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Book Marketing for Authors: What’s Behind Door Number One?

painting of a door opening onto a landscapeI hold a monthly online chat with writers about the craft and business of marketing. (To score an invitation, join my newsletter.) Each month, the group votes on a topic to discuss. Last month, it was marketing.  What should authors do to market their books? What works? What doesn’t?

Usually I have a few talking points prepared for these chats. Some strategies, tips, ideas, based on what’s worked for me over the years.

But when it came time to talk about marketing, I was at a loss. Why? Because what has worked for me has nothing to do with the standard list of marketing tips authors are generally confronted with.

What’s worked for me is what’s behind Door Number One. More about Door Number One in a minute.

First: there’s kind of a standard list of things that authors are asked to do to market their books. The list might look something like this:

  • Engage with readers on Facebook. Maybe start a Facebook group or a page devoted to your book’s topic
  • Be clever on Twitter
  • Document your life, your process, your passion, on Instagram
  • Make zany videos on TikTok
  • Send out a newsletter
  • Write book-adjacent essays for relevant publications
  • Network! Go to conferences, trade shows, gatherings connected to your book topic
  • Get active on Goodreads. Hold giveaways, start a book club, chat with readers
  • Recommend books and build a following on Bookbub
  • Offer a free bit of swag to everyone who pre-orders your book

I could go on. If you’re a writer, this sort of list is probably familiar to you.

What I told the writers in my group was this: Just because this list of tasks exists doesn’t mean that any of it works. There’s not a great deal of data-gathering that goes on in the publishing world. It’s easy to come up with a list of vaguely helpful-sounding tasks that writers could do to promote their work. It’s hard to say definitively whether any of it will make a difference.

Sometimes I will question my publicist about whether a particular task is really worthwhile.

“Well, it couldn’t hurt,” is the answer I usually get. “Every little bit helps.”

And that’s true! But the problem with “every little bit helps” is that it doesn’t give us a way to choose one task over another. It assumes that All the Things are equally worthwhile. But surely they’re not. How could they be? And how do we pick the best way to make use of our limited time?

Also–is it really the case that it can’t hurt? What if it leaves you, the author, feeling anxious and ineffective and miserable? What if it interferes with your ability to write your next book?

No publicist will ever say, “You know what? I think TikTok is bad for your creative spirit. Go walk in the woods for a month. Connect with your innermost self. Speak your truth. Don’t waste your time on this nonsense. You have another great book in you, and what’s important is that we preserve your psyche so you can continue your creative journey.”

Just because there is a long list of tasks authors could do to market their books does not mean that these tasks reliably result in sales. And we can end up hurt and confused when we do All the Things, and do them very well, to no real effect. We end up wondering, “But where are the results?” But in fact, no results were ever promised. It was always just a list of tasks.

So what does work? Honestly, what has worked for me in my career, with a handful of New York Times bestsellers and twenty years as a full-time, self-supporting writer under my belt, is What’s Behind Door Number One.

Door Number One is my shorthand for the treatment that a lead title gets. When a medium to large-sized publisher is really excited about a book, and/or has paid a lot of money for it, an entirely different marketing plan rolls out–one that has very little to do with the list above.

This plan is chock-full of things that actually do work, and can reliably propel a book onto a bestseller list. But authors don’t hear about Door Number One until — unless– that door opens for them.

What’s behind Door Number One?

