Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is adapted from Write without Crushing Your Soul: Sustainable Publishing and Freelancing by Ed Cyzewski (@edcyzewski).
“I’ve never seen an author work as hard as you,” my publicist wrote after a book release.
I wanted to print out that email so that I could either frame it on my wall or burn it in the alley behind our house. I couldn’t decide which I wanted to do more.
I love to write books, but I don’t love book releases, even if my publicist praised my effort.
Almost every author I know jumps into book marketing with very mixed feelings. Authors are committed to the long, slow process of writing, so the fast-paced, socially awkward, time-sensitive demands of promotion prove difficult and draining for many authors. Even worse than that, many new authors know next to nothing about marketing and feel slimy when jumping into it, but we’re still tempted to measure our personal worth and the value of our books based on our sales numbers.
How do you promote a book well without bringing misery on yourself? Here are a few ideas that I discuss in my book Write without Crushing Your Soul.
When Bad Marketing Happens to Good Writers
The first time one of my books completely bombed, I went into a tailspin of self-doubt, self-loathing, and an overall sense of doom about my career. Some of my sales struggles in the past have come from a poorly titled book or a marketing plan that didn’t effectively target my core audience, but regardless, I’ve always been tempted to take my sales numbers personally.
When I finally turned my sales around on a subsequent project, I finally accepted that sales are just numbers. Book sales tell you a very small slice of the story about your book and your work, but they are far from the full picture. Slumping sales may indicate that you need to change some things, but they aren’t definitive proof that you need to give up or even that your book is worthless.
Very few authors believe they have sold enough books. Don’t seek personal validation for your career through book sales.
Commit to your writing as a mission or calling to serve a particular audience, and let the feedback from your audience determine whether you have been successful. The results of marketing campaigns are difficult to predict, so don’t let sales numbers determine whether you have served your readers effectively or whether you should keep writing. However, don’t ignore your sales numbers completely, since they may indicate that you need to try something else in order to reach your audience.
Stop Imitating Another Author’s Path to Success
During a meeting with one author, she shared with me how much she loved helping a friend with a podcast, but blogging was an absolute chore for her. However, she persisted in blogging because “That’s what you do to get noticed by publishers.”
I’ve been there, and it’s true that many of my contacts with publishers have come about because of my blog. For many authors today a thriving blog is all but assumed.
However, I suggested to my friend that many of the most successful bloggers I know live and breathe blogging. In addition, I personally can’t stop thinking of ideas I want to blog about. In her case, she had untapped artistic and audio talents that she had overlooked. I was also able to share how I had unintentionally copied the way another author uses Twitter because I thought successful authors need to use Twitter just like him. However, I made myself miserable in the process and ultimately struggled to make progress in my career by copying him.
Don’t lose your personality, quirks, and passions by trying to imitate the success of another author. In fact, you may not find your voice or tap into your greatest talents if you try to duplicate what made a fellow author successful. One of the most successful bloggers I personally know told me that she has reached more readers through her podcast than her blog.
Marketing Experts Disagree about What Works
At a writing conference I had some time to sit down with my publicist to plan my next book release. I mentioned that I was just wrapping up a fairly traditional publicity campaign for a book with a different publisher that included radio interviews and ads in magazines. She startled me with her reply: “It’s not working, right?”
“Yeah, it’s really not working,” I replied.
“That doesn’t work for most books,” she said.
Mind you, there are some well-known authors who can drive book sales through interviews and ads, but for the majority of midlist or independent authors, we’re going to run into conflicting advice from one publisher to another. In most cases, a relatively unknown author will struggle to sell books through traditional media advertising.
Having worked with several publishers over the years, I’ve noticed how different publicity departments can be from each other. While one publisher emphasizes Twitter followers, another looks at your email list, and yet another wants connections at magazines, conferences, and bookstores. There are certain trends that appear more common than others, but if a particular publicity practice strikes you as draining or ineffective for your book, there are plenty of options out there to consider, and there’s a chance you can find an expert who can walk you through it.
That also means that authors should consider whether a publisher’s marketing team is a good fit for reaching their particular audiences. Most publishers have a standard marketing plan that is the basis of what they do, and it may be wise to find out how your network and viability as an author match up with your publisher’s marketing preferences.
Diminishing Returns for Trying to Do It All
I once asked an editor at one of the Big Five publishers about balancing traditional with new media advertising, and she said to do all of the traditional stuff and to then do the new media stuff until I dropped. That may have been realistic for success with a Big Five publisher, but it’s hardly possible for the average author who wants to have family time, personal pursuits, or some sort of spiritual practice each day.
I tried to follow her advice for a season, but over time I found that trying to dive into all of the social media marketing options out there at the same time meant I did all of them poorly. Instead, I focused on improving my newsletter, sharing my real-time, off-the-record thoughts about being a person of faith in the publishing industry. I got more specific and personal with my audience, and I immediately noticed an increased response from my readers. I also built my email list by giving away short ebooks, which I find much more enjoyable to write than anything I can cobble together on social media.
Most strikingly, connecting with readers in a personally authentic way ensured that my newsletters receive the highest engagement when I’m true to myself rather than writing sales pitches or offering “special deals.” I’ve unintentionally built something that only works if I interact with it in ways that I personally find healthy and authentic. I don’t want to spend my day crafting pithy, quotable tweets or hunting down potentially viral content for my Facebook page, but the people who appreciate my newsletter are more likely to follow me on social media after reading my longer form content.
You’re Never Done Promoting a Book
The hardest thing about sustainably promoting a book is that you’ll never reach an official finish line. There’s always one more book to sell and one more reader to ask for a review. That alone can bring about burnout and misery.
This may be the worst publishing advice you’ll ever read, but I don’t set sales goals or anything numerical as a goal during my book promotions.
I budget a set amount of time and prioritize certain actions. For instance, I make sure I write some guest posts, send some emails to my list, share copies with my friends and colleagues, and run a few sales or ads on ebook promotion sites.
When I run out of time, that’s that. I need to wait until the following week in order to follow up on anything else that didn’t fit into my release week time slots. In the weeks that follow, I try to find a few new ways to share my books with readers rather than constantly pushing for more exposure. Even saving the most popular book-related posts on my blog in Pocket and then dropping them into Buffer each week can help keep your book in front of new readers. Publicist Tim Grahl calls this slow and steady approach a “long game” book release.
Finding Your Voice in Book Marketing
Spiritual director and author Tara Owens shared in a recent interview on my blog that an author’s voice is perhaps one of the most important aspects of a writing career. Without finding, nurturing, and guarding your voice, you’ll most likely struggle, burn out, or quietly wish you could do something else.
Book marketing is much the same. Just as you need to find your voice to write a book, you need to find your voice in order to share a book with your audience.
There are more publicity tasks than you could ever learn, there are never enough hours in a day, and publishers are far from united in their opinions on the best way to market a book. You may as well develop a few key ways to reach readers that are sustainable and authentic that capitalize on your strengths.
You can’t always control the effectiveness of your book marketing plan, but you can control the way that book marketing impacts your relationships, mental health, and spirituality. If you hope to make a career out of writing, it’s especially important that your publicity practices leave something of yourself for the next book.
For more about writing sustainably, check out Write without Crushing Your Soul: Sustainable Publishing and Freelancing, on sale for $1.99 the week of November 9 via Kindle, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo.
Ed Cyzewski (@edcyzewski) is an editor and the author of Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction (Herald Press, 2020) and Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians (Herald Press, 2019). Download his free eBook 10 Ways to Use Your Phone Less… and to Pray a Bit More at www.edcyzewski.com.