It is possible, if not desirable, 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 monetary investment to hire a publicist, PR firm, or marketing consultant to advise and assist you. The good news is that, by the time your second, third, or fourth book comes out, you should have a solid base of readers to work from—a base that was developed from marketing activities associated with previous launches.
Remember that a comprehensive book-marketing campaign uses a combination of tactics to reach readers. It would be unusual to focus solely on social media, or solely on events, to generate word of mouth. The best approach combines online and offline components, and if done right, each amplifies and strengthens the other.
Most authors know that the multi-city book tour is a thing of the past, but of course you can still find New York Times bestselling authors doing tours for their new releases. Chicago-based publicist Dana Kaye says such tours happen mostly as a favor to the bookstores, as a way for the author to give back to the community. But bookstores aren’t always the best place for events.
Kaye says, “Any time you’re trying to get people out of their house and go somewhere, it’s very difficult. … You’re competing with many different things. However, more people are inclined to go somewhere if it feels like a party or an event, rather than just going to a bookstore and listening to an author read their work or talk about their work.”
Many authors and publicists—and even the bookstores themselves—have caught on to this and now plan events in alternative venues, such as bars or clubs. Bookstores and other literary organizations sell tickets to author lunches held at restaurants, and the ticket price includes a copy of the book. Such events feel more social, and they avoid the lower perceived value and less compelling nature of the reading-signing format.
Kaye looks for ways to partner authors for events and tours, since that generally leads to better turnout and a better pitch for media coverage. For example, Kaye’s firm organized and promoted the Young Authors Give Back Tour, in which four YA authors, who had all published before 25, toured the country and taught writing workshops for teens. That angle got two TV appearances and a feature in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Even if the days of the traditional author tour are over, events still play an important role in an author’s career. Kaye says:
Touring or doing an event is more about making a footprint. When you go to a city, it’s not just the books you sell, but the people you talk to at the event. … It’s about making connections with people. That being said, media is the primary reason you tour, even if that’s becoming more difficult to pitch.
Working with Indie Bookstores
First-time novelist Marjan Kamali (Together Tea, Ecco, 2013) says her readings and bookstore events—some of which she planned herself—have energized her in a surprising way. “The reason they’re so great is because I’ve been doing them at small, independent bookshops, which is who will have me. … It warms my heart to think there are these people out there who still love books, who know so much, who support authors.”
Other authors feel the same way, and go out of their way to support their independent bookstore as part of their book launch or overall marketing campaign. Pete Mulvihill, owner of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, says that some authors adopt an indie bookstore to be their fulfillment center for anyone who wants to find an inscribed copy. He says,
“We love when authors come by and sign books, whether there’s an appearance or not, because it gives something we can offer that our major online competitor cannot. We’ll most likely put it on our Facebook page or tweet about it. It generates a little more buzz. It tells people you’re in town, you’re a human, and that you care about indie bookstores. Even bookplates. You can send those to bookstores.”
For her most recent book launch, Michigan author Loreen Niewenhuis made her travelogue, A 1000-Mile Great Lakes Walk (Crickhollow Books, 2013), available only from twelve Michigan independent bookstores for its first two months on the market. In an interview with Shelf Awareness, Niewenhuis said, “Authors … need to think about how they’re getting their books to people. They need to think about how to make connections, not just about ‘I need to sell my book.’ How you sell your book is just as important.”
Whatever the benefits, doing events—regardless of what venue you choose—can be costly and time-consuming for an author, especially if turnout is low. A start-up, Togather, is attempting to address the uncertainty and mitigate the risk by allowing publishers and authors to crowdsource events. If enough people in a community support an author event, then the author commits to going. Togather also hosts online chats if the author can’t commit to travel, especially to a small town or market. [Update: As of June 2014, Togather has folded.]
For her next book release, thriller novelist Jamie Freveletti, a client of Kaye’s, is planning a live-streaming launch party using LiveLab Network. Freveletti says, “I did one streaming event with The Poisoned Pen bookstore, and I was surprised how many people logged in and watched it. People can be part of the excitement of it. It’s just a fun thing to do.”