  • Media luncheons with major news outlets, in which the author is flown out to New York, gets all dressed up, and pitches her book to reporters, reviewers, and editors.
  • Bookseller dinners, in which the author is flown around the country and wines and dines with key booksellers and buyers in a position to place big orders. (I’ve had breakfast with Amazon buyers! Lunch with the Ingram team!)
  • A big to-do at launch and sales conference, which are in-house affairs in which your editor (or you, if you’re flown in to do this, and/or if your publisher hires a videographer to film you presenting your book, I’ve had both happen) pitches your book to a huge room of salespeople.
  • Meetings with producers of radio and television shows in which your publicist pitches your book for a prized segment on a national show
  • Full-page ads in major magazines and newspapers
  • Massive pre-publication mailings to media outlets and influencers (a publisher once handed out 1000 copies of my book to media outlets and booksellers.)
  • Special author events at regional bookseller trade shows in the months leading up to publication (the publisher sometimes has to pay for an author to get one of these slots, in addition to travel expenses)
  • Major bookstore and library campaigns to get your book selected for their staff pick lists (again involving mailing out hundreds of advance copies, although lately these are going digital)
  • Payment for prime physical placement in bookstores and high visibility on online retailer websites
  • A 20-30 city book tour that can include ticketed events at large community groups with audiences of 1000 or more
  • A fully-loaded schedule of author interviews for TV, radio, top podcasts, magazines, top websites, etc.

I’m sure I’m forgetting some of it, but you get the idea. This is the menu most of us don’t even see. And authors don’t reliably get this treatment every time. I’ve had this treatment for exactly four of the thirteen books I’ve written.

And guess what? It WORKS. This is what reliably sells books.

It’ll work better for some books than others, and I’m sure every publisher has a story about a book that got the full lead title treatment and went nowhere. Also, some books don’t get this treatment and go on to do astonishingly well. But in general, THIS is what publishers do when they want a book to succeed.

But here’s the catch: they can’t do it for every book! They have to pick and choose. Of course they do. No publisher has unlimited funds and unlimited time to give every book this treatment.

As I told the writers in my group, my intention is not to make everyone feel bad because they’re missing out on Door Number One. My intention is simply to fill in the gap between “nobody really knows what works when it comes to book marketing, it’s such a mystery” and “this book sold a million copies last year.” It’s hard to reconcile those two statements! If nobody knows what works, then how does any book sell at all?

So this is the answer. Broadly speaking (with some exceptions, of course), the books that succeed wildly do so because they got the package behind Door Number One.

But your publisher won’t tell you this, because it would be a super-awkward conversation to have. If they were being entirely honest, the conversation would be something like, “Well, we have a lovely package of highly effective book publicity that we will be rolling out this fall for the book or books we feel are most likely to succeed. Your book is not one of those. Have you considered holding a contest on Facebook?”

(I wish I could remember the comedian who had a bit about pitching TV shows to networks. “When they say ‘we don’t have the budget’,” he said, “what they mean is, ‘we don’t have the budget for YOU. We don’t have the money for THAT.’ Of course they have the money. But the money’s for someone else.”)

Please don’t go beat yourself up because your book didn’t win the lovely package behind Door Number One! It might well be a fantastic book. But maybe your publisher is also releasing Michelle Obama’s biography in the same month. Maybe another title just landed a big film deal ahead of publication, and that propelled it to the top of the list. Who knows why your book didn’t land in the top slot? Who knows why so many of my books haven’t landed the top slot?

I would suggest: Don’t even set this as your ambition. It’s a thing that is totally out of your control, so don’t go pinning your hopes and happiness to it.

It’s enough to write the best book you possibly can, and then to go on and write the next book. That is enough.

But if you’re an author, and you’re wondering if you really have to do All the Things, or if you’re feeling like a failure because you did All the Things and it didn’t really help, here is my advice:

  1. Write your next book.
  2. Do those marketing tasks that you genuinely enjoy (I genuinely enjoy sending out my newsletter, for instance.)
  3. Write your next book.
  4. Do those marketing tasks that seem genuinely important to your publisher, and chalk it up as a relationship-building activity with your publisher. (They want to know that you are open to their ideas and that you are a cheerful and capable person to work with. They are regular people like you, doing their best in a job in which they are probably underpaid and overworked. Just do some of the things they ask you to do, and be nice about it.)
  5. Write your next book.
  6. Write your next book.
  7. Write your next book.

(Updated to add: Here’s a terrific Twitter thread on this topic.)




