Publishing tips – The Two Hills of Marketing

One of the questions I get asked a lot by up-and-coming authors is about marketing. Even authors with traditional publishers need to spend some energy on marketing and branding themselves. Indie authors have to do it all. And guess what? Things that worked years ago (like giving away freebie copies) don’t work as well today. And what is working well today isn’t necessarily going to work well in the future. The publishing industry is morphing and changing all the time. Being adaptable is important.

So what I like to tell authors is there are two “hills” in marketing. One hill is the kind of activity that’s like pushing a boulder from the top of a hill down–gravity does most of the work for you. The other kind of hill is more like pushing a boulder up a hill. It takes more energy and determination but it gets results over time. I’m not saying one is better than the other. But we all need to prioritize our time and energy.

The Downward Hill

Why not start with these first? They’re my favorite because I’m all about economy of effort. Here are the top things you should have in place:

  1. Newsletter. Every author should build up a newsletter list. Top priority. It takes very little to set one up and it bridges the gap between the author and the fan where you get most of the control of when you want to contact them. I’ve used Mailchimp but now I prefer Flodesk. With Mailchimp, the cost goes up as the number of subscribers increase. With Flodesk, it’s a low flat rate and you can get a discount off your first year if you sign up with an affiliate link from someone who already has an account. Feel free to use mine. One of the most powerful aspects of newsletter platforms is automations. I attended a talk by author Holly Darling at Inkers Con and immediately began to implement welcome sequences as part of my newsletter. Click here for an article on what this means. Why would a reader want to give you their e-mail address? They might be a superfan but it’s usually best when you give them something in return for it. Like a short story or bonus chapter or something they can’t really get anywhere else. This approach is called a lead magnet, and when I started doing it, my newsletter list almost doubled in a year. And it can be part of an automation you set up so that they get the freebie after signing up for your newsletter. This is a great way to announce new books, sales on current titles, and new things you’re part of (like an anthology or special promotion).
  2. Social Media. This is another great way to leverage yourself to lots of people with little effort. I recommend focusing on a few platforms instead of trying to master them all. Create a handle that is easy to find you and I definitely recommend having a separate profile as an author than you have for your private life. Things that get recorded on social media get recorded forever, so be careful what you post (I don’t really post about my kids on my author profiles, although many authors do). I started with Facebook and created an author profile as well as one for my street team (more on this later). Many authors I know went to X/Twitter but that account doesn’t yield anything positive for me now, so I never update it. Instagram has been super useful – there are a ton of authors and readers there and you can find the many creative ways they’ve been sharing their books (the one’s they’ve written as well as book bloggers sharing what they’ve read). Find your niche and follow along!
  3. Street Teams. These are fans that are motivated to follow and share your books on-line. Every author starts with zero. But when you find people who want to spread the word about your writing, treat them like gold. My street team get advance reader copies (ARCs) of my books. They hear the latest news before anyone else. Some have even become my beta readers, although I caution about having people earn trust before doing this. There are horror stories out there about authors sharing early copies which then get shared on-line. It happened to Stephenie Meyer. When there are sales for my books, my street team are the first people who help boost the signal through social media. Show them a some love. They are awesome.
  4. Website. This is another way to leverage your presence on-line and to provide a means of contacting you or learning more about what you’ve written. I started mine as a blog site back in the day before creating my own URL. They’re relatively inexpensive to set up in the beginning (my friends recommend Wix) but unless you want to spend a ton of time learning about coding, you might want to hire a web developer to help you get started. Once you have your first book ready to launch, you should probably have a website built. And, of course, it creates a way to join your newsletter. People from all over the world can come and visit while you’re asleep. Make sure you keep updating it though. Readers aren’t impressed if the content is out of date.

The Upward Hill

Some hills are harder to climb than others, but by the nature of it, going uphill is more challenging. It can be challenging because of the effort it takes or also because of the cost.

