Years ago, as I put myself through university, I worked in a number of bookstores. While I enjoyed the conversations I had with many of the writers who visited the bookstores there were a couple of authors who came in regularly to hound the owner (and me!) about how their books were displayed and attempted to push sales. I remember cringing when I saw these authors coming.
Now, of course, the problem of the pushy author has moved away from the bookstore and over to social media. Even there, no one likes a pushy writer. But here’s the thing: In an era when the responsibility of promotion is increasingly falling on the author, how do we go about promoting our work without being one of those pushy writers? Or, more to the point for most of us, how do we get past our own discomfort at promoting our own work?
The reality is that getting your book noticed in the ocean of tweets and posts is next to impossible. And, of course, things keep changing. Book trailers and blog tours, for example, just don't have as much of an impact any more. So, what's an author to do?
Penguin Random House has this advice for authors:
“Today’s media marketplace is more crowded than ever. While this creates challenges for promoting book titles, it also creates many opportunities. Authors very often have great networks of friends, family, and acquaintances that are potentially more influential than they might appear at first glance … Consider the ways your contacts might be able to help.”
I'm a farmer's daughter and so I know these two things: community is everything, and you should never go anywhere without a gift. But as that farmer's daughter, I just don't like the idea of asking family or friends for help in promoting my books. And, well, like most writers, I'm an introvert, so stepping out into the lime light is often difficult.
But the link above also makes a valid point: it’s your own immediate community that is likely to get the word out about our books, so, if we're serious about making a go of our small business – and writing is a small business venture -- then we do need to tap into that resource.
My approach to this uncomfortable reality is to build a community of writers, with a focus on celebrating the work of others. That feels good and right. When the time comes to promote my own book, I feel a little less uncomfortable asking them to help me celebrate my publication. As the author of this link on Writers’ Digest points out, just one (brief!) email to your contacts can give your book a boost.
However, Canadian authors must be very aware of the anti-spam laws. There is a lot on the internet about how this impacts artists. But here's what to do, from a Writers Union of Canada link. So, in short, my advice is to build community and make light use of it.
Then, promote your work only as far as you’re comfortable. Or, perhaps, just a bit more than you are comfortable.
Authors get a whole lot of pressure these days from agents and publishers to promote their work on-line. Obviously an attractive and regularly updated website is a good idea. And if you enjoy blogging and posting on various sites, great. But most of us have so little time to write, much less do all that on-line promotion. We’re writers and writers need to, well, write! Margaret Atwood has very useful thoughts on this one in this link. She also adds this: “…if all you do is promote your own work, other people will think you’re vain and egotistical. They’ll be very happy to get recommendations from you about books by other writers, however.”
That last line of the quote is the key: promote the work of others to build community.
I’ve got this author website and it showcases my work, has a bio and pictures of me, and talks about what I do. Me, me, me. However, the best parts of this website are the guest blogs by other authors. So many perspectives, so much great talent. I send the writers I work with to these blogs all the time. The blogs are packed with good advice on craft and living the writers' life.
On a personal level, in contacting writers to do guest blogs, I get a chance to “meet” other writers and engage with other writers I know. On a community level, I get to promote the work of others.
The guest blogs help keep my site fresh. Once the guest blogs are up, the writers often post a link to my site on theirs and elsewhere. The blogs are picked up and quoted and then there’s more links. So, in the end, it's good promotion for me as well. But that’s really not the point. We’re building community and having fun doing it, sharing ideas.
So, community is everything, and never go anywhere without a gift.
Here’s where the gift comes in:
Marketing a book doesn't begin when the book is released. It starts months earlier. Keep in mind your editor is your champion at a publishing house. Editors are always overworked and underpaid and so a show of appreciation means everything. Send your editor a gift that has a meaningful connection to your book in some way. The editor may well show this gift around in house to generate excitement with others, especially publicists and marketing reps. If you can send along gifts for these folks too, then do. If you can send along more gifts, tools that that the publicity team and marketing reps can pass along to booksellers and media, then do that too.
In The Cure for Death by Lightning homemade paper and a scrapbook are featured. So, I made homemade paper scrapbooks and bookmarks for all these players. When I did book expo events I baked squares from a recipe in The Cure and handed them out. A Recipe for Bees was all about honey so we made hundreds of tiny jars of honey and shipped them out to my publisher. In Turtle Valley, photos figured large and my husband is a photographer, so we shipped out photos from the book that were passed on to booksellers and media.
Most recently, the landscape of the Shuswap-Thompson is the focus of The Spawning Grounds, so my husband and I put together postcards of the region with a personal note on the back of each. You’ll see examples of these postcards with this blog. My publicist showed these around in house and then tucked them into each ARC (advanced reading copy) for media and select booksellers. These were picked up in so many ways. People who received them shared them on social media. My husband also used these images and many more to create a trailer for the book.
Community is everything and never go anywhere without a gift. The key is to make that gift something genuine and meaningful, from you, and, of course, related to the book in some way.
But, in the end, the quality of the book itself is what sells the book. So, selling it starts way back, with craft, getting it right. Just as in the days before the internet, if the writing is fantastic, readers will fall in love with it and pass it on. Hand sales are still everything. Now, though, those “hand sales” are done at vast distances, on the internet. If your book is great, the readers themselves will promote it. Increasingly, reader reviews and reviews by bloggers are where books are really sold. But only if the reader truly loves that book.
Some other links to check out:
How to become an e-book sensation from The Globe and Mail.
Self-publishers can't afford humility from The National Post.
How to promote your book from Writers' Digest.
For a discussion on self-publishing, please see my teaching forum event on the subject.
And consider the 1,000 true fans approach.