Michelle Moran is the acclaimed and bestselling author of NEFERTITI, published by Crown in 2007, and THE HERETIC QUEEN, which just came out last month. She will be stopping by as time allows to answer questions.
Thanks so much to Michelle for putting together these incredible posts!
So you’re a few months away from publishing your debut novel. Your publishing house has suggested that you pitch in to help promote your own work, but you don’t have the first clue as to where you should start. Or perhaps you’ve already published your first book without doing any of your own publicity and marketing and now the hard realization has hit that this time around, without a significant change on your part, your career is going to end as quickly as it began. Now you’re willing to try something – anything. But what works? What doesn’t work? What should you be doing?
Know the Business of Publication
If you think your job as a writer begins and ends with your manuscript, you’re going to be in for some serious disappointments when publication day arrives. Publishing houses purchase books that sell. They’re not charities (alas), they’re businesses, and unless you’re one of the few authors whose novel is chosen to be a lead title, you’re going to need to approach the publication of your novel not as a writer, but as a business person.
But first of all, what is a lead title? Every season publishers determine which books will receive their biggest push, and those are the ones that get the most attention, not to mention the most marketing and publicity dollars. Books that are normally chosen for these spots are ones that were purchased for hefty advances (high six and seven figures), or ones that have enormous in-house support. When a book is made lead title, the author may be set up not just on a book tour, but on a pre-publication tour. That means an author might be flown to several cities to meet and greet buyers. In Bentonville, Arkansas they might meet with Walmart buyers, in Ann Arbor, Michigan they’ll meet the buyers from Borders, in Birmingham, Alabama they might meet with Books-a-Million and in New York, the buyers from Barnes and Noble. That’s not to forget buyers from Costco, Baker & Taylor, Sams Club, Ingram… The list goes on and on, and as you can imagine, this isn’t the sort of treatment that every author will receive. The publicity and marketing departments simply don’t have the time to invest in setting up so many appointments for everyone. But you will know almost immediately if your book is going to be a lead title, because things will start happening quickly. Special luncheons and dinners will be set up so you can meet booksellers. These might take place at conventions like Book Expo America or RWA, or they might take place somewhere in NY or Seattle. Interviews will start coming in early, and you’ll find yourself spending more and more time on planes and less time writing. Again, writing is a business, and part of that business is being savvy, well-spoken, and willing to do what it takes to make your book a success. But if your book isn’t one of the “chosen ones” with a three-page spread in the sales catalog, you needn’t start to panic. It doesn’t mean your book doomed to failure. You simply have to be proactive.
Know the Lingo
Like any business, the publishing industry has its own lingo, and the smart author will learn as much of it as possible, since this can mean the difference between contacting the right person in your house for ad money, and contacting the wrong person and having to pay for the ad yourself. Two of the most important terms you’ll ever need to know are marketing and publicity.
The marketing department deals with anything related to promotions that can be bought: radio time, print ads, online ads, etc. If you have an idea for an advertisement and would like to see if there’s enough money in your publisher’s budget to purchase it, it’s the marketing department you should contact. If you don’t know who that person is, ask your editor. There are probably two different people in marketing who are helping promote your books: someone who deals exclusively with hardcovers, and another person who deals in paperbacks. Both of these are people you should know, and hopefully have even met on your trip to NY (What trip, you ask? Well, the one you took six months or so after signing your first contract.)
The publicity department, by contrast, deals with anything related to promotions that come “free”: online reviews, print reviews, magazine interviews, online interviews, TV interviews, book tours, etc. I put “free” in quotation marks because, let’s face it, none of this really comes free. Your publicist is investing enormous amounts of time sending out press kits (which are costly), getting galleys in the mail (which are costly), printing up press releases, calling magazines to follow up on possible interviews, double-checking schedules, booking hotel rooms, and much, much more. Not only is she doing all of this for you, but she has many other authors she’s doing it for as well.
If you’re not sure what galleys and press kits are, they are also part of this “publishing lingo” you’ll need to become familiar with. A galley is an early copy of your novel with or without the cover image. The words “Not for Sale” will be printed somewhere on the cover, since the galley is only intended for reviewers. At the galley stage, changes are still being made to the manuscript, which is one of the reasons it’s not for sale. Mind you, not all galleys are created equal. Some imprints have a policy of printing theirs with full color covers, while others use a plain, black and white cover without any image whatsoever. If your book has been chosen as a lead title, it will almost certainly have a full color cover even if that’s not the house’s normal policy. It may even have gold foil on the front, or embossing, both of which are enormously expensive, especially at the galley stage. There’s pretty much nothing you can do if your house prints up plain looking galleys and you prefer color (and really, who wouldn’t prefer color?). There’s also very little you can do (aside from printing up galleys yourself) if your publishing house only prints a hundred or two hundred galleys.
