Social media—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms—has transformed the book marketing and promotion game for publishers, authors, and readers alike. The ability of publishers and authors to connect with and communicate directly to readers, and track their responses, has helped the promotion of all books, no matter the background of the author.
For this article, PW spoke with promotion and marketing professionals to learn how social media has impacted the way they market and promote adult titles by or about African-Americans. We reached out to publicity professionals from independent publishers and Big Five houses, Kickstarter, and comics publisher Iron Circus Comics, whose business model is based on crowdfunding. We solicited responses from Ibrahim Ahmad, editorial director at Akashic Books; Margot Atwell, publishing director at Kickstarter; Yona Deshommes, associate director of publicity at Atria; Andrew Duncan, director of digital marketing at Grand Central Publishing; Tasha Hilton, senior digital marketing manager at Atria; Alexandra Nicolajsen, director of social media and digital sales at Kensington; Spike Trotman, publisher of Iron Circus Comics; and Brian Ulicky, publicity and marketing director at the New Press.
Old-School Book Promotion
We asked each respondent what promotion was like before social media became so crucial.
Ahmad: Before the advent of social media, our assumption was that we needed to cultivate a readership one person at a time—and this philosophy still holds in a digitally oriented world. We still prioritize cultivating real-life relationships with booksellers, librarians, academics, and other members of the literary ecosystem. Publishing is a business of relationships, and as a publisher we are sustained and supported by venues like the Queens Library, [black bookstores such as] Eso Won, and the AALBC [an African-American focused book website], and aspire to provide them with some level of symbiosis.
Hilton: As a millennial in publishing, I have the bittersweet experience of only having worked in the age of social media. In the midst of immediate gratification via social media, though, television and print ads are still very relevant. Though marketers are able to adequately gauge the audience size of a particular commercial spot or publication banner, tracking the results which lead to sales becomes a challenge. I often send snail mail to booksellers and influencers—I enjoy creating fun swag packages that I ship to people that include a copy of the book. While I ultimately would like the influencer to snap an image of the package and post it to his or her social media account, the thought of receiving a package in the mail is intimate and special.
Deshommes: Publicity and marketing [at Atria about a decade ago] were two completely separate functions, and the two departments never met to discuss plans or had any input on each other’s plans. Our publisher, Judith Curr, understood the need for regular meetings where the two departments would strategize planning. Before that, I recall a lot of work with book clubs and bloggers, offering incentives for promoting our authors. When magazines started their digital initiatives, we started moving in that direction, offering exclusive content, contests, and the like on the digital legs of print media. I still try to find the time to meet with people who are doing new and fresh things in the market and work on forming partnerships that are mutually beneficial.
Duncan: I wasn’t around in publishing for very long before social media showed up! But in my experience, with the exception of advertising, marketing was a multipurpose department whose main purpose was to serve as a communications center for an imprint, which it still functions as to a degree. There were very few tools to measure if anything we were doing was effective. You had sales numbers, feedback from booksellers, and word of mouth, basically. Pre–social media marketing methods that are still very important to us and to our authors include grassroots and word-of-mouth campaigns, where you’re reaching booksellers, dedicated readers, and fan communities early.
Nicolajsen: Our social outreach is always part of our larger marketing campaign for a book—and we utilize various ways to reach our audiences, from print and online advertising to in-person events, to create buzz around books. So social has been an expansion of our marketing, not necessarily a replacement for other methods that we find still work to engage readers.
Creating Social Media Campaigns
We asked each respondent how social media campaigns get created.
Trotman: I’m a naturally gregarious oversharer, and 90% of the time I’m tweeting about art, world history, politics, my travels, everything but my comics and publishing. But when the time comes to promote a book [for Iron Circus], that means I have over 30,000 followers on Twitter that I know like what I like, and are interested in what I have to say. That makes a big difference in the response to my campaigns. When I run a Kickstarter campaign, the majority of my pledges always come from Twitter. I focus extra attention on pushing the project at launch, and, in the final three days of the project, “Be there first! Get in before it’s too late!”–type stuff. I capitalize on that, tweeting every 10 or 20 minutes.
Ulicky: We definitely plan ahead of time, especially for books that seem easily shareable. With Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century by Monique W. Morris [which offers statistical data on every aspect of black life], we knew we could break this out into easy-to-digest social shares, and one of our Tumblr posts sharing a stat from the book has almost 8,000 notes to date. We launched a dedicated Twitter account for Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which has boosted interest and engagement in the book’s audience, its author, and the overall fight to end mass incarceration. Started in 2013, the account now has over 37,000 followers, all organic [i.e., no paid followers], and we use it to share news about Alexander’s appearances, news related to the work being done by all to end mass incarceration, fans’ support of the book and Michelle, and other New Press books that Alexander has endorsed or is affiliated with.
