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Book marketing 101: Book club visits out-perform press tours

In the past, the way to sell books was a publisher-managed publicity tour.

Today’s industrious authors are taking a new approach: visiting book clubs.

Locally, frequenters of book clubs include Sandra Benítez, Elizabeth Burns, Ellen Hart, Kathryn Kysar, Lorna Landvik, Mary Rockcastle, Faith Sullivan and Kao Kalia Yang.

It seems that writers of fiction, memoir, and nonfiction alike are discovering that speaking with book groups is a more successful — and enjoyable — marketing technique than the traditional press tour.

Kao Kalia Yang, author of “The Latehomecomer,” has found book club engagements to be more effective in spreading the word about her memoir, not to mention more rewarding.

During the publicity launch for “Latehomecomer” in 2008, Yang gave readings at local bookstores, but says the events were merely discouraging. “Attendance was poor — in one case no one showed up at all — and audience members didn’t seem to know the book.”

Given that public readings are often frustrating and defeating — especially for first-time authors — a book tour may hardly seem worth the extensive planning and travel involved.

“Fifteen-city press tours can be disheartening,” concurs Craig Popelars, marketing director for Algonquin Books. “You send an author to Chicago and only two people show up for the reading.”

Popelars credits Anita Diamant, author of “The Red Tent,” with spurring the current self-promotion movement among authors.

When her novel was released in 1997, Diamant traveled to the West Coast for readings and book signings that only a couple of people — or none at all — attended. Determined to overcome the humiliating experience, Diamant devoted three years to promoting “Red Tent,” visiting countless book clubs and community centers.

“She really pounded the pavement on her own with that book, using word-of-mouth as her marketing strategy,” says Popelars.

While the 1997 hardback release of “Red Tent” sold roughly 10,000 copies, the first paperback printing — 200,000 copies — sold out entirely.

“Red Tent” went on to become a national best-seller and perpetual book club favorite. By 2007 — the book’s 10th anniversary — over three million copies had been sold worldwide.

Although the time commitment involved in hand-marketing a book may hinder an author’s progress on new writing projects, the economic incentive is significant.

“Book clubs are a powerful market,” says Erin Kottke, marketing manager at Graywolf Press. “If even one club reads your book, you instantly sell 10 to 15 copies. If you make the book-club circuit and 50 or 100 groups read your book, that’s a serious boost in sales.”

Reaching out to book groups may not earn authors a spot on the best-seller list like Diamant, but the effort can lengthen the life of their books, keeping them in circulation and in print.

“Book clubs champion titles they love — books that are older, books that will never appear in the New York Times,” reflects Popelars. “Members will tell their friends and family about a book and will recommend it to other book clubs.”

By attending book groups, authors are also building members’ interest in themselves as individuals, increasing the likelihood that members will purchase their subsequent publications.

From Popelars’s standpoint, book club visits are such an appealing alternative to press tours because “more than reading and signing books, publishers want to engage the community in smart discussion and bridge the gap between author and reader.”

Coming soon: Audra’s list of “Do’s & Don’ts” for inviting an author to your book group.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Julie Kramer on 11/03/2009 - 12:34 pm.

    I’ve spoken to numerous book clubs. You never know what to expect. Last week one dressed as characters from my latest book, MISSING MARK.

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