My advice for a first-time book author, and not about the writing part

photo-203Dear first-time author:

Congrats on your book contract! This is a major accomplishment. You’re no doubt nervous about writing a 75,000 word manuscript over the next 6-9 months, and you’ll get all kinds of advice on that.

This post is about the other part. The marketing part. Between now and when your book comes out 18 months from now, you will need to learn how to launch a product and get it into the hands of the target market.

Did I say “product”? I did! Oh, I know it’s fashionable, as a writer, to roll one’s eyes about platform. If you’re feeling self-indulgent or literary, you might bat off another writer’s question about this during a panel discussion with a drawl that you find this topic so terribly boring.* Can’t you just write?

Sure you can just write. But unless you get spectacularly lucky, you risk no one buying your book. And if no one buys your book, or if people buy your book but not with enough velocity to match expectations, you will not get to write another one. Whereas if you do well on building excitement and reach (which is basically what platform amounts to), you will wind up with a situation like I saw the other night when I went to Gretchen Rubin’s event with the Princeton Chamber of Commerce. (My brother lives in Princeton, so I got to bring the kids to play with cousins, and I went and met the business women of Princeton at the reception beforehand. Much fun!) There was someone who’d flown in from Las Vegas to see her and talked about being a “super fan.” Who wouldn’t want super fans? So even if you find this topic boring, let’s hedge our bets.

Marketing comes down to finding the right people, and getting them so excited about your product that they fly from Las Vegas to see you.

First, let’s look at the packaging of the product itself. Some titles spark a lot more desire (“demand” in economic speak) than others. You want a title that does the heavy lifting for you. “The 4-Hour Workweek” is more inspiring than, say, Build Passive Income By Selling Supplements Online. In my own personal experience, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast moves more product than Use Your Mornings Well. Do whatever it takes to get this right. If you have to explain what the book is about, you’re lost.

Second, know the limits of traditional media. Media can do wonderful things in certain forms. Big hits — the major morning TV shows, the WSJ Review section, NPR, major stories in the New York Times — will intrigue millions of potential readers. The tricky part of this, though, is that most people don’t buy books. They will see you on a talk show, or read you quoted in an article, and then go about their lives. (For an incredibly honest account of this, read Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Executive Presence. She writes about how her 2002 book Creating a Life was all over the media, and yet it didn’t sell as well as expected. Indeed, it was the subject of a major New York Times story about how it wasn’t selling. It took her a while, and much tenacity, to rebuild her career from that fall-out).

What does work? Personal recommendations are important, which is one of the big reasons Oprah’s book club was what it was. It wasn’t just that the author was on TV. It was that a trusted source assured people that they would love the book. If a friend tells me I’ve got to try something, more often than not I do. That’s why blogs are great for spreading the word about a book. If you’ve got blogger friends, they’ll offer to help you. Ask if they liked the book and would recommend it. If so, ask them to write this on their blogs. Often, this happens organically. A blogger who really likes your book will hopefully share this with her readers. But not all writers know to ask for this.

Guaranteed book sales are also helpful. It can take a huge media hit to sell a few hundred books. A conference organizer who puts your book in all attendees’ swag bags will generate that sale through one contact.

You get to know these influentials as you would anyone else: networking, ideally by being generous and interesting, and hopefully making people want to be part of your projects in the future. You should be especially kind when you can to other book authors. It costs you nothing to mention their books on social media. You’ll be thankful when people likewise draw attention to your book upon its launch.

You also need to build your own tribe. This is a hard, long, process, but it feels much more authentic than many other parts of marketing. People will buy your book because they want to read you. This is one of many reasons to blog. I know that blogging takes time and energy, but please spare me the snit about how you don’t want to give away your content for free. If you’re a writer, you should be writing a lot. Blogging lets you try out ideas and hone them over time. This is not a zero sum game. It gives you a home on the internet. It helps people get to know you so they want to learn what you have to say. Smart authors even use their blogs to network with other influentials; check out how Susie Orman Schnall has been building buzz for her novel The Balance Project by interviewing 70 women about their lives over at her site. Now the 70 of us will likely mention her book (out April 28th — see what I just did?)

That said, some people spend less time reading blogs than others. You should do what you can to capture email addresses so you can reach occasional readers and non blog readers too. A free ebook, a time sheet. Some people have this down to a science. At Gretchen Rubin’s talk the other night, she passed around a notepad where people could write down their email addresses. They’re there, she’s there. Yeah, some are super fans, but others are random Princeton people whose companies bought tickets because they support all chamber of commerce events. Why not make that relationship long-term?

Marketing won’t sell a crappy book. You might get a swift start out of the gate. Indeed, there are people who buy their way onto bestseller lists with the hope that this will establish them as thought leaders and get the ball rolling. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. What I do know is that many a good book has died for lack of attention. After all your hard work, you don’t want this to happen to you.

In other news: This is probably a good opportunity to warn regular blog readers that this blog might become a bit more self-promotional over the next few two months in the lead up to the launch of I Know How She Does It. There might even be a pop-up screen, but I will do my best to make sure you only see it once.

* seriously, this happened.

Photo: It is completely awesome to see your book in airport book stores.

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