Four Principles of Book Promotion

Hi. Barb here.

So, on my last turn here at Maine Crime Writers, Inc., I wrote a post that went a little viral–Four Lies Book Publicists Will Tell You. And by viral, I don’t mean You-Tube kitten viral. I mean it pinged around our little, itty, bitty corner of the universe for a few days. I add this caveat, because being realistic is one of the things this post is about.

At the end of that post, I promised to write another that focused on what I think you should do to promote your book, not what you shouldn’t. It seemed only right to add to the conversation in a constructive way and not just shoot ideas down. Four Principles of Book Promotion is the companion piece to Four Lies.

Apology: First off, I need to apologize to book publicists. As one of them pointed out in the comments section of the original post, I used publicists as a stand-in for all book marketing types and gurus. Believe me, you can get absolutely terrible advice from many, many quarters. And, as Jane Friedman noted in her comment, most of it will come from your fellow aspiring and about-to-be-published authors, who pass myths-and-legends around like hopped up amphetamine freaks trading tips about where to get the next fix. (My words, not Jane’s.) A post about the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt your fellow writers pass around could go on for days.

MusseledOutFrontcoverMy Bona Fides: So how do I get off offering advice anyway? Just to be clear, here’s my story in a nutshell. I published my first mystery, The Death of an Ambitious Woman, in 2010 with a small press (Five Star, which is a division of a giant company best known for textbooks, Cengage). In 2012, I signed a three book contract with Kensington (a medium-sized, family-owned publisher best known for genre fiction) and the first book in my Maine Clambake Mystery series came out in September 2013. Clammed Up debuted and spent four weeks on the B&N in-store mass market paperback bestseller list. My agent called it, “about the best launch I could have imagined.” Boiled Over came out in 2014 and Musseled Out will launch later this month. Last August, Kensington renewed the series for three more books.

So, I’ve had solid, but certainly not earth-shattering success. I’ve met my personal goals, which were to preserve time to write and to do well enough to get the opportunity to have more books published. Judge that as you will and filter what I tell you here with that knowledge.

I’ve thought long and hard about how to explain what I think you should do to promote a book. There are so many ways to attack it, and goodness knows, millions, maybe billions of words have already be sent out to the universe on the subject. I decided the best first way to tackle the subject was describe the principles that underpin my promotional efforts. I didn’t understand them and certainly couldn’t have articulated them when Clammed Up came out. And something will happened to shift or add to my perceptions tomorrow. But this is what I believe today

Four Principles of Book Promotion

1) Find your niche. In my first post, I introduced this graphic.

Because of This

As I wrote at the time, this graphic is not to scale. It would be incredibly more discouraging if it was.

Your job as an author is to find out where the people in that bullseye hang out and persuade them to read your book. There is an even smaller group of people within that bullseye who are reading and writing and talking about your type of book all the time. They are the mavens. If you are traditionally published, your publisher is probably already all over them. But you are a person, not a corporation, and people relate to people, so you should get to know them, too.

Yes, it’s true that it is possible to over-spill your niche and go on to meteoric success. We all know the stories. The Hunt for Red October was published by the tiny Naval Institute Press and blew up when Ronald Reagan told a press conference he loved it. Fifty Shades of Grey started out as erotic fan fiction. But here’s the thing, they blew up because they first got people talking about them and passing them around within their niche.

Unless your book went to auction and is being positioned by your publisher as a national bestseller out of the gate, when you’re new, getting the most you possibly can out of your niche is the best, most efficient place to put your promotional efforts.

I was lucky enough to have the second book in my series in both Woman’s World and First Magazine for Woman, general interest magazines, each with a circulation of over a million. The mentions were positive, it was a thrill for me. I will always be grateful. But, first, it’s humbling to see how tiny and hidden the book section of a general interest magazine can be. And second, the results, at least for my kind of book, were infinitesimal compared to the results from a BookBub eblast to people who had already proactively identified themselves as wanting to hear about mysteries that are on sale.

My point is a message to a targeted market beats a mention to an undifferentiated market every time.

The people I’m telling you to look for are even more valuable than the people who’ve given permission to BookBub to send them an e-mail everyday. Because the people I’m talking about will actually read your book. The only way a book develops true buzz is if people are reading it. People buying it and putting it in a pile on their nightstand or in a maze of unread books on their Kindle is pretty nearly useless to you, especially if you are writing a series. When I was in the software business, we used to call sales like these “shelfware.” They barely counted because we knew we wouldn’t be getting any license renewals or selling any add-on business.

How do you find your niche? Find out who’s talking about books like yours. Pick a few similar titles that have come out recently. What book bloggers reviewed it? What Goodreads groups are discussing it? Are there Facebook groups, listservs, conferences focused on your type of book? To find readers, act like the reader you already are, but maybe a shade more fanatical. Go on the hunt.

2) Be a person. Ramona DeFelice Long is laughing because she knows this is my go-to advice for people about how to behave on social media. But it is also my advice about how to behave in general. Be a person first, and a reader second, and a writer third. Chances are you are all those things in more or less that order anyway. In other words, be your authentic self.

