How to Harness Community to Build Book Sales and Platform

Note from Jane: This Wednesday, I’m teaching an online class on effective book marketing for any author. A recording will be available if you can’t attend live.

When it comes to the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing, marketing is a key area where strategies diverge, often dramatically. Professional self-published authors tend to focus on Amazon or Facebook advertising, sometimes giveaways, and they speed through marketing campaigns in record time—not least because another book release can be right around the corner. Traditional publishers, on the other hand, will spend months or even a year or more planning a campaign and thinking about content marketing, influencers, and brand partnerships.

This summer, at The Bookseller’s Marketing & Publicity Conference, publishers large and small discussed how they work with authors to plan book launches and long-term marketing and promotion, especially in relation to online communities or social media—ever more important, given the rise of online sales. While not all authors receive the same level of in-house support from their publisher, it helps to know what a strong effort does look like, to be educated and aware of what’s possible.

To start, authors have to buy in to the core message of the publisher’s marketing campaign as early as possible. At the start of every campaign, the publisher is thinking about how to use the author’s platform effectively. But this must be approached in a collaborative manner to work. Senior marketing executive Sian Gardiner and senior publicity manager Jess Duffy, both of Bluebird and One Boat (imprints of Pan Macmillan), discussed how to avoid “battling with authors to get them to post something that we know is going to help the book but they don’t feel truly represents them.” Early conversations with authors help bring marketing in line with the authors’ persona and community. “[Our] tailored strategies are informed by the authors’ unique knowledge of their online communities and supplemented by our expertise,” they said.

The community surrounding the author (and/or publisher) should be engaged early in the process and be part of the journey, said Gardiner and Duffy. The marketing campaign will fall flat if there are scattered calls to pre-order and vague mentions of the book without sufficient “content wrapping.” The right strategy is to drip-feed information about the upcoming book (or existing books) through the year. If planned early enough, there can even be requests for input from the community (almost like a focus group), with lots of free content sharing and behind-the-scenes footage. “That means when it comes time to truly hammering home that pre-order messaging, the audience is already completely invested in the print purchase,” they said. However, Gardiner and Duffy warned that, with nonfiction authors in particular, the majority of an author’s community may not be book buyers and are not necessarily choosing to follow them for book content. “This means it’s crucial that the author integrates the book messaging that feels true to the spirit of what they usually post.”

As a case study, Gardiner and Duffy referenced Laura Thomas’s nonfiction book Just Eat It. They knew the author’s audience had huge potential for growth. Through influencer engagement (more on influencers in a bit), exclusive snippets from the author’s podcast, and a series of giveaways, the publisher built the author’s following from 20,000 to 100,000 in six months. For Nikesh Shukla’s memoir, Brown Baby, the publisher helped the author launch a parenting podcast that was shared by the high-profile guests he interviewed—and the publisher also secured a lot of podcast interviews for Nikesh himself.

In a similar vein, Penguin Random House (UK) has been focused the last couple years on bolstering its editorial content for readers, according to Indira Birnie, a senior manager at the company. She described, ultimately, a content marketing strategy for reaching any and all readerships—content that can be created ahead of time and used for months if not years, including podcasts, online articles, video, etc. For instance, with Obama’s memoir (yes, it does need to be marketed, and without much access to the author!), Birnie’s team compiled a list of all the books he’s publicly recommended over the years and published it at the PRH site. That piece of content has been popular and has continued to perform well even more than a year after the book’s release. Birnie said, “It makes a lot more sense to me to create one really good piece of content”—something that is tailored to the readership and to a particular platform—rather than churn out substandard pieces that get blasted everywhere but fail to engage.

Social media plays a significant role in just about every marketing campaign. Gardiner and Duffy said one of the biggest sticking points when it comes to social strategy can be the regularity of posts required. Some authors worry about spamming their followers or appearing overly sales-y. But the lifecycle of social posts is incredibly short: 18 minutes for Twitter, 2.5 hours on Facebook, and 48 hours on Instagram. It’s possible for followers to miss most posts, in fact. That’s why an author’s book must be incorporated into an author’s regular posting strategy, so the majority of their following will be aware of the book even if they miss most posts.

Birnie said it’s interesting to watch influencers work on social media, since they have “guerrilla tactics” and don’t stick to certain rules to keep people engaged. They might run polls or Q&As where it’s very easy and quick for audiences to respond. “You’re not asking them to do much, and you’re not asking them for much time.” It becomes a really canny way, she said, of getting the algorithm to favor your content; informal methods of engaging can be some of the most powerful methods.

