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To Swag or Not to Swag?

SWAG=Stuff we all get or insert flashier word for “stuff”

AKA: Bookmarks, chotchkies, knick-knacks, giveaways:

sword_dancer_swag

As we head into the heart of conference seasons, this is an important question. There’s some debate about this, so let’s cut to the chase. All opinions are solely mine:

Q: Does SWAG sell books?

RT Booklovers Convention Recap

Romance readers, industry representatives, and authors of all ages and subgenres recently gathered in Kansas City for the 30th annual Romantic Times Booklovers Convention. As a first time attendee, I went in with a mind (and eyes) wide open. The Ruby Sisters who attended agree that meeting readers (and visiting with each other) was the best part of the convention, but if you’re looking for more details and opinions, you’ll find them below. (Beware: This is a long post, but we wanted to give you a good feel for the adventure that is RT.)

 

PROMOTIONAL OPPORTUNITIES & SWAG

 

Authors and readers alike are there for a common purpose – to celebrate books. In particular, romance books. So it’s the perfect environment for promoting yourself as an author, or, as a reader, meeting your favorite author and picking up some goodies. As Addison Fox points out, “RT is wonderful because it’s a group of people who love books. Everyone there celebrates the written word and it’s just such a fun environment to be in for days on end.”

Some of Kim Law's swag.

Some of Kim Law’s swag.

Got swag? Boy, I hope so. If you’re an author at RT, bring a LOT and ALWAYS have some on you. This felt different from RWA, where I was hesitant to “push” things on fellow writers and usually opted for leaving items in the goody room. But at RT, even the postcards went quickly as I met readers and authors who wanted something that would help them remember my name.

 

Kinds of swag? There were a lot of pens, bookmarks, lip balms and candies. Kim Law’s beach balls were a unique and popular addition. Jeannie Lin noticed that dressing up her bookmarks (for a minimal cost) created a big hit. Says Lin: “I didn’t have very expensive stuff (other than the Ruby playing cards) but my bookmarks stood out because I wanted to make them pretty and different. Who would have thought those 1-cent red tassels would make them such a hit? I had booksellers and just random people come up to comment on how beautiful my bookmarks were.” She also recommends choosing swag that makes readers feel special and is strongly branded so they’ll remember you.

Elizabeth Essex describes having tiers of swag ready for any occasion. “Carry your swag with you at all times. You never know when the top reviewer from RT is going to come up to you while you are dressed as a saloon girl and ask to see your latest. Have that ARC, or PDF, or whatever hidden in your purse and ready to give out. And carry your minor swag—every time a reader asked me what I wrote, I passed out my character cards. Every time a reader said she had liked something I’ve already written, I gave her an autographed bookplate to stick in her book. And even if she had read it on an e-reader, she was happy to get that little bit of something personal.”

 

Bring a pimp. Several authors brought grown sons, spouses, or a friend to help hand out items, both at book signings and in the general assemblies. Perhaps when my daughter’s of age, I’ll put her in a cute T-shirt so people will ask about her mom’s books. *wink*

Heather McCollum and Addison Fox mingle.

Heather McCollum and Addison Fox mingle.

Pimp yourself. Talk to people! There is no better promotional opportunity at RT than talking to the people around you—in line, on the elevator, sitting in a workshop, or wherever. Tamara Hogan says: “The most valuable part of the conference for me was networking: connecting with other writers, of course, but also chatting with book bloggers, reviewers, and librarians. A lot of these opportunities are kinda random – you never know who you’re standing in line with!” Rita Henuber also suggests reaching out to people you don’t know, asking them questions and they’ll start asking about you.

 

 

AUTHOR VISIBILITY 

 

Tamara Hogan and Jeannie Lin at the Jazz Breakfast

Tamara Hogan and Jeannie Lin at the Jazz Breakfast

Attend workshops and events. In addition to swag, the workshops and reader events were ways to connect with readers. Kim Law advises authors in attendance “to expect any workshop you attend to possibly turn into a reader workshop. And that that isn’t a bad thing! Always bring freebies to the workshops, and assume you’re going to be answering reader questions.” The after-hours parties with food and drink were also big draws. One thing I did was tweet during the “Readers Know Best” workshop, which resulted in several new followers and retweets.

