Okay, But Seriously, What Should I DO? (About Book Promotion)

Hi All. Barb here. Finally back in Maine on a gorgeous summer day.

Back in the spring, I wrote a post called Four Lies Book Publicists Will Tell You about some of the false and outright damaging advice new writers get about marketing their books. In an effort to be more positive, I also wrote a post about Four Principles of Book Promotion. In that post, I explained the philosophical underpinnings of my approach.

A few people have written me and asked for more concrete advice. Philosophy is great and all, but the question is, what should I DO?

So I’ve come up with this timeline of what I think you should do. As always, there are caveats.

  • This is the opinion of one moderately successful, traditionally-published, mid-list writer, who has published four books. Read it through that filter.
  • This list is my advice about what you should do, wherever you are in the first book writing-publishing-publicity cycle now. If you are just starting your first draft, the actual activities further along in the cycle will have changed from the ones I list by the time you get there. Be flexible and be a learning animal. That’s part of the fun, right?
  • The to-do list is underpinned by my Book Promotion Principles, to wit:
    • Find Your Niche
    • Be A Person
    • Seek Safety in Numbers
    • Calm the Heck Down.
  • I am 100% sure there are multiple other approaches that will work.

Stage One To-Dos: As soon as you start a writing project that you seriously think might turn into a book

1. Join at least one, and maybe more organizations for writers. If you know what genre you’re working in,  join organizations in that arena. If you’re working in crime writing, look at Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers. If you’re working in Romance, join Romance Writers, etc. Be sure to also join the local chapters, even if you don’t live near the place where the meetings are held. Lots of local chapters have online groups and courses, as well as conferences that are worth traveling to. Also consider more general writing centers and groups in your geography. In Maine, Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, in Mass., Grub Street, in NH, NH Writer’s Project, etc.

Comment: This can be a hard thing to do. For one thing, if you’re still working on that first draft, you may feel like a fraud and be intimidated. Don’t be. Everyone in the organization was once where you are now. Also, you may be reluctant because you’re already stealing time from your family and job to write your novel. Now, I’m advising you to steal more time. But believe me, it will be worth it to do this early. For one thing, you’ll have access to craft classes and other things that will make you a better writer and to psychological support that will keep you going. For another, it takes time to build a professional network and it may even take time to find the organization that is the right fit. So do it early. (Read Maureen Milliken’s excellent post about the value of community here.)

2. Reserve your domain name. Reserve the url with your name, or pseudonym if you already know you are going to use one. You can also reserve your protagonist’s name or your series name, but remember, these things may change. If you have a common name (like I do) get as close as you can. This is relatively cheap and easy.

3. If you don’t do so already, play around with social media. Try Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Goodreads, etc. Don’t do it as an author. Do it as a person. Reconnect with cousins, classmates and former colleagues on Facebook. Follow people you admire on Twitter or Instagram. Create boards of pictures you love on Pinterest. Review the books you read on Goodreads. No agenda. Have fun. (Read Chris Holm’s excellent post on the Tao of Networking here.)

Comment: You will have a huge hill to climb once you sell your book. It will help if you are comfortable with some of the basic tools of book marketing. It will take time to figure out what you like and can sustain and to build a mental map of these services if you are not currently familiar with them. Of course, don’t spend all your time on social media. Writing the best book you are capable of is your most important job.

Stage Two To-Dos. When you’re rounding the turn to that third or fourth draft and you’re thinking, my gosh, this may be a book I can actually sell (or self-publish)

1) Remember those organizations I told you to join? Volunteer at one or more of them.

