For many authors it’s a dirty word: promotion. And believe me, I understand that. For many of us, the idea of talking about our work, spreading the word, posting up about it across the internet—it’s all just too much. Why can’t we just write? Well, unfortunately that’s not the way it is these days, and never really was, to be honest. Even the biggest names in writing have to take the time to go on book tours (which usually lose money), as well as sign copies, give interviews, and generally promote themselves. Now of course, they also have entire teams of publicists, editors, publishers, agents and other people to help them, but most of us don’t have that kind of network. Yet. So in the mean time, what can you do to help promote your writing? And how can you do it for little or no money?
This is the obvious place to start, right? If you don’t have a personal profile, set one up right now. If you want to keep it strictly for family and close friends, you can certainly do that, but in time you’ll find that your writing life seeps into your personal life, so you may just want to set it up as your writer’s profile. In addition, many people set up a Fan Page as well. I have both. I used to have a group for Transubstantiate (my first book) as well, but I let that expire, as it was getting old and redundant. And that’s the tricky part, how not to be overly redundant with your posts, rants, and promotions.
If you want to add in friends, as well as associates, peers, and presses to your Facebook profile, the only way you can do that is with your personal profile, not your Fan Page. You can certainly INVITE people to be a “fan” of your work, to “like” you, but people are often reluctant to do this, to fill up their stream of information with more posts. For example, I have almost 5,000 “friends” on Facebook, but only about 1,200 people at my Fan Page. I’ve tried all kinds of ways to get people to migrate over there but some people just don’t want the clutter.
What I like about Facebook is that a large percentage of people are on there. Information from my blog and other places trickles down to my profile. And, it’s a great way to meet people. I’ve talked to Peter Straub via Facebook, F. Paul Wilson, Donald Ray Pollock, and other big name authors that normally wouldn’t give me the time of day. And I’ve made many great friends that way. In this day and age I feel it is essential. How big your Facebook presence, whether you start a Fan Page or a group, and how many other organizations you support and join on there, well—that’s up to you. It’s a fairly dense and complicated site, so just spend some time getting to know it, and see what works for you. But don’t spend money on advertisements, it’s a waste of time and cash, from everything that I’ve seen and done.
And this goes for all of your social media, all of the other places I’m going to mention, but just be aware of how much you are talking about yourself. Don’t oversaturate your Facebook or other profiles with endless BUY MY BOOK posts. I’m probably promotional than most, but I do TRY to only post up once about a new story I have out, or something cool I’m involved in. And don’t always make it about yourself—support other authors, and talk about other things besides writing—let the rest of the world seep in, be it film, television, music, fun trips you are taking, anything that you enjoy. Leave politics and religion and other subjects off of your Facebook page, unless it’s something really important to you, a good cause worth talking about. You run the risk of offending people. If you want to talk about your political party or a religious cause, do it in private groups. It won’t help build your fan base.
Much like Facebook, it’s essential to get a Twitter account. Obviously the biggest difference with Twitter is the limitation on words. So keep it short and concise. Feel free to tweet and retweet whatever you find interesting. Of course I use Twitter to promote my writing; I hit that button every time a new story comes out. But I also do a lot of retweeting, and I try to talk about a wide range of subjects, not just my own work. I think Twitter is also a great place to be more relaxed and fun with your posts. Maybe it’s the brevity of the posts, or the use of links to get you to another website, but I like when people post up links to funny pictures, whether it’s lolcatz or some other meme. Humor will go a long way to keeping people from getting bored. But some of your followers are there to read your writing, that’s why you post up links to your new stories. Just don’t overdo it.
How do you get more followers? One way is to follow a lot of people that interest you. When I started out I followed everyone I knew at The Cult, The Velvet and other forums. I followed people in my MFA program, authors I loved, as well as a handful of celebrities. I follow agents, presses, and bloggers, too. But not everyone will follow you back. And that’s okay. I don’t expect big stars or presses or athletes to follow me. Over time I’ve also deleted people that never tweet, because if they have a “dead account” then I assume they aren’t really following and listening to me as well.
