This post first appeared in my paid newsletter for authors, The Hot Sheet.
Since the pandemic arrived in early 2020, the entirety of the publishing community has turned its eye toward online events as a key way to spread word of mouth about books. And a lot continues to ride on the success of these events. Yet how many authors have been effectively trained in staging a meaningful online event—especially one that translates into sales?
I reached out to some of the most experienced and astute authors and marketers to share their best practices for online book events, regardless of the platform you’re using.
First, decide what you want from the event.
Former literary agent Mary Kole (who runs the Good Story Company) says you need to decide if you want readers or if you want sales—the two are not necessarily the same thing. “By hosting a great event where you have hundreds of attendees—but no sales—you have maybe gained some readers. They came, they saw, they enjoyed, they maybe signed up for your email list. Is this enough?” Sometimes it is, Kole says. But you need to be clear about what you’re hoping to achieve so you can adjust how you frame the event from the start and what you ask people to do.
Novelist Hank Phillippi Ryan of Career Authors says, “A book event does not necessarily need to translate into sales at that very moment. If an author can drum up interest in their new book and themselves, and create a general excitement about it, and a sense of anticipation, I think that’s very helpful. Then the next time the reader sees your book, they remember, Oh—I just saw that! Or I just heard about that.”
As marketers are fond of saying: People buy books they’ve heard about, and events create word of mouth and a needed impression. If successful, the event will endear you to readers and increase the future likelihood of a sale. Novelist Caroline Leavitt recommends, “Be casual. Be yourself. Readers want to see the real you, so the more unpracticed and unrehearsed you sound, the better. If you can be warm and funny, readers will love you, and they will want your book that much more!”
Build marketing support or find partners for your event.
Author Angela Ackerman of Writers Helping Writers suggests reaching out to your existing audience and letting them know you’re planning something fun. In other words: form a street team or launch team. Provide a signup form that lists all the ways your team can help; then they can decide how to support you. Ackerman says she and her co-author rely on the teams’ blogs to point to the event, a strategy she describes as lots of windows, one house. “I craft the posts in text and HTML to make it easy [for them] to drop in, and create three different versions which I split into three groups so not every blog has the same images and content.” Also, she says, be sure to offer team members a thank-you gift afterward.
Rachel Thompson of BadRedhead Media offers a caveat regarding this approach: “I caution any author to not jump into this unless they have a body of work behind them,” she says. “I didn’t start my team until I had published four books.” That said, if you have a recognizable name already—or if your book is on a topic that readers can quickly and avidly get behind—she says it’s possible to create a team and people will jump right in.
If a launch team or street team is out of the question for you, look for other like-minded partners. “I think an online launch is all about increasing your reach,” says novelist Kristy Woodson Harvey. “Teaming up with other authors, influencers, bloggers, and, of course, a favorite indie bookstore for joint events can help grow the potential audience. And if you have a regional bookseller association that would get involved (SIBA, MIBA, etc.), so much the better.”
Likewise, novelist Karen Karbo suggests, “Being in conversation is more interesting than a talking head. If you can talk with someone with her own following, even better.”
Determine the event theme, content, and structure.
Ackerman says that she and her co-author try to do events with an emotional pull, so they look at three components for each event.
- Offering entertainment. This isn’t a hard one to understand: people want to participate in something fun. Ackerman says, “We think about why our readers are online, what sort of escapism might appeal to them, and how can we cater to that. People tend to respond to creative things that pull them out of their day-to-day as long as it’s easy to do.”
- Adding value. Often, this takes the shape of a giveaway and gives people a reason to attend. More on this below.
- Satisfying a need. Ackerman says, “As human beings, we have common needs, like connection, belonging, fellowship, creativity, etc., and if you can find a need that your audience is receptive to, you can build a theme into your event they will connect to emotionally and so rally behind. This makes them more motivated to participate in the event and share it with others, which in turn means visibility and books sold.”
Whether it’s better to use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Zoom, or something else will depend on where the author has a following or is otherwise comfortable engaging. Consider these factors:
- “If the event takes place on social media, think about what the audience is there for. Entertainment? A break from routine and work? Information?” Ackerman says. “What do they like, and what will catch their attention on that platform?”
- Facebook launch parties. Thompson says these aren’t likely to sell a lot of books, “yet you’ll connect with your readership and build relationships and visibility for future sales.” If you have a street team, you’ll gain new membership, new followers on other channels, and newsletter subscribers. Indie author and marketer Shayla Raquel hosts Facebook launch parties specifically on the day of release to push for last-minute sales, so she always hosts them in the evening. She says, “The launch party in no way is meant to replace any other marketing components—it’s a little bonus tool to help you end the day with a bang.” Keep the event fast paced and fun, Raquel says, and ensure posts have relevant and unique photos of you, the book, and/or the prizes; avoid stock photos. Thompson recommends that if you have no experience doing a Facebook launch party, consider hiring someone who does. “There are lots of ins and outs. They’re a lot of work.”
- Twitter chats. Thompson suggests authors look for and participate in a chat already running in their genre or on their topic. If there isn’t one, consider starting one. “Be forewarned, though, chats take coordination and commitment,” she says. “I’ve been doing these chats every week for about five to six years. You need to pick a weekly topic, research it, invite guests, and share summaries. I also create blog posts from the chat. This can help immensely in your Twitter growth and author branding.” (Thompson hosts #BookMarketingChat every Wednesday at 9 p.m. Eastern.)
