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Friday, July 1, 2011

Looking for Hot Tipping Point Tips: Musings on Authors, Illustrators and Book Promotion

By Carol Baicker-McKee

A friend recently mentioned Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

And because I'm already thinking about what I'll do to promote my next book as I work on illustrating it, the mention got me thinking about identifying the tipping points in selling children's books.

Even after writing and/or illustrating eight traditionally published books, and even after reading a bazillion books and articles about "how to promote your book" (and trying at least a zillion of the suggestions), I still don't have a clue what is the most effective use of my time, energy and money. If anything, as the social media environment evolves at the speed of twitter, I feel like I have less of an idea than ever. I suspect I'm not alone.  

Make no mistake: book promotion is very, very expensive. Not only in terms of cash, which can add up alarmingly if you're traveling to events you're doing for free, paying annual fees for a website, printing promotional materials, or doling out giveaways. But promotion is especially costly in terms of time and energy - and when you're using your time and energy resources to promote your book, you're not using them to create new ones. And that matters because having a new book ready to go may be one of the most effective things you do to build your overall career and sales.

Here, in no particular order, are some issues that drive me crazy:

Lack of an effective, timely, comprehensive feedback loop.
In the past, when I've invested money and effort into some type of promotion, whether printing and mailing postcard announcements, speaking to a literacy group, or doing a local radio interview, it's been hard to tell if it had an impact. For example, if I relied on my royalty statements, I had no idea what mattered - the statements come so long after sales occur and are affected by so many variables (like withholding against possible future returns and "special sales") that it can be tricky to tell how many copies have sold, let alone exactly when or where or why they sold.

There is a glimmer of change though! Well, maybe even better than a glimmer. In December, 2010, Amazon added a cool feature to Author Central that lets you see BookScan sales data for your books if you have an author account. It isn't perfect - it doesn't include all sales outlets including some important ones like Walmart, libraries and presales, and so far I have been unable to get data for books I illustrated but didn't author - but it does at least let you see how many books you've sold recently through a bunch of outlets and even where they've sold and the history of your Amazon rankings. You can read about it here.

This feature can't of course enable you to figure out the impact of ongoing, slow-building efforts, like setting up and maintaining a blog - but it's way, way better than nothing.

Disincentives for self promotion in how authors are compensated.
Many if not most children's books for major publishers never earn back their advances. (I tried to find actual figures for this statement which I hear all the time, but to no avail. If anyone knows, chime in please!) This is particularly true for illustrators who typically get larger advances but the same 5% royalty as authors (so they have to sell many more copies before they start getting royalty checks). Thus whatever money (or time or energy) a creator invests in promotion may help the publisher recoup costs or make a profit, but there's a good chance the author or illustrator will never reap personal financial benefits from her efforts, except maybe having an easier time selling future manuscripts (not that that is insignificant).  Knowing that makes hard, for example, to agree to spend your whole Saturday afternoon at a library event where you might sell ten copies, amassing, at 5% of the $15 cover price for each copy, a grand total of $7.50 for your efforts (and not even getting that in your pocket to defray the cost of gas to get there because it goes toward earning back your advance). I'm not sure what the solution is to this problem, but it would seem that there must be some way to increase the financial incentives for authors to promote their books.

One other policy that has always puzzled me is that typically copies the author buys at his author discount don't "count" as sales. Not even when the author discount is the same as what booksellers get! It seems wise to encourage authors to sell copies of their own books, and having their purchases count would go a long way in that direction. The only argument I've heard against changing this policy is that publishers can sometimes get better deals with booksellers if they have a "no-compete" agreement with their authors.

Disconnects Between Promotion and Product Availability
I cannot tell you how many times this has been an issue for me - and every time I think I've figured out how to circumvent a particular problem, I discover it's beyond my influence or a new issue crops up. For example, the buying formulas used by some of the largest brick and mortar booksellers may prevent them from stocking additional copies of your book, even if you forewarn them of an upcoming demand in the wake of a planned newspaper article or school visit or something (in-store signings are usually the one exception). I've had managers at some of these stores characterize the buyers or policies as "stupid" - but their hands are tied. So the stores lose sales to online sellers, and I probably lose some sales altogether.