Books are intangible products. In their print form that may appear not to be true, but people aren’t buying the physical object, they are buying the story. And they can’t experience the story before they read it. So they count on various factors to help them decide whether your book is going to be a worthwhile use of their money and time. The most important deciding factor is if they’ve read another book of yours and loved it. As I said in Part I, your book sells your next book. The second most important factor is recommendations from people they trust. The trust part is important, because unlike a tangible product, readers cannot hold your story in their hands. They are taking a leap of faith when they commit to it.

Intangibles are sold person to person, via trusted relationships, be it online relationships or carbon-based ones. That’s why it’s so horrible and jarring when your first interaction with an author is “Buy my book,” or “Like my page.” It’s a request, but it feels like a demand. Your reaction is visceral and along the lines of, “I don’t know you, Bud. I don’t have any reason to trust you, and I’m starting not to like you.”

So your first interactions with people should be person-to-person, reader-to-reader.

Once you’ve found your niche, participate. Like a person. Like a reader, and finally like a writer. Once you’ve established a relationship, you can ask, nicely, if a book blogger would like an Advance Reader Copy of your book. Or mention that your book is being discounted this month. Or point out a great review. But be sparing of that stuff. A little goes a long way. Remember that guy in your high school class who became an insurance salesman? You liked him and even trusted him, but you only wanted to hear so much about insurance. As the author, you’re uniquely situated to help people understand why they would enjoy reading your book. But first you have to be a person they trust.

3) Seek safety in numbers. In Lies, I talked about the value of being a part of a network of writers. I can’t tell you how much that has helped me. Doing a bookstore or library appearance alone, when your name is not known, can be fairly horrifying. Doing it with a friend or three, will increase the crowd, (they attract a few people, you attract a few people) and take some of the pressure off. And for a lot of writers, talking about how great someone else’s book is, is much easier than blowing their own horn.

Some experts pooh-pooh the notion of group writer blogs like this one, but Maine Crime Writers and Wicked Cozy Authors, the other group blog I am a part of, have been invaluable to me. It’s not so much the daily blog itself, though that is the foundation. It’s the opportunity to create an umbrella brand that is larger than yourself, and which enables you to do things like have a joint newsletter, set up events or have a much larger and more visible presence at conferences.

Musicians tour together. Comedians have opening acts. Writers are no different. We may write alone, but we can and should promote in groups.

4) Calm the Heck Down. There’s a lot of reasons novelists on the cusp of publication are quivering piles of goo. (I write about some of them on Wicked Cozy Authors here.) You love your book. You want to do the absolute best you can to promote it. And you should.

But you should also Calm the Heck Down. You’ve wanted this for a really long time, and now it’s here. Enjoy the ride.

Because here’s what I’ve concluded, after observing my own efforts and those of my friends. All your promotion will probably only move the needle on sales by about 10 or 15%.

At the end of the day, you can’t outrun the appeal of your story to your target audience, and the distribution capability of your publisher (however you choose to publish). Those two things are determinant.

Remember way back there in the post, when I gave you my bona fides? When people ask me why I think Clammed Up was successful, here’s what I tell them. My publisher got me a cover that people really responded to and paid for terrific placement in Barnes & Noble. (At least in the ones I went in. Publishers actually don’t talk to you about this stuff much when you’re the author) After seven months on the market, my publisher put the ebook edition on sale and got it on BookBub.

Those efforts resulted in the vast bulk of the sales.

What did I do? I wrote the best book I was capable of writing at the time. The book was nominated for several awards, and that kept people talking about it. I made sure my friends, family, fellow writers and the tiny fan base I’d accumulated from Death of an Ambitious Woman knew about the book. I went where people asked me to go, guest blogged in my niche, visited with Goodreads groups and book clubs that had, independently of me, decided to read the book.

My efforts were incremental, best case.

As I said in the original post, now that I have fans, I treasure them. I make sure they have multiple ways to find me, and that I have multiple ways to communicate with them. But there is only so much you can do to promote your book.

So relax. The odds are very small that you alone can turn your book into a bestseller. But the odds are also very small that you can truly screw it up. Take you job seriously, but have fun with it.

Because if you’re not having fun, why are you doing this at all?

The follow-on post to this one, Okay, But Seriously, What Should I DO? (About Book Promotion) is now available here.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at
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25 Responses to Four Principles of Book Promotion

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Great follow up, Barb. I’m still looking for my peeps…and trying to remember to “be a person” first. Thirty years in the writer’s chair, and I’ve lost track of person, or it has become entirely intertwined with writer. Maybe that’s what I should acknowledge.

    Hope this goes viral, too.


  2. Marian Stanley says:

    Generous coaching – as usual. Thanks, Barb.
    Marian Stanley

  3. Lea Wait says:

    A-men! And hurrah, for your publishing helping with so much!

  4. Came here via Dru Ann. Yes! Wonderful advice. And if you are a debut author, locating your niche will be a process. I know it was for me. I knew from the get-go to target the mystery and certain specific ethnic communities. But I did not figure in men and women who are lovers of regional history. And collect those e-mail addresses of your readers. Very valuable data.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Two wonderful points, Naomi.