One interesting way that I’ve used Twitter to promote my writing was to tweet out one line from every story that was in Warmed and Bound, an anthology that I thought was especially good, but also filled with a large number of my friends. I think this went over really well, and helped to sell some copies. It was a long process, and I had to really think about what I was highlighting when it came to summing up a story in 140 characters (including the link), but it was a lot of fun. So think about alternative ways to promote your writing. Excerpts can work, but really, the ways to be unique are limitless. I’ve seen serial stories and novels, all kinds of contests, trivia, pictures—you name it. Just have fun with it.
Learn to use the “@” symbol and Twitter addresses to tag people you are talking about, or if you want somebody to respond or know that you tweeted about them. Also, use the “#” hashtag to talk about a certain topic, as all posts with the same hashtag are searchable and organized into one long thread. Hastags I've used a lot are #AWP and #Warmedandbound, as well as other things like #neonoir and #Transubstantiate. There are lists you can make, and lists that people will put you on. There are lots of different features on Twitter. Take a little time to get to know the program and keep your eyes and ears open to see what others are doing.
Cost: Free ($10-15 for giveaways)
One of my favorite sites is Goodreads.com—makes total sense, right? The site focuses on books—what you’re reading, what books you own, and links you up to your friends and associates so they can see what you are reading. There is so much information to be gotten from spending time at GR, everything from comparing how your friends rate a book you liked to forums, contests, and giveaways. And if you’re an author, there is a special way to add in your own books, and assign them to your profile.
As a reader, it really helps me to see what other people think of books, to get ideas of what to read, and to compare notes on authors, genres and titles. I can keep track of every book I’ve ever read, and add in my review of the books as well. It’s a great database of information.
As an author, it’s a much more personal way to attach a book to your life than Amazon, for example. I can go to my author dashboard and see who is reading my books, who has added a title to their “to-read” profiles, and what people are saying about my books. I’ve had people say such generous and kind things about Transubstantiate, for example, that it really motivated me to keep writing. And I’ve also had people point out negative things about Transubstantiate (typos, printing mistakes, a lack of clarity between seven different characters) that helped me to see where I fell short. Just don’t post up any sort of response. Ever. Trust me, it only backfires. You cannot please everyone all of the time, so take the time to LEARN from criticism, and become a better writer.
One of the best features of Goodreads is the ability to do a giveaway. You don’t have to be an author to give away a book, either. Anybody can do it, but I think it is a really valuable resource for authors. Once you have an author profile on GR (in addition to your regular profile; it’s really just an extension, an upgrade) you can give away a book. I’ve given away seven books over the years. What’s great is that is costs you NOTHING to do it, as far as GR doing free promotion of your book on their website. It just costs you the copy of the book and the postage. So, maybe $10-15 tops. Which is really nothing when it comes to promotion. All you have to do is fill out a giveaway with all of the information, set a date, and let it go. I’ve found that short time spans work best, anything from a few days up to a month. I have also found that giving away ONE copy got me as much attention as giving away FIVE, so just do one at a time. For the copies of Transubstantiate, Shivers VI and Warmed and Bound I gave away, I got anywhere from 750 to 1,000+ entries. That’s some good free exposure. Of those that signed up for the contest, on average, I had about 300-500 people add the books to their “to-read” shelves, for future reference. I know that some of this promotion has turned into sales, but I haven’t been able to track how many. I’d say probably a few dozen for each giveaway. But the word of mouth exposure it gets you is a very easy way to saturate your audience with exposure. AND, since you’re giving something away, it makes you look generous and kind, which never hurts, even if you write dark fiction.
Also, I’ve got GR set up to allow for blog posts to be posted on my profile there. It helps to give you greater exposure on your writing, and, for people that are actually interested in seeing who the hell you are, some material for reading, a way to get to know you and the scope of your work, better.
I won’t talk a lot about Amazon, but if you have ever published ANYTHING that is up on Amazon, be sure to set up an author profile there, and add those book, magazines, journals, and anthologies to your profile. That way when somebody goes to Amazon to seek you out, such as your family, friends, or industry types (editors, authors, agents, etc.) you’ll have a presence. Link this to your blog as well.
