Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Thin Line

Successful authors often must live their lives in the public eye, unlike someone working in the confines of a company. This often goes against the grain of the typical author, who is much more comfortable working alone in front of a computer or with a pen and paper in hand.

When I first began my career in publishing, the average cost of producing a first-run title was around $75,000. The marketing budget was often twice that amount. With $150,000 in hand, we were able to place high profile ads in magazines (longer life span) and large, metropolitan newspapers. For authors who were already in the public eye (such as a past, present or candidate for president) or who had previously been on the New York Times bestseller list, we were often able to get television interviews on major morning news networks.

We published few books compared to the plethora being released every day, and eBooks hadn't yet been invented. This meant fewer competition, especially when you drilled down to the genre and sub-genre.

In today's market, the author has taken on much of the responsibility of marketing and promotion, regardless of their publisher's size. The exception remains those already in the public eye and those who have already proven their ability to sell millions of copies.

Most authors fall in the mid-list or below; in fact, the vast majority of authors will never sell more than fifty copies of their title. To get out in front of potential readers, it means they have to get out from behind their computer - either virtually or physically.

When I worked with authors some forty years ago on their marketing plans, the standard was to send them into book stores for physical signings. Forty years ago, this was a novelty and readers and store staff seemed to love it. All of that has changed in recent years as the publishing industry has been turned upside down. Today most stores are wary of author signings and most store visitors seem to want to avoid them.

We then switched to making their appearances into events by adding talks of value to the audience. This was more easily done with non-fiction, as the author could have an hour-long discussion on the ten best ways to get wealthy or the ten best ways to groom your dog. With fiction, we had to be inventive. Ten best ways to kill your spouse (on paper, of course); ten best ways to make love (without a demonstration); ten ways you know aliens exist - you get the idea.

But what happens when an author does not want to be in the public eye? Some actually have anxiety attacks at the mere thought of public speaking. Others are frightened out of their wits at anyone knowing something about them.

We've handled this situation in many ways. First, there's the pseudonym. Write the books under a fictitious name and your neighbor will never have to know that you wrote The Best Ways to Cheat on Your Spouse. Second, there's the carefully orchestrated public persona, which is often dramatically different than the actual person. You've no doubt heard of this in action in the movie industry, especially during the Golden Age. With the Internet, however, when anything can go viral in seconds, the crafted public persona can be torn down in an instant.

Authors who want to hide their identity pose a particular challenge because we can't show their photographs on their websites or in promotional material; you'd be surprised how many people look for those pictures. It means they can't reveal themselves to their neighbors, their friends, their families, and their communities - the first, closest round of potential buyers. They often live a lie, some as the opposite sex, conjuring up stories about themselves that never happened. One author we know (who thankfully was not published by Drake Valley Press) even came up with an elaborate story of an invalid, dying spouse to explain why he/she could not attend public events. It very nearly backfired when a concerned reader decided to raise money for the invalid's care so the author could travel.

When an author does not want to physically tour (or can't due to other commitments or physical limitations), the Internet is the natural place to turn. The multi-pronged campaign contains:

- social networking
- a blog and website
- blog tours, online radio and online television

Social networking is exactly what it says - it's social. Authors who only talk about their books and who only post or tweet about their books are considered coarse and offensive. Readers want to know the person; they want insight to the minds that created the works they love (or are considering purchasing). This often places the author in an awkward situation - wanting to connect to their readers without sharing too much with a stranger.

Some authors focus only on the craft of writing with their blogs, which circumvents having to reveal too much of themselves. But in our experience, when an author writes only about the process of writing, it's for people who want to learn to write or get published; it's not for the readers who are interested in buying a book - unless the author has written a book about how to write and how to get published.

When an author begins to write about the background of their latest book - what inspired them, how they researched it, perhaps even which parts are based on true events in their own lives - readers love it. And authors again walk that thin line of giving them what they want without placing their whole lives on a platter for the world to see.

Websites can be less personal than social networking and blogs, but websites serve a different purpose. Websites answer basic questions: what did the author write, how can I buy it, and what are the books about? This is where 90% of the exposure involves the book itself - excerpts, cover designs, links to buy, etc - and only 10% needs to explain who the author is. Websites are safe. But in this day and age, the task becomes driving potential buyers to the author's website - and that goes back to social networking and blogging.

Today, we are more apt to send authors on virtual blog tours than physical tours, which uses professional companies to book appearances on blogs that reach around the world to varied audiences. With an author who has limited physical energy due to age or an impairment, for example, the basic tour is used - an excerpt, a short bio, and buy links. For an author with more time or energy, a different interview or Q&A can be used with every site. Some of the questions get quite personal, and again, the author walks a thin line.

Once an author is successful and their books reach the point where they are selling themselves, they can then begin to step away from the limelight. You'll see this with authors of a certain stature who might blog three or four times a year or who rarely if ever get on social networking sites. Their public appearances might consist of getting on the three or four major morning network news, or signing their books in New York, LA and Washington, DC. They can get away with it at that point because their fan base has already been firmly established. Sometimes newbie writers will point their fingers toward Stephen King or John Grisham and say to me that he doesn't blog every day or he isn't always promoting his books and they sell - but what they don't see are the years of hard work it took for them to reach the level of success they enjoy today.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Don for posting this thread. Having just completed my first novel, what you provided was both enlightening and eye opening. I have two reference books in print and electronic format, however, this is my first attempt at a novel. I greatly appreciate your honesty, which as you know with a writer can sometimes be a hard pill to swallow. Thanks again.