From time to time I receive messages, usually via Facebook, from new writers asking me to help promote their work (this is strangely flattering, as it assumes they think my audience is way bigger than it actually is). I’m always willing to do what I can to help a fellow writer – we all should support each other in this field, as part of what author Joanna Penn calls “social karma” – but my first thought is usually, You need to learn how to do this on your own.
I’m glad I had people tell me that in the beginning, as it forced me to do the work myself: the marketing research, the networking, the scheduling of my own book signings (they do not, I learned, just fall into your lap). Of course I would just love it if my favorite authors recommended my books to their Twitter followers (the numbers of which often rival the average amount of dollars for a house in northern Colorado). Assuming every single follower bought a copy, I’d be a bestseller in every major book review outlet. But that’s not how it works.
Just about every author has a list of swear-bys for success: things you absolutely must have in order to sell a book, let alone enough to one day pay a mortgage (for what it’s worth, I’m nowhere near there yet, but I have put royalties in my gas tank before). Many of these things vary, but some advice is pretty consistent, whether you publish on your own or through a publishing house. For example:
It is highly recommended to have a presence on social media.
I’ve gotten messages from authors who have personal Facebook accounts, and that’s it. They don’t “get” Twitter. They have no interest in blogging or creating a personal website. I tell them that’s fine…but it depends on their goals for writing books. If they are only interested in an audience of friends and family, a social media presence, or lacktherof, is no big deal. But authors who want to write for a living really can’t get away with this in a digital age. People find books online now more than ever, which means 1) Using your author name and picture (professional headshots, no selfies) on each account so it’s easy to find you, 2) mentioning your books in the space where you write a brief biography of yourself, and 3) making links to your book or website easy to find. A personal website with all these links in one place is the best way to make this easy on potential readers.
Find your own audience
I can think of a few instances in which people asked me to help promote their books, not taking into account the fact that my audience is quite different from their intended audience. It’s not that readers of religious nonfiction or young adult fiction can’t also be interested in children’s books or fantasy, but since that’s not the fan base I cater to, I can’t promise that the people I tell about your book are going to be all that interested. Authors who publish in the same genre can and absolutely should cross-promote, but first you have to find them.
This means getting really specific in your search terms; more so than “Religion,” “Women’s fiction,” “New Adult.” I looked up the titles of books similar to mine and noticed how they were shelved online. To date, my memoir Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter is most similar to Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner. Here are the current shelf tags for that book on Amazon:
These categories can change periodically, but the idea is more or less the same. “Christian denominations,” “Biographies and Memoirs,” “Religion and Spirituality” were the key words I started with just searching around on Twitter. Anyone whose profile popped up with those words (or variations of them) were people I chose to follow. And the cool thing about Twitter is how it will then recommend more followers based on who you’re already following (which isn’t quite so creepy as Facebook tailoring the ads you see on newsfeed based on what you just ordered from Amazon).
Figuring out which social media accounts to create (depending on what’s popular, and what your audience is into – you may not have much luck finding YA readers on LinkedIn) is time-consuming enough, but the hardest part is also the most rewarding, I think:
Interacting with that audience on a regular basis
Over the last few years, I’ve gotten away with spending large chunks of afternoons on social media because my financial situation allowed it. Now that I’m about to close on my first house, that luxury will end once I pick up another job to supplement my income. But it’s still critical to find time every day – a high-traffic period of the day, if possible (which depends on the platform you’re using) to interact with followers, share relevant posts/articles, and create original material. I recommend a minimum of 15-20 minutes per day.
Look up the peak times when most users are said to be active on Facebook or Twitter. Look up trending hashtags and use them in your posts. You don’t only have to post about topics that are relevant to your book (70% of my Twitter feed is about my cats), but it certainly helps when you’re still building up an audience. And while periodic sales pitches are okay, people will definitely get turned off if your page is all advertising. Likewise, “Will you please buy/review my book?” is about the worst thing you can do for your author brand. If you wouldn’t do it to a stranger at a coffee shop, don’t do it to a stranger online, for the same reason you probably get annoyed when your dinner is interrupted by telemarketers. If people like what you write, they will follow your buy links, without you having to lead or ask. I promise.
People complain that they don’t always have time, but this is way more than just goofing around and wasting time, if you’re serious about it. After months of joining in the dialogue from her posts, I actually jumped up and down when one of my favorite authors not only followed me on Twitter, but retweeted one of my posts to her followers, which lead to some of the most traffic I’ve ever had on this little blog. I can’t say with absolute certainty that her retweet was directly responsible for my sales that month, but it was most certainly a factor, combined with my own efforts. She retweeted me because I earned her respect as a fellow writer: not because I cold-pitched her. The difference matters.
My sales algorithms don’t tell me which downloads come from publicity and which come from curated ads I budget for each month (Facebook lets you do this quite easily), but as far as I know, it all funnels together in the end.
One more thing: it’s taken me the better part of five years to see a somewhat steady increase in web traffic and book sales. Writing books is not for people who need to make money right this second, or for anyone who expects to make a ton of money at all. But after six months to a year, if you don’t see much in the way of sales, it may be time to ask yourself: do I have a truly well-written book that was professionally edited (never publish without getting second, third, and fourth opinions)? Does it have a professionally designed cover/illustrations? Does the product description grab a reader’s attention and interest?
Depending how you answer these, your book may not be quite ready for the market, which is perfectly fine. You may need to save more money, work on building your brand (which should be done long before your book is released), and seek advice from other writers you know, whose critiques could help make the difference between success and utter disappointment.
Like this post? Check out Confessions of a Jew-ish Skeptic, now available on Amazon.