Solo Sales Force : Authors: Many writers in Orange County find that self-promotion, while not always easy, helps sell their books. Publishers, they say, will only do so much for all but the biggest clients.
First-time author Carroll Lachnit admits feeling self-conscious the first time she engaged in “BSP.”
That’s what fellow mystery fans call blatant self-promotion on Dorothy L, the Internet e-mail message group named after British mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers.
“You don’t want to go on sounding like a detergent ad, so I posted sort of gently,” says Lachnit, who lives in Long Beach. “I went on and basically said, ‘Well, I’m a writer, and my book’s coming out. I’m terrified and exhilarated, and I hope you read it.’ ”
As an author, Lachnit says of her electronic BSP: “You’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity you get.”
“Murder in Brief” (Berkley Prime Crime; $4.99), Lachnit’s Orange County-set mystery about a female ex-cop turned law school student, hit bookstores in mid-May, ending a nearly four-year road from conception to publication.
But, like most first-time authors, Lachnit discovered that with publication her work was far from over: She had to help sell her book.
“Most writers really have to be prepared for the reality that it’s up to you to promote your book,” says Lachnit, 41, who has finally wound down her self-promotion onslaught, which included lining up book signings and speaking engagements, mailing out promotional postcards that she paid to have printed and introducing herself to local bookstore owners.
When it comes to receiving a promotional boost from publishers, there are basically two kinds of authors: those who receive a lot of support and those who don’t.
Those who do are writers such as T. Jefferson Parker of Laguna Beach, whose publisher, St. Martin’s Press, hired an airplane to tow a banner over Orange County beaches to announce his 1993 Orange County-set mystery “The Summer of Fear.”
When the American Booksellers Assn. convention was held in Anaheim in 1988, St. Martin’s launched Parker’s “Little Saigon” by throwing a bash in his honor for booksellers aboard a yacht, then paid Parker’s way on an eight-city promotional tour.
For his past two novels, St. Martin’s hired a Southern California publicist to handle all of his book signings and promotional events.
“I’ve been well taken care of as far as publicity goes,” says Parker, who still has one of the “Laguna Heat” plastic cigarette lighters his publisher sent out with publicity packets for the paperback version of his first novel in 1985.
Depending on their stature in the literary firmament, some authors receive an even greater share of their publishers’ promotional treasury: full-page newspaper ads, bookstore displays, television and radio commercials and radio and TV satellite interview tours.
Best-selling Newport Beach author Dean Koontz will undergo a nearly eight-hour round of nationwide radio interviews, via satellite, as part of his publisher’s national publicity campaign for “Intensity,” his thriller due in January.
But for the vast majority of authors, publicity is largely a do-it-yourself affair.
And if a writer can come up with an attention-getting gimmick, so much the better.
For her 1990 first novel, “Avenue of the Stars,” about a Japanese takeover of a Hollywood movie studio, Jina Bacarr of Huntington Beach showed up at book signings wearing a formal Japanese kimono and rice-powder makeup.
“People would come up and ask me if I was Japanese, and they’d giggle because I wasn’t,” says Bacarr, whose get-up not only guaranteed sizable turnouts at signings, but also generated media attention: Pictures of the kimono-clad author appeared in several local newspapers, and a major Japanese magazine ran a two-page spread on her.
When it came to promotion, she says, “the publisher did nothing. All this stuff I had to do on my own. The rule of thumb in publishing is, unless they pay a lot of money for your book, they’re not going to pay a lot of money promoting it.”
Which is why, she says, it’s important for an author to do something to stand out from the pack--"as long as it relates to your book and you know what you’re doing,” says Bacarr, who once served as an animation studio liaison between Hollywood and Japan and has studied Japanese and art of wearing a kimono with a well-respected sensei (teacher.)
Bacarr took a different tack to promote “How to Succeed in a Japanese Company,” her 1992 nonfiction book that provides insight into Japanese management methods and cultural differences.
“What got me on the ‘Peter Tilden Show’ on KABC radio and also got me KCBS’ Channel 2 ‘Action News’ was not the fact that it’s a business book, but the fact that I had a great chapter on sex,” she says.
The chapter, titled “Sex and the Japanese Salaryman,” includes such titillating information as the 20,000 “love hotels,” where many Japanese businessmen spend their lunch hours. The chapter landed her interviews on radio stations as far away as New York and Pittsburgh.
“Every single show focused on the sex chapter,” Bacarr says. “What I’m trying to say is, you have to find something about yourself or your book that will capture media interest.”
