3 S.R. Johannes: Marvelous Marketer: Alan Gratz

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Marvelous Marketer: Alan Gratz

Hi Alan! Thanks for joining us today.
Before we get into marketing, can you tell me a little about yourself.

My first published novel, Samurai Shortstop was an ALA Top Ten Book for Young Readers the year it came out. I followed that up with two contemporary YA murder mysteries based on Shakespeare plays: Something Rotten (based on Hamlet) and Something Wicked (based on Macbeth). My latest book--which just came out March 5th!--is a middle-grade novel called The Brooklyn Nine, and is the story of nine "innings," nine generations, of an American family and their connections to baseball from the 1840s to the present.

Do you/your agency/your house have a website/blog?

I have both a web site and a blog. My web site (features more information about me and my
work. My blog is called "Gratz Industries," and I share it with my wife, Wendi. On the blog, we
generally post about our attempts at living creative, productive lives. I designed and manage my own web site, and my wife and I both write, edit, and design the blog.

I've had the web site longer than I've been a published author. It began it as a way to feature the manuscripts I was trying to sell. I doubt it was very successful in that regard. I was under no delusions that editors were going to *chance* upon my web site and e-mail me with six-figure offers (or six thousand dollar offers, for that matter) but I saw it as a step toward presenting myself professionally. What I hoped was that if an editor got a manuscript of mine across her desk and decided to Google me, she would find a well-designed, informative site that would give her an idea of what to expect from me if she bought my book.

The last book I promoted on my site this way was Samurai Shortstop, which became my first sale. After I sold Samurai, I immediately transitioned the site from one that discussed many projects to one that focused on my forthcoming work. I really went to town on that site--this was my first book!--with elaborate web buttons made out of mon, Japanese family crests, and features like pictures of the actual school I had written about, and a recipe for miso soup. Once I began selling other books, of course, I had to decide: a separate web site fr every book, or one that featured them all? One that featured them all was the way to go, of course, so the Samurai Shortstop site was subsumed into the larger one and I just made the pages from the previous site part of the Samurai portal.

That transition was time-consuming, and forced a complete overhaul of the site. If I had it to do all over again, I wish I would have planned for selling more books from the outset, and designed an initial site that could be easily augmented as new books were added. I have that now, but it could have saved myself a lot of nights at the computer if I had made the original site focus on me, not a single book.

In your opinion , what are the top 3 things every author should and must do to promote their book?

Whew. That's tough. The top three things? I think maybe the way I'll answer this is to break it down into three main groups you have to appeal to for your book to be successful. As a children's author, teachers and librarians are a tremendously important group of people to know, and cultivating those connections is vital. You can do that by attending conferences like IRA and ALA, and by visiting individual schools.

I've also done direct postcard mailings to YA librarians in public libraries across the country. It's hard to know how much that helped, but it certainly couldn't have hurt anything except my wallet--and it wasn't really that expensive.

Next up are the booksellers. One motivated, enthusiastic bookseller can "handsell" the Dickens out of your book--that is, talk it up and put it in the hands of likely readers. To get to know booksellers, regional trade shows like SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance) and
national trade shows like BEA are great ways to meet many people at once, but getting there can be costly if your publisher doesn't bring you--and they bring only the biggest authors. A more tedious and time consuming process--though perhaps even more effective than the trade
shows--is simply *visiting* as many bookstores as you can and introducing yourself to their children's buyer or manager. I'm mainly talking about the independents, of course. You can make great connections with some managers at the big box stores of course--I had a great connection with the woman who ran the children's department at the Alpharetta, GA, Barnes & Noble, for example--but that one connection is not going to get you into all B&Ns, and you'll find that many big box store managers aren't as involved in handselling.

Indies NEED to handsell to survive, and they love getting to know authors so they can
say something personal and meaningful when recommending their books. Drop in on bookstores wherever you go. Better yet, call ahead, tell them you'll be in the area (when you can), and ask if they'd like you to do a stock signing. This is where you don't do a publicized reading/signing,
but instead pop in to meet the booksellers and sign whatever books of yours they have. The booksellers come away knowing an author and his work, and you leave knowing your books are going to be faced out with "AUTOGRAPHED BY THE AUTHOR" stickers on them and handsold to kids and their parents.

And let's not forget the kids, of course, the audience you're writing for. This is the toughest group of all to reach. School visits can build fans by the hundreds, but are few and far between--particularly as schools have to tighten their financial belts. To reach a broader geographical audience, you can turn to social networking sites and make yourself available. But beware: kids can smell "fake" a mile away. They don't want to visit a promotional site. They want to get to know *you.* That's a difficult thing to understand about this kind of marketing, and
a level of familiarity that some people are uncomfortable with.

In your opinion, how important is social networking?

I'm beginning to think this vital. When MySpace became all the rage, I built a MySpace site for myself, but mostly as a link to my other existing sites--my web site and my blog. I was already blogging on my own blog and updating my web site--why update a *third* personal page as
well? And MySpace seemed overrun *already* with people "friending" others not to really be friends, but to network to sell their own books. It began to feel as though everyone with a book to sell was just friending each other.

But I'm becoming a real fan of Facebook and Twitter. Both allow me to send quick, almost real-time updates about what I'm doing, reading, writing, or thinking. Again, this is a level of transparency that some may be uncomfortable with, but the power of these tools became obvious the moment I tweeted about a recent post on my blog and doubled my hits.

Twitter and Facebook allow people to "follow" you without having to go visit your web site or blog every day. And while we wish 500 people WOULD check out our web sites every day, they just aren't going to do that--but they WILL read the one or two Facebook comments we post every day. Am I selling my book on Facebook and Twitter? Not overtly, no. (Unless
it's the day my book releases--in which case I feel I have license to crow.) What I'm selling is *me,* the author. I hope that if people like me, they'll support me by going out and buying my books.

