[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

SFWRITER.COM > How to Write > On Writing: Self-Promotion


by Robert J. Sawyer


Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.

At the science-fiction convention ConText '91 in Edmonton, I gave a talk on self-promotion. The room was packed, and the talk seemed to make a big splash. Audio tapes of it have been circulating for the intervening six years, and people still ask me questions about self-promotion. More: large numbers of Canadian writers now seem to be doing the things I discussed.

I say "seem to," because although much energy is going into their self-promotion, these writers aren't getting the results they want. So, this time out, I thought I'd give you Rob's Six Rules of Self-Promotion.

Rule One: You've got to break eggs to make eggs

Self-promotion costs money. If you were starting a dental practice, you'd expect to spend tens of thousands of dollars getting your business off the ground. Why should a new writer balk at spending some money, too? I met one wannabe recently who said he couldn't afford to do any promotion while he was starting up, but would do some once he got established. He was missing the whole point: promotion is a large part of how you get established.

[Newsletter] On the other hand, your promotional efforts have to be cost-effective. I do a newsletter a couple of times a year called Sfwriter.com: News from the Robert J. Sawyer Web Site. It goes to the media, booksellers, and librarians, but I normally don't send it to individual readers (although I do put a small supply out on the freebie tables at SF conventions). Printing and mailing costs me about a buck an issue — meaning if I mail the newsletter to someone, and that person decides to buy my latest paperback because of it, I've lost about fifty cents on the deal. Which brings us to . . .

Rule Two: Let the media leverage your efforts

It's pointless to try to promote your book one-on-one to readers — and it's also irritating for the reader. They call it "mass-market" publishing for a reason: a U.S. publisher will want to sell a minimum of 3,000 hardcovers or 15,000 paperbacks. With real perseverance, you might persuade thirty people to drop the thirty-odd bucks on your hardcover, and maybe even 150 people to spend eight bucks on your paperback. But, for all that making a pest of yourself, you've only reached one percent of the number of people you need to make the book even marginally successful.

Instead of going after individual book-buyers, almost all of your promotional efforts should be aimed at the media: newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. They'll get word of your work out to thousands of people for you. Learn to do press releases (there are samples on my web page at www.sfwriter.com, and you'll find some more in the wonderful book The Writer's Guide to Self-Promotion and Publicity by Elane Feldman, published by Writer's Digest Books).

[Rob Sawyer, Brent Bambury] [Rob on Canada AM]
Also, learn to send your press releases effectively. The cheapest, fastest, and easiest way is with a fax modem: I write my press releases on my computer, and, while I'm sleeping, I have my fax modem send them to a list of forty or so media outlets, including CBC's Midday, CTV's Canada AM, The Globe and Mail, other daily papers across Canada, my local community papers, and the Canadian Press wire service. Note that press releases must be timely: I've seen many writers win awards, then, a month later, decided to snail-mail out a press release. Of course, they end up getting no coverage at all.

Rule Three: Quality counts

Still, you may want to do some flyers or bookmarks — although, in my experience, these are the least effective marketing tool. But if you are going to do them, they have to look professional. If you don't know anything about layout and design — learn. I'm lucky enough to have a wife who worked for years in the printing industry, but for those who don't, get a copy of the book Looking Good in Print: A Guide to Basic Design for Desktop Publishing by Roger C. Parker (Ventana Press).

Print your promotional material on fancy paper. The best selection (but also the priciest) is from the mail-order firm Paper Direct (1-800-A-PAPERS); most office-supply stores also carry desktop-publishing papers from GeoPaper, GreatPapers!, and other suppliers.

Rule Four: Promotion is cumulative

The first time you send out a press release, you won't get much response — maybe a couple of column-inches in the local weekly paper, and that only if you're lucky.

But it's just like sending out short stories. You can't give up after the first rejection. A little while ago, Imprint (a weekly book program produced by TVOntario and also carried nationally on CBC Newsworld) phoned me and said, "We've got a thick file folder about you, and we've been meaning to do a piece on you for a long time. Now's the time." Unless you win a major award, or a movie is made of your novel, not much will happen around the publication of a single book — but if you draw attention to your work on a regular basis, you will become a media presence . . . and that translates directly into book sales.

