It’s a familiar, lonesome cry, and one I hear often from indie and self-published authors: ‘I want to write books, but I HATE promoting them, why does it have to be all about promotion? It shouldn’t be a popularity contest! I just want to write, not take a degree in fucking marketing to get any sales! Ugh I hate promotion so muuuuchhh!’
We’ve all been there. And for the record, I agree, sometimes. It would be lovely to just focus on the writing part of making a book and not have to think about the selling part at all. But, and here’s a thing: nobody is forcing you to promote yourself. If you don’t want to and you don’t feel comfortable doing it, then…just don’t. The ‘You Didn’t Promote Your Book You Naughty Thing’ Police aren’t going to come knocking. Nothing bad will happen.
It’s just unlikely that, you know…you’ll sell many books. Because the basic laws of selling things indicate that No Promotion = Very Few Sales, even for established authors. It’s sort of just how it works, in my humble opinion based on extremely limited experience (which is a phrase I need to tattoo on my face to stave off snarky replies).
But actually, this could be okay. Not everything in life has to be about the commercials, and I have nothing but respect for that. If your main goal is to enjoy the craft, get immersed in the act of storytelling and not worry about what happens after you type ‘The End,’ then you can just keep doing what you’re doing. Enjoy the process. Enjoy rearranging the words, enjoy the feel of the manuscript in your hands, enjoy knowing you’ve completed a wonderful, highly personal thing, because writing a book is an incredible and unique act of construction that can be one of the most gratifying things on earth to participate in (ignoring that stodgy bit in the middle when it all feels about as gratifying as being slapped across the bum cheeks repeatedly with a thinly battered spiny cod). I often wish I could detach myself from the idea of what may or may not happen after I’ve finished a book to simply experience that raw joy properly again, and I have a feeling that at some point in my immediate future, I need to strip myself of all other considerations and focus purely on the words, nothing else. Immerse myself so completely that my next book just slips out of me like a tiny baby eel through a hole in a submerged rusty bucket (Jesus fucking Christ on a bike Gemma, these analogies are getting terrible). Write a book, and not worry about shifting copies after.
For me, at the moment, and I suspect for the majority of my career, whichever twists and turns it may take, self promotion is important. I do want to sell books. And maybe I’m making enormous sweeping assumptions here, but from what I can see of my author friends around me, I think most of you do too. We write a book, we bleed into a book, we put ourselves bare on the page in a book…it stands to reason that we want that book to sell. We want it to do well, we want it to accrue positive reviews and make people feel the things we felt whilst writing it and meet the characters we so lovingly imagined and breathed life into. We want to earn money from that book so we can write more books, because we feel like this is our life’s mission now- this thing we call writing. Because we made this. We’re proud of it. When we are proud of things, we want other people to experience them and maybe feel their own version of pride in that thing. People beyond our spouses and our Mums (although my Mum has never read any of my books, and for this I am rather grateful, because in her mind I am still ten years old I think and she likely wouldn’t sleep ever again if she did).
But, and here I circle back to the inescapable truth: very few books sell themselves.
Therefore, you gotta put the work in. Just like any business or endeavour, and without getting into any debates about The Hustle, and whether or not it is good or bad for us, the simple truth of the matter is that sometimes, yes, you need to apply yourself to hustling and bustling if you want to sell copies. It’s just how it works, and for the large part, I’m okay with knowing that.
And it’s not like I don’t get it. I do. It’s tedious at times, it really fucking is. Of course it is! It’s something I will openly admit I spend hours of my day thinking about and doing: marketing and self-promotion. If I had to split it percentage wise, a typical day for me is 30% creating and 70% selling myself in increasingly inventive ways whilst simultaneously trying not to gnaw my own fists off with how ughhhh it makes me feel.
And that leads me to the point of this post. How does one relentlessly self-promote and generate book sales without dying of ennui? Now that we’ve acknowledged we do actually have to from time to time. Well, I’m certainly no guru, but I do have some ideas for things that work for me, and in the spirit of encouraging other writers as much as humanly possible (and yes, that features further down too), then here we go. And yes, most of these relate to social media, with a heavy preference for Twitter, because that is where I am most active. And its worked for me so far, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it I guess.
Stop Talking About Yourself All The Damn Time
Hate talking about yourself?
