Marketing and promotion strategies for indie authors
On 22 May, I attended NSW Writers’ Centre’s The Forest for the Trees event at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. All the sessions were excellent, but the one I found most useful for indie authors was Pushing Your Own Cart, about how authors promote their books and the tools they use.
The panel comprised Kate Forsyth (The Witches of Eileanan series, Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl, Dancing on Knives), representing the established, internationally published author; Kirsten Krauth (just_a_girl), representing the debut novelist published by a small press; and Darrell Pitt (The Firebird Mystery, Diary of a Teenage Superhero, The Doomsday Device) as the self-published author – whose success at selling his own books has led to an 8-book publishing deal with a traditional publisher.
Here are some of the strategies the panellists shared.
Establish an online presence/author platform
Although Kate Forsyth, Kirsten Krauth and Darrell Pitt have had quite different publishing experiences, they all agreed on the crucial importance of establishing an online presence: ‘an author platform’ as Kirsten called it, so readers can find out more about the authors whose books they love. An online presence might take the form of an author website or a blog; or authors can connect with readers through social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or Wattpad.
Kirsten started writing her blog a long time before her novel came out and used it to establish and practise her writing voice and to build a community. Even though her original intention wasn’t to promote her book, she found that when the book came out, her blog followers were keen to buy and read it because they already had a connection with her. Kirsten also has a regular post called Friday Night Fictions where she interviews debut Australian novelists (traditionally published and self-published).
Kate uses her blog to ‘connect with kindred spirits’ – people who love reading and stories as much as she does – and tries to give them something through her blog rather than using it only as a promotional tool for her own books. She writes reviews of the books she reads each month, and if she particularly loves a book she’ll contact the author and do an interview with them on her blog.
Darrell has an author website, but he doesn’t have a blog. While he agrees that it’s important for authors to connect with their readers, he believes it’s even more important that authors spend the majority of their time writing books. He gave the example of a reader loving a writer’s work and going online to find more books by the same author; but if that author’s too busy self-promoting instead of writing, there aren’t any more books for the reader to buy. This ties in with the advice from many successful indie authors that volume is important for discoverability. It can be more effective to write several books in a series before you publish the first one, so you can offer readers follow-up titles in a short time frame, rather than whetting their appetite with one book and then keeping them waiting for more.
Kate also uses her blog to survey readers about what they like and dislike about her blog, and asks for suggestions about how to make it a better experience for them. She often makes changes based on her readers’ feedback. Some indie authors push this idea further still, asking blog followers for feedback on extracts from their books in progress and then incorporating that feedback into their work. That kind of to-and-fro communication between author and readers creates a strong sense of community, and has a greater chance of translating into sales once the book is published.
The blog tour is another fairly recent promotional activity, and one that’s used by traditional publishers as well as indie authors. Kate did a month-long blog tour for The Wild Girl, which required her to write 31 posts, which were then published one per day on a range of international blogs all with thousands of followers. It’s a great way of getting global coverage without the expense of a physical tour. If you’re an indie author writing in a particular genre, you’re probably already aware of bloggers who write or review in that genre; ask them if you can write a guest post about something related to the subject of your book, or the writing process, or the self-publishing process – again, it’s about sharing useful information rather than simply self-promoting. It’s hard work creating fresh content for a blog so most bloggers are likely to respond positively to your request, as long as it’s a good fit with their blog and readers.
Using social media
All three authors agreed that it’s important to find a happy balance between promoting your books and connecting with readers in a more general way: e.g. with writing tips, sharing information about other writers and their books, and even writing about unrelated topics that interest you. The same rule applies to Twitter; as Darrell said, ‘No one wants to be constantly sold to’.
Kirsten loves the immediacy of Twitter, and also the way it notifies you of mentions of your Twitter handle – that allows her to reply personally to anyone who tweets about her book. Kate uses Twitter to engage with her readers directly too, and also to tell them about courses she might be teaching or appearances at schools or in bookstores. She said she aims to get 20 new followers a week, by giving readers something or sharing information with them.
Kate is a big fan of Pinterest, and uses it to share covers of her books from different countries. Kirsten set up a Pinterest page for the main character in just_a_girl, and likened using Pinterest to making a scrapbook or journal related to your books, their characters and landscapes.
