Traditionally published authors everywhere tend to experience the same disappointment when working with their publisher: lack of marketing and publicity support.
Sometimes this is more perceived than real. Publishers tend to do a poor job of letting authors know about all the things they do to market and promote books, especially within industry channels that the author might not see visible evidence of.
But whatever your experience—and however you decide to publish—it’s unwise to depend on a publisher, publicist, or any third party to build your career, or be responsible for growing your readership. Publishers will be focused on the short-term, or on their immediate return on investment. You, the author, have to take care of the long-term career building. While you may delegate tasks or hire help, only an author can truly take ownership of their career and carry out the vision for it. It will also largely fall on your shoulders to execute marketing activities that don’t have immediate payoff but are important for future success and sales.
First things first: Career authors need a website
The first and most important step in your marketing journey is establishing your author website—a website that serves as a hub and information clearinghouse for everything you publish. Once upon a time (I hope this is no longer the case), publishers advised authors that they were better off creating and maintaining a Facebook page rather than a website. But it’s no replacement for an author website.
Your website is the number one calling card for a successful digital-age author. Whatever type of marketing strategy you pursue, it will be more effective with a website in place. That’s not to say that every author should put the same amount of time and energy into it—every author career is different—but there is no reason that any published author should say “no” to a website given how much book discovery now happens online. (However, having a website does not mean you have to blog. If you’re interested in blogging, I have 101 advice on starting.)
More important than a blog: Have an email newsletter signup on your website. It allows you to communicate reliably and directly with your audience from one book to the next. While it’s less than ideal to send an email newsletter only when you have a new book coming out, at the very least you’ll want it for that purpose. Learn more about email newsletters for authors.
Social media: pick at least one place where you can sustainably and consistently contribute
Most new authors, upon securing a book contract, are advised they need to establish a Twitter account, a Facebook page, any number of social media profiles. Why? To market their book, of course.
This presents an immediate dilemma: If you’re not already active on these channels, of your own interest and volition, you now have the mindset of using these tools to “market”—and more importantly, you may have no idea what that means beyond telling people to like your page or follow you.
The other problem is that social media, while not going away, is constantly in flux. Its use is also highly dependent on the type of work you write and publish, your own personality and comfort level, and where your readers can be found.
If you’re in it for the “right” reasons, there are three benefits of using social media: (1) Building relationships in the writing and publishing community, (2) encouraging word of mouth about you and your work, and (3) nurturing reader relationships. Relationship building is the kind of activity that’s largely unquantifiable, and it’s a long-term, organic process. It would be counterproductive in many cases to measure sales from it, especially if you’re new to it or not well known.
For authors who have a limited social media presence, but soon realize they need to do something to support their book, there is a work around: Get your friends and influencers who already have relationships and trust in place to help spread the word for you on social media.
That brings us to perhaps the most important principle for building a decent marketing plan. A strong campaign tends to build on existing relationships and networks—not aspirational ones.
Relationships quickly become key for meaningful book marketing
For every book launch, brainstorm a list of all the meaningful relationships you have—people or organizations/businesses you can count on to read your emails or respond to your calls. Include people who would definitely want to be alerted to your new work, including peers and colleagues; people or organizations/businesses who have significant reach or influence with your target readership (say, a blogger or an established publication); and your existing and devoted readers/fans who may be willing to spread the word about your new work to their friends and connections.
Now: What marketing ideas or opportunities present themselves when you look at that list? How could you use the assets you have today to build an actionable marketing plan? Rather than try to obtain Oprah’s phone number, look at the phone numbers you do have. It’s okay to be aspirational or have stretch goals—but don’t rely on them.
As far as those aspirations: Do brainstorm a list of the influencers, gatekeepers or bigger names who could help spread the word (but that don’t yet fall into the “established relationship” column). For example, if you write romance, then popular romance review blogs would act as a gatekeeper to your readership. Do those blogs accept guest posts? Can you contribute to their community in some way? Look for tangible and realistic ways to work beyond your existing network.
Many times, when an author’s marketing efforts fail, it’s because they tried to go it alone. Relationships can be critical. When you see a successful author, what you see may only be the visible aspects of their presence or platform. What you can’t see are all of the relationships and conversations that go on behind the scenes that contribute to a more amplified reach (like on social media!). Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Virtually no successful author has been able to spread that precious word of mouth all by themselves.
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.