Another online event service, Shindig, founded in 2009, allows authors to give readings in front of a live online audience; at BookExpo America this year, Shindig hosted live chats with dozens of authors on the show floor to illustrate the potential of their service.
But do online events sell books?
Kaye says, “We had a virtual launch [for a client] with several hundred people, but I didn’t see the transition into sales. That’s what I’d warn authors. If you’re going to do an online discussion … do something that’s going to encourage book sales. It’s a great way to interact with lots of people all over the world, but you want them to buy the book.” Kaye recommends having an active buy link during the digital launch event, or providing a discount code to attendees to drive purchases.
It’s always difficult to decide, however, which events might be worthwhile, since they are as much about creating word of mouth as selling books. A happy accident can always happen even if the sales aren’t there. “My old boss Stuart [Applebaum] used to say we don’t know if getting the word out about the book will sell the book, but we know they won’t buy it if they’ve never heard of it,” publicist Leslie Rossman says. “We’re always looking for the critical mass of exposure for a book.”
Publishing insiders know that the number of media outlets available to pitch—on any type of coverage—has dramatically shrunk. Rossman, whose firm specializes in high-end radio such as NPR, says, “It’s very competitive. It makes people very selective. There’s fewer spots and that includes radio, TV, and print—and there’s more syndication across the board.”
However, when you do get a hit in the media, it tends to stick with people and make an impact. “If you’re driving in your car, and you hear Terry Gross, that interview is going to resonate with you much more than if you’re reading the interview online,” says Kaye.
With persistence, authors can secure traditional media coverage without the publisher making the call. Katrin Schumann, the author of The Secret Power of Middle Children (Hudson Street, 2011), has been featured multiple times on the Today show, as well as on NPR and other media. When she started marketing her first book in 2008 with co-author Susan Callahan, she was totally unschooled in pitching, and didn’t even consider TV a possibility. But Callahan had worked in marketing and understood the psychology behind it.
“She had this persistence,” Schumann says, “continually knocking on your door in a slightly different way for the same thing. I realized that my instinctive approach was informed by the way I was brought up, which was polite. If they say no, they say no.”
Over a year after their book launched, after repeated pitching, Schumann and Callahan got on the Today show. Schumann says of Callahan, “She didn’t get overwhelmed and dispirited when encountering resistance. That’s a key component authors don’t take into account—the emotional rollercoaster of putting yourself out there continually and getting turned down, and not taking it personally.”
Kaye’s advice for authors who want to try pitching themselves is to focus on the quality of their pitch. Take the time to research media outlets, research what they’re covering, and write a good pitch e-mail that shows how you fit into their editorial mission. Pitching doesn’t require a special skill set or the contacts of a publicist.
However, Kaye says, it helps if you pick up the phone. “You have to not be afraid to call and get the right contact information, to do the digging.” Kaye says authors can also ask their publisher for help; just tell them you’d like to reach out to a specific media outlet and are looking for the right person to contact with your pitch.
An effective and quality pitch process, however, can be time consuming, and this is where authors should evaluate where their time and effort is best spent, and if they can benefit from hiring a freelance publicist to assist them. Kaye says, “People ask, ‘Can I do it on my own?’ The answer is yes, if you have an extra eight hours in the day. Our job is to stay on top of what’s current and stay on top of news stories. Most authors don’t have time for that.”
It’s the surest way to start a debate in a room full of writers: ask them about the value of social media and other forms of online marketing. On one side of the debate, you have those who argue that reader engagement through social media contributes to long-term career success and visibility. On the other side, you have people who have participated in some form of online promotion, and who found it a waste of time or a major distraction without meaningful impact on sales.
Leslie Rossman says that, when it comes to online marketing, much depends on what your starting point is:
How much energy do you want to invest in pursuing secondary media? Some people are interested in that because they want to build. Some people will not get top media, so they’ll get something easy, and work up. If you’re a self-published author, you would probably benefit from doing everything possible.
One of the biggest challenges for authors is deciding what types of online marketing will work for them strategically, and figuring out how to be effective in cutting through the noise without consuming huge amounts of their time. Then there’s also the issue of actually enjoying themselves and the process.