Rule Five: Become comfortable with yourself

I've sat on both sides of the interviewer's table: as of this writing, I've done sixty-six TV appearances, countless radio programs, and have been interviewed over a hundred times for print — but I've also conducted a lot of interviews with other people, and I'm constantly amazed at how poorly most writers present themselves.

Be expansive, expressive, and bubbly. If you're on TV, talk with your hands, smile, laugh — have a good time. The only way you can come off looking badly is if you're nervous and defensive. (One Canadian SF author recently scored quite a coup — an appearance on a network talk show. But the first thing he did was try to distance himself from the proceedings, and throughout he looked uncomfortable. What could have sold thousands of books probably ended up selling only a few hundred.)

Take every opportunity you can to hone your public persona. Do readings, talks, classroom appearances, and so on. Take a public-speaking course or join Toastmasters. Record yourself with a camcorder. (Me, I did a degree in Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson; after that, there was no conceivable circumstance under which I could be uncomfortable on camera or in front of a microphone.)

Never take offense at the interviewer's questions (you'll turn him or her right off if you start quibbling over the use of the term "sci-fi") and never talk over the interviewer's head. You know who Olaf Stapledon is, what an ansible is, and so on — but the interviewer won't, and neither will the audience.

Indeed, almost every interviewer you'll ever speak to will know almost nothing about science fiction, and probably won't have read your work.

The single most important thing you can give in an answer is context; producers have repeatedly cited my ability to do this as the reason they keep asking me back on their shows.

The interviewer might say, "I guess SF books are riding the coattails of the success of The X-Files and the re-release of Star Wars." Don't reply with a simple yes or no; instead, give an interesting, context-rich response: "Actually, I don't think that has much to do with it. We're about to enter the 21st century; in the past year or so we've discovered evidence that there was once life on Mars, and we've found planets orbiting other stars. What could be more natural than for readers to be turning to a literature that devotes itself to exploring these issues?" Note that I say "literature" — in interviews, I always refer to SF as literature, and myself as an artist. Connect you and your work to the larger arts community that the interviewer is already familiar with; you'll find you get much less smarmy coverage.

Note, too, that I didn't force any reference to my own work; such references will come up naturally in the conversation, but you'll seem pushy and insecure if you keep mentioning your own books.

Rule Six: Write really well

All the self-promotion in the world is pointless if you don't have a great product. I spend maybe a day a month on self-promotion activities — and the other twenty-nine days working very hard at my craft. I received the most publicity I've ever had when I won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year. Sure, I did everything I could to capitalize on the win, but winning the award happened because I wrote a good story — and that's the real key to getting people's attention.

According to Maclean's: Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine, "By any reckoning Robert J. Sawyer is among the most successful Canadian authors ever." He has sold 23 novels to major U.S. publishers and received 53 national and international awards for his fiction, including the World Science Fiction Society's Hugo Award and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year, as well as the Crime Writers of Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story of the Year. The ABC TV series FlashForward was based on his novel of the same name.

Rob has taught creative writing at the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, Humber College, and the Banff Centre, and he's been writer-in-residence at the Toronto, Richmond Hill, and Kitchener Public Libraries and at the Canadian Light Source, Canada's national synchrotron. He's a frequent keynote speaker at writers' conferences.

For more on Rob and his work, see his website at sfwriter.com, which contains 800 documents and over one million words of material.

More Good Reading

"On Writing" column index
Letter to Beginning Writers

More advice on Self Promotionfor writers
Rob's essay on getting good press
Using your web site to promote your book

Rob's Newsletter
Rob on TV — lots of stills! (30 images totaling 450 kilobytes)
Rob's thoughts on the process of being interviewed
Media backgrounder about Rob
Rob's own print advertisement for his novel Calculating God (Adobe Acrobat file, 392K)

My Very Occasional Newsletter

About Rob
Book Clubs
Press Kit
How to Write
Email Rob
Canadian SF



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