Sunday, January 15, 2006

Book Sense 101 Publicity: In the End, You Will All Wish You Were John Hodgman

I believe it was right before Christmas—I say “believe” because the past all seems to blur together for me—when the customers started asking, “Do you have John Hodgman’s book?”

“Do you have the book about hobos?”

“It’s about matters historical, matters literary, and matters cryptozoological. You’ve heard of it right?”

The book was, The Areas of My Expertise, and luckily I had heard of it. I’d even read the front, back, spine, inside flap (this makes sense if you’ve held the book), and perused the Hobo names (I’m a fan of Wicked Paul Fourteen-Toes, although MmmmmDandy Dundee is also pretty damn great—they all are really), but I had no idea why people were suddenly so crazy for it.

Turns out Hodgman was on the Daily Show.

Turns out he made Jon Stewart just lose it.

Turns out that Hodgman has been holding steady at number ten on the independent booksellers list since then.

What have we learned from this? If you can make Jon Stewart publicly lose it to the point of giggling, you’ve got it made.

Many, however, will never make it on the Daily Show (the Daily Show’s loss, I’m sure), and it’s hard to get up the courage and stage presence that Hodgman possesses. Not to mention that ability to not giggle right along with Stewart.

Let’s face it though, if it were that easy to get up in front of a live television audience most authors wouldn’t be writers, they’d be television personalities. Despite this, writers these days have to sell themselves to sell books, which means public events, interviews, and signings (oh my!).

Some writers have a head start: they’re radio personalities (Hodgman), or advertising execs (Patterson). They know how to work a crowd; they’ve had years of practice.

My advice? Steal from them. It’s the sincerest form of flattery. Go to signings and speeches, any public events with authors in attendance and see what they do. Adapt what you like where you can, make a list of those things that drive you crazy and never, ever do them.

I cannot help you with the stage fright, but I can discuss the little extras that authors seem to love (bookmarks, magnets, etc), and how well they work on the bookseller level.

On Bookmarks:

In the interest of full disclosure I should probably tell you that I have a special hatred in my heart for bookmarks. Hate, hate, hate, hate. It wasn’t always this way, but I somehow got on a very nice publicist’s list, and I keep getting packages upon packages from her clients. I have no place to put these bookmarks for customer access, and I have my stores own bookmarks to give out. I cannot even put the bookmarks in the appropriate sections because I don’t have anything to hold them in.

Yes, they’re probably lovely.

Yes, you probably spent a lot of money on them.

But nine times out of ten when they get to the bookstore they go straight into the garbage.

If you are so attached to the idea of bookmarks, here’s my suggestion: get together with a bunch of authors wish similar writing styles. Pool your funds to put together a bookmark that says: “If you like this book you should check out…” and fill in the best title from each of you. Do not put a title in for “If you like this book;” leave it generic. Every time you are in a bookstore slip these bookmarks in your books, your similar writers’ books, and any big time author who falls within your category.

Do not get caught. I will disavow any knowledge of this suggestion and this message will self-destruct if you do.

To help with the “not getting caught” tuck the bookmark completely inside the book, so neither end is showing—this will greatly increase the possibility that the bookmark will stay there, undisturbed. If it’s pushed tightly enough against the spine, both the bookseller and the customer will be more likely to consider it part of the book. The reader will get home, start reading their book, and find the bookmark. They’ll look at it—probably even use it (!)—and in the end, if they liked what they are reading well enough they might even use this booklist to buy more books.

Viola! Piggyback sale.

But only if you don’t get caught; this might be illegal.

Um, yeah, and I’d never tell you to do anything illegal, unless it’s getting me the winning numbers for the lotto. I promise we can split the pot.

On Magnets:

Give them out with the bookmarks (if you can’t give up the bookmark love) at signings, or send them to your readers list-serve, just please don’t send them to me. As with bookmarks, most bookstores don’t have any place to put them, and what good will they do you if they are not getting distributed. This could be different for independent bookstores, so you might want to have a link on your website or list-serve so booksellers can contact you.

Speaking of…

On Websites, Print News, and Interviews:

Website? Get one.

Blog? Get one of those, too.