One of the nice things about Amazon is that once you are all set up as an author, you can sell your own work there. If you want to self-publish, this is one way to do it. I self-published a copy of “Victimized” at Amazon and it wasn’t that hard to do. It was originally published in Murky Depths #15, but as a shorter 5,000-word story. I wanted the full 7,000-word story to get out there, so I did an e-single at Amazon. It’s only .99 cents, and only for the Kindle (obviously you can publish print books and anthologies as well) but I was happy to get it up there. I think it’s sold a few hundred copies, no big deal, but it did get a little bit of attention.
One of the nice things about Amazon, especially when it comes to digital publishing, is that your work is there indefinitely. If you suddenly have a breakthrough moment, and people start clamoring for your work, there are resources there. It’s nice to have a variety of work for people to buy, at prices that start at a few dollars. Also, for some reason, people really see Amazon as a place to establish credibility—even though just about anybody can self-publish almost anything on Amazon. I think it’s the company, the context of Amazon. They see Stephen King and John Grisham on the same website as your work and BAM, you’re legit. It’s a necessary evil, and as much as I’d like to publish and sell at only small bookstores or via independent bookstores, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s just not realistic—for me, anyway.
BLOGS AND WEBSITES
Cost: Minimal ($15-30 a year for the website and other online services)
I’ve already mentioned your blog in the previous entries, and I won’t get into a lot of detail here except to say that you should have one. Lock down your name if you can, or start branding yourself. A lot of people (myself included) use the templates at Wordpress, and that’s a fine place to start. It’s essential to have a web presence, and since your platform, brand, networking, and promotion are all connected, it’s important to have a professional presence on the internet. Keep your look clean, sharp, and organized. If you aren’t sure what to do, just surf around and see what others are doing, and find something that works for you. It’s a great way to house EVERYTHING—your author profile, a list of all of your published stories, links to your novels and the anthologies you’re in, as well as whatever else you want to write about—book reviews, columns about the industry, whatever. The reason I didn’t list this first, or higher, is that it takes a long time to get a following, and unless you post up all the time, on a regular basis, it’ll be difficult to keep those followers entertained. But it’s important to have a site. I also have one set up for my first book, Transubstantiate.
I get maybe 40-60 unique visitors every day, and the most traffic I’ve ever gotten has been about 300 unique visitors when I announced my first book was coming out. BUT, I’ve also been approached via my website to speak at conferences, to submit work privately to anthologies, and other exciting things that probably wouldn’t have happened if people couldn’t find me.
Cost: Varies (Most are free but private workshops can cost $30-100 a year)
This may sound obvious, but be a part of several communities. It’s a great way to make friends, to network and find opportunities, and of course, to promote your work. I’ve been a long time member of The Cult, Lit Reactor, The Velvet, Write Club (private), Cemetery Dance, and other places. Longevity and how you handle yourself at these places will go a long way towards helping to establish yourself as a serious author. People will see, over time, that you are having success, they will see you evolve and emerge as an author, and you’ll create a loyal following of friends and authors. These forums also provide a very valuable resource—a support group. It’s so easy to get depressed about writing—the odds are long, the work is done alone, and even when you get accepted it’s often for no pay or very little money. And even when you do have a big announcement, a huge breakthrough, often your family and “real world” friends don’t “get it.” I don’t think I have to explain to the crowd here at LR how important this place is, the forums as well as the workshops. Don’t overload yourself, but definitely get involved.
