Kevin Gerard talks about his incredibly unique and ambitious marketing techniques to promote his young adult series, Conor and the Crossworlds. This article shows the lengths that self-published writers can – and should – take to promote a book.
“And what are you prepared to do, now!”
I love that line in the Untouchables, where Kevin Costner has all but given up, and Sean Connery grabs him by the scruff and asks for more. In the world of self published promoters, there couldn’t be a more fitting question.
In February of 2004, I had finally had enough with working forty hours a week for a pittance. I quit my last job that day. I went home and announced to my wife that I was going to become a writer. I said I would teach as much as I had to in order to pay the bills, but beyond that I wanted to try and do something spectacular with my life.
I had already written two of the books in a series, Conor and the Crossworlds, and I could tell the next few books would turn out to be something special. So I taught, wrote, and fired off query letters to agents and publishers in the Literary Marketplace bible. I worked this routine until I had exhausted every listing in the big book; took me about two and a half years. I received a majestic stack of rejection letters for my efforts. I had to make a decision about Conor and the Crossworlds. Would I let it fade away or publish it myself?
An article about the Paolini family convinced me to move ahead. Eragon started out as a self published novel. Christopher’s parents sent him all over the country on speaking engagements. They almost mortgaged their home to keep the dream alive. Then something wonderful happened. A boy read Eragon, loved it, and showed it to his uncle. The uncle was a published author with Random House, and he took the book to his editor. The rest is history. One young reader made all the difference; even the Paolini family has said that without that stroke of luck they don’t know what might have happened.
I published my first book in January of 2007. Remember that most of the marquee reviewers won’t touch self published books, so you really are on your own. As a matter of fact, there are so many barriers placed in front of self published authors I’m surprised any of us get out of the batters’ box.
I decided to model my promotion efforts after the Paolini family’s experiences. I wanted to spread Conor and the Crossworlds all over the country, but I had very little money with which to do it. My wife found me a deal with Sprint – all the long distance calls I could make for seventeen dollars a month. After scanning the website, “Lib Web Cats,” I called thousands of public libraries in 2007. I spoke with the librarians and sent them a very cool postcard with information about my series. I had built an awesome website for them to check out once they received the card. Every time a librarian picked up the phone I became very polite and efficient. I wanted them to be glad I called.
In the fall of 2007 I began calling local schools about author visits. I remember the first time I visited a school in San Diego. The students went crazy for my presentation; they all crowded around me afterwards like I was some internationally famous author. I walked out of there higher than a kite.
I think it’s my presentation more than anything. I do a few different things when I visit schools, but the Powerpoint movie trailer is the killer part of the show. It tells the story of all five books in the Conor and the Crossworlds series. It lasts about nine minutes, it has fading text, pictures, sounds, transition, and it is really powerful. When I’m done with that presentation in a school I have a line of kids waiting to buy books.
I get them interested in the website, too. There are four rankings of warriors on either side in the Crossworlds. Students can e-mail me and tell me they want to be on the good or bad side. Whichever it is, I make a certificate for them for the least powerful warrior. If they want to move up in rank, they can get their friends to look at the website and e-mail me. One friend equals one move in rank. Five friends bring them to the next level, and ten gets them the top ranked warrior. It’s worked sparingly to this point, but it is a cool strategy.
In the fall of 2007, I got an e-mail from a librarian in Mississippi. He said the kids loved the books and asked if I would be willing to come down there and visit the libraries in their system. I went in January of 2008 for a week. The trip turned out really well; I visited four libraries, two schools, and the greatest Bar-B-Que restaurant in the world. In 2008 I also visited Oregon, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. All of these trips were financed mostly by me. As an unknown self published author, I wanted to spread the word more than I wanted to kill a potential visit by asking for money.
I continued calling in 2008. I averaged one thousand phone calls a month – poor Sprint – they had no idea. I mostly called middle schools and high schools all over the country. Instead of a postcard, I would get the school librarian’s e-mail address and send links to websites and other promotions. There is a website called “Great Schools” that lists contact information for every single school in the country. I went state by state and city by city to build my calling list.
You get all kinds when you make calls like that. A very small percentage hang up on you, most are very busy, and some are extremely interested. I have potential visits this year in New Mexico, Nevada, Washington, Colorado and Kansas, all because of making phone calls. Two weeks ago I got invited to speak at a conference in Nevada in February, on their dime. Now that’s cool, and it is a direct result from making phone calls. And by the way, my fee for visiting schools out of state has gone up to five hundred dollars a day – a fee that is still more affordable than what others charge. I just can’t afford to self-finance book tours anymore.
A student of mine built a MySpace site for me, and my niece tricked it out in 2008. Once she showed me how to work it I started spending quite a bit of time on it. The internet is a godsend to self published authors. The power of it is incalculable. Whenever I see a new librarian in my friends list I contact them and ask if they want some book cover posters for their teen room. One day a librarian from an all women’s college in the Midwest wrote and asked for copies of the first two books. I asked her why and she said they would be featured in their upcoming fantasy fiction month at the college. She wrote to me afterwards and said my books dominated, even over those whose authors attended the event. Don’t neglect the internet; it will do wonders for you.
I just finished contacting libraries all over the world. Not by telephone this time, instead I used a website called LibDex, which lists most of the libraries in every country. Yes, it takes time, but you just never know what the outcome might be. I might start a fire in Wales that will work its way back to the United States.
I got involved in a “Blog Tour” which could be very effective with the right amount of research. Basically, you and your books get featured on different Blogs on the internet for a day or two during a month long tour. Works really well if it’s a Blog that is frequented regularly, not so well if it doesn’t get many hits. The concept is very strong, though.
My masterpiece promotion has yet to prove itself. It’s an awesome idea – Conor and his girlfriend have to find the Five Keys of the Creators in the third book – so I thought it would be cool to hide five actual key boxes around the country and then have students look for them:
I had a blast putting it together. I found these incredible keys at an antique hardware store. I painted them the same colors they are in Book Three. I went to a woodworker and had him make key boxes. He did an incredible job, real mahogany with inlaid recesses for the keys, and laser lettering on the top and inside of the lid. Then when I was running all over the country in 2008 I hid them, with a little help of course. I made one very critical error in assuming the news media would jump all over the story. They didn’t, and that fact will most likely turn what could have been an amazing promotion into a very expensive bomb. But hey, there are still a bunch of kids who will get a kick out of searching for the keys, the ones that learned about it through my book talks. Live and learn I guess.
So what it comes down to is this – “what are you prepared to do now?” To be honest I’m not really sure. If I want to sell books I have to visit schools. I haven’t come anywhere near the tipping point yet. Have I sold a great deal of books yet? Not relative to my expectations. What I have done is established a wide readership for Conor and the Crossworlds, which is what I set out to do in the first place. I’m looking for that one kid, the one that’s going to show my book to someone with influence. The love is there already, school librarians all over the country tell me that my books are always checked out. I get e-mails from students telling me how much they love Conor, Purugama, and everyone else in the story. Scholastic is reading the books as we speak. I can’t really say whether it will happen for me, but my belief in the story has carried me this far. We’ll see what 2009 has in store.
If I can give any advice, I would say that you must always be considering avenues for promotion. In the shower, on the road, at work, wherever, don’t restrict your mind from entertaining any thought at all. The corniest idea might work like a charm.
Conor and the Crossworlds