January 5 – 11: “Is it possible to over-market a book?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members Bill Loehfelm, Thomas Perry, L. T. Graham, Lisa Von Biela, Esther Luttrell, Jerry Hatchett and Jean Heller discuss whether or not it’s possible to over-market a book. If a book does not measure up to the marketing promises, does that hurt the entire industry?

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invitationMarjorie Esther Cox Luttrell was born in Daytona Beach, Florida. Her father was a con man. Not a successful one, but he tried. When he left Esther and her mother, Esther was 13 and in the ninth grade; the last she would complete of her formal education – and yet she went on to participate in a PhD filmmaking grant at the University of Missouri in Columbia, became executive assistant to the Vice President of MGM-TV, wrote and sold screenplays, and is the author of several books, including a screenwriting textbook and a State of the Murder series. Living now in the Midwest, she speaks across the country on life after death, screenwriting, on being a writer, and mystery writing. The last feature film, Te Ata, on which she was screenwriter, is due for international release in the spring of 2015.

hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

devils workBill Loehfelm is the author of five novels, including The Devil in Her Way, and The Devil She Knows, the first two books in the Maureen Coughlin crime fiction series, as well as the stand-alones, Bloodroot, and Fresh Kills. He lives in New Orleans with his wife, the writer AC Lambeth, and plays drums in a rock-and-roll cover band. Look for Doing the Devil’s Work, the newest Maureen Coughlin novel, in January 2015.

 

stringThomas Perry is the bestselling author of twenty-two novels. His books have won a number of awards, including the Edgar, the Barry, and the Gumshoe. His METZGER’S DOG, STRIP, and THE INFORMANT were all New York Times Notable Crime Books.

 

 

Blockbuster coverLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then dropped out to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa began writing short, dark fiction just after the turn of the century. Her first publication appeared in The Edge in 2002. She went on to publish a number of short works in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. She is the author of the novels The Genesis Code and The Janus Legacy, as well as the novella Ash and Bone.

SPACE-1MB-COVERJerry Hatchett grew up in the creatively fertile Mississippi Delta, and loves to craft thrilling tales that the reader can’t put down. He writes from near Houston, Texas.

 

 

Blue Journal_coverL. T. Graham is the pen name of a New England-based suspense writer who is the author of several novels. Graham is currently at work on the next Detective Anthony Walker novel.

 

 

 

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14 Comments
  1. This is an important question because increasingly traditional publishers won’t spend marketing dollars on new or mid-list authors, fearing they will never recoup their expenses. For indie and self-published authors, the situation is even more dire.

    Marketing is critical, especially if you’re not well known. It’s the only way people will hear about your book. But using the obvious tools, such as social media, is tricky. I recall several authors who got on Twitter and launched one Tweet after another – in one case 48 Tweets in a row — about their books. One wrote all his Tweets in all capital letters. Made me want to throw my computer out a window. I hate being nagged, and I hate it when people shout at me.

    And the likelihood that these writers would live up to their own hype (“BEST THRILLER EVER WRITTEN,” “THE WORLD IS RAVING ABOUT THIS BOOK”) is highly unlikely.

    In my eyes, this is buzz kill that definitely hurts the author because he or she is annoying potential readers. But hurting the whole industry? I think not. I had a fascinating conversation recently with a former newspaper book editor who had some fascinating takes on marketing that works, and I’ll share her ideas with you another time.

    We’re still learning how to use social media. I’m not suggesting we ignore it. Just be careful with it. The book you hurt could be your own.

  2. Let’s get this party started. Happy New Year and thank you for having me back on the Roundtable!

    I’d like to break the question into two parts: over-promising and over-blasting (for lack of a better word). In other words, content–and volume–of marketing efforts.

    I think over-promising can hurt the industry overall. Unless it is ultra-clear that only certain channels/publishers/what-have-you overhype the goods (see my next point concerning volume and saturation), then yeah, all marketing would be tainted with the same broad brush and credibility goes out the window. Then the marketing just becomes noise.

