A while ago, I blogged about what I spent on promotion for SURVIVAL COLONY 9. (You can read that post right here.) Today, I thought I'd break it down in a different way and give you a sense of which promotional efforts worked for me and which didn't. I'm not going to get into the big stuff (such as hiring a freelance publicist); that's a major expenditure that deserves its own discussion. But little things add up quickly, and none of us has unlimited funds. So why not target those funds to the things that work?
One caveat: this advice is of course based on my own experience. Other writers may have had very different experiences, and if so, I urge you to check out their blogs!
1. Swag. With YA, the conventional wisdom is that you need a lot of this stuff to give away at signings, events, and random occasions. It's not super-costly, but when you add up the fee for the designer, the printing fee, and the delivery, it's not super-cheap either. And some of it is a complete waste of whatever it costs. Postcards, for example. Who wants them? No one. Unless you plan to mail them out to every librarian and bookstore in the world--and do you really plan to do that?--don't waste your money. Ditto with bookplates; they're not worth the cardstock they're printed on. (I ordered 1000. I have 975 in a box in my attic.) Unless you have some brilliant item that ties in to your book, stick with good old-fashioned bookmarks: attractive, functional, and in high demand wherever you go.
2. ARCs. This will likely be the first item you have an opportunity to give away to readers, and you might be tempted to give them away to anyone who asks. DON'T. Lots of people are ARC-collectors; they jump on them when they see them, but then they do absolutely nothing with them. Or maybe they do write a review on Goodreads, but only 5 people follow their reviews. Be selective with your ARCs; try to give them away to people who are likeliest to review them in widely-read venues (principally, book reviewers and bloggers with lots of followers).
3. Giveaways. I gave away a ton of books through Goodreads and other online contests. Some copies were supplied by the publisher; the vast majority, however, were supplied by me (which meant I had to cover mailing costs too). As with ARCs, you need to be very careful here; it's easy to lose track of just how many books you've offered as freebies, and it's also very tempting to give things away to just anyone. Again, DON'T. Focus on reviewers and bloggers. Some of them won't review the book either, but they're better bets than random strangers. Of all the books I gave away--and it was quite a few--all I have to show for it is twenty-seven reviews on Amazon and slightly more than twice that on Goodreads. Maybe this means my book bombed, but it definitely means I wasn't careful enough in who I was giving free copies away to.
4. Signings. Great, free publicity, right? Awesome ego-boost, right? Well, not exactly. First of all, you have to figure in travel costs. Second, you have to recognize that not all signings (at bookstores or elsewhere) are created equal. Some venues will promote the heck out of you and line people up outside the door; others will send a tweet or two and then wonder why no one showed up. (Which pretty much destroys the ego-boost.) Don't jump at any signing just because it's a signing. Research the venue, ask tough questions, and get the answers you want. If you don't get good answers, politely tell them you're unavailable.
5. Book fairs. As with signings, I advise being selective and reflective about these. I've gone to library book fairs where all the attendees were parents with toddlers and octogenarians looking for books about relieving back pain--not exactly the audience for YA science fiction. But I've also gone to places where there was a specific YA focus, and the book sold like gangbusters.
6. Conferences. A mixed bag. It really depends on how prominently you're featured and how much you need to shell out for registration, membership, and so on. When I went to New York Comic Con and appeared on the same stage with James Dashner, Pierce Brown, and others--with a roomful of nearly three hundred rabid YA science fiction fans--the Megabus trip to NYC was definitely worth it. Other conferences, not so much. As with everything listed above, don't jump to do it just because it's there.
7. Curriculum guide. All I can say about this is that it's nice to have one; teachers seem to like them. But I'm not yet convinced it's a wise investment. One local school district is talking about incorporating my book into the eighth-grade curriculum--but that's because I know a teacher there, not because of my guide. They're costly, and arguably unnecessary. If you can design one yourself, all to the good. If not, ponder before you pay.
8. Website. You simply have to have this, of course. And it has to look gorgeous and professional, of course. Which means it has to cost you an arm and a leg, of course. Well, maybe. Some authors have nothing but their blog, and they're doing just fine. Others use cheap services ($5 per month or so) to host their site. I went all out, and while I'm certainly pleased with the result, I would not go so far as to say it's sold lots of books or given me name recognition. (Plus I wish I hadn't been talked into using Wordpress, which I absolutely HATE--it's so user-unfriendly and gives the supposed owner so little control.)
9. School and library visits. Unlike book fairs held at similar venues, here I'm talking about invited visits where you're the star, addressing the whole school or select classes. These are lots and lots of fun, and they're a wonderful way to interact with readers, schmooze teachers and librarians, and even sell some copies of your book. They also don't cost anything--except travel expenses--and they're very gratifying. All I would advise here is that you insist on being paid for them. Some writers, especially when they're just starting out, agree to do such visits for free; that's exactly what I did. The result is that you end up looking desperate, devaluing your precious time, and paying for whatever costs are associated with the visit out-of-pocket. Don't do this. Insist on a substantial fee (at least $250 per half-day visit). Many libraries won't have this money, and you can negotiate downward if you choose; most schools that host authors will have this money, but they'll be happy not to pay it if you let them. It's your job not to let them.
The bottom line in all of this is that you have to be smart about your promotional dollars. Most of us, no matter how hard we try, will not be best-sellers. Can you really afford to spend $12,000 (look at my previous marketing post if you don't believe me) on a book that will in all likelihood sell modestly? Wouldn't you rather save part of your advance (assuming you got one) or your retirement savings (assuming you have it) for, like, retirement? (Or a cruise, or a big-screen TV, or whatever?) By all means, go out and promote. But do it wisely.
And if anyone asks, tell 'em YA Guy told ya so.