This past spring, my first book, a young adult novel named The History of Hilary Hambrushina, was published by Iguana Books, a Toronto-based hybrid publisher. Hybrid publishers represent a third way, a cross between traditional and self-publishers. Like a traditional publisher, Iguana maintains high quality standards and will not publish manuscripts that do not meet those standards. Like a self-publisher, Iguana does not include free marketing in the services it provides for authors. Instead, authors are responsible for promoting their own books.
After having successfully raised money for my book’s publication costs through crowdfunding (see my earlier two-part article on crowdfunding), I turned my attention to marketing. I wasn’t a total greenhorn. I’d been running a freelance editing business for seven years, which necessitated some self-promotion. But for me, marketing was always the grimy other side of the coin to the polished artisanship of writing and editing. During my years in Ryerson University’s Publishing Program, I studiously avoided all the marketing and sales courses. I wanted to focus on the careful crafting of books, not on the dirty, cutthroat business of selling them.
But once my book was in the process of being published, I had to accept the grime and begin navigating the treacherous waters of selling. However, Iguana didn’t just toss me off the pier and walk away. My contact there suggested that we have a phone conversation with a colleague of hers who had marketing experience. In it, they sketched out a rough map of the marketing ocean, highlighting some of the islands at which I should stop. The planning of the route, the paddling, and the embarking and disembarking were all up to me, though.
The Internet offers a cornucopia of information about marketing for writers. Some fruits appear multiple times in the cornucopia. For example, many wonderful articles have been published about the importance of having an eye-catching, informative website and becoming social media savvy. In this article, I’ll focus on some of the smaller fruits that remain hidden in the middle or at the back of the horn of plenty, as well as on the arrangement of the fruits in the basket—that is, on marketing as a process.
Here are ten tips I’ve learned in my marketing journey with a hybrid publisher.
1. Give yourself as much time as possible: If you’re being published by a company that doesn’t provide marketing services, chances are that the publisher is either a hybrid or self-publisher. Therefore, you probably have at least some sway over the publication date. You may be tempted to set the earliest possible date so that you can send your masterpiece out into the world immediately and begin bragging to everyone you know about your book’s being on Amazon. But doing so is rarely a wise marketing strategy, especially for an unknown author whose book doesn’t yet have any buzz surrounding it.
Marketing is multi-faceted. Not only are there many islands to explore, but these islands are all part of archipelagoes, and each island in the archipelago must be visited or at least considered for a visit. For example, when Iguana advised me to “go on Facebook,” I had many more tasks to complete than simply signing up for an account. In fact, before I even signed up, I needed to decide which type of page I wanted: business or personal. Then, I faced a multitude of decisions about my friending policy, my security settings, the tone of my posts, and the amount of control I wanted to grant to others (would they be allowed to initiate or only respond to posts on my wall?).
Every aspect of marketing is a journey in itself. So allowing yourself enough time to formulate and execute a marketing plan before publication is crucial. Six months is the average time that a writer must wait after publication before receiving the first royalties cheque. If you rush to publication and haven’t had time to spread the word about your book, you’re unlikely to garner many sales, which could mean a delay in receiving payment. You’ve already worked so hard to get your book published, so why not start earning money as soon after publication as you can?
Even more sobering is the possibility of your book going out of print after only a short time in print. Most publishers, including hybrid publishers, have a clause in their author contract stating that if sales fall below a certain threshold, the publisher will cease to print copies of the book. Garnering sales can be a slow process because you often have to try various marketing initiatives to see which ones are most fruitful for you. If you wait until after publication to begin marketing, you risk having very low sales over the first few months or even year, which could put further printing of your book in jeopardy. The few months before publication are a precious time to get a jump on your book promotion.
Start your marketing at least six months in advance. If that means postponing the publication date, do so. Production wise, my book was ready to be published at the end of February. But I wasn’t ready. Fortunately, in earlier consultation with the publisher, I had chosen May 31 as the publication date, which gave me an extra three months of marketing time. By the time that date arrived, I felt comfortable knowing that I had made a push to spread the word about The History of Hilary Hambrushina.
2. Talk to someone before you start formulating your marketing plan: If you push your boat out before making a map, you’ll quickly become lost at sea. But even creating a map is tricky for a newbie cartographer. Speak with an experienced mapmaker who can give you an idea about how to chart your course. For me, this person was my Iguana contact’s colleague. If your publisher cannot provide any advice about marketing, seek that guidance elsewhere.
