When it comes to promotion, it pays to evaluate each step in the process before jumping in. After all, some things cost a lot of money or a lot of time and you need to consider whether it’s worth the return in word of mouth. Keep in mind that promotion is never a case of you doing a thing and automatically selling a bunch of books. It is incredibly rare that any promotional effort produces that kind of direct return. Instead, promotion is more about getting your book and/or your name in front of new people or reminding people of your book and/or your name. When it comes to reminding folks who have already seen some of your promotional efforts, you must tread carefully. It’s far too easy to cross from being an author who is excited about the new book (which folks don’t mind seeing) to being a huckster (which folks do not respond to well). So promotion can be a bit of a tightrope, and it’s worthwhile to evaluate potential actions before jumping in. With that in mind, let’s look at six common promotional tools, and whether it’s worth your cash or your time.
Some writers swear by business cards. They make them, they hand them out, they love them. I never have ended up glad I had business cards, but you may feel differently if you make a lot of face to face contacts. Really, the value of a business card begins and ends with face-to-face contacts, especially now when so few interactions in publishing are made via the postal mail. So if you attend a lot of in-person events, business cards may come in handy as a quick way of handing over your contact information. If you do go with a business card, there is no need to overload it or go with anything too cute. You need your name, your contact info such as email address or website, and all your social media handles where your focus is books or information somehow connected to your books. Put only contact information that you’d want to be contacted at. If you don’t want phone calls, don’t put your cell number on there. Some children’s writers don’t do business cards and instead make bookmarks with contact information and the name of whatever book you’re promoting at any given time. Bookmarks may be held onto longer than business cards. Quality is important whether you’re passing out business cards or bookmarks. These items are meant to represent you when you are not there, so choose wisely.
These were the hot thing for a while. In 2015, if you were a YA author, you probably heard that book trailers could be the difference between a book bombing or soaring. Everyone had to have a book trailer and some were amazing (some less so). A flood of businesses popped up promising to create amazing book trailers, often at steep prices. Ultimately most authors discovered that book trailers are mostly viewed by other authors and weren’t really offering much promotional bang for their bucks. If you love making them yourself or have access to a relative who loves making them, hey, they can’t hurt, but you really don’t need one. If you like the idea of having a book trailer, do a search for “book trailers” and check out some of the trailers others have done for ideas.
This one can be a touchy subject. Some authors really love blog tours and look at them as a kind of late night talk show tour, only online and in print. In fact, blog tours can be useful if you plan the tour yourself and focus on venues where there are likely to be plenty of readers/buyers who may actually be interested in your specific book. Planning blog tours takes time. You need to analyze the elements of your work (or of you) that would make interesting content possible, then find popular blogs that would be interested in having a guest post on that content. This research and prep cannot be skipped in a successful blog tour. As with book trailers, companies have popped up promising to set up blog tours for a price. This is virtually always a terrible expenditure and I’d recommend avoiding companies that offer to book tours for you. Many times they are booking them on sites with little traffic or use beyond being points for these book tours. So if you’re (at all) considering using a blog tour company, check out their past tours and examine the overall content on the blogs. Is it a blog about a variety of interesting things that you enjoyed visiting? Or does it feel like it exists only to promote? In the first case, that’s a solid place for a guest blog. In the second, that was a huge waste of the author’s time and money.
Pretty much every published author needs some kind of online presence if they are getting into publishing today. People need a place to go and learn more about you when they are interested. Websites grow in importance the more books you have. But they often seem to top out at a certain point (usually when the author has many popular books). I visit author web sites frequently, and I notice that authors who are building their readership often have sites with lots of fresh content. Authors who have a solid name recognition often do fewer updates and many come pretty close to abandoning their websites entirely, clearly leaning toward other forms of promotion. But early on, a website is a solid time investment. Websites work best when the author can update them directly. As with blog tours, and book trailers, you can hire people to build websites and this often results in a truly lovely site. But be sure updates are easily made by you. You don’t want to end up in a situation where your webmaster’s business is booming and your updates wait a long time before being posted. The best way to judge websites is to look up authors whose work you enjoy (especially those rising in their career but not yet big names) and seeing what they have and how they’ve set it up. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to websites. You don’t want to copy someone directly, of course, but the best place to learn is to look at what things you enjoyed on other sites.
Like book trailers, blogs used to be the number one most essential item for a writer. Today fewer people read blogs than in the past, though some group blogs (sometimes called grogs) are still quite popular when they focus on a subject that has considerable interest to a specific group. Nonfiction grogs or educational grogs both still draw in enough viewers to be worth the time spent. Now, having said that, having a blog integrated with a website can be extremely effective, especially if you schedule specific days to present information that may be of interest to specific groups (preferably groups that overlap with your book-buying audience). For instance, your personal website may have a link to your blog where you have one day a week where you talk about unusual book activities for the classroom or maybe another day where you talk about topics in publishing today or a third where you offer printable content (like puzzles for instance) related to your books. This kind of blog can help keep people returning to your website over and over. An integrated approach to websites, blogs, and social media can help these elements bolster one another. For instance, on the day that your blog (that is integrated into your website) covers unusual reading spots for the classroom, you might also make a Twitter post like “What does your classroom reading nook look like?” and include a link to your blog. This allows you to draw attention from many different directions and increase the promotional value of each element.
Throughout my career, book signings have been seen as a kind of test of your mettle. I’ve done a few. One was set up by my publisher, and I only had to attend, sit on a tall stool, and sign books. They were giving away copies of my books to teachers. They’d made a nifty big poster on an easel. They had an announcement made when the signing was about to begin. I merely had to sign books. I had a long, long line and signed as fast as I could. I felt like a rock star. It’s amazing the power of giving stuff away at teacher events.
I’ve also done a few book signings on my own. These were not the same. There seemed primarily to help me avoid getting a swelled head about my own popularity. People assiduously avoided looking at me for fear that they would be forced to buy a book. Books were sold. Books were signed. But that experience of watching people slink by, avoiding eye contact, is not ego boosting. And I’ve known many writers who’ve experienced the barren wasteland of a book signing at a bookstore. Unless you already have name recognition, book signings are rough, slow, and dull. Selling a dozen books is considered a good return on the time. Selling none is not unknown. Many writers give away things at book signings: cookies, bookmarks, small swag, which can make a book signing quite an investment. I’ll still do a signing now and then, mostly as festivals and such and mostly to thin down my piles of author copies, but I never do them thinking they’re going to be an amazing ego boost or a massive chance to build word of mouth, because they are not. I find public speaking events and school events to be much more effective promotion and I’m usually paid for these as well.
So what’s the bottom line? All promotion with cost you something. Even times when I’m being paid to speak, I’m also investing time (both in preparation and time during the event) and energy (I love public speaking but I’m useless for the rest of the day afterwards because these things are so draining). Any time you’re choosing which things to invest in and which to pass on, it’s good to make an informed decision. Is this going to be worthwhile for you and your book at this time? Is this going to be something you can do on your own or something that needs a money investment? Is this going to be fun? Honestly, the last one means a lot to me. If I am not enjoying myself in any book promotion it shows. So resist anything that sounds truly horrible to you, because you’re rarely glad you did it afterwards (well, you may be proud of getting through it, but you generally don’t see much return on it). Research carefully. Choose wisely. And always look for the fun. Do that, and you’re promotional efforts will almost always leave you glad you made them.