Marketing Whatever You Have to Market, Part 3: Promotion Opportunities and Issues
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This is the final installment in the series of articles using the “four Ps” framework—product, price, place, and promotion—to explore ways publishers can get the word out about their products and services, and ways to consummate sales. And it is the third installment about the fourth P, promotion. As you’ll see, it focuses on the value of exhibits, author appearances, promotion to brick-and-mortar bookstores, podcasts, and outdoor advertising. Like the preceding articles, what follows discusses strategies and tactics that indie publishers have used very recently, and whether they recommend using them.
Exhibiting at regional bookseller shows and library association events is a no-brainer for many indie publishers with several titles that have broad appeal. So is taking space at professional conferences for publishers of academic and business books, and at specialty shows for publishers of niche titles.
But before you write a check for exhibit space at a book festival, garden show, or other consumer event—or for space at a professional conference not likely to attract a lot of decision-makers—run the numbers. Selling enough books to cover your costs may not be the only criterion that matters, but it’s an important one.
For an event you’re considering, find out how many people attended in past years, and where your exhibit space would be. Typically the best spots are reserved for those who’ve bought space every year, or who buy the most expensive spaces. Also find out how much time attendees have to visit exhibits. Especially at professional and academic events, important presentations (including those that provide continuing education credits) often take up most of people’s time. And at consumer events such as home shows and baby expos, browsers may outnumber buyers.
Being located off the main floor and far from conference activity is one reason that Jan Erb and the three other author/publishers at Tell-a-Gram Publishing in Sarasota, CA, sold few books at a two-day spring parent/teacher conference, even though the event was designed to attract participants from all over California. “The people who did visit our booth liked The Grammie Guide and bought copies,” Erb reports, “but we had far too few shoppers.” Sales revenue didn’t cover the $250 exhibit fee, much less travel costs.
BeeBop Publishing author/publisher Debbie Reece says she always hopes she’ll cover her expenses for events such as the Atlanta International Gift Show, Dallas Market, Seattle Gift Show, specialty Junior League shows, and vintage sales—and so far she has. But, she adds, she doesn’t always make a profit with either wholesale or retail sales, in part because travel from her home in northeastern Texas is expensive.
Figuring in booth fees, booth furniture rental, shipping, lodging, meals, airfare, and rental cars, Reece estimates at least $2,000 to $3,000 in costs for a major gift show. Costs for some mount to $5,000. For small publishers considering gift shows. she has this advice: “Prepare to invest up front, months in advance, to advertise to each region’s audience, to be patient about the return on your investment, and to have realistic expectations of book sales. You have to be prepared to talk to thousands of strangers and have a good elevator pitch about your books’ content. And you need a reasonable wholesale price: most small retailers want a 50 percent discount.”
A low minimum purchase requirement is also important, she believes: “Small stores have very little storage space and shelf space. They’re interested in trying new titles but are concerned about waste. Since I don’t do returns, I accommodate them with a 15-copy minimum.”
Publishers can economize on exhibit costs by using simple displays and renting the smallest spaces, Reece adds. Simple displays offer another advantage: they’re easier to set up if you’re working alone. “I have a table, some banners, and a chair,” Reece says. “I recommend a two-sided pop-up banner so people can see your display from either direction. Use more banners inside the booth to show images from the book, content, and your website info.”
Getting an author on the program for a conference is a popular promotional strategy. Most speakers start by presenting at one of many break-out sessions offered throughout these events. Conscious of the potential marketing value of such appearances, some conference sponsors require speakers to register for the conference, which can increase costs by several hundred dollars.
Typically, books must be sold in the conference bookstore or at publishers’ booths rather than by authors in the speech venues. And of course making a speech or appearing on a panel does not guarantee book sales. “I sold only about 20 books despite being a featured speaker,” T.K. Thorne of Blackburn Fork Publishing in Birmingham, AL, reports. “I was the last speaker, and about half the crowd had gone home.”