“People in Temporary Jobs Making Permanent Decisions About Your Career”

Painting of Ellen McIlwaine with quote


I read this obituary for guitarist Ellen McIlwaine and I was so struck by what she had to say about her decision to start recording under her own label: “I’m tired of being on labels. It’s people with temporary jobs making permanent decisions about your career.”

This is something I’ve thought about a lot over the years. Once, when a new publicist offered to start handling all my speaking engagements, I told her that she’d need to keep a list of everyone who requested me as a speaker and share that list with me. She was a bit taken aback and wanted to know why.

“Because you’re going to leave,” I said. “Someday, you won’t have this job. But I’ll still be here, doing my thing. And if I don’t have this list, there’s no way for me to go back to these people when I have a new book out, or when I’m coming to their town, and so on.”

I never could convince her to share her list. (I suspect she didn’t keep a list.) And I could tell that she didn’t really see herself as just passing through my career. In fact, she probably thought that I was just passing through her career.

But in fact, no one who was involved in my career when my first book came out is still around. My first agent? Retired. My first editor? Changed careers. My first publisher? Also retired. First publicist? Moved on.  I’m the only one left, and at the end of my career, I will be the last one standing. I’ll be the one to turn out the lights and lock the door.

There’s nothing wrong with people in temporary jobs making permanent decisions about your career. If not for all those people in temporary jobs, I never would have found a publisher, finished a book, given an interview on NPR, made it to a bestseller list, seen my books translated into eighteen languages…all of that required the expertise of many excellent people in temporary jobs.

But it’s also true that a person in a job can only offer you what they have to offer within the confines of that job.

I once sat next to a country singer at a dinner. He was pretty well-known, solidly in the middle of his career, and on his way up. But guess what? He didn’t want to sing country music anymore. Jazz was his passion.

“But my label really doesn’t want me to do this,” he said. “They’ve got a definite idea of where my career is headed, and this isn’t it.”

“Your label can only help you make the thing that they know how to sell,” I told him, deciding on the spot that I was somehow qualified to speak on the inner workings of the music industry. “There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re good at selling country music, and building up country artists. But that’s all they have to offer you. They can’t possibly see where you’re really meant to go as a musician. Nobody can. They don’t have a vision for your career. They have a vision for how to sell the thing they know how to sell. As long as you are making the thing that they know how to sell, you two can do business. But that’s as far as it goes.”

This is where I think Ellen McIlwaine got it right. A label–or a publisher, or a film studio, or a gallery–is perfectly poised to take an artist in the direction that they know how to go. And the people who work there–temporarily, all jobs are temporary–will make a lot of decisions that the artist will own forever, long after that person has moved from one temporary job to another.

It doesn’t mean that every creative person should rush out and start their own label, or publish independently, or fire their gallerist. But it does help to stop and think, every now and then, about who actually owns this thing called your career, or your artistic path…and what do you want from the people who are just passing through?


What Does the New Normal Look Like?


First I want to say this: Not everybody had a chance to rest up and re-think their priorities during the pandemic. Lots of people worked harder than ever. Lots of people scrambled to keep their families safe, dealt with an impossible school situation for their kids, and faced all kinds of losses and hardships.

But…some people got some rest, or experienced real idleness for the first time in years, or found themselves unencumbered by the demands of their old lives–flying across the country for meetings, sitting in a car for an hour commute every day, juggling three part-time jobs–and had a little time to think about what they’d really like their lives to look like, if they were in charge of deciding that.

And now…it kind of feels like it’s time to decide.

Offices are opening back up. People are flying on planes. Conferences and conventions are tentatively back on the calendar.

Which puts us in a weird position. Do we ramp our lives back up?

Or…now that so many activities were forcefully evicted from our lives, do we re-evaluate each returning thing, each resumption of an old activity, and decide on a case-by-case basis whether it’s allowed back in or not?

