“Whatever you may have heard, self-publishing is not a shortcut to anything. Except maybe insanity. Self-publishing, like every other kind of publishing, is hard work. You don’t wake up one morning good at it. You have to work for that.”
―Zoe Winters, Smart Self-Publishing: Becoming an Indie Author
A lot of authors fear the words “marketing” and “promotion.” After all, most writers aren’t salespeople or self-promoters by nature. Isn’t one of our greatest joys being able to hide somewhere quiet (or noisy—some people love background noise) and bang away at our computers without having to interact with humanity?
The problem arises after we’ve poured the better part of our heart and soul and about eighty gazillion pounds of anxiety and toil into our book, when we sit back and think, “Ah, now the hard work is all done.” Then we realize we need to revise and package the book … after which we sit back again and think, “OK, really, now the hard work is all done.”
But if you’re an indie author who’s self-publishing—or even if you’re being published through traditional means—your labors are far from over. You must take your beloved book, make it extra beautiful, and send it into the world for readers to discover. According to Bowker, over one million books were self-published in 2017 alone. So how do you ensure readers find—and buy—your book?
The good news is that marketing and promotion are things you can learn, even if they don’t come naturally to you.
The bad news? There are a whole lot of mistakes authors can make. These are some of the biggest ones.
1. Rushing the process
Book production is a set of steps—each with multiple phases and iterations of text, layout, and art—and it takes time to do things right. In our article Top 7 Mistakes Authors Make When Selling Their Books Online, we spoke to author and publishing guru Mark Leslie Lefebvre, who says that rushing your book to market can be the most costly mistake you can make. He recommends favoring long-term strategy over a quick launch, quick returns, and short-term gains. “You might only ever get one chance with each reader,” Lefebvre told us. “And if it’s a terrible experience, they will tell everyone. If it’s OK, they’ll never mention it again. It’s only if the book is truly spectacular that they’ll shout about it from the rooftops.”
Take your time. Once your book is written, plan for editing, interior layout, cover design, and copywriting; set your release date; and give yourself months to build your audience. Because even the best marketing in the world isn’t enough to sustain sales of a horrible product.
TIP: Traditional publishing houses start with a production schedule, and you should too. Set a series of production and promotional milestones with realistic, achievable dates, and reward yourself with a treat (or many treats) when you complete them.
2. Creating your own book cover
If you’ve spent some time at the Kirkus Writers’ Center, you’ll notice that this particular topic comes up a lot. There’s a reason for it. Unless you are a professional designer with experience in book interior and cover creation, taking on the task of your own book cover is one of the most visible mistakes you can make in marketing your book. The truth is, readers absolutely do judge a book by its cover, and they can spot an amateur job a bookstore aisle away. A cruddy book cover almost always implies a cruddy book.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by an indie author who wanted me to write the description—what publishing folks refer to as “back cover copy”—for her upcoming self-published book. This author had a limited budget. After looking at her self-designed book cover, I recommended that she take her copywriting budget and invest it back into her cover, and I offered instead to edit her description for a reduced fee. She was a total stranger to me, but I still felt better making the suggestion (and losing income) because it was the best choice for both the author and her book.
Your book’s success depends on it being as professionally produced as possible. That means hiring a skilled, reputable editor to help polish your manuscript; an experienced designer to create a cover that is attractive and stands out; and (if you have any budget left over) a copywriting whiz to pique readers’ interest.
“If you’re a fabulous cook, and you plan on selling spaghetti to earn extra income, it should be obvious to you that there are a lot of other places where it is sold, and you would have to convince people that your spaghetti is better than the others,” says Eeva Lancaster in her book Being Indie: A No Holds Barred Self-Publishing Guide for Fiction Authors. “You’d do this by making sure that the noodles are perfectly al dente, the sauce is tasty, and to give it an edge, you’d make it cheesier, put it in a nice container, and maybe add a sprig of parsley on top to add to the appeal. You wouldn’t serve it on the floor and tell people to go on and taste it because it’s truly delicious, and that you have slaved for many hours perfecting the taste. Packaging and appearances are important, as much as the taste. In publishing, you could be the next great writer, but if you don’t present your words in the most appealing way possible, especially in this highly competitive industry, I doubt anyone would bother to read it except your friends and family, if at all.”
