Book Marketing, Author Publicity, Branding

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Interview with NYT bestselling author Suzy Spencer

  1. How much help did your publisher give you in the marketing of your book?

I’ve had four books published. Of those four, I’ve had little marketing support from my publishers. Now let me clarify. When I say “marketing,” I’m referring specifically to public relations. I’m not referring to sales and distribution support. I’ve never been allowed any contact with the sales teams, though I understand some publishers encourage such. In fact, I’m friends with a sales representative for a major publishing house and she has advised me to always get to know and befriend my sales reps. When the sales reps love your books and you, they’ll fight to get your work into the stores, get you solid display space, and psych up the bookstore staff so that they recommend your book to the buying public.

Having said that, sales reps are going the way of landline telephones. Maybe landline telephones is the wrong metaphor to use since sales reps – those human beings who travel, from state to state, from bookstore to bookstore, to make face-to-face sales pitches to bookstore management – are being replaced by telemarketers. To foresee how well that is going to work, just think about how you react to telemarketers.

As for public relations support, for my first book Wasted, which became a New York Times bestseller, I believe my publisher sent out a few review copies. By that I mean I provided names and addresses of friends in the media and my publisher mailed them copies of the book and, from what I understand, a note that said here’s a book by Suzy Spencer. There was no publicity packet included. No sales pitch of what the book was about or why they would be interested in it.

With my second book, my publisher decided it was too expensive to send out review copies, so I was provided an extra box of books, which I was supposed to mail to my media contacts.

I switched publishing houses for my third and fourth books. That publisher did provide a bit of publicity support. But for the purposes of this interview, I’m going to stick to the details of marketing and publicity for Wasted, i.e. the experiences of a first time author who fluked into becoming a New York Times best-selling author.

  1. Did you hire a publicist, or did you work on marketing and promotion on your own? If you hired a publicist, what types of things did they do for you?

My answer is all of the above. Initially, I did everything myself. As time passed and I was out of ideas and contacts, I hired two different publicists. Each pursued only radio shows. I believe one publicist charged per booking, meaning if she got me on a show, I paid her a fee. If she didn’t get me on a show, I paid her nothing. She got me on numerous radio shows, mostly high-wattage stations in rural areas, in daylight hours.

I believe the other publicist charged a flat fee with a minimum number of bookings guaranteed. He booked me into larger markets but in the middle of the night, AM hours. One radio host sent me a copy of that publicist’s Suzy Spencer “PR packet.” It consisted of a copy of my book and a note scribbled in black Sharpie on white paper that said Suzy Spencer is available for interview – no explanation of why the radio station might be interested in interviewing me. At least my publisher had included a neatly typed note.

I never used that publicist again. In fact, I never hired another publicist.

3. What types of marketing activities did you handle on your own?

I sent out postcards announcing the publication and availability of the book, including its ISBN number. I sent those cards to friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, though I might have a tenuous relationship to them, and often added a handwritten note. I forced my family to do the same.

I set up book signings. I sent out postcards promoting the signings – again, to friends, acquaintances, and strangers to whom I had tenuous ties. I repeatedly contacted newspapers and radio and television stations regarding the signings and begged for interviews. I brought extra books when I felt bookstores hadn’t ordered enough product for a signing. And believe me, that happened often.

I created a press kit, which included a press release, biography, headshot, and eventually press clippings. I sent those to newspapers, radio stations, TV stations, and alumni publications. I constantly monitored the media to see if there was a news event that related to my book topic. If there was, I immediately contacted radio stations explaining how my book related to the event, what I could offer their radio show, and that I was available for interviews.

I probably need to stress that even when seeking publicity for my book signings, I didn’t simply say here’s my book, I’m available for an interview. I always provided a reason as to why they should want to interview me. I provided them with a story angle. I told them why their listeners, viewers, and/or readers would be interested in what I had to say and/or how it related to their audience.

I also set up talks with writers’ organizations, book clubs, high schools, and anything else I could think of. And I ran ads in Radio-TV Interview Report, a publication monitored by radio and TV producers as they look for topics and guests for their shows.

  1. Which marketing activities have been the most helpful in selling your book?

With that first book, initially, I think the postcards helped most. Current friends wanted to support me, so they bought the book. Friends from the past were curious about what I was up to, so they bought the book. I believe my friends all over the nation are the ones who pushed the book onto the New York Times bestseller list.

After that, a book review appeared and proclaimed that Wasted had been banned in the oldest town in Texas. I jumped on that. Whereas my publisher had insisted x is your sole market. I insisted that x, y, and z were my markets. I sent a press release announcing the ban, along with copies of the review, to media that targeted those y and z markets. They jumped on the story and gave me coast-to-coast publicity. I then used those stories to get more publicity.

Finally, I think the radio interviews helped. I’d check my Amazon sales ranking before an interview, during it, and afterwards, and I could see the positive results.

One note: I inundated my publisher with my press clippings, which I believe kept them excited about the book. That meant their sales reps worked harder to keep the book on store shelves rather than letting it die a natural six-week to six-month death.

  1. Which marketing activities have not worked for you at all?

This is kind of a tough question because what works for one book might not work for another and what works for a first book might not be right for a fourth book. Or what works for my book might not work for someone else’s book. For example, I’ve had friends who got scores, if not more than 100, radio bookings from Radio-TV Interview Report. For me, that was a waste of money.

Though I insinuate that I was disappointed with the publicists I hired, as I mentioned before, I could track improved Amazon sales after doing a radio show they booked for me.

