The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing
Chapter 8: Marketing and Publicity for Writers
Given the ease of book publishing today, the biggest challenge facing authors is rarely how to get published, but how to make their book visible and discoverable in a market with so much choice and competition. This section tackles this challenge on two fronts: (1) publicists and traditional marketing, and (2) digital marketing.
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The full chapter INCLUDES:
Should you hire a publicist for your book?
And what should you expect when working with one? You’ll learn about the mindset required to work with a publicist, plus what costs to expect. Even if you don’t hire one, there are a range of traditional marketing activities you’ll want to pursue, such as advance review copies, book reviews, traditional media coverage, and more. We’ll go through the most important keys to success in these areas.
Digital Marketing: Best practices for authors
Common digital marketing efforts among indie authors include ebook giveaways, ebook discount services such as BookBub, social media and blogging, social media advertising, email marketing, author cross promotion through box sets, and more. We’ll cover what best practices look like and how self-published authors are reaching readers through a variety of promotional and PR strategies.
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The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing
Chapter 8: Marketing and Publicity for Writers
There are more than 32 million books in print, and some industry observers believe that 50,000 new ebooks get released for Kindle every month. Given the ease of book publishing today, the biggest challenge facing authors is rarely how to get published, but how to make their book visible and discoverable in a market with so much choice and competition. With or without a publisher, every author must give some thought as to how to build a network to assist in the varied marketing and promotional efforts it takes to sell books. Furthermore, given the pace of change, in order to succeed an author also has to keep an eye on digital and technical advancements that affect how a book gets on the radar of interested readers. Be careful when you encounter marketing advice from authors who became well established before ebooks entered the market: their brands and readership developed during a different era. Anyone starting a career now has a different set of considerations in play.
You can’t push the same buttons that were pushed in 2007 and expect the same level of sales or success that were achieved then.
It is possible for an author to launch an effective book marketing campaign without a publisher’s support or assistance. Mainly, it requires time and energy. It may also require some financial investment to hire a publicist or marketing consultant to advise and assist you. It’s not unusual for traditionally published authors to reinvest a good portion, or all, of their advance into hiring professional help for the book launch. (More on that in a moment.) The good news is that if you put in the effort from the very beginning, by the time your second, third, or fourth book comes out, you should have a solid base of readers to work from, a base developed from marketing activities associated with previous launches.
A comprehensive book marketing campaign uses a combination of tactics to reach readers. It would be unusual to focus solely on online media, or solely on readings and events, to generate word of mouth. The best approach combines online and offline components, and when done correctly, each amplifies and strengthens the other. As you think about the components of a book launch, keep in mind these definitions:
- Marketing refers to efforts that require your own time, energy, and financial resources. Running advertising campaigns, for example, is a classic marketing strategy. In the digital age, you’ll hear about inbound versus outbound marketing. Inbound marketing is marketing to people who end up at your website, social media, or some other owned territory. Outbound marketing entails your going out in search of potential readers, such as through paid advertisements.
- Publicity refers to media coverage and editorial write-ups of your book that aren’t paid for. You’ve probably heard the cliche “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” You can decide for yourself if that’s true, but if you or your book scores media coverage, you don’t have control over the story or message. Sometimes publicity can be a happy accident, but more often than not, it requires having a good pitch and good connections with the media.
The Long Game
Authors who scramble to buy attention or publicity would often do better focusing on the bigger picture of building marketing momentum effectively and meaningfully over a span of years. In our experience, there are several overlapping strategic models that lead to effective marketing and publicity campaigns for books. Which of these models build on the assets you already have, or complement your strengths?
- Reach out directly to a readership you’ve established.
This is the easiest (no-brainer) model: authors who already have a direct line to readers can execute an engagement strategy to ensure that they make the right number of impressions, at the right time, to maximize sales. People already well-known in their fields—or who have a backlist history and, therefore, readership—and people who have name recognition (celebrities!) are well situated to succeed. That’s why author-marketing guides often emphasize how to establish or increase direct reach to readers—via email newsletters, social media, and advertising. But such efforts can fail unless the author has a body of work to draw upon and act as a lure. For this reason, first-time authors have the most difficulty reaching readers. This seems to belabor the obvious point, but we see a lot of frustrated authors trying to “find their readers” with a single book (or no book!), without success. That brings us to the next model.
- Always be producing.
The more work you have out there, the easier the marketing game is. That’s because you have more ways for people to find you, more options for giving things away for free, and more ways to bundle your work together. This principle applies to any creative pursuit. The more work you put out, the more people will discover you. However, some authors lack the patience to see their work build a readership over time, or they have only one book in them. This becomes problematic from a marketing perspective.
- Produce work across multiple media or channels.
Authors skilled in multimedia have an advantage over those who release only in traditional print form. Reader discovery increases when you can produce audiobooks, illustrated editions, podcasts, serials, YouTube videos, and so on.
- Know the right people or meet influencers.