Like galley covers, not all galley print-runs are equal. A lead title might have anywhere from a thousand to ten thousand galleys printed up for every type of reviewer imaginable, while most other novels will have between a hundred and two hundred. I have known authors who were unhappy with the number of the galleys their houses printed who went out and printed up their own, then sent them media mail for two or three dollars through the post office to various reviewers they contacted themselves. Now many authors would grumble (perhaps rightly so) about doing this themselves. They don’t want to go through the trouble of asking the publicity department for a list of the places their galleys are being sent to (so they don’t duplicate during their own mailing). They also don’t want to spend the money it would require to print up their own galleys or to send out the ones their publishing house has given to them (a number that can be increased when your agent is drawing up your contract, btw). And they certainly don’t want to waste their writing time by emailing online or print reviewers and asking them if they’d like a copy of their book. But for the authors I’ve known who did this, they felt it was the difference between being a one book wonder and an author signing a contract for her fifth and sixth books.
Now, unless your galley print run is ludicrously small and the galleys are only being sent to a handful of reviewers (a list your publicist may or may not be willing to part with), I wouldn’t personally recommend this approach. But it has been done.
What I would recommend, however, is asking the publicity department whether they’ll be making press kits for your book. Press kits are folders which normally include a press release about your novel, a Q&A, possibly a photograph, and definitely snippets of your best reviews. If the publicity department says yes, then you have nothing to worry about on this front. But be sure to ask them whether their kits include folders. To save money, your publicist might simply be stuffing your press releases etc, into the mailing envelopes your book is going out in. For a more professional look, you may want to offer to purchase of your own folders, and possibly even four-color stickers of your book cover to go on the front. Two hundred should be more than enough, and you can ship them to your publicist with the stickers already applied (assuming you have gotten her okay beforehand). If this sounds like a lot of work, well… there’s no sugarcoating it. It is. But think of how this work might pay off with a review in the LA Times or the Boston Globe. Book reviewers are inundated with novels, and the piles on their desk reach life-threatening heights. What are they more likely to pull from that pile? Loose papers which have long since been crumpled into oblivion, or a folder?
Coop space (pronounced co-op, and often spelled this way as well)
Before a novel is released, several important decisions will be made ahead of time that will significantly affect the chance of having your book picked up by a customer in a bookstore. One of these decisions is whether or not the publisher will be purchasing co-op space. Co-op means cooperative advertising space that publishers pay for. These are places in bookstores that see high traffic such as end caps, new release tables in the front of the shop, and store windows. It’s a widespread misconception that bookstore employees select the titles they want to feature in the store window or on the aisle tables based on the selections they personally prefer. However, co-op placement is very selective and is also based on how the store projects a particular book will sell. All of this is decided up to six months before publication, so that before a book even hits the shelves its visibility to customers is partly predetermined. This doesn’t mean that books without co-op space won’t sell well, or that books with co-op space are launched into sudden bestseller status. It simply means that when a customer walks into a bookstore, just like when a shopper goes into a grocery store, product placement is never a haphazard decision.
Several months before your book is released, be sure to find out if your house will be purchasing coop, and if so, for which weeks. Knowing these dates is incredibly important, because this is when you are going to do the most publicity and (if you are spending any money on your own) marketing. You’ll want to work the hardest to promote your book during the two or three weeks when it’s most visible in the stores. For the really big retailers – B&N and Borders – your co-op time may differ, so be sure to ask your editor for specific dates and places.
Readers often assume that an author has a significant amount of say in what their cover art looks like. It would seem only reasonable that after toiling for years on a six hundred page manuscript that an author would get to choose what face it will present to the world. Just as you wouldn’t take your child to be photographed at a professional studio with their hair standing on end and their trousers dirty, it is only logical to assume that a writer would get to “dress up” their child for presentation, choosing the colors and appearance of their cover art with care. The truth of the matter is, however, most writers are only minimally consulted about cover art. At the beginning of the publication process, you might be requested to submit a few words about what you envision the cover art to be. If it’s historical fiction and the subject was an historical personage, you might be requested to provide a photograph and asked what accessories and clothes the person might have worn. But besides this, there is very little control you have over your cover. Once you see the colors, layout and image of your cover three to five months into the publication process, it’s possible you’ll be asked your opinion about it, but ultimately it is the bookstores that have the trump card. If a Barnes and Nobles representative dislikes the art, for example, it may be back to the drawing board. But if you dislike your cover art because the protagonist has the wrong hair color or is wearing an historically inaccurate piece, the chances of a cover being changed might only be determined by your clout.