It may come as a surprise, but if you feel like all you do is bang about yourself and your own books, then maybe that’s because that is all you do. And self-promotion isn’t always about you. It’s about other people. Make no sense? Think about it. Marketing is predicated upon understanding your target audience and ideal readership. And in our case, our target audiences are, unsurprisingly, people who love books. Not people who love YOU, per se. I mean, sure, some followers have definitely bought into YOU as an entity, a personality they enjoy interacting with and supporting. But this doesn’t mean the only thing they want to hear about is your books. They might, from time to time, enjoy hearing about other things. Like movies you’ve enjoyed, other writers they can follow and engage with, art that is particularly moving or inspiring, shit jokes, the weather, DOG PHOTOS, notable book birthdays, other birthdays in the community, events, podcasts, interviews…you get the idea. A well-placed post about something other than your book can give your readers, and you, a bit of a break. And the best thing about this? It stops feeling like a promotional carousel of death and starts feeling much more like an enjoyable day out at the races with a bunch of friends. It becomes more fun. And when you’re having fun, people respond to you differently. They engage more eagerly. They explore your output more keenly. They feel a stronger pull to you and affinity with what you’re trying to achieve. They might be tempted to look you up on places other than your social media profiles and find other ways of interacting with you, like your website, blog, newsletter if you have one, amazon page or goodreads profile. They might, eventually, decide to recommend you and your books to their friends and contacts if the topic comes up, which it often does.
Thinly concealed writerly angst aside, promotion and marketing is about community, at least it is for me, and for many other writers I surround myself with (this is not to say, at the risk of repeating myself, that this means it has to be for you. It just might help, is all). I think, ultimately, promotion is about immersing yourself in a world of other people and having conversations with peers, readers, artists, heroes, aspiring writers, reviewers, friends, and doing so much more than HELLO PLEASE CAN YOU BUY MY BOOK TODAY. Because it can all help the cause, it really can. Interested in British Folk Horror Cinema? Why not put a tweet out there declaring your love of said Thing and find some new friends who also love said Thing and who knows, maybe, by proxy, you might find your follower count improves, your profile is raised slightly, and eventually, this might mean your sales go up. Similarly, that other writer you know who has a new book out? Promote it for them! Shout about their books! Help a mofo out! Chances are, if you do, guess what? They’ll do the very same back! And this might, again, lead to more sales. And so it goes.
Think of yourself as being part of a pack. Because you are, really. There’s a lot of us writers out there, all doing the thing. It makes sense to treat them as allies, not enemies. And part of allyship is amplifying the voices of others. I’ve tried to do this as much as possible over time (although I miss so much these days due to workload and notifications not working properly), and one thing I noticed as the years passed is that the more I promoted the work of others, the better my own sales did. Bonkers but true. I’m not talking overnight, but given time. Because all things worth building take a little time, I guess.
Anyway the point to all this is that self-promotion doesn’t have to mean you only talk about yourself. It means varying the things you say and your interactions with others to create a more rounded picture of yourself to those around you. It means being part of a conversation, instead of delivering a monologue. This tends to be more effective than a rather two-dimensional approach that consists purely of links to your books and the same sales posts reshared dozens of times a day. You’ve got a personality outside of your writing, so lean into it- It’s also a lot less onerous, trust me.
Accept that Self-Promotion is Necessary and Okay and Drop the Fecking Stigma
And here’s where I try (and fail) not to sound cross. Because the number of people I witness banging the same tired, perforated old drum day in day out with weary, meek diligence and expecting different results staggers me. If it wasn’t working for you before, I am not sure doggedly recycling the same material will work in the future. But I suspect I know why people do this. It’s because many of us are stymied by self-awareness, embarrassment, exhaustion and a little shame that we are putting ourselves out there and asking someone else to reach into their pocket and buy our stuff. There is a weird stigma attached to self-promotion that inhibits how freely people feel they can advertise their own wares and drains our enthusiasm for it. And I hate it. It’s bullshit. It can fuck off into the sun and die a long and painful death. Selling something you made shouldn’t have a stigma attached. Books take hours and hours of dedication and hard work to bring into the world. Damn fucking straight I’m not ashamed of promoting any of those things I slogged so hard to bring to fruition. If you’ll excuse the vehement sweariness. I won’t repeat myself any more than I already have, because the lengthy intro pretty much dealt with this topic, but I will say this: IT IS PERFECTLY FINE AND VALID TO PROMOTE YOURSELF AND YOUR BOOK. Right? Right. Good. Glad we got that sorted. *cricks neck*
Think carefully about why your book is special
This is a big one for me. There’s an awful lot of books out there. When I see someone talking about theirs, I want to know why I should throw my money at it. Often, this gets overlooked in promotional efforts. What is the book actually about? Who is the protagonist, and will I identify with them? Does it deal with any themes or issues that matter to me? Is it a group effort from more than one author, and if so, who are they? Is it inspired by something in particular? If so, can I see the source of that inspiration, whether it is another book, a movie, a place you visited, a period in history, a true crime case? Are there other materials, books, blog posts, articles about that thing that I can read? I need to know these things, and often, digging into them in more depth can give you ideas for how to promote your book that you might not have thought about yet. You’re an expert in your own novel, so leverage that expertise and use it to curate your promotional activities. Thinking about how to sell the book will also help enormously when it comes to writing back cover copy, where you have to succinctly do the exact same thing- summarise the book and why anyone should ultimately purchase it. I hesitate to use the acronym USP, but I will anyway, because that’s kind of what it is- the unique reasons why a reader should pick up your work, and invest their time in it.