And while I rarely do bookstore signings anymore because I lose money on them due to the travel expense, I found them highly beneficial for the beginning of my career. They introduced me to bookstore staffers and readers who never would have looked at my book. That meant that they talked about it and recommended it. The signings also got me at least a week’s worth of great in-store display and promotion, when, normally, one or two copies of my books would have been relegated to a bottom shelf. And they allowed me to get radio, TV, and newspaper coverage that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Believe me, it’s a great thing when you’re sitting in a bookstore and a TV crew comes in to interview you. Customers start flocking over in curiosity and start buying.

  1. What was the biggest misconception you had before you started promoting your work?

I’m not sure I had a lot of misconceptions. I know I didn’t expect the publisher to help me much on PR. And I knew that they only give a book a few weeks to succeed before moving on to the next book. But I guess I did expect them to put out a decent press release and send review copies to more than a few outlets. After all, I spent hours filling out their marketing questionnaire, i.e. my background, marketing angles, people and media outlets I knew that might promote my book and why they might promote it, etc..

No, my biggest misconception was their myopic view that only they know what works marketing-wise. I have a Masters of Business Administration degree in marketing and I live in Middle America. So I guess I had a fantasy that they’d respect my expertise and what I know about the market in which I live. But, no, they didn’t. And they don’t. They say, we’ve been doing this for years, we know who your market is, we know what works and what doesn’t, and you don’t.

But my theory is that what may have worked 20 years ago isn’t working today. The proof of that is the decreasing sales and profits experienced by the major publishing houses. So the other half of my theory is don’t say anything when they tell you don’t know who your market is and don’t say anything when they tell you your marketing ideas are wrong. Just go implement them on your own. If you don’t succeed, at least you know you gave it your all. And if you do succeed, well, your publishing house might take all the credit, but who cares … because you’ve got a bestseller.

  1. How vital is social media such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. to your marketing?

My books have all come out prior to the mass popularity of social media. However, since 2004, when I started work on my next book, which should be out in 2011, I have been prepping my marketing plan. I have a list of blogs that I want to hit up for PR. I have my own blog on writing that I’m trying to grow. And I have a smaller blog that primarily deals with the topic of my next book. Eventually, the two blogs with be integrated.

I have my Facebook account and really try to work it. I have my Twitter account, though, admittedly, I don’t “get” Twitter. I have my YouTube account and am prepping videos for it. And I have my BlogTalkRadio account, for when I need that.

Though I don’t know if Twitter and Facebook will be as important five years from now as they are today – after all, look how myspace has almost disappeared for anyone other than musicians – I do think social media is imperative to follow and utilize. For example, I have Facebook friends all over the U.S., England, Turkey or Greece (I forget which), and the Philippines. Previously, if I wanted to hit those markets, I had to be on CNN. And believe me, I find national and international TV to still be my best promoter. But those aren’t always available to first time authors. But Facebook is. In a matter of seconds, you can post a few lines there and have people all over the world reading about your book. And that’s a heck of lot cheaper than sending out postcards.

  1. How vital is niche marketing to promoting your work? How do you identify and reach out to your book’s niche audiences?

I’m known as a true crime author. That’s my niche – my x target market that my first publisher insisted was my sole market. My publisher further insisted that a great book cover and great photographs inside the book is enough to market to my niche. So I left that to my publisher and worried about the y and z general markets.

My next book is not true crime, and I think my publisher sees its target market as the general public. I see it building in the niche world and expanding to the general public. As such, I used the Internet to research the leaders within that niche, contacted them, and became friends with them. They introduced me to other leaders, as well as participants, which eventually created a huge email list. I then used MySpace and now Facebook to further develop that list.

In other words, I’m networking within my niche – I meet one person who introduces me to three others, and those three others introduce me to nine others.

As I get closer to publication, I will utilize this email list to create buzz for the book and then sales.

  1. Other than sales, what benefits have you experienced as the result of becoming a “bestselling” author?

It gives you credibility.

  1. What advice do you have for new authors when it comes to marketing and promoting their books?

Step 1: From day one, start creating your marketing plan. That means making a list of possible PR outlets. And it means getting out there and schmoozing and making friends. The greatest thing I ever did for my career was joining and volunteering for the Writers’ League of Texas. I worked on publicity for one of their fundraisers. That gave me an introduction to people in the media. Eventually, those people gave my book PR support.

Step 2: Don’t necessarily confess this PR obsession and game plan to your agent and editor. There’s a time to mention it, and it’s not when you’re writing the book. If you do, they’ll think you’re sacrificing your writing for PR. So wait until the book is done. If they then give your ideas a dismissive wave of the hand, let ‘em … then go do your own marketing plan. They’ll appreciate it when the sales get tallied.

Step 3: When everyone tells you stop with the PR, keep going with it. You’ll extend the life of the book and wring out additional sales. Think persistence, persistence, persistence. Be persistent, persistent, persistent.

About the author:

ABC’s Primetime Live has referred to Suzy Spencer as Austin, Texas’ best-known true crime writer. She is the author of Breaking Point, the story of Andrea Yates, a Book of the Month Club, Doubleday Book Club, Literary Guild and Mystery Guild selection; Wasted, a New York Times bestseller and Violet Crown Book Award finalist; The Fortune Hunter (St. Martin's True Crime Library), which was called “riveting” and “blockbuster” by the Globe; and Wages Of Sin

She has appeared on Good Morning America, ABC World News, Primetime, Dateline NBC, and numerous shows on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Court TV, Oxygen, and the E! Channel.

Spencer holds a Masters of Professional Writing and a Masters of Business Administration, both from the University of Southern California.

Currently, she is writing a book about Americans’ alternative sex lives, which will be a lead trade paperback for Berkley Books.



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