Vicki Forman's fabulous memoir, This Lovely Life, winner of the Bakeless Prize, was published last summer to terrific reviews, and suddenly Vicki and her book were popping up everywhere. In the interview which follows, Vicki discusses what a first-time author can expect in terms of book promotion, her own personal commitment to marketing her book, what that required.
LR: In the guest post you did here last winter, you discussed final pre-publication edits. Now, you're seven months post-publication. What's the view from here? Any surprises?
VF: It surprised me to find out just how challenging it is to sell a book. After all the hard work of writing a book, and persevering until the book found a home, once the book came out I was prepared for promotion to take over my life, but I had not anticipated the real work of hand-selling a book, essentially one reader at a time.
I am so very grateful to the loyal readers who lined up and bought the book, either at readings or from their local bookstores or from online retailers. But it is definitely the case that this a tough market for writers. One bookseller I spoke with confessed to me that he would typically have 20 to 25 sales from a reading with a good turnout. Now those sales were more like 5 to 10 books. That's sobering news for a writer, certainly.
LR: How far in advance of the publication date did you begin your personal effort at publicity? What did you do first?
VF: Once I had settled on a title for the book, the first thing I did was register that URL. I knew I would want readers to find an online presence for the book, so that was most important in my mind. I registered the URL a year before the book was published.
As I moved forward in the production process, I used my personal blog and Facebook status to keep my immediate friends and audience abreast of steps. I posted pictures of galleys and ARC's as they became available. By that point, we were about four months away from publication. As soon as the book was available for pre-order, I started up the book's website and a Facebook group for the book. In my opinion, as soon as you have approved cover art, book publicity can begin.
In May, first reviews came out. The book was published in July, but by June I had a fleshed out website with reviews, excerpts, appearance schedule, an author Q&A and contact information. It's important to remember that a lot of publicity happens ahead of publication, so you want to be ready with your online presence in particular. Think of what your potential readers or reviewers might want to know about you, and put all that up on your website in an organized fashion.
LR: Can you give a quickie breakdown of the different avenues of publicity you undertook, and your gut reaction to how each of those efforts worked out?
VF: The website was always going to be important, for the reasons I list above, and, even more important, because it costs so little. A book or author website is probably the most necessary promotional tool you can have.
Author appearances have a significant, yet intangible importance. As I mentioned before, this was a tough market in which to sell books. However, if a bookstore was willing to have me come and read, I did. I was careful not to sign too much stock (the booksellers seemed to appreciate this gesture) and I was happy no matter how many copies I sold. I can't say enough about the value of face-to-face contact with an audience. Even if I felt like the appearance had a small turnout, I almost always saw an uptick in visits to the book's website afterwards. You also get to hear first hand what readers like about your book, and you get to meet the bookstore folks and develop relationships with them.
I attended several conferences, which had a different, but equally important value. Here I could meet the professionals who might then go back to their organizations and talk about the book. I think there is great reward in being a speaker on a panel at a large conference. You may not sell any books while you're there, but you are getting terrific exposure for your work and your name. You also gain experience in meeting and talking to very different people than you might encounter at a reading. I learned so much from the professionals I met at the conferences I attended, and all that knowledge helped me develop more expertise.
Finally, I did several student classroom and book club visits, both in person and on Skype. Of all my efforts, these were the most rewarding moments, honestly, because I could talk at leisure about the book and the process, and really get to listen to the readers and what interested them.
It would be nice if there were a formula for rates of return on each promotional effort, but I haven't been able to come up with one that I could justify with real numbers. Rule #1 for me has always been, "say yes" and figure out how to make it happen. I did anything anyone asked me to do. I did readings and appearances; I spoke on panels at conferences, I did print, radio and TV interviews. And yes, guest blog posts. All of it.
LR: Were you following a plan or was it more a matter of gut feel?
VF: I was very fortunate to be mentored by a great friend who is also a fantastic writer and an absolute maven in promotional efforts. I asked her a lot of questions, listened to everything she said, asked again if something didn't make sense, and, most importantly, followed every last bit of her advice. Then I bought copies of her book for my friends, by way of support. I cannot say enough about getting advice from someone who has done it already. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel, and you should learn from someone who has done it well.
LR: Were you shocked at the amount of time you needed to personally spend on PR?
