Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Etiquette for Authors

by Sandra Parshall

Ever get the feeling that your self-promotion is annoying people rather than enticing them to read your books? How much is too much?

Do you wonder what – if anything – you should do when you get a conference panel assignment that’s totally wrong for you?

Do you wish you knew the secret to getting book blurbs from writers you admire?

We addressed these questions and more in a program on author etiquette at last Saturday’s meeting of the Sisters in Crime Chesapeake Chapter. Writer Donna Andrews (the Meg Langslow mysteries), bookseller Eileen McGervey of One More Page in Arlington, VA, John Betancourt of Wildside Press, and I made up the informal panel, with Malice Domestic programmer Barb Goffman offering advice about conferences and other chapter members chiming in. I’ll summarize a few of the topics we discussed. Don’t take it as a personal insult when I use the pronoun “you” to refer to all writers. However, if the shoe fits...

Writers marketing mostly to other writers: This bad habit, fostered by the internet, doesn't do much to build your readership.

Most mystery authors participate on multiple listservs for writers. When you post the same news on all of them at the same time, we’re going to get a little tired of seeing it. We probably won’t mind if it’s the happy news of a sale, something your fellow authors can enjoy celebrating with you. But if you’re doing a 30-day blog tour, think twice before you post a notice every single day on every writers’ list you belong to. As chief moderator of the Sisters in Crime national listserv for seven years, I’ve received many private complaints about this sort of thing. Yes, technically it’s allowed under the rules. But when other members are begging the moderator to shut you up, you are not making a good impression.

Writers are readers too. But we shouldn’t be the primary objects of your promotion efforts. Other writers are your professional colleagues. We don’t want to be bombarded with your sales pitches on lists where we go for support and information about professional matters.

So where can you reach readers? Facebook, GoodReads and Twitter are the most popular venues at the moment – but all are rigged with pitfalls for writers. Again, overdoing the hard sell will work against you with your followers. Facebook is a social networking site, and while readers will “like” your author page and “friend” you on your profile page if they’re interested in your writing, they want you to talk about other things too. They want to hear about your pets, about funny experiences you’ve had, about the terrific book (by someone else) you’ve just finished reading and the movie you saw over the weekend. Then when you have a new book coming out, or you’re appearing at an event, you can announce it without fear of a negative reaction. If you use GoodReads, be sure you know the etiquette of this somewhat tricky site, and remember that it’s a place for readers to talk about books with other readers, not a place for writers to hawk their own books. 

Social networking is an art, and some writers hate it or can’t get the hang of it, but if you know how to do it right, it will help you sell books in the long run. (I happen to love Facebook, by the way. Please feel free to send me a friend request and to like my Sandra Parshall Books page. But I have made my share of cringe-worthy faux pas there and probably offended any number of people without even realizing I've done it.)

Other obnoxious forms of self-promotion: Be careful about pressing your promotional materials, unsolicited, into the hands of strangers in public places, hospital waiting rooms, doctors’ offices, etc. Some people may be delighted, but others will be offended. You don’t know these people. You don’t know what kind of mood they’re in, what the state of their health is, what’s happening in their lives and what worries are preying on their minds. You might not get the reaction you’re hoping for when you intrude and try to sell them something.

Ask permission before leaving your promotional material in other people’s professional offices. Most libraries also want you to ask permission before leaving anything. Some libraries don’t allow authors to put out bookmarks, cards, etc., and if you do it without so much as asking, you’re making enemies on that library’s staff.

Remember that nobody cares about your new book the way you do. Not even your mother. Not even your spouse. If your book is all you ever talk about, if you’re selling every waking second, wherever you are, people will start avoiding you.

Bookseller contacts: Eileen pointed out the all too common error of e-mailing to request a bookstore event and referring the bookseller to your Amazon page for more information. In case you haven’t heard, booksellers regard Amazon as an arch rival.

