Shining the book promotion spotlight on T.H.E. Hill

T.H.E. Hill (center in photo at left), the author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, served with the U.S. Army Security Agency at Field Station Berlin in the mid-1970s, after a tour at Herzo Base in the late 1960s. He is a three-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute (DLIWC) in Monterey, California, the alumni of which are called “Monterey Marys”. The Army taught him to speak Russian, Polish, and Czech; three tours in Germany taught him to speak German, and his wife taught him to speak Dutch. He has been a writer his entire adult life, but now retired from Federal Service, he writes what he wants, instead of the things that others tasked him to write while he was still working.

You can learn more about T.H.E. Hill and his books at: www.VoicesUnderBerlin.com

BMB: Welcome to Book Marketing Buzz, Tom.  Can we begin by having you tell us a little about your book Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary?

T.H.E. Hill: It’s my pleasure to be here. Voices Under Berlin is ostensibly about the pre-wall Berlin Spy Tunnel that the CIA dug to tap three Russian telecommunications cables in the mid-1950s. It became infamous, when it was discovered by the Soviets, 54 years ago during the night of 21-22 April 1956. The Time Magazine article (7 May 1956) about the discovery was entitled “BERLIN: Wonderful Tunnel.” In the article the tunnel is described by a German journalist as “the best publicity the U.S. has had in Berlin for a long time.” At the time it was indeed an astounding feat of engineering.

• You can learn more about the Berlin Spy Tunnel at the on-line Cold War Museum.

The yarn in the novel is told from both ends of the tunnel. One end is the story of the Americans who worked the tunnel. The main character—Kevin—is a “Monterey Mary,” which is Army slang for a Linguist who learned his language skills at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Kevin is the one who has to transcribe the Russian conversations that are coming off the cable tap. This part of the story is about the fight of the tunnel rats for a sense of purpose against boredom and against the enemy both within and without. Reviewers have compared the novel to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H*, and Hans Helmut Kirst’s Zero Eight Fifteen, perhaps better known in America as The Revolt of Gunner Asch.

The other end of the tunnel is the story of the Russians whose telephone calls the Americans are intercepting. Their side of the tale is told in the unnarrated transcripts of their calls. They are the voices under Berlin. This part of the novel has been compared to Henrik Ibsen’s “play for voices,” Peer Gynt, which is usually considered very hard to stage due to its accent on the aural, rather than on the visual. This unusual approach to literature is intended to help the reader understand the ear-centric worldview of the people who had to transcribe the Russians’ conversations. The result is a new type of spy novel, as unique as Berlin herself. It is Cloak-and-dagger with headphones.

I am very pleased with the reception that it has been getting. It has garnered five book awards thus far.

BMB: What is the first thing you did to promote your book once your publisher accepted your manuscript?

T.H.E. Hill: The first thing I did even before Voices Under Berlin came out was to get a website ready. I’ve noticed that a website is the thing that I see most often in advice to new authors about promoting their books. A website gives you the opportunity to show off the many facets of your novel. On my website, for example, I have a short blurb about the novel, I offer readers a chance to read the first chapter, I present a recapitulation of the reviews and awards that Voices Under Berlin has garnered, and I have historical information about Berlin in the 1950s, the Army Security Agency, and the Berlin spy tunnel, just to name a few.

The variety of material on your website helps people to find your book when they are actually searching the web for something else all together.

In parallel with the website for Voices Under Berlin, I was working on another project as well. My novel was simultaneously published with a companion piece, a non-fiction book entitled Berlin in Early Cold-War Army Booklets. It is a reprint of a series of booklets published by Berlin Command for distribution to newcomers between 1946 and 1958, the historical period in which Voices Under Berlin takes place. The fact that these army booklets are quite rare and are not to be found in libraries—not even in the Library of Congress—made me decide to reprint them as a single volume to make them available to people who are interested in the history of Cold War Berlin. The booklets contain a wealth of background information on occupied Berlin at the time of the spy tunnel that forms the backdrop for the action of the novel. There is an “ad page” in the back of Berlin in Early Cold-War Army Booklets that talks up Voices Under Berlin, and vice versa. Amazon shows Berlin in Early Cold-War Army Booklets as one of the books frequently bought together with Voices Under Berlin. I consider the effort that went into producing Berlin in Early Cold-War Army Booklets a success.

BMB: If you had to pick just one book marketing tool that you’ve used to promote your book, which would you say has been the most effective?

T.H.E. Hill: If I had to pick just one book marketing tool, I would choose a website. It gives you a permanent presence on the Internet that you can optimize for search engines to put your best foot forward. Press releases and book signings are one-time events that come and go, but a website stays up as long as you pay the provider for it. And you can grow the website as your book becomes better and better known, by incorporating new reviews and reactions to it.