If you don’t have direct reach to readers, the next best thing is knowing someone who does. Having connections with influencers who are willing to mention or recommend your work to the appropriate readers is powerful. This isn’t necessarily about securing blurbs (although those are nice, too), but more about influencers who mention you to their audience. (Sometimes authors have no idea who the influencers are in their categories or genres; you need to find out.) If you’re not lucky enough to count such influencers among your friends, ask yourself if there are other authors or organizations you could collaborate with. For example, Facebook groups and conferences can help connect authors working in the same genres.
PUBLICISTS AND TRADITIONAL BOOK MARKETING
There’s no shortage of services that promise authors they can secure traditional media coverage, professional reviews, and better sales. For the unschooled, however, it’s hard to know whom to hire, how much to invest, and what type of marketing and publicity will make a difference.
Unfortunately, we’ve heard a lot of nightmare stories from both traditional and independent authors who were working with a book publicist and didn’t get what they wanted out of the investment. Sometimes that happens because of misaligned expectations, or even a misunderstanding of what working with a book publicist can achieve or accomplish. When it comes to book marketing and sales, it’s not always easy to say “Effort A led to Outcome B,” especially if book sales gain momentum from word of mouth (that’s still often the case), and authors don’t have access to sales analytics. You can’t always figure out how or why someone decided to visit Amazon or her local bookstore to buy your book, especially if you’re traditionally published.
Therefore, you should not expect to see each publicity dollar come back to you in the form of book sales; that’s not the right way to look at the investment. Furthermore, no publicist can promise or guarantee you specific coverage or sales. Unfortunately, authors get very focused on things they know and understand, like being on the Today show or getting traditional reviews—and those are great if you can get them, but no amount of money can promise that kind of coverage. Consider the investment in a marketing or PR firm as an investment in your long-term career as an author—something that increases your visibility in a way that benefits all of your future books and projects, and might lead to future paying work.
Publicity is often more about getting people to recognize who you are in a world of oversaturation—rather than sparking book sales.
Publicity elevates you above the rest of the noise and focuses on the long runway of promotion. Sales or publicity hits may happen in the first 90 days of the campaign, but no one knows when your visibility will pop—effects can trickle out over years and years.
Publicists are often seen primarily as key to mainstream media coverage, but they also have tremendous value outside of that. They can cover marketing and promotion activities that you could do yourself, but they can often do them better, more efficiently, or more knowledgeably. Their professional finesse may lead to a better impression and more sales in the long term, and leave you time to focus on other high-value activities. They can also help you avoid marketing tactics or campaigns that they know are problematic, or point you toward new, useful tools they’ve discovered.
Before you hire a publicist, make a list, in writing, of the specific outcomes you’re seeking to have the publicist achieve, and how those goals connect to what you or your publisher are doing. Share this with each publicist you might hire, and ask for a proposal (along with the fee). As you consider which publicist to hire, research other campaigns each has worked on. Has the publicist achieved the kind of results you’re looking for? Talk to past clients if at all possible. After you hire someone and the publicity campaign has started, you and the publicist may find that some aspects of the campaign are not working. This is common and a sign that refocusing is necessary. Talk it over with your publicist. Even better, have predetermined check-in dates to discuss progress, what’s working and what’s not.
Even if you hire a publicist, you have to be willing to learn how to market your book. Good marketing and publicity is a team effort, and the author is part of that team. Publicists look for clients willing to do some things on their own, and they also look for authors to be realistic. For example, if an author wants her book to be a movie, a publicist most likely will not be able to meet that expectation if that individual is a first-time author with no platform. Publicists seek clients who understand that marketing and publicity is a process and that it will take some time to see the effects of an effort.
Because publicity seeks to find, identify, or target the audience to make it aware of your book, the authors in the best position are those who are already familiar with their audience and who have aspects of their online presence already in place. That way, when you do hire a publicist, the publicist has some starting assets: social media, websites, and other tools that are starting to connect with the book’s target reader. To build momentum before you hire a publicist, consider learning the social platforms that your potential or target audience uses. Being well versed in those different languages of social media really helps—you begin to understand how to effectively reach potential buyers and develop a good idea of who your market is, and what they turn to for entertainment. Even though many books have crossover appeal, you have to decide and focus on your core market. (And yes, one of the big things a publicist does is help you figure out who your audience is.) If you’re focused and clear about your target audience and your objectives in reaching those readers when you start your marketing/publicity campaign, you’ll have a better chance later of reaching a larger or more national market.
Part of understanding one’s audience is knowing which authors are your competition, or which ones reach the audience you should also reach. Even though you probably feel your book is truly special, for marketing purposes, you want your book to be like other books. Therefore, one way to prepare for marketing your book—which is probably part of your routine anyway—is to read anything and everything in your genre. When you like the books you read, talk about them on social media and connect with the authors. If possible, befriend those authors, talk about their books on social media, and try to do events with them. They will be your supportive community when it comes time for your book launch.
How Publicists Work and What They Cost
Every publicist works differently, plus there are many factors that go into a publicity campaign, so it depends on what you want your publicist to work on the most. Brief consultations or assistance may cost in the hundreds of dollars, while intensive three-month campaigns can easily cost $20,000 and up.