- Author Q&A. As suggested earlier, try to coordinate with another author or influencer so that you’re not a lone talking head, and do these live. Thompson says you can invite readers to ask you questions about your inspirations, writing process, books, writing life, cats, etc.
Author Kristina Stanley had a very successful Facebook launch party several years ago that pushed her to number one on Amazon Hot New Releases. But her later events were not as successful. “I’ve heard from other authors their first Facebook launch party goes better than the others. One thought is all your friends are super keen about your first book. … To make my first party work, I reached out to hundreds of my friends directly and asked them for help. After my third book, I stopped doing the online parties because of the effort/payoff ratio.”
Ackerman says that whatever you do for an event, it can’t look like the same old same old. “Thinking outside the box to do something fresh is what attracts attention and gets people talking and sharing.” In other words: your first successful online event may not be replicable; you have to mix things up to keep attention over a series of events.
Give people a reason to attend by offering giveaways.
Just about every event—especially a launch event—includes book giveaways and other prizes. Raquel and Thompson both recommend using gift cards; the grand prize can be a signed copy of the author’s book.
Ryan says such enticements have escalated over the past couple of years. “At first, people were giving away things—notebooks and coffee mugs and tote bags,” she says. Eventually, she saw that people grew tired of those, so she and some authors switched to “buy one, get one.” For example, if a reader bought her new book and sent a proof of purchase, she sent a backlist book for free. But that also lost its allure over time. Ultimately, she says, the strongest factor of all is whether the reader really wants the book no matter what (and may end up purchasing it anyway).
Novelist Amy Impellizzeri has found that the promise of future book club appearances (whether live or FaceTime or Zoom) is a fan favorite. “When readers know their favorite authors are willing to make an appearance to their own book clubs after the online launch, they are more likely to buy and even read!” she says.
Ackerman says while she and her co-author might give away books at their events, they tailor prizes to their readership. “I think that’s important—anyone might stop by to win an Amazon gift card, but only people interested in writing would want to win my critiques, seats in a writing webinar, or writing swag.” Another option to consider is access. “People, especially readers, like to be part of an inner circle, and all authors can incorporate this into giveaways or freebies. I’ve given away lunch dates, Skype sessions, etc., but you could be accessible in lots of ways—offer membership in a Facebook reader’s group, send ecards and recipes on their birthday—whatever fits the author.”
Know how to design a sales-focused event, if that’s your goal.
This is where your intended ask comes into play—your call to action. Kole says you should know what it is long before the event takes place; it determines how you set up the event and how you close it. As discussed, it’s acceptable to plan an event more focused on building a readership than making sales. But what if you want to be sales focused?
Kole says that an event focused on “come hear a reading” doesn’t prime anyone to buy; the expectation is entertainment. “The writer doesn’t ask for a sale and doesn’t get one. If the writer does ask, their audience may not be expecting it and may be turned off,” Kole says. “The writer’s icky feelings about sales come to the surface. It is a mismatch between expectation and call to action.”
Alternatively, a call to action like “come support my book launch” is a bit better because the attendee knows there’s an expectation: support. Kole says, “To me, this is the writer’s ‘nice and polite’ way of asking for a sale without asking for it because, again, they feel icky about it.”
But the ideal way to frame an event that leads to sales? Kole suggests “Be the first to get your hands on my new release.” This might attract fewer attendees but result in more sales because the language is very clear. “The expectation is that you come and buy,” Kole says. “This is a straightforward call to action with very little dancing around the issue. With the audience primed to expect a sale, the writer will have less trouble working up the courage to deliver the call to action at the event.”
To further increase sales and visibility from her online events, Raquel creates book-related prompts that attendees have to complete for a chance at winning a prize. For example, attendees might have to follow an author’s Amazon page, sign up for the author’s email newsletter, and/or recommend the book on Goodreads to three friends.
Ackerman says she rarely pressures people to buy during online events, although it can be prudent for pre-orders and Amazon ranking. When she did a more sales-oriented pre-order push, it was separate from online events. “I did three things to encourage people to get the pre-order. First, we made a big deal about a ‘surprise book’ we were writing but wouldn’t tell anyone what it was. We even had a fake cover. So, we built excitement and encouraged guessing. Second, we announced the pre-order the day we announced the book and shared the cover. So, people who were excited by the book’s topic could ride that excitement all the way to Amazon and pre-order. Third, we offered a freebie to anyone who did pre-order. We set up a Gmail account just for this and asked people to submit proof of purchase to it. When they did, the autoresponder sent them a link to a website page with the freebie. This worked well and made it easy for us to distribute the free item.”
Kole says any ask for a sale can be galvanized if you offer a promo code or discount with an expiration date. However, that can obviously lower your earnings—which takes us back to where we started this piece. “What is it that you want with this event? To get readers? To transmit books into hands? Or to make royalties?” Kole says. “It doesn’t just have to be about the dollar amount of the sale … it can be about gaining a fan.”
Keep in mind
Over the long term, Ackerman suggests using events to build relationships with readers rather than just sell books. “I’ve seen Zoom dinner parties, Netflix-watching parties, online pub nights, memes for days, all kinds of stuff,” she says. “We need more of this connection and less ‘buy my book’ promotion.” Once those reader relationships get established, she says, even though they take time to build, the audience then does the promoting for the author. Whatever tactics you adopt—whether sales oriented or relationship oriented—Kole says, “Writers need to market now more than ever. There are people out there marketing their work, and they are getting ahead, while writers who succumb to overwhelm or analysis paralysis miss opportunities.”
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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.