The self-publishing industry continues to expand, opening up new opportunities for young writers and becoming an attractive place for veteran authors with traditionally published titles under their belts. The self-publishing boom broadly benefits all authors, with new discoverability tools and innovations to go along with readers’ growing interest in self-published books. But it is also creating a more crowded field in which authors must struggle to stand out.
The self-publishing landscape is shifting, requiring authors to evolve their marketing and social media strategies if they want to stay on readers’ radars. To take one prominent example, an active Facebook author page is not what it used to be. The social media giant is constantly refining its algorithms to better spotlight posts that might be of interest to members and filter out less-relevant content. This has made it increasingly difficult for authors to get noticed, even by readers who already follow them. The marketing firm Ogilvy & Mather recently reported that in 2014, a Facebook post from a given brand only reached 6% of that brand’s followers—down from 16% in 2013.
“The basic idea of shouting on social media about your book has become saturated from a social standpoint, and the social networks are filtering these out as best they can to ensure their feeds aren’t filled with spam,” says Dan Blank, founder of author consultancy WeGrowMedia.
Last fall, Facebook announced that it will reduce the number of overtly promotional posts—those with words such as “like,” “comment,” or “share”—in members’ newsfeeds, making it more important than ever for authors to ensure that their posts encourage interaction from followers. Blank sees this shift as a good thing, requiring authors to “go back to their roots of using social media to truly be social in forging relationships.”
Not coincidentally, Facebook has also expanded its advertising options, making them easier, cheaper, and often more effective for authors, and ensuring that paid posts enjoy greater prominence on member newsfeeds. “It is Facebook’s way of placing value on content for brands,” says Emily Taffel, founder and co-owner of Mugsy PR, which manages publicity for a number of authors. “It is great as a social user, but as a marketer or a brand using the site for their promotions, it has made it very difficult.”
The new system means that authors are now required to “pay to play” in the social media space more than they were just a year ago. If a specific post seems to be getting some attention, it may be worthwhile for an author to “boost” the post, investing a few dollars to help make a popular post go viral. The ads allow authors to target their messages based on age, gender, location, education level, income level, and even relationship status. “I see a lot of authors being more open to buying Facebook ads,” Blank says.
Compared to a year or two ago, social media has also become a much more visual medium, and authors of books with eye-catching elements may find it worthwhile to have a presence on platforms such as Pinterest, Instagram, and even Snapchat. “Children’s books, fashion, weddings, and sorts of things that are very visual, work well for Pinterest,” Taffel says. “Novels and such that aren’t as visual work well with promotions on Twitter to reading groups and such. Instagram is great for authors for visibility, but doesn’t lead to sales the same way Pinterest does.”
Taffel urges authors who use Pinterest to “use it wisely,” following similar strategies of interacting—not promoting—as they would on Facebook. She gives the example of how an author who has written a book about Florida should avoid creating something as on-the-nose as a board called “My Florida Book and Merchandise.” Instead, the author should create “relevant and interesting, but not always book-specific” boards like “Uniquely Florida” or “Floriduh” and then pin the book among other inspiring images.
Author Natasha Boyd gives the example of a recent Instagram campaign that she launched with a small group of other authors (New York Times–bestselling author Colleen Hoover among them), in which users were invited to join in a “scavenger hunt” for an Amazon gift card on Instagram. Each author posted the same picture, tagging it with authors in the group. When people clicked the photo and followed the tagged authors, they saw the same photo on their page and clicked that photo to find a new author tagged and continued adding authors until they circled back to the first one they had followed. “It resulted in thousands of new follows—and, in full disclosure, about a 40% attrition rate in the following weeks,” Boyd says. “But the exercise was in building visibility, and that was a success.”
These social media platforms can also be good places to connect with libraries, bookstores, and other outlets that may want to stock an author’s books.
New Marketing Tools
Beyond social media, when it comes to marketing self-published books, “the tools have changed in that there are so many more of them,” says Jim Donovan, speaker and self-published author of titles including the recent Happy@Work. These new offerings are not about reinventing the wheel. The same basic rules of book marketing (build a steady list for email newsletters, consider dabbling in paid advertising, anchor it all with a compelling author website) apply, but the new offerings allow an author to build on this existing foundation.
Donovan adds that there are more opportunities for cross-pollination between marketing platforms and tools, as brands like WordPress and Squarespace have worked to enhance their design offerings and social media integration. For example, Squarespace 7, which launched last fall, offers enhanced social media integration for cross-posting blog posts and book news, as well as an Amazon Block for authors to more easily add a link from Amazon to their site. It also offers authors new Cover Pages that allow for a splash page to promote a particular new book or offer.
The popularity of these landing pages points to a more general shift taking place with author websites: demand for brevity. Rather than hitting visitors with an onrush of details, writers are finding that to-the-point marketing messages are often the most effective.