 

Kim Law poses with cover model Harvey Gaudun-Stables

Kim Law poses with cover model Harvey Gaudun-Stables

Make friends with hot guys. The cover models were everywhere, appearing like co-hosts of events in addition to generating excitement among the attendees, who enjoyed a bit of eye candy. Don’t be afraid to talk to them and get your picture taken. I met some fabulous new people this way, and many authors generated a buzz by posting their pictures with cover models on Facebook.

Liz Bemis with Scott (one of the handsome cover models).

Liz Bemis with Scott (one of the handsome cover models).

 

Make friends, period. As Elizabeth Essex recommends: “My philosophy/best advice for large conferences like RT is to tell yourself it’s just an opportunity to ‘make new friends,’ both with readers and with authors. I had a fabulous, if exhausting time, by telling myself that RT was just one big sleep-over party, and that everywhere I went, elevators, parties, workshops and bars were just opportunities to say ‘Hi’ to other people and ask them if they were having fun. I met so many readers that way, and I also met fellow authors and established common ground and mutual fan-girldom. At least one of those authors I met and hit it off with, gave me a shout-out on a big, national blog as a result.”

 

Advertising options. Personally, I didn’t find the smaller posters that lined one specific portion of the event space as eyecatching as the window clings that were something like 7 feet tall x 4 feet wide and lined the walking areas we passed through every day. The clings on the elevator doors were captivating as well.  There was also “Promo Alley.” For the low price of $25, authors could reserve a square of space in which to place promo items for attendees to pick up. Jeannie Lin highly recommends this option. “Put up a poster with your book cover on it as well as other giveaways  like bookmarks. It’s SO worth it and the cheapest promo you’ll find at RT.”

Laura Navarre in costume at the book signing.

Laura Navarre in costume at the book signing.

 

Elizabeth Essex dresses the part for the Rosie's Gulch party.

Elizabeth Essex dresses the part for the Rosie’s Gulch party.

Identify yourself (and your subgenre). Rita Henuber suggests wearing something that indicates what you write. “If your books are about weddings wear a veil. If you write historicals wear at least the top part of a costume. Wear a pirate hat and eye patch. Have a parrot on your shoulder. I was immediately drawn to authors who did this.”

 

Go big or go home. Either prepare to promote yourself as a big name readers should want to know, or spend your time at home writing the next book that will make you bigger. RT is about making a splash. Elizabeth Essex found dressing up to be fun and rewarding. “Be professional, but surrender your dignity: RT is all about dressing up and going to the parties. So I became a saloon girl, even if I was mutton dressed as lamb. I had fun, and made new friends, and those friends tracked me down at the signing and bought books. All because I had a fabulous velvet corset.” Jeannie Lin found this to be true as well. “It’s like any other ‘Con.’ It’s about stepping out in costume and interacting with other fans and readers. I think I was easily recognized because 1) I actually really like dressing up 2) and I’m Asian and I write Asian books  3) My covers and SWAG were really easily identifiable.”

 

WHAT WOULD I CHANGE?

 

I had a blast at RT, but there were some things I would have done differently…and definitely some lessons learned.

 

Club RT. This was a scheduled time to sit and let your readers come find you. For me (a relatively new author who doesn’t have a huge following), it wasn’t that helpful, though I had fun spending that time chatting with cover models and the other authors who were there.

 

FANtastic Day party. Mass hysteria. Dogs and cats, living together. Okay, this event might not have been that crazy, but it was the one time I truly felt overwhelmed. Thank goodness I had Kim and Addison to glom onto. I don’t know how readers/attendees were expected to locate authors, or how authors were supposed to match up with readers who might like their books. Unless you had very visible freebies (especially free print books) to give away, readers were likely to pass you by in the crowd.

 

Heather McCollum at Saturday's Book Fair

Heather McCollum at Saturday’s Book Fair

E-Book EXPO and Giant Book Fair. First, I was thrilled to be part of the E-book EXPO on Thursday afternoon. But, well, it was scheduled from 4-6 p.m. on a work day in the middle of a week…and it snowed. Sideways. I certainly don’t blame RT for the snow, and participating in the event was a lot of fun, but when compared to the BIG print book fair on Saturday? There were, maybe, a fourth of the attendees (and that’s probably being generous). Saturday was the granddaddy of events for readers. People could buy a day pass just for that. Readers turned out in droves.

