Friday, September 17, 2010

Advice from One Who Knows--Carl Rexroad

As promised, I want to report on last night's Guild meeting. Woodsong Notes is also posted in Red Room, an authors' website and this post may be more appropriate there, but I know there are some local writers who read my blog here, so I'm going to post both places. Who knows? Maybe non-writers might find the concept of self promotion interesting.

Carl Rexroad has had two careers that make him a trustworthy expert on what can help local authors. Last night he spoke to Southern Illinois Writers Guild and shared his experiences on what makes a local book leave the shelf and go through the cash register in his stores.

After twelve years as editor at The Southern Illinoisan, Carl and his wife Kelly took their love and knowledge of books to a new level and opened The Bookworm in the Eastgate Shopping Center in Carbondale. Now over nine years later, that store is considered the premier regional store for rare books, used books, and local authors’ books.

Even better, when Walden Books left the Marion Illinois Centre Mall, the Rexroads stepped in with plans of their own, and a second Bookworm was created in that location. This new Bookworm features new books, but it is upholding its tradition of encouraging local authors. There is a firm welcome and a generous amount of shelf space for us there. A group signing for local authors was held in June, and another one is in the planning stages now. I had to miss the June one since we were at the college women’s softball world series, but I hope I can make the upcoming group signing.

The Bookworm was one of the first places that I scheduled a book signing when Down on the Farm came out in 2005. (That was how I learned not to schedule two signings in one day. I left Goreville’s Wolf Creek Antiques with plenty of time to reach Carbondale. Shortly before I reached the Marion exit on I-57, a turned-over semi blocked the road making all traffic stop. If I hadn’t had been expected at the Bookworm, I might have even enjoyed the experience. It lasted long enough that people were out of their cars running up and down the road socializing and getting acquainted! I was on the phone apologizing to Carl and Kelly.)

In answer to how to get your book sold in his store, Carl said that authors just bring the books in and ask. This is by consignment. Although he thinks it is important for a book to be well written, he decided to not pass judgment on the books authors bring him. He feels that judgment should be left to his customers. So except for a few mimeographed manuscripts presented to him, he has accepted all local authors’ books. So for no one has presented one so inappropriate that he had to reject it.

Carl explained that fiction by local authors is harder to sell than nonfiction because it is competing with well known fictional authors, such as John Grisham. Yet some authors use regional locales, and that makes the book create a local clientele. I immediately thought of Ann Legan’s books set in the Shawnee Forest or a recent one named Wolf Lake that I gave to my husband because that was where he went to high school. And I thought of all the Metropolis mysteries by Lonnie Cruse. Lois Barrett is back in our region again from Texas, and her earthquake books can be read not only for their plot and characters but also for their local historical content.

Again wishing that all books were well written (what former editor wouldn’t), Carl said nonfiction books sell best and are not bought so much for authors’ writing skill but because local people want that information about our region. They are looking more for stories and facts than they are quality writing. (I know some people who have presumed to write about our region, and their facts are slim, shallow, and shaky. Grrrr.)

I particularly appreciate Jon Musgraves’ books because they are full of his original research and are well documented. Carl explained that authors who continue to write more books develop followings that will make future books sell. Again I thought of Jon. I have sat by him at book signings and people trust that his books will be valued Christmas and birthday gift books, and they come looking for him. He aims to make his books historically accurate and he succeeds.

Carl explained that sometimes books sit for long periods of time with rare sales. Other books seem to fly off the shelf. He is convinced from his observation that authors making a name for themselves makes a difference. That means we must self promote.

When he started telling us how to promote our books, Carl’s knowledge of newspapers and radio stations kicked in. He urged us to send out press releases not only any time we had a new book or a signing, but anytime we received an honor or recognition that would put our name in the newspaper. Of course, our book should be mentioned, and often that mention will bring someone into the store to buy the book.

He always sends out releases from his stores about signings to all area papers and radio stations. Often these are reduced to brief announcements, but those announcements help. Because newspaper people are so busy with deadlines looming, one area of the paper does not know what the other areas receive. So for larger papers, he suggests that you send the release to the editor of each relevant section. He encouraged us not to forget the smaller free papers, who should be sent the same releases. They too bring people in to buy your book. He said the releases the author sends out will probably get better space than his.

Best of all is a long well-written feature story about the author with a photo enclosed. These can be written in third person by the author. (Who knows the facts about a book better than the author?) Carl emphasized these feature stories need to be before the signing, and gave an example of the opposite. The belated story helped but not like it would have if people could have come in and visited with the author. The better news or feature story you write, the more likely it will be used by busy editors who don’t have much time to revise.

One advantage of being a member of a writers’ group is that there are often trained journalists who will gladly accept an offer to write a news story or feature on another writer. If they are paid by column inch or per story, this benefits them, and this may be more pleasant than writing your own press release.

Carl did not mention this, but when you check out advertising rates, you realize how valuable column inches about your book are. If you can send a press release or get someone else to do so, you have free advertising that is more effective than paid advertising many people believe.

Sending to radio stations often results in author interviews, which builds author credibility and name recognition. He mentioned social networking and the importance of a website. Promoting a book is hard work, but he sees the difference promotion makes in his stores. An author has to overcome self effacement and be willing to believe in his books enough to let people know about them.

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