In the publication world, there’s a tremendous amount of focus on the publication date as THE time for publicity and promotion. I’ve seen authors throw up their hands the week after publication, when media interest is just starting to trickle in, and say, “I guess we struck out.”
As I’ve mentioned here before, book promotion and publicity take time. It can often take months for an article or review to appear. But even though it’s ideal to get promotion efforts started before the big on-sale day, the sky’s the limit as far as what can be done, and what can happen, even long after that day.
My friend and literary idol Anjali Mitter Duva is a glowing example. Her debut novel, Faint Promise of Rain, released in October of 2014. Since then, she has devoted herself tirelessly to promoting it via traditional media, social media, public speaking engagements (including the occasional dance performance related to the book’s plot) and much more. Last year, her efforts led to the fulfillment of a dream: a foreign rights deal with French publisher Editions Tallandier. The French edition, Adhira, fille de la pluie, released in France (where Anjali grew up) this past May – almost 4 years after the U.S. publication. Anjali’s deep commitment to long-term promotion played an important role in this wonderful turn of events.
What did she do? How did she do it? I’m thrilled to have Anjali join us today to talk about her incredible journey, and share a number of extremely handy and insightful tips: One of my favorites: “know that you’re in it for the long haul and make plans that are slow, steady and sustainable.”
SB: From the very start, you had a clear vision of what you wanted for Faint Promise of Rain. Can you share that with us?
AMD: When I started to write Faint Promise of Rain, way back in a previous era, I already knew I was in it for the long haul. You see, I planned from the start to write a set of four related but free-standing books, all historical novels with dance and India at their center, yet all set at different times and contexts in history. FPR was to be the first. I think some of this long-term planning comes from my background as an urban planner working on infrastructure projects: very long projects with frequent cost overruns and schedule changes! This long-term vision is what set the tone and pace for my promotion efforts: slow, steady, sustainable. My idea was to build a loyal, strong readership and following, because I knew (at least, I hoped, and still do) that people who enjoyed my first book would likely enjoy my next three as well. But these are historical novels that take, for me at least, years to research and write. So my approach had to be one I could sustain–financially, logistically, energy-wise–over time. Years, if not decades. Five years in, I do feel I have been successful in meeting this goal. I don’t have millions of readers (yet) but I have a sizeable number, and, more importantly, I feel quite connected to them.
SB: When Faint Promise of Rain first came out, you hired a PR agency to carry out a launch campaign. But you took all sorts of initiatives on the side. What did the agency do? What did you do?
AMD: I did hire a PR agency, but for a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out. I’d had some reservations about her initially, and going with a publicist about whom I didn’t feel 100% confident is my one regret in this whole process. I should have hired you, Sharon! I did a large majority of the work before the launch, during, and for years after. In terms of a launch campaign, here’s what I did myself:
- Started a mailing list about three months before the launch
It included a monthly update with information not only about my book and related events, but things/events/sites I thought people interested in my book would also find interesting: other book launches, local Indian and/or dance events, blogs and news sites I followed, etc. I started with about 100 friends and relatives, and have added several hundred since then who have asked to sign up.
- Tried to be active on social media to the extent that I enjoyed it
I set up a Facebook author page, and I posted on that and on my personal page. I also joined several FB groups (of South Asian writers, of women writers, of historical fiction writers, for example) because I’m a strong believer in community. I also started a Twitter account.
- Launched a website (that I designed myself on WordPress).
- Created a video trailer, working with a friend who is a documentary filmmaker
- Planned an out of the ordiary launch event
Two teen dancers from the performing ensemble of Chhandika, the dance non-profit I co-founded, performed, and I served samosas and chai.
- Set up dozens author events and speaking engagements initially – some of which were scheduled months or even a year out
I emailed bookstores, libraries and literary series, and I put in proposals to speak at literary festivals and conferences, such as Grub Street’s Muse & the Marketplace, Writers’ Digest Annual Conference, and some South Asia specific ones.
- Created bookmarks (with the help of my cover designer) and made sure to hand those out at any possible occasion
SB: Over the years, you’ve continued actively — and passionately — promoting Faint Promise of Rain on your own. Describe the various steps you’ve taken.
