Writing books is easy, but convincing people to buy them can be difficult. That’s always been my experience, at least, and I have over a decade of it in independent publishing—as a self-published author, with a small press, and now as the CEO and acquisitions editor of Owl’s Nest Publishers, an independent publishing house catering to adolescents.
Most authors wish we could just write and ignore all the rest, but marketing is integral to any indie author’s success. And book marketing relies on trust between two parties: the author and the reader (sometimes, by extension, the publisher and whoever purchases the book, if not the reader). Trust requires personal connection, and when I was a young author just starting out, I made a lot of personal connections. I didn’t have time or know-how to spend in online spaces building my brand, so most of my marketing efforts took place in offline spaces: book signings, author talks at schools, traveling to book festivals, and signing as many books as I could. I also realized a long time ago that I didn’t want to be an author who sold one book to random individuals; I wanted to create lifelong readers.
These efforts created for me a scenario in which I now don’t have to regularly market my books on social media, but they still sell well month over month. Why? Because the connections I made with my readers in my earliest years turned them into people who talk with other people about my books—and continue to do so. I’ve never purchased an ad, and social media influencers don’t dance around with my books, but kids email me to tell me how much they love them and how they’re sharing them with all their friends.
Now that I’m heading Owl’s Nest Publishers, I want us to replicate this (admittedly anecdotal) experience. I lead a great team of like-minded people who are passionate about not just publishing authentic books for adolescents, but about meeting adolescents where they are. 2022 was our pilot year, and we did what most startup companies do: We developed a good social media presence and worked hard to establish a recognizable brand, a regular presence, and a strong and consistent message. And we’ve attracted many people who could best be described as fans. But translating social media enthusiasm into regular, predictable sales has been challenging, to say the least.
Find Connection Points
We came to realize that the question isn’t, how do we sell books? The question is, how do we connect our books with the right readers? Marketing is about building relationships—if your goal as a book marketer is to make money without regard to personal connection, then I think you will ultimately fail. If you believe you are bringing good books into the world, then you should believe your books serve your customers. So, your marketing strategy should focus on building a relationship of trust between you and your existing and potential customers.
In my many years of being an indie author before co-founding and leading Owl’s Nest, I used to tell people that marketing books was like being a shark: If you stop swimming, you drown. Now, I don’t know if that’s actually true of sharks (shark people, don’t come after me), but I do know that trying to maintain a relevant social media presence as a single business unit—author, seller, web specialist, designer, publicist—makes you feel like you have to keep moving or die.
This is often how trying to keep up with trends makes us feel. But the thing about trends is that trends change, and they change rapidly. They sometimes change so fast that it’s a waste of resources (time, money, and energy) to try and be too serious about utilizing them. Small publishers don’t have a lot of resources; we have to spend what we do have wisely, or we will fail. And spending wisely usually means grounding ourselves in efforts that are less wavering than social media trends.
We also have to know our demographic and narrow our marketing strategy to meet it. Think smaller, not bigger. This is good advice for writing as well as marketing, and it’s why we label our books with genres and audiences. Write to a narrow audience, and that audience’s enthusiasm for your book will hopefully draw more readers. Sell to that same narrow audience, and the same rule applies. When you have a specialty product, you will have far greater success trying to market it to the narrow audience you created it for than trying to market it to the whole internet.
Narrow Your Target Audience
Shifting our focus to tangible marketing efforts in non-social media spaces is our effort to narrow our target audience. We don’t need all of Instagram, or all of Facebook, or all of #BookTok to hear our message. And we don’t need to spend time learning or “training” algorithms that are just going to change on us anyway. What we need to do is contact the teacher who reached out to us about getting some books for her class and see if we can schedule an author visit.
We’re not trying to claim that being online or having an online marketing strategy is bad. With teammates and authors all over the US, Owl’s Nest operates as an online company—we recognize the importance of having both an online presence and using social media well. It would be foolish in the modern age to not do these things. But our marketing focus for 2023 and beyond has shifted away from social media as the primary place where we are going to be looking to grow and attract new readers. And for this, our strategy has been called innovative.
The funny thing about innovation is that in a digital world, it’s considered innovative to step away from social media and back into the “real world” where all marketing used to belong. But we think it’s crucial to think more long term than the latest social media trend, build our foundations deeper than online follower count, and find and connect with our readers beyond the screens that separate us.
For our latest book release, we hand-wrote thank you cards to everyone who preordered the book from our webstore, and then we wrapped the books like gifts before we mailed them. This personal touch made all the difference to many of our customers who reached out to thank us. Has it catapulted us to riches or fame? No. But I would bet they will tell others about us, and we possibly just made some customers for life.
The world moves fast and attention spans are shorter than ever, but human nature doesn’t change; we all want connection. As publishers, if we can make that real connection with our readers, we will transform fans into customers into lifelong advocates for our work. Take the time to do small, real-world things to encourage your readers to slow down and look again at you. This can take the form of personal messages, handwritten notes, intentional outreach to educators and librarians—anything that assures your target audience that you exist not just to make a buck, but to serve their needs.
We believe that by doing these things, we can build relationships with our readers for life. And we think you can, too.