This series of blog posts the last couple of months has explored the challenges the indie author faces in marketing and distributing his books, and the toll this takes on an author who just wants to write. Not only does this [marketing and promotion] take a lot of energy and perseverance, it is exhausting emotionally – the proverbial fear of rejection, or actual rejection! No wonder most authors want to avoid all this.
Getting your books from your printer to your customer is a two-stage problem: first, the distribution channels (press to vendor, vendor to customer, payment), and second, the marketing modes – letting your customer know how to find your distribution channel and your books.
In previous posts we talked about the various distribution channels the author needs to establish to make sales: Retailers – whether on-line ordering (Amazon), big box stores (Indigo, even Costco and Walmart) or Indie bookstores; Book Fairs; and direct sales (the trunk of your car). Even so, the author (or his publisher if he has one) has to find ways to entice the potential buyer to the store. We’ve already talked about the primary tools in the author’s ‘getting-the-word-out’ kit: social media and newsletters; TikTok, or not.
Here are a few other marketing vehicles we’ve tried: book clubs, public libraries, book reviews, and, advertising. These methods may not produce direct sales, necessarily, but they may generate interest.
The marketing strategy here is to attempt to lever the word-of-mouth angle (‘word on the street’?), by far the most effective method to draw attention to your book. It’s one thing to tickle somebody’s fancy on TikTok, it’s another thing to get that amused potential buyer to become an actual buyer; she needs one more bit of encouragement. A person is much more likely to buy your book if her friend recommended it than if she only saw a video. You need to get people talking about your book, and then friends telling their friends about it.
So how do you create ‘buzz’ about your book, besides producing a killer sm post and watching it go viral’ (which might be all that happens, a popular post but no sales of your book; surprise, surprise, it’s only virtual, it’s not actual.) How do you get people interested in your book?
People like to know what other people think. They don’t quite trust their own judgment, so they turn to others for their opinion. On-line retailers reinforce this by providing a process for customers to leave reviews of the product (toasters, tvs, books). So, the author tries to get as many people as possible to write a review of his book and post it to as many bookish places as possible:
Even before the book is published, naturally, the author solicits beta reviews and displays them as blurbs on the cover and the inside pages of his book. Next, these blurbs and reviews are put up on the author’s and publisher’s websites where the book has been launched.
Next, you solicit readers’ reviews and get them to post on retailers’ pages – Amazon, Lulu, Goodreads; you’re not allowed to post reviews yourself. (Recall the old political joke: be sure to vote, often.) You begin by persuading family and friends to post a review of your book (preferably after having read it.). It’s also useful if they also bought a copy (any revenue is better than none) – the friend is more committed to helping you if they bought the book than if you bribed him by giving him a copy). The next step, posting a review, is not as easy as it sounds. People are reluctant to post reviews (especially if they didn’t really like your book but, being an f&f, don’t want to hurt your feelings). Moreover, many of your friends don’t feel adequate in writing a review, and lastly, most of these bookish and retail sites require that you sign up first and many folks prefer their privacy; and who can blame them?
Fourth, but most powerful, is to get book reviews in various print or broadcast media: the Globe & Mail Review of Books, the CBC (Writers & Company with Eleanor Wachtel; The Next Chapter with Sheila Rogers; Canada Reads). This last step is hard – not only is it intimidating to try to contact these major media players, it’s also likely they will ignore you if you are an unknown aspiring author, not yet even emerging. The likelier path is to start small, even local, and get some traction there. I thought I might persuade the Kingston Whig Standard to interview me and write an article, levering the notion of the locale of The Treasure of Stella Bay (Amherst Island is near Kingston). So far I haven’t got past the Postmedia gates. I’ve also flirted with Amherst Island radio station CJAI, 103.1 FM, but that hasn’t got me off the island.
There are lots of commercial promoters who offer to review your books and post on various social media, for a fee. Some of them are based in India. I subscribed to one of them once, on Twitter; results, zilch.