Comment: So, you’re already stealing time to finish your book, and I’m telling you to sink time into volunteer activities. Am I crazy? Hear me out. a) You’ll learn more about a whole lot of things, including the lives of working writers and the publishing industry, from the inside than from the outside. b) If possible, volunteer to do things that will expand skills you will need to develop anyway. Put out the group’s online newsletter (and learn how to use a program like Constant Contact or MailChimp). Work on the organization’s blog and learn WordPress or Blogger. If you learn WordPress, you’ll be able to create and maintain your own website. (There are other programs that make this easy, too.) Unless you work at a small company or are self-employed in your day job and do all your own marketing, it is unlikely you have all the skills you will need to market your book. Volunteering is a way to bring yourself up the learning curve, while having fun and making friends. And finally, c) You think you don’t have any time now? Just wait until you are a working writer with contract deadlines, book publicity, and let’s be realistic, probably still a day job. Pay your dues now.

2) Figure out what genre and subgenre you are writing in. Find blogs, Facebook groups, Goodreads groups, etc. dedicated to the genre or subgenre. Actively follow some of the leading lights in your field on Twitter or Instagram, and maybe some agents and publishers who publish your kind of book. Participate as a reader. Be a person.

3) Take a class. Go to a conference. I know it’s expensive, but focus on local to save on travel. Do your research to make sure it’s the right opportunity. (If it’s the right conference is a question you can ask that network of fellow writers you’ve been growing.) There’s not a single business you can get into without the investment of some capital, and that includes writing.

Note: At this point, the self-published and traditionally published paths diverge pretty dramatically. Since this post is already crazy long, I’m going to stick with traditional, since that’s the one I know most about.

Stage Three To-Dos: When you’ve started pitching agents and when you have an agent who has started submitting to publishers.

Comment: Okay this is where it gets murky. As I said in the previous posts, I don’t think an agent or publisher should judge a debut fiction author by the number of Twitter followers they have, or their web presence, or the size of their e-mail list. And as Jane Friedman commented on the earlier post, “Get a platform,” has become a gentle way for agents and publishers to say, “no.” (When I was raising venture capital for start-up businesses, we used to call this “Bring me the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West.” Quests you will be sent on that will only lead to more quests. Useful if they are things you should be doing anyway but otherwise, not.)

On the other hand, it is completely legitimate for an agent or publisher to want to be reassured that you are prepared to be a partner in supporting your book and that you have the skills necessary to do that.

1. So to that end, it may be useful to build a rudimentary author website at this point. Things you will do anyway in the process of preparing pitches–creating a log line, a query, a synopsis, a bio, etc–will come in handy in helping you shape content. Choose a look and feel for your website that says you understand your genre. Make sure the website provides a way to sign up for your e-mail newsletter.

2. Do whatever your agent tells you to do. Unless, of course, your agent is crazy and/or you feel he/she is using your lack of promotion as an excuse for why he/she can’t sell your book. In which case, drop your agent and move on. (Incredibly painful decision, I know.) But otherwise, do whatever your agent tells you.

Stage Four To-Dos: After your book has been sold to a publisher.

1. Three day party! Enjoy it before you have your inevitable meltdown about how you’ll never be able to make your book perfect, and you don’t know how to market it, and your mom is going to read your sex scenes.

In my experience, writers are terrible about enjoying their accomplishments. Don’t forget, this is what you’ve wanted for years.

2. Work with your publisher to fill out all all those marketing forms. Aren’t you glad you reserved your domain name way back in Stage One?

3. Get blurbs if this is your responsibility. (Remember that network you started on back in Stage One? Use that.) Plus approach some aspirationals. Your agent and/or publisher may be willing to help with this.

4. Once you have a cover, cover copy and blurbs, update your website and bring it into conformance with the look and feel and marketing positioning of your book.

5. As soon as your book is listed on Amazon and Goodreads, (which may be much earlier than you think) create an author page for each and “claim” your books. And probably do a Facebook author page at this point, too.

5. Get clear with your publisher’s publicist/marketing person who is doing what. Are they arranging a blog tour? Who are they submitting review copies too? Is your book going to be on NetGalley? Are they doing a Goodreads giveaway? You’re going to end up doing whatever they do not.

