By Sheila Lowe, forensic handwriting analyst and mystery author
When my first book came out in 1999 I was over the moon. I was being published by MacMillan, one of the big guys! They were going to tell everyone about The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis, weren’t they? After hitting their 12 week deadline with 400+ pages of timeless prose, I could sit back and rake in the bucks, right? Okay, I know that any published author reading this is already laughing his/her socks off, cause that ain’t the way it works, boys and girls.
Nobody told me I was supposed to do my own marketing, but it didn’t take long to recognize that any publicity was going to come through me, myself, and I. So I started calling bookstores and setting up signings. The first one was at Bookstar in Studio City, California. If only they could all be like that one!
Bookstar is located in what used to be a theater. Arriving on the night of the signing, I found my name, if not in lights, on a big marquee on Ventura Boulevard. I felt like a movie star! Unfortunately, my then-husband had forgotten his camera, so the big moment was not immortalized. But I quickly forgot my pique when we found 30 people waiting for me to speak. There was a film crew, too, for the evening news. I was pretty much flying by the end of that night.
I thought I could expect that kind of reception at every signing. Ah, dream on, new author, dream on. In fact, the further afield I went, I was often lucky to have an audience of five or six. After a 3 hour drive to Palm Springs one Sunday, I found myself seated at a table with no signage and the only people who stopped to talk wanted to know where the bathroom was.
By the time Poison Pen, the first book in my Forensic Handwriting Mysteries series was published in 2007 I’d hired a publicist. That was no guarantee of success.
Can you sleep on a plane? I can’t. Ever. We arrived in Providence, RI at 11:00 a.m after flying across country all night. When I marched up to Jason, the young man in charge at the (big name store at) Crystal Mall in Waterford, CT and announced that I was there for my book signing, his deer in the headlights look told me something was awry. He was unaware of my event and the person who had arranged it had been out for a week. After a hurried search, he found my books and set up a table at the door to the mall, which was virtually empty. The one book I sold that day was to an eight-year-old boy Jason had sent over. I thought the kinky sex references and violence in Poison Pen might be a little over his head, but luckily, he wanted the book to give to his mom for Mother’s Day. Jason felt badly and promised to put my books on a Staff Picks table and promote them, and that made the afternoon worthwhile.
Taking the Acela Express train to the next stop, we walked out of Penn Station and a young man ran up, frantically flapping his hands. “Where can I find the police? Quick! I need to find the police!” Welcome to New York. My then-husband grew up in Brooklyn, but even he was unable to meet the challenge of getting a cab to stop, so thanking the gods of wheeled travel bags we walked the fifteen blocks to our hotel. Luckily the weather was perfect and we didn’t have to step in too many weird-looking puddles. Besides, it was great research for book three, Dead Write.
Philadelphia was a mixed bag. One bookseller told me, “We don’t have any of your books. Someone called about a month ago, but we don’t have them.” But the Bryn Mawr Barnes and Noble was very well prepared. A great bunch of people turned out to welcome me, and there was plenty of ink in the local papers.
DC, Arlington, Tucson, the trip went on, but I won’t. I had a point in writing all this, but I think I lost it along the way. Oh, yes, marketing, which is far too big a topic to cover in one blog entry. But when it comes to book signings, experience has taught me a lot about what works (for me) and what doesn’t. For example, I am happy to mail bookmarks to booksellers anywhere, but I no longer spend thousands of dollars traveling to signings unless I’m attending a conference in the same city.
I’ve also learned that just as important as meeting readers and fans at these events is to get to know the booksellers, particularly at independent bookstores, where there is probably less staff turnover than the big box stores. If they like you, the booksellers will hand sell your books to their customers. And giving a talk about what your character does (mine is a forensic handwriting expert) offers people who might not otherwise have heard of you a reason to come out and listen. And if they like you, they will buy your books.
Of course, now that I’ve gone indy with my new book, What She Saw, which is currently in a Kindle-only edition--http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00E3P0C6K--I’m starting over, learning how to market an e-book. Any tips welcomed.