I don’t have the answer, but it’s a thing I’ve been thinking about. I’m contemplating a big new project, but I keep ruminating over all the trappings of this particular type of big new project: the deadlines, the expectations, the emails, the travel, the scheduling, the other people who will have to get involved…and I wonder, “Do I want to invite all that back in?”

Or do I want to completely redefine the terms of how a project like this gets done, knowing that I’ll have to explain to everyone involved (including myself, I will need many pep talks) that yes, I’m doing this thing, but no, I won’t be doing it that way. I won’t be doing that part. I won’t be doing it that quickly.

Is that even possible? I don’t know.

I do know this: For twenty years, I’ve thought of myself as a self-employed person because I don’t work at a place and get a paycheck on Friday. But just now it occurs to me that if I haven’t been defining the terms of my projects–if I’ve allowed the expectations and deadlines to be set by editors, publicists, journalists, event organizers, social media platforms–have I ever been truly self-employed?

What does it look like if I just call the shots, and decide for myself what it takes to be moderately scheduled and well-rested, and turn everything else away, without excuses or apologies? WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK????

Real Life Still Life

You have choices about how to take this class!

Skillshare is a Netflix-style platform where you can take all the classes you want for a monthly membership. This link gives you a free trial to take the class on Skillshare.

On Udemy, you only sign up for the classes you want to take. I’ve bundled this class with two others: Painting the Farmer’s Market and Mixed Media Still Life. You’ll get three different approaches to drawing and painting “found” still lifes, all in one class. Go here to join the class on Udemy.

If you like to sketch from life, you probably draw street scenes, landscapes, people, and architecture—but do you ever stumble across a still life in real life?

In this class, we’ll explore the idea of drawing the still life subjects you encounter in real life, using a tabletop scene in a café as our inspiration.

We’ll take an unusual approach to this subject: We’re going to draw the entire scene with just one line, never lifting our pen from the paper. This is a wonderful exercise for beginning artists, and for more advanced artists, it’s a great way to shake up your style and think creatively about what you’re drawing.

Best of all, we’ll do it with the simplest and most portable of art supplies: a single drawing pen and a portable watercolor kit.

A still life composition might look simple, but there’s a lot to learn! We’ll focus on how to make the most of:

  • Interesting linework
  • Vivid colors
  • Dynamic compositions
  • Strong contrast between shapes, colors, and values

By the end of the class, I hope you’ll appreciate how rewarding it can be to add still life to your art practice to help tell the story of your everyday environment and the world around you.

Mixed Media Still Life

You have a couple of choices about how to take this class!

Skillshare is a Netflix-style platform where you can take all the classes you want for a monthly membership. This link gives you a free trial to take the class on Skillshare.

On Udemy, you only sign up for the classes you want to take. I’ve bundled this class with two others: Painting the Farmer’s Market and Real Life Still Life. You’ll get three different approaches to drawing and painting “found” still lifes, all in one class. Go here to join the class on Udemy.

Here’s a bit more information about the class:

One of the best ways to learn to draw and paint is to do a still life. You get to work on shapes, proportion, composition, values (meaning light and dark), and color.

Best of all, it’ll help you develop your own style.

For this class, we’ll paint a beautiful arrangement of pumpkins on a porch.

A project like this is so much fun to do in mixed media, where you build up layers with different materials. You get rich textures and interesting contrast by combining watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, pastel, paint pens, markers, and/or ink.

Use whatever art supplies you have to create a lively, interesting style that’ll be uniquely yours.

Use Zoom to Automatically Transcribe Interviews

screen shot of zoom chat with captioning on

I do interviews for a living. Maybe you do, too: maybe you’re a reporter or a writer or a blogger or someone who has to ask people questions and write down their answers.

We all dream of some automated transcription service that would allow us to focus on the conversation and put our notes aside. And there are automated transcription apps and services out there, usually for a small fee, but that’s just one more thing to sign up for and figure out.

But did you know that Zoom offers live automatic captioning, and that it’s quite good? All you have to do is turn it on.

