Savvy Authors Speak To Potential Book Buyers In-Person and Online
BY JIM BARNES
The Internet has changed our lives in many ways, not the least of which is the way we buy and learn about books. But has it really changed that much? Isn’t the Internet just another version of the stone circle around which storytellers and listeners sat? Isn’t a Web page just a sophisticated version of the leaflets dispersed by the first publishers of the printed word? In this article we examine how authors are using both the most natural and long-standing means of self-promotion: the human voice — and the most up-to-date, Web-based technologies like streaming video and audio downloads — to get their message to potential readers.
When Jason Epstein talks about publishing, people listen. In the National Book Award and Curtis Benjamin Award winner’s July 5th New York Review of Books article, he continues his dialogue on the Future of Publishing:
“The convergence of the Internet with the instantaneous transmission and retrieval of digital text is an epochal event, comparable to the impact of movable type on European civilization half a millennium ago, but with worldwide implications,” says Epstein. “In the digital future groups of writers, editors, publicists, and Web site managers anywhere in the world will combine to form their own Web-based publishing companies and sell their books directly to readers.”
Author Warren Adler is a living example of Epstein’s model, and arguably the only author in the world who has taken his extensive backlist (24 books) and converted them to every conceivable technology platform. For visionaries like Adler the future is now, as he and others like him take control of their books, their marketing efforts, and their identities. Adler has taken full advantage of digital technology to reissue his out-of-print titles-he wrote The War of the Roses, the popular 1981 novel that became a hit film–in both print and electronic formats.
Adler may be somewhat ahead of his time, but he’s making all the right moves with the technology at hand, and Jason Epstein’s ideas reinforce this notion. More Epstein: “Even in today’s rudimentary digital marketplace some authors have linked their Web sites to sites of related interest, hoping to create their own expanding communities of loyal readers with each new book they write. Minor technological modifications will soon enable writers to sell their books to readers throughout the world directly from these Web networks, bypassing publishers who may have rejected their work, while established writers may choose to forego the security of a publisher’s royalty guarantee in exchange for keeping the entire revenue from the sale of their books.”
Adler is doing just that. www.WarrenAdler.com is linked heavily throughout the Web and is a content-rich, efficient website that includes features like author chats, a book club, and a monthly newsletter.
For all his technological savvy and futuristic thinking, the veteran author also realizes that making books available is not enough, and that good old-fashioned marketing and promotion are still the keys to selling books.
“In today’s frenetic world, reaching an audience of readers requires lots of energy, and meeting potential readers face to face is still one of the best ways to acquire them and attract them to your books,” he says. So Adler is out there, speaking to the faithful at fairs, conferences, and bookstores. “I am I have spoken at hundreds of events in the past 25 years, at clubs, bookstores, book festivals, colleges, and now I’m speaking at conferences that deal with new technologies.” For example, he’ll be addressing the Frankfurt “Big Questions” Conference that precedes the Frankfurt Book Fair this October.
“This effort requires vast proselytizing since all my books are totally back in action worldwide. Not all venues are alike and talks must be tailored to various audiences. To women’s groups, I talk about the numerous female characters through whose voice I have told their stories; to men’s groups I would focus on male characters; to writing groups I talk about the creative process and the art and craft of writing works of the imagination; to “techies” I talk about what I have gone through digitizing my books in all formats; to bookstores I try a more hard sell since the audience has the ability for immediate purchase.” “Of course, for the unknown author this is a difficult chore. For a semi-celebrity like myself I sometimes stretch the subject to movie adaptation, as my books The War of the Roses and Random Hearts were both made into high profile movies. My thrust these days is branding my name, keeping it in front of the public as if it were a soft drink or a bar of soap. This is the reality of long term success, of combining my technology-driven backlist with my publisher-driven push through advertising and P.R. in the traditional media. I am handicapped by the fact that I never wrote the same book twice, and I can’t quite be pigeonholed, which means extra work on my part.” “As a book lover, collector and reader, I feel that despite the technological revolution, the content, or the story, is everything. No matter which method of delivery, whether telling a story around a campfire or over the Internet, the teller of compelling tales will find an audience. But I also understand completely the realities of this business: without marketing, however, brilliant and insightful your novels are, they will die a cruel death on the shelves.”