Interviews? Go give ‘em.

If you’re not comfortable selling yourself face to face then do it through the screen of the world wide web. If you’ve got a voice, look into podcasts and see about getting any audio files of radio or news interviews you might be giving. You are your own archival service, so archive, archive, archive.

You don’t have to be an expert to run a website, you can hire people to do it for you as long as you are not too attached to that advance.

You’re building your future here.

Besides, if you have a website, I then have someplace to direct your potential or already die-hard fans towards. If I don’t have the answer I tell them to get on the net.

It has the answers long before I do.

On Bribery:

Cash, check, credit or money order, we take it all. All bribes to get me to hand-sell like I’m possessed can be addressed to:

Bookseller Chick
P.O. Box 42
Book Pages, Smythe-sown Spine

Joking. Booksellers are a cheap lot. We just like to know that we’re being thought of: candy, a card, anything that says “I paid attention.” Paying attention to us gets us to pay attention to you, and if we remember you kindly we’re more likely to push your book or give it a front of store placement.

The best, and cheapest, way to show you paid attention? Smile.

You would be surprised how many authors I’ve had come into my store can’t bring themselves to smile. They’re tired, it’s been a long day, etc. I know, buddy, I’ve had one too, but drive-by signings are there to help the author drive their sales, whether or not my stock has been signed makes no difference to me.

Take a chance, widen those eyes and curve those lips.

Fake it, baby. Fake it.

We booksellers do it all the time, customer service demands it.

On Dumps:

Dumps, for those of you who don’t know, are large cardboard stands to display books usually with a blow-up of the cover or the author somehow attached. When a publishing company hooks up with a bookstore chain, dumps often result as part of the marketing strategy. They are to be placed at the front of the store, or in section to draw the eye of the customer. The bookstore chain then distributes them to all of their little stores and everyone puts them up, right?


Not exactly. Lately I haven’t been getting as many dumps as I used to, but at one time I would get four or five a week to display. This would be all fine and dandy but I have no room at the front of my store, and no place to put them in section. For the most part, my dumps all get thrown away unused, and I know it’s the same for a lot of other stores. I don’t know if the company knows this, and the agreement to do this type of marketing has some sort of clause (for use in stores only over X number of feet in front, or only in superstores, or only on months ending in Y), or if publishers really do believe that they will be there in the front of every store. I sometimes feel like they’re overbooking us, just like airlines, and assuming that someone will either not show up or take the bump.

There are some gorgeous dumps out there though, and so I wouldn’t want to get rid of them completely. Most publishing companies instruct their author to carry around a box of their books with them (in the case that the store will sell out and then you can restock them), or so I’m told, so why don’t you also have an empty dump. They collapse down quite nicely, are easy to ship, and they provide your own personal display to be placed right by the signing table just in case the bookstore doesn’t have their own dump to use.

Maybe this is common practice, I don’t know, but it’s something to think about.

On Cover Flats:

Love ‘em, wish I got more of them, so that I could do endcap displays with them. As it is now I get so few that I don’t have a chance to make use of what I have. Cover flats can be used as a stand-in for a book to take reservations (if it’s not already out), to decorate the end caps to let people know of coming attractions, and to decorate a signer’s table.

On Foam-core Mounted Posters:

The first time I got one of these was from Seal Press when we called to get some marketing materials for their book No Touch Monkey. We were selling it like crazy (couldn’t keep it in stock, in fact), and since we were expecting a big shipment soon we wanted to be able to advertise it in our window displays. Seal Press sent us two foam-core mounted posters complete with their own built in stands.

The window display was a hit. It’s probably already common practice, but if you are doing a signing or a tour, send these on ahead. Especially if you have a great cover or design on there.

Just like with covers, people like the pretty.

But let's here what works for those of you who are authors? Flats, covers, signings? None of the above?

How about you readers that go to signings? Who have liked and why?

If I missed any aspects, let me know. I’ll cover them when I get back to an internet connection next Saturday. If you think that I’ve got it all wrong, also let me know. I’m just basing my thoughts and feelings on five years of bookselling. I do not claim to be an expert.

