Today’s guest post is by author Barbara Linn Probst.
Nearly three months after the launch of my debut novel, I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned. Clearly, some lessons will take more than a few months to work their way through all those layers of hope, frustration, weirdness, exhaustion, and joy. But other lessons have coalesced, and I’d like to share one of them with you today.
Before I embarked on this process, I saw it as one big amorphous here’s my book, everyone! But it’s not. Promotion happens at different times and on different scales. Or, I should say, authors do things at different times and on different scales, apart from what publishers or publicists do. I’m calling these launch-related activities marathons, sprints, and pounces—long-lead strategies, mid-range tasks, and sudden opportunities.
Navigating these three distinct realms requires availability, adaptability, and a flexible responsiveness—that is, the ability to manage the spectrum from delayed gratification of long-term plans to that impulsive oh, what the heck? when an opening arises that you never expected. You need all three. At least I did.
Marathons are the strategies, relationships, and connections that are built over time in the hope of an eventual payoff. They require a prolonged investment of energy, as well as patience and tolerance for delayed gratification—or no gratification at all, because the context can change in ways that might have nothing to do with you, your book, or anything you did.
We all saw that this spring. In my own case, I had spent months building a relationship with the marketing director at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked, since Queen of the Owls is framed about O’Keeffe’s life and art. I’d hoped that the gift shop might carry the book or allow me to offer promotional material in the Welcome Center. Neither idea worked out, for reasons unrelated to my book, and I resigned myself to “a great idea that didn’t happen”—but then, to my astonishment, the marketing director suggested that I do a special event on-site that would be promoted through all their outreach channels and open to the entire city of Santa Fe. I had a radio interview lined up, a podcast, a bookstore. As you can imagine, it was a dream come true. And then—#pandemic. At best, this endeavor will come to fruition six or seven months later than expected, or in a different way; at worst, never. Either way, I’m certain that I was right to pursue it, because not pursuing it would have been, for me, a huge what-if regret.
Another long-term strategy I undertook was to build a presence on the Georgia O’Keeffe Facebook group, which has over 3,000 members. I spent months sharing images, links, and information—creating a friendly and generous presence—before I even mentioned Queen of the Owls. This seemed to be the perfect market! To my surprise, it wasn’t. I did sell a dozen or so books, but the payoff was hardly in proportion to the amount of time I invested.
As with Ghost Ranch, I would have regretted not doing it, because you never know where the finish line actually is. It could be waiting in the future—one key person who thinks of me when an O’Keeffe-related opportunity arises (i.e., a potential “pounce” that was only possible because of the prior “marathon” I’d run; more about that below).
Marathons also include platform-building and friend-making through Instagram, Twitter, email newsletters, cross-marketing with other authors, and participation in groups of writers and readers. They’re long-term strategies that may have a delayed result or a result that can never be measured, because you can’t tease out the specific effect of any single strategy. Often, it’s the cumulative effect, the repeated exposure across a variety of formats.
Are marathons worthwhile, given their inherent uncertainty? To me, they are. After all, how many strategies truly have a guaranteed, time-stamped payoff? Launching a book is a risk. So are relationships, new jobs, and just about everything that makes life interesting!
Sprints are launch-specific, short-term activities, although they can certainly be planned in advance. They’re the promotional ideas that we keep on our laptops, the “to do” list we’ve culled.
Sprints include cover reveals, contests and giveaways, interviews and chats, podcasts, blog tours, and events at bookstores and book fairs (yes, we will have those again, one day). There’s a lead-up, but it’s shorter than for a marathon, and the sprint itself covers a shorter period of time. To a degree, the payoff can be measured—for example, by the number of books sold at an event.
The specific things you do in the weeks before and after your launch will depend on your personal style, budget, locale, genre, audience, and overall goals. No one can do everything. Trying to manage ten or twelve sprints at once is unrealistic, so you might want to prioritize and/or space them out so you’re engaged in only one or two at a time. Some sprints are free, and some cost money. It helps to ask others who’ve gone before, although everyone’s experience is likely to be different.
If something is in the marathon category, it might also include a sprint or two. For example, if you’ve been devoting a lot of time to building a network on Instagram, at launch time you can also do something specific there—but only if you’ve done the marathon work first. I speak from experience! A mistake I made was trying to promote a sprint on Instagram when I hadn’t put in the long-term effort to build a presence there. I had an idea for an Instagram Countdown to Publication of Queen of the Owls that would involve my posting a new O’Keeffe painting each day, with a quote from the page in the book where the painting was mentioned. It seemed like a great idea (to me)—but no one cared. I hadn’t done the groundwork of creating engagement and community on that platform, so my countdown didn’t generate any interest.
Pounces are the unforeseen opportunities that arise and require an immediate and spontaneous yes—or no. They were my favorite part of the launch process, actually. “Would you be interested in …?”
I can’t recall ever saying no. No matter how small the opportunity, assuming that the only cost was my time, I figured why not? A Zoom interview on a site that typically had two dozen viewers? Sure! That meant two dozen people who might hear about my book for the first time. An interview for someone’s blog, a chance to do an “author hour” on a Facebook group, a few paragraphs for inclusion in an article? All yes. My mantra was: You never know.
Because of the pandemic, the last-minute opportunities that I encountered were mostly virtual, but I’m sure the in-person ones will return—e.g., a sudden opening for a spot at a book fair table or a place on a panel.
Putting it all together
There are a few key principles that apply at all three levels:
Manage expectations. Formulate—and adapt—your goals. Let go if something doesn’t work out and move on. Book promotion is a journey into the unknown; effort invested and results obtained are rarely a perfect match. Learn to be nimble and relaxed.
Diversify. Use a variety of elements, from wild and creative to tried-and-true. Keep many irons in the fire, so you aren’t investing or expecting too much from any one endeavor. Disappointment is inevitable, but if you’re ten or twenty percent disappointed when that book club opportunity falls through, it’s a lot easier to rebound than if you’re ninety-five percent disappointed.
Focus on the present. While it’s important to maintain a “big picture” perspective, even the longest marathon is really just the accumulation of small steps—small acts, small moments of now. Each email, each Facebook comment, each thank you.
A book launch requires stamina, resilience, flexibility, and generosity. Most of all, it requires a deep and abiding belief that you have something to offer. The only way I could handle the buy my book message—especially now, during a time like none we’ve ever experienced—was to hold fast to my conviction that stories help. Throughout history, they’ve been sources of healing and renewal and growth, just as interacting with readers is a chance for connection. There’s no need to apologize for that.
This post isn’t intended to be yet another essay about “writing in a time of COVID-19.” Some of my examples relate to the pandemic, because it’s the context in which my own novel launched. Yet the need for long-term, time-sensitive, and spontaneous elements is not COVID-specific. I’d like to think it’s the hallmark of a savvy author.
What about you? Do you gravitate toward one of these approaches more than the others Does one of them sound as if it might be a challenge for you? How does your own experience map onto this way of looking at a book launch? Let us know in the comments.