6. Get some tchotchkes. Bookmarks at a minimum. Decent stationery for cover notes for review copies (the ones that are hardcopy). Envelopes, shipping labels. All that stuff.

7. Get rid of every single Advanced Read Copy. Take one for sentimental reasons, and make sure the rest are gone. They’re not doing any good sitting in a box under your desk. Remember those book bloggers you identified in Stage Two? Where you’ve been participating as a person? Approach them. (Most will have review guidelines on their sites. Be respectful.) Do a Goodreads giveaway if your publisher isn’t going to.

8. Find some peers. Join a group blog or start one. (Not every one agrees with this advice, but it has been invaluable to me.) Find local authors (remember your network) who have books coming out at the same time as you. Set up some gigs at libraries, book stores, etc, with author friends. Remember, seek safety in numbers. Only 3 people may come to see not-yet-famous you, but if you have 3 friends and your friend has 3 friends, etc.

9. Plan your launch. Remember all those cousins, former colleagues and school friends you found on Facebook in Stage One? Make sure they know about your book and your launch. You’ve been living surrounded by people writing books, probably for years now, but to your non-writer friends, your first book launch is a big deal, particularly if they know it’s the culmination of a lifelong dream. You’ll be amazed at how many of them come out. Or just buy the book in their far-flung corner of the country. Or the world.

10. Send out an e-mail blast announcing your book, your appearances, your launch, include some early reviews, etc.

11. Try to relax and enjoy it. You love your book. You want to support your book. If you could, you would take a killer mortgage and move to a good school district so your book could have a better chance at a good college and a fulfilling life. But you can’t. You can only do what you can do. What happens from here depends on your book, your publisher and a little bit on you. You can only help so much, and you probably can’t screw it up.

Overwhelmed by this list? Don’t be. Some final pieces of advice.

  • Just focus on the tasks for the stage you are at now. Don’t worry about what’s coming next. By the time you get there, you’ll have more experience and a better foundation. What seems unthinkable now will be thinkable by then.
  • Don’t be freaked out by something you hate. If you would rather be killed than do an appearance at a bookstore, or if you hate, hate Facebook, skip it. Don’t let these hang ups prevent you from doing the other stuff.
  • You can always pay for stuff. This is a pretty DIY list. You can’t pay others to be you (or at least I think that rarely works on social media and never in person) but you can pay them to build websites or send e-mail newsletters or whatever.

So that’s all of what I know about my little corner of the universe today. Happily, the world is always changing and I am always learning, so I might have to do an entirely new list a year from now.

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 www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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26 Responses to Okay, But Seriously, What Should I DO? (About Book Promotion)

  1. Jewel Hanley says:

    What a helpful post for me. I’m at the stage of final polish and soon to release to readers. I haven’t allowed myself to think of the selling and/or marketing part until now. Thank you for the advise. Hope to meet you in person tomorrow at the Fords’.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Oh, Jewel! I wish I could be at the Ford’s but I had a previous commitment at the Beyond the Sea Book Festival in Lincolnville. Have a wonderful time.

  2. Helpful (if daunting) post. Once I get done cowering in my corner, I’ll work on the re-launch of my first book. I just have never figured out how to reserve enough time for writing if I’m doing all the other stuff, or vice versa. If every writer needs as much time as I do to write even a simple comment like this, no wonder there is so much fluff, nonsense, and junk on the SM platforms.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Leaving time to write is one of the most important things. One of my goals was to sell enough books I would have the opportunity to publish more, but I can’t publish them if I don’t write them.

      As for the daunting, as I said, one stage at a time.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Great post, Barb! One addition: start keeping a mailing list. Email addresses (they often change, though, so also get snail mail addresses.) Maybe start with your personal address book; your Christmas card list. And save any lists of members of organizations you belong to (in this case, writers’ organizations not-so-much) and churches and former colleagues and classmates. Just stick them all in a folder, unless you’re really organized and put together a data base. (You’ll have to do that later.) These are the base people you’ll tell when your book comes out. And, soon, you’ll be adding fans to it.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Good advice. I don’t do snail mail mailings, but I know you do, and I’ve often admired your organization–and the return on your efforts.

