Self-promotion, getting readers, keeping readers. Now that the publishing houses aren’t doing very much promotion for the average book, we as authors are pretty much saddled with that daunting task.
I was intrigued by this post from Theresa of Edittorrent, the same blog on which I unintentionally upset people so much when I responded to their comments (which I requested) on the opening of my Pundit novel (I always forget that not everyone is an ex-debate-team engineer or college prof and isn’t up for a dissection of whatever they’ve just said in order to stimulate further discussion.) I think that the author she describes is truly a whiz at getting great audiences to come to her appearances, and that we can learn a lot from watching.
However, I respectfully disagree with the term “branding” for all of this. What I would call what that knitting author is doing during her book appearances is . . . entertainment!
“Branding,” to me, is the technique of making Stephen King synonymous with horror, or Judy Blume be the standard for young adult/middle grade, by simply making EVERY BOOK be in that genre (which isn’t my idea of growth and improvement in any pursuit). Branding has more to do with the audience identifying you with a particular genre and thinking of you as the one who owns that genre. Yes, this author has done the branding thing. But. . . .
What this lady is doing during her appearances is BUILDING AN AUDIENCE, which is (to my way of thinking) even better. After all, Steve Martin began to build his audience by playing the banjo and having a plastic arrow sticking out of his head while he made obscene balloon animals. Then he moved on to skits on SNL and the movies, after which he did some big films, and now he has written mystery novels. His audience has followed the Steve Martin “brand” wherever he took them, but that’s because he built an audience. He worked it so that he has a fan base. It may be a subtle difference.
She uses some of the same techniques real estate agents and other salespeople use when they refer to “YOUR house” when you’re only walking through a model. She takes photos of the audience, which flatters and charms them–and is cheap with a digital camera! She posts those photos on her weblog or website. She responds to the occasional e-mail or blog comment. This is just smart business. She turns the tables on the audience and makes THEM the focus. She isn’t the star–YOU are! It’s a feel-good rather than being all about “here I am as the big-time writer and here is how I got here and I am so cool, doncha wanna kiss my ring.”
I think that the lesson we as fiction writers can take away from seeing the success of a writer who does the appearances as “concerts” (think Gallagher) is that we need to entertain our audiences. Teachers today have found that there’s more to holding the attention of the class than just doing a little talk and a Q&A and maybe a drawing for a free book. Audiences now would like us to charm them. Make them happy. Get 187 people to show up because they’re excited about seeing what we’ll do and eager to hear what we’ll say that’s funny or entertaining.
One of the hooks that the author in the article uses is the sock she is currently knitting. She does a number of silly things with the sock to entertain the troops and keep them focused on her schtick of “knitting IS ME.” It’s a maguffin. What we need to do, then, if we’re gonna do this (and I’m not sure it’s not pretty silly, but I am sure it would probably work to get you a large audience) is have a maguffin for each of our books. People LOVE trinkets, souvenirs, “something I won” or “looky what I got free!” They put little figurines on top of their computer monitors, on their desks at work, on a shelf with other trinkets. Trust me . . . they’re popular. Each of your books has a maguffin, I’ll bet, or more than one.
For example . . . in my novel _Little Rituals_, Daphne’s charm bracelet plays a prominent role. So what am I going to discuss, in part, during my little Daphne book spiel to the huge booksigning audience we have somehow tricked into showing up?
I’m going to talk about charm bracelets and superstition and ritual and various beliefs, but I’m going to use the charm bracelet as a concrete attractor. I’m going to hold mine up and describe the charms and why I have them and what Daph’s mean to her. And then I am going to give a couple of starter charm bracelets to random attendees. A 7-1/2″ sterling charm bracelet goes on eBay (new, from a place like Zina’s) for around $7 to $10. A nice little mini charm might go for a bit less, depending on what you choose. Engraving it with something that’s a reminder of the book (if it’s a tiny round charm, there’s not that much room) might cost more, but could make it very collectible. So it costs me some cash. The reaction of the woman who wins it and remembers ME and my book? As they say in those Visa ads . . . “priceless.”
I will open my chat/appearance by walking in making an effort to not step on cracks, knocking on wood, and doing a few silly little things like that for attention-getting until they catch on to what I’m doing. Once they’ve guessed and laughed, then we’ll discuss the place of ritual in life. I’ll ask the audience, “What are YOUR superstitions? Do you have lucky rituals? What is a ritual that you do every day?” (I’m thinking here of the hi-how-are-you and handshake dance, not a ceremony under the moon.) We’ll talk about how these rituals might have arisen and been handed down in this culture. We can lead into some of the themes I explore. The bit with my arguing with the Magic 8 Ball and so forth would be a fun schtick, even if it DIDN’T move books, and I should think it would sell a FEW.
For my Marfa lights mystery, I’ll do a similar thing, using a theme of paranormal stuff such as ghost lights and the phenomena seen at Nellis AFB/Groom Lake and those tricky little aliens in their UFOs who only appear to farmers and small-town people in Stephenville and Cleburne (TX) in order to avoid being seen by big-city folks. Hell, for all I know UFOs the size of zeppelins DO appear in Dallas at night and nobody even NOTICES them amid all the flash and chaos that is the big city. I’ve always nursed a belief that these visits are from teenage aliens who have taken Dad’s UFO for the night and are just out playing a few pranks, like kids drag-racing on the old highway and other “American Graffiti” pastimes. We can discuss whether the consensus reality that we all see is real or not. My money’s on “not.”
What will I award to these audiences? I’ll give a couple of people a Marfa light, of course. You can buy a plastic ball that has a little flashing LED in the middle . . . I think I saw them in a pond catalog for floating in your pond. I know I’ve seen them. Or I might make them out of something. Whatever. It won’t be expensive, but it’ll sure make people remember. Another good souvenir for those visits would be a button (yeah, you know, like those old-fashioned campaign buttons that said “Snoopy for President” and “Kiss Me I’m Irish”) with a slogan that’s snappy like “The Truth Is Out There”–although THAT one is taken. I’ll come up with something good. Or really corny.
You see where I’m going with this. I don’t believe that the promotional stuff and stunts this lady does at her appearances has too much to do with “branding.” I think it is building a FAN BASE, and I think it’s SHOW BUSINESS, and I think it WORKS.
If I ever have the opportunity to do booksignings and promote my book and all future/past books, that’s the way I’ll do it. I’ll be a phenomenon not unlike a ghost light. I’ll become the most famous thing since Harlan Ellison.
Well, maybe not that famous. But just wait and see.