One way to promote yourself is to promote other authors. It sounds backwards, but it really works. I do a lot of different things to promote other authors, everything from retweeting and linking posts on Facebook, to doing book reviews at The Nervous Breakdown. It’s an opportunity to write, so every time I say something, I have a chance to be clever, or deep, or lyrical in my comments—especially with the book reviews. And it also shows that what you’re doing isn’t all about you. And it will help you make friends in the various communities where you hang out. It’s a way of putting your money where your mouth is, of showing that you have depth and substance and a heart. You’d be surprised how much these simple gestures will help to build your identity. We’ve all seen people in various forums that we thought were jerks, and the first response is often, “Well, I’ll never buy HIS work.” But if you can show the industry that you’re genuinely interested in other work, if you can show that you are intelligent, thoughtful and generous, people will go out of their way to support you in return. They’ll help you when you need people to spread the word about your own stories and novels, they’ll go out of their way to vote for you and support you in competitions (if they love that particular story, that is) and in general, you’ll feel good about what you’re doing. And that means a lot—if at the end of the day you can look yourself in the mirror and be proud of what you’ve done.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on printed material, because I’m not sure how much good postcards and bookmarks and all do for you, as far as sales. BUT, I think it’s just another way of showing that you’ve arrived, that you’re professional. I spend a little bit of money at Vistaprint on postcards, mailing labels, etc. It makes it easier for me when I’m mailing out my work, my submissions, and I also like having the postcards around so I can jot a quick message on them when including them in boxes and packages that I mail out. You can stand on a street corner and hand them out (my current postcards all promote Transubstantiate, but I guess I’ll have to change those as Otherworld Publications is closing soon) or leaves stacks of them in bars, bookstores, and other places where people gather. But I wouldn’t spend a ton of money on buttons and pens and other promotional materials. I will say that Nik Korpon and I spent about $100 each on matchbooks and pens for a conference a few years ago, and I thought the matchbooks especially were really cool.
Costs: Can be free, if you stay local
Another way to promote yourself is by getting involved with local authors and going out to read your work. There are probably several different reading series in your city, so some research and see what’s around you. One of the first readings I did was with the Chicago based series, Quickies, and it was fantastic. I met some really excellent writers (Lindsay Hunter, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Ben Tanzer, etc.) and they’re all still good friends. I’ve read at various AWP events in NYC, Denver, and here in Chicago. I’ve read in dive bars and swank clubs all over Chicago. It’s a great time. Get over your fears, have fun, and get out there. Connecting locally is a great way to meet people and get your work heard. Aside from a little gas money, some parking costs, and a few drinks, it doesn’t have to cost much.
Cost: Free, usually, but sometimes a few stamps
The best way to promote your writing, brand, identity, and POV as a writer is to publish. All of the above things I’ve mentioned won’t help you too much if nobody can find your work. And I think it goes without saying, the better the places you publish, the more that people will talk about your work. But when getting started, just find some cool magazines, journals, websites, and anthologies, and send them your work. None of us get into every place we submit, and with acceptance rates hovering in the 1-5% range, it can be very difficult to break through, but keep at it and you will. The quality of writing here at LR is definitely good enough to be published, at a wide range of places. Mix it up—send your work to online sites, as well as small university journals. Hit up the horror anthologies as well as slick magazines. Send each story to every place that excites you, whether they pay .05 a word or nothing but exposure. Get your work OUT there. As you grow and improve as a writer, you’ll learn more, and will start narrowing down publications to the best in each genre—it’s a natural progression. As long as you are proud of the story that you’ve written, and think that the publication you are submitting to is a great place to be, then go for it. It’s not always about the most pay, or the most prestige. I will publish anyplace that I think is cool, or anyplace where certain authors I really enjoy and respect have published (such as Stephen Graham Jones, Blake Butler, Matt Bell, Nik Korpon, Brian Keene, etc.). Sometimes it’s about adopting a fledgling publication, or helping out a friend who is editing an anthology. You can always write more, yeah?
The list of ways you can promote yourself is endless. This column is not exhaustive by any measure. But I wanted to show you what I think the essentials are, and show you how you can do it with little or no money. What it always boils down to is the quality of your writing and the way that you handle yourself in the world. If you are a kind, generous, and supportive person and you work really hard on your writing, always being open to suggestions, constantly evolving and improving, then you will succeed. Anything less, and you will struggle and fail. So think long and hard about what you’re doing, how you spend your time. It’s a tough business, but is can be extremely rewarding and fulfilling.
Some of the authors I mentioned have some really great stories out there. Here are links to “Just Say No” by Ben Tanzer up at The 2nd Hand and “Cain, Caleb, Cameron” by Matt Bell up at Wigleaf. I'm a big fan of both of these guys.
TO SEND a question to Richard, drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.
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