One of the panels I participated in at Killer Nashville in August was on building buzz about our mysteries. I shared the podium with publicist Tom Robinson, and Chester Campbell moderated. Chester’s the guy whose ace-in-the-hole promotional tool is his wife Sarah, who stands in the bookstore doorway asking people if they read mysteries. They’re my role models, both of them, since I have to be both author and author’s wife in these situations. (My husband said he’d rather die than accost strangers in bookstores. Maybe when he's 80 he'll feel differently.)
As the panel proceeded, it became apparent that there are, in fact, two kinds of buzz—the kind a publicist can provide, and the kind you have to do yourself. One that Tom demonstrated by “show, don’t tell” was frequent repetition of his clients’ names. One of them was in the room, and I suspect people who attended (or who get the tape) will be more likely to remember her name than mine. He did it very smoothly too, talking about steps this author had taken to get her name out and how he helped her do that. The impact was very different from an author saying, “I...I...I...,” which can quickly become BSP (blatant self-promotion) that may work against the author. The publicist can get a hearing in some places where an author may be ignored: radio and tv stations, newspapers and magazines, for instance.
I do work with a publicist, PJ Nunn of BreakThrough Promotions, and she does these things. But the kind of buzz I talked about is the inside job that only the author can do: putting ourselves on the map and doing all we can to make sure we stay there. In my case, it was essential, because it took such a long time to get published, and when it finally happened, it was a long stretch until the next book. I had no control over this.
When I joined DorothyL and Murder Must Advertise and MWA (I was already a “pre-published” Sister in Crime), I had just acquired an agent and thought it would happen fast. That was 2003, and my first mystery came out in 2008. So having become visible in mystery lovers’ cyberspace, how did I sustain that presence for five years? By participating actively. I joined in the discussions on DorothyL. Two I remember as great fun were characters we hated (nobody likes Spenser’s girlfriend Susan Silverman or Melrose Plante’s Aunt Agatha) and characters we’d go to bed with (everybody loves Jamie Fraser, Jack Reacher got mixed reviews seeing as how he never washes his underwear, and other contenders ranged from Archie Goodwin to Miles Vorkosigan). I had great fun, and by the time I needed to tell folks about my book, they were already my friends.
I went to conferences, getting comfortable and, again, making friends long before I had a published book to sell. By the time I went to Malice with a brand-new book and to my first Bouchercon six months later, these big conferences had ceased to be overwhelming crowds of strangers and had become lovefests that offered quality time with friends.
So far, I’ve been lucky enough to get on panels, but that’s not the half of it. Here’s an immediate example of the kind of indirect buzz that can fall into your lap if you put yourself out there. After a Killer Nashville panel that I wasn’t on, but attended as a member of the audience, I got into a conversation with another woman about what we’d heard and ended up having lunch with her. She was a total stranger, not published, not an agent or editor or reviewer. We had a good time at lunch—and the next morning, about 15 minutes before my “buzz” panel started, she came up to me and said, “I bragged about you on Facebook last night.” Priceless buzz.