    Now for “over-blasting.” When I first began writing short stories, Facebook, Twitter, and all the various social media that are part of the landscape today Did. Not. Exist. Fast forward to when my first novel came out in 2013. All these things exist, you need to participate, but they’re a double-edged sword, in my opinion.

    On the one hand, it’s wonderful as an author to have these tools available to interact with readers worldwide, in contrast to my early writing days. Back in the olden days, there was just no way to know what readers thought about my stories or to interact with them unless the story was published on a site that specifically provided for comments. Only a few did.

    On the other hand, there are so many out there posting, posting, posting, that it’s hard to be heard in the melee that is social media today. I think people get saturated with all of this, to the extent it becomes numbing and ineffective.

    To tie in with my point above, it all becomes a blur because of the sheer volume of posting–overhyped or not. Consequently, even if only certain publishers/channels were guilty of overhype, there is so much hype and volume out there that it makes it difficult to separate the overhypers from the rest, and therefore, we’re all likely to get painted with the same brush.

    I’m not sure how best to solve this. I think the genie is way out of the bottle on social media. The sheer volume of promotion going on out there could in turn feed the temptation to overhype to be heard above the crowd.

    Sigh. A big vicious cycle.

  3. Happy New Year, everyone. I’m excited to be joining the discussion.

    I think savvy readers anticipate a certain amount of hyperbole in blurbs and jacket copy. Especially jacket copy. One thing I think readers don’t like is being told everything is the next whatever, the next GONE GIRL or the next GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Readers know that phenomenon books happen because they are special, and that they’re singular. And I think they see it as lazy marketing. It’s not the same as just saying if you liked one, you’ll probably like the other. All of this said, I don’t think big marketing promises hurt the industry. People are so used to be advertised to and to advertising that over promises.

    I do think that whatever grand claims are being made about you and your book, it’s better to have someone else making them. A publisher or another author declaring you the next JK Rowling, even if it’s a bit much, is better than you doing it yourself.

    And I agree with Lisa that over marketing yourself on social media is a real turn off. I’ve never bought a book because I get twenty tweets a day about it. I don’t know anyone who has. The only thing people like less than a braggart is a nag. I’m with Jean on that.

    1. Yeah, I had a Twitter person who did that zillion-posts-at-a-time over and over. The book actually looked interesting (up my alley subject matter-wise). I unfollowed her and won’t buy the book out of aggravation now, no matter what.

  4. Posted on Behalf of author Thomas Perry:

    Nobody actually knows much about the mechanisms at work when a reader buys one novel rather than another. Is it the reviews? Anyone who believes that should read the reviews of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which has sold 100 million copies so far. Is it that one cover is so much more appealing than another? Probably not. It’s more mysterious and unpredictable than that. I recall an article a few years ago recounting how the president of a big box chain (I think it was Sam’s Club, but I could be wrong) shared his marketing tips with a group of publishers. His chain had noticed that people who bought books by Suze Orman also bought salmon. People who bought Nora Roberts books also bought cigarettes. This, I think, was the most sophisticated research anyone has ever done on the topic. I guess science has more urgent things to do.
    But we all know how marketing works in America. As my father taught me, you can’t buy stale fish: nobody will admit he’s selling any. Every show is the greatest show on earth. Every book is the best ever written. When a reader buys the book and doesn’t like it, the consequences can be dire, but only for its author. Authors live by their reputations, and his next book may be hard to sell.
    I have watched the fluctuations in book sales for about thirty-five years. I’ve never noticed any signs that the industry as a whole was affected by one book that didn’t live up to its hype. I have noticed, however, that the release of a few popular books (even bad popular books) helps everybody temporarily. Anybody who lures a great many readers into bookstores is my friend. While readers are in the store buying that bad book, maybe they’ll notice my good book, or yours.
    –Thomas Perry

    1. Great point hit here that a hit book is good for everybody. Anything that drives traffic to booksellers, from your local indie to the big internet retailers, is good for authors and the business as a whole.

      I have the great fortune of being able to walk to my local independent bookseller and buy all my books there. I always leave with more than the book I went to get. I don’t know if it works the same for internet shopping, but anything that gets people buying books is a good thing.