AMD: The passion that led me to write FPR has never left me, and in fact is the same that has driven me to write my current book that is going out to my agent in just a few days. So it’s been easy to sustain some amount of promotion throughout the years, albeit with some ebbs and flows. The key has been to have an open mind and explore non-traditional avenues. I always keep an eye out for what other authors are doing, where they are speaking, where their articles are appearing. Over the last five years, I have:
- Spoken at venues that were not specifically book-oriented
Rotary Clubs, certain non-profit organizations related to themes in my book (India, girls/women, the arts), museums (including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where a dancer friend of mine and I presented a reading/dance performance together for 800 people), continuing education centers. These places do not care that the book has been out a few years, as long as the topic and event make sense to them and fit with their mission.
- Put together some mini book tours for myself
I’ve made sure to pick locations (LA, Houston) where I had a free place to stay and where I could center my trip around a speaking gig at a college or university so that the honorarium would cover my flight, car rental and food.
- Worked with a wonderful narrator to create an audio version of my book, available on Audible and Amazon.
- Spoken, in person or via Skype, to several book clubs
However, I’ve found that, other than word of mouth, it’s been hard to connect with book clubs; I’d love to meet with more!
- Done interviews (such as this one) that appear on blogs or elsewhere
- Continued to be active on social media
I also added Instagram to the mix.
- Continued to send out my newsletter
For the first couple of years I did so monthly, now I do so more like every three months unless I have specific news.
- Helped make the French edition of Faint Promise of Rain happen!
By keeping my ear to the ground, I caught wind of a French publisher interested in historical fiction, and I worked with my agent, April Eberhardt, to make a dream come true. Last month I spent a week in Paris speaking at bookstores for the launch of Adhira, fille de la pluie.
I have also been involved in two very rewarding initiatives that I don’t consider as book promo, but that I’m sure have had some impact in that area:
- The book club for teens that I’ve been running for over five years,
- The Arlington Author Salon, a quarterly literary series that I co-founded and run.
I view both of these projects as being part of what it means to be a good literary citizen, and I started each of them to fill a gap that I’d detected, but I’ve no doubt that they have broadened my network and benefitted me as an author as well.
Finally, I try to attend local literary events and to support my writer friends in a way that feels genuine and enjoyable to me.
SB: With a job, two kids and another book in the pipeline, how did you organize your time to accomplish it all?
AMD: Oh boy. This question. Well, if one lets enough time pass, the kids grow up, so that makes things easier!
No but seriously, as you well know, it’s always a juggle, with different elements taking up relatively more or less time, depending on circumstances. One can’t accomplish it all at the same time. These days, I’ve been working hard to finish my second book, so other things, like promotion and household tasks, have taken a back seat. I’ve also been fortunate enough to be able to put a job to the side for a while and to rely on my spouse’s income, and that is something for which I am very grateful, as I know it is a privilege. Generally speaking, I try to be good about using the time that my children are in school or camp to focus on book-related work. That means that by 2:30 or so, I have to put that work aside, something that can be frustrating when the muse is present, and a relief when it is not. I’ve never been one of those people who gets up at 5:00 am to put in some morning writing time; I love my sleep too much. So I have to cram it all into those few hours a day, but again, I know I am lucky even to have those hours.
I do rely greatly on lists–monthly, weekly and daily to-do lists, lists of ideas, lists of opportunities, lists of contacts. It’s the only way that I can manage to not lose the various threads through all the interruptions of life.
SB: Speaking of organize, I recall you had a couple of really clever systems and processes to keep track of your promotion projects. What were they?
AMD: Ah yes, I do have various methods to keep track of it all:
- A massive spreadsheet
Beginning about a year before my launch, I started a spreadsheet in which I tossed all promotion ideas. I just plopped them in there as I learned about them: people to contact, venues to speak at, festivals and conferences and the deadlines to apply, outlets to pitch, social media accounts to follow, you name it. Then, as my launch date approached, I started organizing it all. The spreadsheet has 18 tabs!
- A log of who I contact, how, when and why
I put in the date on which to follow up if I haven’t heard back, and the date on which I did hear back, and what the result was.