VF: I wasn't shocked by the amount of time (anything will take up however much time you give it, whether it's book promotion or cleaning your cutlery) but I was surprised by how distracting it was. I don’t know how anyone writes while doing publicity. There is no routine, no rhythm to your days, no end to the tasks. I loved every interview and bookstore appearance, but I did find it daunting to be out on the road, being "on" and being ready to answer any and all questions, to give long readings (in some cases) or tough ones.
You've worked so hard to even have a book, you have to give it your all on the follow through. Especially with a first book, you want to show publishers and booksellers that you've really done your job. While it's hard to know what efforts directly translate into sales, it is important to try everything and see what sticks.
Book promotion is a part-time job in the two months leading up to publication, a full-time job in the six months after publication, and then a part-time job again for a final two to three months. I have appearances scheduled up through May. By then, the book will have been out for nearly a year.
LR: Was it difficult to know where to put your efforts, whether you were using your time and energy wisely?
VF: The main goal in book promotion, to my mind, is momentum. You want to do whatever it takes to keep the momentum going. Update the website, schedule readings, send out complimentary copies of the book, all of it. I would not worry about coming up with a formula, because all publicity is good publicity. I felt everything was a good use of my time and attention.
LR: At any point, did you consider hiring a PR person?
VF: I had offers from people to write up plans, but I declined. It seemed like if I had a "to do" list and didn’t do everything, I'd feel like I'd failed. I preferred to focus on the traditional promotion I knew (readings and appearances) approached the media contacts I already had to see what they might want to do (interviews, etc.) and then followed the "say yes" rule. It worked out fine for me not to have a strict plan. Ultimately, the best spokesperson for the book is you, the writer.
A friend in publicity told me at the start that she didn’t ever look at sales of books she was promoting because she would just get depressed. You simply can't know how effort will translate into sales, or if it will.
However, like any effort, I do think it's important to have goals, and for them to be reasonable. That way, you can feel good about your accomplishments. I set a goal at the start, and that was to sell out the first print-run. If I could achieve that goal, I would allow myself to feel good about my efforts. Four months after the book was published, I sold out my first print run. I let out a deep breath then, knowing that if I felt like I had to stop right then, I could. I didn't stop, and I haven't, but I have learned how to pace myself a lot in the process.
The most important thing to remember is that if you're lucky and your publisher keeps your book in print, the book will go on selling long after you've done all your hard work. It's also important to know that (hopefully) this is not the only book you'll write (or promote). This is a first step in a lifelong career.
LR: What did the publisher do to help promote the book?
VF: The publicity manager was fantastic. She was responsive, got me a TV interview, worked hard at keeping the book alive and in front of people. But I also made it clear to her that I intended to do everything I could myself on the book's behalf as well. I would say we worked as a team when it mattered, and we worked individually when it mattered.
I was very fortunate. My publicity manager was a treasure. She had wonderful things to say about my book, and with every mention told me she was thrilled the book was "getting the attention it deserved." That being said, it's important to be realistic about what to expect. Have a good, long conversation at the start about what is reasonable, what the publisher will do and what you should plan to do on our own. I would never expect the publicity manager to arrange readings, for example, unless I couldn't get them on my own. Her time is much better served on the things she can do that I can't, like reaching a magazine editor or radio show for an interview. That being said, she was more than willing to do so, and sometimes, if a bookstore turned me down, I would ask her to step in.
LR: Any little tricks you found helpful?
VF: Two gems of advice: first, don’t buy author copies (they don't count towards sales). Buy copies yourself, discounted if you have to. Second, send everyone who asks for it a copy of your book, with a nice note, of course. I don't mean family members, but professionals or reviewers or bookstore folks. I probably sent out 50 copies on my own, book rate. I don't regret a single one.
LR: For your next book, what will you do differently in terms of PR?
VF: I'd love to have someone else maintain my website, and I'd make sure I have my own photos from all my events. I fell down on the job on that one, and I wish I hadn't. I would have liked for the website to be more current or updated more often, but with travel and all else I didn't get to do that as often as I'd like.
LR: Because you wrote about very personal matters, did you avoid certain publicity to shield your family?
VF: For one article, a magazine wanted to send a photographer to shoot us as a family. I asked my husband and he said yes, and that was that. I told him he could say no and I would have been willing to tell the magazine they couldn't have family photos. So while I was prepared to protect my family, it turned out not to be an issue, thanks to my husband.