In addition to speaking at conferences, authors often appear at events in bookstores, other retail outlets, libraries, schools, book clubs, and association and club meetings. Both attendance and book sales vary, even among comparable venues.
David FitzSimmons of Wild Iris Publishing in Bellville, OH, makes dozens of appearances each year, and says his sales this spring to the Vero Beach (FL) Book Center “topped the charts.” At his talk there, the store sold a total of 57 copies of three different Curious Critters titles, each priced at $16.95, and the store bought an additional 28 autographed books for inventory. “I’ve spoken to groups as large as 200,” FitzSimmons recalls, “and although presales from store displays were often brisk, at-event sales seldom exceeded 25, with many attendees saying, ‘I’ll get it for less on Amazon.’”
John Brooks of I Heart Casey Books in Fairfax, CA, is among the author/publishers who have learned that it’s hard to arrange appearances, especially in bookstores, if your title is not available through major wholesalers. And some retailers don’t work with Ingram and Baker & Taylor; for example, arranging a book signing at Costco requires availability from American West Books. (For more information: costco.com/author-signings.html; americanwestbooks.com.)
Arranging appearances to promote books sold only print-on-demand and in e-formats often necessitates finding nonbookstore venues and bringing a supply of print copies. But results can be rewarding. At one of the library talks Brooks has done, a major publisher approached him about acquiring his book.
Sometimes, publishers make multiple appearances in a single location. Parenting Press author/illustrator Janan Cain arranges her own fee-based school appearances within a day’s drive of her Chicago-area home, and the Seattle publisher’s marketing staff tries to schedule bookstore and library appearances for the evening or morning after her school appearance in each place she visits.
Sage Press author/publisher Corinne Humphrey also does school events near her Park City, UT, home, typically as part of week-long school book fairs. She speaks for a fee during an assembly at the beginning of the week and then arranges to have books displayed until the end of the week, when she returns for a book-signing. “I average $300 to $400 in sales in addition to my presentation fee,” says Humphrey, who gives a copy of each book to the school librarian for use with students prior to the event and delivers posters to be displayed throughout the school. She reports that the PTO president, individual teachers, or the librarian usually announce her appearance and opportunities for parents to buy books online or at the fair.
Reece also does school appearances, and, like Cain and Humphrey, she has schools distribute book order forms in advance of her arrival. Her presentation fee for half-day or full-day programs is a modest $125 to $250, with higher fees for more distant schools. “The schools don’t always have the funds to pay me,” she reports, and children don’t always have money to buy books. But the most important factor is how well the school promotes an author visit and book sales.
“Presales can be fantastic or dismal,” she says. “We can give them all the tools—the PA announcement and preprinted order form—and we can even communicate with them regularly to be sure preparation is going smoothly, but we still depend on the teachers and staff to inspire the children to order books. I’ve done author visits for free and sold more than 150 books in a 500-student elementary school—and I’ve sold a total of four in the same size school. I’ve charged minimal fees for author visits and sold 25 or 50.”
Reece recommends trying to get a book used in classrooms prior to an author visit: “I tend to sell a lot of books where the stories have been shared in advance and children have created art to show me when I arrive.”
In general, books sell better at schools when they have the popular Accelerated Reader reading level ratings from Renaissance Learning or when publishers have used the tools on renlearn.com to create AR ratings and quizzes that teachers can use. (See “” for an overview of AR and similar programs.)
Reece believes it’s also important to emphasize the “cross-curriculum” potential of a title. Besides identifying how each book can be used in connection with academic subjects such as math, history, art, and science, she researched the content for each of her children’s books “and came up with topics teachers can use to discuss content of the books: topics like social acceptance, self-confidence, and being true to your own personality even when you don’t seem to fit in, and having the loving support of your family.” BeeBop books also include a coloring page to allow readers to express themselves creatively after reading the story.
