Wednesday 11 June 2008

Book Publicity - from hiring publicist to self-publishing bad books

The demise of the PR/Marketing budgets of Canadian publishers has lead to a growth industry for publicists like me. Authors who spend years on a single title are prepared to hire independent publicists to assist in the promotion of their work. Typically book publishing houses have a small, experienced PR staff that have a finite amount of time and funds to promote each author in their stable. The bigger the author, the more time and the more money spent promoting the product. For new authors, or for writers producing work that has a limited audience, the PR support the publisher gives is limited.

Small firms giving personal attention to the promotion of just one title often gets more results that what a publishing house can get. Publishers know their limits and are willing to work with outside agents. However, there can be a BIG drawback. Often times the royalty money that an author can expect to get selling his/her book in Canada is less than what a publicist ... even bare boned operations like mine ... can expect to collect. It doesn't seem right to spend three or four years on a book and have a publicist take home more money than the author that is being promoted!

Some authors don't mind. They see the advancement of their titles as more important that the money they spend on PR. By pimping up the profile of a book, an author is likely to see more opportunities come his/her way, be it a TV or movie deal or simply by paving a wy to make the next writing project more lucrative and in less need of publicity. All writers pine for an appearance on Oprah, most authors have to settle for 2 minutes on Rogers Television (Canadian public access channel) thanks to the help of a publicist.

No advances, meagre royalty payments, limited PR support and predatory pricing by giant bookstore chains paint a grim picture for new authors. It isn't surprising that writers are turning away from publishing houses and self-publishing their own books figuring that what sales are lost by not having the support of a publisher are made up by getting a larger percentage of the sales revenue, controlling the marketing and PR for the title and reducing the printing costs by working with a print on demand company. Most of these books are available only on the web. I have been approached by a number of authors who want help in promoting their self-published books. I haven't had much success since the media tend to ignore books that are available only on the web ... they want authors and titles that are available in most bookstores across the country.

There are a few success stories for self-published authors. Steve Alten and I have corresponded a few times over the past decade. The author of Meg - a sci-fi story about the return of history's largest and meanest species of shark - originally was unable to find a publisher for his thriller. By using the web to presell his book to divers and horror story lovers, Alten was able to not only able to get his book onto the printing press with a huge (profitable) number of orders from people who had never read the book, the buzz on the Internet allowed him to sell the movie rights to Hollywood sight unseen.

Alten is a bit like Amway. He rewards customers who find more customers for him. He has a full-line of "stuff" to go with his growing list of book titles including gold and silver Meg tooth pendants (cast from a fossilized tooth), t-shirts and of course, coffee cups. His newsletters are so successful he could make a fortune renting out his mailing list. And, because he is promoting his own material, he doesn't have to retire a title when it gets too old, or to make room for another author's work!

The Alten method of book publishing (/ is more of a lifestyle model than it is a sound business plan. The author lives and breathes self promotion. I don't really know the man, but, I suspect he spends more time selling his product than he actually spends at honing his craft.

Not everyone can be a Steve Alten. He writes well for his genre and he understands his market - Jaws in the 21st century. And then there is Calvin Keys, who's book cover graces this blog entry.

Keys like a growing number of niche authors, has self-published his first book. Turtles Lead to Treasure, is a thin, soft-covered picture-filled book that claims it knows how to find hidden Spanish treasure in the United States. Keys uses photographs of rocks to back-up his belief that in the 15th and 16th centuries Spanish adventurers buried huge amounts of treasure in North America and marked the location of those gold and silver troves by subtlety carving the shapes of animals and reptiles into huge boulders nearby. Of course the Spanish realised that if the carvings were too overt anyone wandering through the wilds of the deep South with a shovel and eye for outdoor art, would quickly become a millionaire. So instead, the treasurer hiders sought out rocks that were shaped like animals and were near where they were going to hide their booty, and modified those rocks to sorta-look like lion heads and dog. The Spanairds crafted secret symbols that people can't see if they aren't in the know (and buying this book puts you in the know -- although one reviewer spells that NO).

The book isn't well written (no budget for proofreaders and editors with this vanity press offering), has more typos than a Stephen Weir blog post (seriously) and has no creditable documentation to back up claims of discovering sign posts for buried doubloons. The only review I saw of the book said that the black and white photos of rocks and boulders had been photo-shopped to look like dogs and lions. For my part I couldn't see any of the animal shapes he was pointing out, except when he outlined the shapes. The pictures are badly taken and the print job is so cheap, it is difficult to tell what is a rock and what is a tree in some of the pictures. I did do an extensive search on Mr. Keys and could find no indication that he has ever found any Spanish treasure of his own .... maybe his symbolic rocks are more markers for where treasure has been and not where it is now.

I was interested in the book because I often write book reviews about diving titles. This book was being viral marketed through a number of dive chat lines I monitor. Most blood and bubble books talk about either sharks or treasure, so I decided to ask the author for a review copy. Since I didn't pay for the book I wasn't upset that in fact there was no reference in the book to diving and all the symbols and carvings he writes about are in some unnamed southern US forests. A check with the dive chat lines indicate that I was the only person to buy into the claim that the book would be of interest to treasure hunting divers (it wasn't).

So what has Keys gained by publishing a book that few will read? He does have the sastifaction of seeing his work in print. He has control of what happens to his work and he has established himself as an authority in dog shaped treasure rocks. Although I have no inside information on the sales figure for the book, I would suspect that Calvin Keys is going to have to find his own treasure trove to pay for his book

But, compare that to the author who works for a decade to put out REAL book with an established publisher and gets no reviews, no sales and no profit, and only gets to see his work in the remainder bins of a Barnes and Noble or Indigo superstore. Who is further ahead?