If you should find yourself in this position, take several deep breaths, discuss it with your agent, then have your agent approach your editor. Whenever something upsetting occurs, always discuss it with your agent first, then have the agent speak on your behalf. Emotional people make bad business decisions, and throwing a wobbly on the phone to your editor (however close the two of you have become) definitely ranks in the bad decision category.
In tomorrow’s post, Michelle will address online publicity, blogs, outside publicists, and much more!
In regards to cover art – what if an author has some artistic skill, and has done a number of pencil drawings related to their book, especially of their characters? Would those ever be taken into consideration as inspirations for the cover art (say, the way a photograph would be for a historical fiction)?
To God be the glory,
A SF writer
Michelle Moran says
Gosh SF writer, I don’t know. My guess is that they’d take the drawing, smile politely, and then proceed with whatever vision the editor or art department had in the first place. Maybe Nathan has a more definitive answer, or perhaps another writer who’s reading the comments section.
Cover art is very much about what’s in style right now, and which colors pop on the shelves. Another thing to take into consideration is that the cover art for your US books probably won’t be the same in the UK or in other places abroad. Each country has their own ideas about what sells to their market, and I’m tempted to say that few of them include what the author has in mind. BUT… I write HF. It could be a different matter entirely for SFF.
Nathan Bransford says
My guess is that they’d take the drawing, smile politely, and then proceed with whatever vision the editor or art department had in the first place.
Yeah, that sounds about right to me.
Kudos, Nathan, for nabbing this excellent guest post, and thanks, Michelle, for sharing so much pertinent info.
The only thing I’d like to mention is on the topic of book signings. When my first book was published (by a decent-sized regional publisher), I innocently asked when they would be setting up signings, and was told not to even bother with them myself because often they were not well-attended. But I had a newspaper background and I knew that many times if I received a notice that an interesting author was going to be in town, I’d bid to write a feature story. So I began doing signings as excuses to send press releases to newspapers and it has worked very well. I may not always have lots of attendees, but thousands of people will see the feature story (and sometimes radio or TV). Also, while I’m in the store, I can make good friends with the manager and sign all their stock.
It might not work for everyone or every type of book, but it’s become my modus operandi.
Michelle Moran says
Lupina, that’s a really great idea! Because without the publicity aspect, tours are often very poorly attended.
Tess Gerritsen has a guest post today on Murdertari about the economics and reality of many authors’ book tours.
I guess it goes to show that it all takes work!
THE problem with all of this:
The advantage of having a “real publisher” against self-publishing is diminishing rapidly.
Yes, a large press will put some money into the PR machine, but less all the time. The other advantage, placement in bookstores, is also less important every day.
I don’t know if publishers realize that the time spent courting them is starting to look like a poor investment. After all, this is a business – and authors have to approach it that way. I probably made a lot more selling 628 (or so) copies of my book on my own than I would have if I went the route listed. Since I had to learn the skills no matter what, it’s purely a matter of time and money.
Publishers appear to be counting on prestige leading people their way over going for the money on their own. They are the ones I’d like to remind that this is, after all, a business. What value are they adding? It seems to be less every day.
This is one to cut out and keep!
Thank you for such a comprehensive post. Looking forward to tomorrow’s instalment.
Jenny Jill says
Is there any difference between fiction and non-fiction promotion?
I know, co-publishing my book, there is a huge difference, but my book is non-fiction. I’ve been looking for opportunities to present workshops related to the topic, as well as speaking to small groups and larger organizations.
BTW I live in a small town of 650 people. I know, however, I can count an a good number of sales to friends, and family in the near-by city, as well.
Michelle Moran says
Geez, I hope I haven’t made this post (and my comments) too depressing. And tomorrow, I’m really going to be ducking eggs when I start talking about marketing dollars and book trailer costs (which are personal decisions btw, not mandatory!)!
But there is still money to be made in publishing. What’s important to remember is that while an author may put in three hours of work/day on publicity and marketing for a particular book, that book can be sold dozens of times. For example, I’ve sold Nefertiti in twenty countries, so for me, putting in the time makes sense.
Nathan Bransford says
I actually don’t think you’re too far off the mark for a lot of authors. Nothing beats a traditional publisher when they’re hitting on all cylinders. When they’re not…. another story.
At the same time, Michelle’s post only goes double if you’re self-publishing. The legwork becomes that much more crucial.