When hiring a publicist, you’re hiring someone who can see the 30,000-foot strategy of everything that needs to happen. Remember: “I just want to sell books” isn’t the metric to live and die by, even though that might be your initial motivation to hire a publicist.
Most publicists prefer to work with authors as early in the process as possible—even up to one year in advance of the publication date, and they need to be involved at least three to four months before the publication date to be effective. However, that doesn’t mean that’s when you, as an author, should start thinking about publicity. That begins at the start of the publication process, and sometimes even at the very conception of the idea, or while you’re writing the book.
Traditional publishers will focus their publicity around a book’s launch date, within a three-month or six-month window, which is the result of the bookstore retail model. Publishers are focused on selling as many copies as possible right after the book goes on sale to avoid returns from bookstores. The publisher’s publicity is intended to work for the publisher, not you, and while you may have all kinds of great ideas about your marketing and publicity campaign, the publisher will first focus on the its own goals for the book rather than yours. It’s important to communicate early with the in-house publicity team and understand what it has planned, which can help inform your own decision about whether to hire a publicist and what that professional should focus on. Look for an outside publicist who will augment what the in-house publicity team will do—this requires clear and early communication. You need both parties to have coordinated outreach so they’re not reaching out to the same people.
It’s fairly common for authors to end up seeking a publicist or marketing help after their book has already launched and not done well. This sometimes results in panicked authors, who realize they should have been developing a plan many months prior and end up on social media with blatant self-promotional messages that command, “Buy my book!” Try to avoid that panic: You’re going to build your audience by writing multiple books, and your social media efforts are about building community. If you’re a self-publishing author, you don’t have to worry about your short-term sales track record—you can wait and do better the next time. And no matter what type of author you are, the hard truth is that marketing and publicity never really ends—it’s ongoing for as long as the book can or should sell, or for as long as you have an author career.
The primary reason to schedule an author event today is not necessarily for book sales, but to help build media coverage. Unfortunately, publishing insiders know that the number of media outlets available to pitch for any type of coverage has dramatically shrunk. That makes the field very competitive, and it makes all media outlets very selective, across radio, TV, and print. However, when you do get a hit in the media, it tends to stick with people and make an impact.
Reviews are one of the key ways that books gain traction and attention in the market, so it’s important for every author to understand the different types of reviews, how each works, and what role the author plays in securing them.
Trade review publications are read by booksellers, librarians, and others who work inside the book industry (as opposed to consumers); two of the most well-known are Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Such publications primarily provide prepublication reviews of traditionally published books, whether from small or large presses. Prepublication reviews appear several months before a book’s publication date; bookstores and libraries use such reviews to help decide what they should order for their customers or patrons. Most trade publications have been operating for a long time and have a history of serving publishing professionals. However, with the rise of self-publishing, some trade review outlets have begun separate review programs especially for self-published authors.
The publisher is almost always responsible for securing trade reviews and will send advance review copies (uncorrected proofs) four to six months in advance of publication. If authors are unsure of their publisher’s plans, they should ask. Unfortunately, even with a publisher’s support, only a small percentage of books receive a trade review.
Reviews in mainstream publications
Think: The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, literary journal review sections, and so on. Most mainstream publications are flooded with books for potential review and receive hundreds or thousands of titles for consideration. As with trade reviews, typically the publisher is responsible for sending an advance copy for consideration so that the review can be timed to appear close to the book’s release. The marketing and publicity department will send a review package that almost always includes a print copy of the book, along with a letter and possibly other ancillary materials to convince the editors that the book is worthy of review. With the biggest and most important outlets, review copies need to be sent well in advance of the publication date; other types of outlets are more flexible and might not be as concerned with timing. Publishers typically ask authors if there are smaller outlets, particularly local or regional outlets, or niche websites or blogs, that would be likely to offer a review or coverage if contacted. If the publisher is unable to invest the time or energy to approach those smaller outlets, the author should take it upon herself to do so, usually with digital copies to avoid expense.
Fee-based book review services
Because of the increased demand for professional reviews, especially for self-published work, you can now find services that provide them for a fee. They may have some reach and visibility to industry insiders, or they may be reader-facing, or a mix of both. Examples include IndieReader, BlueInk Review, and Self-Publishing Review. Paying for professional book reviews remains a controversial topic. In fact, it’s not even well-known in the author community that paid book reviews exist, and even less is known about the value of such reviews.
Reader (nonprofessional) reviews
Reader reviews and star ratings are as important as professional reviews; the higher the volume of such reviews, and the higher the average star rating, the more visible the book will often appear at online retailers. Thus, publishers commonly urge authors to drum up as many reader reviews as possible in the days and weeks following release. However, sometimes Amazon and other sites will take down reader reviews if they believe there’s too close of a connection between the author and the reader. (Also, it’s considered unethical and against terms of service to pay for reader reviews posted on sites like Amazon.)