Bookstore events are unpredictable – even bestselling authors talk about signings where three people showed up, or none at all. Some major publishers have decided book tours are a waste of time and money. Discuss your ideas for promoting the event with the bookseller and decide whether it’s likely to be successful for both of you.

Book clubs: The book discussion groups Eileen hosts at One More Page welcome author participation in person, by Skype or telephone. If you make yourself personally available to book clubs, those groups will be more likely to choose one of your books for discussion.

Requesting blurbs from other authors: Donna made the point that you should stay within your subgenre. Don’t ask an author of humorous cozies, like Donna, to blurb your gritty thriller. Ask a writer whose own work appeals to the audience you’re trying to reach. Be polite in your approach and remember that you're asking for a big favor; no busy author owes you the chunk of time required to read your book and produce a blurb. If your request is turned down, accept the rejection with good grace and understanding, then move on to someone else. Don’t rant about it
on your Facebook page, naming the author and calling him/her an idiot.

The more books you publish and the more conferences you attend, the larger your circle of writer friends and acquaintances will be. It’s easier to ask for a blurb from someone you’ve met personally and whose own books have something in common with theirs.

Submissions to publishers and agents: John Betancourt’s Wildside Press sometimes receives submissions that lack crucial details – such as the author’s contact information. This guarantees that you won’t receive a response, and it marks you as an amateur. Be professional in all your dealings with publishers and agents, submitting clean, properly formatted material, described and categorized in your cover letter, along with your postal, e-mail, and website addresses. If someone asks for an exclusive reading, agree on a time limit that won’t leave you hanging endlessly. Again, don't rant publicly about rejections.

Conferences: Barb Goffman, who has been program chair for Malice Domestic for several years, assured us that programmers for the various mystery conferences do talk to each other and they do discuss the authors who act like prima donnas.

So what should you do if you write dark, gritty mysteries and you’ve been assigned to a panel aimed at fans of lighthearted cozies? Tell the programmer right away that you wouldn’t be comfortable on the panel, Barb advised – but be polite about it. Don’t be angry that the programmer hasn’t had time to read everything you’ve ever written, and don’t fire off an accusatory e-mail. “Tone is everything,” Barb said. A polite and timely request for a change will almost certainly be honored. If you’ve been on one too many panels about a particular topic, point that out in your author questionnaire when you register, and suggest other topics you would prefer.

Don’t make your travel arrangements until you have your program assignment, so you won’t have to turn down a panel because you have a non-refundable plane ticket and must leave before the panel takes place. If you do make your reservations early, or you have discovered that no airline has flights to your hometown on Sunday afternoon, make sure the programmer knows when you have to leave. Conference programmers are not mindreaders.

If you accept a panel, give it your all. Those people in the audience want to be entertained. They want you to be enthusiastic and down to earth. They want to like you, and if they do, they will be curious about your books. Answer every question as if you’ve never heard it before and think it’s absolutely brilliant. Don’t hog the microphone, or cut off other panelists, or act bored or condescending, or turn all your answers into a hard sell for your books. Don’t show up drunk. (It happens, and it’s not cute or funny.) Audience members notice bad behavior, and they’ll dislike you for it.

Guest blogging: Most bloggers will be happy to host you – if you make a request rather than a demand, if you make the request well in advance, if you produce original, entertaining material (not something you posted elsewhere two years ago), if you avoid doing a hard sell, and you turn it in on time and in pristine condition, with no typos and no weird formatting that has to be manually removed. Remember that many blogs, including Poe’s Deadly Daughters, schedule guests months in advance.

Don’t ask for a guest slot, then promptly forget about it. Learn how to use a calendar. The blog owner has reserved space for you, and you have an obligation to fill it. Send in your guest blog a week or more ahead of the date it’s scheduled to run.