  5. Posted on behalf of Esther Luttrel

    Hi and thanks for letting me participate in this exciting discussion. It’s a darn relevant question because we can write and write, and even turn out the greatest novel since Gone With the Wind, or whatever you consider great, BUT if we don’t understand how to market in this rapidly changing media world, we are simply the author of a very good secret. I spend way too much time studying the marketplace when I’d rather be writing, yet I know it’s pointless to write without a solid marketing plan.

    Can we over promote a book? Yes and no.

    Yes, if we are constantly bombarding social media with news of our brilliant new contribution to the field of literature. If we market to the same folks too often, they will no longer hear us. I for one am weary to my eyeballs at opening email and finding something from a writer buddy that doesn’t even ask how I’m doing – it’s another blasted ad for their newest book. After a while I stop opening their emails. I’d read the ad if they’d just ask how my day’s going first.

    I’m often struck with the reality that everyone and his brother is an author today. There was a time when I was introduced at a gathering as “the author, Esther Luttrell.” Now, if anyone says that, the immediate response from someone in the group will be, “Oh! That’s nice. My Uncle Bob just published his book on his early years on the family farm.”

    The ease of publishing a book has been a blessing to many, but a nightmare for the world of publishing as a whole. Publishing houses have, almost without exception, opened a self-publishing imprint; they know where the money is. What’s happened, though, is that the book market is flooded with books written by strangers. The public no longer knows what to expect when they open a book by an author whose name they don’t recognize, and they’ve been stung so many times by books that are poorly formatted, lack editing and the basics of professional writing that they are hesitant to buy a book they never heard of.

    So…how do you, as a very serious writer who has taken all of the proper steps to create a professional book, get noticed? After all, Bowker reports that one is published every 5 minutes! That’s a heck of a crowd elbowing YOU out of the way. How DO you promote your book if not primarily on facebook and twitter?

    I speak everywhere anyone will let me speak. I’m invited to speak because I’m an author, so I have to keep writing. But once I’m in front of an audience I make sure I don’t talk about the book itself. No one wants to hear an infomercial. I talk about what inspired me to write the book, what motives me and what captures my fancy enough to want to spend months of my life writing about it, and the challenges in getting a book actually written. It becomes a speech that motivates them to do whatever it is they have been waiting to do and helping them believe that all things are possible if we’ll just get our rearends in gear. And when I’m through speaking … they buy my books.

    If you don’t want to be a public speaker, then you’ve got to master the media. Today we writers have to be marketing gurus, we have to learn how to write press releases, how to mount a decent book signing (I have a whole talk on that subject and why most book signings are a dismal failure!); we have to write, talk, and market market market.

    The one thing I’ve learned the hard way is not to spend a lot of money hiring people to do marketing for me. I give a workshop on Internet Scams Aimed at Writers. The Internet is filled with them. You can do it yourself, if you’ll just put in the time.

    I think, too, we often rely too heavily on only one distribution outlet for our books. Just yesterday I uploaded one of my books on KOTO, a Canadian book distributor who also distributes to several European countries and is negotiating with Japan. I can hear you now arguing that the distributor you work with covers Japan AND Europe AND Canada, so why should you go to the trouble of doing it yourself…Answer: Because you are most likely aiming your book at owners of primarily one reading device. We need to be read on every electronic device ever created by man … which means, I spend an awful lot of time finding distributors around the world that will let me upload my book.

    A great cover, a professionally formatted and edited book (don’t pay an editor. Find someone who perhaps teaches English and give them a free copy of your book once it’s released, for reading something they would probably have read anyway. And thank them in Acknowledgements), a marketing plan that is flexible enough to accommodate changes as you learn and grow … those are the elements that will put you before an international audience of readers. At least in my humble opinion. Good luck!!!

    1. Enjoyed Esther Luttrel’s suggestions on how to wage an intelligent sales campaign. Liked especially the advice on handling speaking engagements. When I’m up there on the podium, which I’ll be on the 22nd, the urge to promote my books is strong. However, I know those faces out there don’t want to hear it.

  6. Whenever I hear this kind of discussion, I’m awed at the amount of hard work and passion other authors are devoting to marketing their books. Whether their marketing claims are accurate or not almost doesn’t matter. I’m convinced that when any writer submits his manuscript for publication, he believes that it is genuinely worth reading. He’s performing a sincere interaction with his potential audience.