You may not sell books to book club members (or maybe you will – they’re supposed to have read your book to discuss it) but a dozen book club members may talk about your book with their friends outside the book club. This is even more the case if the book club invites the author to the meeting. Book clubs of course are more likely to want to discuss an NYT Best Seller List book, or the Canada Reads winner, but they also like the idea of an actual author coming to their meeting, even if only an emerging local author.
I’ve done two such book club sessions and they were pleasant affairs. In both cases the host was a friend of mine and had already agreed to recommend my book to the club. They bought copies of my book in advance and most seem to have actually read it. They asked the expected questions: ‘Why did you write this book (about Poodles)’?, ‘How did you get started writing?’, ‘Does it hurt the puppies when their tales get docked?’) but I’m not sure how much they talked about me and my book(s) after the meeting, so I’m uncertain how much these sessions influenced further sales of my books. Not much I hazard.
For this strategy to work you need to go to a lot of book clubs. The question is, how does an emerging writer get invited to book clubs other than through family and friends? It’s obvious that most book clubs will want to read and discuss a known book and they don’t usually have enough influence to invite the ‘best-selling’ author to come and chat about their book. The confident club can reach out and invite the author, but why would he come? – he’s already sold thousands of copies and has reviews in the Washington Post – word of mouth marketing is already working for him. Maybe there should be a book club registry where budding authors can go and propose themselves.
I put this question to Terry Fallis, ‘bestselling’ Canadian author after reading his recent Substack post on the topic; he has done dozens and hundreds of book club engagements. Here’s what he had to say:
‘Hi Doug. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think a register of book clubs is a great idea. Or how about a separate tag on Goodreads for books whose author would like to visit book clubs. That way book clubs could call up a listing of those books and authors by their location to facilitate contact. As well, most public libraries often have several book clubs. So making sure your book is in libraries might also help. You could also inform library branches of your willingness to present at book club meetings. All the best with your book. In the end, word of mouth is a very powerful force. Terry’
And speaking of libraries, some of my books are there. The Treasure of Stella Bay is in the Kingston Public Library, Limestone PL, and the Ottawa Public Library. (Hey, maybe I should take up Fallis’ idea and contact those libraries about their local book clubs…) Travels With Myself is in the OPL as well.
Libraries are not great customers for authors – after all, they may only buy one copy of your book and lend it out to a dozen members. The Ottawa PL doesn’t even buy your books – they’re happy to represent local authors so long as the author donates the book. Still, if the book is borrowed by the adventuresome reader, and she likes the book enough to tell her friends, well, more curious readers will seek it out. If they are unwilling to wait until the lent-out book is returned, perhaps they will visit their local bookstore, or on-line.
Advertising isn’t exactly word of mouth marketing but it does potentially juice the system. If people see your ad, and are stimulated by it, they may be induced to actually buy a copy. And they may talk to their friends about your book, or at least about your ad. The hoped-for word of mouth multiplies. Some ad campaigns are even based on a simulated spread-the-word sequence – movies are often promoted this way.
The trick with advertising though is frequency – people need to see it a lot before it sticks. So the ad needs to run often on tv, or even radio, and certainly on social media. Continuous exposure can also be obtained with a static ad – think billboards (talk about old tech!), and bus signs and bench boards.
But ads cost money, a lot of money. I considered placing a bill-board ad (Creative Outdoor Advertising) at a bus-stop on a popular route – $780/year! That would mean I’d need to sell maybe 1000+ copies to cover the costs of the ad. Hmmm. My timid attempt on Facebook cost $25 for ten days within a 50-mile radius, with nothing to show for it. Maybe I needed to put up more dramatic ads for 30 days, across North America, 2 or 3 times, to get any real hits. But this would cost hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars or more. And that’s a lot of books. The big publishing companies seem to have figured this out – do you remember seeing ads in the newspapers for books? No? Me neither. I guess that answers the question: advertising (at least for books) does not juice the word of mouth method for selling books.
Who knew marketing books would be so hard? I guess we need to give those marketing folks more credit. And more budget.
Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Trece Martires, The Philippines
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