By Keir Graff
Signing books at Anderson’s
Author’s note: At the beginning of the year, as I indulged in my annual ritual of setting more goals than I can possibly accomplish, I added a monthly “business meeting” to my calendar. Because I work for a company of one, my plan was to meet with myself, analyze my professional efforts, and ensure I’m spending my time as wisely as possible.I attended the first meeting (where I showed myself a nifty pie chart detailing my sources of writing income)—but I’ve been a no-show ever since. Somehow, the act of writing kept taking precedence over the business of writing.
But when Deb Aronson kindly reminded me this blog post was due, I realized I could kill two proverbial birds with one well-aimed rock.
Reader, welcome to my business meeting!
The purpose of this meeting is to evaluate my promotional efforts since the September 2020 launch of my latest middle-grade novel, The Tiny Mansion. The action items will take the form of a ranked list of tasks to prioritize for my next book.
BACKGROUND & CONTEXT
For years, my answer to the question of book promotion has been, “Yes, please.” Fearful of letting even a single reader slip out of my grasp, I have accepted or chased every opportunity, whether it’s a school visit, bookstore event, festival panel, book club, guest blog post, email blast, or social media post.
This do-everything approach does have advantages, including broad visibility and happy surprises, but a writer’s time is not infinite. Self-promotion steals time from the act of creation. One could even argue that the single best use of our hours is, in fact, to write the next book. But if we assume we have to do some self-promotion, it only makes sense to spend our time on the activities that a) actually sell books, b) meaningfully build an audience (that is likely to buy books), and c) are fun to do.
For The Phantom Tower, my publisher sent me on the coast-to-coast tour I’d always dreamed of—author escorts and everything! But COVID-19 required me to stay home and reinvent my school visits for The Tiny Mansion as virtual events. (You can read about that process in my “Tales from the Front” in the Winter 2021 issue of Prairie Wind.)
While I didn’t sell nearly as many books through virtual visits as I would have in person, virtual events did allow me to cover more ground in less time (presenting to more than 5,000 students over the course of nearly 50 visits), and even better, to reach readers in places, from Saudi Arabia to rural Maine, I never could have reached before. Best of all, face to face encounters with young readers always recharge my creativity and remind me who I’m writing for in the first place.
The Bottom Line: School visits will continue to be key to my promotional efforts, and virtual visits are a useful new offering.
Personalizing books after a virtual visit.
These are always fun, but audiences for bookstore events are more likely to consist of aspiring writers than young readers. Some of my virtual bookstore events last year were well attended, but many of them were not, and book sales at all of them were soft. Also, while in theory, I’m hoping to reach new readers who are fans of the store, in practice, many stores asked me to bring my fans to their event, which just isn’t sustainable.
The Bottom Line: Indie booksellers are still my heroes, but I believe we’ll sell more books together in off-site events, like school visits and…
Middle-grade book clubs are always a blast. I don’t typically sell many books at these either, but there are other reasons they’re worthwhile. First, connecting face-to-face with young readers is not only a pleasure but it’s excellent market research. Second, kids in book clubs are often young influencers, likely to read all my books and recommend them to others. Third, booksellers who run MG book clubs are always smart and fun!
The Bottom Line: Not all decisions have to be driven by the bottom line: I would do even more of these if I could.
There’s always a feel-good factor at a book festival, whether it’s held in-person or virtually, but I rarely see many book sales at these events. Being on a panel can be a great way to build visibility and connect with other creators, but there’s often a significant time commitment for a modest reward.
The Bottom Line: I’ll decide on a case-by-case basis, asking myself: Do I have time? Is it an interesting format? Is there something that makes this one special?
I’m referring to the dreaded “blog tour,” not posts like this one targeted toward fellow writers. Having written many guest posts on various blogs, I’ve come to the conclusion that most blog posts don’t sell books, drive readers to my website, or build my mailing list. There have been notable exceptions, like the ones I did for Nerdy Book Club and Kate Hannigan’s awesome Author Of. But even some commercial blogs like Barnes and Noble don’t move the needle. And this Tiny Mansion post I wrote for Brightly seemed to disappear without a trace!
The Bottom Line: Blog posts require a lot of time and work and rarely pay off. I intend to be extremely selective about writing them in the future.
Have you signed up for my newsletter, Graff Paper? You should, and not only because I’m sending free books to new subscribers. While I treat my access to readers’ inboxes with restraint and respect, I believe email is still one of the best ways to build an audience and grow awareness of my books. My Tiny Mansion announcement was opened by 456 subscribers—engagement I could never get with a tweet!
The Bottom Line: I’ll continue to send a monthly newsletter and annual or semiannual e-blasts, while growing my list however I can. Used wisely, email can create lasting connections.
Patton School 2: A teacher’s-eye view of a virtual visit.
I was much more active than usual on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for the first six months after launch, but most of the likes and shares I received came from people who already like and share my posts—I wasn’t reaching many new readers. Then again, I’m not comfortable being too personal on social media, and most platforms reward those who share frequently and unabashedly.
After years of admittedly halfhearted participation, I’ve concluded that it’s very difficult to reach new readers on social media, and that social media does not drive book sales. However, I think it’s a good way to maintain visibility among publishing peers, to publicly say “thank you” (to bookstores, schools, and others), and, arguably to build community. But it also takes a surprising amount of time away from the business of writing books. Like many things, it’s a matter of personal preference—your mileage may vary.
The Bottom Line: I wish I were brave enough to just cut the cord with social media; even though I’m not, I don’t think it will hurt my career at all to spend less time on it.
The one new thing I did this year was my “House with a Story” architectural contest for kids paired with the Graff Trio gift set offered by Bookish Chicago. A contest can be a great way to promote your book without having to pitch it directly. But while the contest entries were an absolute joy to receive, and I loved giving prizes to talented kids, I spent far more hours than anticipated administering it and I didn’t receive the number of entries I hoped for.
The Bottom Line: I don’t regret the experience at all, but I wouldn’t run another contest without lots of administrative support.
RECAP & SUMMARY
Well, I didn’t address all the issues facing Keir Graff, Inc., today. But setting priorities is a good start. If I can spend more of my time doing things that are effective, and less time doing things that aren’t, it can only help my writing career—and help me carve out more time to actually write.
Keep doing/do more:
• School visits
• Book clubs
Stop doing/do less:
• Bookstore events
• Festival panels
• Blog posts
• Social media
What works for you? Let me know! firstname.lastname@example.org
Keir Graff is the author of funny and fantastical middle-grade adventure novels including The Tiny Mansion, The Phantom Tower (a Chicago Tribune Best Children’s Book), and The Matchstick Castle (an official Illinois Reads selection). He also writes books for grown-ups—some of them under fake names! A longtime resident of Chicago, he lives near the shore of Lake Michigan with his wife Marya, sons Felix and Cosmo, and cats Toothless and Totoro. Follow him on Instagram at @matchstickcastles and find out more at www.keirgraff.com.