BSP—short for Better Speaking Program? Badly Spoiled Prom? Butter Squash Pumpkin? Blissfully Stupid Politician? No, as unlikely as it may seem, BSP stands for Blatant Self Promotion. And in the crime fiction field, it seems as though indulging in BSP, is a badge of honor, or rite of passage for an author. Almost every writer I know has utilized these initials at some point in their careers. Many are reluctant participants, others can be relentless in their pursuit of demanding attention to their work. All hope that by tooting their own book, sales will result, and with sales comes money (although the pittance seen by authors is scandalous), and sometimes more desirable , a contract for another book. Some of the more astute individuals try to tread lightly, and create a stir as creatively and quietly as possible, utilizing skill in directing attention their way. Others are direct, to the point, and unapologetic. And sadly, there are the individuals that think badgering, boasting, and beating their mantra over the heads of potential readers is just the ticket to fame and fortune. These people seem to permeate Blatant Self Promotion. You almost expect to see iron on labels with the title of their book all over their clothes, or tattoos on their foreheads, they really are that blatant in self promoting.
Having dealt with various publicists, agents, and writers themselves setting up signings, I used to be deluged with BSP on a daily basis. Most of it was desirable, as I was in the market for authors to push their wares by signing the books at hand. Some smaller published writers could become pushy or silly in their pursuits, and those had to be handled anyway, either to work with them despite the irritation, or devise ways to avoid or deny access to the store I was representing.
Today, oh my, the internet has expanded the boundaries of what used to be an occasional mention of a coming title on such reading lists as dorothyl, named after Dorothy L. Sayers. This list is for readers, writers, individuals in the business, or anyone who is a fan. It is the Cadillac of lists, well moderated and read by hundreds. People on the list in the past would attempt to sneak a reference to their upcoming publication through a post or two proclaiming the books merits. If that’s all the post consisted of, it tended to be ignored by most of us. I recently checked the facebook list of DL, and the BSP seems to have multiplied since I remembered it. Plus, now there are lists just for BSP—one is called Murder Must Advertise, and although I belong to it, I don’t visit much, because that’s all it is, a internet list of commercials. ‘My book is about to be released, I will be touring in such and such cities, my e-book will debut, my POD book is being carried by amazon, etc etc.’ If that is all it is, who are the people who read it? Do fellow authors really want to peruse endless plugs? Do fans want to scan down the list for the latest release? Maybe so, maybe that’s the main purpose of the list—to give readers a lowdown of the latest in mysteries. I thought, years ago, that a online list like this was directed at pooling insights as to how to promote oneself and one’s work. And that seems reasonable. Ploys that haven’t worked for many, can then be avoided by the rest. Ideas that panned out, could be copied with the writer’s own slant. However, blanket statements of title, author, date of pub are not teaching the self promoter a thing about reaching a larger audience, or clever ways in which to do it.
In many ways, it’s the publishing industry’s fault that authors are forced to paint a happy face and hawk their wares. Somewhere in the early 90s, publishers abandoned promoting the author. Now, the writer themselves trek across the nation, signing books in every B&N built, and in all the indies that can afford to have parties for the various authors thrown their way. Well, indies have closed by the casket load; B&N’s are slimming down, so the book tour is taking hits. Libraries remain, thank goodness. Before touring, authors could stay comfortably at home, working, gasp, on their next classic, instead of taking several weeks off to travel the hinterlands only to have 4 people show up at a library signing—2 homeless men, one librarian who has to be there anyway, and a stray patron. Or nearly worse—at a city B&N, 30 people arrive, lined up for a signed copy, and 29 of them want to know “where do you get your ideas” “how do you find an agent” and “would you read my self published mystery starring a chatty ape as the detective”? With self promotion comes the inevitable novice who thinks they needn’t go through the hoops the hard working author before them did. They believe, gain enough insider info, and boom, they’re halfway there. No one has been the Simon Cowell in their life, and told them the hard truth—you can’t write, so they bug the hell out of those who can.
Lucky authors are bestowed with tours. All others are truly on their own. The mid-list author who has no publicity behind him, have to pay out of pocket and schedule his own little tour—and/or go to one or all of the fan conventions. The publisher doesn’t always pay for author participation there either. Almost all the authors I knew who went to the Malice Domestic fan conference paid their own way. It’s at these conventions the average fan is deluged with author BSP.
For some reason, authors feel that giving away bookmarks with their book’s title and info on it will gain sales. If that’s true, I’ve never experienced it. There are piles towering as high as the Sears Tower with bookmarks from all the varied writers attending, with nary a distinction between published and self published. I don’t happen to use bookmarks, but I’m sure that tons of people do. Do those who have a bookmark in their latest read remember the title and author of said book? Do they rush out and buy it? Do they not rush, but buy one eventually?I’ve never heard someone exclaim—’oh yes, I saw that perfectly marvelous bookmark the other day, and just couldn’t contain myself, I had to buy the book! Some writers go bigger and have postcards printed up. These are even worse. At least for the bookstore manager. It’s hard enough to fit various free bookmarks in some available place in the store, but postcards?? Fuggitaboutit. I was given instructions to toss any and all promotional items authors may bring to the store, whether while at a signing, or just to drop by handing out bookmarks.