  4. Keith Willis says:

    Informative & helpful post. One thing I find a bit daunting is the notion of a book launch without physical books on hand (i.e. my publisher initially only does e-books). It’ll be a launch w/out a signing, I guess–which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just not what people expect. But hey, expect the unexpected. I’ll still be able to to a reading, talk about the book and journey to publication etc., and hawk (electronic) copies.

    That being said, I agree with your notions of promotions. Having a network of friends, family members and co-conspirators (i.e. other writers in and out of your genre) is key. I’ve made so many contacts through social media (mainly Twitter, on which there is an amazing community of supportive, encouraging and helpful writers) and I think this will allow me to spread the word much more effectively than I’d be able to on my own.

    • Keith, my current contract is e-only also. My debut, Quick Pivot, was released this spring. I threw a big party to celebrate, and didn’t stress about not having paper books to sell on the spot.

      My publisher made up some promotional cards, and I signed those for folks who wanted an autograph.

      Congratulations to you on your soon-to-be released book!

      • Barb Ross says:

        Yes, Brenda has done a great job of promotion without a physical book. Even when you have one, more and more people at events will come up and tell you they’re buying the ebook. Some people seem to like a photo with the author on their phone if there’s nothing physical to sign.

  5. Heidi Wilson says:

    Barb, this one went straight into my marketing file. I’ve done a bit of it, but I can see I need to do much more. Thanks for the tips,
    Heidi Wilson

  6. Great post, Barb. Ditto Lea on building that mailing list.

    I also suggest that writers up on actual, old-fashioned thank you notes. A lot of people will help you along the way. They deserve your thanks. Handwritten notes convey thanks better than an email (but email is acceptable if you really can’t do the -paper-envelope-stamp thing.) Then commit yourself to paying the kindness forward.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Yes. When I mentioned ordering tchotchkes, one thing I have invested in in nice note cards (with my name and website on them–and a little lobster) that I use as enclosures with ARCs and books shipped as well as for thank you and personal notes.

      I love stationery, and it felt like an indulgence, but it has truly come in handy.

  7. I love this post. For me, #11 is the hardest. Relaxing means unplugging. Unplugging means blurbs, contacts, social media, and responses go begging for a response or action. You are so right, Barb, you can always pay for many of these tasks to be done, but allowing yourself time to enjoy is priceless. One benefit of taking that breath? Ideas flow. Thanks for putting this great advice in one post.

    • Barb Ross says:

      So true. You need time to breath and for the creativity to flow. As Nikki says above, managing promotion and also continuing to be productive is one of the challenges of the writer, no doubt.

  8. Excellent post, Barb, as was your post yesterday at Wicked Cozy. If you had any spare time, I’d suggest you write a how-to book. Picture a smiley face here, since I can’t figure out how to insert one. See you tomorrow in Lincolnville.


  9. Echoing what Kathy said about writing the book! Great advice, Barb.

  10. Spot-on, Barb. You’ve broken down a daunting process beautifully. Even though I’m in the “stage 4 and repeat” phase, I’m breathing more easily for your common-sense approach.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Thank you, Leslie! I’m at “Stage 4 and repeat,” too and still learning new things everyday. I’m glad to hear this was helpful to a veteran.

  11. Grace Topping says:

    Thank you, Barb, for this very helpful information.

  12. sandy neily says:

    You are sooooo wonderfully generous. Lapped up your entire CrimeWave presentation (my agent just asked me to cut more thousands of words and I used your presentation notes) and also lapped up pretty much all you have to share with the larger community. Many heart-felt thank you’s.

  13. Pingback: Four Lies Book Publicists Will Tell You | Maine Crime Writers

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