Hilton: Once you successfully create content and language for your campaign, it’s imperative to know your ideal customer to create strategies to grow that audience. Within the African-American market there are strong social media channels that may not have the same response for other titles. Social media [presences] such as @WellReadBlackGirl, @Noir_Reads, @HelloBeautiful, and @TheShadeRoom have a built-in audience of African-American consumers. I spend a lot of time on social media for pleasure so I am often building relationships with online platforms that can later be used for cross-promotion or gathering new social media influencers while scrolling at leisure. Because I fit into the audience for most of my African-American titles, I have a foundation to work from.
Deshommes: We look at the author’s social media platforms and stats and ask marketing to do some research to determine an author’s reach and influence. Then we look at the book itself—this is where marketing and publicity work closely—and ask, who is the audience for this book and how do we reach them? Is this a book that would benefit more from an Instagram campaign or Twitter campaign? Should we do Facebook ads targeting that demo? Are we growing this author or is she starting from scratch? Should we partner with a media outlet that has an active social media platform and outreach? Once we answer those questions, we determine which platform works best.
Ahmad: A book will often create its own [social media] magic: this October we published an incredible debut novel entitled An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, who identifies as chronically ill, visibly queer, gender-nonconforming, and black. The book has developed a life of its own and across social media channels, with an audience that at least anecdotally seems unconstrained by race or gender or sexual orientation.
Duncan: We collaborate very closely with the authors and strategize with them where best to focus everyone’s efforts and when. Any audience we’re trying to reach is important to the author and to us, so we spend as much time as we have to reach the people we need to.
Nicolajsen: The influence of the author is generally much greater over their own audience because the author is the brand. For that reason, our goal is to facilitate ways for them to entice their readers using graphics we create as well as interesting sweepstakes, giveaways, interactive campaigns, and more, to engage the audience for a book.
The Advantages of Social Media
We asked each respondent about the benefits of social media.
Ahmad: The “democratization” of communication has allowed people of color to tell their own stories in their own words, unfiltered by layers of indifferent or disinterested gatekeepers. In turn, the traditional one-way dynamic between author and reader has been inverted, and so the very act of reading has morphed from a solitary pursuit into something that often resembles a communal experience online, as evidenced by the inspiring success of groups like Well-Read Black Girl.
Nicolajsen: When you know you have a fantastic book, the challenge is putting it in the hands of readers and rising above the noise of the thousands of books being published regularly. Once you have readers picking it up, then the hope is that they’ll share it with their friends online—which is so much more powerful than running ads in the space, because personal recommendation is often cited as the #1 influencer in book purchasing. Of course, running social media ads on platforms like Facebook and Instagram is a key way to reach your readers in the first place—and these ads allow you to have granular targeting including demographics and consumer interests that will match up with the audience for your books.
Ulicky: Direct engagement allows readers to share their excitement about books with anyone in their lives and the public. We often see more of this at events around the country for our books at great African-American–owned bookstores, such as Source Booksellers in Detroit and Eso Won in Los Angeles. Many New Press books are implicit or even explicit calls to action—books like The New Jim Crow, We Too Sing America, Chokehold, Becoming Ms. Burton, Pushout often inspire readers to want to get involved in a cause directly in their own communities. In spreading the word about these books, people seem invested in sharing messages and concrete plans for change.
Hilton: Tracking! There is an incredible amount of data that allows marketers to reach a specific audience and provide clear results. Unlike print and television ads, online ads can provide insights on the impressions, audience reached, clicks to website, and the number of clicks each buying link received. Then the marketer can determine where changes can be made to improve the results of the campaign.
Trotman: Instant feedback, instant results, very easy to track the effectiveness of your efforts with pinpoint accuracy thanks to things like referrer links and ad campaigns. You also get the satisfaction of building that audience yourself in a really organic way.
Deshommes: There are so many opportunities to create great campaigns in the digital sphere, especially in the advent of the “share” capability through Facebook, Twitter, etc. Now you can share an article or promote a preorder campaign on several platforms with one click. Also, because we have access to what others are doing to promote products, it gives us other ideas on how to improve or tweak our campaigns, which will hopefully result in increased awareness and sales. Social media is this era’s amplified word of mouth.
The Downsides of Social Media
We asked each respondent about the challenges of using social media.
Deshommes: Things change so quickly in social media. What is hot today will be lukewarm tomorrow, and it is a job in itself just to keep up with the trends. When you work in the digital space you tend to lose the personal, human touch to things. Back in the day, you could take the time to meet people and have lunch (and had an expense account to do so!). Now, time is at a premium, budgets are small, and we are publishing more books and have to come up with innovative outside-the-box campaigns to reach the proper audience. I’m not saying everything is done over email, but I can tell you I have more meetings now via Skype and conference lines, and correspond more via email than over the phone and in person. Also, sometimes we forget there is a segment of the population that doesn’t participate in social media. I have a bunch of friends who refuse to create Facebook profiles or who don’t “get” Twitter or Instagram. Many find it too time-consuming, so how do you reach those people? That is the challenge.
