When Seattle-based author Lyanda Lynn Haupt published her latest book, Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit, in the spring of 2021, she wasn’t quite sure how to get word of it to readers in the midst of a pandemic. The usual bookstore tours and conferences weren’t happening. “It caught me off guard,” she says.
“I realized I’d have to do some things a little bit differently than with my previous books.”
Haupt and her publisher sent notes and advance copies of the book “to people in the world that I thought were kindred spirits, people that I knew or didn’t know, who might enjoy the book and share it in turn.” She didn’t ask for anything in particular; nevertheless, people shared the book on their social media feeds, reviewed it in key places, and wrote magazine profiles of her.
“People are so generous,” she says. “Other writers who are also attempting to bring out books during a pandemic are really sympathetic to how we need to be there for one another.”
Enter the DIY launch team. In traditional publishing, many authors receive an in-house publicist (or several) tasked with generating pre-publication book reviews, media appearances, social media campaigns, and other forms of outreach. However, if your book isn’t front and center on the publisher’s list that season, it may languish on the shelf unless you take a proactive approach to creating your own launch team. As every self-published author knows, family members and colleagues can be enormously beneficial in letting readers know about a new title.
Start a year before your release date
Suzanne Brown, author of The Mompowerment Guide to Work-Life Balance: Insights from Working Moms on Balancing Career and Family and Mompowerment: Insights from Successful Professional Part-Time Working Moms Who Balance Career and Family, believes that when authors are launching a new book, they need an existing platform, an email list, and launch team. As part of her research, she interviewed over 100 professional working moms. “The first step was reaching out to this group to ask them to share the book with their own networks,” she says. “I also reached out to my own business network and friends. And I shared in several groups on Facebook and LinkedIn where I’m active and the members are similar to my audience.”
She explains that the idea was to get working moms – and some working dads – to share her books with their own networks who might be dealing with similar challenges.
She posted social media “tiles” (informational graphics related to her book) on her website, so that members of her launch team could easily download what they needed. “That way, whoever was active on Facebook had a few options to choose from Facebook, those active on LinkedIn had options for LinkedIn, etc.,” she explains. “The idea was to give the launch team options on the platform(s) of their choice. The social media tiles we created were bright and eye-catching yet professional, with a similar color scheme to the books. I wanted designs that people would want on their own social media accounts and professional accounts on LinkedIn.”
She gave members of her launch team plenty of time to read her new book before she asked them to start promoting it. Many professional publicists suggest that authors create a launch team as well as assign specific tasks a year in advance of the release date.
When author Jeff Sweat decided a couple of months before publication to hire a publicist to help the team at Macmillan get the word out about his debut YA novel, Mayfly, he realized he should have been interviewing professionals six months to a year before the day his book hit the shelves. He recalibrated and enlisted a quick-thinking launch team comprised largely of colleagues he’d met in his work as a publicist himself.
One of the members was his nephew, employed by the film industry. With him, Sweat created a social media-driven scavenger hunt called Mayfly Quest in which they altered Google Maps with 360-degree virtual reality images of Los Angeles landmarks similar to those in his apocalyptic thriller. Clues to what caused the end of the world appeared on Twitter and Instagram; players could redeem them on his website for bonus writing content and book-related swag.
The launch team was instrumental in making the scavenger hunt a success; in addition, Sweat asked all of his friends to order Mayfly on Amazon on the same day. “It was No. 1 in popular post-apocalyptic fiction for a couple of days,” he says. “I also asked them to post reviews on places like Amazon or Goodreads. If you can get at least 50 reviews, then you start to show up higher in their searches. What I found was that there are all sorts of people who have never had a friend who’s an author, and they’ll do all sorts of things to help a book launch.”
