Write Every Day Conference
Oklahoma Writers Federation 2010 Conference
Keynote speech on Online Marketing Campaigns for Books
When Dan Case invited me to give the keynote address at this year’s OWFI conference, he told me the typical OWFI audience wants to hear “how the keynote speaker got here.” I’m tempted to say “American Airlines” and hit the bar.

One of my favorite quotes about the craft of writing is from Frederic Raphael in After the War. “And how is your writing going, Michael?” a character says to the protaganist, an author, who replies, “Still from the top of the page on down, Mrs. Raglan.”

That’s how I got here. I started by putting one word after the other on the page, moving from the top of the page on down. Twenty-five novels, 20 short stories and essays, 50 Alaska Traveler columns and multiple feature articles for Alaska magazine, hundreds of blog posts in, I am here to tell you that, contrary to too many comments I have heard over the years, there is nothing mystical about writing a novel and having it published.

There is no code word, no magic button, no secret handshake. It is sweat equity. It is the butt in the chair and the hands on the keyboard. It is meeting deadlines for delivery, and deadlines for edits, and deadlines for copyedits, and deadlines for passproofs. It is signing 400 tip-ins. It is being unfailingly pleasant to the two retired teachers who show up for your appearance at Vroman’s in Pasadena, and it is staying to sign the last book for the last person in line when 200 people show up at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, no matter how long it takes, and no matter how early your flight is the next morning.

That’s how I got here.

You were already inspired enough to come here, to attend craft panels, to meet agents and editors, to talk shop with your fellow writers. Good for you, good first step, you don’t need a motivational speech.

Instead, how about I talk about something that is becoming more important to aspiring authors and published authors alike with every passing day. You heard them talking about it during the editor’s panel this morning. It is in fact one of the first questions you’ll be asked by a prospective publisher, and it’s one of the first things your agent will recommend.

Once, in a business of writing workshop, one of the attendees asked me how much she could expect from her publisher in the way of promotion. “Nothing,” I said then, and I repeat it again today: “Nothing.”

This isn’t because publishers are inherently evil, or incompetent, or oblivious. The reality of the publishing world today is that they are operating on an archaic business model under increasing attack, one that calls for them to put five million dollars into a nation-wide ad buy for Janet Evanovich, and maybe $2000 into one ad in Alaska magazine for Dana Stabenow. None of this is helped by the hysteria in New York over the advent of the e-book. You’d think a new delivery device hadn’t come along since Gutenberg.

That’s just the way it is. Until something changes, your publisher is always going to spend the bulk of their promotional dollars on their biggest sellers.

Now, you can stamp your little foot all you want and fume over the unfairness of throwing unlimited promotional dollars at writers who obviously don’t need it, but throwing a hissy is unproductive at best, and at worst gives you a reputation in New York City that you don’t want. The publishing industry is made up of a relatively small group of people, and all those people do lunch and attend trade conventions, and they talk to each other.

I am reminded of a story about an editor sitting in a Bouchercon bar next to another editor, and both of them are extolling this wonderful new book fresh out of their respective slush piles. The more they talked, the more similar the book sounded. Turned out it was the same book, whose author had made simultaneous submissions of his novel in spite of both publishers saying clearly and distinctly in Writer’s Market and on their websites that they didn’t accept simultaneous submissions.

That author was not published by either of those editors. I heard this story first hand about ten years ago from one of those editors, and I’m not sure he’s published yet.

So, absent the option of throwing a hissy fit and blackening your name in New York, what you can do instead is take direct, positive action, employing as much time as you can spare from your main job (which is writing a good book, and forget that at your peril) and spending as much money as you can afford in putting together your own promotional campaign.

This isn’t as intimidating as it sounds, and it isn’t as expensive as it sounds. Because today we’ve got the Internet, and if you can type well enough to write a book, you can type well enough to promote it online.

Whisper to the Blood cover artI submitted the final draft of the sixteenth Kate Shugak novel, Whisper to the Blood, in the spring of 2008, at which time my publisher told me that for an author tour they were sending me to do Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust show in Seattle, to launch the book on publication day at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, to sign the book at Title Wave Bookstore in Anchorage, and they were taking out an ad in Alaska magazine. And that was it.

I was grateful. They could have done “Nothing.” That’s happening to a lot of my friends. I could have left it at that, let Whisper to the Blood sink or swim on its own, not look for new readers for the Kate Shugak series. Instead, I decided I was going to pick up the promotional slack, and that I was going to do it online.

I’d done this the hard way, the real world way, once before. In 1998 Fire and Ice, the first Liam Campbell novel, was going to be dropped on the market with no publicity from my publisher whatsoever. I believed in that book, I believed it deserved better, so I spent $6,000 of my own money and countless hours of my own time in an effort to get the word out. I sent cover flats and bookmarks and postcards to every single indie bookstore in the US I could find an address for, and I made a series of personal appearances beginning with Bouchercon in Philadelphia and barnstorming my way back home. I spoke in front of every group and at every bookstore that didn’t get out of the way fast enough. The Milwaukee Barnes & Noble? I was there. The Minneapolis chapter of the Romance Writers of America? I was there. The Madison Rotary Club? I was there. The Seattle chapter of Sisters in Crime? I was there.