Invest in the best cover art you can and get visual
Again, I don’t want to be reductionist or imply that the only way to success is to drop a ton of money on something you can’t really afford, or to imply that if you don’t spend money on cover art your book will tank, because I am not saying that at all. I would never say that, because it would be bullshit and entirely against the spirit of this post. I am saying however that people on the whole, particularly potential readers, do tend to be visually driven and can respond really well to good cover art and it can be one of the most effective marketing tools at your disposal, particularly in an age of Instagram and Bookstagram. I’m looking at you Eric LaRocca, and for why, I’ll drop casually this here:
Suffice to say you got my attention, to the point where I damn near creamed myself, but enough about that. Sharing your eye-catching book cover and making a big deal about it and putting it at the centre of your promotional efforts is a brilliant way of grabbing attention and an actually extremely fun thing to do, marketing wise. Make a little ceremony of it- find a book blogger who might be willing to host a cover reveal, for example, or utilise the following of the artist you commission and juxtapose their efforts with your own strategy to get more eyes on your work. And keep sharing that cover, in a complete contradiction to what I said earlier about banging the same drum over and over, because, unlike other types of posts, it doesn’t seem to matter how many times you share images, people engage with them consistently well. The more times you get that image out there, the more people who will remember it when you come to launch, in my experience. I tend to leak cover designs as early as possible when talking about forthcoming books, because it cements the book’s identity in my reader’s minds collectively, and I keep drip-feeding it for weeks and months to come. This is also important, because, and I know this is shocking but- maybe, someone missed the first time you revealed your cover. Maybe they were out, or having their haircut, or cooking broccoli, or having a wee. Maybe you need to share things more than once because everyone works on different timelines and schedules and they don’t always match up with yours.
There are plenty of artists out there who specialise in working with self-published and indie authors at reasonable rates, or, if you have artistic predilections yourself, you can do what I did and learn, pretty quickly, how to make your own covers. I use a monthly version of photoshop, a scanner, a watercolour pad and some paints to create cover art and it saves me a lot of money when I think it is something I feel I can do justice to. When I don’t, or I want a particular look or feel beyond my abilities, I hire an artist, and then do the wraparound layout myself in photoshop to save a little money that way. There are lots of options and none of them that mean you have to have lots of cash, but what I would say is, if you can afford it, go the extra mile and splash out on that cover- it really should pay for itself. Books are absolutely one hundred percent judged by their covers and that’s because there are so many brilliant, gorgeous ones out there. And visual posts on social media are by far the most engaged with, so embrace it and think about instagram seriously too.
With that in mind, a few things to think about when commissioning cover art and then promoting the book:
- Will the cover be eye-catching in thumbnail size? Because that’s how it will show on a lot of platforms.
- High contrast images work better for social posting- reverse white text on colour, or large fonts, bright palettes, clever font positioning, and simple, effective layouts.
- GLOSS COVERS ARE HELL TO TRY AND PHOTOGRAPH so do yourself a favour and go for matte.
The visual side of things doesn’t have to stop with the cover itself. It is super easy to make up a placard with a pic of your cover and some accompanying blurb, for example- here’s one I made in google slides, which is freeeee and was quite effective at raising awareness of my charity anthology WE ARE WOLVES– I did a series of these with different author blurbs.
You can also think about selfies, using bookstagrammer’s pictures of your books (always, always ask permission first and credit the original source), taking your books to cool locations and taking quirky pics there, pet pics with your books…it all sounds a bit wank, I know, but guess what? It works. Sorry.