Besides selling books at each place they go, some authors sell en route. Carew Papritz of King Northern in Rio Roco, AZ, used a train trip to promote The Legacy Letters A self-publisher, Papritz looks for unusual locations for his signings, a strategy that he believes results in more media attention. Last year he rode Amtrak partway across the United States, signing and selling books both on the train and at stores in the cities where he stopped each night. Although his campaign wasn’t sanctioned or promoted by Amtrak, Papritz says conductors did not object when he stood up in the car, unrolled a banner for his book and announced, “We’re having a book signing” to fellow passengers.
He sold about 500 books on the trip and is enthusiastic about making a similar trip elsewhere, but he points out that it was not inexpensive. Papritz estimates he spent $400 per day for train tickets, lodging, and meals. It was also a lot of work: “We were like packhorses with everything we had to haul on board,” he says. His impromptu appearances at coffeehouses and his scheduled signings at Costco were much simpler to manage, and he says Costco can be a great place for some authors to sell books. “Books are such a small part of its inventory that you have almost no competition,” he points out, adding that he has sold as many as 60 copies during a two-hour appearance.
John Vourlis of Hometown Media Productions in Cleveland, OH, has yet another venue to suggest: open houses. “A friend’s real estate agency wanted something different for the open house for a property new to the market, so she proposed that I come to discuss my new Yoga for Freedom at what was advertised as a ‘meet the author’ event. I loved the idea; it was so far out of the box.”
Despite low attendance, Vourlis found the experience worthwhile and hopes to repeat it with another house for sale. “I got to drink good wine, eat catered hors d’oeuvres, meet interesting people, and sell a few books, too,” he says. “More important, it was a unique way to meet folks I might never otherwise encounter and tell them about my book.”
Preparing for Presentations
Today major publishers typically ask prospective authors about their speaking experience as well as about their networks and social media platforms. Indie publishers often find themselves making the presentations or coaching a first-time or shy author.
Among the keys to a successful presentation:
- Know your audience’s knowledge and interest level. “When I give aviation presentations to nonaviation groups, I add relevant images and information so they can relate to my topic,” says Barbara Schultz, whose Los Angeles–area Little Buttes Publishing Co. published Endorsed by Earhart.
- If you’re doing a school event, include activities to reduce disruptions. “Because I work with preschool through early elementary levels, I’m always prepared with a song or a wiggle dance to keep kids interested and engaged,” says Debbie Reece of BeBop. “When speaking to kids from 11 through high school age, I talk about the writing, time progression, sloppy copy, edits, and revisions, and I let them see how an idea turned into a story and then into a published book. When I’m finished, I ask if they want to hear the finished product. They almost always say yes because they’re curious about how it turned out—and because my visit is more interesting than returning to their classroom.”
- Be realistic about the number of copies that will sell—and be prepared for the occasional sellout. Schultz says she typically sells copies to between a quarter and a third of those attending her presentations on Amelia Earhart.
When another aviation historian, Barbara Wolverton, of Village Concepts in Loudon, TN, speaks at events attended by couples, she expects to sell copies of Behind the Smile During the Glamour Years of Aviation: Sex, Humor and Terror to at least a third and often half of the households represented. “At men’s events,” she adds, “I sell to close to 80 percent. One reason is the word sex. They seem to zero in on that. The other reason: I tell stories of flying into the war zone during the Vietnam conflict.”
Authors with faithful followings can send event sales even higher. Heather Moore, senior publicity manager at Sourcebooks, coordinated a multiple-stop tour and many special events for the April release of A Desperate Fortune, and when author Susanna Kearsley appeared in Scottsdale at a Poisoned Pen Books event that attracted about 100 people, she sold about 100 copies.
Of course prices affect sales: Schultz’s oversize hardback retails for $36.95, and Wolverton discounts her $14.95 paperback to as little as $10 including tax, depending on audience and prepayments. Kearsley’s 528-page paperback and the e-books are each priced at $16.99.