There are some wonderful promotional strategies I’ve witnessed, that may have worked in generating attention. One that sticks in my memory was devised by Jerrilyn Farmer for one of her titles in a series involving a caterer of events. The storyline was wrapped up in the game of Mahjong so Ms. Farmer brought various little related things to her signings. Egg rolls, fortune cookies, etc, all clever but subtle ways to remember a title. I believe she may have even given away a vintage Mahjong bracelet as a prize for some lucky winner. And that leads me to another attention grabber–auctioning off a character in your next book. Many times at a conference there are auctions to raise money–you know–I’m not sure what the money is then used for–but that’s neither here nor there–the point is, an author receives publicity at the convention because they agree to auction off a character whose name will be that of the auction winner. Fans take this kind of thing seriously. Everyone wants to see their name in print–it’s human nature, I believe. I was lucky enough to have an entire part of town named Plumley, by an author friend. I didn’t even need to bid!
Handouts other than postcards and bookmarks can either be wasteful and useless, or fun and utilitarian. Several authors have handed out cool pens that have an association with their book. A medical mystery author had dozens of pens in the shape of hypodermic needles with red ink, laying around the common room at a conference. I vaguely remember another author had pink cadillac key chains made as a way to keep a book fresh in someone’s mind. But even the cleverest give away, is still just a giveaway, and those little novelties only go so far. If given a choice of a paper piece–bookmark or postcard, or a key chain, pen–the latter would be the winner every time. Paper stuff falls out of books and bags, or are discarded from the get go.
Mailing a postcard–just one–to a store can be effective–that’s how I knew a brand new author would be in town on a certain date–no one from the publicist’s office called to set up a drop by signing. Mailing an entire box of chocolates in the heat is not a good choice. Chocolate could be the murder weapon, or the corpse could be wrapped in it, doesn’t matter–sending chocolates is a dumb thing to do. That particular author was one of the most B in blatant, or should I say, the author’s husband had BSP as a middle name. He was monotonous in his desire to promote his wife’s books. She had an almost invisible publisher, that’s how small it was–inches away from the label of self pub. And if one ever made the mistake of enquiring about his wife’s work–one would be buried under extravagant claims and grandiose gestures until one could slip away or turn and run. How someone could still convince themselves that this tactic works, is beyond my comprehension.
With much modesty, I can say that my special order image pins helped stir interest for those authors who ordered from me. A small advertisement, fairly inexpensive in the scheme of things, I’d take the front of the author’s book, attach it to a durable material, cut it out, add silver or gold toned charms that matched the artwork and or theme of the book, and the author would wear it to conventions or just down the street to the local butcher. What it did, was attract one on one attention, especially when not at a convention or other fan based affair. Time and again authors I made these pins for would relate how people were intrigued by the pins, and asked questions, which was all that was needed to get them interested in what the author created. Many writers found that their everyday acquaintances never knew they were published, and were so thrilled to meet an honest to goodness real author, their interest was piqued enough for some to purchase a title just because of a little piece of costume jewelry. Some authors order a new pin for each subsequent title. The pins have been auctioned, given as gifts to other writers (of those writers own titles) multiplied for an authors entire family to wear. Did they garner sales? Mildly, I would bet.
I knew they must be somewhat effective, because another jewelry designer ripped off my idea, and was selling the knock-off at the same convention as myself! And, a couple of authors decided–why pay me for something they could do, poorly, themselves? An author I had considered a friend, was a customer for one title, but I then noticed for the next title, she had tried to duplicate my design herself for her newest book. I was not amused. I wrote her a comparison–a ‘how would she feel if I took an idea of hers and pretty much copied the theme, action, plot points, but changed superficial things and then claimed the book as my own? I’ll never know, she declined to respond.
How should one go about self promotion? In my humble opinion, as quietly and subtly as possible. I find it’s the low-key goofy Geico commercials that catch my attention, not bombastic shouting about Ford Truck. I may remember that there is a Ford truck somewhere, but my desire to check it out would be dimmed by the advertising din. Humor wins every time. There are a plethora of possibilities in self promotion, and since in this brave new world of survival of the writing fittest, an author has no choice but campaign for their work, what they choose to get the word out can make the difference between someone remembering the title and author with pleasure, and remembering, and turning from the book in distaste because of the bombastic tactics used.
A little bit horrifying footnote.
An author related the story of a reading by a fellow writer at some Barnes and Noble. One of the employees in charge of setting everything up, collapsed and died, right before the little crowd of fans, and as the author was reading a chapter aloud. On planet earth, one would be stricken and shaken by this tragedy. The audience would disperse, the author return from whence he came. No. Not this particular BSP king. He believed the best thing to do under the sad circumstance was for him to continue reading from his opus. That’s right. What’s a dead person compared to his dulcet tones reciting the poetry of his soul? I don’t know if the audience remained there with him, if so, we’ve reached the point where real life is treated like a TV show. It’s watched dispassionately, and when a little drama is over, attention focuses back to the screen, even if one isn’t there.