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Keeping Your Book Alive

A Writer's Survival Guide

by Suzette Haden Elgin

1. Make the publicist at your publisher overwhelmingly aware that you're A Writer.

I have a template with all the e-mail addresses of each person who (theoretically) is responsible for the promotion of a book of mine, at every publisher. Every time I do anything even remotely connected with publicity I copy that list into the blind cc line (addressing the thing to myself, at the top) and put "Media/Promotion Update" in the subject line and send off a memo. Like "I just did a ten-minute interview about for Tracy Journalist at Cosmopolitan on the subject of why aging women have trouble communicating with young women today. It went well, and the story will run in the [date] issue; I'll send you a copy when mine arrives. The book mentioned with the interview will be [title]. For your files, Tracy Journalist's phone number is...... Suzette"

I send this to every publisher, even though it may not be their book that's featured. All publicity — even a bad review — is good publicity; the publishers know that one of the major factors moving books is name recognition. Sometimes I also send a separate note to a publicist (or marketing representative, or whoever does publicity at the firm if it has no one specifically identified as publicist) at the same time, if there's a detail that might interest her/him but wouldn't be appropriate for the mass memo.

[At the same time I do this, I post the contact info into my alphabetized "Media Contact List," which I print out and send to publishers as part of the "author questionnaire" they ask you to complete for each book. Every few years I send them a new updated copy of that list.]

Unless you build a solid relationship with the publicist, you can't count on her/him. When you decide to go on a book tour and want to ask the publisher for help doing that, you'll be a stranger to her/him. That's a sure way to get turned down and told that you're on your own.

2. Once a month I go to altavista.com and type my name into the search box. When something I haven't seen before appears, I open the link to see what it is. (Often this is how I find out that one of my publishers has sold my book to somebody else, brought out a foreign edition, let me go out of print....whatever. Things I need to know.) When I find that someone has mentioned me on a website, posted a quote from a book or a review, anything like that, I e-mail that person with my thanks and a brief comment — telling them about one of my websites, or that I have a new newsletter, or that I enjoyed reading their book...something like that. This is time-consuming; last time I did it, 840 items came up. But I've seen most of the items before, and I only have to deal with the new ones. This is, in my opinion, one of the most useful things I do.

3. I put my address (today, my e-mail address, and my website addresses) in my book, and at amazon.com (and whatever other bookstore sites offer me that option), and at whowhere.com, so that my readers can write to me. I answer every e-mail I get from a reader — even the obnoxious ones. I have an e-mailbox called "Templates" where I keep boilerplate letters.... things like "Thank you so much for writing, and for all the encouraging words! — Suzette Haden Elgin" or "I'm sorry you didn't like my book; it's depressing to spend your good money for a book and then find out that it's not for you. Sincerely, Suzette Haden Elgin." I copy-and-paste the appropriate letter in and send it to the reader; if a specific question was asked, I add an answer. One of the boilerplates says, "You've caught me at a bad moment — I'm swamped with work right now — but I did want to thank you for your letter and tell you that I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Cordially, Suzette Haden Elgin." But I never just let reader mail sit unanswered. I still get snailmail from readers; I have letters on my computer disk for answering them, and I print one out and send it.

4. I accepted with tremendous pleasure the offer from SFWA for a free webpage, and I try to keep it well stocked with content; I publicize it in every way I know. Vonda is a spectacularly good webmistress (not her formal title, but you know what I mean) and she has helped me every step of the way. And I have other websites. For the new edition of the Ozark Trilogy, I've set up a separate webpage on one of my sites; if I were to sell a new novel, I'd set up a webpage for it. I don't need to tell you about websites; you know about them. If you don't have the SFWA option, go to a search engine and type in "free websites," and then pick the host you like — there are scores of them. You don't have to know anything about how to set up a websites at the free hosts; they'll put forms on screen and all you have to do is fill them in.