Then have your conversation. If your interviewee mentions something very specific that you need to get right, like a technical term or someone’s name, be sure to check the spelling or ask them to repeat it so you know the captioning picked it up correctly.

Before the call ends, download the transcript. (It’s usually saved to a Zoom folder on your computer.) In fact, I usually save the transcript once or twice during the call, just in case we get disconnected before I have a chance to grab it, and then I download the whole thing at the end.

That’s it! No more note-taking.


Painting the Farmers Market in Ink and Watercolor

Join this class on Skillshare, which is an online learning platform where you get a monthly subscription to take as many classes as you like. This link gives you a free trial.

On Udemy, you only sign up for the classes you want to take. I’ve bundled this class with two others: Real Life Still Life and Mixed Media Still Life. You’ll get three different approaches to drawing and painting “found” still lifes, all in one class. Go here to join the class on Udemy.

A farmers’ market or a produce stand is an irresistible subject for an artist, with the variety of colors and shapes in all the fruits, vegetables, and flowers. It’s a great chance to experiment and make a lively, colorful sketch.

In this class, we’re going to do a little produce stand in a French village, and we’re going to do it in s bold, graphic style that uses a lot of wonderful ink lines in addition to all that color.

You’ll learn how to use a dip pen and India ink, but you can also take this class using fountain pens, or regular inexpensive drawing pens—your choice!

We’ll work on capturing the different shapes and details without fussing over them, and we’ll make sure that our drawings have a sense of depth and feel realistic.

By the end of this class, you’ll be ready to head out to the farmer’s market and do your own colorful, lively sketches of the season’s bounty.

How Do I Settle on a Style for My Art?

collage of different art styles
With the help of some wonderful teachers, I made art in all of these styles this year.

It’s a question that every kind of artist grapples with:

I do these watercolor landscapes, but I also do abstract collage and sometimes I get really into architectural ink sketches. I can’t seem to focus on just one.

I write short stories, but I’ve also written three mystery novels and now I’m thinking about writing a biography. But successful writers pick their genre and stick to it.

I play classical guitar and I’m also in a blues band and lately I’ve gotten into the harmonica and I’d kind of like to learn percussion, too, but I’m never going to get anywhere if I don’t choose one.

Sometimes it’s a question of a creative person picking one of several very different pursuits:

I’m into photography, and I love to crochet, and also I do pottery. Why can’t I pick one?

So in the last year, during the shutdown, I’ve been meditating a little. Just a little. I put on the Headspace app for ten minutes in the morning. It’s not a big deal, and I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in mindfulness or meditation.

But here’s something anyone will learn in their first ten-minute meditation session: Thoughts are just thoughts. Feelings are just feelings. You can observe them and let them float by, like clouds on the horizon, or like cars driving down the road, while you sit alongside the road in your lawn chair and watch them go by.

You don’t have to jump on board and ride down the road with every Crazy Thought Car that goes zooming past.

What this has taught me is that I can differentiate between the facts, and my thoughts and feelings about those facts.

Fact: I do watercolor landscapes, abstract collage, and architectural ink sketches.

Thought: I can’t focus! I need to focus. I have to pick one. Real artists, successful artists, know how to pick one and stick to it. There’s something wrong with me. I’m doing it wrong. 

You see? Those are thoughts. Not facts. As thoughts go, they might be awfully persistent. They might hang constantly around the horizon, rather than drift away.

But there are other, equally viable thoughts that could be attached those facts. Such as:

I’m a polymath. I’m well-rounded. I contain multitudes.

Or, simply: I’m versatile. Flexible. Agile. Nimble. I do several things and I do them well.

Or even: I do several things and I enjoy them all. The question of whether I do them well or not doesn’t matter.

