When I published my first novel, HE HAS MANY NAMES, I wanted a book tour with all the fixings: morning shows, signing lines, standing room only readings. You know the usual accommodations to literary world rolls out for unknowns. I mean how expensive could an ad in Times Square really be? It’s not like I was asking for a 30 second spot in the Superbowl, just a 15 second one. Like all humble artists, I required a few simple things:
A concept album
An official podcast
A comic book adaptation
A documentary short series
And a partridge in a pear tree
These seemed like reasonable requests on my backstage rider. That and fifteen-foot python filled with brown M&Ms. It turned out indie publishers didn’t budget for exotic pets. If I wanted promo materials, they’d have to come out of my own wallet. I tried to hypnotize artists into making them for me, embedding subliminal cues into casual conversation.
“I need to finish this YOU-line good-WILL paper-WORK be-FOR FREE-day.”
I’ve since discovered that mentalism is a junk science and Derren Brown is a vampire who glamours all his participants.
I had to do my book promos myself. This proved challenging after the book had already been published. I cut together a book trailer with some unused film school footage. When that failed to get any traction. I cut another one, and another one. Eventually I wrote screenplay for a local filmmaker who’d expressed interest in shooting the opening scene. That never came to fruition and the promo cycle rolled on. My publisher had bigger successes from authors with bigger platforms.
Then Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram adjusted their algorithms to downplay links, and I was back to square one (I blame Buzzfeed and Upworthy, a pox on both your houses).
Fast forward, through an international health crisis, and I have a second novel. Now, I could start shopping it around, find a publisher, get it out into the either, but what happens when it comes time to promote it. Quit my full-time job and pray for success? I need a better strategy. I need to work on the promotion side of things, before bringing a book to market. In this instance, it’s smarter to put the cart before the horse.
What Videogames Taught Me About Bookselling
In the videogame industry developers rarely program from the ground up. They use frameworks built on libraries of 3d assets, real world textures, and motion capture data. They call this framework an engine, because it sits at the heart of a complex machine. Engines simplify game design by giving designers elements they can reuse over and over.
If my next novel was going to have a chance, I’d have to build an engine of my own. An engine filled with assets perspective book buyers might like. So, I asked myself, what kind of content keeps me from scrolling on?
Not the slick homogenous stuff an AI might spit out, but evocative, imagination driven designs. Patrick Nagel’s art deco women. Gustave Doré’s depictions of the inferno. Drew Struzan’s movie posters. Those are the designs that get me every time and they’re applicable to what I’m working on.
If I could teach myself to draw like that, my next novel might have a chance. Over the last six months I’ve been building a portfolio, depicting my character Mahthildis as one of Patrick Nagel’s femme fatales. I now have a healthy library of designs.
Designs I can reuse by turning them into memes.
The next step was to build a framework for video. Let’s face it, short-form video rules social media. If you want young people to consider your long form content you have to engage them in quick bursts first. Photoshop helps with this, since my subjects are grouped into layers. I can separated them from the backdrops, make them zip in and out of frame, and eventually move their limbs.
I’m beta testing my engine with animations. I’m writing a series of short stories featuring the demon goddess Mahthildis. In each story I’m pitting her against a mythic figure associated with that month. Krampus for Christmas, Father Time for New Year’s Eve, and St. Valentine for Lupercalia.
I thought it would be funny to animate Mahthildis facing off against her foes, like characters in the VS screen in Mortal Kombat 3. That way I could reuse the Mahthildis image and slot in a new villain each month.
It seems like a lot of effort to make a book trailer, with music and narration, for a series of free short stories, but each one is a test to see how far I can reach.
Hopefully, this process will teach me how to streamline my video edits. I’ll learn which social media platforms are worth targeting. I’ll learn how to build an engine with a lot more horsepower than before.
An Engine is a Good Excuse to Dust Off Some Old Skillsets
More and more people want to be writers, which makes getting your work noticed that much harder. Authors need to bring every skill they have to the table. Imagine the ideal reader for your story. What are their niche interests? What tools do you already possess to engage them in other spots? Write them down and plan out a frame work of reusable tools.
If you’re a photographer then bust out your DSLR. Stage pictures of subjects relevant to your novel and tease the images out throughout your promotion cycle. If you’re an actor get some friends together and record a reading of a scene. If you’re a musician create soundscapes you can read excerpts over.
Follow other indie authors. Scrub through their feeds. Consider which posts get traction and which posts don’t.
An Engine is a Good Excuse to Develop Brand New Skills
I learned Photoshop the same way I learned to tie a tie with Youtube tutorials. That’s how I’m teaching myself motion graphics and animation, one video lesson at a time.
Think about the skills your framework requires. Which ones have you always wanted to learn? Which ones would you want to have, even if your book promo doesn’t go well? Those are the skills worth investing in.
Build an Engine on an Engine
There are plenty of time savers out there. Just remember that over one else is using the same ones.
Yes, you could use AI to generate art assets. You’ll have to study the prompts other creators are using before you can make something the slightest bit unique. I’ve experimented with several of the AIs out there. I found the characters were inconsistent from frame to frame. They generate awkward artifacts. AI struggles with eyes, with edges, and fingers. Every image has the same tight depth of field. And so many of the creations look like renders from video game engine.
If you don’t have time to learn Adobe Premier, you can use a book trailer maker. Drag and drop some assets into a video template. Choose from a library on licensed stock video scenes. Type your pitch out in a series of captions. I’d recommend pushing the boundaries of the template as much as you can. Those stock scenes rarely cut well together.
Look up the #BookTrailer hashtag on Instagram for examples of people who didn’t put in much effort. You’ll find music that doesn’t jive with the spirit of their story. Images with mismatched color tones. Videos with abstract subjects. Most of them look like video collages. You might be better off using still images.
Do whatever you can to give your trailer a sense of author ship.
There’s a reason all the those bright-faced booktubers say, “You shouldn’t get into writing for the money. You should do it because you love it. It should be its own reward” That’s a nice way of saying you’re probably not going to get paid for it (I’m not talking to you though, just everyone else, you’ll be one of the exceptions that takes the publishing world by storm).
There’s a song that breaks my heart every time I hear it. It’s called Everything is Free, by Gillian Welch.
“Everything is free now
That’s what they say
Everything I ever done
Gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score
They figured it out
That we’re gonna do it anyway
Even if it doesn’t pay”
That verse must hit every artist right in the gut, because they know it’s true. We are all feeding the content dragon, hoping for but a taste of the horde its sitting upon.
You have to love making art for the sake of it. You have to love promoting it too. I’ve made no allusions to how much I hate self-promotion. That’s why I’m building an engine, to give myself a framework, to showcase my creations without having to conjure up a fresh scheme every time.
Centuries ago, the demon goddess Mahthildis was kicked out of hell. She’s been fighting her way back ever since. The tides of battle turn when her lover goes missing. Desperate to be reunited, Mahthildis must steal the skull of St. Valentine if she’s ever going to see her lover again.
We invite you to join us on this unholy heist we’re calling THE DEVIL’S VALENTINE. A short story that takes you into the heart of the Vatican Secret Service, the feast of Lupercalia, and the real reason for the season.
Illustrations, music, narration, and video by Drew Chial.