Like many authors, I had a book to promote during the COVID-19 pandemic and still today each one of us faces the threat of illness and too little bandwidth for a promotional blitz. Shilling our wares can be draining, so I decided to ask the unreasonable from my book promotion: that it give me something back.
At first this felt like a short cut. I was juggling Long-COVID, a full-time job, and the raising of a teen, so it seemed necessary to do what made me happy rather than adding to my exhaustion. I realized, looking back on past events, that the way to gain energy from book promotion is to focus on my values.
I’ll admit that this awareness started somewhat by accident. During the long promotion for a book of essays on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System, I was asked to do a few workshops for people with chronic pain hosted by nonprofit organizations. As I enjoy teaching and interacting with workshop participants, I knew how to promote and prep for these events. Unlike a reading, where I often feel like I’m begging audience members to sit passively and listen to me for an hour, a class felt like a dialogue, a chance to connect, even if it was on Zoom.
Then I started to think about the numbers. As an author, I’ve experienced the discomfort of an in-person reading with two people in the audience, both of whom are bookstore employees. The time invested in planning a reading—never mind the task of getting a bookstore to agree to host a university press author—rarely offered meaningful returns in terms of book sales or visibility.
When I began to offer free workshops with writing prompts built around my book’s theme, my audience counts were ten times what I’d been able to pull in for a reading. Plus, the focus shifted from “me” to “us”: I got a chance to interact and be spontaneous, to read and hear writing from participants, to dialogue about questions that emerged from writing prompts, and even to do some writing myself.
So when I had my next book to promote—an essayistic memoir about a single day in my life (Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day)—I thought up a format for online classes that allowed participants to write and share on what had happened to them that very day. These “Day-Ins” ended up providing moments of calm focus amid our anxious pandemic lives and were, even over Zoom, a great social bonding activity.
This doesn’t mean that every book promotion event needs to be a class. Instead, I realized, I wanted to do book events that do double duty, that allow me to align the things I care about with the time I spend on promotion. My personal values include community engagement, but they also include a wide array of causes from disability rights to racial justice to the environment.
When I planned a tour for a book on identity and health insurance (Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir), my most satisfying event was a bookstore reading that was co-hosted with a health access nonprofit. I sold a few books and was joined on stage by an organizer who talked about legislative efforts and gave attendees a chance to get involved and contribute financially.
To think about your values in terms of your book, you might consider some of these questions:
- What kind of setting are you comfortable or energized in?
- What themes from your book might connect to fun or meaningful activities?
- What causes and organizations might your book connect to?
- Are there existing non-book-related activities that might feature your book as an add-on?
- Are there specific populations you might reach out to in order to provide a free experience other than a reading, but with the same ultimate awareness-generating benefits for you as an author?
- What non-writing skills would you donate to a cause you care about, and how might those skills allow others to learn about you as an author?
- What kinds of events or experiences have you always meant to try? Could you use one of those to build a fun or meaningful group activity that also happens to feature your book?
As I focused on building activities that feature my books, I found friends and strangers eager to take me up on the idea of a free class for their book group or community center. And in each case, I made sure to offer attendees a worksheet that had both a summary of my key points and writing prompts along with my contact information, an image of the book cover, promotional blurbs, order information, and a discount code. I don’t know whether these ultimately contributed more or less to my sales figures than traditional readings, but I am a happier author as a result, and the next book tour looks less like an onerous chore and more like a creative challenge.
Sonya Huber’s newest book is the writing guide Voice First: A Writer’s Manifesto. Her other books include the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System, as well as Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir in a Day, Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and The Backwards Research Guide for Writers. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield low-residency MFA program.