Schumann, one of the leaders of Grub Street’s Launch Lab, says that authors are taught to focus their energy in ways that feel productive and meaningful to them:
[Authors] feel like they have this mandate to do specific things, but those things don’t feel authentic. They do them anyway—sometimes that’s a reality—but sometimes you have a choice to say no, I’m not going to focus on that, I’m going to focus elsewhere. You can make those choices, as long as you don’t make them by default. You’re still in charge. It’s better if you make really conscious choices about what feels comfortable for you.
When it comes to best practices in online marketing, the following themes emerged from my conversations with authors, publicists, and publishing industry experts.
Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, Etc.)
A gentle touch is encouraged. You’re not a salesman 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 in your career. While book sales are important, you have to think about the big picture of what’s sustainable. If a particular online activity saps your energy and becomes a drag, it’s probably time to reassess and refocus. However, don’t get discouraged if it takes time to understand or become comfortable with some online tools. Schumann says, “You don’t master these things in one day, which can be really discouraging for authors. It takes some patience and perseverance and to be open minded.”
If you’re struggling to figure out social media, Rossman recommends taking a look at 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?
Regular blogging isn’t necessary, 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. Kaye says, however, to keep in mind that it’s a small number of websites that actually have influence and traffic. If you do any marketing on a small 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.
Giveaways can work if done strategically. One of the most popular and effective venues for giveaways is Goodreads, a social media site for books and reading with more than 20 million members. One of the most important elements of the site—from a marketer’s perspective—is the Goodreads star rating, which is based on reader reviews. Goodreads has been one of Kaye’s favorite tools for getting the word out and generating pre-publication buzz. Kaye says, “As a society, we’re very influenced by reviews. If there’s not a lot of reviews [of your book], people probably won’t buy it. The Goodreads giveaways are good ways to generate those early reviews that make a difference.” For best practices in using Goodreads for giveaways and book launches, see the presentation Goodreads gave at BEA.
Since Goodreads will only do giveaways of physical copies, e-book authors—especially those who self-publish—have to look for other giveaway strategies. Amazon offers a special program for self-publishing authors called KDP Select. If you make your work exclusive to Amazon for 90 days, you can use 5 of those days for giveaways of your work. Independent authors typically use the giveaways to help generate reviews at Amazon, or to gain their book more visibility on Amazon overall. Some authors offer giveaways of a first book in a series when a new installment is about to launch, and enjoy a sales lift across the series after the giveaway concludes.
Another option is BookBub, a daily e-mail with more than 1 million subscribers that features limited discounts on e-books. For a fee—and if BookBub thinks your book is a good fit for its audience—BookBub will promote your e-book with a deep discount (usually setting prices of $2.99 or less) to a segment of its list.
Speaking of e-mail, 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 just about everyone reads e-mail, even if it takes a long time. Kaye says, “The e-mail list is the best way to engage your network.” 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 one through your own website, and at events, in preparation for future releases.
Parting Words of Wisdom
Kaye says she is constantly underestimating people’s networks; if you build a network you can reach (either online or offline), they will come.
“A debut author did two events, one in St. Louis where she grew up, and one in Denver where she lives now. Because she was a debut author, I was very nervous,” Kaye says. “She ended up having about 100 people come to each event, and sold even more books because people were buying multiple copies. That was very surprising to me. I really underestimated the people and the relationships really make the difference. If you make those connections, when it’s time for your event, they will come out.”
Freveletti experiments a great deal with all kinds of marketing to generate word of mouth, but, she says:
I can’t keep up with every nuance of what’s happening out there. But I can always call up a publicist and ask, ‘What do you think of this?’ They’ll say, ‘Oh, we tried that last year.’ … And they save me so much time. The most important thing I can do is write. We all have to find this balance between marketing and writing.
Reading and Resource List
- Book Marketing Plan: A Definitive Checklist by Tim Grahl is a free, customizable plan.
- How to Market a Book, by Joanna Penn, and Let’s Get Visible, by David Gaughran, are particularly helpful for independent authors as well as traditionally published authors who want to learn more about the best practices of digital marketing.
- Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, by Mark Coker, is a free primer geared toward authors who are marketing and promoting e-books.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.