BMB: Do you do more promoting online or offline and which do you prefer?

T.H.E. Hill: Most of my book promotional activities are online, but I have also done some brick-and-mortar events. The reason that I spend more time with online promotion is that more and more people are going online to get the information they need to decide which books to buy, while more and more traditional media outlets are cutting the number of book reviews and the amount of literary coverage that they carry. Recommendations from book bloggers, supplemented with reviews by ordinary readers on Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.com, GoodReads.com or Shelfari.com are taking the place of the traditional-media literary arbiters who used to be able to propel a book to bestsellerdom, or dash its author’s hopes with a single review. Diversity is king in the marketplace for books in the twenty-first century, due to the technological advances that have made it economically feasible to produce books for niche audiences, but this economic feasibility only works if these books are both distributed and marketed online. Authors and publishers who ignore this paradigm shift in the publishing industry do so at their peril, because they are ignoring a growing segment of their potential market, which, by some estimates, accounts for 25-30% of the books sold each year in the USA.

In general, I feel that I get a better return on my time investment for the promotion that I do online.

BMB: Do you use social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to promote your books and have you had any success with it?

T.H.E. Hill: I do not use social networks like Facebook or Twitter because I do not consider the convenience of these kinds of social networks to be worth the potential risk associated with them. In a recent article published by USA Today, Chris Day, the chief security architect for network infrastructure provider Terremark said, “Social networks provide a rich repository of information cybercriminals can use to refine their phishing attacks.” The article makes the point that “‘phishing’ lures — designed to trick you into clicking on an infectious Web link — are flooding e-mail inboxes, as well as social-network messages and postings, at unprecedented levels.” Citing statistics provided by IBM’s X-Force security research team, the author of the article notes that “The volume of spam and phishing scams — like the ‘LOL is this you?’ viral messages sweeping through Twitter — more than doubled in the fourth quarter of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008.”

Southern City Mysteries had a blog post in March entitled “PleaseRobMe.com and Oversharing” that points out the dangers of using social networks to make your present whereabouts known to the world. Using an article that appeared in The Economist about how real crooks use this data to know when you are away from home, this blogger created the lead-in to a mystery story about just such a crook breaking into a home to kill someone. It is just another warning that you can share too much about yourself online.

I prefer moderated, closed social networks. I find them equally, if not more effective for my marketing efforts, while significantly limiting the risk of becoming a victim of cybercrime that is higher in open systems.

BMB: Do you own a blog and how often do you update it?  Did you set up your blog solely to promote your book and what is its effectiveness?

T.H.E. Hill: I have an Amazon Author’s Page blog, which I use solely to promote my book. I update it on an irregular, event-driven basis, making posts to announce awards, events, or to point out anniversary dates associated with the history of the Berlin spy tunnel that serves as the historical background of Voices Under Berlin. I have not noticed any statistically significant change in average sales numbers following my posts.

Wearing my novelist’s hat, instead of my marketing hat, I am not inclined to blog, because for a blog to be effective, you need to feed it new content every day, and to do that I would have to divert my attention from my forthcoming novels to my blog. I am jealous of the time that I spend on marketing, and would rather spend it on creative writing. That is why I have engaged Pump Up Your Book to take over some of the marketing activities for Voices Under Berlin.

Marketing experts say that your potential buyers have to have seven exposures to your product and its message before they make the decision to purchase. I find that guest posts and interviews at existing blogs are a more effective way of reaching that goal. There are, after all, only 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.091 seconds in a sidereal day, and I would like as many of them as possible to be applied to my novels.

BMB: Do you recommend authors getting publicists to help them promote their books?  Do you have one?

T.H.E. Hill: I most certainly do. Like I said, it is a question of priorities. I want to spend more time working on my novels than I spend writing publicity copy, so I have delegated part of my publicity campaign to organizations like Pump Up Your Book and Bostick Communications.

BMB: If an author prefers to do it alone rather than hire a publicist, where should they  start?

T.H.E. Hill: As I said before, I think that a website is the place to start. It provides a base that you can build on while you are waiting for your book to gain traction with the market. Without a big advertising budget and a professional publicist to make a huge up-front splash, you have to market your book as if it were on a publisher’s backlist (released over 6 months ago). In this marketing environment, it is slow and steady that wins the race. A website gives you the endurance you need to make a success of this market.

BMB: Thank you for coming, Tom!  We wish you much success!

T.H.E. Hill: You’re very welcome. I am pleased to have been invited to do an interview for Book Marketing Buzz. And thank you for your good wishes.

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