The conversation revived a blog-post idea that had been rattling around on my to-do list for more than two years, since Mimi published her novel, Gathering String, and I helped her promote it. I’m not sure I’m the best person to help Tim with this challenge. While we had some success, I wish we had done a better job on Gathering String. So I’ll share my advice as well as inviting yours: How have you promoted your own books successfully? How would you promote a book, if you had published one? How have publishers succeeded in getting your attention about a book that you later bought and read?
I also asked for advice from some authors I know, and I’ll share tips below from Robert Mann, Doug Worgul, Patricia T. O’Conner and Dan Buttry, as well as some of my own. Novelist Buffy Andrews and author Chuck Offenburger both gave me so much advice I’m breaking their responses out into separate guest posts for tomorrow.
I’m not sure what’s the best path for publishing a book today: self-publishing, as Mimi and Tim did (and keeping a bigger share of the proceeds) or getting a traditional publisher to handle your book (a difficult and not always successful path). Either way, you need to promote the book. An agent, who was willing to handle Mimi’s book but said it might take too long to get published going through traditional publishers, told her that, with rare exceptions, the author is responsible for promotion even when you get a traditional publisher.
Bob Mann, a colleague at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and author of several books about politics, agrees:
The advice I would give to any new author trying to promote a book is don’t believe half of what your publisher’s publicity rep tells you he/she will do for you. And take 100 percent responsibility for the promotion of the book. If the publisher comes through, then all the better, but don’t count on it.
Bob has worked with both commercial publishers that promised promotion that never materialized and with an academic press that provided some helpful support but still expected the author to lead the way in promotion.
So if you’re going to get a book published, you’re probably going to have to promote it whether you have a traditional publisher or not. And it’s been my observation that the writing gene and the promotion gene rarely show up in the same person. So a writer needs to do some promotion that isn’t going to come naturally and isn’t going to feel at all like writing (and will distract you from writing that next book).
About 17 years ago, I wanted to get into journalism training, and had to promote my services. And when I joined the American Press Institute, promoting our services became a huge part of my job. Promotion didn’t come naturally to me, and still doesn’t, but I’ve learned a little about it, and a little more from promoting Mimi’s novel and this blog (and helping newsrooms promote their news content).
So here are some suggestions for promoting a book. Some might work better for a non-fiction book than for a novel (Tim has some target audiences that might be easier to reach than Mimi’s, for instance), and your mileage may vary on any of these. Some are things we should have done better in promoting Mimi’s book (and may do better on the next one). And, again, I welcome your suggestions as well.
“Bottom line, you gotta become a shameless self promoter for your book,” Bob said.
Blog about your book
We created a promotional blog for Mimi’s book. I wrote most of the posts there (my promotional inclination is not very strong, but it’s quite a bit stronger than Mimi’s), usually calling attention to a positive review on Amazon (she has 39 reviews, 29 of them five-star reviews and 9 of them four-stars, and even the one three-star review praised her characters).
Other posts called attention to blog posts that mentioned Mimi’s novel (including one by Tim) and promoted her book tour (more on that shortly).
Some readers loved the ending of Mimi’s novel and some found it frustrating (that was the issue in the three-star review). I loved it. Those who didn’t like the ending wanted to see all the loose ends got tied up. Well, Mimi had written an epilogue that did all that. She just decided not to use it (whether she made the right call on that or not, an important part of writing is learning what to leave out). A year after the book published, she blogged about why she ended it the way she did and posted the epilogue on the blog.
Tim has started a blog, McGuire on Life, Disability and Grief, in which he has shared many short, poignant reflections as he deals with his grief following the death of his wife, Jean, earlier this year. The book deals more with his own physical disability and his son Jason’s Down Syndrome and how they and their families have dealt with the disabilities.
One recent post mentions the book in the last paragraph and earlier posts used excerpts, but Tim has not promoted the book much on the blog since its release. He’s planning a strong push on the blog as soon as the electronic version becomes available (when you publish a book, you learn about a lot of hoops you need to jump through). Update: The Kindle version of Tim’s book is now available, and he posted a promotional post today, a few hours after this post published. More on promoting the electronic version below.
Promotion may not come as easily to you as it does to Tim. Many writers’ and journalists’ personalities don’t like to draw attention to ourselves. We think our work should speak for itself.
Well, as I noted in Monday’s post, Tim is wonderfully blunt, so I’m going to follow suit and be blunt to any writer who’s reluctant to appear overly promotional: Get over it! All that effort you put into writing the book deserves the discomfort you’re going to feel about promoting the book.