I've also encountered incomprehensible problems with distribution: for example, a holiday book so sparsely stocked (by the distributor?) that when it sold out at every major online seller shortly after release, there was no way to get new copies in stock for quite some time and several sites had even listed it as not available until after the holiday (despite phone calls and emails to everyone I could think of). And once I had school officials try to preorder copies from the publisher before a school visit only to be told (mistakenly) that the book had sold out and was awaiting reprinting. By the time I learned of the problem, it was too late to get copies without having to add expensive rush shipping charges. So I sold the copies I had on hand and returned to sign more copies later -- but I missed out on lots of potential sales and hurt the feelings of kids who couldn't get copies on the day I was there. And I know lots of other authors who've had similar experiences. Again, I don't know how to solve these problems, but I'd sure appreciate any tips anyone has to offer.
Determining Who to Target - and How to Reach Them 
Let's say you have a new picture book coming out. Should you concentrate on promoting your book to parents? Librarians? Three year olds? All of the above? You need different approaches for different audiences which multiplies the time and effort you spend. Since authors generally don't know who most influences purchasing decisions, and how those buyers go about making decisions, it's hard for them to figure out who best to target and how. I don't know to what extent publishers already know this information and just need to share it with us or to what extent it's a question in need of research, but I'd love to find out.

Connecting with Some Readers Can Make Others Disconnect
Being a real person to your readers can entice some to pick up your books or help them enjoy them in a deeper way. But whatever personal details you reveal to make that connection may also alienate other existing or potential readers - because no matter how benign or inoffensive you consider some trait or group membership or experience you've had, it will offend someone.

Even if you don't offend anyone, knowing details about the author can change how readers view her work. For example, a huge proportion of children's book writers are middle-aged white women (if you doubt this, try attending any kids'  book conference); I know several writers who have gone to considerable lengths to disguise their identities because they fear that kids will be turned off if they learn that their favorite book was written by someone old or white or female. But so many of the social media platforms that publishers urge authors to use make it impossible to remain a shadowy background figure. And that can be a shame. Because sometimes the book should just be about the story and characters, and not about the person who created them.

Don't get me wrong. I always work hard to promote my books; I've put a lot into them and so have lots of other people. Our efforts would be wasted if we don't get the books in the hands of readers. And many of the promotional efforts I've undertaken, I'd do again even if they didn't help my sales because I feel like I'm giving back or paying it forward in some way through them. I genuinely enjoy meeting readers and making friends and just generally being a contributing member of the book community. But I'd like to channel my resources where they'll do the most good toward those ends so I'm also free to keep creating new books.

So what has worked for you? Are there other issues that frustrate you? Do you have ideas for improving interactions between writers and readers?

And if you're someone who buys kids' books, what's the tipping point for you in deciding what to get?


  1. Carol, I feel like throwing up my hands. So far, my published books are nonfiction, which, because it isn't a toy and doesn't have vampires, can't be found in a bookstore. Sigh. But I do think nonfiction is particularly prone to the tipping point idea, because many people searching for a NF book on Amazon aren't looking for a particular title, but rather a subject, and if you're on the first search page, it can make a difference.

    I think for writers of books for elementary school aged kids, school visits are one of the best options, if you can get them (there are definitely fewer than before). And of course, it's harder to get one if you're not well known. But I haven't ever really given it an organized push - getting a database of librarians and PTAs, contacting them, following up, pricing the visit competitively, and so forth. Since I work full-time, it's not a great option for me personally, but I do think it can be a good way to go for some people.

  2. Carol, I too feel very overwhelmed when it comes to book promotion. The best I can offer is make sure you do a local book-signing and impress the heck out of the people in that bookstore so that they can hand sell the book. This has worked particularly well for me with "The Bicklebys' Birdbath". I often wonder when I am travelling if I should pop in to other bookstores with my book in hand and do a spiel for them so they'd make an effort to recommend it? But mentioned that plan to a fellow author who said the turnover of staffers in bookstores is so great that it might not be worth it! Help!

    Andrea Perry, aka The Metermaid