It can’t be emphasized enough: the best way to sell more books on Amazon, or through online retail, is to generate as many reader reviews as possible. However, for better or worse, authors tend to be more interested in professional reviews because of the prestige associated with them, but the truth is that sometimes even prominent review coverage barely moves the needle on sales. Some might argue that having a professional review as part of the book’s description on Amazon (and elsewhere) adds a sheen of professionalism and leads to more readers taking a chance on the book. But some believe readers are generally not persuaded by one professional review when there are few reader reviews or a low star rating. Like it or not, purchasing behavior online is driven by the quantity of reviews that help indicate a book is worth the price, assuming no prior exposure to the author. On the other hand, if you have a marketing or outreach plan that involves approaching independent bookstores and libraries to consider your book, then having a positive review from a source they know can help you overcome an initial hurdle or two. It will not guarantee they will carry or buy your book, but it will help make a favorable impression.
How to secure reader reviews
There’s the old-fashioned way of securing them, which is by going door-to-door (literally or metaphorically) and asking for them. There are also several major directories online that list book reviewers and book bloggers that you can pitch for review coverage. Two of the bigger directories are the Book Blogger Directory and The Indie View. You can also try contacting reviewers in the Amazon Vine program, which consists of a group of people hand-selected by Amazon as being among the best reviewers on its site; just be aware such people are bombarded with requests, so your approach has to be thoughtful.
If you’re enrolled in Amazon KDP Select, which offers five free giveaway days, you will generally see reviews come in during the weeks after the giveaway ends—it’s one of the key reasons that many authors decide to enroll in KDP Select. But of course we’ve discussed the drawbacks of KDP Select (see Exclusivity with Amazon: KDP Select), and you might not want to use it.
Another method is to do a giveaway on Goodreads, a social media site for books and reading with more than 40 million members. One of the most important elements of the site is the Goodreads star rating, which is based on reader reviews. Goodreads is favored by traditional publishers and self-publishers alike for getting the word out and generating prepublication buzz. The drawback here is the time and investment required. You’ll have to pay an advertising fee for either an ebook or print book giveaway, plus giving away physical copies means having to ship copies to the winners.
A quick aside about Goodreads: It’s an important social network of avid readers, with people actively looking for the next book to read. At the very least, you should sign up for an author account and make sure that your profile is connected to any books you’ve published. But beyond that, don’t try to game the Goodreads system. Accept friend requests and build connections if you like using the site, but don’t use it as a marketing tool for new releases, unless you’re paying for advertising or employing the giveaways system. And definitely don’t respond to or argue with negative reviews. That will only make readers angry with you.
Advance review copies
One of the key elements of a professional marketing and publicity campaign is the advance review copy (ARC)—also known as a galley—usually produced and distributed three to six months before the final book goes on sale.
ARCs get used for many purposes, but mainly:
- To gather professional, industry reviews from sources such as Publishers Weekly
- To solicit endorsements that will be printed in or on the book
- To share with influencers who need to see the book before deciding on potential coverage
- To send to important connections who might be in a position to write an influential, early review or offer some other form of help
Some authors rely primarily on digital advance review copies, usually in PDF form—similar to the file that is ultimately sent to the printer or uploaded to a service like IngramSpark.
Publishers commonly distribute digital ARCs using NetGalley, since it’s well-known and often used by people inside the industry—but it’s not necessary to use a formal service to effectively distribute ARCs. It’s fairly straightforward to use file-sharing services like Dropbox or Google Drive if you’re sending the ARC selectively and to trusted sources.
You can also create print ARCs through a print-on-demand provider like IngramSpark or a short-run printer, but you should be careful to send them only to people you feel confident will seriously consider them and represent strong prospects for the book’s marketing and publicity.
Here’s how to ensure that your ARC, print or digital, is hitting all the right points.
On the front and/or back cover, include the words “Advance Uncorrected Proof / Not for Sale.”
The back cover of an ARC should not be a standard back cover. While you want a brief description of the book (100 to 150 words) and a brief author bio, at least half of the back cover should present information on the book’s marketing and promotion plan, including:
- Marketing campaign: In a bulleted list, detail how the book will be marketed and promoted, both to the industry and to readers.
- Publication information: List all the details related to publication, including formats and price points, publication date, trim size, page count, ISBNs, and category.
- Publicity contact: Whoever is the primary contact for media should be listed, along with that person’s phone number and email address.
- Ordering information: Make it clear where and how the book will be available for sale, and especially if direct orders are possible.
- Website: Don’t forget to include the publisher or author website.
On the cover or interior: Clarify, once again, that because the book is an uncorrected proof, reviewers should check all quotations against the final release.
You might wonder: If you’re using primarily a digital ARC, how do you include a “back cover” exactly? You could still include a page with the same information, but simply put it up front, right after the cover, or you can include it as part of a covering letter or email.
Remember: An ARC is primarily a marketing tool. Always label it as an ARC, and be sure to include prominent marketing and promotional copy that helps persuade recipients that the book is professional and well situated to succeed.