Dial back on the self-pity and anger
I mean, I’m not your mum. But it feels self-explanatory to me, this one. I know we’re all human, and no one’s saying you can’t have a grumble from time to time. But, sigh. Enthusiasm begets enthusiasm, in my experience, and this is something people don’t acknowledge enough- that sometimes, being a PollyAnna is A-Okay. Because the world is a bit relentless and grim, innit? It’s nice to have a holiday from that, no matter how brief.
Reach out for help and endorsement and find a mentor
This is a tricky one to do sometimes, and doesn’t always work, largely because other writers have a lot to do, but think about what you are trying to achieve, and the sort of writer you want to be, and the way you want your books to be received, and the issues you think are holding you back the most, and then do some research on authors you think are getting it right, take a deep breath, bite the bullet, and ask them POLITELY for advice, or, if that is a possibility, for mentorship. Like I said, this one is nerve wracking and will often end with a polite ‘no’ or ‘have no time’ or even a lack of response altogether, but on other occasions, that person might give you a lovely long list of tips and tricks for how they marketed themselves and their works and this can be just the encouragement and motivation you need to immerse yourself in the racket again. If advice is not on the table, consider asking for a blurb for your forthcoming project, although make sure you give the author you are asking a lot of time. And don’t stop at just one- why not five, or six? Not only can these blurbs make up some lovely promotional ground for you, but the chances are, the people blurbing your book will also be promoting it for you once they realise how damn good it is- its about using the idea of a network and community again to put down as many roots as humanly possible. Also, collaborations and projects with more than one author, like anthologies or novels written by several authors have the same advantages- multiple people singing the same tune and amplifying your material. So if you’re finding yourself stuck and feeling a bit alone in your promotional efforts, reach out. It can make the world of difference.
Try and have fun
Run a competition for a free copy of your book, or for someone to die a grisly death as a character in your book, or do a giveaway of someone else’s book, or run a poll, jump on clubhouse and get involved in a conversation about obscure 1970’s Italian revenge-slashers, join a writing course or seminar online and get involved in the group chat if there is one, embrace shit dad jokes, ask questions to things you’re genuinely interested in and try and keep a conversation about it going, host a live Q&A (these work well for me on my facebook page, and particularly well if I spend a week beforehand asking for questions to answer during the live Q&A), write a movie review, share a recipe, host a virtual noir at the bar, cosplay as a character in your book or someone else’s, interview a writer you admire on your youtube channel or podcast or blog, write a tongue-in-cheek article about something that matters to you, fuck around with poetry or flash fiction hashtags, make musical playlists to show people what you are writing to, or ask for recommendations…basically, try and cater to your basic needs as a human when using your socials to sell yourself and again, as with the other recommendations here, you tend to find that slowly, slowly, if you’re enjoying yourself, other things follow. Your confidence, for one thing. It gets easier to ask people to purchase things if you are in the flow and aren’t constantly apologising for asking people to purchase things. The more fun you have, the more you relax. The more you relax, the easier it gets. Promise.
Don’t give up
So you launched your book.
You put your baby out there, heart in mouth, and you waited to see what would happen.
And the answer was…nothing.
So you gave up.
Oh, wait up. No you didn’t.
No you fucking didn’t.
You kept going. You kept pushing. You set aside some good time every day to think about self-promotion. You reached out to bloggers and book reviewers, politely and always with an eye to their submission guidelines and reading policies. You looked for podcasts who might be accepting guests, you looked for pages and groups where self-promotion was welcomed and made a list, targeting them each in turn. You prepared a little press release email to news outlets you thought might take an interest. You made a book trailer. You recorded yourself reading excerpts. You sent out review copies and asked for blurbs, then asked the people who blurbed you to help spread the word. You got involved in conversations about things that mattered to you, you made sure you held up others as you wanted to be held up yourself. You did this day in, day out, until the book slowly started to get some traction. Then you realised that marketing and promotion is a war of attrition, and you kicked yourself for giving up after the first failed damp squib attempt. You realised that not many of us hit the ground running, and that this game is all about tenacity, so you kept going at it, consistently and with focus and a strategy, even if that strategy was only written on the back of a soggy beer-mat, at least it was written down, and it paid off. Eventually, it did.
And then one day, you saw someone voicing the same frustrations you held, back in the day, and you didn’t move past it. You supported them as others supported you, and you felt pretty decent about it, too. And you got used to playing the game, even though we all know the game is exhausting and pretty demoralising at times, because the rewards are worth it, and the highs are just as gratifying as the lows.
Or maybe that’s just me.