Of all the many challenges I've encountered in the book biz, promotion has been the biggest and most troublesome. In the beginning, it seemed like everything was breath-takingly expensive. Even a tiny ad in a conference program cost a hundred bucks or more--and this for a potential audience of 50-250 people. From the perspective of my bean-counter business background, the "ROI" factor seemed laughable.
In 1998, after being in the business only 6 months, I took a half-booth at Book Expo America. OTP had three titles in print and a fourth in progress. It cost almost $4,000--and I didn't sell one single book. I tried to console myself with the big pile of business cards I collected, and followed up, mailing to bookstores, reviewers, librarians. Nothing.
A few years later, I took an ad on the back of a magazine. It was a narrowly-focused publication, but I had a couple of books that fit right in. The ad cost $500 plus the fee to the graphics designer. Was there a bump in sales? Nope.
Along the way, I did lots of promoting to newspapers, talk radio, TV and so on, some pricey, some not so much, but all ineffective. So, I decided to made a deal with a promo company who promised great results with talk radio. For $1,000 this outfit would do a blitz for three titles. Add to this the cost of the books that had to be sent (usually overnight Fed Ex) to the interested parties, and there is easily another $3-400 involved. We got a 3-4 actual appearances among ALL THREE authors and...you got it--zippo for sales bump.
Interesting, I thought, that all these promo outfits insist on pre-payment. And none of them will work on a percentage of sales resulting from their efforts. I get a lot of soliciations from book promotion outfits. Sometimes I write back and offer a deal that involves them getting paid on the back end. They never write back. Kinda tells you something, huh?
When I lived in Los Angeles, I exhibited at the LA Book Fair a few times, and of all my experiences with exhibiting, these have been the ones that were most successful. And there were some expos in Phoenix that were pretty good.
In 2007, I took a booth at Chicago's famous Printers Row book festival. It was a share with a women in publishing group I belong to, and not too costly even with a 300 mile trip to Chicago. I didn't sell one single book, but I did have a great time, including chasing down the C-SPAN book-mobile people and planting a bunch of literature on them.
I've had my frustations with bookstores also. Over the 10-plus years of OTP's life, I've called on countless stores, trying to interest them in this title or that, usually to little avail. I think there are lots of reasons for this--too many to discuss them all here. One big issue is the difference between wholesale and retail "modes." The big chains and many indies select stock at the wholesale level, maybe from a distributor, maybe from the Ingram catalogs, or PW. The buyer can make "global" type decisions, balancing mix of genre, local tastes and so on, kind of a cerebral process. So when some total stranger shows up in person, unannounced, holding up a book or two, the shop-person is on the spot. It's uncomfortable. I think a lot of the time, they just avoid making a decision. More and more, I try to leave literature, and stress that the books are with Ingram, BT, etc.
There is also the factor that the big publishing houses "buy" space in the shops, either through co-op ads or outright payments. They do this to garner the "end caps" or the front of store displays, and the swap is that the store agrees to take on cases and cases of books. Very often, many of these books are returned after a few weeks. The big houses and the shops give a title about 6-8 weeks to connect, then they return most, if not all, that stock.
As a small, indie publisher, OTP just cannot afford to do business that way. Returns are a horrible problem, and can sink you fast. I've come to the point that I just don't push stock off on stores because I just don't want to suffer the returns. I can understand the shop's reluctance to host signings also. More and more, signings, even with big name authors, are poorly attended. It's really not worth the hoop-jumping they must do to host the event.
While I try to keep the shop's challenges in mind, it's true that some of them do push the envelope. A while back, a shop in Tempe AZ charged me to host an author! Their rationale was that I was paying for set-up and clean-up afterwards. And here's the kicker: they returned the unsold books immediately! They didn't even hang on to them a few days to see if a customer who missed the signing might come in! Tacky!
Obviously, the trick is figuring out what works. It's easy to rant on, like I've done here, wallowing in all the things that didn't work...much harder to figure out what does. This is the reason why I started this blog and the COLOPHON, OTP's inhouse newsletter. I thought that with these two venues, we would have a public forum and a more private one for these topics, providing a opportunity to share ideas, problems, and optimistically perhaps, find ways to help each other toward a common goal...successful books.