Pitching Traditional Media
For the purposes of this section, we’re talking about pitches for editorial coverage—not review coverage. As mentioned already, it’s tough to get media coverage, and every outlet is selective. However, with persistence, authors can secure publicity even without their publisher making the call. It can just take months of persistence, of continually knocking on the door in a slightly different way for the same thing. Even if you hear no, you shouldn’t stop pitching or get deterred by resistance. This requires having a series of very high-quality pitches that fit the style, tone, and needs of the outlet you’re pitching. You’ll have to take the time to research media outlets, know what they cover, and write a persuasive email that shows how you fit into the editorial mission of the outlet.
Most important to remember when pitching: Nobody cares that you wrote a book. Or: Don’t lead your pitch with the book. Lead with the hook or the story, and what that book will do for people. If you’re pitching via email, your subject line is critical. Put the hook in the subject line, and keep your pitch short, about a paragraph. A lot of journalists and reviewers are looking at emails on their phones, so keep it succinct, and think about it in terms of a brief elevator pitch. Most media won’t actually say “no” to your pitch; they just won’t answer. An effective and quality pitch process is time-consuming, and this is where you have to evaluate where your time and effort are best spent, and if you can benefit from hiring a publicist to assist. It is possible for authors to manage the process on their own—with an extra few hours in the day. A publicist’s job is to stay on top of what’s current and stay on top of news stories, and many authors don’t have time for that.
For independent authors or those without much of a platform, regional marketing is a good place to start a publicity campaign. Authors can schedule events or tours in their city or area—not necessarily in bookstores, although that’s perfectly acceptable—but in libraries, wine stores, restaurants, or other nonconventional places. (Be creative.) Then anchor and pitch media attention around an event that you’re holding. If you’re trying to land national publicity, most publicists advise that you get media training. Media training involves sitting with a coach, learning how to have key talking points and behave in front of a camera. You come to understand that most media folks are not going to read your book, and that whenever you deal with the media, you should go in with a cheat sheet for the journalist or interviewer.
Some authors are very talented at finding news pegs for their book long after its release. If there are holidays, anniversaries, or current events that tie into your book’s ideas or themes, then it’s possible for your book to get into the news again—if you can draw a strong connection for the media outlet. Some writers subscribe to HARO (Help a Reporter Out) in order to receive regular email alerts of journalists seeking experts or authors they can quote on specific topics. This can be a good way to keep your book visible in the media, especially for nonfiction authors.
Asking Influencers to Promote
Think of it as the Oprah effect: whenever someone with a bigger platform than you pays attention to your book, you are nearly guaranteed a significant sales boost that can sometimes jump-start your author career. But how do you approach someone with that kind of power—especially since influencers are constantly being asked by all kinds of people (authors and otherwise) for the favor of their endorsement or nod?
- Before you make an ask, do what you can to support the influencer.
Sometimes it’s possible to establish a connection with an influencer by supporting her work in public and meaningful ways. This can include writing and publishing reviews of her work, sharing or liking her content or updates on social media over a series of months (even years!), commenting on her blog—or anything that might positively and productively draw your name to her attention. That way, when you contact that influencer later, she may remember your earlier generous support and be more likely to respond. Note that it is possible to go overboard on this; don’t appear in the influencer’s line of sight so often as to seem solicitous or overbearing (or like a stalker).
- Research who influencers have supported in the past and what that support typically looks like.
Some people actively offer support on Twitter and Facebook, others use their blog or website, and still others have podcasts, interview series, or newsletters that become ways of offering recommendations. Closely study where and how an influencer’s recommendations tend to appear so that you when you make your ask, you can be specific about what you have in mind and customize your pitch to that individual.
- Follow standard or recommended channels of contact.
If you’ve been thoughtful so far in the process, you probably know how the influencer prefers to be contacted, or have found instructions on her website. Or perhaps you have seen communication patterns that provide insight on what works or doesn’t in approaching her via social media. As you plan your approach, do it in a way that makes it likely she’ll be open to it, rather than annoyed and immediately put off that you didn’t follow protocol or good etiquette.
- Craft a personalized ask that is specific and respectful of the influencer’s time.
Make it as easy as possible for an influencer to help you: tell her specifically what you would like her to do—based on your research and knowledge of how she most typically lends support (e.g., through a tweet, Facebook post, newsletter mention, review, etc.). While this may seem presumptuous or rude, if it’s done politely, it is extremely effective. It takes the burden off the influencer to come up with an idea of how she can or should lend support, and allows her to offer a quick and definitive yes or no. It’s also OK (even preferable) to offer the influencer specific marketing copy or language she can build on or edit for her own use. Keep your ask brief and to the point, and if you think the person may want or need additional information, provide a link to a page, download, or online document where she can find out more.
- Thank the influencer for any help offered, and don’t argue with whatever response you received.