Robert Ray, author of a series of Orange County-set detective novels published in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, is less flashy than Bacarr but no less savvy when it comes to promoting his books.
Ray, who wryly referred to himself at the time as the “guerrilla book marketer,” believes in the saturation-bombing approach to self-publicity.
To promote his Murdock mystery series, he mailed his promotional material--flyers, copies of reviews and oversized book cover postcards--to the local press, 70 mystery bookstores around the country and a mailing list that ultimately grew to more than 2,000 names, which he generated from business cards, writing classes and writers groups.
“It doesn’t really work unless you have a fairly sharp target,” says Ray, a former Irvine resident now living in Seattle.
The point, he says, is to “admit that this is a product, that there is a marketplace and you can do a little something to move the product in the marketplace.”
It worked for Ray.
He remembers attending the American Booksellers Assn. convention in Washington, D.C., in the late ‘80s “and having booksellers come up to me and say, ‘I got your stuff [in the mail], and I’m selling your book.’ And these were people from Texas and Delaware.”
Koontz, however, strikes a cautionary note when it comes to spending time--and money--on self-promotion.
“Very few authors are good at it, and self-promotion can really seem pretty tacky,” he says. “I always say, ‘Rely on the books.’ For many years, I didn’t receive much in the way of advertising. It was largely word-of-mouth that got me on the bestseller lists before there was much advertising.”
Koontz says some of the self-promotion tactics that authors use “generally don’t work. I know a lot of writers will pay to have postcards of the covers of their books made and send them out to the media and so forth. Publishers don’t do that because they may be thrown away and may not have a big impact.”
Right or wrong, he says, there is a tendency among those who receive the postcards to equate the self-promotional gambit with vanity publishing.
Rather than sitting back and doing nothing when her novel came out late last spring, Lachnit followed Ray’s approach.
It’s not that “Murder in Brief,” the first in a series of mysteries featuring ex-cop Hannah Barlow, was ignored by Lachnit’s publisher.
Berkley sent out the usual number of review copies and press releases. And because “Murder in Brief” is part of the publishing house’s paperback Prime Crime Mystery line, it was featured with three other titles in full-page ads that Berkley bought in Armchair Detective and Mystery Scene magazines and in the Mysterious Bookshop’s spring and summer catalogue.
“That’s more than a lot of other writers get,” concedes Lachnit, “but when it came to setting up signings and everything, I pretty much did it myself.”
Being “frugal,” Lachnit, a former Orange County newspaper reporter, said she decided to focus on “the home market.”
She called local newspapers for possible feature stories about her book, using the local setting as a hook. She set up signings at nearly 20 bookstores between San Diego and Pasadena. And she lined up speaking engagements--with a Huntington Beach Friends of the Library group, a mystery-reading group in Anaheim, a readers and writers group at Leisure World in Seal Beach and the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime.
She also had printed up 4,000 color postcards of her book cover, which she mailed or handed out to bookstores and libraries, book distributors, people on her 150-name mailing list and 170 law school bookstores nationwide. Total cost for printing and a mass mailing: $1,000.
If the Green Door Mystery Bookstore in San Juan Capistrano is any indication, Lachnit’s efforts gave her a good return.
Owner Dick Hart says he has sold more than 150 copies of “Murder in Brief,” making it the store’s biggest-selling paperback over the past six months.
Hart says Lachnit’s female main character and Orange County setting appealed to his customers, many of whom are women. But he acknowledges that he wouldn’t have sold as many copies if the author hadn’t introduced herself at his shop before her book came out. Lachnit set up a signing at the store and later sent him a supply of her postcards, which he forwarded to regular customers he thought would enjoy the book.
“The response on that,” he says, “was incredible.”
As the owner of a small bookstore, Hart says, he averages 15 to 20 advance copies of new mysteries a week, “and there’s very little to differentiate one from the other.”
But Lachnit, he says, “separated herself from the herd.”
“You’ve got to,” he says. “Most of these publishers do not support their writers at all. I used to be a salesman, and you can go out and make sales or sit and do nothing. She wrote a good book, and then she went out and presented it to the public. She didn’t stay home and wish it would sell. She became a partner in the selling.”
And a healthy dose of blatant self promotion, Lachnit agrees, is better than doing nothing.
As she sees BSP, “Nobody on earth is going to care about this book as much as I do, and so if I don’t put all my efforts into getting people to read it, who else would be more motivated than me?”