Writers with traditional publishers should realize that their publicists often have no clue about the way blogs function. This is equally true of publicists with both small and large presses. Those of us at PDD often receive e-mails from publicists who want to schedule guest blogs on short notice, as little as a week or two. Publicists also have an annoying habit of insisting that everything go through them, with no direct contact between blog host and guest author. And some publicists seem to think they’re doing the blog owners a favor, instead of the other way around. It’s usually best for writers to make their own guest blogging arrangements and do it well in advance.

Our chapter members probably could have talked for another couple of hours about the etiquette of being a professional writer, especially as it relates to online activities. The internet has been both a blessing and a curse, offering us many new ways to promote our books while multiplying our chances of offending both readers and other writers and magnifying our every mistake.

What advice would you add to this list?

If you’re a writer, what mistakes have you made that still embarrass you? (Come on, ’fess up. We all have stories like that.)

If you’re a reader, what writerly behavior has annoyed you? And which writers do you consider gracious and pleasant?


Erin Hart said...

Great piece, Sandy! It's not easy to navigate the choppy waters of modern publishing. I'm sharing this with our local Sisters in Crime chapter. Thanks so much for all you do!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Erin's comments - thank you for all you do for the rest of us, Sandy! This sort of material is very helpful to writers on all levels - one's head can never be too big to accept advice, is my way of looking at it. Best of luck to you in your journey! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Kristopher said...

This is a great post. As I am coming to it from the blogging end of things, I would completely agree with the idea of authors seeking out their own guest blogging/interviews opportunities rather than relying on a publicist.

I am must more likely to respond (regardless of what that answer is) if the author has reached out directly. I completely understand wanting to use a publicist to mail out review copies, etc., but the initial contact should come from the author.

Also, make sure you have been to the blog and know what they are covering. I can't tell you the number of non-crime related books I am asked to review at BOLOBooks. Not going to happen folks.

And finally, understand the no blogger can review every book, it just won't happen. It is not a criticism of you or your book, but we have to make judgement calls (and sometimes we get it wrong), but we are trying - with our own time, salary-free because we love books. And with all the blogs out there, hopefully everyone can get the coverage they need somewhere. Keep trying.

Aubrey Hamilton said...

Sandra, I am so sorry I missed this meeting. It was wonderfully informative and on-target. Thanks for summarizing here where we all can see it.

MaryAnn Corrigan said...

Thank you, Sandy, for your post about writer etiquette. Though I attended that meeting and took notes, I'm grateful for your more organized and detailed summary. A helpful meeting and a helpful post.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Great blog, Sandra! Thanks for this summary. I've shared it with my local SinC chapter, Border Crimes.

Terry Shames said...

Sandy, these are great reminders. One I would expand on--if you find yourself at a book reading with only a few people, sit down with them in a circle and give them the same attention you would give a crowd. They will remember you well. And sometimes the questions in such a small group can be really intriguing.

Regarding blogging, I've seen people send out a general message saying they'd like some blogging gigs. This seemed like a misstep to me. Better to take the time to become acquainted with a blog and ask the host of the blog personally if he or she would like a guest poster. But I don't host a blog--am I right about this?

Sheila Boneham said...

Wonderful post, Sandy - thanks to all the members of the panel, and especially to you for pulling this together. I'm sharing it with my local writers' group.

I've been both guest blogger & blog host, so I would add a couple of things (since you asked).

If you are a guest, read some past entries in the blog you'll be writing for to get a sense of it's thrust. If the blog owner has provided guidelines, follow them. Don't tell her she can "edit or rewrite whatever doesn't work" (direct quote). And them provide the post you agreed to provide.

As a host, keep in mind that guidelines help the guest provide what you want. Learn to format your posts, and PLEASE spell your guest's names correctly and get their titles right.

As others have said, publishing can be a rough ride. Thank you for making it a little smoother.

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks so much to those of you who have offered your own suggestions. More, please! If you have something to add, please do -- whether you're a writer, a blogger/reviewer, or "just a reader" (believe me, writers don't think of you that way; you are our audience and we treasure you).