Whatever happens, show appreciation for the influencer’s time if you receive a response, and don’t try to convince her to say “yes” if she’s already said “no.” Even if your first approach doesn’t succeed, it doesn’t mean you might not succeed in the future. Keep sharing and supporting that person—assuming you have genuine admiration and interest in her work—and keep your eyes open for future opportunities to connect or interact, especially at events. Sometimes meeting in person can make all the difference on a future ask.
DIGITAL MARKETING FOR AUTHORS
While traditional marketing and publicity methods can be applied to self-published titles, the playbook usually has to shift, for two big reasons. First, it’s unlikely your book will be nationally distributed to bookstores. That means most of your marketing efforts will be online-based, to drive people to buy your book through online retail channels. Second, if you’re a first-time author, you may have limited resources and relationships—so your efforts may be slanted toward free marketing and promotion activities that you can tackle from home.
As it happens, the time-honored ways to generate word of mouth for books that are typically available to traditional publishers—such as bookstore signings, traditional media coverage, and critical reviews—don’t work as well as they used to.
The digitization of reading and publishing has fundamentally changed the rules on what generates word of mouth.
Another unintended consequence of the rise of the digital marketplace is that the practice of the book launch itself may be outdated. The idea of the book launch originates with traditional publishing, where the first few months of sales can make or break a book in terms of its placement in stores. There’s only so much space available, and if your book doesn’t sell, it has to clear the way for something else. But in the digital age, where online shelf space is unlimited, your book doesn’t have to hit immediately.
Successful self-publishing author Joanna Penn has said that launch sales can be generally disappointing compared to what happens once the Amazon algorithms kick in, once a book gains traction from reviews and reputation. Likewise, bestselling indie author Hugh Howey has said many times that he doesn’t have a time frame for a book to do well. He says, “It’s a real slow burn.”
This is a very different model than what traditional publishing is accustomed to. Plus, publishers are beginning to realize that effective digital marketing especially works best across a range of titles, or on an author brand basis, rather than on a title-by-title basis.
Giveaways work when done strategically. Because the market is currently awash in free ebooks, some have argued this devalues all books and all authors’ work. But that’s not really true. Giveaways are popular for good reason; they’re a classic, frictionless way to make people aware of new authors and new releases. Just about every industry has some way of using “free” to its advantage, particularly game, software, and app developers. If you can get a sufficient number of people in the door, and they like your work, you can sell them other things once you have some kind of trust or relationship in place.
But it’s not very useful to discuss (or demonize) giveaways in the abstract. For a giveaway to be meaningful, it should be tied to a particular strategy for a particular author at a particular time. If the giveaway leads to paying fans down the road, it’s smart. If the giveaway leads to no further action, then it should be reconsidered. One giveaway does not lead to consumer expectation that all books will be or should be free. When we get a free cheese cube at the grocery store, we don’t expect to carry away the whole cheese without paying. When we consider ourselves fans of an author, we might expect promotional pricing for buying early, and of course fair pricing in general, but not free stuff indefinitely.
There’s also concern that giveaways attract low-quality readers. But they attract high-quality readers, too. This is how business works. Some leads will be good. Other leads will be bad. Business-savvy authors learn over time how and where to use the giveaway incentive to increase the high-quality leads and reduce the low-quality leads. The big catch is that your work has to have quality that matches the expectations of your audience. If it doesn’t, no amount of giveaways will help you.
The giveaway is one of the more powerful tools in the new author’s arsenal because it’s a way to get attention when you may not have anything else going for you. There may be no demand for your work yet. And if you have no publisher backing you, or a small or nonexistent reader base, then it’s especially important to prove value to potential readers, or have some way of indicating merit before they’ll invest time or money. And the easiest way for the unknown author to gain social proof is to give people a free taste.
Publishers occasionally use the power of the giveaway (especially in advance of an author’s new release), and just as often they’ll use the power of deep discounting. Both are used as part of a larger marketing vision and strategy. A smart business person uses them when looking at the specific role they serve in gaining more current sales or future sales.
Established authors often do giveaways by making the very first title in a series available for free, to introduce readers to their work. That acts as a gateway to the rest of the books you have available. Where indie authors run into trouble is when they have only one or two books to sell, and they have nothing else to offer readers—and even worse, they don’t establish any means to contact the reader in the future, whether via email newsletter or social media. So there is no funnel or path for readers to follow. It is a dead-end road. Potential fans finish the book, and then…you lose them. Maybe they’ll find your next book, if and when it comes, or maybe not.
So the bottom line is that giveaways can be an effective part of a larger marketing strategy. Just don’t use them without considering your funnel, as well as your demand curve. If you have fans who value your work, they aren’t seeking everything for free—and, in fact, once you have a fan base, they’ll be looking for experiences that are much better than a free book.
BookBub and Ebook Discount Marketing Services
In the last few years, various email marketing services have sprung up that target readers looking for cheap or free ebooks. One of the biggest of these services is BookBub, which reaches millions of readers directly via email. Its lists are highly segmented into specific categories and genres. Any author can submit her work to be considered for promotion in BookBub’s email promotions to readers, as long as the book can be downloaded from a major retailer and as long as the author is offering the book for free or at a major discount. If your book is accepted for promotion, then you’ll be charged an advertising fee based on a variety of criteria. Most authors find this promotion highly effective, since it’s going to a list of people actively looking for new ebooks to read or purchase. It can also lead to a wave of new reviews as readers finish the book and leave their thoughts about it on Amazon or Goodreads.