5. Whenever I'm traveling, I stop at bookstores along the way — especially independents in small towns. I have a box of pretty six-on-a-page labels (the ones they sell for laser printers), and I keep a batch of signed ones on hand. When I go into a bookstore I take in with me a sheet or two of autographed labels, and a stack of bookmarks for my books (which I make here on the computer and have cut at Kinko's, a thousand at a time), and anything else that might appeal to a bookseller that I have on hand. I introduce myself, offer to sign any copies of my books they may have, and follow through on that. If they don't have any of my books I leave the bookmarks and labels and so on anyway; often when I stop there again they've ordered books to put the labels and bookmarks in. When a new book comes out, I use a software program that turns copy into small booklets and I make an excerpt booklet; we have a good scanner, and I scan in the cover of the book (if it's not horrible) and use that as the booklet cover — with my contact info prominently featured on the back; I leave a few of the excerpt booklets at the bookstore as well. [Note: Now that book excerpts are routinely posted on the Net, this may not seem necessary, but lots of the smaller bookstores don't have Net access yet, and they welcome the excerpt booklets — plus they keep them to show to customers as a way of getting them to buy the book.] None of the promo stuff I take into the bookstores is fancy....not like what Jan Brett's publishers provide to bookstores for her, for example. (Check out her website if you want to see what strong publisher promotional support can do; it's awesome.) I just use simple items with plenty of information. I stopped asking my publishers to make these things for me; if they agree, what happens is they have to have six committee meetings and go through thirty drafts and it takes six months to get what you need and they wail at your about how much you've cost them; I do it myself because the other way is so ridiculous. If a publisher actually did provide me with a terrific promo item I would be delighted, needless to say; in the meantime, the things I do myself with Kinko's help work fine. [Note: For this item, the word "I" should be interpreted to include my husband; George is the techie, knows how to run the scanner, and so on. But if he weren't available to help, I could do it myself.]

Note: I keep meticulous records of these bookstore visits; that way, any travel I do is tax deductible.

6. I write newletters.

This used to be a considerable nuisance; it meant having a bulk mail permit, it meant copying and sorting and stuffing and mailing. It was a hassle — worth it (see below), but a hassle. Today, with e-mail newsletters as the medium, it's truly falling-off-a-log easy. You just write it as you would any e-mail message, address it to yourself, put your list of e-mail addresses of the recipients into the "Bcc" slot, and send it. It's true that many people still don't have e-mail, but that's changing, and it's less of a problem in the sf community than elsewhere. I have newsletters that I charge money for, and I have newsletters that are free. Free is the easiest, because you don't have to keep any accounts (except a record of your expenses, so that they're tax-deductible), you don't have to feel guilty if your schedule forces you to skip an issue, and you can shut it down whenever you feel that it's no longer useful.

A newsletter makes your readers feel that you're a real person, someone they can feel loyal to. It doesn't have to be more than two pages long, and it doesn't have to be sent out on a schedule. Call it "The [yourname or yourtitle] Irregular" and open it with a note that says you'll be sending it out on that basis. Here's a sample "masthead" for one of mine, so you can see how easy it is to do:


The Linguistics & Science Fiction Newsletter
Volume x, Issue x — [date]


The Linguistics & Science Fiction Newsletter is written and published every other month by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D. (linguistics), from the Ozark Center for Language Studies. It is available by e-mail only, in plain text, and is free to members of the Linguistics & Science Fiction Network (annual dues, $5.00). For more information send an e-mail to
[email protected]; or read a sample issue.


IN THIS ISSUE: Editor's note; FanSpeak; Book Review; Cyberspeak; Quotes & Comments; News....




I can't tell you how many ways newsletters are helpful; if I could manage it, I'd write one specifically linked to every book I publish. Starting a newsletter gives you something to send out a press release about, something to post as an announcement all over the Internet, something to announce at cons, something to tell the IRS. It gives you a way to stay in touch with readers, a way to announce new books, a way to announce your speaking/signing/con schedule, a way to publish book reviews, a way to do research (you include questions for readers to answer), a way to float new ideas and see what kind of reaction you get to them, a way to update information fast, a way to sell books directly if you're interested in doing that — there's no end to the advantages.

Finally, it doesn't matter if a newsletter doesn't make money. For my paid newsletters I have always had breaking even as the goal; I've always done better than break even, but it wouldn't matter to me if I didn't. Every penny you spend on a newsletter is a penny you don't have to spend for other advertising, it's not money squandered. It's an expense of doing business. And unlike most advertising, it's entirely under your control. For us writers, who so rarely have any control over anything to do with our work, this is bliss.

7. I track my book sales at amazon.com. You go there, you type in your name in the search box, and up comes the complete list of your titles. You click on a title, and underneath it you'll find a number; the smaller the number, the better your sales. It's true that figures at amazon.com don't tell you anything about how your books are selling at the other online stores or in the brick-and-mortars. However, this one source of feedback — for which I am very grateful to amazon.com, despite all the justifiable reasons the place is roundly disliked — tells you two very valuable things. (1) It tells you which of your books are selling and which books aren't, so that you can make rational decisions about where to put your marketing efforts. [Example: I have a new book out called The Language Imperative, from Perseus. It has been stuck at roughly 550,000 from day one, and it's still there; it doesn't budge. I don't know why this is happening, and my editor and publicist say they're equally baffled — I do know that I have to fix it, and I'm working hard at it. Without the amazon.com figures, I might not have known about this for months, if ever.] (2) It tells you whether some promotional thing you tried worked or not. If it worked, you'll see a sudden jump in sales; it may not last long, but it gives you feedback about what works and what doesn't. (I also see sales jumps that are tied to some sort of event — for instance, after the Littleton disasters some of my verbal self-defense books went way up for a few weeks. When I see a jump like that, I do my best to find out what caused it and to see what I can do to support the increased sales. In sf this might happen because an issue treated in your novel suddenly became news in the allegedly real world.)