One of my first pieces of advice is going to be that Tim should blog about some of the issues in the book (and each post should note that Tim deals at greater length in the book with the issue discussed). An excerpt or two might work as posts, but I suspect it will work better to write standalone posts that deal with some of the disability issues Tim addresses in the book: language used to describe disabilities and the people who have them; mainstreaming in education; the value of humor in dealing with life’s difficulties. Each post, of course, would explain that he deals with the issue in much more depth in the book. (I shared a copy of this post with Tim in advance of publication, and he says I can consider these ideas and the next few stolen, so watch for those posts soon.)
I suspect that Tim also could and should blog about the book in his other blog, McGuire on Media. Tim’s been blogging there much longer, since 2007, and probably has a bigger audience there (certainly a different one) than on the newer blog about life, disability and grief. He hasn’t posted there since Oct. 7, before the book was released. I can’t find any mention of the book on the blog.
You might think initially that that blog is about media, not about the topics of the book. Here’s what I would say about that: Tim has already blogged about self-publishing on his blog (that’s where he mentioned Mimi’s book), so he’s already decided that book-publishing is a suitable topic for the blog. And now he knows a lot more about that topic. A first-person account of why he self-published and what that involved would be interesting to McGuire on Media readers and helpful to those considering books (isn’t that every journalist?). So would a post about the challenges and discomfort of personal writing (as blunt as Tim is, I bet it was really difficult to focus that heavily on himself). Or a post about fact-checking your own life and the points where he learned that his own vivid memories and the memories of family members didn’t match up or didn’t match up with documentation that he found (I’ll bet either or both of those things happened).
By the way, I encouraged Mimi repeatedly to write a blog post about the process of writing her book. I thoroughly failed (not the only time either of us has ignored the others’ advice). But I did write a post here about writing lessons from her work on her novel.
And that’s one more final point about blogging about the book: Tim (and most authors) have lots of friends in the writing biz who might be happy to write about his book, if asked. (By the way, he didn’t ask me, and he’s waiting until the e-version is available to start working his personal network.) Maybe one of his colleagues at the Cronkite School could interview him about it, either for their own blogs or for a guest post on his blog. I’d love to read the observations (or interview or both) of Dan Gillmor, Peter Bhatia, Rick Rodriguez, Jacquee Petchel, Len Downie or Kristin Gilger. But he might have to ask one of them to do it (unless I just did).
Help e-book buyers
Update: I added this section a few hours after launch, when I learned that Tim’s book was available in the Kindle Store.
Self-publishing for the Kindle is fairly easy, but in your promotion, you’ll want to help out people with other devices. You can easily download a Kindle app for your iPad, other tablet or phone. And don’t presume that people won’t read on their phones. We know of a friend who read Gathering String (and other books) on his iPhone.
But when you promote sales of the Kindle version, be sure to tell people they don’t actually need a Kindle to read the ebook.
Tim’s planning to publish in iBooks and other electronic formats (Mimi didn’t), but you can promote the Kindle version to people with most reading devices.
Pursue other media opportunities
I once thought it was counterproductive to be promoting the books myself. That somehow press organizations would conclude that since I was doing it, my publisher wasn’t really behind the project. That’s not the case. On my 2011 book, Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds, I managed to use my various DC connections to get interviews on CBS, ABC, NPR, MSNBC (about five times in one year) and a bunch of reviews and mentions in columns (Charlie Cook wrote his weekly column about it and Frank Rich devoted almost an entire piece in New York magazine to the book).
Not to brag about myself or complain about the Press, but I shook those trees. I called in every chit I had and it paid off.
I also continue to find ways to do op-eds that play off the book. For example, I recently wrote the cover story for Politico Magazine on the 50th anniversary of the Daisy Girl spot. I had to hound several people I know at Politico to get it published, but it was worth the time. And I got paid.
Every book has different media possibilities. Consider the geographic and topical media that might be interested in your book.
Tim and I are both friends of Rick Mills, the editor of the Morning Sun in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., where Tim was born (and where the first and third chapters of the book are set). I wasn’t very far into the book before I emailed Rick (a former Digital First Media colleague) suggesting a story on Tim and the book. It’s in the works.
I hope both daily newspapers and some TV stations in the Twin Cities, where Tim used to be the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and where Jason still lives, will do features on Tim and the book. But it might take a nudge from the author to let them know about the book. (I emailed the editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, another former DFM colleague, on Tim’s behalf. He’s interested.)
Whether or not Tim knows the current editors and TV news directors in Lakeland, Fla., (where Jason was born and the second chapter is set), I’d encourage contacting media there, too, as well as media in Phoenix, where Tim lives now.
