Austen, Blake, Proust, Whitman, Woolf—the list of successful self-published authors is as old as traditional publishing itself. As long as there have been gatekeepers like agents, editors, and publishers, there have been determined writers who find creative ways to operate outside the castle walls. While an author like Jane Austen never found success in her lifetime, many more managed to find an audience for their books and even create a bit of controversy while they did it (Walt Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior after self-publishing his book Leaves of Grass, which some at the time felt was obscene).
These days, authors like Hugh Howey, E.L. James, and Barbara Freethy regularly hit the New York Times bestseller list and have readers numbering in the millions. How do they do it? They do it by writing good books and then helping readers discover their work—marketing themselves and their books like it’s their full-time job. There remain many obstacles to publishing success, but there are also a lot of best practices that successful indie authors follow—practices that give books maximum exposure and provide authors the best opportunities for a work to be discovered. Below, we go beyond social media tools to look at different ways authors can market their work.
“A great way for indies to become part of publishing and educate themselves about the industry is to learn from peers and industry experts,” says Robin Cutler, senior manager, independent publishers, at Ingram Content Group. “We highly recommend that indies join publishing associations like the IBPA [Independent Book Publishers Association] and ALLi [the Alliance of Independent Authors] in the United Kingdom.”
Cutler notes that many first-time authors are often learning the business of publishing from scratch—everything from ISBNs to trade discounts and returns—which means authors have a lot to learn before they’re able to think about marketing. “Before diving into publishing, we’d recommend a thorough due diligence of the industry, to be knowledgeable about your target market and the publishing services providers that can help you achieve your goals,” Cutler advises.
Once authors have a handle on how a distributor operates and learn about pricing structures they’re in a better position to lay out an effective marketing plan.
Tools for Success
“Since most authors fail to take full advantage of best practices, it means that those who do implement all the best practices have a tremendous sales and discovery advantage over those who do not,” says Mark Coker, founder of the e-book publisher and distributor Smashwords and author of Smashwords Book Marketing Guide. He cites preorders as a case study.
Many e-book retailers, including Smashwords, offer preorder distribution—which allows customers to “buy” the book months ahead of its release. “We’ve found conclusive evidence that books born as preorders sell more copies overall than books that are not,” he says. However, despite the availability of this free opportunity, he notes, most indie authors don’t use it, giving those that do an advantage. “Offer e-book preorders,” Coker says, “and make the preorder runway as long as possible.” At the Apple iBooks store, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, Coker notes, “all the accumulated preorders credit toward unit sales on the first day of release, which causes the book to spike in the bestseller lists.” Once a book reaches a bestseller list, its discoverability is increased, which in turn drives more sales—making preorders a key marketing tool.
Metadata is another key marketing tool that authors may overlook—metadata is the information an author enters about her book into her chosen distributor’s system that feeds out to the marketplace. This includes the book description, the category, the price, the author bio, blurbs, and any other data that bookstores and readers will use to find an author’s book. Incorrect or lazy data entry can make a book harder to discover, weakening its search engine optimization (SEO). “Be thoughtful and purposeful when developing metadata for your title,” advises Cutler. Authors should include such key words in the book description as relevant place names, current or historical events, and bestselling books similar to the title being sold; select the most accurate category (romance, new adult romance, historical romance, etc.); and ensure their author bio is up to date. “Help us help readers find your title,” Cutler says.
Leveraging Existing Books
“Another activity that distinguishes successful authors is that they’re writing multiple books, and they’re leveraging those books as tools to promote new releases,” says Coker. Authors who are writing multiple titles in a series can drive preorders by updating all their existing titles with a teaser for the new book in the backmatter. “You should be running special promotions, including pricing at ‘free,’ to drive more downloads of existing books, which will then—via the updated backmatter—drive preorders for the upcoming books,” says Coker.
Authors who publish multiple books and employ smart marketing techniques are increasing their chances for growing their readership. “Focus your marketing on your fans, lavish attention on them and their needs, and then leverage your fans to bring you more fans,” Coker says.
In traditional publishing, authors usually don’t have a say in the pricing of their books—a big discount at any point in the supply chain means publishers, distributors, and bookstores can lose money. This means pricing at traditional publishing houses is fairly predictable and set by the publisher: hardcovers are currently priced around $24.95 and paperbacks around $16. Deep discounts on new books are rare, and there aren’t a lot of incentives for readers to take a chance on a new author. But for indie authors, a marketing plan that takes pricing into account can be a key component of a successful book—most e-book retailers allow authors to set the price of their books or even give them away for free.