Any time one of my books hits roughly the 1000 slot at amazon.com, I send that information to my publicist. Publicists get justifiably furious at authors who constantly e-mail them about amazon.com figures, but they want to know when a book breaks 1000. (At least that's true in trade nonfiction, where most of my books are; the "significant number" may be different in other areas of publishing; just ask the publicist what it is.)

Ordinarily I check my figures every two weeks and post them in a file folder with the date and time, as a reference; that's often enough. If I've sent out a press release, or I've had an article in a magazine or newspaper, or if some relevant event has taken place, I check the figures oftener — maybe every day for a while — to see what effect that had and how long it lasts.

8. When I have a book signing, I offer the store an autographed copy of the book to be given away in a "door prize" drawing. Sometimes the store has a policy against doing that; usually the store is delighted. If I have other stuff I can provide as a door prize, I do that as well — maybe an autographed hardcover as first prize and a paperback as second prize; maybe one of my limited edition prints; whatever I have that might draw people to the signing. If I can talk the publisher into providing balloons or bumperstickers or something, I add that too — but I don't count on the publisher for such things.

9. When I'm going to do a publicity "tour," even a tiny one, I prepare a mock interview — a set of questions about the book, with my answers — and have my publicist send it to the media I'll be dealing with; if I have no publicist I send it to them myself. Many many times I have to do interviews with people who haven't read the book and may not even have read the cover (sometimes because the publicist promised to send them a copy but sent only a press release); if I've provided a Q&A for them, they use it — and thank me for it afterward. That way, I get asked the questions I want to answer and I've already worked out the answers in advance; that way, I don't get asked, "Well, what are your thoughts?" or "Well, where do you get your ideas?" [Note: I try to do this when I turn in the author questionnaire for the book, and I ask the publicist to send it out with the press release and/or review copies. If my publisher didn't send me an author questionnaire, I would still send the Q&A, with a polite letter asking that it be enclosed with the review copies.]

10. I buy a supply of my book when it comes out — as many as I can afford, and from whoever offers me the best discount. (Usually that will be a supplier, like Ingram, where 26 copies — even mixed titles — will get 40% off; if my publisher can go deeper than that, I buy from the publisher.) I need those copies. To give to the local library; to give away when I come across someone for whom a comp copy gift would be a good PR move; to donate as a door prize (see #8); to use on my sales tables (see #11); to sell when my publisher lets the book go out of print; to donate to charity auctions; and more. I take one new copy apart and use it to make a duplicating master so that I'll be able to provide autographed photocopies to profs who — after the book is out of print, and while I have no reprint edition — want to use the book in their classes.

11. I work up a seminar to go with the book (or books). Please don't leap to the conclusion that you can't do this; you know things. There are gazillions of excellent books available on doing seminars; I won't repeat them here. (One of my seminars is a thing called "How to Keep Your Book Alive," by the way.) Seminars, in my experience, make very good money — especially if you have a sales table where your books (which you buy at 40% off or better) are on sale. I think it's insane not to have a sales table. You don't want to run it yourself, however; that dilutes your "writer/teacher" status. My husband runs my sales table for me. In the days when he hadn't yet started doing that, I had a display table — with several copies of each book — at the back of the seminar room, along with a big stack of order blanks. People filled out the order blank and gave it to me at the seminar; I mailed out their orders, with a bill, when I got home. [I've been doing this for decades, and I have never had anyone fail to pay my bill; if someone did that, it would be a tax-deductible cost of doing business item — but it has never happened to me. I also have a space on the order blank where they can write in their credit card information, and many do that, so that no billing is required.] When I have a sales table, they can still take an order blank and order later, if that's their preference. [Note: When you do a seminar for a client, as opposed to hosting it yourself, sometimes the client won't let you have a sales table. Fine. You can still put an order blank for your book(s) in the back of the seminar packet and put a display copy of two on a table for people to look at.]

12. I am a sole proprietor business — and I think that's absolutely necessary. I won't waste space arguing for it here; if it interests you, here's my article on the subject. Becoming a corporation or partnership is complicated and can be expensive; becoming a sole proprietor business is a piece of cake.

13. I have my taxes done by a professional. It's worth every penny; it has always saved me money on my taxes. This is not off-topic; my word on it. Not having to try to do the taxes myself, and not having to try to keep up with every last tiny nuance of the tax literature, helps keep my books alive — it leaves me with more time for writing and for book promotion.

Thanks to Mary Anne Mohanraj for editing and formatting of this essay.
 
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