Promotional consideration

[December 2011]  At every convention I’ve attended, there’s a table full of promotional items. These usually consist of postcards or bookmarks, but sometimes there are fliers or little gadgets intended to entice people into purchasing a product. Usually a book, in my experience. Everyone is clamoring for everyone else’s attention, and if you don’t have the weight of a publisher behind you, it’s a tough row to hoe. If no one has heard of you, what is to entice someone to buy your book?

I’m seeing more and more book trailers these days. However, these suffer from the same basic issue: If I haven’t heard of you before, what will entice me to click on a link and spend 1-3 minutes of my time watching an ad for your book? Sure, it has the benefit of being “free,” except my time isn’t exactly free. There’s a limited amount of it, so I’m judicious about what I spend it on, most of the time.

I started thinking about this topic because I received a familiar letter in the mail last week. A thick envelope from the agency that represents The Road to the Dark Tower, my first book. Every six months, they forward my royalty statements from Penguin. It’s thick because there’s a separate page for each type of sale. Regular sales, international sales, various kinds of eBooks. It’s all rather befuddling and could easily be condensed to a page or two, in my opinion, but the bottom line comes on the front page: Total revenue from sales for this period and the remaining balance on my advance. This time, the balance left was almost exactly the same as my revenue for the last six months. In other words, another period like this one and I’ll earn out. The book is still selling well and consistently, seven years after publication. The revenue for the past several accounting periods has been roughly the same, so I’m confident that I will earn out (± a few dollars) by early 2012.

One thing these statements reminds me of, though, is how much I make from each copy sold. For trade paperbacks, my share is about $1.25 per copy. For eBooks, it’s roughly double that. (Go eBooks!)

Let’s look at that from a different direction. Suppose I decide to give a few copies away to generate publicity. Suppose with my author discount I can get a copy of the $16 trade paperback for $8. (I don’t recall what the exact discount is, but let’s assume 50%.) That means I have to sell seven or eight physical copies or three or four eBooks to pay for every copy I give away. If that donated copy leads to a review then it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that half a dozen people reading the review might be inspired to buy a copy.

Similarly, if I buy a pack of 250 postcards with the cover image on one side and promotional copy on the other. I can get that for about $20. If I distribute them via various means (I often tuck one in with a package if I sell a used book on eBay, for example), I would need to get 8 people to buy an eBook or 16 people to buy a trade paperback to break even. Averaging that out to 12 of either variety, that’s a 5% response rate. Worth it? Hard to say. What’s the ultimate goal: to break even or to turn a profit? Or to gain readers who, through word of mouth might generate more sales? All of the above, naturally.

How much does a book trailer cost? Some of them are done on the cheap and suffer from the same issues as a lot of self-published books: low quality. The three companies offering to make book trailers that I sampled in an unscientific survey charged anywhere from $200 to $2000. I’m sure you can do the math. That means the trailer would have to generate on the order of 100-1000 sales to break even. At the upper end of that range (and I’m sure there are companies willing to charge much more than that), you’re approaching half the typical advance for a traditionally published first novel. Worth it? I’m not convinced. If you have mad graphic arts skills and can put something together for free and doesn’t look like it was made by a 12-year-old, then why not? But I’m not sure I’d shell out any money for one.

The other thing that got me thinking about the expenses of promotion was the publicity campaign behind the A&E miniseries Bag of Bones. The cable channel put a lot of money into getting the word out. There were the obvious: print ads all over the place, billboards, TV spots, a sophisticated web site. They also hired an award-winning photographer to spend a few days on the set before filming to create a series of photo essays that were posted to a companion site called Dark Score Stories in which the lives of the characters leading up to the beginning of the miniseries were profiled—a prequel of sorts. That site got a lot of fans of the King novel excited about the miniseries.

However, the part that the general public doesn’t see intrigued me. The photo essays were turned into a lavish, limited edition hardcover sent to what Klout calls “influencers.” People who might be relied upon to talk about the miniseries and generate word of mouth. (Full disclosure: I received a copy.) Then, A&E sent out screeners of the miniseries to generate advanced reviews. This wasn’t just a couple of DVDs in an envelope, though. The discs came in a wooden box roughly a foot on a side. Inside the lid of the box was a faux turntable that spun when you opened it. Digital music played. It was pretty cool. Underneath was a nice little book with promotional material and the DVDs, plus a disc of assets (PDFs and stills) to accompany reviews. It was an impressive package. Finally, the publicist arranged interviews with various members of the production. I spoke one-on-one with Mick Garris for three quarters of an hour while he was still editing the miniseries and participated in a conference call interview with one of the actors.

Did it work? Certainly there were a lot of published interviews and reviews of the miniseries in the days leading up to its premiere. Alas, the reviews were not all that glowing and in some cases were really harsh. Although the miniseries ultimately fared pretty well in the ratings, one can only wonder how much better it might have done if it hadn’t been roundly panned beforehand. Is it true that any publicity is good publicity? Hard to believe.

What’s my bottom line? As usual, I don’t think I have one. These are just things that I’ve been thinking about for the past few days as I ruminated over what I would write about this month. Food for thought, perhaps. Something to start a discussion, maybe. I don’t think there are any definitive answers about how to promote your work. But I think you should weight the costs and potential returns before sinking a lot of money into a campaign that might never pay for itself.

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