I 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:
- Write your next book.
- Do those marketing tasks that you genuinely enjoy (I genuinely enjoy sending out my newsletter, for instance.)
- Write your next book.
- 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.)
- Write your next book.
- Write your next book.
- Write your next book.
(Updated to add: Here’s a terrific Twitter thread on this topic.)