But Jeannie Lin, who participated in both signings, had a different experience. “Surprisingly, I think I had more people approach me at the ebook expo than at the Giant Bookfair. Maybe it was because the expectation at the ebook Expo was you were browsing and would buy later? Or maybe just because it was first on Thursday and the Giant Bookfair was Saturday.”

 

Kim Law at Saturday's Book Fair.

Kim Law at Saturday’s Book Fair.

The signings. The biggest thing I learned from my E-book EXPO signing is how to better promote myself in the crowd. People don’t know my name, but when I wrote my subgenre under my name on my sign, more people stopped to talk about that with me, as we bonded discussing the books we loved. Conversation usually led to them taking a postcard and swag items, so maybe they’ll look me up again. Using a stand-up poster with an eye-catching cover also had a lot of people stopping to say hello. Basically, having a conversation starter was key to luring people to the table. Also, as I learned from the author next to me, bringing a pashmina or some other cloth to add color or background (other than the bright white that lined the tables) made my station more appealing. Next time, I’ll remember to bring a Sharpie for those hard-to-sign items. I also wrote “Take One” on my sign to encourage people to pick up swag, and it worked. Readers are shy and can be elusive unless you use bait.

 

I thought Jeannie Lin had a great take on what measures “success” at a signing, and how the RT bookfair is useful, even if you don’t sell a pile of books. “RT is not a bookselling event – There are so many book giveaways that readers aren’t usually there to buy from authors they don’t know. Expect to give away a lot of books. But that’s a good thing. Imagine when you blog how hard it is to get readers to come by and even comment to get a book? And then you have to pay postage to ship it to them. Here, readers and bloggers are clamoring for books.”

 

Sponsor something. At my next RT, I’d try to sponsor the bags, a party, a panel, or invest in advertising via the window clings. Or host a reader event. As Jeannie Lin, a second-time RT attendee this year, learned, “I did panels that were totally brainy and heavy. Forget that. For next year, I’m only going to do fun reader panels with prizes and games and feather boas.” RT 2014 is already accepting proposals.

 

Laura Navarre and Heather McCollum at the Disco Party.

Laura Navarre and Heather McCollum at the Disco Party.

Participate more. As a newbie, I confess I was a bit intimidated by some of the evening events, especially where costumes were encouraged. I wish I’d gone to more of them, especially the publisher-sponsored ones. But as a Carina author, I did participate in their cocktail party on the last night, which allowed readers to enter a drawing for an iPad2 (which turned out to be two iPad2’s!). To enter, they mingled with authors, searching for the one who wrote the book that matched a blurb in their hands. It was a great way to mix authors and readers as well as get them intrigued about books from the blurbs. I’d definitely do something like that again. And I admired Entangled’s author-hunt scavenger hunt, and how it took place over days and days, probably putting those authors’ names and covers in front of readers at least a dozen times over the course of the convention.

 

WRITER VS. READER CONS

 

I’m coming from only having attended national RWA and regional RWA conferences – i.e., writer-focused conferences. Having said that, the workshops at RT were okay, but some lacked a professional polish that RWA presenters and award ceremonies are known for.

Tamara Hogan suggests if you’re a writer looking for workshops with a writing/craft focus, that RWA might better suit your needs. Workshops at RT, even the craft ones, still had a “fan” slant. However, though she was able to connect with her readers, she wondered what the ratio of writers to readers was this year. “It seemed to me there were a LOT more writers there than there were the last time I attended, with every single one of us there to promote our work. Whether this is a positive thing or a negative thing for reader attendees, I have no idea.”

Still, there was an entire workshop track dedicated to self-publishing, including a couple of workshops presented by Mark Coker from Smashwords. And in a thriller panel I attended, Bob Mayer and other authors explained what an “espresso machine” was. I’d never heard of this tool for printing books from digital files. Sounds like the future of publishing to me!

Jeannie Lin, a second-time RT attendee this year, has observed an “RT culture,” saying that there are readers who’ve approached her saying they remember her from the past RT, or have read her books because they picked one up at the event. “There are also super-readers who scan the authors attending list and bring all the books on their bookshelves that match up. I got a couple of those wanting autographs of my backlist books that they had bought from Walmart or B&N. I’m not a big name famous author, I really believe these readers do it for ALL the authors they read. Don’t you love that there are readers like that?”

