Monday, July 12, 2010

What's a Successful Book Launch?

After you spend hours, months, years on your book, after it's ready for publishing, after you get that amazing phone call that says, "We'd like to publish your manuscript," or you successfully travel through the land of self-publishing, the fun begins.  It's called a book launch.

Mary, a former student who's been through my book-structuring workshops, recently got her memoir accepted for publishing.  This is great news for her and for her future readers, since it's a good story that needs to be out in the world. 

She's going through all the normal flurry that precedes a book launch and sent me a good question:  What exactly is a successful book launch?  The publisher has their ideas, and you have yours.  Will the two ever meet?  And how can an author tell if she's done everything she possibly can to get her book into the hands of readers?

How Publishing Has Changed--Now It's Up to You
I first began publishing books in the 1980s.  Life in publishing was very different then, a luxury adventure for authors compared to the working one now. 


My publicists were hired by the publishers.  A publicist is a specialist in public relations, getting your book seen and talked about by media and other buzz-makers.  The publicity budget (again, from the publishing houses) gave my books funds for radio, television, and other promotion.  I was sent on small book tours for each title.  It was just like you hear about--the exciting times of authors in movies.

I was lucky to have good publicists who cared about my books.  One was so good, she got me booked on over 100 radio and TV shows.  I hired a media consultant who helped me learn how to be on TV (what to wear, what to say, even how to sit in the chair--all quite surprisingly important).  I went through a troublesome and embarrassing trial-and-error period where I messed up several good shows during the learning curve, practicing my author interviews.  But I got better.  With each book, I learned more about what makes a launch successful. 

One big surprise was bookstore appearances.  I learned that, unless they are very well publicized by radio and TV, they are often are iffy propositions.  It sounds great to appear at ten bookstores, but the reality of a tour is that many writers (these are good midlist writers with good books) can tell you horror stories of an hour or two sitting alone behind a table in a bookstore.  Nobody coming to get a book signed.  It's very depressing and I didn't want to be depressed about my books.

So I decided to be a little creative.  It was better to offer a free workshop on the topic of my book, or even a writing event.  People will come out for that.  And they did.  I remember one at Barnes & Noble where I drew a crowd of 55 or 60 people for a writing workshop--and many of them had never heard of me.  They just wanted to learn to write and hear about how I'd written and successfully published.  It worked.  They bought my book along the way. 

More Isn't Necessarily Better--Go for Quality, Not Quantity
Some authors would no doubt disagree, but I've learned with twelve books that more isn't better.  I go for quality, not quantity. Visiting a dozen venues that draw only a few people doesn't sell as many books as three well-chosen bookstores with fifty attendees each.  Better have a few very well attended events than many poorly attended ones.

I didn't start out this way.  I just try to make my own learning curve as short as possible, so I talked with lots of other authors and got the insider scoop.  When I asked, Did more books sell when you did a ten-city tour versus focused on two cities, the answer was Not always.  It depended on the media support.  If each of the ten cities included three radio interviews and a couple of newspaper features, yes.  If the media didn't support the event, even the big-name bookstores couldn't bring people.

Friends always helped.  I grew a bit shameless about emailing everyone in the area ahead of a tour, asking them to come and be a warm body, support me and bring their friends.  They often did, gladly, and it was great to know that at least a few people I knew would be there that night. 

Media Loves a Hook--and a Local One
I was a newspaper columnist for twelve years, and I got to know a bit of the media mind.  The newspapers in a town serve that town's readers.  They want a local hook.  What can you connect to their locality, that makes them interested in your book and your event?  This takes some research, getting to know the area ahead of time, asking questions (friends, again,who live there are great resources).  The big dailies are very useful and have a short turnaround time, so you can email a press release close to your date and still have a chance of getting a mention--and hopefully a feature interview with photo (the very best).  Weeklies and monthlies take a lot more lead time and planning.

My best attendance has come from feature articles on me and my book and the event in newspapers.  But close seconds are radio and TV interviews.  A brand-new author is usually put on the drive-time shows (morning radio) or news shows, which means a very brief spot.  Think four to five minutes.  You have to have your "talking points" very honed.  You're on and off the air in no time.  But enough of these, and you get people at your event.  The media has a frequency rule of seven--hear it or see it seven times, and it begins to make an impact. 

For me, this is why focusing on a few key venues makes sense.  It's very hard to scatter shot your media work and cover enough places in many cities. 

What Publishers Do for You Now
Most publishers no longer have a budget for publicity unless you are a top-of-the-list author or go with a small press that wants to make a splash with your book.  My experience of the 80s and 90s in publishing is a fairytale to authors coming out with books these days.  Authors are expected to coordinate--and pay for--their own media efforts.  Publishers will most times supply the ARCs (advance review copies) for free to an author, even send them out for you if you give them the media contacts you are targeting.  But some publishers don't even do this nowadays and the author must buy, at wholesale, and send the ARCs herself. 

It's a changing world.  Don't expect your launch to be fully backed by your publisher.  Expect to do the work yourself and plan to hire a consultant, a publicist, or whomever will give you the information and support you need to make your book a stunning success in the world.

After the Launch--Did I Do Enough?
It's been eight months since my novel, Qualities of Light, was released.  I have another book coming out in winter 2010, so my attention has moved on--as it should.  Having another book cooking helps the small let-down of post-launch, when you're no longer swinging the circuit and meeting readers. 

Publicity gurus say you have a window of six months to get a book noticed, and after that, it's over.  It's never been over for some of my books.  I'm still finding new readers as long as the books are in print and I can share them.  The main media efforts are within that six-month window, but you can promote for many years.  I recently read about an author who kept his nonfiction book promotion going for five years and did very well, with increasing sales.  Keep an ear and eye on the media, notice if something is happening that you can ride on with your topic. 

I never feel I do enough with my books.  I sent a review copy  to a national magazine, using a personal connection.  It looked very promising--the reviewer was enthusiastic.  But month after month, no review of my book.  It's not a magazine I'd normally subscribe to, but I kept a subscription going for an extra year, hopeful.  Finally I stopped it.  What hadn't I done right?  The book was good, it fit the magazine's approach, it had been reviewed in equally prestigious publications, but it never got reviewed in this one. 

I believe that efforts for a book, the love you put into launching it, is never lost in the universe.  You'll work steadily toward one idea for getting your book known, as I did with this magazine, but the efforts don't pay off from that avenue; the results come, unexpectedly, from another direction. 

When I finally stopped my efforts toward this publication, I received a fan letter.  A group of women in Mexico were reading my book.  Someone had heard of it, gotten a copy (not an easy feat in this community) and my book was making the rounds.  It was loved by these readers, changing lives.  What better result is there?

My books have been mentioned in the New York Times, on over 100 radio and television stations, in plenty of magazines and newspapers.  I've worked very hard at launches, and I've had plenty of flat tires in terms of not getting exactly what I hoped for.  But then I think of these readers, my readers, who are happy I spent all those years writing.  That's what it's all about, isn't it?  In the end?

This Week's Writing Exercise
Design three launch events for your book.  List three places you'd like to be seen, and brainstorm all the particulars--what you will offer to get people there, how you might attract the media with a local hook, and anything else you can put on paper.  Let yourself go wild.  Have fun.  Dream!