      –Yes it is a process. “If I’d known then, what I know now.” But you can’t.

      –Yes, those e-mails of fans are like gold.


  5. Paul Doiron says:

    Excellent post, Barb, and I agree with you completely about the difficulty of an individual author moving the needle on her own. I think your estimate of a 10 to 15% increase in sales is about right, and that might involve a tremendous amount of work. I am leery of social media (especially Twitter) as a driver of sales. Having the most followers doesn’t seem to equate with bestsellerdom from what I have been able to discern. The trick is to develop a personal marketing strategy that reflects you and your book, one that accentuates your strengths. Then accept the fact that, in most instances, the best marketing tool will always be a superb book. So keep writing.

    • Barb Ross says:

      I agree. As people always point out, Gillian Flynn isn’t on Twitter. Which doesn’t mean any individual writer shouldn’t be on Twitter, just that everyone’s strategy and path is different and should suit them.

  6. Patricia says:

    Thanks for these much needed reminders! I at times melted into a quivering pile of goo promoting my collection of short stories, but you can’t force people to want to read your book (or event to want to read short stories). Enjoyed your direct but warm tone.

  7. Carole Price says:

    Thank you! This is the best darn advice I’ve ever read. And after I’ve written this comment, I’ll reread it again. Terrific!

  8. Bang-on advice, especially about the social media. You don’t want your followers to feel used. I might add: stay the course. As you said, you’ll get plenty of advice from well-meaning friends, but you can’t just go haring off after each new thing. Identify your niche, write a good book, and keep the faith that readers will find you, even if it’s more slowly than you expect or would like.

  9. Another great post on this very important topic, Barb. You are a wise woman.
    Thank you.

  10. Marian Stanley says:

    Been ruminating on this excellent posting, Barb. The 10-15% marginal impact estimates are intriquing, given all the push writers get to be active in social media et al. I couldn’t agree more re: concentrating instead on writing a quality book and finding one’s niche. But I wonder what your perspective is on promotional activity for self-published writers. I am in awe of some self-pubbed writers’ capacity for promotion. These heroic efforts seem much more necessary without a publishing house, or the writer’s books would be lost in the great marsh. Do you think your perspective would be somewhat different without Kensington in the mix?

    • Barb Ross says:

      I’ve been pondering that, too, Marian. As a co-editor/co-publisher at Level Best Books, I have a foot in both worlds, as so many authors do today.

      If the four Ps of marketing are Product, Price, Promotion and Place of distribution, as a traditionally published author you have 80% control over product (you get help with cover, formatting, copy-editing, etc) and some % of control over promotion. (You can do 50% of the promotion. All I’m saying is, even if you do 50% of promotion, you’ll only move sales 10-15%.)

      As a self-published author, you control all of the above. You can choose your cover, and your price, and when to drop to sale price or a giveaway. You can target your niche more closely because you control the keywords and such. And you control when your book is released and the frequency of releases (which is huge). On the other hand, you’re never (or mostly likely never) going to be on that front shelf at the brick and mortar B&Ns like my first book was.

      As I said, with Kensington, I’ve been really happy with covers, and with their willingness to discount the price at appropriate times. On the other hand, I know plenty of traditionally published authors who wouldn’t tell the same story.

      I guess you can’t judge the effectiveness of a self-published author’s promotion by the percentage of sales they contribute, since they are responsible for all the sales. But I still maintain the following is true, no matter how you are published, “At the end of the day, you can’t outrun the appeal of your story to your target audience, and the distribution capability of your publisher (however you choose to publish). Those two things are determinant.”

  11. K.D. Harp says:

    Finally, reality instead of fiction. Logic over wishful thinking. Thanks for the sanity!

  12. I think the way you do! One thing you haven’t mentioned (or maybe I missed it) is that people who already know you and love you or even feel connected to you in some other way are more likely to want to read you than people who’ve never heard of you. Some of them will even buy your book. So, whatever you do in the way of publicity, be sure it reaches your high school and college classmates, your Christmas card list, members of organizations you’re part of, and your parents’ list, too. So help me, when my father sent a note to 500 of his nearest and dearest friends about my first book, it was briefly on the bestseller list–in Sun City, Arizona. Old people do buy books, especially if they remember the author (or her daddy) as a child.

  13. David Edgar Cournoyer says:

    This is a truly inspirational piece on marketing and is as welcome as the first sixty degree day of the spring (still waiting for that). Lots of advice on book promotion seems to advocate the kind of frantic self promotion that shuts more doors than it opens. I much prefer being a helpful and interested person who, by the way, has written a story that might bring enjoyment to certain readers.

  14. Thank you for writing this. I read the previous post as well, and it confirms the nagging little inklings of doubt I’ve had when other authors insist that going bonkers with the social media is the only way. Your calming attitude toward the whole thing helps take away the frenzied feelings the others cause.

    My website & FB page, etc., are a tad dusty, but I’ll follow your advice and get back in. I think you make perfect sense.

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