Thursday, September 24, 2009


Elizabeth Zelvin

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.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think you're right--become a member of the writing and reading community and then you can promote a new release easily, without it seeming like BSP!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks for the good advice. I haven't as yet created a "buzz" but I know it's worthwhile if those of us who write novels are ever to have any kind of readership.

All the best,

Jacqueline Seewald
THE DROWNING POOL, Five Star/Gale 2009
THE INFERNO COLLECTION, Five Star hardcover, Wheeler large print 2008

Sheila Connolly said...

We all do cherish that dream of instant success, don't we? But I think you've got it right: plan for the long term. Participate. Volunteer. Make friends, and network. It will serve you well (I hope!).

Oh, and write a good book.

Daryl a.k.a. Avery said...

Nicely done. And being truly involved in those communities is important.

You deserve every success!

Patricia Stoltey said...

I first met mystery author Susan Wittig Albert that way -- she was at my box lunch table at a smaller mystery convention in the Midwest which I attended as a fan. I buzzed for her after the event was over because of that lunch, and I'm still doing it many years later. All because she was so nice!

It doesn't have to be a conference or convention, though. Carry your bookmarks and/or postcards wherever you go. You don't have to talk to every stranger you see (probably not a good idea, anyway), but sometimes you make a connection with a reader, and you should be ready. I'm going to the library's used book sale this weekend, and I almost always end up chatting with someone in the mystery section. This year, I'll be armed with bookmarks.

Sandra Parshall said...

Great post, Liz. I sometimes feel as if I'm *too* visible online and people will get sick of seeing my name, but I try not to be pushy about promoting my books. However... I finally have a new one coming out and it's never too early to start, so:

Coming in February!
Now available for pre-order!

(sorry, couldn't resist)

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Liz, you were so smart to attend conferences early. It's the contacts you make who are invaluable. A soon-to-be-published friend asked me to blurb her book, which I'll be happy to do, and said, "Who else should I contact?" I thought to myself, "If you'd be going to conferences early, you'd probably have some good contacts. I can help you, but I can't take the place of YOU making those face-to-face relationships." It's like building a bank account--you do a bit at a time and there's compound interest.

Lyn said...

Excellent post, Liz. As a newcomer to the writing life, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the demands and ideas, not just about craft but about career.

Best thing is to buzz with people, readers and other writers plus industry pros, you'd spend time with anyway--and not just always be grimly on the make. That could take the joy out of a career, and aren't we in this for the joy of it?

Anonymous said...

Establishing an onlime presence with online writers groups and social networks have helped me to promote my book in ways that could not be accomplished ten years ago. It works.

Stephen Tremp

Maryann Miller said...

Great advice. I particularly like what you said about the woman you had lunch with. Sometimes when we are not trying so hard to create buzz, it just happens. Good for you.

L.J. Sellers said...

Those one-on-one connections are the most fun and the most valuable.

Rosemary Harris said...

Liz is absolutely right! I remember meeting her well before Death Will Get You Sober came out (maybe it was our shared love of bright blue Crocs.) Yes to going to as many conferences as you can afford and as someone else said, don't just cross your fingers that you'll be on a panel - volunteer. You'll meet more people that way.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Turquoise, Rosemary. ;)

June Shaw said...

Great advice! Liz, I sure enjoyed hearing about how you built and kept a buzz going. It's something we all need to do.