for you.

For Company Town, which describes more than 100 communities, I provided the UW Press publicist with a list of dozens of media, museums, and organizations that were likely to be responsive to the book. I also tailored different leads for the press release for each one. For example: “Irondale is one of the Jefferson County communities discussed in…” Results ranged from two-sentence notices in community newspapers, to a full-page verbatim reprint of the press release in my parents’ church newsletter (which reached hundreds of families in a region the book covered), to a review in the Harvard University Business History Review. In addition, I wrote and emailed brief press releases to the hometown papers of the people I had interviewed for the book with hooks like: “Former Woodinville

resident Andy Solberg is among the one-time company-town employees quoted in…”

Solicit speaking engagements for your authors. It can be difficult for even an aggressive author to cold-call organizations and say, “I’m available to speak to your group.” This is something you as the publisher can easily do, with a simple form letter that outlines a few talk topics and provides your contact information or the author’s or both. If you don’t have a list of associations, libraries, bookstores, and festivals to contact, ask the author.

Coach your authors about public appearances. This is a three-part job.

First, you need to ensure that the author does well. This is especially important if you’re working with a first-time author or someone whose previous work was in a different genre. Even though I am an experienced speaker, I discovered that doing readings from a history was very different from giving talks promoting my earlier marketing and job-search books. Venues also often differ dramatically: chit-chatting with a book club in a meeting room is very different than reading to 200 people in a library auditorium or speaking outdoors at an arts festival with a band blaring nearby.

Second, when you’re lining up an appearance, find out specifically what the host wants so you can help the author outline a presentation that will work regardless of the setting and number attending. Make sure there will be an adequate sound system, a stool, a lectern, water, and, if the author needs them, an easel, slide projector, or computer hookup.

Third, prepare authors for the possibility of disappointing attendance; emphasize that most appearances result in publicity even when few attend. And publicity, in most cases, equals sales. There may be other benefits. A year ago, I arrived at one of Seattle’s most popular bookstores to find only a handful of people present for my well-publicized reading. It was a fair-weather Saturday and no one wanted to come inside. But one person who did show up was a cameraman for the state cable television network. His video ran a few days later, and within the month I was invited to appear on Author’s Hour, another state cable program, which aired several times during the Christmas holiday season.

Encourage your authors to contact booksellers. Authors can walk into bookstores, museum gift stores, and other retail outlets suitable for their books, ask for the manager or public relations coordinator, and say, “I’m the author of X, and I hope that’s a book you’re stocking.” I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years for my books, almost always with positive responses. Booksellers usually are delighted to meet authors and have existing inventory autographed. This process is even easier for the author if you prepare cards with the book cover, title, ISBN, and price. These should be the same size as business cards; they cost just pennies each when you order them from discount printers.

Authors can also contact booksellers effectively by phone and email. When I began to publish city-specific job-search guides in 1990, I called every independent bookstore in my area every month or so to ensure the book was in stock. “I’ve got a speech coming up,” I’d say, “and I want to know which stores I can refer people to.” Now that we’re in the 21st century and my geographic region is much larger, I use email to share excerpts from reviews and notices of awards. My list includes bookstores I’ve read about in Publishers Weekly, members of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, and stores I’ve found in telephone directories.

Help your authors create personal Web sites. Many Internet service providers offer free space and easy-to-use Web-site setup software so your authors can create simple sites. These can show the cover of the book and a picture of the author, provide author contact information and a bio, and list excerpts from reviews, reader testimonials, and the author’s upcoming appearances. My personal Web site has links to booksellers who responded to my offer to list them. An author’s Web site also provides a quick way for the author to get and respond to requests from reporters and event coordinators for background information.

Be a cheerleader for your authors. Even the most enthusiastic author will get the blues occasionally–and for good reason. There’s nothing worse than spending hours on icy highways to reach a bookstore where only a handful of people show up. Remind them that everything they do is a springboard for publicity–and this publicity results in the book’s name appearing both in print and in search engines, when online editions of the publications are indexed on the Internet. This builds awareness of the book for months to come.

When booksellers compliment you on an author, make sure you pass the kudos along. Especially when an appearance has been poorly attended, let authors know about any positive results. At Parenting Press, where I handle marketing, we recently had an author drive hours for an appearance that attracted fewer than five. But the store display and publicity in advance of her appearance put the book on the store’s bestseller list for the week–and, as a result, it got mentioned in the local newspaper.

Use all your authors’ crucial assets. If you have been letting your books market themselves or you haven’t been requiring much of your authors, these suggestions may seem intimidating. But today, with book sales stagnating overall and dozens of new competitors every month in every genre, no publisher can afford to overlook what an author can contribute. The passion authors have for their topics and their knowledge of specialized audiences are valuable assets that need to be channeled into marketing. It is these assets that may determine whether a book is successful–in both critical and financial terms.

Linda Carlson is a Seattle author of 11 books, including Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest, which is a finalist for the 2004 Washington State Book Awards (see lindacarlson.com/CompanyTowns.html). She can be reached at info@lindacarlson.com.

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