Amazon Marketing Services and Other Click-Based Advertising
It’s possible for any author with an Amazon KDP account to advertise their book on the Amazon retail site. Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) allows you to target ads to potential customers based on keywords and related products. There are various types of placements, but you only pay when someone clicks on your ad. How much you pay depends on what you bid for the keyword. If you have no experience with this type of advertising, it’s wise to hire someone to assist you in setting up your first campaign; otherwise, you can quickly lose a lot of money and not know how to evaluate the results.
Similar advertising schemes are available through BookBub (the ads are inserted at the bottom of the featured deals) and of course through Facebook.
Effective digital marketing, as mentioned earlier, works best across a range of titles, or on an author brand basis, rather than on a title-by-title basis. This holds true for self-publishing authors, and in fact, just about everyone has now discovered that writing and releasing a new work is one of the best and most reliable marketing tools for boosting sales of previous books and future works. This phenomenon can be so pronounced that successful authors have counseled beginners to all but stop marketing efforts and instead focus on producing new work.
It amounts to the most boring advice possible, but the truth is seldom glamorous. Few authors want to hear that the way to build their author career is to work hard for a very long time. While you may want to find readers for the book you already have, instead of writing a new one, the painful reality is that if you’re a self-publishing author who only ever writes one book, your chances of succeeding with it in a meaningful way are very low. Your footprint is simply too small, and you’re likely to get lost in the noise.
After enough books and time, you’re more likely to reach a critical mass, where you’ve cast a wide enough network that your ideal readers will find it hard to miss you. This leads to the so-called “overnight success” some writers see after spending thousands of nights writing.
Authors of fiction who are very advanced in their self-publishing strategy tend to develop long-term series, so that each release builds on the characters and tension in the previous books, creating an irresistible hook for readers. You can see an interesting parallel in the binge-watching that’s now common with TV series available on demand. Authors are tapping into the same kind of addictive potential by building out a story arc over three, five, or even ten or more books. To see this model at work, you can study successful indie authors Bella Andre, CJ Lyons, and Hugh Howey.
Having more books out there also aids in generating more word of mouth. You’ll have more readers telling their friends that they absolutely must read your books. But the first step is to write books that are worth sharing. Reading is a significant investment of time, and accepting a book recommendation is, therefore, an act of trust. Most people will only suggest books that give readers an excellent experience, not just an interesting story.
Social Media and Blogging
Experienced authors and marketers know that with social media, your success usually depends on what your starting point is online: how big of a following you currently have, and how much energy you want to invest in pursuing sales through what may be a small following. Some authors are interested in online marketing because they’re building an audience for the long term; some authors won’t be able to secure top media anyway, so they focus on something easy, and work up.
If you’re a brand-new author without an established reader base, then social media might not get you very far unless you’ve been actively using those channels prior to your book release. They can be very useful for letting your first circle of fans know about your work, early in your career, but as far as finding strangers and telling them about your book? You’ll find those channels have limited hard sales potential. On social media, it’s critical to use a gentle touch, always.
Don’t act like a salesperson pushing your book on people.
Rather than focusing on ways to get people to buy your book—to achieve a short-term goal—approach social media as a long-term investment.
If you’re struggling to figure out what to do, study books or authors you admire. What does their activity look like? What blogs or websites did they appear on? What do they do on social media? Can you emulate those things? Some indie authors, especially those in the romance community, harness social media in a very different way from the average author. They employ “street teams,” or groups of super fans who advocate for their work by writing reviews and spreading the word on social media. In exchange, authors offer their street teams early access to new work, special promotions, and merchandise.
With authors who consider blogging to market their book, the chain of events usually goes something like this: First, the author’s book nears its publication date. The author knows she needs to market and promote the book and/or build a platform and hears that blogging is a good way to accomplish that. So she wonders: What do I blog about? And, unfortunately, many authors blog poorly and ineffectively because of this series of events. While it’s true that blogging is an effective book marketing tool, when done well, it requires practice to become any good, not to mention some level of respect for online writing as its own art form. We would suggest not pursuing blogging without a full understanding of the medium, especially if you see it only as a means to an end.
Blogging on your own turf isn’t necessary for a book marketing campaign, but major blogs and websites can play an important role in spreading word of mouth, which means it can be worthwhile to write guest posts, do Q & As, or otherwise try to get featured by relevant bloggers who reach your target audience. It also helps to be an active participant or commenter on blogs where your readers hang out. However, there’s only a small number of websites that actually have influence and traffic—and those that have tremendous publicity value are just as picky as traditional media outlets in terms of what or whom they feature. If you pursue marketing on any blog or website, make sure its audience is a good fit for you and your book so you don’t invest too much time for too little return.