Chances are excellent that you know someone who knows someone with marketing experience. If you’ve successfully crowdfunded your book’s publication costs, the network you’ve built during your campaign will come in handy now. If you’re lucky, you may know someone who works in marketing or publicity. But people who have some background in promotion, even if they’re not marketers per se, may be helpful. Maybe the daughter of a friend took a marketing course in her publishing program and would be glad of the opportunity to hone her skills by assisting a newly published author. Or perhaps a colleague’s spouse had a book published and can offer his perspective. However, ensure that whoever you choose does have marketing experience, preferably with books. Many well-meaning people will give you ideas, solicited or not, for promoting your book. But when you’re beginning your marketing, you need to first talk to someone who’s been out on the ocean, however briefly.
If your circle of acquaintances doesn’t yield fruit or you want further advice, consider taking a seminar or reading a book. I picked up some good tips at a morning-long course from the Toronto-based Canadian Children’s Book Centre titled “The Business of Writing: Selling Your Books, Selling Yourself.” The newer and more convenient cousin of seminars, webinars, ensures that as long as you have Internet access, living outside a large metropolis is no barrier to availing yourself of educational opportunities. Shop around online and look for marketing courses aimed at writers and offered by professional institutions such as universities or writers’ groups.
With all the advice about marketing for writers available online and in print, you may be wondering why you should bother having an information interview with a marketer or spending money on a course or book. But before you begin reading articles, knowing where to start is essential. If you don’t which islands are out there, how will you know which travel guides to read?
3. Make and remake a to-do list: Once you’ve spoken with a cartographer, sketch out a plan for which islands to visit in which order, and revise the plan as many times as you need to.
Most people work better having a written plan for major endeavours. I’m no exception, and as an indexer, I love lists. So after speaking with Iguana about marketing, I saved a new copy of the notes I’d typed during the meeting and began putting tasks in the order in which they needed to be completed. At first, I grouped tasks under different headings such as Author Website, Social Media, Readings and Bookstores, and Other. Although this was visually pleasing because the to-do list was not presented as one big chunk, the presentation was impractical because it meant that I had to look under multiple categories to figure out what my next marketing task was. So I collapsed all the categories and simply made a long list. For every completed task, I wrote “done” in uppercase pink letters at the end of the line (or “n/a” in red letters if I’d decided not to pursue the task). For ease, I highlighted in blue the tasks that I needed to perform next.
You may prefer to group tasks by category, or perhaps you’d rather use an Excel spreadsheet or pen and paper instead of a Word document. Experiment with different list formats and find what works for you. Regardless of format, include timelines for completion of a given task. Return to your list every time you work on your marketing, and refine it by adding, deleting, or moving tasks around.
4. Realize the limitations of non-traditional publishers: Sadly, books from self-publishers, independent publishers, and hybrid publishers are not welcome in some quarters. If you attempt to land on those islands, you’ll encounter hostile inhabitants who will bar your ship from entering the port.
This fact didn’t come up during my marketing conversation with Iguana. Instead, my status as authora non grata was a distressing lesson I learned soon after I began researching book bloggers to whom I could send my novel for review. Some bloggers state in their review policy that they won’t consider self-published books. Because of its newness and connection with self-publishing, hybrid publishing is equally suspect in some quarters, and books published by such companies are lumped in with self-published books.
I wish I had a way of busting open these ports, Commodore Perry style, but I don’t. You’re better served by advice warning of the existence of these islands and suggesting that you move on. As an individual writer, especially a new one, you’re unlikely to change anyone’s mind about non-traditional publishing. More likely, your impassioned pleas and carefully reasoned arguments will annoy bloggers. This anger is justifiable. After all, you wouldn’t send a query about a romance novel to a blogger who specifically states that she does not review romance novels, so the same applies to non-traditionally published books. Also, book bloggers are a close-knit community. They talk to one another. If you send too many “will you make an exception for me because my book is awesome?” emails, you might be pegged as an obtuse pain who wastes bloggers’ time because he doesn’t read review policies properly. And as someone trying to promote your book, you definitely don’t want that reputation.
The tide of opinion about non-traditionally–published books has shifted over the past twenty years. When I was studying for my master’s in creative writing, self-publishing was called vanity publishing, and our seminar instructor assured us that none of us would ever have to stoop to the degradation of publishing our own work. Now, with the commercial and critical success of more and more self-published books, including Canadian Terry Fallis’s first novel, The Best Laid Plans, non-traditional publishing is becoming more respected. You can do your part to help this opinion shift by writing the best book you can, promoting it to the best of your ability, accepting that some still people won’t want to read it, trying not to take this rejection personally, and moving on.