Terry, you're right about making the most of a small turnout. Those people made the effort to come see you, and they deserve your appreciation and full attention. I once attended a bookstore reading/signing at which the author started his presentation by complaining that the store didn't do enough publicity and it was a waste of his time to show up with "only" a dozen people in the audience. Maybe he doesn't realize that plenty of writers would love to have that many people show up -- and that insulting his hosts was very bad manners.

And yes, a writer should know what a blog's or reviewer's focus is before requesting a guest slot or review.

Kristopher said...

Terry, you are absolutely correct. Just as I would not send out a general request for authors who would like to appear on my blog, authors should not send out general requests for blogs to appear on.

Generally, since blogs do not see any type of financial gain from their posts (some might get a tiny kickback on sales via links, but I don't do that and most of those I follow, don't), the author has the most to gain from participating (ie. getting name recognition and selling books), so take the time to do some research and address bloggers personally.

And if you are a soon-to-be novelist, I would start checking out blogs now. Develop that relationship, so that when the book comes out, you are more likely to get the coverage. I'd rather not think that the first time you have visited my blog is the day you send a request for coverage.

I can tell you personally, that I have 3-4 books already on the calendar for next year (for new authors, with no advanced copies, sometimes only a very brief description of the plot), but due to my interactions with the authors via the blog, Twitter, etc, I am already excited to help them in any way I can. (Of course, I could always end up hating the book and not covering it, but at least I have the calendar space saved, just in case).

Sheila Connolly said...

All excellent points (wish someone had videoed that meeting!).

Even those of us who are writers get heartily tired of seeing the same post ("buy my book!") everywhere in a short time span. I think writers who advertise through social media have an obligation to alternate with something not book or writing related (besides, that's fun).

But we can all sympathize: there are so few avenues for getting the word out about your book, and the electronic paths are fastest, cheapest and easiest. Used in moderation, that is.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Thanks for the summary, Sandy. I'm sharing it with my local writers' groups.

Mr. Right is a musician and attended a recent guitar & songwriting workshop here. One of the Guest Artists was Livingston Taylor, and I snuck into his Master Class. He teaches stage performance at Berklee, and brooks no nonsense about nervousness. Get over yourself! he shouts. It's not about you, it's about the audience. If you don't think you're good enough, stay home. If you're out there, make sure they have a good time. Acknowledge their applause -- at the end of each song, he stops his strings, steps aside from the microphone, smiles and gives a little bow as the audience applauds, and waits for the applause to die down. Then he steps back to the mic and introduces the next piece. He creates a relationship with the audience.

So writers aren't performers, but when we step in front of a group at a library or bookstore, we are. Taylor's advice applies to us, too. Turn it on. Put your own anxieties aside -- they aren't relevant -- and give them what they came for.

carlbrookins said...

I was going to submit a comment about performances-yes, right word, by authors and Leslie beat me to it. Having done a bit of theater and television, and hosted numerous events for my reading groups, I have some background. AUTHORS, must prepare for their gig. I tend to prefer casual relaxed approaches, but that doesn't mean unprepared. Audiences of readers are smart and if you project an honest caring connection, they will respond. I recall doing an event in Madison at a bookstore in which the discussion turned on my educational background and away from my novel. It was one of the best interactive discussions. I still get emails from two of the readers I met that day who have become fans.

Nancy Adams said...

Regarding Terry's comment about not soliciting guest appearances, I'm not sure I agree. I know there are authors I really admire and if I don't know them well, I hesitate to ask them for a guest post or interview, so if I see one of them announcing on the Sisters in Crime listserve that their new book is coming out in a few months and they're looking for guest blogs, I'm happy to invite them if they fit into one of the usual topics I explore on the blog. But maybe I'm in the minority.

Sandra Parshall said...