Email Outreach and Marketing
Newsletter lists that the author develops and owns can have a significant impact on sales and word of mouth. That’s because it’s easy for people to miss something that gets posted on social media, but most people see their email, even if it takes a long time. New authors may not have such a list ready for their first book release, but a recurring theme emerging from successful authors (both traditionally published and self-published) is that you should start building an email list through your own website, and at events, in preparation for future releases.
It’s hard to overstate the importance and effectiveness of email for book sales and marketing. Unfortunately, now that the secret is largely out about email, it’s becoming the most increasingly abused sales tool. That’s mainly because authors (and publishers, too) don’t take time to customize and target their messages appropriately. Too many authors send identical emails to hundreds or thousands of people asking for things that are really publicity requests—asking people to review, cover, or otherwise spread the word about their book.
Be sure to distinguish between such publicity request emails, which should be personalized and sent one-on-one to important people, and traditional marketing emails that go to readers and others who might purchase your book. Traditional email marketing messages require you to use services such as MailChimp, Constant Contact, and similar providers. These mass-marketing messages are best reserved for your existing fans or readership, people who are eager to receive updates from you on new work.
There are many types of campaigns you can run, but here are three common appeals:
- The prelaunch appeal.
If you do preorders, be sure to send an announcement that includes key details about where the book is available. Also, it’s common for authors to offer bonuses for people who buy the book on a particular day or under particular conditions. If this is part of your plan, then you’ll likely be sending multiple messages as part of the appeal as the deadline to buy approaches.
- The launch day announcement.
On the day of your book’s release, send an announcement that the book is on sale. Usually by launch day you have some blurbs, reviews, or other coverage to use to make the book sound irresistible.
- The postlaunch appeal.
Follow up with readers by discussing media coverage or interesting reviews that have appeared about the book; any discounts or sales that are running (be sure to include links to buy); and any upcoming events, signings, or readings you’re doing.
We do not recommend sending the above appeals to your list of influencers—those people should have a free copy of your book anyway. Don’t barrage them with marketing sends.
If you have a large email newsletter list, and/or you’ve collected a lot of data about the people on your list and what they like or don’t like, then it’s worth the time to do more targeted newsletter sends. For example, you can limit sends to people who have opened specific earlier messages or who you know have purchased your books. Also, you may want to cultivate a separate list for beta readers and superfans who receive early free copies of your work. The requests you make of this loyal audience may be different from the average reader on your marketing list.
Publishers use very sophisticated targeting for every email campaign they send, often using customer relationship management systems to send emails only to the people who are likely buyers. As your career grows, you can do the same through services such as MailChimp. That’s the point at which email marketing becomes among the most valuable and profitable marketing tools, where you can tie specific sales goals to each email you send out.
Author Cross Promotion and Bundling
There have been experiments, formal and informal, among authors who band together and cross-market and promote themselves to each other’s audiences. One example of this is The Deadly Dozen, a digital collection of 12 thriller novels sold at the competitive price of $0.99. The project hit the New York Times bestseller list, and while the profits had to be distributed across 12 authors, each author in that collection achieved increased visibility and a new set of readers. In other words, the purpose wasn’t profit—although some level of profit was achieved—but long-term readership gain.
It’s very common in the genre fiction categories (romance, thriller, science fiction, crime) to find self-published authors bundling their work together at promotional prices, and every once in a while, self-published literary authors will do the same—just not at rock-bottom prices. Self-published authors have freedom to enter into such collaborative arrangements because they possess the rights to do so, and thus, they enjoy marketing power and traction, which are easier to achieve in greater numbers. But literary authors could very well do the same with shorter works that they have not yet sold the rights to, or in cases where rights have reverted. Usually collaborations focus on older, backlist writing that serves as a useful introduction to a particular author’s work.
Traditionally, one of the biggest values publishers have offered authors is the ability to get their books into stores. Bookstore placement acts as a marketing function, particularly when the book is selected for front-of-store display, or has cover-out placement rather than spine-out placement. The more visible a book is, the better the chances of a reader stumbling upon it—and the better the chances of that reader talking about it with other readers.
However, if fewer people are browsing bookstore shelves, publishers can’t count on the serendipity of the bookstore visitor bumping into a front-of-store display and taking a chance on a new author. Amazon algorithms and discount deals and promotions (whether through Amazon or BookBub) now play an increasingly important role in how readers discover and decide what to read next. While publishers may be unparalleled in their ability to offer print retail distribution and mass-market branding campaigns, they are still catching up with direct-to-consumer marketing—by building consumer-facing book websites and email newsletter lists that offer discounts. As of today, some savvy authors are better equipped to reach readers than the average publishing house.
So where does this leave the average author? If you build a network you can reach either online or offline, and the members of that network trust you, they will come when your book releases. Don’t underestimate the difference that your relationships can make. If you make connections, when it’s time for your launch or event, you’ll see a real and meaningful effect. While you may not be able to keep up with every nuance of what’s changing in digital marketing or book publishing, you’ll always benefit from building your own platform and reach to readership.