The question of whether a person can be successful doing more than one thing is not all that interesting to me–what is success? A certain salary? A number of awards? If you want a list of artists who are successful at more than one thing, or who work in more than one style, that’s easy to find. Look at all the actors who paint. Look at all the musicians who write. Or look at the ever-changing styles of Gerhard Richter, including his late-in-life stained glass work. I grew up with a mother who painted in watercolor and acrylic and wrote and juggled many jobs, and a father who made a living playing classical guitar, jazz guitar, and “whatever pays the bills” rock and pop guitar. People called him for gigs because he was versatile–he could do a number of things, and he could do them well. He’s also a photographer. For many years he was a sailor. He studies French and sometimes dips into Spanish and Italian for fun.

But the reason this idea of “let’s find examples of people who successfully do many things” is not all that interesting to me?  It’s because this is also thinking.

What I learn from my ten-minute meditations is that mindfulness meditation is not about replacing “bad” thoughts with “good” thoughts. It’s not about judging one thought as wrong or inadequate and replacing it with some better, more empowering, more useful thought.

It’s about recognizing all thinking as thinking, and all feelings (the pleasant ones and the unpleasant ones) as feelings.

It’s also not about eliminating all thoughts and feelings. That’s impossible. It’s only about recognizing them when they drift by, and naming them as thoughts or feelings, and understanding that they are separate from facts.

So I’m not suggesting that you replace one thought with another. (Wait, it’s not that I can’t choose! It’s that I’m a polymath! That’s better!)

Nor am I suggesting that you stop thinking entirely. (I just had a thought about my art! Bad artist! I should just stop thinking!)

Instead, I’m just suggesting that you can observe the facts about your art practice in a kind, non-judgmental way: I enjoy these watercolor landscapes, and I’m also playing around with these abstract collages….

…and then recognize that all the thoughts and feelings that rush in to finish that sentence (and therefore I really need to choose! And therefore I’m an agile, nimble polymath!) are just that: thoughts and feelings that your very big brain generated all on its own, because it saw some facts and decided that Conclusions Must Be Drawn From Those Facts.

And if you can do this–if you can recognize that the thoughts and feelings about your art practice are separate from the facts–then maybe, just maybe, that will open up a little space in your creative practice to explore your art, and to follow your preferences wherever they might lead.

On the subject of following your preferences, no one says it better than Nicholas Wilton. He explains it so beautifully in this video. Notice what he says about how when you follow your preferences in your art, your art gets better, and then you learn how to also follow preferences in your life, and your life gets better, and it turns into a feedback loop.

So really, all I’m saying in addition to his words of wisdom is that in order to get to that place where you’re really following your preferences, it helps to acknowledge that all that thinking about your art is thinking, and all that feeling is feeling, and that you are free to acknowledge all those thoughts and feelings as they float by, and then turn back to your art and follow your preferences and go where it lights you up to go.



Mixed Media Animal Portraits

You have two options for taking this class:

Take it on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style membership site where you can take all the classes you want for your monthly membership. I have lots of classes on Skillshare, so this is a great deal! This link gives you a free trial. 

Or you can take it on Udemy, where you only sign up for the classes you want to take. On Udemy, I have bundled this class with my class on painting chickens so you’ll have lots of extra examples to learn from! Go here to take it on Udemy.

This class is dedicated to making lively, expressive, personality-filled animal portraits—whether it’s your own pets, that goat you met at the county fair, or your favorite wild animal.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • How to use either watercolor or gouache, along with mixed-media supplies like colored pencil and markers, to create portraits in your own style.
  • How to use measurements, grids, and negative space to get the drawing right.
  • How to make a “color map” with colored pencil to establish a base layer of color and value—and to get over the fear of the blank page!
  • Different approaches to starting a portrait, by either building up dark tones first or beginning with light washes.
  • Finishing touches and texture with our mixed media supplies.
  • I’ll provide photos for you to work from, but I also encourage you to round up your own pictures of your pets or your favorite animals.

This is a really fun, whimsical approach to making a portrait in your own style. Once you see the technique, you’ll be able to paint all your favorite animals, and make portraits to hang on the wall or give as gifts.