The result? Fire and Ice was in a fourth printing before I got home. Subsequently, it got the initial print run of the next three books in the series up to 16,000, which was a lot better than the original 9,000-copy initial print run of the first one.

Ten years later, I didn’t have the time or the money or the energy to do that again. This online campaign for Whisper to the Blood would be different. First of all, I didn’t know what I was doing, so it would be a throw-everything-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks effort. And it had the distinct advantage of most of the work being done at home, on my own computer, attired in my pajamas, a mug of Captain’s Roast Tsunami Blend at my elbow.

I began by posting the first four chapters of Whisper to the Blood to my website, one chapter a month, for the four months preceding publication.

At the same time, I ran a contest to give away one ARC to a fan every month. I announced the posting of the excerpt and the winner of the ARC each month in a newsletter.

I made a book trailer, my first, “the Kate Shugak series (abridged)” and posted it to YouTube. I wanted to do something more than the average book trailer. Also, it had been two years since the last Kate Shugak novel had come out and I figured some remedial Kateology for the fans couldn’t hurt. I wrote the script and hired a local videographer to shoot me speaking the lines sitting at my desk, and then he took it home and edited it. I posted it to YouTube and announced it on my website and in a newsletter.

It seems like every time my personal book club reads a book, there is a Reader’s Guide in the back, so I wrote one for Whisper to the Blood and posted it to my website. I wrote a Teacher’s Guide, too. I get a lot of fan mail from teachers.

I wrote a mini short story set in the Kate Shugak universe between the last book, A Deeper Sleep, and the new one, and posted it to my website. It was a ten-manuscript page character sketch connected by the thinnest of plot lines about four recurring characters in the Kate Shugak novels. It had the unexpected benefit of teaching me more about those characters, which will pay off in subsequent novels in the series.

Pre- and post-publication, I guest blogged on Moments in Crime, 49 Writers, and Jungle Red Writers. My mother taught me that a knitting pattern doesn’t count until you have made the item at least three times. I am the greenest writer you ever met, I reuse and recycle every short piece I write. Six months after I blogged for Moments in Crime, I ran those pieces on stabenow.com. When you’re solicited to write short pieces for whatever publication, online or off, be thinking where else you can post them. At the very least, after a decent cooling off period, post them to your own website.

Post publication, I did an online chat with the Danamaniacs, my fan club. The Danamaniacs wouldn’t exist without my website, http://www.stabenow.com. You have one, right? A website, a place for fans to go? No? Then start a blog on Blogspot, it’s free, and make sure its URL is on the signature of your email, on your bookmarks and business cards, at the end of the author bio on the back flap or page of your book, on your Zazzle products, and everywhere else you can think of. There is no point in designing an online promotional campaign if you don’t have an online presence. And my whole point here this evening is to convince you of the necessity of an online presence.

Other things I do online. I have a Zazzle store, where I designed and fans can buy a “Friends of Mutt” T-shirt. The URL of my website is on the back of the T-shirt. It’s on the cards, too, and the mugs, and the bags. I make a little money whenever one of these products sells, and that money pays for prizes I give away to Danamaniacs.

I review books on Amazon, although lately more often on Goodreads.

I have created two Love it! Lists on Vibrant Nation, “10 Hot Books for Cold Nights” and “10 Books That Make Me Want to Quit Writing,” and when Vibrant Nation wants to link to anything I put up on my website I say “Sure!”

I have RSS’d the website feed of stabenow.com to my Amazon page, to my Facebook page, to my Goodreads page, my LinkedIn page, my Alaska Sisters in Crime page, my Ravelry page. You can upload videos to these sites too, so I have dutifully uploaded “the Kate Shugak series (abridged)” to all of them as well. Every now and then I repost the video to my Facebook page, because I always have new Facebook friends who haven’t seen it.

From my website there are links to all of the above, as well as to my entry on Wikipedia, to my photo album on Flickr, and to my Zazzle store.

Now. Contrast all of the above with the two live and in person events I did for Whisper to the Blood, one at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, where we launched the book, and one in Anchorage at Title Wave Bookstore, where I signed for the hometown team. That’s it.

So. Did the online campaign work?

You tell me. The week following publication, Whisper to the Blood hit the New York Times extended best-seller list.

You know the first thing I did? I sent a newsletter to the fans, thanking them for their support. Your first tribute always is to the people who got you there.