 

Ruby Dinner! From front right to front left: Heather McCollum, Laura Navarre, Rita Henuber, Anne Marie Becker, Addison Fox, Liz Bemis, Jeannie Lin, Tamara Hogan, Sara Ramsey (taking the picture is Kim Law).

Ruby Dinner! From front right to front left: Heather McCollum, Laura Navarre, Rita Henuber, Anne Marie Becker, Addison Fox, Liz Bemis, Jeannie Lin, Tamara Hogan, Sara Ramsey (taking the picture is Kim Law).

Like with any conference, stamina is the name of the game. Rita Henuber recommends eating a good breakfast every morning. Jeannie Lin reminds authors to bring a cup of coffee or bottle of water to the book signings. Addison Fox recommends finding time for a quick nap. Elizabeth Essex balances it all: “Lather (go to the bar), rinse (short time alone in room), repeat!”

Hope to see you in May 2014 in New Orleans at the next Romantic Times Booklovers Convention!

Have you been to RT, as a reader or a writer, or both? Have you attended other reader cons? What were your experiences, and do you have any tips or tidbits to share?

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Accessible Websites

Smartphones have changed the way we think about websites.  A website that looks great on a laptop with a 17-inch screen may be tough-to-use on your iPhone or Android device.
For disabled users, many websites are tough-to-use. Fortunately, there are a few simple things that we can do to help disabled users (or their screen-readers) enjoy our websites.

Top Five Lessons Learned From My Debut Release

My first book, Heiress Without A Cause, came out as a Nook exclusive at the end of January, and there was much rejoicing throughout the land. Or at least I rejoiced, and my friends all tolerated my rejoicing. The champagne flowed, the congratulatory calls/emails/tweets came in, and I even sold enough copies to be thrilled with it (it reached #69 in the Nook Store and is still in the top thirty there for Regency romance!).

Heiress is coming out on Amazon any second now (EDIT: it’s up now!! check it out here), since the Nook First promotional period is over, and I can’t wait. But on this anticipatory day between the end of my first month as a published author and the start of the rest of my life (cue dramatic music), I thought I would share what I learned and what I hope to change/replicate/avoid going forward.

Lesson 1: Promo Can Suck Your Brains Out If You Let It

Yes, promo can suck your brains out even if you write fun Regencies instead of dark paranormal zombie thrillers. All those guest blogs, Facebook contests, and Goodreads giveaways are like snarling, starving wolverines, and they will happily latch onto your throat, pull you to the ground, and gnaw on your bones. And yet you have to get through it, even if getting through it probably feels like being part of the Donner Party in January — you just have to hope you survive it, and hope your reputation survives whatever missteps you make.

But even though there are a lot of demands during your debut month, try to bat away the wolverines long enough to keep working on your next book. It helps (said with a crazed, maniacal laugh) if you have a deadline for the next project. Otherwise, you could easily keep promoting your first book forever and never write anything else. And that, my friends, makes for a very sad writer.

Lesson 2: The Best Promo Comes From Being Yourself

The best promo comes from being yourself — unless you’re Genghis Khan, I suppose. Although we all still know who he is  800 years later, so as a brand marketer, he was totally a genius.

That’s not my point. My point is that if you’re thinking of how to work yet another mention of your book into a comment thread on someone’s blog, or tweeting your book with every hashtag that has every existed in the history of twitter, you’re probably not having fun with it. And if you’re not having fun, your followers aren’t having fun. People sense when something’s forced and unnatural, or a strategy/gimmick. But if you write the way you want to write, in all media, and stop trying so hard to sell your *book*, you might just con people into thinking you’re a nice, interesting, funny person who must have written a nice, interesting, funny book. And then they buy it. And then you win. And you didn’t even have to conquer all of Central Asia to do it.

Lesson 3: Laugh At The Bad Reviews And Treasure The Good Ones

Note that I didn’t say “don’t read your reviews.” If you’re strong enough to never read a single review, you’re a stronger woman/man/alien (you must be an alien) than I am. But note that I also didn’t say “respond to your bad reviews” or “get your friends to form a posse and lynch the person who left you a bad review.” That’s the stuff of nightmares and will kill your online reputation faster than anything. I stay disengaged, and I don’t respond to reviews — but if I’m going to read them, I make myself laugh off the bad ones. And for me, at least, I can laugh off the bad ones because the good ones are so precious to me that it’s worth stumbling over a few rocks to find the diamonds.

