One of the big disadvantages to being self published (which extends to small press, and to some degree the large press) is that the author must be his own promoter. The New York houses can offer publicists, copy writers, an in-place distribution net, etc: you don't have those goodies, so you'll have to do it yourself.
Unfortunately, you don't have access to the brick and morter stores (who prefer to order from a few proven sources), and unless you just won the Multistate Lotto, you don't have the ad budget you'll need either. So what we have to do is resort to low cost, high creativity personal marketing which relies on ingenuity and niche promotion - what is known as Guerrilla Marketing.
There are plenty of promotion venues out there, many of which aren't obvious to the casual eye, and some of which may look like naturals, but will prove useless in practice. This series of articles will explore these venues, and how to best exploit them.
There are three core elements to Guerrilla Marketing: Personal Contact, Word Of Mouth, and Niche Marketing. Of these, the later two depend on how well you handle the first, so let's examine that in more detail.
You, The Salesman
Your first priority in making your marketing efforts effective is your public image. Guerrilla Marketing relies heavily on - and in fact is almost entirely a matter of - personal contact with potential buyers. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and like the cover of your book (as discussed elsewhere) you have perhaps 15 seconds to establish that all-important connection, or lose the sale forever.
This means that you must make a continuous, consciencious effort to project a positive image and establish a good rapport with the public. Unless the readers think of you as a likable, responsible, and capable sort, your chances of establishing the respect and trust which generates sales are minimal. And if you develop a reputation for being obnoxious, dishonest, or indifferent, you might as well take up stamp collecting.
The problem can be illustrated by a note I received some time ago from an old friend from my Chicago days (quoted with permission:)
I find myself wondering how I'll do if I ever get good enough to 'do the circuit' and plug my work. At cons, I see so many authors who come and just sit like slugs, adding nothing to the joy of meeting someone whose work has enriched the reader enough to want to meet them.
Isn't it funny how some writers are so incredibly persuasive and capable of delineating their characters so beautifully that you get excited just reading the blurb for their next book? And then you meet them, and they turn out to be ogres, complete with orange hair, squinty eyes, and a nasty sense of humor that they mistakenly believe you'll appreciate.
It's so wonderful when the creator turns out to be as much fun as their written words, and responds to honest questions with warmth and thoughtful effort instead of disregarding anything he or she feels is too taxing.
In other words, to put it bluntly, it never hurts to be a class act, even if you have to fake it outrageously. One essential to this is to present a courteous, attentive, well groomed and well dressed appearance. Treat your merchanting as a job interview (which it is) and prepare accordingly.
Once you have your game face on, we can start to explore the other two elements.
By far, the most important single element of your marketing is going to conventions. Cons are expensive: transportation, room, admission, food, etc. add up fast - and when you add in merchanting fees, the cost can seem prohibitive. When it comes to recovering convention costs, con merchanting is usually a loser. But there is far more involved here than dollars: con merchanting is, in fact, a loss leader which pays out in public exposure.
Con merchanting is essential to your marketing since it A) puts dozens of copies of your work in the hands of the reading public, and B) gives you personal exposure to the readership. Both of these are key to building the all-important Word Of Mouth, since those who like you and your writing will tell their friends.
There are several steps you need to take when con merchanting:
Presentation: When you set up your merchant display, give it a neat, professional look. Especially try to give your table a distinctive style (such as a colorful table cloth or signs) which will be your 'logo' from one con to the next. Make your table as attractive as possible, especially by taking maximum advantage of your book covers. (The jewelry and weapons sellers have the edge on us here, so we need to hustle.) Be sure your display is visually distinct from the ones next to you so the public knows where they end and you begin.
If the con doesn't provide table covers, provide your own (a sheet will do). Put your books on display stands. Have promotional literature handy in a neat stack. Offer some little freebe such as a sticker or a bowl of hard candy. Avoid unnecessary decor which dilutes your marketing projection. And most of all, keep your area, the background in particular, free of clutter and mess. Tuck a trash bag and any carrying cases under the table. Visual marketing is one of the most powerful tools you have, and will draw onlookers from a distance, so make sure your display would attract you to come and browse.
Multitasking: One important skill you must develop is to work with several people at once, each at their own particular stage of the selling process, while keeping track of what the others are doing and not being a shamefully obvious hustler. True, you will usually talk to one customer at a time, but there are times when a bunch will come through all at once, so you need to be ready.
Keep aware of what is going on around you, and that individuals will react in different ways to your promotion efforts. You can use this: tapping the enthusiasm of an eager customer to motivate the more skeptical. You also need to gauge your efforts to the individual, focussing more on the reluctant buyer without neglecting the others. And be ready always to tamp down any negative reaction by one customer which might affect the others. If this one 'doesn't like space opera', immediately direct their focus to another type of book. Do not leave that negativity hanging in the air like a dark cloud.
The Hook: The first step in building a sale is to pull the passing shoppers in, and focus their attention on you. Shoppers face a jungle of interesting sights and sounds on Merchants' Row, and may not be specifically looking for a book to begin with, so you need to catch their eye. My personal method is humor: interesting signs and humorous banter. I also use questions to arouse their curiosity. Whatever you do, your goal is to get their attention in a positive light, and give them reason to want more. Don't try to drag people in: they'll slip through your fingers every time. Instead, entice them in with an interesting display, a minor mystery, and a friendly, welcoming attitude.