- Make sure bookstores have copies available at their events. Bookstore presentations should be scheduled several weeks—even months—in advance for two reasons: to get publicity, and so the store can obtain and display books. It’s wise to verify the store’s inventory a week before an appearance so there will be time to reorder if most copies have been sold.
- Bring a backup stash of books. And make sure the store has a way to receive them as inventory and pay you (chain stores are sometimes unable to process books not purchased through the chain warehouse). At school events, Reece has discovered that many parents wait to see how children respond to a story before making a purchase.
- Bring your own equipment. “No matter what I am told about equipment that will be available, I always bring my own laptop with adapter and speakers, projector, and a thumb drive,” Schultz says. When she did a presentation at an Air Force base, she had to be prepared with a CD instead of the thumb drive because security rules said no thumb drives could be carried in.
If you don’t have your own equipment for a presentation, print out the PowerPoint images so they can be duplicated as a handout if the promised equipment doesn’t materialize—or if it malfunctions.
Besides laptop and thumb drive with content, Reece brings a credit card swiper and small bills to make change for people who pay in cash. Also, she brings her original manuscript and illustrations for display.
- Show up early. Schultz recommends arriving at least 15 minutes ahead of time; I try for 30 to allow time to set up and if necessary, to bring in more books.
- Be gracious about audience requests and comments. “I’m still amazed at how many people want to take pictures with me,” Schultz says.
- Bring a brief bio to help the person introducing your presentation—100–200 words citing examples of other groups you’ve spoken to and noting that you are available for other presentations.
- Make sure your host can and will rescue you from difficult situations. Occasionally there may be a heckler, or someone who monopolizes your time during the Q&A or book-signing period.
- Distribute evaluation forms if possible. Use open-ended questions such as, “What did you find most interesting/most valuable about this presentation?” and you may elicit comments that you can turn into testimonials useful in pitch letters about future speaking gigs, among other things.
- Take advantage of questions raised by the audience, which might suggest content for social media posts, and of opportunities to repurpose a presentation as posts, articles, press releases, and videos.
When asked for recommendations about promotion, several indie publishers offered variations on Carew Papritz’s comment: “Beware of sharks!”
He and others advise reconsidering if you’re told, “I can do everything for you” or “With us, you can reach 30,000 journalists and bloggers.” In short, if it sounds too good to be true . . . well, you know the rest. The reality is that it’s seldom possible to “do everything,” regardless of budget, and often what publicists and marketers are promising is nothing more than dissemination of information to media, libraries, and booksellers, usually via e-blasts, which may or may not arouse any interest. Vendors who claim thousands of contacts are especially suspect.
If you have a significant launch budget (say, $30,000) and at least six months’ lead time, and you want to contract with a book publicist or marketer instead of using in-house staff, consider these recommendations from Matt Tabrizi of Thinking Hat Press in the Washington, DC, area.
- Make sure that the company is American (unless the target audience is elsewhere). Although some overseas firms may quote lower fees, “marketing requires an understanding of the audience’s psyche. That means living and breathing the culture.”
- Check each firm’s portfolio to see two things: whether the firm has done launches for books similar to yours, and what resulted from the launch marketing campaign.
- Get references. “Ask each firm you’re considering to arrange a five-minute phone call with one of its clients.” Before that call, check out the client involved. If the client is credible and is willing to talk to you, that says something about the marketer, but of course nobody offers references who are likely to be negative, so listen for what is not being said, he emphasizes.
Sometimes you can estimate the likelihood of success with a publicity or marketing firm by accessing sales reports for books the firm previously launched. Amazon rankings are often cited as proof of success, but they change constantly and reflect sales relative to other titles in the same category rather than an absolute number of copies sold. These rankings also often reflect unusual publicity, and they can be manipulated, especially with launch-day price discounts. Data provided by a distributor or by
Nielsen BookScan are far more accurate, and BookScan data may be available to you through your distributor if you don’t subscribe.