Michelle Moran says
Hi Jenny Jill,
I think marketing nonfiction is very similar to marketing fiction, but publicizing it is slightly different since there are many more opportunities to land a radio spot or a guest show spot with nonfiction. Establishing yourself as an expert in your particular field is important, because as you point out, it leads to workshops, conferences, news interviews, etc. Today, it’s less about where you live (as long as you’re willing to fly to certain interviews) and more about your web presence.
Marilyn Peake says
Erik, Nathan, and Michelle,
Marketing of books published by small press vs. big publishing house is a really great topic, and I’d love to hear your opinions on something. I think that distribution has to be there for marketing to work. I’m an avid promoter of my books, but have discovered through many hard knocks that, if the distribution channels aren’t there, book promotion won’t lead to much. Even if book sales reach as high as 1,000 copies, that doesn’t amount to much in royalties or the chance to reach many readers. I’m guessing that book promotion only really succeeds when distribution channels are available, including bookstores willing to stock the book. Is that correct in your experiences? Nathan, is there a minimum number of small press books sold that you find impressive in considering whether or not to take on an author?
Michelle Moran says
I’m guessing that book promotion only really succeeds when distribution channels are available, including bookstores willing to stock the book.
I completely agree, but book promotion can lead to situations were a self-published author finds him/herself with wider distribution. However, those promotions would have to be extraordinary. This happened to Elle Newmark, who spent three months setting up a cyber-launch party for her self-published novel Bones of the Dead. The launch party went so well that a few days later she signed with an agent, and a few days after that had a seven figure deal for two books, the first of which will be debuting in a few months.
Marilyn Peake says
That’s a very inspiring story about the cyber launch party. Thanks!
Michelle Moran says
book promotion can lead to situations were a self-published author finds him/herself with wider distribution
I should have addede to that “or small press author”.
Perhaps from now on I should start putting up mental blocks whenever I begin to imagine my characters’ appearance in detail. I have the feeling that I will only end up disappointed with whatever cover art ends up on my books someday! I’ll just have to be reasonable about it. 🙂
Thank you very much for answering my question!
To God be the glory,
the SF writer again
michelle, thank you so much for this informative and awesome post! i’ve learned so much–exactly what i need to learn at this point in the debut novelist about to be published game! THANK YOU again. =) can’t wait to read tomorrow’s post!
From your comments to Eric, somehow I got to thinking. As previously stated I have not finished my novel, therefore I have not personally been querying, but a good friend of mine has. And it seems like she has gotten a lot of personalized letters from agents saying they really do like her book, but don’t think they are the right agent to sell it. Is this because of a slowing publishing world and knowing that even if a publisher picks it up she may be in the “if not” category of advertizing?
I was pleased to post an early review of Nefertiti on my blog. I really enjoyed Michelle’s take on the subject and will definitely be reading her next book, “Heretic Queen.”
I’m totally thrilled by her success.
Michelle Moran says
Hi Cindy, hi Marva – so many familiar faces! Cindy, I’m really looking forward to Silver Phoenix’s publication in April.
And Stacey, are you wondering if maybe your friend was rejected because she might not promote on her own? Please correct me if I read the question wrong (though I know it was addressed to Nathan).
Well my thoughts were more related to the slowing down of the market. That agents might feel they cannot sell her novel, even if they like it.
Michelle Moran says
Oh, good question. I hope not…
The OCD thing was a temporary try and I don’t know why it showed up cause I have deleted it already….so ignore that please. 😉
Nathan and Michelle:
Yes, this all applies double if not more if you’re out on your own. No question. These are skills we have to start finding ways of acquiring.
Learning how to do this is what remains an issue. Where does one do it? What is the value of an MFA, for example, in this environment?
More importantly, how many voices are squelched that are culturally relevant – or would make a lot of $$$ to someone who is able to filter them out of the noise?
I think we should all be deeply troubled by this honest, practical and straightforward assessment of the state of the industry. If nothing else, I think there is a lot of money left on the table when writing talent has to spend so much time doing things that they are likely not very good at.
My take is that there is an opportunity here for whoever finds a way to bypass all of it and use new technology to allow authors to find their readers without all of this. I have a few ideas if anyone wants to email me and ask.
This was so GREAT! Thanks so much!
Maryann Miller says
Thanks for sharing your insights, Michelle. Very helpful information.
My name is Stephanie and I've written a novel about ancient Egypt also. I'm just browsing around waiting for an editor to contact me back (and anxiously checking my email over and over lol… ). Very cool that I ran across your blog, and btw I enjoy your work very much. I totally dunno about book tours tho… I am a family girl with two baby daughters! We'll see what happens. Hope u read my book soon,
Find and share coupon codes and promo codes for great discounts at thousands of online stores.