As a self-publisher, an author published by a small house and a large house, and a social justice advocate, I’ve found five forms of book promotion that serve me well in marketing and publicity territory filled with hucksters who either grossly overcharge or offensively overpromise. They may bill you $1,500 to make five contest submissions or claim that they can drive tens of thousands of qualified visitors to your website for the low, low cost of $199. The problem is that independent publishers and authors are so eager to see their books succeed in the ever-crowded book marketplace that they don't always read through the marketing hype. So when they receive an e-mail from a company that looks legitimate and promises to help them gain visibility for their products, they imagine the possibilities and jump at the offer. This can lead to many costly mistakes. Based on my experience with promoting books, websites, and causes (prisoners' rights and prison education), here are my five recommendations:
Create a Website that Works as Your Digital Storefront
Your own website is the most important online presence that you can possibly have. This should be your digital storefront, the place where most of your readers, media people, and the general public will go to learn about you and your books. Some people advocate creating a free Wordpress website but, having used both Wordpress.org and Squarespace.com, I do not. While Wordpress provides a number of free plug-ins and there is a plethora of information on operating a Wordpress website, I found a number of glitches in the system and it repeatedly crashed. SquareSpace rarely has glitches or issues, and although plug-ins aren't available, the people at SquareSpace do keep integrating new technologies into the system. Plus, the customer support is both free and accessible 24/7. Costs for a SquareSpace website run between $6 and $32 per month, hardly a major expense. Whether you decide to go with Wordpress, SquareSpace, or any of the hundreds of other website providers, make sure your digital storefront looks professional so that you will, too. With this in mind, I strongly suggest hiring a qualified web designer to handle website creation if you’re setting up a new site or website optimization if you already have a site. This doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. The SquareSpace designer I use is Kris Black (author of SquareSpace 6 for Dummies and online at https://www.blackandhue.com/). While some designers charge much more, Kris charges between $1000 and $3000, depending on what is required. And I’ve found that his copywriter, who has an MFA in Creative Writing, can handle all my copywriting needs at very reasonable rates. It's always better to find someone good and reasonably priced than to hire a dozen cheap service providers, have to fix their work, and still have a sub-par website. Make sure your site has a clear, clean homepage that makes readers want to learn more about you and your products, a page about who you are and what you do, a blog (which should be updated at least once or twice a week with compelling posts), a contact page (so people can connect with you), and a page for each and every one of your books. Think of every page as a landing page—a page where first-time readers will be introduced to you and your product or service.
Claim Your Space—Amazon, Goodreads, Shelfari, and LibraryThing
Many book readers spend time on these four book-related websites. There’s no charge for becoming a member, and if you are an author and/or a publisher, you can create your very own page for yourself and/or your company. Your readers are here and you should be too, if only to have more landing pages from which to pitch your books and draw interested readers to your website, where they can then purchase your products. Take the 15 to 30 minutes required and create a professional presence on each of these websites. The process can be as simple as providing your name and your book's title, uploading a photo or a logo (if you're a publisher), and selecting a user name and password. But don't stop there. Amazon allows authors and publishers to tweak their books' descriptions (both short and long) and provide information in a number of other fields. Shelfari allows for special book extras, some of which are integrated into Amazon.com's product results. Much of the work for these sites can be a one-and-done effort. By putting in the time now to do it right, you'll reap book sales and publicity rewards forever. A special note about blogs: I know your time is valuable, in demand, and limited. Several of these platforms allow for blogging. Goodreads, for example, gives authors their own blogs which fans can read. And you can set things up so that every time you provide a new blog post on your website it also appears on your blog at Goodreads and elsewhere. This is a great way to make a profile look more active without investing a ton of extra time in it.
Get Social, and Automate
While there is a lot of buzz about what social media can do for books and other products, the truth is that only a concerted, sustained effort—and a compelling message—will make social media effective. For the independent author, spending five to ten hours a week on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Google+ is a waste of time, and paying a firm to handle such media is a waste of money—unless you have a number of titles to promote collectively, through a single page. What works best, I've found, is simply creating profiles on all major social media websites, optimizing the profiles (with or without a professional's help), and then aligning my website with each profile. This way, the profiles update whenever something new is posted to my website or blog, and it is easier to feature more responses to readers’ questions, be more engaging, and do a better job of promoting recently released titles.
Think Career, Not Product
One trap that many authors—especially subject matter experts—fall into is focusing on an individual product or process (e.g., a book, an article, a blog post, search engine optimization) instead of on the bigger picture. Some online marketers will tell you that many, many EzineArticles submissions will bring you massive traffic. Some SEO copywriting firms get clients to spend all their money on backlinking. This is shortsighted thinking. Independent authors and publishers should focus their efforts on career-building activities. Instead of writing 10 or 15 articles for online article directories, why not submit one to CNN.com, the Huffington Post, or Slate.com? Articles on those sites will be much, much more powerful. Admittedly, placement at such premium outlets is challenging, but the exposure goes much farther, and the credits help open very large doors. The point is, don't focus on the micro when the macro is calling. Don't get bogged down in tedious, mind numbing busywork when there is quality work to be done at quality outlets that will further your career, brand, and overall sales.
Be Open to Hiring an Expert
There comes a time when professional book promotion is required. It could be when you’re preparing to launch a new title, seeking reviews in the premium review media, or attempting to open sales channel doors that seem to remain stuck. I have come to understand that this is to be expected and the expense should be anticipated. The problem is that it's never easy to pick out the good publicists from the bad ones. I spent $12,000 with my first publicist for a three month online, print, and broadcast campaign and was extremely dissatisfied. On the other hand, I've spent $1,500 per month (in Canadian dollars at that) with Rachel Sentes of Gal-Friday Publicity (www.gal-fridaypublicity.com) and reaped significant rewards, as I continue to do. She's managed to open doors for me that I never would have been able to open on my own.
The Path Forward
As all book marketers know, there is no one right way to handle book promotion. There are many good ideas along with many bad ideas. Some are expensive and some are cheap. Some are effective and others less so. The key is building a toolbox of book publicity, promotion, and marketing tactics that work, and then implementing those tactics in an intelligent manner. While my list of five online book promotion recommendations is nowhere near comprehensive, it should point you in the right direction and help you succeed as an independent author and/or publisher.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Education Behind Bars (Sunbury Press, 2012), the Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2014), and the forthcoming College for Convicts (McFarland and Company, 2015) and United Blood Nation: The Story of the East Coast Bloods (Headpress, also 2015). To learn more: ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com, and PrisonLawBlog.com.