Frugal Book Promotion – An Interview with Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Although we self-pubs have all heard by now that traditional publishers are doing less promotion for their authors than they used to, compared to where we’re sitting, they still have it pretty good. They have a Real Publisher backing their work. They actually have a shot at being taken seriously before anyone even reads their book, and at being reviewed by the New York Times. Because we don’t have any of that, if we want people to know about our books, we’re going to have to do our own promotion and marketing.

No one seems to know more about how to promote yourself than Carolyn Howard-Johnson. Her The Frugal Book Promoter is an essential guide for any writer thinking about self-promotion (I own a copy of this, myself), and the rest of her award-winning “do it frugally” series is also a must-have: The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success, and her latest in the series, A Retailer’s Guide to Frugal In-Store Promotion.

If you haven’t heard of Ms. Howard-Johnson, you should know she’s not one of those writers who seemed to think, “I want to make money. Writers like to spend their money on books they think will help them get rich and famous,” and then wrote something like that. She is an instructor for UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program whose own fiction and nonfiction have won multiple awards. And there’s more. Much, much more. Check out her page at Author’s Den or her official website.

Self-Publishing Review: Much of what you write greatly benefits self-published writers who don’t have an editor at a publishing house, and who don’t have the kind of money that will pay for a freelance editor. That is, as helpful as your tips are to traditionally published and self-published alike, you’re very self-published writer-friendly.

howard-johnsonCarolyn Howard-Johnson: Actually, I believe strongly that my books are also for those who write for traditional publishers as well. Too many of them come to their publishing experiencing with expectations based on the old model, which is that a publisher who gives them an advance will also assign a marketing budget and do PR and other promotion for them. That doesn’t happen much of the time, and when it does, it is often disappointing. Every writer should know the publishing industry. We expect that doctors know how a hospital is run, even though they may only use the operating room. Occasionally a writer who doesn’t know promotion (or much about editing or formatting or printing or indexing . . . whew! You get the idea!) will do well. But they are flukes. Publishing is like any other career. We need to take the whole business seriously.

SPR: Why did you self-publish?

CHJ: When my novel This Is the Place was published, I made all the mistakes I listed above. I just didn’t know better. I also didn’t bother to find out. In spite of having a public relations and journalism background, I pocketed my money and waited for things to happen. They didn’t. When I changed my tack, good things happened. I had to let my fellow writers know about that, and I self-published that first how-to book. Obviously, I’d been burned with traditional publishing. I was going to do all the work, anyway, so I might as well have all the control and, frankly, take all the profits.

SPR: You’ve said that you, like most of us, struggle with balancing creative writing with marketing. What made you decide to be such an advocate for do-it-yourself marketing and promotion, and have you found a way, through time and experience, to successfully manage time for both creative writing and marketing?

CHJ: Ha! You hit my weak point. I struggle with this daily. I try to balance promotion and writing, but I have a double balancing act to perform. Within my time allotted to writing, I try to spend some of it with nonfiction (mostly to help other writers) and some of it with fiction and poetry. What is hard is that PR grows naturally. At first one doesn’t see results but soon it starts growing. And soon after that, it can take over your life.

SPR: If you were only allowed to give one piece of advice to a writer about marketing or promotion, what would it be? (I know this will be hard, because every single possible good marketing idea is covered in your book and there are about one million of them, but … ) What would you say is a key essential? Having a website? Maintaining a blog?

A website is important. But what many – maybe even most – writers miss is the key element to their website: a media room where editors, radio hosts, etc., can find what they need as a download with one or two clicks. It is not good enough that what you’ve published is on one page, your awards on another, your speaking skills on another, your quotations on another. Editors and producers are busy people. They don’t have time to spend on big search efforts. It is our job to make their jobs easier.

By the way, even websites can be FRUGAL. I still use AuthorsDen.com as a backup and networking site. I’m especially glad I have it when www.howtodoitfrugally.com goes on the blink.

Another key is to stay with it. Don’t expect to trace results from any single effort. And don’t measure how successful you are by how many books you sell. You are building a career, not selling books. People who network and promote well don’t have to sell books. The sales come.

SPR: You’re an author with your own books to promote, yet you host the New Book Review, which allows authors (or reviewers or readers) to send in their favorite review for their book of choice so that readers will learn about it. What gave you the idea for that blog?

CHJ: Marketing is misunderstood. Witness my comment about selling books in the question before this. Marketing and public relations (a sub-discipline of marketing) is about caring what other people want, learning what that is, and trying to help them with it. When we’re authentic about that process, people know. And they help. Yes, one should have a great product, but there are lots of great books out there moldering in drawers.

SPR: Because I just recently found it, The New Book Review is very new to me, but the list of reviews posted takes a lot of scrolling to get through. How long has it been online?

