A true bestselling author (not a momentary flash on AMAZON Kindle, which creates “bestselling” authors we will never hear from again) has a large publisher spending piles of money to cover their hefty royalty advance. This repeated and wide-ranging advertising makes people aware of the book release and hopefully locks in sales. It’s an expensive luxury that happens for less than 1% of published authors. When you attend Book Expo, you’ll discover these authors peering down from forty-foot high banners hanging from the ceiling of New York’s Javtis Center. We all want to be the focus of such vanity. I want to be on a forty-foot banner, but for most authors, this type of expenditure will never be a reality.
That is fine. After all, the golden age of the author has ended. It died with authors like Styron, Vonnegut, and Vidal. The authors with forty-foot banners mark the end of this age, but unlike William Styron, the modern, banner-sized authors are not writers of literature. They are entertainers and commodity producers—a different sphere of the written word. And that is fine as well. Styron once said that he was surprised by the celebrity that came his way and not surprised by the general disappearance of it.
Also changing with the times is the way we communicate with each other. Most of us have grown up during the dawn of the Information Age and been bombarded with increased advertising during our lives. For Baby Boomers, the hot new devices were TVs and VCRs that skipped commercials. Millennials now do this subconsciously. Before advertising became super-saturated within our culture, a message was received after only three repetitions. Today, it takes thousands of occurrences if the message is received at all.
This makes effective advertising cost prohibitive for authors. However, annually we contribute a great deal in total to keep these old, tired, and useless modes of book advertising alive. We buy slots in print and Internet publications and the equivalence of e-mail spamming, and none of us see significant results. The total volume of it works against us.
The current generation is savvy about acquiring information, as well as how to separate the corporate appeals from what they desire. To some degree, most of us have adapted along those lines. For example, one premiere publishing trade magazine sells its cover to advertisers. This cover had always been a sign of “making it” in the industry, but I cannot tell you who or what was on the cover last week, much less in the last ten years. News radio stations prattle on about the next great mystery novel redux, but I can’t remember who or what they were talking about. A great article in a top writing association magazine had a large author advertisement on the opposing page, but I cannot recall the book or author. It might have been for the author who was the focus of the article, but I’ve obviously learned to filter out the noise, and so have you.
Some of us don’t want to give up on the big lie, especially new writers. They dream of fat book contracts, bestsellers, and forty-foot banners, but on publisher’s row in Manhattan, we have a better chance of getting hit by a taxi—a much better chance. The same is true for book advertising. Advertisers can provide circulation, visitor, and click data, but no one can provide a success rate (i.e. how it translates to actual sales), because it’s not sincerely traceable. So let’s line up a few realities about book promotion.
Print, radio, and television advertising is a bad bet for authors. Not only is it expensive and likely ignored, the target audience is a mere fraction of the people reached. In general, the reading public has always been a small portion of the entire population. Even if the advertising is done through a reader-specific outlet, we aren’t really paying attention after a handful of ads. Unless the author is a successful stockbroker, he or she will not have the resources to generate enough repetition to penetrate public awareness with advertising.
The author interview has always been an effective way to reach an audience. No matter the medium, readers come to a particular book through the author first. If the author is interesting or provides a compelling story or facts, then the reader will remember the author’s name and seek out the book.
Trusted secondary sources are valued by readers. Potential readers want to hear testimonies about a book from just about anyone but the author or publisher. Readers seek feedback from friends, commentary from known authors, the expertise of valued review publications, and the authority of reputable book awards. Each of these sources adds a layer of authenticity to the author and his/her book.
Word of mouth still works, only the methods of word of mouth have changed. A trusted book recommendation is king in the bookselling business. However, few people still stand on street corners or at cocktail parties and discuss the books they are reading. Social media is the new street corner of discussion, and here too, the personality of the author comes into play. The most compelling authors rarely mention their books. Like the author interview, people remember the author’s name and eventually seek out the book.
Let’s start employing more effective strategies through digital platforms. Leave the ads for soft drink and toothpaste companies. They have the cash, and everyone is interested in those items. An author’s audience is smaller and smarter, too. The goal is to draw an audience to the author and then create a feedback loop, which is the contemporary version of old fashion word of mouth. Within a feedback loop, readers will circulate book commentary that is both organically grown and culled from trusted voices of authority and expertise.
Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future. See his popular series on publishing: The Book Killers.