Sunday interview: Michael Allen

UK booktrade commentator Michael Allen’s first novel was published in 1963. His latest book, Grumpy Old Bookman, is a printed version of the first six months of his blog of the same name.

1. What kinds of marketing have you done as an author?
Most kinds. My first novel was published in 1963, and in those days no one at the publisher asked me to do anything in the way of marketing or publicity, and I didn’t realise that it might help if I did. However, from then on, I did my best to co-operate with whatever the publisher suggested, and to initiate some publicity of my own. I never have written a book on which the publisher was willing to spend any serious money, so usually my involvement has been limited to being interviewed by the local press, with the occasional radio interview. My own initiatives have included asking friends and relations to request copies from their local library (probably not very effective), and giving the publisher lists of possible reviewers. I have also given informal talks and formal lectures.

Nowadays I run my own small press and no longer work through big commercial firms. This means that I have to do all the marketing myself. For reasons of cost I usually limit this to concentrating my sales effort on the UK library suppliers, and sending out a limited number of carefully targeted review copies. I also plug my stuff online as hard as I can.

2. What essential things about marketing did you learn that you wish you’d known from the start?
The main thing to be said about marketing, in my view, is that modesty is the enemy of talent. My problem is that I don’t much like personal publicity. A few years ago I had a play produced in Croydon, and a local newspaper gave me a whole page, with picture. It seemed to me thatthat was quite enough personal publicity for one lifetime.

3. How has marketing changed for authors since you were first published?
I began writing in an era when there were very few media outlets in the UK — there were far more in the US, of course. The whole idea of hype was almost unknown in the 1960s. It has grown exponentially since. Today it’s simply not enough to produce a publishable book, or even an outstanding book. You need something else to go with it — either an established reputation in the arts, sports, politics and so forth, or some sort of exploitable talent. I read recently about a young female crime novelist inthe US: what clinched the sale of her book to a publisher was that fact that she was also a singer/songwriter, and could perform on TV after talking about her book.

4. What did you learn during your experiences of trying to market yourbooks?
I learnt that I don’t enjoy personal publicity and that about 90% of marketing is a complete waste of time and money. The trouble is, no one knows how to identify the valuable 10% in advance.

5. What’s the most successful piece of marketing you’ve done?
The most successful single piece of marketing occurred when I sent a copy of one of my thrillers to a the manager of a bookshop which is part of a big UK chain. It turned out that he was a very keen fan of thrillers, as was a senior executive in the company. They both read mine and placed a substantial order. This was purely the result of chance.

6. What advice would you give for authors starting out with marketing their books?
Don’t be tempted to spend huge amounts of money. Huge means more than you would spend on a short holiday. It almost certainly will not pay off.

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