09 October 2017

BSP For You & Me

by Steve Liskow

On the heels of Janice's excellent discussion of how to prepare for an interview...

This year has been a good one for short story sales (for me, anyway. Most of the other contributors to this blog sell more in any given month), but it's still stacking up as my first losing season since 2013.

Yes, I have more books available than I did then (so far, twelve novels and a collection of stories), but both my close friends know that the annual sales and royalties from those self-published books won't pay for our cats' prescription diets for a week.

The bulk of my writing income--and "bulk" is a misleading term here--comes from other sources, mostly editing and conducting writing workshops. Over the last two years, the State of Connecticut has been plagued with horrendous budget problems that have been passed on to libraries, where I usually hold those workshops. In 2015, I led sixteen sessions, my all-time high. This year, I did one in April and only had one more scheduled until last week. I know three other writers going through the same straits, and for the first time ever, we're competing with each other for the same few gigs.

How do you get more business without bumping off the competition?

Packaging.

Years ago, comedian Bill Dana, AKA "Jose Jimenez," had a routine in which the interviewer asked him, "How did you get the title 'King of the Surf?'" and he replied, "I had cards printed."


 That's not quite as outrageous now as it was then. We need to figure out the continuum of shrinking violet, effective promotion and obnoxious BSP. It's a fine line, and when you're offering to teach, it gets even finer.

Most people want to drive a car before they buy it. I have yet to buy a guitar online because I need to hear it and touch it first. It's the same with writing. People need to believe that you can help them write better, so you have to show them what's under your hood. Obviously, your own books can help, but some people don't have time to read them before hiring you.

When I began editing, I offered a freebie through Sisters in Crime. I would examine the first twenty-five pages of a manuscript for free to the first three respondents in exchange for a reference letter I could post on my website. The requests arrived in my email so quickly that I ended up reading five samples. Satisfied customers give you more cred than anything else. If you're a writer, nothing tops reviews from happy readers...except maybe blurbs from other writers who have a large following.

Those references are on my website, and I keep a printed copy for when I meet a librarian or--as happened last week--the head of a writer's retreat that plans to open this month.

I also bring blurbs that better-known writers (practically everyone) wrote for me. These are people I met at various conferences. In a few cases they mentored me or led workshops I attended. Reviews written by a real person, especially a legitimate critic or Publishers Weekly or Kenyon Review mean a lot, too. I print out a list of my awards and nominations because they mean that someone who knows the business thinks I won't stink up the joint. Besides, it's great being able to say I lost an award to Karin Slaughter or Dennis Lehane.

Be flexible. I have a printed description of my workshops and can make them last from about sixty to ninety minutes by encouraging more questions or giving people more time to work on the activities I include. I taught high school English for thirty-three years, so I know how to create a decent worksheet.

One of the first rules of grant writing is that you have to show how the public will benefit, and it's the same here. You're working with the library, bookstore or other venue. Remember the new writers retreat I mentioned above? Instead of charging my usual fee for workshops, they will charge the students and we will split the fee. I'll get less money than usual, but the Story Teller's Cottage will get some money in the coffers right away, which means they can grow...and invite me back again. You can spend "less," but try spending "nothing."

I gave the new director some of my business cards (yes, thank you, Bill Dana), which mention my editing. I gave her several bookmarks, too. The front is a head shot with my website and Facebook page. Easy to read, and won't need updating. I can use it forever, especially since I don't plan to age at all. Ever. I assembled the list of books on the back three years ago when I had the titles but they weren't out yet. Planning that far in advance meant I could buy the bookmarks in bulk (lower price) and use them longer. Starving writers go for cheap, OK?

The bookmark serves two purposes First, it shows people that, yes, I did write a book, which suggests what's under the hood. Giving the titles means people can find the books and read them, which does even more of that.

Sure, it's creating an image, but it's also content and credibility. I don't wear a tie when I meet people, but I don't wear cut-offs and a Playboy tee shirt either.

I've learned to ask a few questions, too. These help the venue and me work together and help that professional image again.

Do you have Wi-fi? Most places do, but I'm beginning to sell more books at events by card than by cash, so it's good to know, especially if I post the event on my website or Facebook page. If you take a credit card, it suggests that you're a "real" business, too.

Will you print out my handouts? If the venue takes registration in advance, they know how many copies they need. That means I don't show up with a bunch of extras I'll have to recycle. It also means that if someone decides to attend at the session at the last minute, the venue can print up more copies and I don't have to ask someone to share.

Do you have an easel or dry marker board (I hate power point!)? I can bring one, which shows I have my own equipment, but it's easier if you have to cart less stuff around.

Finally, I encourage librarians and other people to take pictures I can use on my sites for further credibility. But do I really look that funny?

Yes, it's BSP, but it gets your foot in the door. And the best promotion in the world won't hide a lousy workshop.

Does this all work? I picked up three workshops last week. They satisfy my teaching Jones. And since this is a new venue and we're guessing at the best times and days for the sessions, I'm adding an evaluation sheet that asks participants about the format, content, presentation, time and space. It also asks if they'd like to take another workshop. Criticism and suggestions are how you get better.

The Story Tellers Cottage (check their website and Facebook page) held their open house last Saturday, and I made a point of showing up with more bookmarks and to meet more people. They're doing the same thing I am, but they're taking a bigger risk, so they have fewer chances to get it right.

I think they're on the right track.


7 comments:

janice law said...

All good advice.

I have also noticed the drop off in book author gigs at libraries, at least here in eastern CT. Unless one is famous, its tough to draw an audience.

Paul D. Marks said...

Lots of great advice. Thanks, Steve.

Melodie Campbell said...

Good post! You confirm that it's getting harder, Steve. We're certainly experiencing that up north here.

Steve Liskow said...

Janice (and Melodie),

Not only have I noticed the fading opportunities for appearances, I'm noticing that fewer people who attend (a number that's also decreasing) buy fewer books than they did a few years ago.

Three years ago, if I simply appeared for a reading or Q & A, I found I would sell a book for every six or seven people who attended. For a workshop, it was about one book for every three people. I guess people who made the commitment to the workshop were more invested in me once they found I wasn't too much of a jerk.

Now, no matter how many people attend a workshop, if I sell two books, it's a great session. I don't know if I can blame it on the economy or what. I make a point of mentioning in ALL my publicity that I will have books to sell and sign.

It sounds like I'm not the only one seeing this, am I?

Leigh Lundin said...

When you think about it, SleuthSayers offers a master's course in writing.

Steve, I agree with your promotion ideas. A question comes to mind. Would a QR or bar code on the back of your business card with your web site address help promotion? I.e, hand someone a card and they could immediately look up your site on their phone?

Steve Liskow said...

Leigh, that's an interesting idea. I have my web site on the front (you can see it in the picture, the white font at lower left), but I didn't think of a QR code.

I DO have a QR code on the back cover of all my books, though...

keenanpowell said...

Thank you. I'm printing your suggestions to incorporate in my to-do list.