Marketing is the most complex element an independent author can undertake when publishing their work. It’s a many-headed beast. Unlike the nice, neat results of producing a high-quality book—you can hold the finished product in your hands—marketing doesn’t tie up in a neat little bow.
At the same time, most indie authors realize that, with 4,500 new books published per day, having a marketing strategy and executing it well is critical if you want to get that beautiful book of yours seen.
One of the reasons why marketing is such a challenge for authors is that it’s hard to pay anyone to do it completely on your behalf. The kernel at the heart of good book marketing is building an authentic relationship with your readers. No one can do that better than you. Don’t think the grass is greener for traditionally published authors; most successful traditionally published authors put a lot of time and energy into their own marketing as well. Publishers are no longer carrying the lion’s share of that load. That’s why you can’t get acquired without a “platform”—they want to see proof that their authors are doing the marketing legwork.
But I just want to write! you whine. I don’t want to spend time on the base pursuit of marketing! To that I counter, if you are writing for yourself alone, you don’t have to do any marketing—there’s no need to have your books read by others, and you shouldn’t expect them to sell. But if you’re writing for an audience, marketing is simply an extension of the connection your book is intended to create with your readers. Embrace it or bust.
But HOW? There is so much advice and noise about what works and what doesn’t. The way to approach marketing in a manageable way is to put on your blinders, stop following every shiny new blog post about marketing, and devise your own tailored strategy. Follow these steps and you’ll be well on your way.
It Starts with Market Research
You can’t possibly reach your readers if you don’t know them, understand what they love and fear, and know where they hang out online. There is no such thing as a marketing strategy without a bedrock of market research. That sounds fancy, but it’s not scary. Here’s how you do it: put on your detective hat and engage in some friendly stalking.
Identifying Comp Titles
1. Go to Amazon.com and search for some terms someone might type in when they discover your (future) book. The goal is to think like your reader, who is looking for topic X. For example, if you’ve written a memoir about caring for your aging parent, you might poke around the terms “memoir, aging parent” and “grief and healing,” etc. Jot down any books from the first few pages of results that are a) published within the last five years and b) most similar to yours in terms of content or angle.
2. For another entry point, search by category. Think of Amazon categories as you would the sections of a bookstore. At the left-hand end of the Amazon.com search bar, click the drop-down menu and select “Books.” Then in the column on the left side of the page, click “See More” to expand to the full list of general subject categories. Choose a couple of the most relevant paths and follow them down their subcategories until you get to the “shelf” your future book should be found on. So, for the memoirist above, that might mean looking in “Parenting & Relationships > Aging Parents” and “Self-Help > Death & Grief > Hospice Care” and other “virtual shelves.” Comb through the recent titles and jot down those that seem most similar to yours.
3. Winnow your list. Your goal is to get it down to three to five strong comps. Good comp titles are books by authors who are in a similar but slightly more advanced stage of their career than you. No unicorn successes (like The Martian or 50 Shades of Grey)—those are not comps. Of course, books that are closest in subject matter to yours are better comps than those with a weaker link.
4. Spend some time researching each of the authors of your comp titles online. Take note of what social media platforms they’re using and which accounts of theirs have the largest followings. Is there anything they’re doing that’s unique? Any content they’ve posted that seems to be well liked and engaged with?
Defining Your Reader Personas
The next step is to get a clear picture in your mind of your target reader. As you were writing your book, you probably (hopefully) had a picture of your reader in your head. This “reader look-alike” research will expand and confirm that notion, so when you reach out to these readers, you’ll know where to find them and what kind of content will be most valuable and persuasive to them.
1. Let’s return to your comp titles first. Look each of them up on Amazon and note the list of “Also Bought” books below. Amazon gives you valuable information about your readership’s purchase history in this list.
2. Then plumb Goodreads, which is an excellent place to do reader research. Look up your comp titles and check out the “Lists with This Book” below each entry. The reader lists are like a peek at your readers’ virtual bookshelves. Comb the reviews of your comp titles and check out the profile pages of the reviewers, noting their interests. Through this cross section of faces and interests, you’ll start to get a clear picture of the type of person who will be drawn to your book.
3. Define a primary reader target. What I mean by this is, pick a photograph of someone who looks like your typical reader. Give her a name. Identify her age and likely profession. And identify whether she’s married, whether she has kids, and what she cares about. This is a softer science, but having just dug around thoroughly in virtual rooms full of your readers, creating this look-alike shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. You’re a writer—I know you can do this. It’s helpful to define a secondary reader target too, to acknowledge that your book may appeal to more than one reader type for different reasons.
4. Finally, draw out some insights about your readers. Insights are key to good content marketing. Look at your comps and reader personas and see if you can imagine plausible answers to any of the following questions: What does this type of person care about most? What’s motivating to them? What might this person fear? Why does this person like to read books from this shelf?
The more specifically you can paint a picture of your readers, the more successful you will be in targeting and creating relationships with them. The absolute hardest audience to market to is the general “anyone who listens to NPR.” I know it’s tempting to believe your book will appeal to everyone, but forcing yourself to define a super-targeted reader look-alike will help you find them, help you create content that will resonate with them, and ultimately help you become an author whose voice they care about.
Okay, if you did all of that thoroughly, it likely took you hours. Time for a break.