TIP: Check out other bestselling authors in your genre to get an idea of what successful book covers look like. It would also be worth taking the time to investigate the psychology of design to get a sense of just how much thought and planning goes into a book cover. Then hire an experienced professional.
3. Not targeting your audience
In your marketing efforts, it’s true that you want to cast the widest net possible … but in such a way that your target audience gets the message first. A lot of authors make the mistake of thinking every reader wants their book (sadly, they don’t), so the authors don’t make an effort to connect with the readers who would truly be interested. Waiting for your target audience to find your book is a risky proposition. This “if you publish it, they will come” approach generally results in tepid (or nonexistent) sales.
Figure out who wants to read your book. How old are they? What do they like? How much money do they make, and where do they like to shop? What other books might they like to read? Answering these questions will allow you to concentrate your marketing on those who count the most: the people who will buy your book.
“Before you even write your book, figure out what niche it will serve,” Miral Sattar writes on her Learn Self Publishing Fast site. “I don’t mean just a genre, like ‘Romance’ or ‘Travel Adventure,’ but you should know the specific demographic of who will absolutely love and needs [sic] your book. Make a list based on age, gender, lifestyle, hobbies, and interests and you’re just getting started defining the niche you want to target. No lie, it’s easier to market a book about left-handed fly-fishing than a romance novel because you know who your demographic is!”
TIP: Create a profile of your ideal reader, and try to really identify who they might be. Do the same thing for a “secondary” reader, who is different but also might be interested in reading your book. Based on these two profiles, you should get a clearer idea of how and where to focus your efforts.
4. Starting too late
Many indie authors make the rookie mistake of waiting until their book release to start promoting and marketing their book. Such a late start can be most detrimental on social media and can actually result in the opposite of your intended effect: suddenly pushing a book hard tends to drive readers away. It’s like telling them, “You’re not important to me until I have something to sell.” Not exactly a compelling message, is it?
If you’re writing a book—just writing it, mind—you should already be working on creating your audience on social media, blogging, and even making sure your author website is properly set up and polished. Once you have your release date set (ideally, three to six months in the future) you should immediately start working on marketing and promotion.
So what can you do to get started? We recommend creating posts on book blogger sites, sending advance copies to professional reviewers and for readers’ reviews, planning social media and advertising campaigns, creating a mailing list, putting together a book launch party, and even thinking about a book tour.
Yep, it’s a lot. And the sooner you start, the better off you’ll be.
TIP: Buy one of those month-at-a-glance calendars (or use something interactive and easily accessible like a Google calendar), and use it to plot all the due dates and deadlines for getting your book to reviewers, booking events, and planning out any smaller tasks you need to complete. You can also add reminders to your phone to reinforce the message. This will help you stay on track and keep you from getting overwhelmed by the prospect of remembering every little detail.
5. Waiting too long to write another book
“The best self-promotion is your next book,” bestselling author Bella Andre is quoted as saying. “And the book after that and after that ...”
We know, we know. The last thing you want to think about after all this work is doing it all over again. But the truth is, the absolute best way to market one book is to publish another. The more books you write, the more opportunities you have to find new readers and get them excited to buy not only your new book but anything you’ve already written. Many authors have found success not by writing The One Big Bestseller but by adding to their back catalog. From there, every time you publish a new book, you’ll see a sales bump for all your books. And that just might be the most profitable marketing you’ll see.
TIP: Remember to create a mailing list so that your readers can stay up to date on your news and upcoming promotions. More important, this usually proves to be the best way to let your audience know when a new book is coming.
As you can see, much of successful marketing has to do with planning, research, and care—three words that sound a lot less intimidating than “marketing” and “promotion” and that most writers are naturally good at. We know you can do it, and we’ll be here to support you along the way.