Otherwise, I actually had to work very hard to ease fears in some audiences that they should feel free to ask me any and all questions. It felt important to me to acknowledge that while the subject matter was tough, I was coming out to talk about the book, and that meant I was approachable and open to any topic or discussion.
LR: What about costs – you traveled for some PR activities; were you able to share those with the publisher?
VF: Sadly, there was no real "budget" for travel. I took some money from my advance and used that to fund the publicity. I made sure to do as much as I could wherever I went (scheduling readings when I was in a city for a conference, for example). I booked hotels on Priceline, or stayed with family members. I don't regret any expense I incurred. It was all 100% worthwhile.
LR: What were the most enjoyable, and the most miserable, aspects of promoting your book?
VF: I loved being out and talking about the book, writing, and the issues the book raised. I hated worrying about sales, although I worried anyway.
LR: What do you know now that wish you knew at the time of publication?
VF: How much work it is to promote a book. I feel so much better informed, and ready for the next time around. Other than that, I feel everything I did was in service of the book. I had planned a flyer and a mailing and wish I'd had the time and resources to do it, but I'm not kicking myself that it didn't happen. I wish I'd had more opportunities for book clubs. Those can be hard to arrange but so satisfying.
LR: It's interesting to see how certain publicity opportunities happen. You had a review in the Yale Alumni Magazine; did you contact them directly, or did they respond to information from the publisher? The excerpt in The UK Guardian?
VF: Typically a publisher will ask a writer to fill out an "author questionnaire," which is essentially a very extensive checklist of avenues for promotion, including any and all press contacts, alumni associations, etc. These questionnaires are both daunting and important. In my case, I discovered I had avenues of promotion I had not considered, and those included several alumni associations as well as the pubic affairs offices of schools where I taught. Some of these I contacted directly, some contact came from the publisher. In some cases, good national publicity -- a mention in Elle Magazine, an interview on Salon -- brought in further interest, like the excerpt in the Guardian UK.
LR: In an article in the New York Times science section about the trauma parents endure when their newborn is in neonatal intensive care, your book is mentioned. How did that come about? It seems like such enviable exposure, and yet it doesn't appear to have come through normal book publicity channels.
VF: That contact was so fortuitous. I had an old college friend who became a huge champion of the book. She mentioned it in a Facebook post. One of her friends is a writer for the Times and saw the mention. She contacted my friend, who put us in touch. The rest was the kind of kismet a writer dreams about.
LR: Your book won the prestigious Bakeless Literary Prize. How much did that, and its association with Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, help with PR efforts?
VF: The best part of winning the Bakeless Prize (second to publication, obviously) was the opportunity to attend the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference last summer. The book had already appeared, and I was able to be part of a prestigious conference, as a published author. Of course Bread Loaf and the Bakeless bring attention in and of themselves, and being associated with a prize brings a level of gravitas to a book one can't manufacture.
LR: How much do you think it helped that you already had web presence – a blog, active in social networking, a long-running column at Literary Mama?
VF: Every agent and publisher will tell you the importance of having a platform. For me, the audience I'd discovered for the blog and column helped enormously, but not just in terms of bottom line sales. Over the years I've written my blog and column, I learned which parts of my story resonated, how to tell them, and how to talk about them. This is great training for a writer out on a promotional jaunt, because you want to be able to convey your message clearly and effectively. You want to have answers to potential questions, and you need to be able to talk to anyone and everyone (strangers and friends) about your story. The blog and the column helped me learn how to do this. These outlets help you attain a level of professionalism in terms of your work and your career that's absolutely essential.
Yet, in my opinion, there is a fine line between being visible on the web and in other arenas, there is also a fine line between being not visible enough and too visible. I've begun to think writers can wear themselves thin, and that the public only wants so much. This is true in terms of a web presence or any self-promotion. I was telling a friend the other day that I thought too much exposure could damage a writer. In the past, we didn't know all the details of a writer's life, and in essence we read that writer's work in order to learn more. Now, we might just know too much.
I have become a lot more careful on Twitter and Facebook, for example, in terms of how often I post, or what I post. I take my cue from some writers (who shall remain nameless), whom I feel I "hear from" far too often. If you're a writer, don't tell me about your trip to the vet with your cat. Tell me about a breakthrough writing moment. And don’t tell me five times a day. There's a chance I might not buy your book if I'm already weary of you and your words.
LR: Thank you, Vicki. I cannot imagine wearying of your words.