No matter how you publish, promotion and the obsessive behaviors that come with it (tracking sales, worrying over social media numbers, comparing with other authors, etc.) can suck a whole lot of your time, energy, and even cash. Don’t let that happen. You’ve got a life, and you may even have other books to write.
You’ve perhaps heard of the 80/20 rule: that in any given market, it’s the top 20 percent of the players doing 80 percent of the business. I’ve seen that applied to book marketing in a way that pushes all my buttons—“experts” who say that to sell books, an author needs to spend 80 percent of her time on promotion and 20 percent actually making the books.
Call me contrary, but I’m in this because I love writing and telling a good story, and I’m convinced the best way for me to enjoy the creative life and build a readership is by doing exactly the opposite—80 percent of my time spent creating books that leave readers begging for more, and 20 percent of my time building my fan base. So I devote the best and largest portion of my writing time to actually writing—not emails, not Facebook posts, not tweets, but my next book.
With those proportions in mind, I make a promotional plan for each book. Components vary, depending on whether I’m partnering with a traditional publisher and/or publicist (you can hire your own publicist, and lots of authors do, even if they’re working with traditional publishers who also have publicists, but expect to pay big bucks for their services—as in thousands of dollars). When you formulate your plan, don’t try to do everything. Be flexible, adjusting as you discover what works for you and your book. Budget your time and money in proportion to what you can realistically expect to net from sales of your book, and don’t be afraid to innovate.
Think of promotion as happening in phrases: pre-launch, launch, post-launch and ongoing. Ongoing promotion includes efforts like your e-newsletter and social networking; these build relationships and keep you visible while (hopefully) growing your fan base. The other phases are associated with each title as it meets the world. The pre-launch phase revolves primarily around ARCs—advance reading copies provided to reviewers, including authors and other high-profile people who will endorse (or blurb) your book; there may also be some pre-launch buzz, if the book warrants it. If you're self-publishing or with a small publisher, the pre-launch phase also includes a soft launch period in which books are available but not heavily promoted, allowing for online reviews to be posted as social proof for the launch.
The launch is a brief period (a few weeks, normally) in which you (and your publisher) celebrate the official release of the book—much anticipated, in the case of big-name authors. In traditional publishing, the launch is a lot like fireworks set off to draw attention to the book: boom, boom, boom, and then nothing, unless the book has gotten enough traction in the marketplace to warrant the publisher’s continuing investment. When you’re traditionally published, the success of your book and, in large part, your future in publishing, boils down to how each book received at the launch, though much of that depends on how much effort and cash the publisher and the author have expended to build buzz and generate pre-orders in advance of the launch.
A huge source of frustration for authors is that with traditional publishers, it’s hard to know how a book does at launch. Royalty statements reflecting pre-orders won’t come in for six months at best, maybe a year. You’ll (sometimes) get copies of reviews, but unless your book hits a big, bonafide bestseller list, expect a quiet lull when you most want to know how your book’s doing.
A few weeks after launch, and you may feel as if your traditional publisher has lost interest. That’s not exactly true—of course they hope your book keeps on selling, so they can recoup their investment—but if it’s not gotten off to a stellar start, don’t expect them to expend much in the way of effort or money to change that. Traditional publishing is launch-centric. If a book doesn’t prove up in pre-orders and launch-related buzz, your publisher is going to move on to promoting the next author’s title. There are things you as an author can do in the post-launch period to help more readers discover your book, but expect to feel a bit like the lone ranger as you pursue them.
When you publish independently, you can take a more long-tailed approach to promoting your book. The launch itself is a nice opportunity to let the world know that a great new title’s available, but your future as an author isn’t going to hinge on how many copies were pre-ordered by bookstores or whether sales projections indicate that you’ll earn out your advance. You can be the tortoise to the hare that is traditional publishing: slow and steady can win the race, if your book is worthy and you’re committed to reaching readers.