The latest wisdom is that trekking to bookstores with your new book isn’t the best use of time in today’s market. So, what do you think works to promote sales and get to the place where you’re receiving royalties?
Good question this week. As my fellow writers have said, if there was some magic formula we’d all be billionaires by now, and as far as I’m aware, only among us Jim Ziskin is able to outbid Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in the art market.
But as Jim wrote yesterday, if you want to be a full-time writer, the key is to work out how to focus your publicity and marketing effort in a fashion that gets you to the goal of being able to give up the day job.
The first thing to say is that for 99.99% of writers, this isn’t going to happen with your first, second, or even fourth book. Ian Rankin (my hero) was on his eight novel Rebus novel (Black & Blue) before he had his first no.1 bestseller, so patience is essential.
My first novel, A Rising Man, was published in 2016, but I started writing it in late 2013. It was 2020, and four books later, that I finally decided to risk giving up my day-job (and it is a risk, because there are no guarantees I’ll be able to make a living from this for life. Right now though, and thanks to wonderful readers, things are going well.)
I’ve spent a fair proportion of the last five years on marketing the books – doing everything from pounding the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh in the snow, going to see booksellers with a trolley case to introduce myself and distribute the first proof copies of that first book, to building up a half-decent number of Twitter followers with a strange but effective combination of angry political ranting and terrible dad jokes. Some things have worked well; others less so. I can only tell you what’s worked for me, but things that worked for me might not work for other writers and vice versa. I think your own personality and willingness to get out there and press the flesh also make a difference.
Writing a series
Unless you’ve got a huge publicity budget behind you, building awareness of your book(s) is a slow, difficult, gradual process. No matter how you do it, social media, bookshop visits, attendance at festivals and conferences – you’ll only reach an infinitesimally small fraction of the potential audience for your book. As a result, it generally takes a long time for knowledge that your books even exist to get out there.
This is where writing a series can help. In my opinion, readers tend to fall in love with characters rather than plots. Once they’re hooked on a protagonist, they generally come back for the next book and the one after that. Ideally, they’ll go on to buy everything you ever write. What’s more, now that I’ve got five books in the Wyndham and Banerjee series under my belt, I find new readers who might pick up book five, then go back and buy all of books one to four, and suddenly the sales are increasing by a faster rate than in prior years.
My career was jumpstarted by positive reviews of my first book in many of the UK’s national newspapers. A Rising Man was a Book of the Month in both the Times and the Sunday Times and was given great publicity in the Telegraph, the Guardian and several other papers. This gave the book the oxygen of publicity which was just priceless. On the back of it, several bookstores increased their initial orders for the book, with some doubling the number they were taking and prompting the publishers to embark on a second print run. As James pointed out yesterday, though, it’s difficult to get this sort of press coverage unless you’re with one of the big publishers. Their PR departments are the ones with the contacts at the papers. With so many new books coming out every year, it’s hard to get their attention otherwise. Many of these journalists attend crime and literature festivals however. A good way of building relationships with journos is by collaring them at these festivals and buying them drinks till they fall over. But don’t mention your books till you have got them drunk at least twice.
I’ve been lucky enough to do a range of radio interviews in the UK and Europe and there’s generally a strong uptick in sales after most of them. I’ve met many people who’ve said to me, ‘I got into your books after hearing you on the radio,’ and while that’s probably down to my wonderful Scottish accent, if it helps sell books, who am I to complain?
Promotions in Bookstores
Bookstores are brilliant. The wonderful staff in these stores are generally avid readers and can be some of your most vocal champions. Smaller towns and villages often have an indy bookshop at the heart of their communities and recommendations from the booksellers are taken up with gusto. If they suggest someone read your book, more often than not, you’ll make a new sale.
While all bookstores are brilliant, it’s just a fact that certain chains have more weight (because of their sheer size, network of branches and buying power) than others. Building relationships with the store managers of these chains can be very useful in the long term. Probably the greatest increase in sales I’ve had is when Waterstones, the UK’s biggest physical bookstore chain, selected A Rising Man and later Smoke and Ashes as their Crime Book of the Month. In that period, the books were in the windows of every branch in the country and displayed prominently in stores. So many new readers discovered my work through those promotions.
Twitter, Facebook, Insta, Tik Tok – everyone tells you that to be a big seller these days, you need a social media presence. It’s cheap, and if you do it well, it can really help. But it’s tough. I find some media are easier to get to grips with than others. Twitter and Facebook I can do. Instagram, I find tougher, and as for Tik Tok, I get a sore back just thinking about it. I’m not sure how directly interaction on these platforms translates to sales, but in recent years I’ve tended to do my version of marketing campaigns on Twitter in the run up to a book launch (generally me threatening people with dire consequences if they don’t buy the book) and pre-orders have risen significantly.
The other side of the coin – one of the UK’s best-selling crime writers, Mick Heron, has no social media presence whatsoever. He didn’t even have wifi till a few years ago. He’s brilliant, and he’s built his career the hard way. I love him (and envy him).
Book festivals are where the hard-core fans hang out. These are the vanguard of the book buying world. If these people like you and your work, then they’ll convince others. It’s worth getting to know them. (Also, as I said – it’s a chance to get journalists drunk).
Crime fiction writers are the best. So many bestselling writers have gone out of their way to help me when they didn’t need to. I try and do the same for others. They’re also generally getting drunk at festivals. Make friends with them.
Good old fashioned dumb luck
So here’s the rub. At the end of the day, you can do it all – you can write the best books, you can do all the PR and marketing in the world – and you can end up selling seven copies. Meanwhile someone else who can hardly string three words together becomes a bestseller simply by smiling and being photogenic. There’s no justice in the world. There’s only dumb luck. All you can really do is try your best, roll the dice and see what happens.
May you have all the luck in the world.
15 October 2022