Burnt and Spent

Reed Coleman writes in the October issue of Crimespree that he’s "burnt, seriously burnt, toasty, toasted, fried, and spent" from the grind of book promotion. He was in the midst of the BEA in New York when he finally had enough:

It was also the accumulation of the petty indignities: the tour dates when no one came, my name misspelled on book covers, press releases, and promotional posters. It was the blank stares from people who’d ask me if they’d ever heard of me […]It was all the dumb questions about when I’d be on Oprah, the dreadful panels, bad moderators, all the same old jokes. […]It was the thousands of dollars spent on rented cars, motels, bad meals, cab fare, air fare, and poured into the abyss of PR.

It’s a very honest article, one I am sure that a lot of authors can relate to. I certainly can. When I first started out, I scheduled as many signing as I could get up-and-down the West Coast and in key bookstores nationwide. I attended Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime every year and accepted just about every invitation to speak that came along. That has changed, not because I have become a bestselling author (I haven’t, not by a long shot), or because I have been traveling a lot for work lately, but because it’s not a productive use of my time or money.

I have books coming out so often, that it hardly makes sense to do more than two or three local signings for each of them – and even then, I don’t think it has any real impact on sales. Most of my novels now are tie-ins, and as much as I like to believe I have a following, I am realistic enough to know that the sales are driven by the success and promotion of the beloved TV shows they are based on. It’s the actor’s face on the cover, not my name, that is selling most of the books. But even for THE MAN WITH THE IRON-ON BADGE, I didn’t set up a big book-signing schedule or attend a lot of conventions.

There are some authors I know who are at every single convention, year after year. I don’t know how they do it…or how they avoid the boredom of hearing the same advice and anecdotes over and over again (from themselves and from others). When I go to conventions now, the only panels I attend are the ones I am on…or that feature first-time authors. That’s because I know the majority of the authors at these events and I have heard them speak dozens and dozens of times at conventions, signings, seminars, etc. As clever, funny, and intelligent as they are, I have heard it all before. Some writers have become more known for their promotional efforts and panel appearances than the books they write. (It must be equally boring for the attendees. If they get bored and overly familiar with you at conventions, does that translate into boredom and over-familiarity with you as a writer? My guess is that it does).

I end up spending most of my time at conventions these days in the dealers room, at the bar, or the hallways talking to readers, booksellers, and authors. That’s fun but is it the best way to be spending my time? Probably not. With the exception of Bouchercon, where I get a chance to see my agent and editors, I can’t really justify the time and expense from a business point of view.

So I’ve skipped a lot of conventions and I have been turning down far more invitations to attend events than I have been accepting. This way, when I do show up some place, I think it’s more fun, productive, interesting and fresh for both me and the readers who are there. I can’t wait for Left Coast Crime in Hawaii in 2009. Would I be as eager to go if I’d also attended Left Coast Crime in Bristol, Seattle, and Denver, Bouchercon in Alaska and Thrillerfest in NY? I don’t think so. Reed says:

I had let myself get farther and farther away from being a writer. It had happened by the inch, in tiny, almost imperceptible, increments. Whether I’d done it gladly with eyes wide open or had it foisted upon me was beside the point. I was no longer where I wanted to be, not even close.

He’s back at the keyboard, focusing more of his energy on the writing and less on the selling. I am, too.

13 thoughts on “Burnt and Spent”

  1. Book signings are the most inefficient way of marketing imaginable. They involve a huge expenditure of time and money and resources for almost no return. A few authors can achieve something from them if they are born hucksters but most of us lack those skills. I’ve come to realize that word of mouth is more efficient, and that involves sending out a lot of free books to start things going.

  2. Excellent points, from both you and Reed.
    The problem with promotion is that authors do what they’re told to do, or what they think they should be doing, and it simply isn’t cost or time effective.
    Tours lose money. Conferences cater to the same 1000 people, year after year. PR doesn’t mean much if you aren’t a marquee name to begin with.
    But the problem isn’t spending time or money on promotion. The problem is that authors and publishers keep doing the same things, even though they don’t work.
    How many times would you go to a doctor if he was rude, expensive, and brutal in his examination of you? Once. But authors keep setting up signings, going to conventions, spending fortunes on advertising and mass mailings, even though they get burned over and over and over.
    The trick is to look at the situation with fresh eyes and figure out what works, and why.

  3. Lee, you make excellent points. Part of the problem is that not enough writers think like the businesses they are. No successful business will invest a great deal of time on something that does not yield ROI. Many writers are too caught up in the creative process to consider the business side of writing. That’s not to say it’s all about the money, but if someone really wants to write for a career, they need to eat, too.
    A fellow author just recently said to me, “You have to spend money to make it in this field.” I’m not so sure. I’d rather just focus on writing funny mysteries and let the readers be the judge…
    Felicia Donovan

  4. I just wrote an article that came out in MWA’s Third Degree that looks at this entire debate (if you want to call it a debate). In other words, yes, you probably need to promote, but if you’re going to treat writing fiction like a business–and everybody seems to be arguing that you do–then you do need to consider ROI and in fiction that can be a pretty problematic thing. Because you can certainly argue that if you don’t promote, promote, promote you won’t get anywhere…
    But a lot of authors can argue from the same experiences that all the time, money and energy spent on promotion is sometimes wasted.
    And if you really are acting as a business, then sometimes things have to give… or maybe it’s just an expensive hobby.

