Author and eternal smartass Sean Taylor
posed an interesting question on the Book of Face, and my answer was a story too long for a Facebook comment.
Sean asked us authors about marketing. What works, what doesn't, how do you promote yourself without going broke or being obnoxious?
To summarize myself: Flyers and bookmarks just create trash and waste your money. Word of mouth via guest blog posts and forwards spreads news of your book in a viral fashion. Results are mixed on offering the first book of a series free: yes, it will generate a lot of downloads, but if they won't spend $1.99 for the first book, odds are slim they'll pony up for the rest of the series. Others have had different experiences; maybe I just sacrificed a virgin to the wrong demons. A multi-city book tour works well if someone else is paying the bills; it's not so good if you have to sell enough books to cover your roach motel before you can feed yourself.
Direct email works, but make sure people voluntarily sign up and you don't just nab emails without permission. Paying someone to do your direct mail is dumb when MailChimp exists. Twitter can be a conversation (while populated by trolls) but a Twitter account that consists of nothing but "buy my book!" will be quickly unfollowed. The existence of a website (not just your blog or Facebook) is absolutely mandatory.
And Facebook... thanks to the algorithm constantly changing to make fewer and fewer of your followers actually see what you post, it's become practically useless for actual promotion, especially since they now insist you must pay for anything that they consider marketing. And yet it is absolutely indispensable, because despite its uselessness... it's still where the readers are. No one has been able to drag them away from Facebook, and thus we all stay, even when we curse it.
But put your real content on a blog. This is a lesson I learned a long time ago and now I am trying to re-learn it, to shift my real content off the Book of Face and back here, where it belongs. Here I can say whatever I wish, and anyone who has chosen to follow me here will actually see what I write. (Note: Check out Feedly, my newest discovery. You CAN follow blogs without Facebook! Yay!) I wrote earlier this week that without my old LiveJournal, I would not have a writing career, and I wasn't kidding.
But what about the story, Donald?
Well, Sean asked us what our most successful marketing practice was, and I could talk about using social media, about talks in coffeehouses replacing traditional bookstore signings, about the case of red matchbooks designed to look like they came from the vampire nightclub in Nocturnal Urges, about convention appearances and author dinners and all the nonsense we go through to get attention for our work. Attention equals money equals the ability to keep writing books.
Which leads me to my most successful marketing practice....
I was building up to the release of The Cold Ones, my first zombie novel and a departure from my career's path. Well, it was a departure as far as everyone else knew. They all knew me as the vamporn lady, and I was resolutely stuck on the midnight sex panel because everyone thought the NU series was just marital aids with teeth. I'd been writing horror since long before Nocturnal Urges, of course, and written fantasy, horror and science fiction since, but I was still mired in the pink ghetto and no one in horror was taking me seriously.
If you've read The Cold Ones, you know. Major Harvey swears up a storm and kicks down doors. The zombies are bloody and malevolent, but so are various nasty beasties from the mythologies of various cultures, plus the best team of sidekicks I've ever assembled.
It was slated to premiere at a spec-fic convention. I decided to use my reading for the launch party. We had some pre-orders, but not too many. I needed something to punch it up.
I decided to create zombie bite kits. I got a bunch of self-sealing plastic bags and printed up labels with military-style stencil writing. Here's what was in them, according to the label:
EMERGENCY ZOMBIE BITE KIT
Bandage (for the bleeding)
Antiseptic (for the ickiness)
Snack (for the munchies)
Source of Flame (to fend off new friends)
Helpful Coupon (because we like you)
Bullet (just in case)
AIM FOR THE HEAD!
The bandage was a band-aid. The antiseptic was a single alcohol swab. The snack was a gummy body part (I love post-Halloween sales). The source of flame was at first leftover matchbooks from the Nocturnal Urges box, and later a single wooden match. The helpful coupon gave them a discount at the booth or on our webstore.
The bullet was from a bag of metal slugs given to me by a friend who used to make his own bullets. To be safe, I contacted the convention in advance and asked if they had any objections. They said no, but I might want to check with the town police department.
I called the police, and when they stopped laughing they told me that they'd have to arrest me and anyone who took the kit. The convention was in Illinois, and anyone possessing live ammunition must have a firearm owner identification card or they are violating the law.
Since I am allergic to handcuffs (shaddup, you, I heard that), I asked them about the slugs. No cartridge, no powder, just a hunk of metal. That would be okay, they said; no one can get hurt by those unless you throw them really hard.
So I informed the convention leaders, and now they were concerned. They said their security couldn't be expected to know the difference between a live round and a dead slug. While I figured most of their security would probably be more familiar with ammunition than I was, I understood their concerns. It only takes one moron, right? I considered candy bullets or chocolate ones - eat the bullet - but that raised the price of this thing considerably, and I was running out of time and cash.
Therefore, I proposed that I would put my initials on every slug that went into the zombie bite kits. Security would know that any bullet they found with my initials on it was safe, and if it didn't have my initials, it was cause for concern. That mollified the convention leaders.
So I spent two evenings in front of the TV writing "ekd" on each itty bitty slug with a Sharpie. In case you're wondering: I always use ekd for my initials, including signing my emails. If I leave out my middle initial, I'm Mr. Ed.
My son helped me assemble the bite kits, and they looked really good. I was proud of those things. We hauled them to the con, and everyone who bought a zombie book and/or attended the release party got one.
It worked. Whoa, did it work. We sold out the entire first print run of The Cold Ones within 48 hours and had orders for more. Not only that, the zombie bite kits were as popular as the book. People were delighted, and told others about them. Soon we had people showing up at the booth asking for the kits, and when we explained that they came with the book, they'd pop for both. (It helps to have a book with a $6 cover price.) The publisher was thrilled and requested the sequel (Blackfire) before we finished packing up the booth. Downside: I had to postpone two signings while the publisher rushed through the second printing, because we were out of books. Curse me with such problems!
We made the zombie bite kits for two years, with extras because there was always someone who wanted to buy some for gag gifts or (seriously) stocking stuffers. They cost almost nothing to make and were ten times more popular than anything else I'd ever done, including the matchbooks.
And of course, there are now hundreds of bullets with my name on them.