Nancy, I think the SinC listserv is a special community. Even if we don't all know everybody else well, we know we share the same goals and we know that Sisters are famous for their willingness to help each other succeed. I don't do many guest blogs, so the last time I had a book coming out I let listserv members know that I'd be available if anyone wanted a guest post from me. The response was wonderful, and I did posts on a nice variety of blogs. So I would say that on a members-only listserv like ours, it's perfectly okay to put out the word that you'd like to do some guest posts. You can narrow down the responses, if you want to, by making sure everyone knows what kind of mysteries you write and what sort of guest posts you'd like to do.

Mark Baker said...

All great stuff and common sense as a fan and reviewer. I absolutely second the idea of authors posting on social media to talk about their life in general as well as their latest book. Use it like I do. Promote something you want to promote but also talk about your other interests. If I get to know you, I will be more excited about your latest book. But if all you do it post “Buy My Book,” I’m actually less likely to buy it. And please don’t post every time you have a new blog post up on every site/listserve/group imaginable. Please! I know about your blog. If I’m interested, I’m already following. If not, you’re just spamming.

Something that came up yesterday, don’t trash readers who get your books from friends or used or from the library. We do what we can to support the authors we love. And certainly, don’t brag about trashing readers who borrowed your book.

I’m new to the blogging side of reviewing, but I have been reviewing at Amazon and Epinions for years. Thanks mainly to Amazon, I get tons of review requests. Here are a few tips to help with those cold e-mails.

1. Address me by name. If it’s a form letter and obviously one, I will just delete.
2. I review mainly mysteries (mainly cozies) and middle grade/young adult mystery and fantasy. Don’t send me a request to review your science fiction epic or a non-fiction book. That tells me you don’t know what my interests are and I will just delete. I do occasionally read something else, but only send me a request if you can connect to it an exception I have already reviewed. Odds are I won’t be interested, but you have more time before I hit delete if I think you actually paid a little attention to me.
3. Tell me a little about the book. A paragraph or two/back copy type teaser is all I want. Don’t spoil the book. Don’t send something super long. And don’t send me to Amazon to read about your book. All I want is enough to know if I am even interested, but I’m not going to spend a ton of time researching your book.
4. DO NOT SEND YOUR BOOK AS AN ATTACHMENT. I don’t open attachments from people I don’t know, and I don’t have an electronic reader so I’m really not interested in the first place.
5. Proof read your e-mail and be professional. If there are words out and typos all over the place in an e-mail, why would I want to read your book?
6. Be aware that I get tons of these requests every day. I don’t have time to respond to each one. If I am interested, I will let you know. Don’t send the exact same sales pitch every two weeks for six months. It won’t help. (And yes, that did happen.)
7. Of course, if you can do something creative to catch my attention do so. I once got an e-mail that started, “I realize the irony of using spam e-mail to request a review of a book about spam e-mail….” It was outside my normal genres, but I did request that book, and I loved it.
8. Allow enough lead time for me to read your book and review it. I’ve got a long to be read list, so I need time to make sure I can get your book read by the date you want the review posted.

Those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head, but I’m sure others can help with more.

Kris Neri said...

Excellent remarks, Sandy. I wish I could have attended the panel. As an author and independent bookseller, let me add a few things. It's true that most indie booksellers don't appreciate being directed to your Amazon page. If we say we need to see the book before deciding whether to carry it or schedule an event, don't tell us to buy a copy on our Kindles. Most of us don't use Kindles, we read paper books.

If we schedule an event for you and the turnout proves disappointing, don't complain to the bookseller that they didn't do enough for you. It happens sometimes, despite every effort to promote an event. Instead, thank them for hosting you. They'll remember you however you were, whether rude or gracious. Bookstores don't invite diva authors back, and most of the divas who gripe, do ask to come back.

And especially, when the bookstore has bought copies of your paper books, don't suggest to its customers that they buy the kindle edition.

Jeri Westerson said...

That must have been a really great meeting, Sandy. And yes, I wonder all the time why other authors waste the postage on me by sending me postcards, why I get put on their newsletters. I don't have time for that stuff. I'm busy trying to promote my own work!

