by Nancy Martin
My new book, MURDER MELTS IN YOUR MOUTH, will be released in three weeks, a thrilling event in any author's life except for one glitch---I should have done all the advance work for this book at least three months ago.
But three months ago, I was getting ready for Christmas, my kitchen was under construction and my husband surprised me with a 30th wedding anniversary trip--the kind a girl just doesn't say no to. And now it's too late for book launch PR.
Good thing my publisher has assigned a topnotch publicist to do the basics: Send ARCs to all the big reviewers (PW, Library Journal--which, by the way, gave me a rave--whew!--syndicated newspaper reviewers, etc.) and to the smaller reviewers (local newspapers, genre magazines, independent mystery bookstores that publish newsletters, amateur online reviewers. The publicist also coordinates some visits to bookstores for me. (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Lansing, Michigan.) Plus he's sending postcards and doing a massive promotional mailing that has meant dozens of phone calls, not to mention hours devoted to packing, writing cover letters and doing the mailing. And putting up with me referring more and more jobs his way as stores and newspapers contact me personally.
This year, my publisher isn't sending me on the road to tour as they have in the past. Instead, they're putting the money into something new--sending little tins of promotional chocolate to booksellers. This sounded like a great idea to me. (The way it works is this: Your book hits stores and requires at least four weeks of intense promotion. But at the same time, you're frantically trying to finish writing the book that will be released a year from now. Ever try doing the best writing of your life while also planning multiple parties?? So staying home this year sounded like a blessed relief.
Fingers crossed that the chocolate draws attention to MURDER MELTS.
Of course, the really big task was accomplished months ago by a totally different department at the publishing house. That task is getting bookstores to agree to stock the book. (You think books appear on shelves by some kind of publishing osmosis? No. No and no and no and no.) My publisher creates and prints a catalog four times a year and sends it to bookselling entities. (Not just stores, but the buyers for the big bookstore chains and buyers for the huge wholesale distributors that supply big box stores, drug stores, grocery stores and whatnot, not to mention libraries and anybody else who requests one.) Then the follow-up phone calls begin. This year my editor personally called the buyer for the Borders group (which includes Waldenbooks) and scored a nice order.--Yay!
The sales department works really hard to get bigger and bigger numbers of my books into stores every year. Depending upon last year's sales, though, distributors want to buy exactly the number of last year's sales to avoid "returns"--unsold books that the store returns to the publisher for reimbursement. Returns are espensive for everyone, so nobody wants them. So orders are often smaller than they were the previous year. And because the publisher doesn't want to print too many more books than they can sell, they reduce the print run. Everybody's trying to save money, and who can blame them? The publisher wants a great "sell through"--the percentage of printed books sold. But for the writer, this is all very nervewracking. If my orders are reduced and my print runs get small, won't all these numbers eventually spiral down to zero?? At the distribution phase, the author feels entirely helpless---at the mercy of numbers.
Talk about nail biting. The joke among writers is that our publisher doesn't want us to know the names of the sales staff in case we camp out on the office floors and make their lives miserable.
The other big expense my publisher pays is co-op money, which nowadays is primarily spent on placement in bookstores. What does this mean? A couple of years ago, one of the big bookselling chains admitting that they're selling 80% of their books within 20 feet of the front door--in other words, the books that are on special display racks as you enter the store sell best. For those of us who write genre books that are generally shelved at the back of the store, that's not good news. How is a customer supposed to find a book buried in a dark back corner? So I'm pathetically grateful when the publisher agrees to pay for my book to be placed in that golden real estate. Not all books are treated so royally, and I'm lucky to get good placement.
What should I be doing to help all this happen?
First of all, my job is to write great books--each one better than the last. But I also maintain an email list, and I'll be sending notices to nearly 5000 formerly satisfied readers, asking them to please buy the new book within the first week or two of release. (After that, sales will be not nearly as important. A book needs to sell well right away, or it's stripped out of stores to make way for books that will sell.) I also blog weekly--which nurtures a community of loyal readers which--we hope--will buy the book when it's released. And I maintain a "fan" listserve of over 250 readers. In addition, I belong to various organizations, including Sisters in Crime which coordinated a nationwide promotion featuring member authors, and my books were widely displayed thanks to SinC's efforts. And I do set aside a small travel budget each year to make a handful of library appearances and attend a few conventions.
But mostly? I write.
Obviously, I rely on the team at the publishing house to do the lion's share of bookselling. As I strive to write entertaining stories, the effort it takes to sell tens of thousands of books would be beyond me. I must protect my writing time.
But we're having a launch party when the book is first released. If you live near Pittsburgh, I hope to see you at Mystery Lovers Bookshop on Sunday afternoon, March 9th. We're throwing a chocolate extravaganza! Please come, because I don't dare take home the leftovers.