Trotman: The disadvantages are probably most related to the fact that “traditional publishing” doesn’t really care that much about what goes on online, or dealing with a creator who just doesn’t like or use social media. These days people essentially expect to have direct access to the creator of media they enjoy, and if a creator isn’t enthusiastically cooperative, it can genuinely hurt sales outcomes.
Hilton: Though we can control our messaging, we are not always able to control the comments and reaction of the audience. You want to protect the author and their work; however, in the age of social media everyone has a voice and an opinion.
Ahmad: Our authors tend to be a passionate, outspoken bunch—and can generally hold their own on social media as well as in the real world. But there’s a difference between engaging in a heated argument online and fending off outright trolls, the latter of which are seldom worth engaging with.
Hilton: The best way to handle social media trolls is to not respond. You do not want to find yourself in a social media war with someone who only has 50 followers. You create a bigger problem for yourself and a larger audience for them.
Beyond Twitter and Facebook
We asked the respondents which other platforms their promotional efforts engage with.
Ahmad: We’re absolutely engaged on visual platforms like Instagram and YouTube. Since three-quarters of our releases are text-based literary works, we have to think creatively about our promotion over these platforms. During Black History Month, we paired poignant quotations from the likes of Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and Nina Simone with haunting black-and-white portraits of each of them. While these posts didn’t directly involve our publications, we were able to engage with people meaningfully. You can’t just pimp your product all day across your various networks. But if you’re participating in a larger cultural conversation, then perhaps you’ll gain a new follower. We’re also blessed to have some crazy-savvy authors who know how to really work Instagram: it’s not hard to like a badass photo of Chris Rock or Spike Lee or Common holding up a copy of Nelson George’s latest crime novel.
Duncan: Instagram especially is one of our strongest and most crucial platforms for marketing and promotion. We use YouTube and Snapchat frequently as well, but less so than the others—mainly due to resources. As with Facebook and Twitter, we do a fair amount of social media advertising on Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat. And that’s one way we reach African-American audiences.
Hilton: In publishing, there are “bookstagrammers” who create great visual content that performs well with engagement and shares, such as Well Read Black Girl and Noir Reads [communities]. We work closely with high-trafficked Instagram and Snapchat “bloggers” to cross-promote content. Often times, we send social media bloggers packages that can be used for giveaways for their audience, which drives traffic to their pages but also creates awareness and engagement with our books! We use Instagram stories, because these videos delete after 24 hours and we have the ability to be more fun and engage with our fans in a more colloquial way. The audiences on both Instagram and Snapchat scale younger, and they appreciate less commercial advertisements. During Kevin Hart’s I Can’t Make This Up book tour, we created Snapchat filters for each city that allowed the audience to engage with the book and promote to their circle of influence. It’s critical to research who the top Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube users are within the African-American community to cross-promote.
Social Media and the Backlist
We asked each respondent about an instance when broader social media conversations led to increased interest in a backlist title.
Ahmad: In January, there was the unlikely serendipity of Akashic publishing Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn, a collection of speeches that the great abolitionist gave in Akashic’s home borough between 1859 and 1893, only to have the president of the United States remark at a Black History Month event that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more”—giving the distinct impression that the president doesn’t know his history and thought he was speaking about a living person. Talk about a ready-made social media campaign!
Deshommes: I often get media requests for Nobody author Marc Lamont Hill, especially when there is unfortunately another police-involved shooting or there is an update on the Flint crisis, both of which are discussed at length in the book. Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar [the story of Ona Judge, George Washington’s runaway slave] saw a bump in sales and interest when the POTUS made a snide statement about doing away with monuments of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton because they owned slaves.
Duncan: Because of the current political environment, more people do seem to be finding novelist Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower [about society collapsing in the wake of destructive climate change], and that’s a good thing.
We asked Trotman, whose company funds its projects using Kickstarter, and Atwell, who works for the crowdfunding site, about how the method of fund-raising is affected by social media.
Trotman: Without fail, my Kickstarter campaigns get most of their funding from social media—Twitter first, then Facebook. But after Facebook and Twitter, I give a lot of attention to my mailing list. The Iron Circus mailing list is about 8,000 people strong; it grows after every project, as I ask backers to opt in during fulfillment. It’s a reliable source of repeat backers.
Atwell: Kickstarter allows people to build a direct connection even more than social media: they pledge their money to help you make something, in essence saying “I believe in you.” To be given that money and that faith by your fans is very empowering. On social media, there’s not enough space or context; with Kickstarter, the creator gets to tell their story in video, text, and through updates and rewards they send to backers.
It’s actually not disruptive to publishing–it’s a tool that fits very well into the process, with the added benefits of helping to raise money. If you launch a Kickstarter project nine to 18 months before publication, you create a community and bring them along for a ride, then you send the book out to true believers before it comes out. I hope publishers will use it more.
Click here for separate listings of Notable, Adult and Children’s African American Titles.