I decided not to call this posting "Publicity 101," because there are already thousands of blogs offering publicity (sometimes called "marketing") tips for writers. Why repeat all of that here? Besides, to be 100% truthful, if I knew all the secret ingredients for a successful publicity campaign, I would mix them up in a heady witches' brew and magically turn all our books into best-sellers.
What I would rather do is offer some thoughts and perspectives on publicity, some random quasi-truisms about this terrible business of marketing. And for me, it really is THE most challenging part of the industry. I have edited and published some wonderful books that just didn't hit, for no particular reason that anyone can figure out. At the other end of the spectrum, I know of some writers who are tireless in their efforts to promote themselves and their work - who still do not sell the "required" number of copies and are dropped by their publishers. There must be a terrible frustration, for writers, knowing that their books review well - they do everything they possibly can to get the word out - and they still don't sell enough books to earn out their advance. I share their pain, while suffering the additional pain of knowing that we, the publisher, have lost a lot more money on that book than the author has. (Very few of us ask for advances back, which means if you don't earn out, we have paid you more than you would have earned in royalties, which comes right off our bottom line.)
So, yes, it's a tough game. And here are some things to think about.
1. Success comes by selling one book at a time. I think a lot of writers have fantasies of their books stacked near the front door of Barnes & Noble, with people entering by the hundreds, grabbing their book, and rushing to the checkout counter. It really doesn't work that way. Most of the retail outlets will order very small amounts of a single book--they don't keep endless stock of every book in the back room. When they sell their one or two copies, they order more. I always tell my authors that every book sold is a victory for them--it means that a reader has decided to spend his/her hard-earned dollars on a new writer, on something different, rather than going for the tried and true. And with each book sold comes the possibility of it falling into the hands of a powerful media person who can push it in the right channels.
2. Mainstream success comes from appealing to readers beyond mystery lovers. A lot of really fine writers follow the conventions of the traditional mystery, and the best of them can achieve moderate success but not blockbuster status. Once established in librarians' minds, we can expect a decent level of library sales, often enough to keep publishing new books by that writer. However, if you want a blockbuster, you need to have an audience that goes beyond Dorothy-L or 4MA. You have to write books that the "general public" wants to read -- something fast, escapist, and dare I say "generic"? (Think about Patterson -- the books are traditional serial-killer thrillers.) This is one of the reasons I think "hobby mysteries" got so big a while ago--everyone saw them as an opportunity to cross over into a wider audience.
3. Best-sellers usually have an element of wish fulfillment to them. Again, looking at the best-seller list, I see a host of characters who are aspirational for readers. In other words, I think the writers who hit it big succeed in creating characters who make the average reader think, "I wish I was that person." What woman wouldn't want to be a Mary Higgins Clark heroine--smart, classy, nice, tasteful, well-bred? And for those of you who want to be tougher, more street-wise women, you can always be Eve Dallas (with her passionate lover) or V.I. Warshawski. If you have a crazy family and have a tendency to get yourself into ridiculous scrapes, you see yourself in Stephanie Plum. My point is that these writers create characters who are larger than themselves, who are sort of Jungian archetypes that offer widespread appeal.
4. Shoving your books at people doesn't make people buy them or read them. I think we have all been to conferences where writers are actively selling their books, perhaps even trying to "guilt" us into buying them or shoving them into our hands. Sorry, it doesn't work. That sort of behavior usually builds resentment, and I don't know of any writers who's made it big by behaving that way. You are much better off doing talks (in which you talk about things OTHER THAN your book) and getting coverage that way. Alumni magazines are a good source for interviews, as can be local papers (though more and more seem to want a quid pro quo in terms of advertising from the publisher). Try, try, try to the best of your ability to get as much media coverage as you can, but know that it will be a tough road. As our publicist says, "No one wants you until you're famous; and then they quickly forget how they spent years ignoring your pleas."
5. Look for opportunities for bulk sales. Although success comes one book at a time, there is nothing like selling a couple of hundred copies at a clip. One way to do so is to organize with other local writers and offer readings/workshops at community colleges, universities (harder to get into), or high schools. Especially in affluent communities, such evenings tend to be well-attended by both students and parents, and your books can fly off the table. The best advice I can give about any workshop you might do is this: DO NOT MAKE IT ABOUT YOU. You have to offer your audience something interesting, funny, or insightful, not a litany of the reasons why your book is so great and why they should buy it. Trust me, the members of your audience have made up their minds within 30 seconds of hearing about your book whether or not it is the type of book they'd like to read. All the convincing in the world isn't going to change their minds.