5. Go on a blog tour: A blog tour is a virtual book tour. Instead of visiting bookstores, reading from your book, and signing copies, you have your book featured on several blogs (the exact number depends on the tour package you choose) over a set period. The blogs offer excerpts and reviews of your book, author interviews with you, and guest posts written by you—all important promotional opportunities. The best part? You can hire a blog tour company to organize a tour for you. Inviting someone else to chart a course and steer my boat for a while was the smartest marketing decision I made and the best money I spent.
When I first learned about blog tours, my reaction was “why bother?” Many individual reviewers have guidelines for how authors can contact them. I figured that if I could contact reviewers myself, I could save money by not hiring someone to reach out to people for me. I was confident that I could secure the same number of reviews and promotional opportunities that a blog tour would produce. I resolved to resort to a tour only if I struck out with the bloggers I was contacting personally.
Within a couple of weeks, I realized my error. Iguana had provided me with a list of over 600 YA bloggers. I spent several days combing through the list and narrowed it down to 184 who were the best candidates to review my book. Then, I spent another two weeks reading over some of these blogs, crafting personal emails to the bloggers, and sending out queries. Of the 96 bloggers I emailed, I received 8 responses: 3 yeses, 2 maybes, and 3 nos. Given the number of books out there and the number of authors, publicists, and publishers jockeying for reviews, I suspect that an 8% response rate is decent, especially considering that I was a first-time author with no published reviews and only a fledgling web and social media presence.
Nonetheless, I found the process demoralizing and time consuming and the result disappointing. I’d hit a sandbar and knew that I couldn’t continue. I checked my pride and made an SOS call to a blog tour company that specialized in YA fiction. Thankfully, Giselle Cormier of Xpresso Book Tours responded immediately and agreed to come to my aid.
As I was researching potential blog tour companies, I realized just how arrogant I’d been to assume that I could quickly make the kinds of connections that tour hosts have taken years nurturing. Blog tour companies are deeply connected; Xpresso has ties to over 2000 bloggers. Unless you’re someone who’s already securely plugged in to a network of bloggers, I strongly recommend hiring a professional to organize reviews and other promotional opportunities for you. As with any other hiring decision, do your homework. Tour companies specialize in certain genres of writing, so make sure you’re targeting organizations who will promote your type of book. Investigate their credentials. How long have they been in business? What are their qualifications? Is their website professionally designed and free of grammatical and spelling errors? Does it have a testimonials section?
Promotional opportunities organized by tour companies have another advantage over those you organize yourself. If a blogger says she’ll review your book, that’s not a guarantee that the review will happen. Life sometimes has other plans. With a blog tour, there are no guarantees, either. However, you’re more likely to get the reviews requested. For example, Xpresso added a couple of extra stops to my tour to compensate for any bloggers who might not be able to post. In the best-case scenario, everyone would post and I would get a couple more stops than the twenty for which I’d paid; in the worst-case, I’d still have my twenty posts.
My blog tour provided The History of Hilary Hambrushina with great exposure. I first noticed the effects on the giveaway I’d been running on Goodreads. After five weeks, around 400 people had signed up to win one of ten free copies of my book, not exactly a stellar turnout. Then, Xpresso posted my tour sign-up sheet on their website and began promoting the tour. In the last week of my giveaway, the number of entrants spiked to over 1300. During the tour, I ran another giveaway organized by Xpresso. Over 2000 people entered, meaning that those 2000 people were now aware of me and my book. I would never have been able to attract that many eyeballs on my own. If you take only one piece of advice from this article (except for point ten, coming in part two), take this one.
© Marnie Lamb
Author Bio: Marnie Lamb is a Gemini incarnate: half writer and half editor. She earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Windsor. Her short stories have appeared in Journey Prize Stories 25 and various Canadian literary journals, including filling Station, The Nashwaak Review, and The Dalhousie Review. Her first novel, a YA book named The History of Hilary Hambrushina, was published by Iguana Books this past spring. She pursues her other love, editing, as the owner of Ewe Editorial Services, which offers copy editing, indexing, permissions and photo research, and proofreading services to educational, scholarly, and trade publishers. When she is not writing or editing, she can be found cooking recipes with eggplant or scouting out fashions—preferably ones with polka-dots—at Toronto’s One of a Kind Show.