  1. Promotions. A big way to get the word out about your book is leveraging other newsletter lists that exist. Check out David Gaughran‘s list of possible outlets and you’ll see what I mean about there being a lot of hills, each one wanting some of your money to do it. The ones that I have seen which are the most effective (and no promises here) are Bookbub, Goodreads, and Kindle Daily Deals. And guess what – you’re not guaranteed to get any of these, so you have to keep submitting for them over and over again. It’s kind of like climbing a hill. And pushing a rock up while you’re at it. But if you do manage to get selected for one, it can help bring new readers. If you’re an indie author, you can apply for a Kindle Daily Deal through the KDP program and it’s free if they select you.
  2. Book Bloggers. Finding your audience is so much easier when you discover where they already are. Every genre and subgenre has its superfans and individuals who love to rave about their favorite books. It can take work and patience to find them, but it’s worth the effort. Don’t start off by introducing yourself and your book. If you connect with their content and comment favorably, it’ll help instead of just asking directly for help. Many will expect a complimentary copy of your book but it’s worth it. Never pressure anyone who is doing this for the love. More established people can be pickier about authors they’re willing to try. But it never hurts to ask. Respectfully.
  3. Amazon Ads. Let’s be real here – Amazon is the largest bookstore in the world and you’ve be unwise to ignore that fact. If you participate in their advertising program, you can create ads that utilize keywords on their website to find possible customers. It’s pretty complicated though and you could end up spinning your wheels and wasting money without some coaching. I highly recommend Bryan Cohen’s 5-Day Author Ad Profit challenge. You need Facebook in order to participate and the challenge runs periodically, so you might need to wait until the next one begins to learn about it. But seriously, it’s worth learning about algorithms, keywords, and to know whether your cover art stinks or not.
  4. Social Media ads. There was a time when your social media posts were seen by your friends and fans. Now, social media companies are ad agencies and they want you to pay for your posts to be seen. It’s not super expensive. For around $25-$50, you can boost a post about a new release and it will be seen by more followers as well as potential readers. For some data on which social medial platforms are the biggest (and thus have the largest reach) see the Pew Research study.
  5. Google Ads. Have you ever done a search for a product or place on the internet and then suddenly start seeing ads for it on other places? Did they read my mind about wanting that Star Wars Lego set? No. We leave digital footprints every time we visit a website and there are tools out there that know how to sniff out the trail. Using Google Ads is just one of these ways.
  6. Kindle Fire & Tablet Ads. This is a little different than the regular Amazon Ads account above. It’s used by major publishers and the top selling indie authors because it is so powerful but it’s not cheap. Presently it requires a $50,000 commitment buy in up front and it costs $10,000 per ad, per run. Do the math, it adds up fast. I know authors who have borrowed money to pay for these services which are highly targeted and can be very profitable (even with all the up front costs). This just isn’t very practical for authors just starting out but it is a powerful tool.
  7. Kickstarter. This is worth an entire article on its own. I believe crowdfunding is the next wave of innovation in the publishing industry. But do your homework before launching one. Join the Facebook group Kickstarters for Authors and just lurk and learn. We can all thank Brandon Sanderson showing us what’s possible.

Since I’m with Amazon Publishing, I get most of the Upward Hill items just for being one of their authors (and some other perks I can’t talk about). As I said at the beginning, there are other hills to be discovered and what has worked in the past may not work in the future. The industry is changing. But the good news is that readers still love reading and the absolute bestest thing you can do as an author is always try to become a better one. Word of mouth still is the #1 way of selling a book. It’s free, it’s legit, and it rolls and rolls and keeps on rolling. But it’s not marketing. You can’t pay for it. You can, however, keep investing in your skills.

For more on the current state of the publishing industry, check out my class on Writer’s Block: Understanding Amazon.


Jeff Wheeler

Jeff Wheeler

Wall Street Journal bestselling author of over forty epic fantasy novels.

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