The marketing for his first book took a toll on both his physical and mental health, so he dialed back a bit when Macmillan released Scorpion – the second book in his Mayfly series – in the midst of the pandemic. His teen daughter’s theater performances were canceled, so he worked with her and her actor friends to do a staged online reading from the new novel. Several teens performed scenes together, and some chose apocalyptic backgrounds as they performed, in keeping with the apocalyptic theme.
“It was a fun way to bring the story to life that didn’t cost anything, but people loved it,” he says. “As an author, whenever you can step out from the usual playbook, you have a chance to get people’s attention and get them to think about your book in a new way.”
Find launch team members on social media
Malibu-based author Jennifer Brody, who also writes under the pseudonym Vera Strange, looked to friends and colleagues who’d self-published when Turner Publishing released her debut novel, The 13th Continuum, in 2016. She’d heard horror stories about authors with books that went nowhere because of lack of publicity, and she was determined to make her own experience more successful. “I’m also so impressed by self-published authors and how hard they work, as if they’re running a small business,” she says. “I’ve really tried to learn from the people who are succeeding in that space and doing it all on their own.
“One of the first things you need to do is build a mailing list of friends, family, and anyone else who would be interested in the book you’re writing,” she says. These are different readers, she explains, than those your publisher might reach out to. “Set up a webpage or a Facebook group so people can sign up to be on your launch team, and make people feel special,” she advises authors.
She sent members of her launch team T-shirts or canvas bags printed with the book cover and title. She also worked with her publisher to create advance review copies of the book, which included a special message that appeared at the front. “So they got a personalized message from me, thanking them and talking about how excited I was about the book.” Members of her launch team took photos of themselves with the review copies, the tote bags, the T-shirts, and posted them on social media with a hashtag specific to her book.
She agrees with Sweat that marketing needs to start six months to a year ahead of the publication date. “It’s important for authors to do a lot these days,” she says. “You can’t just sign a book contract and sit back and think that the publisher is going to do it all. Authors need to hustle and do as much as they can on their own and coordinate with the publisher to get their name out there and get the books out there.” With subsequent books, she’s also done Instagram-focused launches, teaming up with people who review books on YouTube and on blogs and vlogs.
Markita Staples Green, author and illustrator of the Curly Crew series, also uses social media to build contacts who can help her promote her latest title. “Each time I release a new book, I reach out to my launch team,” she explains. “I started building this team with my first book, and it was a private Facebook group consisting of 30 people, [my] family and friends. The list now includes over 300 people and consists of readers, fellow authors, and my personal network.”
Her network provides feedback on early drafts, shares her book launch information among their own communities, and buys her books. “It’s a great resource, and I’m grateful to have their support,” she says.
Virtual events inspire launch teams around the country
Haupt is used to being able to read a room during live events when she’s promoting a book. During the pandemic, she found virtual events to be more challenging.
“During in-person events, I’ll respond to what people in the audience are paying attention to, or I’ll talk more about something or less about something or read more or less in response to how the room feels,” she explains. “We just don’t have that online. But what we do have is a sense of community. Almost all of my virtual book talks have been in conversation with someone else.”
Many of these people were instrumental in helping her to get the word out about Rooted. Over the past year, she’s been reaching out to other authors, and they’ve appeared online together to discuss her newest book. “What was wonderful about that was that I could be in Seattle and in conversation with [biologist and author] David George Haskell, who was in Georgia,” she says. “Or when I went to my daughter’s college graduation in the Hudson Valley, I had to do a virtual book talk. I’m from Seattle, but I was in New York. I was in conversation with an author in Minnesota, and the bookstore was in Napa. It was kind of miraculous, right?”
Whether you create a launch team made up of friends and family members and colleagues all over the globe or stay local with a group who helps you throw an amazing in-person party along with a string of bookstore and library events, watching a group of writers gather to lift each other up can, indeed, look like a miracle.
“What I’ve observed during the release of Rooted is a community informed by presence and generosity,” Haupt says. “There’s a real sense of paying it forward among authors and book people.”
—Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. Instagram/Twitter: @WildMelissaHart