Lesson 4: Do Everything You Can In Advance

And I don’t just mean on the promo side. I mean everywhere. Wash your sheets. Stock up on groceries. Spend time with your family. Give everything a good dusting. Because the week your book comes out, all you’re gonna want to do is refresh your sales rankings constantly, and you’re going to hate the person who wants to take you away from your laptop to make them a stupid sandwich or do their laundry.

On a more practical note, if you write some blog posts in advance, do up some FAQs, select your excerpts, and write up short/medium/long descriptions of your book, it’s all there waiting for you when someone needs it. And if someone offers you a last minute guest blog opportunity, you can say yes happily, knowing that you have a precious blog stockpile ready to send them. It’s like preparing for the apocalypse, except with words instead of canned goods.

Lesson 5: Learn To Let Things Go

Not everything will go well, and not everything will get done. I hate having a messy house, but I’ve let that go for now — which is fine, since I don’t have time to invite people over anyway. I’m not going to get workshop proposals out to every conference on the planet, but that’s okay too. If you can hit most of the important stuff most of the time (writing, promo, bathing, and seeing your family and friends just often enough that they don’t forget your face), everything else is secondary.

And really, it’s just as important to enjoy the ride as it is to, um, take the ride. Even though I felt ridiculously busy this month, I never said no to a celebratory dinner, or drinks at the bar the night my book came out, or anything else people wanted to do to celebrate. If you have people who want to share your success, share it with them. Success has a funny way of expanding to make everyone happy, if you don’t try to horde it like gold in a dragon cave. And the best part of my debut month wasn’t the sales numbers — it was treasuring those moments when my family and friends were there for me.

For those of you who have published, what did you learn from your debut? If you haven’t published yet, what are you most concerned/excited/scared/thrilled about when you think of your debut? I’ll give an ebook, either Nook or Kindle, to a lucky commenter – so fire away!

Sara Ramsey’s first Regency romance, HEIRESS WITHOUT A CAUSE, is out now on Nook and will be available at any moment on other ereaders and in print. Her second book, SCOTSMEN PREFER BLONDES, is coming at the end of March. For more dubious wisdom and bizarre tweets from what she’s dubbed the #sarapocalypse, follow her on Twitter at @Sara_Ramsey or sign up for her mailing list.

Top 5 Reasons a AYUGHF Needs a Promotion Plan

Congratulations! You’re an As Yet Unpublished Golden Heart Finalist! What are you going to do now? (Please don’t say “Go to Disney World” That was so last year!) 😀 My hope is that “Develop and Implement a Promotion Plan” is at least on your top ten list of things to do before RWA National, right up there with “Find the Perfect Dress” and “Book a Flight”.

This month, I’m going to do a three-part “Top Five” series on Promotion. Today, I’m going to give you the top five reasons you need to have a promotion plan. Mid month, I’ll talk about the Top Five things that should be in that promotion plan and how to implement it, and then late in the month we’ll talk about the Top Five things you should consider for your website.

So, without further ado, I give you the Top Five Reasons You Should Have a Promotion Plan Now.

Ready Set Launch: Five Simple Steps to a Powerhouse Promotional Plan

Promotional Plans are not for the faint of heart. They take work, thought, re-work, more thought, refinement, execution, and work… Did I mention work? The following five steps might not make it “simple” but will hopefully simplify some of the process as you begin to develop your own promotional plan.

Step One: Defining your Unique Brand

How are you similar to other authors in your genre—and how are you unique? How do you want to be thought of by your agent, editor, readers, booksellers, and the media? These questions should be at the forefront of any author seriously beginning to market his or her work. Whether Branding yourself OR your work, establishing a distinctive, memorable and consistently positive impression in the minds of your audience is critical for lasting success. Once you determine how YOU are different than anyone else writing in your sub-genre, work to develop a tagline that embodies those differences.

The Most Fundamental Question in the Publishing Industry

How do readers choose the books they buy?

It was a topic that came up on our Yahoo board recently, stemming from the original subject of promotion, and some of the comments/answers surprised me.

As a writer whose agent is shopping her manuscript at this moment, I am naturally looking toward my future, anticipating marketing and promotional tasks.  (Positive thinking here.)  And, honestly, I find it daunting.

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