Darrell talked about his experiences with Wattpad, which is a site where authors can upload their writing and get feedback from other writers and readers. Wattpad is especially good for YA fiction as its reading demographic is mainly teenagers. Darrell put his first two novels up on Wattpad for free and had over 50,000 readers per book, many of whom went on to buy his other books, proving the theory that offering some free material can be a good way to general follow-on sales.
A writer in the audience asked whether the three panellists used YouTube to engage with readers (YouTube is the second-most popular networking site after Facebook), which led to a discussion of book trailers: short video clips to promote the book, like a film trailer but usually much simpler – often using images and music to create atmosphere, and sometimes with a voiceover or a short interview with the author. Kate’s publishers produce trailers for her books and she uses them at schools talks and other events; while Darrell told us he’d made a trailer for his first self-published book, The Steampunk Detective. Kirsten asked the writer in the audience how she uses YouTube to promote her books, and she said she’s experimenting with some short videos of herself giving writing tips, with the aim of encouraging viewers to click through to her website and her books.
GoodReads is a networking site where people share information and reviews about books they’ve read or want to read, which, as Kirsten said, makes it the perfect place for writers to connect with other people who love reading. Kirsten finds GoodReads useful for getting honest feedback about her book and also connecting with her readers.
Promotion in the real world/offline promotion
Kate’s publishers send out free advance reading copies of her books to booksellers and reviewers; and Kate often goes on book tours around Australia and also overseas, talking at festivals, other book-related events and schools.
Kirsten had already established contacts in the media through reviewing books for newspapers so was able to draw on those contacts when it came to getting her own book reviewed. Kirsten has also given talks at libraries and festivals, and commented on how important it is to say yes to all opportunities – and also not to prejudge your audience. She gave the example of a recent talk to an audience of older women: she thought they wouldn’t be all that interested in her book as it’s aimed at young adult readers, but afterwards most of the women bought a copy, telling her they wanted to understand their granddaughters better and her book would help them do that.
For indie authors who might not have media contacts, it’s a good idea to start local: contact your local newspaper to let them know you’ve published a novel; talk to your library to see if they host author talks; if your book is for children or YA readers, ask around the schools in your area to see if there’s an opportunity to give a talk to their students.
Darrell recommended Toastmasters as a way of improving your public speaking skills before you stand up in front of an audience to talk about your book.
Cover, title and price
Before you start the marketing/promotion process, of course, you need a great product. Authors who are traditionally published often have minimal input into the final cover design but the cover is professionally produced and at no cost to the author. Kate said that she has a lot of input into her Australian covers, but not so much for the editions of her books published internationally and in translation. For indie authors, creating your book’s cover is a more personal process, but one thing all successful authors agree on is the importance of a high-quality cover that suits your book’s genre and market.
The title is equally crucial: it has to be engaging while also giving readers an indication of the book’s content and genre. Again, indie authors have more control over this process than traditionally published authors. When I worked in-house at a large publishing company it was quite common for book titles to change from the author’s original choice, based on how the marketing team planned to promote and sell the book. It’s important to find a title that suits the widest readership possible.
Indie authors definitely have much more control over pricing strategies for their books than traditionally published authors do; and, of course, they usually receive a higher percentage of that price each time they sell a book. Darrell talked about the benefits of volume when it comes to price: e.g. when you release a new book, you can offer previous titles at a lower price so readers are encouraged to buy more than just the new release. Or you might offer your new release at a special discount price for the first month, for example. Being your own publisher means you can be as flexible as you like with pricing strategies.
More marketing/promotion tips
Another session I attended was called To Market, To Market, and these are the tips I picked up there:
- The most-shared and retweeted blog posts are Top-Ten-list-style posts: e.g. Top Ten Tips for Self-Promoting Your Book.
- Consider writing a monthly or bimonthly newsletter that contains useful information for writers, background history to your books, anything you think readers might find interesting. Add a sign-up option to your author website so readers can provide you with their email address to receive the newsletter.
- Run competitions through your website to collect names/email addresses for your mailing list: e.g. give away a copy of your latest book to the first 20 people that sign up to receive your newsletter.
- Consider purchasing advertising space in other successful e-newsletters. (Traditional publishers are doing this and finding they get an excellent return from such ads.)