    But when I see his barrage of advertising and marketing, I often find myself wondering about his choices. Did we work so hard in school, read every book we could find, keep journals of ideas and observations, strain to try our skill at poetry and essays, practice short stories and novellas, and work our way up to longer fiction so we could become small-time marketing executives? Probably not.

    I’m not implying that a writer must wait passively for the world to discover him. I read a year or two ago that during John Updike’s lifetime, publishing executives never asked him to do a book tour because he was, well, John Updike. The rest of us are not. And even during my own 35 year career things have changed. We’re now in a more open, chaotic world where a writer must find ways to be noticed or he won’t be.

    I hope that the next generation of writers will maintain a balance in their lives. Marketing and publicity are necessary evils. They’re time-consuming and dull, and they take the writer away from what he wanted to do in the first place–write. And sometimes, when I see the constant effort that some writers devote to marketing, it occurs to me that they would probably draw just as much extra attention if they spent that extra time working to improve their writing. They’d also be much happier.

  7. For me, the answer is a resounding YES! I’m very active on social media and of course have a lot of fellow authors as friends. I routinely encounter friends who scream about their books so much that I’m forced to unfollow them altogether. It’s a shame, because I’d love to know what’s going on in their lives, but the BUY MY BOOK screed becomes overwhelming.

    In addition to over-marketing, this qualifies as Dumb Marketing. People don’t become friends on social media or in the brick-and-mortar world to be sold something. They become friends in hopes of finding common ground in life and having things to share and discuss with each other. As with life in the real world, in the end it all comes down to relationships. If you’re an interesting person, one who both talks and listens, you’ll find you have a real audience when it’s time to share genuine news about a book or anything else. It’s not daily news that you have a book for sale that has been for sale and declared newsworthy (by you) for the past 348 days. Care about people. Talk to people as people, not customers.

    Outside the social mediasphere, I don’t really have enough experience with “traditional” marketing methods to offer much meaningful commentary. I can say that the small number of advertising venues that consistently produce material results in book sales also seem to be selective, less frequent, and non-repetitive.

  8. I’m already learning new things, and I’m grateful to ITW for including me on some of these panels.

    It might be the right time to tell you about a friend of mine who is better at marketing his own books than anyone I know. And it’s not an easy task because his books are non-fiction and not the sort of subject matter that generally converts to best-sellers.

    He uses social media beautifully. I don’t remember ever seeing a Facebook post or a Tweet that said, “Buy my book. Buy my book.” His messages are about real-life goings on that are pertinent to his book’s subject matter. Occasionally, he announces a book signing or a speech but always with a touch of self-deprecating humor. He keeps the current book fresh in everyone’s mind by relating amusing anecdotes about appearances, interviews gone awry, weird places he goes to events, and strange or inspiring folks he meets on the journey. The posts are frequently entertaining and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.

    In short, he comes across as a person you’d like to know. He sounds as though he’s having a lot of fun. And the favor he generates among those who meet him virtually translates into butts in seats at his events, and books trotting out the door.

    In short, he’s not marketing his books. He’s marketing himself as a funny, genuine person. And if he’s funny and genuine in real life, his books must be worth reading, right?

    Doing this successfully is almost an art form. Not everyone can pull it off. But it’s worth trying, I think.

    1. Jean –

      This speaks to a lot of the advice I’ve heard about using social media, mainly that you should “sell” yourself and if people like you they will look into your work. Be funny, be engaging, be interesting. People get enough commercials on TV.

  9. A couple of people have asked who the writer is I discussed in the post above. I didn’t go into detail earlier because he doesn’t write thrillers, so only his marketing techniques were relevant to our conversation.

    But that’s not an entirely fair to him. His name is Craig Pittman, and his latest book, “The Scent of Scandal,” revolves around one of the rarest orchids in the world, and the lengths and prices to which people would resort to own one of the plants. Smuggling, corruption — it’s all there, and it’s all true.

    We now return you to your regularly scheduled discussion.

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