Personal Rapport: Having got their attention, you now need to show them that you are a likable sort. They don't know you from Adam, so why should they buy from you? This is the point where you must win them over to your side, which is why they will buy: they like you, and thus your work - and are therefor willing to part with their money to get what they deem a good value.
Rule Of Thumb: let them do the talking! People love to talk about themselves, so get them going on the topic of their reading interest with a few well placed questions. Above all, be patient. If they wander off into a lengthy recount of their Aunt Bertha's gall bladder, listen patiently, and guide them discreetly back on topic. Do not try to force them to talk about your books, as they will turn off to you every time. This stage is devoted to making them your New Best Friend, so put off the sell for later.
Problem Solving: Once you have them on your side, move on to the problem solving stage. Marketing is about creating a need and filling it. The con shoppers may not be consciously looking for a book, but they're in Merchants Row to buy something. It might just as well be your book. All you have to do is make them aware of that need, and be ready with the answer to this sudden craving.
Do not hammer them with the hard sell! People resent that. Instead, engage them in their interest in reading. People love to talk about what they love, and the fact that you love talking about it too makes you look cool. What you write couldn't matter less to them unless you pique their curiosity. Ask them what sort of writing they like, or who their favorite authors are, and if your work happens to be in that broad range (no matter how "broadly" you have to stretch to get there), then you can offer your work as the answer to their dreams.
Promotion: Once you have the customer focussed on your work, describe it to them. Work up a brief spiel for each story with an interesting capsule of what it's about, and practice those spiels until you have them down cold. When giving your spiel, don't be afraid to speak up. Public speaking can be daunting, but from my own experience I can tell you that if you go out there determined to give it your best and damn the consequences, you'll pull it off with style. If you can't clearly define your own work, or present it in a vague mumble, what sort of impression will that give?
Closing: All right, they're teetering on the brink, and it's time to close the deal. Do not badger the customer, they don't like being hustled. Coax them forward patiently. Trap them in a choice dilemma: "Is this one more to your taste? Or maybe that one?" Pick the book up and hold it out to them. Offer a bit of humor: "If it fails to reach light speed, you get your money back!" Put temptation in their path, and make it feel good, and you have a sale.
Be on the lookout for a chance to make multiple sales. "You'll find that book compliments this one nicely." This is all about impulse buying, so once their barriers are down, go for the impulse to make multiple purchases. And don't hesitate to cut a discount if the customer DOES want both This One and That One. Since Trade Paperbacks typically retail at $16, offering 'Two for $30' gives them a bargain, won't cost you that much, and saves making change. Authors are not acclaimed by the number of books they haul home from the con.
Repeat Customers: Making a sale is all warm and fuzzy, but the real secret to marketing success is getting the customer to come back for more, and better yet, to bring their friends. First off, of course, is winning the initial sale by the methods above. Beyond that, don't just drop the customer the moment you have their money. Chat with them, reach beyond the immediate issue of selling books to talk about other things of interest (including Aunt Bertha's gall bladder if need be). In short, treat the sale as an event in an overall social conversation, not the reason for the conversation itself. Always part as friends, and they'll come back as friends.
In addition to merchanting, there are several other things you can do to get yourself in front of the convention public in a good light:
Signs And Notices: Make effective use of the bulletin kiosks to post notices about your recent books and that you are in Merchants' Row. Make your bulletins informative, attractive, and above all to the point and easy to read. Also be sure to get notices into the convention's Daily Newsletter. Your biggest single problem is being heard, and the more you sound off, the better the public's awareness of you will be.
Readings: If the convention has Author Readings, be sure to take part. In my experience, those aren't all that well attended, but every bit counts. A nice thing about readings is that they answer the question of whether your work is any good, since they can actually sample it. It also lets you socialize with some of your readers, which, if you give them a positive vibe, will also generate significant Word Of Mouth.
Auction Donations: Donate an autographed copy of your new book (or all your books) to the convention charity auction. A book which cost you perhaps $8.00 with shipping can get you five minutes of positive vibe in a room full of several hundred people: tremendously cost effective advertising!
Writers' Workshops: You really should take part in review workshops since they give you exposure within the trade and can help improve your own writing. But most of all, being in the workshops gives you a good vibe with the public: more Word Of Mouth.
Panels: This can be a bit tricky since panel participation is up to the convention event planners, so you'll have to do some personal selling there. The time issue is also important, as your days will be spent in Merchants Row, so you can only take part in evening panels. Still, if you can do it, it gets your name and face (and books) out there for another room full of people, and creates an aura that maybe you know what you're talking about, too.
Room Parties: Do the party circuit! It's all about being out there where people can see you. It gives you a chance to talk with the readership (whether customers or not) and establish a rapport which will precondition many of them to want your work. Authors are cool, and con goers love to schmooze us. Hey: it's your public. Show 'em the love, and they'll love you back.
All this sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But remember: a convention is a business trip, and you need to take care of business.
Your public image building will have an accumulative effect. It may feel like you're talking to the wall at times, but the Word will get around (for better or worse), and you will find your merchanting draws more (and more receptive) customers, and the attention you receive on panels and readings and at room parties will increase with each passing con.
Remember always: treat your readers with friendship and respect, find out what they like, and offer them a work you 'just know' will meet their taste, and you are in.
In the next chapter, we will discuss more ways to get your work out there where it can be seen.
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