Alan Canton, managing partner of NewMedia Website Design, which works with a number of authors, says that his company has shifted to a “less is more” approach in its offerings. That means more basic pages that can easily be shared on social media and viewed on a mobile device, promoting the book and its key offerings—but little else.
Like Squarespace’s Cover Pages, NewMedia’s simple sites keep the message basic in order to stick out in an increasingly crowded market. Rather than a comprehensive author site, it is just a “four-screen site” for the book, with a home page to capture attention, the next screen with more info about the book, a third screen about the author, and a final screen with reviews and testimonials.
New plug-ins and additions are also helping to enhance the marketing options for authors’ websites. Donovan has integrated SumoMe into his WordPress site. It offers plug-ins like List Builder (which promises to increase daily email list signups) and Heat Maps (which help an author see where on his or her site visitors are clicking), and Donovan says the addition “has increased my subscribers significantly.”Authors are also tapping into app technology to help reach readers. For example, BookGrabbr offers an easy way for authors to share selections from their books through social media accounts, making it easier for followers on LinkedIn and Facebook to learn more about the title than they could just by going to an Amazon or other e-commerce page. But perhaps more valuable than helping authors share books, the tool also offers in-depth analytics, such as how many impressions (friends of friends or followers of followers) the book received, how many people clicked the “Buy Now” button, and the demographic and geographic information of the readers.
Maximizing Traditional Channels
Even with the frequent changes in social media and marketing technology, the relatively old-fashioned marketing tool of an email list is proving to have lasting value. “[Email marketing] gives you a direct conduit into your readers, without having to worry about the next Facebook or Amazon algorithm change,” says Bryan Cohen, cohost of the Sell More Books podcast, and founder of the book marketing firm Best Page Forward. Get readers on your list by offering something for free, like a free novella or novel, and then get as much traffic onto the page where you’re making the offer as possible.”
Cohen says every other element of self-published book marketing—getting online reviews, driving sales shortly after a book’s release, and more—can be facilitated by a strong email list. Providers like AWeber and MailChimp continue to be the most popular, and offer simple solutions for authors to integrate mailing list sign-ups into their websites.
Live or virtual author events also remain valuable ways to engage readers and create opportunities for added media coverage, and new platforms make such events easier for authors than ever. Programs like Skype in the Classroom are a great way for authors who write books for younger readers to get face-to-face with students without racking up travel costs.
Other live-streaming apps are making it easier for authors to interact directly with fans and potential fans. Both Periscope (owned by Twitter) and Meerkat allow authors to instantly notify their followers of an impromptu video event, inviting comments and interaction in real time.
Despite all the newfangled marketing tools that are opening up new possibilities for authors, traditional marketing approaches remain as potent as ever for indie authors. Chief among these are making and working personal connections to help expand an author’s impact.
Collaborating with fellow authors—whether traditionally published or self-published—can be a powerful way to boost one’s marketing strength. While group pages on Goodreads, Facebook, and elsewhere provide an effective way to communicate with other authors in one’s genre or region, this kind of interaction can extend into real life as well.
Steven Porter, who oversees integrated marketing and communications for Stillwater River Publications, provides an example of this. Three years ago, he and five other authors in the Rhode Island area decided to pool their resources and create the Association of Rhode Island Authors (ARIA). Together they organized a series of open-mike readings and a tour of local schools for Reading Week, and held monthly meetings where industry figures (agents, editors, designers, and so on) attended and shared their expertise.
Interest in the activities grew, and ARIA now takes part in the large Providence International Art Festival and has forged partnerships with nonprofits like the School Librarians of Rhode Island, which established a collection of children’s books by ARIA writers that is available to circulate among the state’s school libraries.
But an indie author does not necessarily need an association to effectively partner with other organizations. Eric Liguori, who teaches entrepreneurship at the University of Tampa, has published both traditionally and independently. For his latest book, The Startup Student, he went the indie route, but, instead of spending money on online advertising, he focused on attracting the interest of organizations whose members would have an interest in the book’s message. Four organizations proved receptive.
“Two of the organizations agreed to do email blasts announcing the books’ availability to their entire membership, as well as promote it via social media during our launch period,” Liguori says. “The third organization gave me free expo space at their annual meeting to not only promote the book but build an email list. The fourth organization immediately placed an order for 100 copies.”
Of course, seeking publicity through traditional magazines, newspapers, TV shows, and blogs remains a valuable marketing strategy. But the more crowded book market makes it more important than ever for authors to be smart about what they pitch and to whom.
“Media is being pitched more books than ever,” says Kevin Finley, director of publicity for Leabhar PR, which works with a number of authors, both traditional and indie. “Targeting media outlets with tailored pitches [is] critical: why is the book they are pitching a good fit for the outlet they are pitching? This means being informed about what the outlet and journalist or editor writes about.”