As Bob did with political publications, I’d also encourage Tim (or any author of a non-fiction book) to contact specialized media that might be interested, too. Magazines, newspapers, TV shows or websites that deal with disability issues, mental or physical, might also be interested in writing reviews of the book, doing interviews with Tim and/or Jason or otherwise featuring the book.
Tim might be able to watch for local or national controversies involving access for people with physical disabilities: something like last year’s vote on an international disability treaty or funding for special education or not-in-my-backyard zoning fusses about group homes for people with mental or physical disabilities. He wouldn’t necessarily ask people to promote the book, but he might call or email reporters or columnists who might cover the issues, explaining his expertise and personal experience and offering to be a source. The resulting story may focus entirely on the book or mention it in passing. Either is good. Or you might offer to write an op-ed piece about an issue you address in your book, and the tagline identifies you as author of the book.
Mimi emailed several Iowa media outlets about Gathering String and got a mention in the Des Moines Register. Lots of other emails to local media in Iowa and Virginia (where we lived at the time) were ignored. Promotion can be frustrating.
But our personal connections and social media promotion (more on that later) probably led to some other media mentions of her novel. In addition to Tim’s mention, Andrew Beaujon of Poynter wrote about it, as did British journalist David Higgerson and Pennsylvania journalist and author Buffy Andrews, who will share some of her promotional advice in another post tomorrow.
If the local newspaper, or any newspaper, writes a good review, that’s awesome, of course. But, self-published or small press books and non-fiction titles tend to get less attention from newspapers.
Newspaper book reviews are becoming rarer, but if your local newspaper does reviews or has a feature section, it’s probably worth the price of a book to mail them a copy with a press release, explaining the local connection and making yourself available for interviews.
I’d say you should pursue and seize targeted media exposure as you see opportunities, but don’t knock yourself out trying to get on the air or in the paper just to be there. As Doug said:
Doing interviews with local TV and radio is helpful, but probably does more to stroke the author’s ego, than to sell lots of books. As mass media, radio and TV tend to reach far more people who are not interested in the book, than are.
Plan a book tour
Mimi published her book initially as an ebook. She gets significantly more money if you buy an ebook than if you buy in print. But it’s hard to do a book tour or book signings without a hard-copy book to show and sign. So once the ebook made enough money to cover the modest cost of publishing in paperback, she did so. Then she went on “tour.”
Her book was set mostly in Iowa, and she’s from Iowa, so we targeted her home state for the tour. Some bookstores wouldn’t book her because she was self-published, but Beaverdale Books in Des Moines scheduled a reading and book-signing, and Mimi’s sister, Mary, who lives in Beaverdale, spread the word and they had a good turnout and a nice party (and sold a few books for the bookstore).
A friend’s Iowa book club decided to read the book and was pleased to have Mimi visit as a guest.
A sister-in-law in Ohio belonged to another book club and Mimi visited to read and talk to them, too (and got a great photo with lots of women holding up the book).
I don’t know whether she sold enough books to cover the costs of her travel, but the tours certainly boosted sales (look at all those books in the photo). You probably could get a more extensive book tour with heavier promotion.
Tim’s book, and most non-fiction books, have an advantage for the self-published author that most novels wouldn’t have: You don’t have to try scheduling events at bookstores and libraries, which might look askance at self-published books, even those with dozens of five-star reviews. You can instead seek to schedule events with community or academic groups interested in your topical areas.
I would encourage Tim to seek to schedule stops on his book tour in Mt. Pleasant, Lakeland, the Twin Cities and Phoenix. Yes, he should seek out the bookstores and libraries, but he also can talk to local groups of The Arc or other groups supporting people with physical or mental disabilities. Rehabilitation clinics that treat people with disabilities from severe injuries or parents groups serving families with children in special education might welcome him as a guest speaker.
If you’ve published a book (whether by yourself or with a traditional publisher), consider places where the geographic interest might be strongest and groups that share the interests covered in your book, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.
Take the book with you
Whenever you travel for your regular work, you’re potentially on a mini-tour. My brother, Dan, author of several books relating to peacemaking, is a peace missionary who travels around the country and the world for the American Baptist Churches. “I take them with me to sell wherever I go,” Dan said (though he said he doesn’t do a lot of promotion beyond posting to Facebook and other networks).
Mark S. Luckie, author of the Digital Journalist’s Handbook, said it helped that he was “reaching out to an audience that at the time was underserved. Speaking at journalism conferences and journalism schools where potential readers were helped word of mouth.”
