Authors have different relationships to their books, and thus will make different choices about how to bring those books into the world.
With so many promotional strategies to choose from nowadays—from trailers and Amazon ads to podcasts, panels, bookstagram tours, and book fairs—it’s tempting, especially if this is your first book, to grab items off an a la carte menu in a flurry of suggestibility and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out—that is, of failing to do something you should have done).
Experienced peers may remind you that no one can do everything, and you agree—well, sort of. But without tools for sorting and ranking your options, and without an overarching intention, you may worry that you’ve chosen poorly.
That’s why it’s useful to take a step back and identify your view of your book before deciding which strategies to use. In general, there seem to be three attitudes, particularly toward a debut.
1. Your book as your baby
Especially after years of infertility (that is, of trying to get published), launching a book can feel like a momentous, life-altering accomplishment, and you can hardly believe that it’s finally happened.
Your book is the passport into a new identity as an author, just as a baby allows you to claim the identity of parent. You’ve joined a club that you’ve yearned to belong to. To experience that new membership, you want to hang out where other authors (or parents) hang out. Thus, you may be drawn to Facebook reader groups, panels with other writers, book festivals, and other ways to connect with your new tribe.
2. Your book as your art
For others, writing is an act of creative expression—an outpouring from an inner wellspring, in which the process of creation is as meaningful as the final product.
When you offer your art to the world, you hope that others will find it of value—that they will understand and be moved by it—because it’s a profound expression of who you are. You may be less interested in being part of group events, and prefer solo interviews or articles where you can talk about your personal journey and what you hope to accomplish with your work.
3. Your book as your product
For still others, a book is part of a career, professional identity, or larger mission—as a financial expert, advocate for healing after grief, or another goal that extends beyond the act of publishing. Within that context, the book expresses your special knowledge, enhances your credibility, and contributes to your place in society.
In contrast to my novels, which do feel like my art, my trade book for parents When the Labels Don’t Fit, published in 2008, was a “product.” The book was a consolidation of everything I’d learned and put into practiced as a counselor for families with out-of-the-box kids, elevating my legitimacy within the world of educators and therapists.
It would be simplistic to make three columns representing these three metaphors, and then place specific marketing strategies into one or another column where they “belong.” Worse than simplistic, it would be misleading, because there are too many factors that affect one’s choice of promotional strategies, including budget, personality, geography, and the other demands of life. There are also factors outside the author’s control: the economy, events in the news, and other books releasing at the same time, and so on.
However, there are aspects that are in your control. The most important of these is the clarity and feasibility of your goals, and whether your choices support those goals. As I wrote in a recent blog, those goals can change from book to book.
Again, the purpose of this essay isn’t to create three prix fixe menus, depending on the metaphor—baby, art, or product—that suits you best. Rather, it’s to invite you to step back and think about why you’ve written this particular book, what it means to you, and its place in the larger context of your life.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you see this book as a stepping-stone for future books? Or is there a specific purpose that you need to achieve right now?
- Can you describe your ideal reader? How clear is that person for you?
- How comfortable are you with talking about yourself and your personal relationship to the contents of the book, whether fiction or nonfiction? Are you willing to expose yourself to strangers, or would you rather keep the conversation focused on the book itself?
- Which promotional activities would make you the most uncomfortable?
- In an ideal world, would you rather let someone else do everything to promote your book for you, or would you enjoy talking about it yourself?
- What would need to happen for you to feel that this book was a “success” and accomplished its purpose?
Once you’ve answered these questions, look again at the three conceptions of your book proposed at the beginning of this essay.
- Does one of them resonate with you?
- Can you picture yourself shifting, just a bit, to include another attitude? If so, how would that affect the kinds of promotional activities you’d be willing to undertake?
- If none of them resonate with you, what image would you use instead?
- And if you still don’t know, try asking yourself: If I never published this book, what would that be like for me? What would I miss, lose, wonder, or continue to seek?
This can be a useful exercise before interviewing publicists and social media assistants, purchasing internet promotions and virtual book tours, hiring someone to do a book trailer, or pitching your book to podcasters. All of those activities need to be in the service of your vision for this particular book. It’s worth stating again: no author can do everything. To an extent, your choices are shaped by factors like genre and budget. But they’re also shaped, or should be, by your vision.
If you have a vision, the strategies you select will reinforce each other, like roots that nurture the same tree. But if you don’t have a vision, then it’s like the old cliché—throwing spaghetti at a wall, hoping that something will stick, and having no idea why some strands stick and others don’t.
Once you know why, paid professionals can be helpful. They can supply the how. Only you can provide the why.
Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, join me and Barbara on Jan. 20 for the online class Book Publicity 101.
Barbara Linn Probst is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel, Queen of the Owls, (April 2020) is the story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Queen of the Owls was a medalist for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association and the Sarton Award for Women’s Fiction; it also placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize.
Barbara’s second novel The Sound Between the Notes, recipient of starred Kirkus Review given only to work “of remarkable merit,” launched in April 2021. Her third novel will be published in 2022.
Barbara has a PhD in clinical social work and blogs for a number of award-winning sites for writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, visit barbaralinnprobst.com.