Correction: The article described novelist J.K. Rowling as a regular on Twitter. Although the author of the Harry Potter series has a Twitter account with more than 1.5 million followers, she rarely tweets. This version has been corrected.
Two years ago, Sarah Pekkanen spent the entire U.S. advance for her first novel on marketing. With her fourth novel set for release this spring, the Chevy Chase author still does a lot of her own publicity. Getting the word out costs less now, but it’s a lot more intense. Her experience is a telling indication of how much marketing work authors today are taking on.
In advance of her upcoming novel, “The Best of Us” (Washington Square), Pekkanen is participating in giveaways on several reader blogs; she expects to record a promotional video; she’s publicizing the book on Facebook,Twitter and her own Web site; and she held a raffle offering the novel as a prize. (The hitch: Contestants had to order her new 99-cent e-novella, “Beginning Again,” which was published this week.)
Though Pekkanen has nothing but praise for her publisher’s publicity efforts, she knows that these days there’s only so much a publisher can do. “I’m a former newspaper reporter,” she says, “and I tend to research things pretty exhaustively.” Before her first novel appeared, she explains, “I quickly learned the statistics that the vast majority of novels fail to earn back their advances.”
In 2011, about 350,000 titles were published, according to Bowker. But as brick-and-mortar bookstores shut and sales drift toward the Web, authors and publishers alike are scrambling to figure out how to grab attention in cyberspace. “What might have worked 10 years ago, or even last year, may not work anymore,” Russell Perreault, director of publicity for Vintage and Anchor, said in an e-mail.
Savvy writers like Pekkanen understand the importance of developing early online buzz — and they know that much of that buzz must be self-generated and fostered by other writers.
When her first novel, “The Opposite of Me,” came out, Pekkanen benefited from sharing an editor with chick-lit phenomenon Jennifer Weiner, who helped plug Pekkanen’s novel on Twitter, Facebook and blogs. It was a revelation, Pekkanen wrote in PW. “Authors didn’t have to wrestle over scraps of media attention; we could boost each other instead.” According to Pekkanen, her book’s Amazon ranking rose in one day from about 200,000 to 62 and the book went into a second printing before its publication date. “The Opposite of Me” has since sold 26,000 copies, according to Nielsen Bookscan.
Big-name writers such as Jodi Picoult, Alexander McCall Smith, and Joyce Carol Oates are now regulars on Twitter. (There are some holdouts: Nora Roberts told me she “would rather be stabbed with a burning stick in the eye than deal with Twitter.”) Authors “are connecting with their readers in ways that writers could rarely do before besides the few minutes at a book signing,” Perreault says.
Still, will the revelation that Anne Lamott “just ate the third piece of key lime pie” or that Ayelet Waldman “is battling some low moods” and sometimes craves cookies make people more likely to buy their books?
As Pekkanen acknowledges, there’s a fine line between self-revelation and self-promotion. “If I were promoting all the time, I wouldn’t have any friends on Facebook,” she said. She says she tweets about 20 times a week but not always about her books. With three young children, she splits her work time about equally between writing and marketing, which she enjoys because “readers are kind and give lots of feedback.”
Her personal marketing budget has shrunk since her first novel. With word being spread by bloggers and other book authors for free, why spend more? Pekkanen’s publisher is offering advance copies of “The Best of Us” at online sites where bloggers and other reviewers can order the book long before its on-sale date. One reader-review on Goodreads.com has already concluded that the book “is the perfect poolside read!” Nothing like planning ahead.
Krug writes the New in Publishing column every month for The Washington Post.