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The Virtually-Do-It-Yourself Book Tour

By Sue Corbett

People think that since I am a book reviewer, I had some secret shortcut to getting published and that, once published, I had no trouble getting attention for my first novel.

Ha!

12 AGAIN was pulled out of Dutton’s slush pile and though I feel extraordinarily lucky it got published at all, once it went on sale, I imagine I felt as insignificant in the great big world of books as most other first-time authors and illustrators feel.

However, I was probably more prepared to deal with just how ignored my book would be. When you sell a novel, your friends and family and neighbors are really impressed. But in 2002 alone, I received 1,883 pounds of books. I know what they weighed because, like thousands of other Americans, I went to Target on New Year’s Eve 2001 to buy a bathroom scale. Only I used it to weigh books.
(I could also tell you what I weigh – ha, ha! And what my body fat is – ha, ha, ha!)
That near-ton of books included 589 novels, 885 picture books, 142 nonfiction titles and 915 paperbacks.

I’ve been a reviewer since 1996, so these numbers weren’t shocking, but when my editor told me 12 AGAIN would be published in July, I admit my first thought was – Great! July is a pretty "light" month. Maybe reviewers will actually see my book in their stacks!
So my expectations were very low – and they were met. My publisher sent review copies to all the major journals, which is the biggest marketing tool a new writer or illustrator has. Beyond that, I knew it would be up to me to create whatever buzz I could for 12 AGAIN.

The first thing I did was unconscious. When I needed names for minor characters in my book, I used friends’ names. I named the middle school in the book after the editor at the Herald who gave me the job reviewing children’s books. He was so touched by this he told every person he knows in the city of Chicago, where he is now metro editor of the Sun-Times.

I named my main character’s friends after colleagues. Each of these people, after complaining that they should have gotten more lines and a bigger role (one wondered why he didn’t have a romantic interest) not only bought the book, but told their parents and friends, bought copies as gifts, etc. I am currently revising my second novel for Dutton and I have been tempted by this thought: What are the names of the children’s book buyers at Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Borders? Heck, the chair of last year’s Newbery Committee was Starr LaTronica. Doesn’t that sound like a character in a novel?

My goal was to earn back my advance and it helped to be an Irish Catholic with a large circle of blood relations, but even then, I needed people to buy my book who weren’t tied to me by DNA. However, I made the people who are related to me buy the book, rather than giving away my precious contributors’ copies to Mom and her sisters. I figured if she could waste $20 at Bingo every Tuesday, she could afford $16.99 for her daughter’s first book.

In fact, because my book is based on my Irish ancestry, my mother’s family – the Looneys – was a natural audience for 12 AGAIN. So when I learned there was to be a big Looney wedding in Chicago last fall, my first call was to a bookstore to arrange a reading. I packed the house with book-buying Looneys. The store owner was very pleased!

I also scheduled readings to coincide with our family vacation and added a day off to business trips so I could do school visits. One of those schools adopted 12 AGAIN for its curriculum next year. The book the teacher took out of the curriculum to make room for mine was a Newbery winner! (This may be as close as I ever come to an N, and I’ll take it.)

Newspaper coverage helps enormously, too, so get to know the people who cover books. (My publicist at Dutton asked – after the fact, of course – "Sue, why didn’t you publish under a pseudonym? Then you could’ve reviewed your own book.")

Take your local book reviewer out for coffee or, better still, invite her (or him) to meet with your critique group to talk books – not YOUR book, but books, in general. This meeting is about relationship building. It absolutely cannot be viewed as a quid-pro-quo. But if your reviewer is like me, he or she loves to meet other adults who read children’s books.

Once YOUR book is available for review, you can send a letter mentioning the existence of your book in her stacks. (One letter. That’s it. Relationships end quickly if you are a pest.)

A review in the local newspaper is probably not going to propel you onto the bestseller list, but it will heighten your profile. Teachers, librarians and booksellers will know you live nearby and may be available for lectures, readings, workshops or signings. I accepted every single invitation to speak I received – bookstore signings, Children’s Book Week events, Career Day, Local Author Forums, book fairs, bake sales. (Okay, I made that last one up, but if someone had offered cookies, I would have come.)

The great majority of these appearances did not pay and, in one case, I dearly wish I had had a previously scheduled root canal and been forced to decline – a bookstore event at which I appeared with a man known as the LOUD POET who rapped a poem about child kidnapping. Then it was my turn.

Book events are a lot like books themselves. You can’t be sure which ones are going to be hits until you actually do them. As a newcomer, though, I decided to err on the side of overexposure.
Another thing I did was to join the online writing community. This was also completely uncalculated. When I left reporting after 15 years to write 12 AGAIN, I had just had my third child. My oldest child was then five. I joined writers’ lists to STAY SANE.

The people I "met" on those lists not only kept me company, they became foot soldiers in my guerilla marketing campaign – spreading the word by reading my book, giving it to their kids or nieces and nephews, promoting it to their librarians and other writers. One of the key plot points in 12 AGAIN involves the main character having to assemble these odd ingredients to bake "soul cakes" so she can be restored to her adult self. A writer friend I met online whipped up several batches of soul cakes for me – beautifully packaged little fruit cakes – which I raffled off at readings and sent to select people, like booksellers who held events for me. People were totally charmed by this. In fact, in my second book, my two main characters exchange friendship bracelets at Christmas. I was re-reading that scene when I was in the middle of my Do-It-Yourself Tour for 12 AGAIN and I thought – Hmm. Should I have them exchange individually wrapped cookies instead?

After I got my first really exciting review, I had postcards printed up with my book cover on the front and a blurb from the review on the back. This was about $125 investment for 500 postcards. I did one mass mailing of these to bookstores, but I wouldn’t do it again. I don’t think a postcard makes enough of an impression to get a bookseller’s interest and it was a time-consuming chore.

Instead, I send them out every once in a while when I come across the name of someone who I think might like 12 AGAIN. And I used them to make homemade press kits, gluing the postcard onto the front of a two-pocket folder. Inside, I put photocopies of my reviews, a business card, and a copy of a teacher’s guide for 12 AGAIN, which was done by a fellow writer, Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, who I met at the SCBWI conference. If your book has curriculum potential, having a teacher’s guide is useful – it’s like handing a teacher a lesson plan. You can even ask your editor or publicist to look it over before you print to see if they have any suggestions. (This also lets them know you are working hard to sell your book.)

Many writers and illustrators hate the idea that, after the tough creative work of producing a book, they must now be equally as energetic to get the book sold. (Not to mention the time it takes anyway from actual writing and illustrating, which is considerable.) But I loved my little book and wanted to give it the best send-off I could without spending a fortune or exhausting myself and – I did reach my goal. In October, three months after it was released, Dutton ordered a second printing of 12 AGAIN.

And I immediately starting worrying about how I would get those books sold.

Sue Corbett is the children’s book reviewer for the Miami Herald and Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. Her second novel (untitled) is forthcoming from Dutton. Special thanks to the author and SCBWI for granting LEE & LOW the permission to reprint this article.

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