Social media platforms often roll out new features, and while it may be frustrating for authors to have to keep relearning the tools, Birnie said it can work in your favor to jump on them early. Far fewer people use those new features (like Reels on Instagram), and if you’re there first, you can grow your audience. However, she acknowledged, “It is a resource thing,” and PRH has to allocate its time wisely. Elise Jackson, a senior marketing executive at Pushkin Press, said that video is very tricky—it can cost money or be a significant time investment. “We have to be sure about the content.”

Influencers, particularly those on social media, can be central to a campaign’s success. Jackson said, “I love influencers, they’re my favorite people.” She outlined three different types that she works with at Pushkin. First, there are people who essentially act as brand ambassadors for the publisher and love everything that Pushkin does. “They trust us as a brand and shout out about anything that we do. They are amazing, and we have really good personal relationships with them.” Second, there are influencers they reach out to in a strategic way as they plan a marketing campaign, on a case-by-case basis, and tailor the pitch or approach to their particular interests. This takes time, of course, but leads to better results.

A third type of influencer marketing is a brand partnership. Jackson gave an example of a children’s book they marketed that’s a work of climate fiction. Pushkin was working with teacher influencers but also established a relationship with a sustainable children’s clothing brand. “That brought in hundreds of people to [our] newsletter and massive engagement not only on our channels but on their channels,” Jackson said. “That’s a better use of time than emailing a bunch of climate change activists who might not have any interest in a children’s book—knowing where to place your influencer investment depending on the campaign that you’re working on.” She said that every influencer should be treated as a complex consumer; they are not all alike.

Email newsletters, as usual, were cited for their dramatic importance in driving sales during the pandemic. Jackson said the pandemic changed how the publisher uses email, and the effort has been worth their time. “We became our own booksellers through the newsletter. Before that we hadn’t put that much time into segmentation or who was opening these newsletters.” But it became clear it was the most immediate way to gauge what people were actually interested in buying. They now rely on newsletter engagement data and segment/tag readers appropriately, to better understand who is going to buy what and avoid saturating the subscribership. They also have separate lists for influencers, teachers, librarians, and so on.

Birnie said that PRH has moved away from driving clicks to retailers from their email newsletters and now focus on disseminating content and getting their audience engaged with that content. They do five newsletters a month, and most are full of editorial content. Only one is sales focused. Like Pushkin, they’re focused on more personalization or a more tailored experience for each subscriber.

Some marketing fundamentals never change and must be optimized before a campaign can lead to sales. Namely: the book cover, the book description, and the overall positioning. At NetGalley, when people request review copies, they answer a series of questions, like whether they like the cover, why they’ve requested the title, and so on. Stuart Evers of NetGalley UK said the book’s description is by far one of the most important reasons why people have selected a title. For example, for one book, the survey data revealed that very few people were choosing a title because of the author, despite that author being a significant name. The publisher started digging into why (partly by asking sales reps), and realized that many people had not read the author in many years, or younger people hadn’t heard of the author or thought the author old-fashioned. So, for the paperback release, the publisher changed the positioning. They highlighted the book itself and the story line, not the author, and the paperback sales hugely increased.

An ideal to strive for? A year-round marketing campaign. Gardiner and Duffy advocated for this approach, even though it may seem like an impossible task. In fact, it’s less labor intensive than people think. Start with the basics, they recommended. “We make sure to always let our authors know when there is new activity happening around the book and often will draft copy for them to post on their social channels.” For example, this could be a new Kindle deal, a new piece of media coverage, the launch of an international edition, or a shout-out from a high-profile social account. “We also ask our authors to forward any and all event requests they receive,” they said. Often an event that doesn’t seem to directly correlate with the book can still be a meaningful sales opportunity. “After the authors wow [the audience] with their brilliance, the book becomes a perfect physical takeaway from a potentially life-changing or inspiring moment.”

Bottom line: One of the long-held maxims of marketing—To go wide, start narrow—was expressed a number of times at the conference. Be focused and specific about who you’re trying to reach. Evers of NetGalley said that publishers and authors can be guilty of thinking they want a book to go out to as many people as possible when what they actually need to do is focus. “Get your community really excited about it, and they can talk about it to a wider society,” he said. Look to partner with specific authors, creators, and brands to harness the power of these communities. Successful campaigns find a core message everyone can get behind and make it the driving force, especially on social. “If the content is creative and well thought out, there should be no fears around oversaturation,” Duffy and Gardiner said.

This piece first appeared in Jane’s newsletter, The Hot Sheet.

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