Did you think about marketing before your book was published? Did you start prior to getting an agent or selling your book? If so, when and what did you do?

I thought a LOT about marketing before my book was published.

In fact, the day I got the call from my publisher saying they wanted to buy Samurai Shortstop, my wife and I sat down to brainstorm all the ways we could sell it. We created a marketing plan that set deadlines for 12 months, 9 months, 6 months, and 3 months prior to pub day, and that encompassed things like: revamping my web site, creating postcards for direct mailings to booksellers and librarians, and press kits that we sent to all kinds of media, from geographic media (hometown papers) to media we thought would be interested in a book about Japanese baseball (towns with Japanese major league players; in-flight magazines for airlines with service to Japan).

The results for so much of what we did are hard to quantify. Samurai Shortstop sold out its first print run in the first six months, and went on to get some great reviews and recognition. How much of that was because it was a good book with a good hook, and how much of it was my
promotional efforts? It's almost impossible to know. Perhaps good publicity requires both, in the end--something to ring the bell that announces your book is on shelves, and then something good on the shelf to back up the bell-ringing. :-)

What other advice do you have for authors/writers regarding marketing?

It's said that the greatest challenge facing most authors today is obscurity. We do everything we can to write the best books we can, but we could write the next great American novel and it wouldn't matter if no one knew it existed. I think what we have to do is begin, as authors,
to see the dissemination of our work--in any format, for any price, including free!--as a means to an end, and that end is *notoriety.*

One of my favorite authors, Cory Doctorow, offers up copies of every one of his published novels and short stories one his web site as FREE downloads while his books are still for sale on bookstore shelves. His works are downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, and yet his latest book still made the New York Times Bestseller List. His argument--and one that I'm coming around to more and more--is that he would rather have 100,000 people in his tent, no matter what they paid to get in, rather than 5,000 he knows bought a ticket. I think it's a great point.

To that end, I petitioned my publisher to post Something Rotten, my first Horatio Wilkes mystery, for free, in its entirety, online for a month. It got hundreds of reads and, I hope, brought more fans into my tent right when the second book in the series, Something Wicked, was hitting shelves. My real regret is that you couldn't download the book; you could only read it online. Ideally, it would have been available free and clear, to be downloaded to any eReader. Maybe next time.

Publishers are understandably leery of giving away for *free* something they're trying to sell.

What creative things have you done to promote a book?

Besides offering up Something Rotten for free online, perhaps the most creative attempt at marketing I did was try to do a book signing at a minor league baseball stadium. The experiment, alas, was a failure. I sold very few books, despite the efforts of a strong independent bookseller, and visible placement at the ballpark. Ultimately, I just don't think too many people came to the stadium that day to buy a book--they came to watch a game, have a hot dog, maybe buy a foam finger. We got a few interested parties, but not enough to make it worthwhile.

The best part, for me at least, was that they let me throw out the first pitch. :-)

Thank you Alan for sharing some of your tricks of the trade!

Thanks Shelli!


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Insightful interview! I liked the top 3 things every author must do to promote their book question...a difficult question with a strong answer.
~ Wendy

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Shelli, thanks for posting the interview. And thank you Alan for your story and your great tips. The idea of marketing is tough for me and I am trying to find a unique way to appeal to readers but my genre is pretty general (perhaps that means I can appeal to more?). I am trying to keep that positive outlook. This interview gave me an extra boost of motivation. Thanks again1

Tess said...

Thanks for this great interview! I just signed w/ an agent and am thinking a lot about what lies ahead regarding marketing. I really like the suggestion to have a website that features the author instead of just one book - great advice!

sally said...

Great interview. Thanks very much.

And the Baen folks, with their Free Library, agree with the "giving books away" theory. I think it's a great idea, too. I guess time will tell for sure.

And, Alan, I am surprised you designed your own site. I've always like it. It's really classy. I just assumed you paid big bucks for it.

C.R. Evers said...

Alan is a very talented writer! It's interesting to hear his take on the marketing end!

Great interview!


Kristin Tubb said...

Thanks, Alan! I remain in awe of your mad marketing skillz! :-)

Great interview, Shelli!

Wanda Collins Johnson said...

Thank you, Shelli and Alan! I've been a fan of Alan's work from the beginning. Great interview. For sure, fans can get to know you through your very real and human blog.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Very cool interview and insightful responses. I can feel the energy you bring to the process, Alan, and it is inspiring. I've learned things and enjoyed the read. Thank you both.
I must say I haven't been able to get excited about Twitter -- seems like too much trivia -- but you have made me reconsider its value. Is that a tweet I hear? *reaches for binoculars*

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Wonderful interview. Informative and interesting to read. You've made me reconsider Twitter. I've been thinking of it as trivia overload, too much noise in an already loud world, but I see it fills a niche.
Gotta run, I think I hear a tweet. *grabbing the binoculars*

Sherrie Petersen said...

This is one of the best author interviews I've read. He obviously knows how to market himself and his advice was great. Thanks, Shelli and Alan!

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Great interview! Alan's been an inspiration to me for quite a while now!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Wow, this interview was chock full of ideas. Alan is awesome and so are his books. My son loves the Horatio Wilkes books. Are there more coming? Great interview, Shelli!

www.carolgordonekster.com said...

This is so helpful and important for authors to read. Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

I'm a huge fan of Alan's! And I agree with him about getting 10,000 people into the tent. Cory Doctorow is such a banner for this concept, but I think it's the future of publishing.

Kelly H-Y said...

As usual ... great interview! Thanks!

Doraine said...

What a great interview! Thanks Shelli. And thanks to Alan for passing along such great information. It's making me rethink Twitter, too.