Okay. That was last year, the everything-that-stuck campaign. I learned a lot. I looked at the numbers on Google Analytics, which counts the hits and page opens on stabenow.com, and on my webmaster’s site, which tracks the numbers for my newsletter, in particular which links are clicked and how many times. I paid attention, and I learned what worked.

a-night-too-darkSo this year, for A Night Too Dark, the seventeenth Kate Shugak novel, I posted four excerpts, although I don’t think I’ll do that again. According to the stats, enough people aren’t clicking through to read them. It just doesn’t justify the time it takes me to put them up and make them easy for you to read. Next year, maybe one excerpt, or maybe another short short between-the-books story, but not both.

I gave away four ARCs to fans. I will continue to do that so long as I can successfully chisel ARCs out of my publisher. ARCs are expensive, they are even more expensive to produce than finish copies, but everyone likes prizes. And the Danamaniacs have made it clear that they love to be able to lord it over their fellows by getting to read the book before everyone else.

I wrote a Reader’s Guide for A Night Too Dark. I didn’t write a Teacher’s Guide. The feedback from Whisper to the Blood justified one, but not both.

I let “the Kate Shugak series (abridged)” video run as is for another year. Maybe I’ll update it next year, or maybe I’ll film another, title-specific trailer. Maybe I won’t. Last time I looked, it had about 5,500 views, which I’m told is pretty good for a book trailer, and the comments have been very positive. It will stay up there promoting the whole Kate Shugak series into cyber-eternity, but while making it was fun, it was also expensive and time-consuming. I like a return on my efforts, and I’m not convinced that book trailers translate into books sold.

I sent out five newsletters to the Known Readers Club, one on the first of each of the four months leading to publication day, and one on publication day. Each newsletter had active buy links to the actual A Night Too Dark book pages on the websites of each individual bookstore I was signing at, and on Amazon.com.

So. Four excerpts, five newsletters, four ARC giveaways, and one Reader’s Guide, all generated from my home office, written by me, in my pyjamas. And you know what happened? A Night Too Dark hit the New York Times extended best-seller list. A quarter of the effort of the first online campaign, with the same result.

Remember this if you remember nothing else from my speech tonight. It turns out that an active buy link in a newsletter targeted at people who really want to get it is the most effective means of selling your book.

This only makes sense. People have busy lives. Fans want to be reminded when my book comes on sale, and they’re grateful for any shortcuts I can give them to getting their copy.

So my advice to you? Start an e-newsletter, and start collecting email addresses for it now. The Known Readers Club subscriber list for http://www.stabenow.com has 5,559 subscribers, a list that has been painstakingly assembled over a period of fifteen years, which is just about how long I’ve had a website.

I learned a new word today, in the editor’s panel. “Platforming.” First time I knew all this random effort I’ve been directing at online promotion had even been dignified by its own name.

I tweeted about it. And my Twitter feed is subscribed to my Facebook status.[Update on 8/27/12: Facebook no longer allows you to import Twitter or blog feeds, but you can still manually import tweets and posts.]

I repeat. There is nothing mystical about writing a novel and having it published.

There is no code word, no magic button, no secret handshake. It is sweat equity. It is the butt in the chair and the hands on the keyboard. It is meeting deadlines for delivery, and deadlines for edits, and deadlines for copyedits, and deadlines for passproofs. It is, first of all, and don’t you forget it it, writing a good book. And then it is networking on line, on your website, on Twitter, on Facebook. It’s also trying to keep up with the next new online thing. I just learned a new word today. I’ll try to learn another one tomorrow.

And that’s how I got here.

Thank you.

Chatter Random Friday Writing

Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

16 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Kind of a non sequitur, but…I had a feeling you were a knitter. There must have been a reference I can’t remember now from one of the Kate books.

    And you’re on Rav! Awesome =)

  2. Totally enjoyed your talk and buzz session at OWFI! It’s such a pleasure to meet a successful writer who takes time to truly help out the rest if us, thanks.

  3. Ah, God, I get tired just reading this. You worked your @$$ off on marketing! The only way I can see doing this is if I figure out how to narrow my activities to be more effective, more focused. Thanks for the incredibly meaty post.

  4. Thank you so much for this excellent post. I feel a lot better about my efforts in promoting my debut novel. I’m a long way from becoming a NY Times bestseller, but as you pointed out, with some good ol’ fashion sweat equity I can get there.

    I’m hoping if this novel is successful my work will become easier, and people will search for me instead of me searching for them. 🙂


  5. Well…I learned more than you could imagine…and I’m off to get one of your books. Thank you. All the best. You are amazing to me.

  6. Dana,

    I told you this at OWFI and I’ll say it again… Best keynote speech I’ve ever listened to. You kept my attention the entire time. I appreciate your honest comments and hope to cross paths with you in the future.

    Take care,

    Tricia Sanders

  7. Oh good advice. I’m going to bookmark this and save it. I’m just starting out and haven’t published yet, but I have a blog. A newsletter sounds like a good idea.

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