Adler’s new novel Mourning Glory is “a provocative heart stopping bittersweet tale of desperation and desire in the vein of The War of the Roses and Random Hearts. Brilliant and bittersweet, daring, erotic and darkly humorous, Mourning Glory pulls readers into one woman’s tangled web. Here is another blockbusting and timely novel about the cost of getting what you want — when what you really want is priceless.” It will be released this month by Kensington Books, a mid-sized independent publisher in New York.
So, Adler’s marketing program is both author-motivated in the new technologies and publisher-motivated in the traditional way. “It’s a hybrid. I cannot tell you when this backlist project of mine will be profitable, but I can say that a revenue stream has already begun. I know I am a pioneer, but I do believe that what I am doing is the wave of the future and that other authors will eventually follow in my wake.”
“My objective is clear. I am attempting to brand my authorial name so that it will be instantly recognizable in the years to come and to disseminate my books throughout the world, keeping them viable and in print for the foreseeable future. My books are the work of a lifetime and will continue to be written as long as I am able to create them. I believe in them and I believe in their future. Some may enjoy them. Some may not. But at the very least they will be out there and accessible which is about the only thing an author can do. How fast will the technology develop a tipping point and become the reading formula of choice is hard to say but I believe it is coming a lot faster than we think.”
“The secret is to create awareness about your authorial name and keep both the booksellers and the potential customers informed and support their efforts. You can’t get wet unless you’re out in the rain,” says Adler. He is one author not afraid of a little shower…In fact, he’s prepared for a deluge. We spoke with another forward-thinking author and publisher, Jason Ohler, Ph.D, who is a pioneer in the field of Information Age living and learning. While at the University of Toronto he listened to Marshall McLuhan unravel the mysteries of the Electronic Age, and he is widely respected for his articles and books on virtual communities and living in the Digital age. His book, Taming the Beast: Choice and Control in the Electronic Jungle won an Ippy Award from this magazine in 1999 for its exploration of the impact of technology on education.
Ohler is currently Professor of Education Technology at the University of Alaska Southeast, and he is about to release a new book entitled Then What? A Funquiry Into the Nature of Technology, Human Transformation, and Marshall McLuhan. In Then What he explores questions like: Do we control our technologies or do they control us? What are our social and cultural responsibilities as both learners and educators in our increasingly global community? Ohler helps us realize that the future will not be about technology but about the relationships and learning communities it cultivates.
IP: Your book deals with new technology, but also with the importance of human relationships. Is it important to you to get out as a public speaker and meet your audience face-to-face?
JO: There is no question that making public appearances has the potential to help your project, whether you are a writer promoting a book or an organization leader promoting a cause. The new model for selling your work or ideas is very much similar to that of the music artist, whose total package consists of creating the music (CD), making presentations (giving concerts), and using the web to promote both of these, while delivering the extra kind of information listeners like to know– stories about their songs, themselves; concert dates; related items for sale (from t-shirts to mouse pads), and so on. This is no different for selling a book, attending a school, or belonging to a cause. People like to belong to the experience; they want “community.”
IP: Some authors are very shy and prefer to “let their pens do the talking.” Any advice for the reluctant author/public speaker?
JO: I would counsel a writer the same way I would a guitar player or singer to get going: find someone you like and try to write or sound like them. Then branch off and find your own voice. So, if you want to speak but are reluctant i would listen to a lot of speakers and find those whose style you resonate with. Study them; emulate them; then develop your own voice.
IP: How is the Internet changing book marketing and promotion? What are some of the opportunities and pitfalls?
JO: Just do the math. A publisher will give 10% of the cover price; deduct your costs in producing your own book and you get about 70% of the cover price. So, you have to sell far fewer. What you don’t have, that a publishing house does, is the ability to get the word out. So, publishing your own book AND public speaking (in which you promote the book) has tremendous potential.
I came up a number of learning curves simultaneously in terms of how to advertise, sell, publish, edit, promote my book. In the process I learned about how to compensate for the fact that I was not a large publisher. I got my own Library of Congress number, ISBN; started a publishing company; built the web page that would “add value” to the book; created a customized order form; contracted with Bank of America to handle the credit card purchases…and on and on. However, once you’re up the learning curve on a lot if it, it’s much easier to do, and everything is in place. There will always be new things to explore and old things to improve, but once you are up and running you can see in hindsight how it all fits together and makes sense. If I were to do it all over again I could do it in 25% of the time.