Encourage and promote reviews
While newspaper book reviews are becoming rare, book reviews on Amazon and GoodReads are helpful as people decide what books to buy. If someone complements your book (in person, by email, in social media, wherever), authors should get bold about encouraging those people to write reviews. It doesn’t take long (I reviewed Tim’s book for Amazon in 5-10 minutes) and many people are willing to do it.
@smithbm12 Really pleased you liked it. Yes, I’m working on another. Now, please tell me you’re posting a review on Amazon.
— Mimi Johnson (@mimijohnson) May 28, 2012
Happily, you’ll find that people you don’t ask will decide to review your book. Promote those reviews on your blog and in social media. And, if the book is getting good reviews, don’t be bashful about pointing that out now and then (see how I pointed out Mimi’s preponderance of five-star reviews above; I’ve noted that on the Gathering String blog and on social media). Also, be sure to fill out your author profile on Amazon (here’s Mimi’s).
And when people write positive reviews, call attention to them (as Tim is doing):
Direct people to your book
When we answer a question sent to our blog, and when the subject is something we’ve written about in one of the books, we say at some point in the post, “As we wrote in our book Origins of the Specious … “ then we go on to quote the relevant material.The hyperlink leads to a page about that book, which includes this sentence: “To buy Origins of the Specious, visit your local bookstore, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.”I don’t know if it sells any books, but it can’t hurt! It’s a reminder that our books are out there, they’re relevant, and they can be purchased with a click.
Social media can be an effective form of promotion. But you have to be relentless. Mimi and I started a Facebook author page as well as an @Waterphal Twitter account (combining parts of the last names of her two protagonists). We did four updates on the Facebook account and got 52 likes. We tweeted just 11 times and got only five followers. I think either might have been effective with more promotion and more work. But it is a lot of work, and you have to decide how to spend your time. I liked Mimi’s idea of running brief passages from the book in tweets, with links to the book’s Amazon page. I wonder if anyone has stuck with this approach longer and had better results.
Mimi also created a Gathering String Pinboard of photos that illustrated some of the scenes and themes of the novel. I thought it was pretty creative, and she posted 19 photos. But she got only 12 followers and it never really took off. But I think social media can be effective in promoting a book. From our own Twitter accounts, where we both had more followers (more than 17,000 for me now, more than 700 for Mimi), Mimi and I both tweeted about favorable reviews, new posts to the book’s blog and media mentions. We similarly promoted the book on our own Facebook accounts. Those got more response than the special accounts. I searched regularly for mentions of Gathering String on Twitter and retweeted several tweets that praised the book (and embedded them in posts on the blog). Here are a few:
Thx, @mimijohnson, for ending wknd productivity w/ bk Gathering String. Close enough to wk life it’s familiar, diff enough I’m transported.
— Michelle Minkoff (@michelleminkoff) August 11, 2012
@mimijohnson When the governor fired his press aide, the whole book shifted gears. The hook is set deeper.
— Mark Loundy (@MarkLoundy) May 17, 2013
At the point in @mimijohnson‘s Gathering String that I’m OK w/my kid destroying my house so long as I can get through just one more chapter.
— Stacey Viera (@staceyviera) December 29, 2012
— John Robinson (@johnrobinson) May 28, 2012
— Richard Hine (@richardhine) May 28, 2012
Truth be told, most of those tweets come from friends, but your friends are a valuable resource in promotion of the book. Retweet them and thank them. However, we’ve never met Richard Hine. But we followed him and checked out who he was. He’s another author. He wrote a glowing review for Gathering String and Mimi and I read and reviewed his excellent novel, Russell Wiley Is Out to Lunch.
Authors need to stick together. Have you reviewed the books you’ve read recently that you liked? Have you tweeted about them and shared them on Facebook. You should do that. Some of those authors might return the favors.
When other people tweeted links to their reviews, we retweeted them, posted them on Facebook and featured them on the blog:
— Rick Thomason (@RickThomason) July 13, 2013
The Miracle of Fr. Kapaun: Priest, Soldier and Korean War Hero, by Wichita Eagle journalists Roy Wenzl and Travis Heying, has a Facebook page with more than 6,700 likes and a steady stream of updates since its launch last Christmas. The mix of posts is interesting, dealing with Catholic holidays and saints, the Korean War and other related topics and not all just relentlessly promoting the book. But I’ll bet they resulted in pretty good promotion. The pace of posts has slowed, but the last post, on Veterans Day, was well-timed and shared a YouTube video about Father Kapaun.
I’ve emailed Roy, asking how he (or his publisher) have promoted the book and how they got that kind of Facebook following. I’ll update if I hear something from him.
Luckie, who now works at Twitter as creative content manager, journalism and news, also found social media helpful in promoting the Digital Journalist’s Handbook. “Promotions and contests on social media to win copies of the book created a greater appetite for it and drove up sales.”
