Fast forward twenty-some years. While staying at home with my babies, I sat down one day and just started typing. I wanted to write the kind of book I like to read—characters who are real and emotional stories that mix a woman’s journey with a little romance and mystery thrown in. I entered that first manuscript in a writing contest, and I ended up winning. The finalist judge was a literary agent in New York and she offered to represent me. I signed an agreement and she sold the book to the second publisher she sent it to. And then it was all clear sailing, right? Wrong!
My first four books were published by two different and small New York publishers. My print runs were miniscule and my distribution even more so. Despite this, I did what everybody was telling me to do—promoted myself! I got a website (mandatory), printed my own advanced reader’s copies and mailed them to select bookstores from a list I bought, sent out postcards to everyone on my mailing list (mostly friends and family members in the beginning). I made bookmarks and bought giveaway items for no other reason than everybody said that’s what I needed to do. But I made a gross miscalculation—I’d spent my entire (very tiny) advance and then some. And when I failed to earn even a single penny in royalties, I told myself it was okay. I was starting a business and I needed to sink funds into it before I could start seeing a profit.
I’m embarrassed to say that I have a business degree—graduated with honors, even—and it took me a while to realize how quickly one overlooks the principles of business when it comes to something that’s so much a part of us—our books. I spent a lot of money promoting books that were never printed. It didn’t matter how many readers I got excited about my book if there were no books for them to buy. I would have been better off burning my advance check in a tiny bonfire. At least I would have had warm hands for about five seconds.
In March, 2008, my 8th novel, The Memory of Water was published by my current publisher, Penguin Publishing Group. It’s a long story how I got here; suffice it to say that in the eight years between my first and my eighth novels, I’d learned quite a bit. The most important lesson, to me, was that if you weren’t one of the lucky few chosen from the get-go to be a bestseller by your publisher (and yes, 2/3 of the time, this is a preordained thing) you need to do what you can to be noticed by not only potential readers, but also by your publisher. Remember all of those books in the library and bookstores that I mentioned before? Those (at least those published by your publisher) are your competition for a very limited amount of promotion budget.
By the time The Memory of Water was published, I was ready to move on to the next level. Since starting with Penguin, I’d seen my sales and visibility climbing at a slow but respectable rate. But I was ready for more and I knew The Memory of Water would be the book to start with. I knew it was a good book, but when they gave it the most beautiful cover to ever grace a book, I knew that this could be my breakout book.
So I hired a publicist. I didn’t take this decision lightly—publicists are expensive. And I already had an in-house publicist working with me. But my in-house publicist worked with dozen of other authors, and my own knowledge of media contacts and other publicity sources were highly limited. I needed a professional to help me reach further and I got one (with a strong recommendation from my agent).
Suddenly, I was everywhere—at large events, appearing in print, radio and TV, and all over the Internet—and my book was on the front tables of independent and chain bookstores everywhere. My sales tripled, and orders for my backlist and my next novel were increased. Because of this success, my print run for my November book, The House on Tradd Street far exceeded my expectations. After eight books, I was suddenly an overnight success!
So, what have I learned in eight years that might help newer authors promote wisely?
1) Unless you’re one of the lucky ‘chosen few’ who are preordained to be a bestselling author with your first book, don’t expect too much from your publisher. They’re not being mean or stingy: they simply have a limited budget and a lot of authors. What does this mean for you? You need to prove to them that you’re working hard not only to deliver a great book, but that you’re also working to promote the book. Make sure you share with your editor and/or in-house publicist EVERYTHING that you’re doing on your behalf: lists of booksignings and appearances; promotions and contests; ads and media coverage.
2) With every book, give yourself a budget. I think the accepted rate is 10% of your advance should be spent on promotion. A given is a website. In this day and age, every author needs a website. If you can do it yourself, even better because then you’ll be saving a lot of money. For anything that you’re going to pay money for, consider who your target market is and the most effective/efficient way to reach them. I write southern women’s fiction. I target media in the southeast and SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Assoc.) bookstores. My publicist and I contact and/or send an ARC to almost every one of those stores. ARCs (advance readers copies) are a really effective way of getting your books into reader’s hands. It’s like sending out a free sample of shampoo. If they like it, they’ll tell their friends and/or customers. My publisher provides them for me and I have that in my contract.
3) Wasting money. Have you ever bought a book because you had a pen from the author with her name on it? I haven’t either. So why would you spend your money on promotional pens (or other such items)? If you need giveaways, think of things that will keep your name and/or books in front of potential readers. Tri-fold bookmarks are great because you can give an excerpt as well as promote more than one book and your website. I do post-it notes with my name and website because everyone uses post-its and my name and website will be seen every time they use one.
4) Freebie stuff. There’s quite a bit of promotion that you can do that costs you nothing more than time. FaceBook, MySpace, UTube, Gather.com are just a few with huge audiences. And don’t forget all of those reader sites out there that welcome author blog posts. Online newsletters are an easy/cheap way to keep in touch with readers. Have a signup on your website and then send a regular (not more than once a month) newsy newsletter to everyone who signs up.
5) Publicist or not? I know lots of successful authors who don’t use an outside publicist. For me, with an increased output (I went from 1 book a year to 2), I had less time but more money so it made sense to hire one. She had access to media outlets and bookstores (and the time to contact them) than I could have ever dreamed of. I can’t tell you for sure that my increased sales were a direct result, but my sales did triple in volume and I have to think that her efforts were responsible for at least a part of that.
In November, 2008, my 9th novel (The House on Tradd Street) will be published. My publicist has been working on this book for several months now and I can’t wait to see the results. Ultimately, however—and I tell this to every aspiring author—you can’t promote a book that a) isn’t yet written or b) isn’t the best book that you can write. No promotion in the world is going to help you sell a bad book. Writing a great book is your first priority and should never take a back seat to promotion. Remember, it’s the good books that get the word-of-mouth promotion that can’t be bought.
Karen White marries her passion for
White’s protagonists face everything from a leaky roof, old fountains, and cracked cornices to overgrown flowerbeds, paint chipped ceilings, disintegrating plaster and warped floorboards. For herself she saved the best. Her research included luxurious strolls on the streets of
Italian and French by ancestry, a southerner and a story teller by birth, White has moved around quite a bit in her life. Born in
It was love at first sight when White first visited
Karen White’s work has appeared on the South East Independent Booksellers best sellers list. Her recent novel The Memory of Water, was the Borders Books and Atlanta & Company’s Book Club Selection for May, topped off at the end of the month with their live, television interview with Karen. The Memory of Water, which is well reviewed in Atlanta Magazine and an array of other print and online book media, and was adopted by numerous independent booksellers as a book club recommendation and as a featured title in their store. It’s been back to press five times since its March 2008 publication, the first time within its first four weeks on sale. It is one of NAL/Accent’s fastest selling titles.
Adding to the excitement of The Memory of Water’s March 2008 debut, was the resounding, continued recognition achieved by White’s 2007 novel Learning to Breathe. This spring Learning to Breathe was honored with a National Readers’ Choice Award, the Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence, and the Virginia Romance Writers HOLT Medallion. It was also named a finalist for the Romance Writers of America’s Award for Best Novel, the Colorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence and the Georgia Author of the Year Award.
White credits years spent listening to adults visiting in her grandmother’s
In addition to THE HOUSE ON TRADD STREET, White’s previous novels include Learning to Breathe, Pieces of the Heart, and The Color of Light.
You can visit her website at www.karen-white.com.