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Getting Ready for Chat

Last year I conducted an informal poll. I asked authors how they felt about online chat sessions. The response was overwhelmingly unfavorable. "I hate them," wrote one prominent Internet author, who told a story about having her appearance ruined by the author of a competing title.

Most authors said they felt that online chats were plagued with technical problems, were sparsely attended and were not the best marketing opportunities. Indeed, one chat I visited drew only 20 people -- half of them on the payroll (authors, publicists, moderator, etc.). The authors were well-known, had been on TV, and the book was selling briskly in stores, yet they sold no more than two copies as a result of the online chat.

People in the audience are often disappointed with chats. There's usually a long lag between asking a question and getting an answer; the chat lacks continuity. The questions and answers are so short it's hard to explore an issue in depth. And technical problems can keep you locked out of a chat or fill the screen with confusing messages.

The Bright Side

Despite these problems, online chats are more popular than ever. Why? Because the technology is improving and more big-name stars are holding online sessions. People like the idea of chatting with their favorite authors, even if the mechanism is sometimes crude and disappointing.

From an author's perspective, an online chat is usually better than a bad bookstore signing. You may only draw 20 people, but you can do it from the comfort of your home. If no one shows up, there's not the same level of embarrassment you have sitting in a bookstore at an empty autograph table.

If you prepare carefully for a chat, you should be able to magnify the impact several fold. Here are some tips for authors and publishers considering online appearances.

Booking a Chat

To book an online appearance, you simply contact the host and present your credentials. America Online has a Center Stage auditorium for which it books headliners. Prodigy has a similar venue. You might find a more receptive audience in smaller special-interest forums. All of CompuServe's forums have conference rooms, and America Online is starting to add more of these.

A new opportunity is chatting on the World Wide Web. Many commercial websites are adding software to facilitate online chats. Sony Online sponsored Michael Jackson's "simulchat" on August 17. HotWired -- an online offshoot of Wired magazine -- has a couple guests every week in its "Club Wired" area. Book Stacks Unlimited, an online bookstore, just started holding author conferences in its "Book Cafe."

You can expect to see more commercial sites adding live chats soon. No matter what your book is about, you should be able to find several websites or forums that want you as a guest speaker.

Preparing for the Chat

When you book a chat, you need to find out whether it will be moderated or not. Unmoderated chats can lead to disaster. If the host is not willing to provide a moderator, you may want to bring one of your own -- a publicist, editor, or friend. The moderator screens questions and keeps the chat moving so you can focus on your answers.

You may need a special account to access the chat. The host should provide you with an I.D. and password. Make sure to test this at least a day in advance. You should get a back-up modem number in case you have trouble connecting the night of the show. You should get an emergency phone number to call in case of technical problems.

Ask the host if transcripts will be made available after the appearance. On America Online, a typical Center Stage appearance draws about 300 people. The transcripts will get another 300 downloads. That means the transcripts will double the reach of your session.

Provide the host with a brief introductory script, some sample questions, and instructions on how people can buy your book. Make sure the transcripts contain information on how to buy the book. I've examined transcripts from several author appearances and they're shocking. In many cases, the fact that the guest is an author is mentioned only at the beginning and there's no information about the book (price, ISBN, publisher, etc.).

Find out if you can submit a publicity photo. While a transcript may be downloaded 300 times, celebrity photos on America Online may get 50,000 downloads or more. If you are serious about online promotion, you should have your photo scanned onto disk with information about your book embedded beneath the photo. You can have this done for about $20 at a graphic design shop.

Promoting Your Appearance

If you land one of the major online auditoriums, the host will publicize your appearance with announcements on the log-in screen. Forum hosts and website administrators also will announce your appearance. Sometimes the promotion is weak or non-existent and you have to do it yourself.

You can announce your own appearance with postings in appropriate discussion groups. For example, if you're appearing in the P.R. & Marketing forum on CompuServe, you may want to invite people from the Small Business forum. You can also post announcements on Usenet news groups and Internet mailing lists.

People can be touchy about such announcements. One successful technique for reducing flames is to offer to send transcripts to anyone who can't attend. This is good netiquette and broadens the reach of your appearance.

Enjoying the Show

When your moment in the spotlight comes, relax and enjoy yourself. Keep your answers short and remind people that there is a book behind the appearance that contains greater detail. If someone is pestering you, invite them to continue the discussion through e-mail after the chat.

Online chats have become one more stop on the author tour. If you're going to do a chat, careful preparation will minimize the anguish and maximize the benefits.


STEVE O'KEEFE is author of the books Publicity on the Internet (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), and The Complete Guide to Internet Publicity(John Wiley & Sons, 2002). You can reach him by e-mail at info@PatronSaintPR.com.


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