Three Other Options
Promotion via bookstores. This can be as simple as walking in with a copy of your latest book or as orchestrated as a months-long campaign with cooperative advertising, in-store displays, and window-display contests.
For a title with a local audience, consider providing links from your website to each bookseller in the area who inventories the title. At a minimum, this gives you an excuse for contacting the bookseller every month or quarter (“We’re updating the links on our website and wanted to make sure you still have copies of . . . ”). A variation: Contact booksellers when an author is scheduled to appear in a venue where books will not be sold. Use a message such as, “If you inventory copies of [book title], our author will be able to refer potential customers to you when she speaks at . . . ”
“So as to never miss an opportunity, I always travel with copies of my books,” says Tamarack Song, author/publisher at Bear & Co. in Three Lakes, WI. “Twice recently I walked into bookstores with one of my books in hand, which caught customers’ attention. Both times, after perusing the books, the customers offered to purchase them. Snatching the opportunity to show the shopkeepers firsthand how alluring my books are, I referred these customers to the shopkeepers.”
To promote books in several genres, Sourcebooks worked with the Chicago-based indie chain Anderson’s Bookshop on a Paris-themed display. “We created signage and offered discounts on our Paris-centric titles (ranging from children’s books to memoir and fiction) and Anderson’s created a wonderful display which featured Sourcebooks titles as well as books from other publishers,” Heather Moore reports. “Anderson’s planned to keep up the display for two weeks, but it was so successful that they used it for six weeks, selling items from it every day.”
Promotion via podcasts. To promote his Win No Matter What, issued through Balboa Press (the self-publishing unit of Hay House in Bloomington, IN), Nihar Suthar has contacted dozens of online radio producers. “The great thing about these is that I didn’t spend any money on them. I just find shows that relate to my expertise and my book (productivity and positivity) and pitch some ideas for being a guest. Most hosts are excited to hear from potential guests as long as your ideas are good.”
Last spring Suthar was able to schedule roughly one podcast a week. His mid-March podcast on the Kharisma Lifestyle Entrepreneur Show resulted in 113 sales within four days. Because most of his sales are e-books priced at $3.99, profits are modest. “But so far I have found podcasts to be a good free source of increasing my sales,” says the Ithaca, NY-based writer.
Promotion via outdoor advertising. Billboards, blimps, and bus cards are all examples of outdoor advertising, and are generally too costly for indie publishers. But there are less expensive alternatives.
For instance, window clings, with prices starting about $10, can be made at big-box office supply stores and FedEx Office outlets, or by running cling sheets through a desktop printer. Then they can be used in vehicles or store windows.
A-frame sidewalk signs are available in plastic for less than $100 from big-box office supply stores and online vendors and can be used outside a venue where an author is speaking or at a booth.
And don’t overlook bicycle billboards, which the Seattle Public Library uses in neighborhood festival parades. Built on tiny two-wheel trailers that are towed by bikes or adult-size trikes, these signs could just as easily be used in your hometown parades or pedaled through farmers’ markets, playgrounds, or street fairs.
Yet another option is working with neighborhood retailers who have large readerboards (those illuminated signs with block letters spelling out messages that are easily changed), as Seattle indie bookseller Secret Garden did this summer to promote an author appearance. This may be relatively easy for publishers to arrange in their hometowns, or when authors and booksellers are customers or colleagues of merchants who have readerboards.
And then there’s car wrap. Janan Cain, author of The Way I Feel, is thinking of wrapping her car with illustrations from her books for Parenting Press, as this mockup indicates. It’s a pricey option, usually $2,000 or more, and perhaps most appropriate for authors planning lengthy tours by car.
About the Author:
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Seattle, where her recent book, Advertising with Small Budgets for Big Results, outlines media and production costs for dozens of big-budget and DIY promotions. She’s considering a bicycle billboard and maybe even an Amtrak presentation.
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