I use Evernote for most aspects of my life, and that includes a folder with a note for every event. It includes all the planning info, contact info, notes to myself, as well as any directions sent to me, PDFs of my presentations, etc. also use Evernote to save templates: the email I use to approach libraries, the email I use to approach universities, etc. Of course I tweak and personalize each one, but it’s helpful to be able to use a base template.
- A folder in my email program for all my author-ish correspondence
Sure, one can always run a search for a name or term, but with this folder I’ll have an easy way to reconnect with people–readers, presenters, other authors–when I am ready to launch my second book.
- To-do lists! I Monthly, weekly and daily
Of course I very rarely accomplish everything on a given list, and there’s plenty of cutting and pasting onto the next day/week/month, but it is a huge help to have it all written down. I already have a few items on a November 2018 to-do list, although we are only in July.
SB: About how much time on a weekly or monthly basis would you say you’ve been devoting to book promo over the years?
AMD: How much time I spend on book promo has varied greatly. Right around the time of launch and during the weeks following, I’d say it was probably 3-4 hours a day, at least. I stepped away from writing and focused on promo. Since then, it’s depended on many things, including what else is going on in my life, where I’m at with my current WIP, etc. Anywhere from 2 hours to 20 hours per week. But it’s hard to measure, because I don’t separate book promo out from the rest of my life. It’s enmeshed in much of what I do. And that’s how I like it. I don’t want to do “promo” just for the sake of “promo.” That feels icky and insincere to me. I try to connect with people in a meaningful way, talk about literature, India, dance, the arts, fear of change, the role and condition of women, language, and other topics of interest to me. Often the topic of my book comes up in those contexts, but it’s not why I do any of it.
SB: Looking back, which initiatives do you think made the most impact?
AMD: This is a very difficult question to answer. It depends on how one measures “impact.”
- Sales numbers? My BookBub campaign in January 2017 had the greatest impact.
- Sense of community, networking and connections? I’d have to say social media and attending/hosting events in person.
- Personal joy? Helping to shepherd the French edition of my book into the world, and also performing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, even though the event was free and there were very few book sales.
- Personal growth? Pushing myself to speak in public.
SB: Is there anything you would NOT do again?
I wouldn’t override my gut feeling
I did that in my choice of a publicist because I felt the pressure of timing, but I do think that had a negative impact on my book’s visibility.
I wouldn’t agree to driving long distances for non-paying events that are likely to draw only a handful of attendees
I used to say yes to everything, and I was a sucker for library events because libraries and librarians are wonderful and I want to support them, but I’ve done one too many events that involved four hours of driving round-trip plus the hour and a half presentation and dance, and schlepping copies of my book, and preparing my talk, and sometimes hiring babysitter or calling in a favor from a neighbor, for a tiny (albeit enthusiastic) audience who then doesn’t buy my book because, well, it’s a library. That said, I’ve also had some fabulous library events, so this is just an example. I’ve tried to learn to value my time.
SB: Finally, what words of wisdom do you have for other authors considering a long-term book promo journey?
AMD: I always like this question! Here’s what I advise:
- Always be open to possibility. You just never know what might lead to an opportunity.
- On a related note, always follow any interesting lead, no matter how far a stretch you think it might be.
- Be patient. Some things take months, even years, to gestate. My MFA event took 18 months to become a reality.
- Seek out venues that have a built-in audience or following, so the onus of providing the audience doesn’t fall fully on you all the time.
- Always ask someone to take pictures and video, even just snapshots on a phone, of your events.
- Remember to send a thank you note or email to anyone who hosted you, and to ask for testimonials and referrals. Most people are happy to give them to you but don’t think of it without some nudging.
- Value your time. Don’t be shy to ask about an honorarium and/or the opportunity to sell books.
- Step outside your comfort zone now and then. Challenge and stretch yourself. This will keep things from seeming humdrum and repetitive, both for you and your audience.
- Engage with your local literary community.
- Above all, focus on doing things that give you energy, and don’t do anything that drains it.
Thank you for the inspiration, Anjali!
WU friends, over to you: have you kept your book promotion alive and thriving over time? How?