The Long Hard Sell

Christian Wolmar, author of eight books including most recently Fire & Steam and The Subterranean Railway, gives his tips on how to promote your book.

Having written several books that did not receive as much media coverage as I thought – probably mistakenly - they ought to, I have become a dab hand at self-publicity. Boosting your book is not a task for shrinking violets. Even the best publishers can do just so much and you have to use every opportunity and tool available to squeeze out the maximum mileage.

Most importantly, you have to take up every offer to speak at an event or write an article, however modest. Those trips to village halls can quickly turn into invites to Hay on Wye. I am lucky in that I start with a couple of major advantages – my work as a journalist and the fact that my books are about an ever topical subject, the railways.

I write for a wide variety of publications ranging from the Evening Standard and The Independent to Rail and Transport Times and as the publication of my latest book approaches, I always add a line at the end saying I am the author of the forthcoming work. Again, even articles in those lesser well known journals such as Plumbers Mate or Sewing Machine Times are worth the effort. To my surprise, the sub editors nearly always leave that sign-off in, presumably because they think it gives the article legitimacy. If I am being really cheeky, as well as the name of the publisher, I will include the price, though in these days of discounting and Amazon, that has less and less meaning.

I try, too, to get commissioned to write pieces around the publication date, ensuring that my chances to get the name of the book in print are maximised. On the broadcasting front, I am rather more at the mercy of events. My excellent publishers, Atlantic (who incidentally have put far more effort into ensuring good publicity than some of my previous publishers), and I have tried to elicit interest in my books and managed to get me on the occasional programme such as Sunday on GMTV or Robert Elms show on Radio London (helped by the fact that he is a fellow QPR fan).

However, the real opportunity comes when the railways are in the news which, of course, is impossible to predict, except in the case of big events like the St Pancras opening. When there is a story, I am often called upon to comment, and try to persuade TV producers to put in an aston – the title which appears underneath your talking head – that includes the book title. It helps to have a short title but even then the producers are sometimes reluctant to condone such an obvious publicity seeking ploy. On the radio, it is easier and generally producers will be happy to give the book a plug, especially if I am are doing the interview for free which is frequently the case.

The other advantage of writing about railways is the huge number of enthusiasts out there, many of whom belong to clubs or societies that hold monthly meetings. I have spoken at many such events around the country, ranging from St Albans and Slough to Skipton and Manchester. Generally, people attending are very keen to buy signed copies of the book which I either bring along myself or are provided by a local bookshop. There are numerous smaller book festivals, too and I have spoken in places as varied as Birmingham, Battersea, Eastbourne and Chichester.

The biggest event for both my latest two books, was at the Royal Geographical Society where I gave an illustrated talk in aid of the Railway Children charity. While the books are sold for the charity and therefore do not bring in any royalties, the publicity around such events is very helpful in promoting them. The recent one for Fire & Steam attracted 300 people, many of whom brought along books to be signed, always a gratifying experience.

At the other end of the scale, while it may seem a waste of time to spend an evening travelling out to some little commuter outpost, it probably will be worthwhile not just because of the direct publicity but because there is no doubt that the process is cumulative. The more things you do, the more invitations come in for other events or appearances. Moreover, meeting your readers is always an experience, sometimes a quite magical one in the most unlikely places.

During a week long tour around Germany in 2005 giving talks on the Subterranean Railway, to remarkably enthusiastic and keen audiences, a little old lady came up to me in Freiburg, a university town in Bavaria and said she had recognised one of the pictures I had shown in my slide show. It was of Frank Pick, who did much to create London Transport in 1933 and is responsible for the famous Tube map and the roundel logo, and she said that as a little girl, she lived next door to him in London: ‘He was ever such a nice man and used to bring me a Christmas present every year’. As the credit card ad says, ‘priceless’.

My website is an invaluable tool in all this, not only enabling people to find out quickly about me and to contact me, but also in saving a vast amount of time in sending out CVs or details of events. Originally I was sceptical of the value of a website, but it has become an invaluable tool which attracts attention and brings in work. Rather reluctantly I have started blogging, which, again, I have found is a more positive experience than I predicted. Its nice to start the day getting something off my chest, and, again, by attracting people to the site, it raises profile which is what selling books is all about – provided, of course, that they are good enough in the first place.