Congratulations on publishing your first book! Maybe it’s actually the second or third book you’ve written, or your tenth, but at long last a publisher has recognized the genius even you had begun to question. Go on and open that bottle of wine that has aged so gracefully, if a little dustily, for the past decade. The elliptical machine can wait until tomorrow. You’ve worked hard for this moment, but more work lies in front of you. Until you reach that point in your career when your name on the book cover dwarfs the title, the book you’ve written needs help finding its way into readers’ hands. How much your publisher helps to spread the word will depend on many factors, not least of which is their publicity budget, but there are many ways you can maximize your book’s visibility for minimal costs—or even for free.
James Tate Hill is the author of Academy Gothic, winner of the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. His stories and essays have appeared in Literary Hub, Story Quarterly, and The Texas Review, among others. Fiction Editor for the literary journal Monkeybicycle, he lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lori. Find out more at jamestatehill.com or follow him on Twitter @jamestatehill.
In 2014, I learned my first novel won a book contest—the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel—and would be published the following year by a university press. Supportive as my publisher would be, I had enough friends with published books to know promotion largely rested in my hands. I reached out to a few freelance publicists based in New York to discuss what kind of services they provided. Publicists have long-standing relationships with editors, bloggers, book reviewers, and journalists that are often key to generating buzz for new books. Their job is also to develop a creative strategy for helping a book reach the readers most likely to be interested. Unfortunately, after learning a publicist’s rates for a full campaign exceeded what I made in a semester teaching composition, I realized I would be serving as my own publicist. The following are some of the lessons I learned during my year of self-promotion:
1. The Internet is your friend. You don’t need me to tell you the Internet is your best tool for reaching the most people in the least amount of time. A personal website is necessary as a home base for potential readers to learn more about you and your book. Take inventory of your pre-existing fans, before your book publishes. Think you don’t have any fans because this is your first book? Think again. Friends, family, co-workers, former classmates, and anyone in the universe who likes you enough to either buy your book, recommend it to someone, attend one of your events, or simply share details about what you’ve written is a charter member of any debut author’s fan club. And the best way to mobilize your fan club is through social media. The more closely your Twitter, Facebook, and/or Instagram persona resembles your actual personality, the less your book-related posts will seem like annoying self-promotion than an extension of good old likeable you.
2. Create connections and content. Once you establish a website and a growing social media presence, you need to generate some content about your book. Keep in mind that any original writing you post on your website will largely reach the people already aware of your book. The goal is to reach book-reading strangers, and the way to do that is by establishing a presence on other people’s websites—the more popular the better. There is no shortage of blogs, literary journals, and all manner of genre-specific forums for every kind of book and topic. Research which sites are open to guest posts or essays relevant to your book’s subject matter or your personal experiences. For Academy Gothic, an academic satire and murder mystery narrated by a visually impaired college instructor, I found myself writing essays and posts about my first failure as a novelist, my experiences in higher education, how I transitioned from literary fiction to the mystery genre, and my unique perspective as a visually impaired reader and writer. As with social media, the less your writing resembles promotion, the greater likelihood people will read, enjoy, and share with their own friends.
3. Query for editorial reviews. One realm where a publicist can make the most difference is editorial reviews. Pre-publication outlets like Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus will review some small press titles, and I was exceedingly fortunate to receive positive notices in PW, as well as Booklist. Editors of many periodicals, however, both online and print, often rely on recommendations from publicists they trust when deciding which books deserve attention. With sometimes thousands of books crossing their desks each month, it makes sense that they would listen to voices who have steered them in the right direction before. Those of us serving as our own publicists are at a disadvantage, but any research you can do to personalize your queries to editors and potential reviewers will greatly increase your chances of standing out. By reaching out personally to newspapers in my hometown and the city where I now live, I was lucky to receive great reviews in both these papers, as well as online journals more accustomed to touting small press and debut authors.
4. Schedule book tours—smartly. Publicists can also be helpful in setting up your book tour, but most bookstores are receptive to hosting a reading or signing even if you don’t have a publicist. Unless you’re a member of the gigantic-advance club, your book tour will either be small or self-financed, so be selective with your events. The rule of thumb for most debut authors—and many publishing veterans as well—is not to plan events in towns where you can’t fill some chairs with people you know. My best-attended readings were on college campuses and in towns where I’ve lived, but even the events with more empty chairs than bodies can still be worthwhile. Some bookstores will stock your book for a time before or after the event, and having your name and book title listed among upcoming and past events in the store on their website means additional publicity. Plus, even if your reading only leads to two books sold, you never know how much word of mouth two mouths can generate.
5. Use effective advertising. Your travel budget and vacation days might dictate the scope of your book tour, and the same can be said of advertising. I bought only one ad for my novel, and while I have no way of knowing if it led directly or indirectly to any sales, I’ve heard and read anecdotes from fellow authors that traditional advertisements, as well as paid promotions on social media, don’t do much to move the needle. Flyers are less expensive if you want to advertise bookstore or library events. Another effective use of your limited budget is book giveaways on sites like Goodreads or Amazon, which can at least get eyes on your book and raise awareness of its existence.
Book publicists are professional book advocates with years of wisdom and experience. You are a debut author with no experience promoting your book. On the bright side, as any publicist will acknowledge, you are your own best advocate for the book you’ve written. There are as many types of readers as there are types of books, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to reach any audience. That said, the one truism of book publicity is that someone who knows your book exists is far likelier to read it than someone who doesn’t. What you might lack in the know-how of a paid publicist or the budget of a big publishing house you can help to make up for with time and energy. This is all part of the writing process, and these many hours spent promoting your book can be as crucial as the hours spent revising that final chapter.
Writing can be a lonely profession plagued by blind stumbles, writer’s block, and despair-but it doesn’t have to be. Written by members of the popular Writer Unboxed website, Author in Progress is filled with practical, candid essays to help you reach the next rung on the publishing ladder. By tracking your creative journey from first draft to completion and beyond, you can improve your craft, find your community, and overcome the mental barriers that stand in the way of success.
Author in Progress is the perfect no-nonsense guide for excelling at every step of the novel-writing process, from setting goals, researching, and drafting to giving and receiving critiques, polishing prose, and seeking publication.
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