CHJ: I should have been paying more attention to the “labeling” or indexing feature on my blog. It should help people find reviews in the genre that interests them. It hasn’t been up long, but it’s a free service, designed to help fellow writers. So it’s been popular. I don’t think it’s been up more than a year. I’d have to go back to look at that first post, though.

SPR: How did you publicize it to such a degree that it found a spot on Online Universities’ 101 Book Blogs You Need to Read? I ask because almost everyone has a blog, yet most blog owners get about ten or twenty hits a day, if that. And you have sixty blog followers. How did you do that?

CHJ: No effort ever stands alone. Even a free one. Even one that helps a huge segment like writers. But the Web is supremely suited to getting the word out there. So we must integrate. I let people know about reviews when they get posted – on Twitter, on Facebook. But I also ask the participating authors to help. It’s sort of a training ground for them in cross promotion. Once I’ve posted their review, I even send them a little how-to list of ideas for promoting their New Book Review review!

SPR: Are there any book reviews – assuming they’re professionally written (that is, no swearing) and not obscene – you won’t post at the New Book Review?

CHJ: Not really. I figure that if someone loved the book and took the time to tell others about it, then others will like it, too. You know, not everyone expects their books to have been written using accepted techniques. I just read a book by a critically acclaimed author that I didn’t enjoy at all, and another very flawed one that I loved. By the way, I don’t review much these days. It’s that balancing act we spoke of. I just have the blog to help other writers, not to get free books myself or to get known reviewing. Having said that, there is a section in The Frugal Book Promoter telling writers how to begin networking and getting published by reviewing. Reviewing has been very good to me at many different levels.

jpgSPR: Back to marketing: The Frugal Book Promoter covers everything from author photos to the giving away of free e-books. Whatever the marketing trick, you know it. That being said, would your publicist suffer from being micromanaged, or would you be able to trust her to utilize all of the methods? Or: would you simply supplement her work with your own?

CHJ: If one is lucky enough to have a publicist, he or she will need the author. No one will love your book like you do, or understand it as well. No one else will open the paper in the morning and say, “Aha! That news story applies to my book!” Your publicist might do that, but you will not be her only client. So you call her and say, “Did you see the story on polygamy this morning? Let’s get This Is the Place out there so it can be recommended by hosts and bloggers everywhere.” If she’s a pro, she will appreciate that. She will love you even more if you let her know you are there to help if she needs it.

SPR: What is the greatest self-promotion success you’ve had?

CHJ: They truly all work together. But my favorite is the cross-promotional cookbook I did with 27 other authors from around the world. There is an article on how we did that at www.budurl.com/FreeContent on my web site, www.howtodoitfrugally.com. It was also the longest lasting of all my individual promotion efforts.

SPR: I asked you earlier what one thing you would tell authors to do promotion-wise. Marketing yourself can be extraordinarily gratifying, but it can also be discouraging, and frustrating, and the extreme highs and lows can even make a person feel a little crazy. What words of advice do you have for those doing their own marketing and having a tough time during the low points?

CHJ: Oh, gosh. Try another promotion so you’re looking ahead, not back. And remember a great retailer once said something like, “We know advertising works. We just don’t know which one.” There is such a thing as marketing research but why waste time researching when we could use the time to promote? That research will only tell you for sure how well something worked yesterday. Tomorrow is a new day.

Oh, another thing. Know what branding is. Find the discussion on it in The Frugal Book Promoter. If all your promotions are carefully considered branding efforts, you’ll know you’re on the right track even if you can’t trace them to a blip in book sales.

  • To underscore how interconnected the world is now, a few days ago, I received a note from Carolyn Howard-Johnson out of the blue that said that my novel, “The Brightest Moon of the Century,” won one of her Noble (Not Nobel) Awards as a Best Book for 2009. I was stunned and honored. You can read her column at http://www.myshelf.com/backtoliterature/column.htm. Then I found this article here today and learned about her New Reviews site. Her work day must be amazing.

    Ms. Howard-Johnson is giving much to people whose books could get easily get lost in the avalanche of new books. I’m pleased to find her here on SPR.

  • I’m not even blowing smoke. Her “Frugal Book Promoter” has – seriously – every. single. possible. marketing. idea. It’s amazing. I love love love it. I just wish I had time to follow all of her advice. What time I do have, though, I flip through her book and learn there’s something I missed that’s easy enough to go ahead and do.

  • cliffjburns

    I find myself sometimes clenching my teeth (still) at the amount of time and energy promotion or some other aspect of the business side takes away from my writing. And I’m been an indie publisher/writer for a long time. It rankles that instead of devoting my focus and industry on creating new work or editing a manuscript into shape, I have to be making trips to the post office and spending HOURS on-line, getting my name out there (without being too pushy, aye, there’s the rub) hoping to spark interest, draw a few more disaffected readers to my blog, get them sampling my work, exposing them to my oddball fictions, poems and radio plays…