This week in my ongoing conversation about how readers like me are not being marketed to anymore, I talked with more than 20 avid readers. (Albeit it's not formal reasearch but it was a vaired group of men and women from 33 - 53 who all read more than 100 books a year and buy more than 50% of those books.)
Other than word of mouth from friends, 70% of them said that they find out about most of the new titles they try online via blogs, newsletters &websites .
Only 20% said they found out about new titles primarily from newspapers or magazines anymore.
I've believed for years that the web can offer the most cost effective marketing for books if done right and if done creatively. I've played around with a lot of different ideas. In 2000 I did what Salon .com called the first Virtual Book Party but that was peanuts compared to one of Kevin Smokler's Virtual Blog Tours - one of the smartest and innovative marketing tools of the last five years.
Smokler 's simple but brilliant idea was to take the concept of a book store tour and set up a tour for authors on blogs - but not just any blogs - hand picked blogs that have a readers hip that matches the intended audience for book.
I had the pleasure of working with Kevin last summer when I did what I considered a wildly successful blog tour for my novel The Halo Effect (we reached over 150,000 people) and I wrote to Kevin to catch up on how Virtual Blog Tours are doing.
Smokler has done seven tours in all. Most recently, Little, Brown asked him to do a tour for Jenny Traig and her memoir "Devil in the Details" which reached 24,000 visitors, and Tom Dolby's tour for "The Trouble Boy" which ran last week and reached 50,000 visitors with 11 blogs participating.
Sales are difficult to track since every blog is responsible for their own ecommerce links, but the book did experience a 1000% jump in Amazon rankings on the day of the tour.
"You can never tell with the blogosphere what's going to grab people . Some tours get a ton of linkage, which nonetheless doesn't result in huge visitorship. Tom's tour was the exact opposite. But I consider 45,000 visitors a huge success no matter what external linking happened," said Smokler.
When he first started doing VBT's almost 3 years ago, Smokler said there was a fair amount of "Oh, you're just using blogs to shill for books," particularly from other lit blogs.
"Since managing the tour is an incredible administrative task, I have to charge for it, the same way a band pays for a tour manager. But I am completely up front about that, with the author, with the participating sites, with the publisher and with the weblog community at large. Also, even though I get paid, no participating blog is obligated to be anything less than honest about their impressions of the book. If they don't like it, they are free to say so. The author accepts that risk when they sign up
A VBT, though, isn't for every author. Smokler will only work with authors who have his/her own website, A DSL line, continuous access to the internet during the tour, and is generally free for the week leading up to the tour.
"You'd be surprised how many authors that excludes." Smokler said. "The author must also be able to produce compelling content (essays, Q&As, interviews, blog posts) quickly. This naturally favors authors with a background in journalism or blogging themselves."
He also said the tour favors books that have what he calls "talking facets." Is the book about an arcane subject that he can match up with blogs? Is it set in an unconventional location? If it's nonfiction, how much discussion does the thesis stoke? Blogs are about niche interests.
"I need lots of niches," Smokler said. "As you can gather then, there's not much I can do with novel #506 about mothers and daughters or book #1249 about 17 year old coke addicts sleeping with one another because they can't deal with living in the suburbs and driving their parent's BMWs."
The cost for a one-day tour is $1500 for 10-15 blogs, 2 days is $2500 for 20-25 blogs, $4000 for a 3 day, 40-50 blog tour. And Smokler also offers to matchmake the authors with blogs that might be interested in their book and let then pursue the relationship from there. For that, he charges on a per blog basis.
And no, Smokler won't take on all authors.
"They have to have an innate understanding of the medium or at least a willingness to learn and learn quickly. Second, I have to believe in the book. The VBT rests very much on the site's trust in me and that I will not waste their time with a lousy book. The VBT will not make a lousy book better nor will it make it more attractive to readers. Third, authors must be pleasant to deal with. The participating sites are letting that author in to their online homes for a day. I take the trust implicit in that very seriously. So if I feel like the author is surly, rude, inconsiderate, not returning phone calls, acting entitled or simply not being a good team player, I won't continue to program a tour for them."
Finally, Smokler, won't promise that a book will ignite the imagination of the blogs in his network and if he can't get enough blogs to participate, he cancels the tour and refunds the authors money.
"Experience tells me that, while not every author and book, are right for the VBT, 99% of the authors and publishers that approach me are looking to use the web to promote their books. In those cases, I offer them my expertise in devising online marketing strategies and charge my hourly rate ($100)".
I asked Smoker for his vision of the future:
"Every author will have a website, most will have a blog. Publishers will read blogs as a matter of course and know they are crucial to book publicity. Authors will know that hiding out, pretending technology doesn't exist and being afraid of contact with your readers is foolish and self-destructive.
"Technology has such potential for connecting readers and books. If we can look past our fears and prejudices and embrace the opportunities that blogs, rss feeds, wikis, social software, that web 2.0 presents to us, I think it has the potential to revolutionize the way we connect books and readers, and beyond that elevate the place of books in our lives. That makes me want to run around in circles with excitement."
Technically, publishers and /or authors don't need to hire someone to help them set up a VBT tour, but, as a blogger I know that an intermediary is beneficial.
As Smokler says, " Bloggers can smell a sales call from across the sea. An author saying "check out my book" no matter how politely, is a sales call. Authors can set up their own tour if they read blogs, if they comment on them, if they have their own blogs, if they are involved in this medium as participants or at the very least, active readers, rather than interlopers. I encourage that. If authors, do, setting up their own tours is certainly possible."
Smoker has four rules about the blogs he approaches for a Virtual Blog Tour:
1) History. Blogs that have at least a year of posting regularly.
2) Traffic. It sounds whorish I know but I need to author to get the
maximum bang for their buck
3) Focus. What is the blog's focus and how well does it match up with
4) Familiarity. Almost all of the blogs I use for the tour are folks I
have met in person or whose blogs I read anyway.