Indie author Catherine Stine says she’s learned a lot from marketing her thriller Fireseed One, a finalist in the YA and SF categories in the 2013 USA News International Book Awards and an Indie Reader Approved notable. “Everyone wants a deal,” says Stine. Her advice to authors is to set their first book as “perma free” to help attract readers. “Get on Bookbub, BookGorilla, and other reputable sites whenever you have a sale,” she adds.
Those authors not content with just an e-book or simple POD edition need to plan ahead—especially if part of an author’s marketing plan is a book tour with speaking engagements. To host an author event, bookstores need to offer the author’s books for sale, and for that they must be able to order (returnable) copies. This is where choosing the right distributor comes in. While authors may think of their distributor simply as “Amazon” (if they think about their distributor at all once a book is published), the fact is that if authors want their books in bookstores they need to publish with a print-on-demand service that makes books available to bookstore buyers. “Bookstores want returnable inventory, and CreateSpace PODs are not [returnable],” says author Stine.
IngramSpark is Ingram’s year-old publishing service developed specifically for indie authors. Unlike many of its competitors, it allows authors to publish in print and digital simultaneously, as well as offering distribution to bookstores. The benefit, notes Cutler, is that authors can take advantage of Ingram marketing services and “gain access to Ingram’s distribution channels that reach online and bricks-and-mortar retailers worldwide.” Every bookstore with an Ingram account can access and order books published through the service.
While most indie authors won’t see their books automatically stocked on shelves across the nation (unless the buyer of a national chain has reason to believe that a book will be receiving national media coverage), an author can still think locally and plan to create a home-grown print market for her book. “Engage your local bookstore and offer to speak,” suggests Cutler. “Patronize the store and build relationships.”
Authors who want to plan bookstore events or a larger book tour will want to think carefully about this marketing angle as online marketing remains the most popular arena for indie authors.
What to Avoid
“If a campaign isn’t targeted and participatory, it annoys readers,” says Coker. “If every marketing message is simply a blatant sales solicitation, it’s boring and readers will tune out.” He advises authors to engage readers in smart and interesting ways that celebrate the book: sneak peeks, cover reveals, and contests.
Beyond Social Media: Marketing Case Studies
“Successful marketers do a lot of experimentation,” says Coker. “They try and test different campaigns.” We talked to a few indie authors about some of their marketing successes (and failures) and what they’ve learned so far.
One marketing tool is to create content that complements the book and then use that to get more publicity. Stine relates how her forthcoming new adult novel is set in the famous Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—which was recently the site of a well-publicized sugar-sculpture installation by artist Kara Walker. Stine took advantage of this coincidence to pitch articles to media outlets about the sugar trade and the factory’s history to coincide with the release of her book. While the articles won’t directly address the book or its publication, Stine will be raising her profile as an author and hopefully helping maximize her SEO as well.
Indie author Betsy Talbot constructed an unconventional book tour she called the International Love Affair tour to promote her title Married with Luggage: What We Learned About Love by Traveling the World. The book highlights the couple’s adventures and insights working together while traveling around the world, and the tour visited 10 “romantic” cities in Europe with her husband. They promoted the tour both in advance and while they traveled using social media, videos, and guest blog posts, says Talbot. Successes included sponsorship of their travel (hotel rooms, train tickets, donations from friends) and new opportunities, including an invite to audition for a television show. The downside? “We didn’t sell any more books during the tour than we would have if we stayed at home,” she says. “What would have sold the book better is [in-person appearances] at bookstores, on morning television shows, on radio shows, etc.” Talbot will apply the lessons from this experience to her next book tour and notes her email subscriber list has grown as a result of the trip.
Marketing strategies can take many forms, and even the newest members of the publishing community are thinking of creative ways to sell their work. Hannah Yerington, an 18-year-old poet, created a small publishing house, Bolinas Books, with her father and recently launched her first book of poetry available in print via Bolinas’s website. Her marketing idea? “Writing poetry on demand for people while wearing a silly white feathered hat,” says Yerington. “People buy a book and then give me a prompt or word, and I type out a poem for them on my 1950s Royal typewriter.”
“It may seem silly,” Yerington says, “but I’m finding the more I’m enjoying the whole launching and selling process, the better I seem to be doing.”
While Virginia Woolf enjoyed great success with her own Hogarth Press, the publishing industry today is a lot more complicated than investing in a hand press and cranking out printed copies of a book in your living room. Modern indie authors have to deal with choosing a publishing platform, designing covers, organizing blog tours, getting Goodreads reviews, and setting pricing—all in a global marketplace that sees more books published each year than ever before.
A successful marketing campaign involves many of the tools mentioned here. While there’s no one key tool to achieving marketing success, using best practices and persevering, through the publication of multiple books, will increase an author’s chance of success. “Authors need to be ready to capture the lightning when it hits,” says Coker. “Too many authors give up too early.”
Jennifer McCartney is an author and editor.