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for posting this, Sandy. Some terrific points that we can all take to heart.

One thing I'd mention about writers at conferences is that just because a writer is "bigger" than others on a panel in terms of fame or books sold doesn't mean that person should dominate the conversation and assume that he/she should answer all the questions. I was on a panel like that at my first Bouchercon and it was a real turn-off.

I was also told by my local Indie bookseller (who has met MANY authors, big and small), that some writers are so full of themselves that they demand a certain number of people at their signing or they'll cancel. These same people don't like to make small talk, either. They sign without speaking and expect people to move on.

This bookseller remembers stuff like that and then, whether they're famous or not, he doesn't invite them back to his store.

Sandra Parshall said...

Oh, Julia. (Gag) I hate people who think they're better than anybody else. Not only do other writers and booksellers remember that kind of behavior, but readers do too. They don't like writers who act as if they're too grand to talk to their fans.

Gloria Alden said...

Very good post, Sandy, with excellent advice. I tend to be a little shy about promoting myself and often let opportunities pass by. As for asking an author I admire for a blurb, again I hate to impose because I know how busy they are. I never ask to be on someone's blog, but if they ask me, I'm quite happy to do it.

S.W. Hubbard said...

Good post, Sandy! I would add these Twitter and Goodreads tips--go for quality, not quantity. On GR, I refuse to accept friend requests from authors who have 5,000 friends but no books on their to-read shelf and no reviews. Participate on the site as a reader and you will find genuine friends and fans, On Twitter, don't automate your presence. There is one author on Twitter (a woman I've never met) who follows me, unfollows me when I don't follow her back, and then follows me again the next week. She's done this at least ten times. STOP! At this point, I wouldn't read one of her books if she paid me.

Anonymous said...


Since you asked for more examples of poor author etiquette....

A while back an author with more than one traditionally published series under her belt asked for assistance on the SinC list.

I was quite busy, but I happened to know where to find what she needed, and I always try to help my fellow writers, so I took the time to answer her question.

In return, I received a generic email thanking me for being her "fan," and I soon found myself automatically subscribed to her author newsletter.

Sign me,
Not a Fan

Anonymous said...

Very nice, Sandy. I think the golden rule is: in any medium, treat people like people, not objects to be used or sold to.

Susan said...

What a fantastic summary! I was at the meeting, but I will save your post as a reminder. Thanks so much, Sandra!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am a reader (found this via Jeri W's site) and there was mention of possibly being a bit nervous about being up front for book talks, etc. As someone who used to sing (for pay), just remember that the audience is mainly full of people who are ALSO nervous about getting up in front of others, and who are vastly relieved that THEY aren't the ones up 'on stage', so to speak. You love your own book(s), they want to hear and see you, so everyone wins. People in the audience are rooting for you! And, I agree 100% re: being gracious if only a few show up... they made a sincere effort to see you, and if you can talk to them in a little circle (as someone mentioned)-- well, you'll probably make fans for life. Fans that will go out and talk about you AND your books. Forever. :)
Sang volunteer at nursing homes for years in a small group. Our leader would get mad when 5 people showed up (rather than 30+ or something). God rest his soul, but he was missing the point entirely. Yes, there were 10 singers, and 5 in the audience, but those people were still there. It meant a great deal to them for us to sing for them and with them.
And it's good karma, anyway. But mainly, it's the right thing to do.
Enjoy doing your book talks! :)

Mary Keesling, FL

Melodie Campbell said...

Such a wonderful, affirming post, Sandy! I'm the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada, and so many of us have been struggling with how much social-media promoting is too much. You have confirmed my own uneasy observations - thank you.

My difficulty comes with the job title. We have 340 members, and I get several requests every day to 'share' promo posts. I would have no Facebook 'friends' left if I did so. Not surprisingly, I also stick to the conservative side with my own book promotion, and wonder if I'm doing all I should.