I also suggest not just using your own Facebook account(s), but reaching out to other Facebook pages and groups that might share your interest. For interest, I belong to a Social Journalism group that would welcome a post about a new book such as Luckie’s. Or in promoting the Father Kapaun book, I might post something about the book with a page or group focused on military chaplains or Catholic saints. Or for Tim’s book, a post about his book (or a link to a promotional post about a related issue) might be welcome on the page of a local or national group focused on serving people with physical or mental disabilities.
I also love a technique crime novelist (and former Associated Press editor) Bruce DeSilva uses to promote his books on Facebook. Bruce posts photos of other authors reading one of his novels. And, smartly, as Christmas has approached, Bruce suggested to his Facebook friends that his Providence Rag would make a good stocking stuffer. I’ve messaged Bruce, asking how he does this. I’m guessing he always has a book handy, and asks other authors to pose for the photos when he’s at literary conferences or other events. I presume he offers to return the favor. (I’ll update if I get a response.)
Consider a trailer
Doug Worgul sent along this suggestion:
A tactic that I’m intrigued by is the book trailer, a short film/video much like a movie trailer that tells the book’s story using all the emotional power that medium has to offer. However, if these are of poor or amateurish quality, they can do more harm than good. I’m thinking of making one for THIN BLUE SMOKE, but I have a few significant advantages other authors typically wouldn’t, including a son-in-law who is a professional filmmaker.
Most of the trailers in this Shirin Najafi post Doug sent me are pretty sophisticated, certainly beyond anything Mimi or I might have undertaken for Gathering String.
But I’ll bet Tim knows some faculty or students at Cronkite who could help him make a pretty sharp trailer, perhaps an interview with Tim or audio of him reading a passage or two from the book, with video from family photos and/or home movies and videos.
But you don’t have to do interviews and shoot lots of video to do a trailer. This one for Chuck Wendig‘s two-part series, Blackbird and Mockingbird is just words from the book, spoken with a gravelly voice and presented graphically:
Consider giving the book away
This sounds counterintuitive, and I’m not sure whether we did it enough, too much or not enough with Gathering String. But if you publish through Amazon, as Mimi did, you have an option to choose a few free promotional days.
The promotions were successful. Mimi’s book climbed to No. 1 in free political fiction on some of her promotional days. Mimi got a lot of downloads those days, and those downloads helped generate reviews, and those reviews might have generated some sales on other days when the book wasn’t free. But maybe the free days attracted some people who eventually would have paid for the book. We’ll never know.
Every download you get, free or paid, gives Amazon more data on your book, more opportunities to tell other readers that if they liked this book, they might like that one.
Mimi had more than 10,000 downloads of her novel, plus her paperback sales, but the majority of those downloads were free. The big payoff might come when her next books come out, when each of those 10,000-plus buyers will get emails or other notifications from Amazon, pointing out that Mimi has a new book out. Maybe some of the people who got the first book for free will pay for the second. And, if the second novel gets off to a good start, maybe it will spur more sales of the first.
If Tim’s not planning a second book, I’m not sure that I’d recommend a free day right away (if he even publishes through Amazon). But I do recommend considering a free day. We have no regrets about the free days. We just don’t know for sure whether we came out ahead.
OK, here you should do as I say, not as I do. I encourage monitoring sales day by day and monitoring social media response, such as retweets, repins and Facebook shares, so you can see which techniques are most effective. Mimi and I didn’t necessarily do that well, but if you take the time to do that, you might spend your promotional time more effectively by stopping what doesn’t work and focusing on the techniques that get the best response.
Don’t expect too much
Finally, I should say that promoting a book can be a lot of hard work with little noticeable return. As Doug said:
I’d say that there is no good way to promote a book. All the ways to promote a book are mediocre at best. Reading/signing events are great for bestselling authors, who are already celebrities, but for little known (unknown) self-published authors or authors published by small presses, such events tend to be a lot of work for little return.
Book club readings are highly satisfying, and can help create a personal connection between authors and readers, which can then help create good word-of-mouth, but, again, it takes a lot of work to get book clubs interested in the book.
Arranging for the book to be distributed to bookstores is absolutely critical, but nearly impossible for self- or small press published authors.
Finally, the best way to promote a book is to write a really, really, good book. If readers are moved by a book, they’ll promote it, and it will eventually get some of the attention it deserves. Eventually.
That’s a good place to end. A really, really good book deserves promotion. And if you don’t write a good book, promotion won’t help.
How have you promoted your book(s)? What’s worked well for you?