This guy does however, and I’ve heard several good things about his book for authors.

Of course, you wouldn’t have to do any of this if you’d made Jon Stewart giggle like a little girl, but we can’t all be John Hodgman, can we.


Kate R said...

You like coverflats but not bookmarks? You realize how utterly SAD that is? Because coverflats show up out of the blue. I tossed most of mine.

Bookmarks take time and money and energy to create (no, I didn't do any, but I often get emails fretting details "which yellow looks better?" from fellow rioters)

I'm off to point this post out to everyone I know and then listen to the wailing and gnashing all over the world.

Kate R said...

okay, done.

You should read my old post and see if it is phoney balogney, BSC.

Bookseller Chick said...

I'm sure I would love them if I had somewhere to put them, but there is no room. Other than sticking them in random novels just for the hell of it, they serve no purpose for me.

Douglas Hoffman said...

Um . . . what's a coverflat?

BSC, you sure had a lot on your mind today. Great post. I'll remember you when Stewart gets me on his show ;o)

Anonymous said...

BSC, if you were an author visiting a bookstore, what would you do and bring with you to promote your book?

Ron Franscell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ron Franscell said...

BSChick, I love it when you talk mercenary! Oooh baby.

I have a new book coming in October and I want to sign at YOUR store! I promise a gratuity of some appropriately perverse but heartfelt nature.

Kate R said...

hey, come back! it's a good post but we need more more more.

Michele said...

Wow! I never knew there was so much involved.
I'm impressed, you are so savvy, why aren't authors using you as a marketing tool?
Could be big bucks in that!
You're worth it, obviously.

Douglas Hoffman said...

. . . and I'm still wondering, what's a coverflat?

Bookseller Chick said...

Jason, it really depends on the store and how much effort they put into presenting you. You don't want to step on anyone's toes, but you also want to present yourself in the best light possible. You just don't want to piss off the bookseller in charge (number one way to guarantee your book gets buried in the back). I would suggest contacting the stores you are going to sign at before you go there and see if there is anything that they need (cover flats, foam-core mounted posters, etc). If you're doing a signings where you are driving there, I would try to always have a few things in the back of your car: a tasteful display (if you can create those), a dump, a foam-core poster, and anything you like to give out to your readers. You don't have to leave the dump with the bookstore (although you can), just use it to display your books next to your signing table when you are there. A lot of authors also have sign-up sheets so people can sign up for their newsletters that are presented in a tasteful guestbook style. Just don't, for the love of all the Tiki Gods don't. attack. customers. Time and again I've seen the overzealous author go out of the way to drag people over to their table. It makes booksellers cringe and not want to have you back (I have no idea what it does for sales).

Douglas, the answer to your question is partially on the next post (Kate's hooking me up with an image of a cover flat for you). Hope the explanation makes sense.

Ron, trust me, you do not want to sign at my store. It's so damn small we don't even host signings unless we are specifically told we have to (which leads to much bitching on our part). Depending on the nature of your book you might want to skip most mall based bookstores all together (other than to do a drop in signing), and stick with independents as well as the bigger B&Ns and Borders.

Michele, what I say might not work for every author with every book for every situation. Sometimes being outragous works, sometimes it doesn't. Just because I have a great loathing for bookmarks doesn't mean that every bookseller does, some might even have come up with some way to display them cleanly (I'm still looking into that). Thanks for saying I'm worth the big bucks though, maybe someday I'll get my act together and actually go into publicity (which is what I threaten to do every once in awhile, although truth be told I would love to be a buyer...or so I've convinced myself).

lady t said...

Amen on the bookmarks(altho I have quite an interesting collection)and as for the dumps,another probelm is trying to
put them together. Most of them are either flimsy as hell(have actually used packing tape to keep the thing from collapsing) or bulky with side pieces that fall off.

Bookseller Chick said...

Lady t, you're right. They can be awkward, but once you get used to their basic design they're pretty easy to bust out. I used to work at a store that put up five or six every Monday night (to prepare for change-outs). Maybe the best thing would be to have a practice dump and the one you actually use for presentation?

alau said...

Thanks for posting this. This is all very good to know.