Mysterious Matters has had a lot of comments and mail lately, and sadly I never can seem to keep up with all of it. But here's a comment from a frustrated writer:
You've given us two posts, now, detailing all the things that don't work for promotion. I have to say, antidepressants are starting to seem like a good idea.
What *does* work, if anything? What should we do to promote our work, if reviews are extinct, the mass media are unattainable, readings and signings are ineffective and even signature lines will gain us only hate and ostracism?
Is it really hopeless?
My friend, I share your pain. Remember, we publishers want to sell as many books as you do. We want you to be NYT best-sellers, because that helps keep us in business.
The point I want to make here today, though, is the difference between promotion and what is sometimes called (in Net lingo) BSP or SSP, abbreviations for Blatant Self-Promotion or Shameless Self-Promotion.
The former works. The latter sometimes does, sometimes doesn't, and backfires more often than the perpetrator realizes.
So let's talk about BSP first. I define this as the act of a writer talking about himself or herself, or, more specifically, talking about his or her work when nobody has asked him to. BSP can happen in almost any venue, whether cocktail party, airplane ride, or in a wealth of places on the Net, such as listservs and newsgroups. The goal is to get word of their book out to the public, to have it "talked up" and raise readers' awareness of it.
Now, take a step back for a moment and ask yourself these questions:
When I meet someone at a party and he starts talking endlessly about himself and his job, how interested am I?
When a door-to-door salesman comes to my door, uninvited, and asks me to buy something, how likely am I to buy it?
When I go to my mailbox and see a bunch of junk mail that I did not ask for and do not want, what are the odds that I will read it rather than throw it into the recycling bin unopened?
Your reactions in these situations are going to be quite similar to the average person's, or average reader's, response to blatant self-promotion. Very, very few people choose to spend their leisure time in search of advertisements, or ads disguised as information. (Though perhaps this is not 100% true, given the popularity of the Home Shopping Network. However, I think readers are a different ilk.) They resent ads when what they really want is content. And as the resentment builds, people either tune out those unwanted ads or make an active decision never to buy the advertised product.
So, yes, my sense is that BSP doesn't work, even when writers self-deprecatingly and openly label their Internet postings as BSP. To me this seems a rather disingenous ploy that few people fall for. The writer implies, "Oh, I know this is BSP, and labeling it as such shows that I'm fully aware of that fact, and probably the fact that I'm slightly embarrassed about doing it--but I really do want you to know about my book, as well as read it, so I'm going to just say it and have done with it." To me this is similar to hearing a friend of my wife's recently say, "I know I'm a snob, but....[insert extremely snobbish and insensitive remark here]." Said friend thinks that admitting to her snobbery made her statement acceptable, but the fact is that it did not.
Now, before anyone sends me enraged emails, I know that there are a lot of readers who go on the Net in search of information about new books, new writers, and so forth. And I know that some of them like to hear from writers. However, I do think that they prefer to go in search of that information (via interviews, blogs, reviews, and the like) rather than have such information rammed down their throats relentlessly. In the world of the Net, this usually means clicking on a link to get to the content, as a click is an action the reader must take to seek out the information. I've noticed lately that a lot of bloggers give a quick preview of what's up on their blog, then provide a link for anyone who wants to read it. That seems to me the perfect balance.
Which brings me to the topic of promotion, which absolutely does work. Written reviews exist because they mean that someone has taken his or her valuable time to read the work and comment on it. This means that the reviewer considered the book worthy of being read and written about, which in itself is an endorsement for the work (even if the review isn't glowing). Of course publishers send review copies out to many credible review sources, and many writers send complimentary copies to readers who like to review. This is how it should be done; and I believe that there's no better promotion/publicity than word of mouth, as long as the words come from the mouth of others, not the author. (N.B.: When my assistant sends me digests from newsgroups such as DorothyL or 4MA, I can always tell instantly when a review has been "placed" there by the friend of a writer.)
Bookstore signings also work because people are coming to the writer, rather than vice versa. Interested parties may stop by for more information, while those who couldn't care less simply stroll on.
Membership in professional associations (such as Sisters in Crime) can work wonders, too, as writers are very often readers who will buy books and help spread the word. Interestingly, S in C exist openly as a group devoted to promotion, and they do manage to bring off their promotion with class.
One of the best ways to promote you and your work is to give something to others, and a superb way to do that is to offer lectures or talks, or to lead discussion groups. Most writers have areas of expertise, and colleges and libraries are often superb places for people to gather and hear you talk about what you do best. Suppose you've written a hobby-based mystery--let's say carnivorous plants. We all had a Venus Fly Trap while growing up, so doing a talk about such plants at a local university is a superb way to give people something, and to mention in passing that you have a new mystery featuring a sleuth who raises Pitcher Plants. The people who've been so interested in your talk will flock to buy your book. Trust me on this. However, if you go on and on about how Pitcher Plants are featured in your book, people will see your promotion activity as a BSP activity, and act accordingly.
Americans are savvy people. We know that we live in a capitalist society and that everyone has something to sell. If you make them like you or want to know more about your product (book), you've done some wonderful promotion, and they won't resent you for it. If you overdo it, they think of you as a huckster.
In short: Give something valuable without hoping to get a sale out of it, and your books will likely fly off the shelf or book table.
And what of Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and all those other social networking sites? My sense of them is that many writers use them for patently obvious BSP, and that the rings consist mostly of writers marketing their books to one another. But there are those who will hate me for saying so. A really successful book has to find acceptance outside the relatively small "mystery community."
What, then, of meeting new people or talking about your writing? Does this post mean that I'm suggesting you should never talk about your books? Absolutely not. In the course of conversation, people talk about their professions and hobbies all the time. The phrase "Mystery Novelist" is going to get a reaction...and if people want more information, they're going to ask for it. I'm used to people asking me for more details when I tell them my job, but it's also not uncommon for me to hear "Oh, mysteries, not really my cup of tea. I have no time to read." At which point I move on to another topic.