Mark Twain famously said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” I would argue that same degree of difference applies to the terms “writer” and “author.” While the words often are used interchangeably, they actually represent two distinct jobs with two distinct skill sets and mindsets. For writers who want to make the most of their “newly published” status, the following insights may help.
Leave your (writer’s) ego at the door.
If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard writers complain about how much they dislike the idea of promoting their work, I’d never run out of money for the parking meter. Promotion is a big part of an author’s job description, so if you’re one of those people who looks down on publicity efforts, consider an attitude adjustment. In fact, “selling” your book can be a pleasure, even if you’re an introvert – and even if you’re a bit of a snob. The key is to focus on the fact that you are not so much hawking a book as you are sharing a story or information that obviously means a great deal to you. (Otherwise, why did you write the book in the first place?) Consider promotion a favor to your future writer self: The more you – the author – help to sell your current book, the more you – the writer – are likely to sell your next book to a publisher.
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No, you are not just being a pest.
OK, maybe your publisher would rather you didn’t “check in” so much once your edited manuscript enters production. But know that your job as an author starts well before your launch date, and you owe it to your book to make sure everything is on track (and to your liking) during both the production stage and during those crucial months before its release. That is not to say we shouldn’t assume the professionals working on our behalf aren’t doing their jobs, but then again, mistakes can – and do – happen. I have followed up with a production manager only to discover my soon-to-be-printed back cover had the wrong descriptor copy. I’ve also had to remind a forgetful publicist that a major magazine (People) was still awaiting the advance copy it had requested for a review weeks earlier. So, yes, check in with your publisher early and often, but be ready to offer solutions, not screeds, if they’ve made a blunder.
Understand that whatever your publisher does to promote your book, it will not be enough.
If you’re working with a traditional publisher, you likely have high expectations. Maybe you envision an advance copy of your book on the reviewer’s desk at every major newspaper. Or you assume your publicist is already setting up your national book tour. Perhaps these fantasies were what motivated you to keep working during your darkest days as a writer. But now, as an author, the time has come to face reality.
Certainly, your publishing house will relegate some of its limited time and resources to create awareness for your title, but that effort is usually a fraction of what you anticipate as an author. As such, you need to commit to being a full partner in creating your own publicity machine. No, let me rephrase that: Unless you are the darling of your publishing house, you need to commit to doing the mother lode of publicity work. Your publisher will devote maybe three months max to your book (two of which will happen before its release), and then you are dead to them. (JK. Sort of.)
During those three short months, your publisher will also be promoting other titles that came out at the same time, and some of those other books may get more of your publicist’s attention, through no fault of your own. (Unless, of course, you failed to be a pest…or made yourself too big of a pest.)
In addition, your publicist is most likely to focus on garnering attention for your book through national media outlets (the book review section of major newspapers, NPR, the morning talk shows, etc.). It’s great if your publicist goes after these big fish, but her or his efforts are unlikely to produce a lot of results because these reviewers and interviewers are a shrinking breed, and the ones who remain are inundated with other brand-new books clamoring for the spotlight: Books by new authors like you. Books by Salman Rushdie. Books by some celebrity or controversial figure who can’t even write but is great at drawing viewers and readers. Take a moment to contemplate the unfairness of it all. Then accept this reality, as well as another brighter truth – that you, the author and the person most familiar and vested in your book, are in many ways your own best publicist.
Platform: A refresher course.
Chances are part of the reason you netted a book contract was because your book proposal convinced the sales and marketing folks at your publishing house that you have a strong platform. I’m sure writing that proposal now feels like ancient history, so let me remind you of your platform and what it means to you as an author. It means that you made a promise to your publisher that you are willing and able to promote your book through social media and other forms of mass communication; through reaching out to your personal and professional networks; through speaking engagements at a diversity of venues; and by walking around Times Square naked if it serves sales and doesn’t compromise your literary integrity.
Here are a few tips to help you make good on those promises:
- Reach out months in advance to print publications and organizations with long lead times.
- Personalize your pitches so the recipients know why you and your book are a good match for their audience.
- Expect to follow up at least twice before getting any responses.
- Don’t take it personally when 96 percent of the bookstores, media outlets, book bloggers, and other people and organizations you query never respond. Take heart that even a small-scale event, or the briefest mention on an obscure blog, creates a little more exposure for your book, and one of those mentions just may go viral.
Niche, niche, niche!
As an author, one of the things you can do better than your busy publicist is relate your excitement about your book and your passion for your subject to others who share your literary sensibilities and interests. In addition, targeting smaller segments of qualified readers is often more fruitful (and doable) than trying to garner national or broad-based publicity. So who exactly are your “best-bet” readers – those target audience(s) that most appreciate your genre, your topic, your voice, your themes? Don’t just answer in broad generalities (women readers of domestic fiction, for example); think in terms of niche audiences. For instance, if yours is a novel set in WWII Japan, consider talks at historical societies. If you have written a book on wellness, find regional radio programs that focus on health. If your book is a romance, look into the wealth of bloggers devoted to this genre.
Oh, and don’t forget those “comparables” you listed in your book proposal: those recent books you noted as similar to yours and which enjoyed good sales. As a writer, those comps served you well in reflecting the potential success of your book. Now, as an author, those comps can serve as a guide in pursuing the same types of publicity opportunities that the other titles enjoyed. (Just look on the “events” page of the author’s website for ideas.)
Get down to business.
It’s funny how a novelist can manage the difficult work of plotting out a 79,000-word narrative, or a nonfiction author can organize complex subject matter into palatable prose, and yet that same writer, now an author, can feel overwhelmed by the simple, mundane tasks required of promoting said book. Hey, as writers, we never claimed to be good administrative assistants. But alas, as authors, this is yet another hat we must wear.
To avoid being overwhelmed by who to pitch and how to pitch them, I recommend thinking small. Set a quota of two: Each day research just two potential resources for promoting your work. These could be bookstores. Your alumni magazine. A blogger friend who does reviews. Your local newspaper or library. An organization that welcomes lunchtime speakers. Then query those two resources and be done with publicity for the day (unless you are inspired to do more). At times, this may seem like slow progress, but eventually two plus two plus two can add up to success.
Remember when you were still an aspiring author, and real authors would talk about how publishing a book wasn’t all that it’s cracked up to be? Meanwhile, you would have traded your left thumb to hear a “yes” from an acquisitions editor. Well, now that you, too, are an actual author, you may better understand that anticlimactic feeling. Yes, publishing a book can be exhilarating. And with publication comes the potential for connecting with readers well beyond your spouse, your mother, and the other members of your long-standing writing group. You may even see some royalties come your way. But if and when the job of being an author – with its emphasis on marketing and publicity, sales figures, and Amazon rankings – starts to leave you disillusioned, the best thing you can do is to regularly revisit your old job, that of being a writer hard at work on your next book.
Joni B. Cole is the author of the new book Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier. She serves on the faculty of the creative writing program of the New Hampshire Institute of Art and is the founder of the Writer’s Center in White River Junction, Vermont. For more info, visit jonibcole.com.
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