  5. Joe,
    I’m curious — do you think that your marathon book-tour schedule (was it 500 stores? More?) was ultimately worth the time and expense? Did you see a uptick in sales as a result? I followed the journey on your blog and I got exhausted just reading about it!

  6. >>>do you think that your marathon book-tour schedule (was it 500 stores? More?) was ultimately worth the time and expense?<<< Unfortunately, I think it was. It's unfortunate because it was time consuming, expensive, and exhausting, though my publisher did pay for the whole thing. My latest hardcover has had a second printing, and I can attribute a lot of the handselling that bookstores have been doing to the fact that I met many of them last year. Over 1400 of them, in fact, and I thank each of them by name in the acks of the new book. I also received my first royalty check, having earned out my advance on my first three-book deal. I don't think that would be the case if I hadn't visited all of those bookstores. Was it amazingly effective? No. Was it worth my time? Yes. Would I do it again? I hope not. I sure don't want to. Would I recommend it? To a degree. All authors have the opportunity to meet booksellers around their homes and when travelling. Stopping in, introducing yourself, and signing stock is one of the most effective things we can do. And by effective, I mean it's worthwhile about 20% of the time. I visited 618 bookstores. That means there are over 100 that are actively handselling and reordering my books. If each of those stores handsells an extra three books a week, I'm selling thousands more a year than I normally would have. But there's nothing that an author can do to drive sales compared to what a publisher can do. That doesn't mean we should sit on our butts and avoid self-promoting. It means we should have realistic expectations, learn from our failures and successes, and continue to discover new ways to get our names out there.

  7. Two of the most effective book marketing people I know of are Kathleen and Michael Gear, who write a pre-history series as well as some sci-fi and other popular fiction. They spend a large part of their life on the road, mostly paid by their publisher. They argue that books are sold one at a time, and meeting people is a way of doing that.
    At book “readings” they don’t read from their books; they draw on their talents as archaeologists to paint an anstonishing picture of pre-Columbian North America, filled with large native cities and other wonders. Afterward, people flock to the book tables and buy their books. The Gears have evolved a means of selling their work, but it is exhausting, and you’ve got to like life lived in hotels and airplanes. The result for them is bestsellerdom. They are so gifted and kind that they even sell my books for me as I stand and watch them.

  8. Boy, does this hit home.
    I am with Reed on this one. Sure, it’s smart to treat your writing as a business. But we’ve all been guzzling this “author branding” Kool-Aid, picking up the promotion slack for publishers, and driving ourselves into the ground, desperate to be heard above the din.
    Well, the din is mostly crap. I’ve read five books this month by highly regarded, talented crime authors that left me thinking, “What happened? S/he used to put out great stuff.” What I suspect happened is they’re exhausted by the demands of self-promotion and the publisher-mandated book-a-year schedule.
    Here’s a revolutionary idea: Slow down. Don’t write crap. Maybe the thing to do is to write a really good book. Then push yourself to write a better one, then maybe a great one. A book that isn’t derivative, slick, sloppy, a recyle of what you’ve already done, or another sad clone of the tens of thousands that are already out there.
    I know I sound tired and crabby. Maybe even delusional. But Reed is smart to retrench and rethink. My sister and I spend a small fortune this year in time and money promoting our book. Now, as the deadline nears to turn in our next one, I wish I had even half of that energy expenditure back so I could put it where it belongs.
    Readers expect good books from us. Maybe we need to expect more from ourselves in that area.

  9. I think Richard is too quick to write off book signings. I know for a fact I would have never read one of Lee’s books if it wasn’t for book signings. How do I know? I’m also a fan of M,SW and have two of those books I’ve had for years and never read. I’ve bought lots of other tie ins I’ve never read. So what made me read the first D:M? The fact that Lee did a signing and would do another when the second was out. Heck, I might not have even bought it without that. And, as a result, I bought MwIoB and the Monk novels, too.
    I read lots of Souther CA authors. Why? Because the advertising for signings brings them to my attention, and I make reading them a priority so when I see them again, I know if I want to buy more.
    Close behind the Southern CA authors on my list are authors who regularly tour the area.
    So, are book signings the most effective means of promotion? Possibly not. But are they somewhat effective? Absolutely.

  10. My wife was curious if my Crime Spree piece was going to cause a stir. I said that I just felt compelled to write it and didn’t mean to get a rise out of anyone. I certainly didn’t want it to come off as a screed against promotion. I’m all for promotion. I think Joe Konrath and Lee are great at it, but it does come at a cost. I simply wanted to share at what cost it came to me. I appreciate Lee putting up excerpts and if this begins a conversation in the community, great.

  11. Mr. Carstairs, my argument was that book signings are inefficient. I didn’t discuss the question of their effectiveness.


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