BookExpo: I Talked About Online Promotion a Lot

By Neal Comment

Last Friday, as BookExpo America was getting underway, LA Times publishing reporter Josh Getlin asked a bunch of industry insiders and observers how things stood:

“Some experts caution that videos aren’t the instant solution to the industry’s woes. ‘I haven’t seen any bottom-line evidence where somebody can point to a video and say, Oh, we’ve sold X thousand copies of a new book because we did that new trailer,’ said Ron Hogan, who runs, a publishing industry blog. But he added, ‘They do generate long-term buzz and create author awareness, and publishers must have an instinctive sense that this approach has been working.'”

I’d had a lot of time to think about the subject between the interview and the article, not to mention that I’d taken part in a panel on “new publicity opportunities in an expanding media universe” the day before, and if I could add anything to that comment right up front, it would be a reminder that with the industry in as much flux as it is right now, it’s better to experiment and risk failure than to sit on the sidelines and then try to learn how to do what works after somebody else figures it out.

The panel itself went great; the conference room was packed with somewhere around 200 people eager to hear what front-line experts like Doubleday marketing director John Pitts and his counterpart from St. Martin’s, Matt Baldacci, had to say about what they’d learned from their efforts. Pitts started out by showing the audience the porn parody made to promote the new Chuck Palahniuk novel—”not exactly something that works with Ian McEwan,” Pitts admitted, but “perfect for the material.” He described this campaign as an example of how Doubleday was moving away from a “battleship” strategy, where they create one massive website to promote a book, and towards “a flotilla of website activity” that includes YouTube trailers, MySpace pages, and other components. (He also conceded that this particular campaign had been bumpy, as YouTube and MySpace had both demanded that the original promotions be shut down and retooled to be either less provocative or restricted to adult-only access.) A little bit later, Baldacci discussed a trivia game based on the novels of Sherrilyn Kenyon that SMP had developed to promote her on Facebook.

Ami Greko, the marketing director at Folio Literary Management, spoke about how a marketing campaign that originated from outside a publishing company could get behind the two big questions in-house PR departments usually grapple with—when is the NY Times going to review the book, and when is NPR going to cover it?—and pursue an author’s true audience. And Cindy Dach of Changing Hands, an indie bookstore in Arizona, talked about staff selections and other promotional techniques. “For writers who just want to write a book and sell it, [all] this is really sad,” she said as the conversation about “web campaigns” and “micro-audiences” and “book trailers” died down. “I don’t think it’s ever going to happen [that way] again.”

And that’s as good a transition as any to the panel which took place immediately afterwards, in the same room and to an equally-large crowd (with, I noticed, many of the same people). The official subject was “author-preneurs,” but as the weekend progressed, I wound up describing it to people as “how to get out there and promote your writing without becoming a complete marketing tool.” Because that’s the fear that novelist (and prominent litblogger) Mark Sarvas raised early on, although if my notes are accurate he framed it more along the lines of “the danger of falling into thinking about the marketing rather than the writing.” Promoter Kim Ricketts was somewhat more enthusiastic, declaring that as authors got more involved in the promotion of their work to readers, “we’re going to be able to save books.”

The message that I tried to convey across both panels is that authors and publishers need to engage with readers where they are; a full-page ad in the NY Times Book Review may be a lovely way of showing your author how much you love him, but how many people who actually give a damn about the book does it reach? At the same time, if you are going to attempt to reach readers online, you have to speak from a position of authenticity—you aren’t online to tell people that you have fabulous book-products available for purchase, you’re there to tell them about you and the things about which you are a passionate authority. And then, once they’ve found you interesting, they’ll want to know what you’ve done, and because you’ll have created a space where they’ll discover the books…

Or you tell them a story. This was a point I really hammered when we were talking about book trailers: At the risk of repeating myself, technological advances have made it easier than ever to make a bad promotional film. The point of a book trailer is not to tell people about a book, it’s to tell them a story that draws them in and makes them want to hear more. Things an author should never say in a book trailer interview include “this is a book about,” “I wrote this book because,” “My goal with this book is”… you see where I’m going here, I trust.

I also threw a wildcard idea out there based on a throwaway comment I’d heard earlier in the day, about how the average consumer really doesn’t know or care who publishes their books. While book publishing does have a handful of editors who have some degree of brand-name display—Nan Talese being the most obvious example, since I was standing right next to Pitts when I was coming up with this, though I could just have easily cited SMP’s Thomas Dunne—those brands really aren’t deployed beyond a quick mention on the book jacket. I wish I’d thought to bring in the fact that BookExpo had an entire “buzz” panel where editors took a moment to each enthuse about one book they had coming out this fall—but why should that kind of effort be limited to a special occasion where only a handful of industry insiders have access to the message?

Science-fiction editors like Lou Anders of Pyr or Diana Gill of Eos, among other editors in other genres I’m surely overlooking of whom you’ll remind me in the comments below, are onto the right idea: As an editor, your public persona shouldn’t be as a “gatekeeper” but (I’ll repeat myself) a passionate authority eager to talk about the books and the writers that make you want to get out of bed and go to work every day. (And if you aren’t publishing stuff like that, why not?) And you’ll want to be as visible as you can be, advocating for the books you acquired not as this season’s big products but as examples of the literature you took this job to champion. Not promote, champion.

Anyway, that’s some of what we talked about last Thursday afternoon.