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Everybody’s Right (and Wrong) About Book Marketing

April 27, 2015

Published novelist Hannah Sternberg is back on the blog to share thoughts and strategies for aspiring book marketers everywhere!

You can find a blog post somewhere on the internet supporting nearly any hypothesis you might have on book marketing. Authors should Tweet more, and less. Publishers should spend more on promo, but also step back from over-advertising. Everyone should engage with their fans, but not give away too much for free. It’s completely understandable if your head is spinning after your first few days of trying to educate yourself on the book world.

It’s true that things are changing fast, and in big ways, in how books are published and how they reach their audience. But certain things are eternal, and one of those things is that there is no magic formula that will make marketing your book easy, or guarantee success. I think that may explain some of the heightened emotions surrounding book marketing theories. Blog posts and articles on book marketing from authors, publishers, and bystanders are full of shoulds, don’ts, and other absolutes that imply it’s outrageous for someone to try it any other way — that your bad marketing isn’t simply ineffective, it borders on offensive. I think this probably springs from our shared bewilderment; we all desperately want to find that key that will open every door, and other ideas threaten the supremacy of our own acquired wisdom. If I don’t know that, do I really know anything?

As a marketing director, I’ve assisted in the promotion of multiple New York Times bestselling books. But as an author of two novels, I manage to sell just enough of my own books to buy a nice lunch once a month. The thing is, I consider both of these sides of my career to be successes.

The other eternal truth of book marketing is that every book, and every audience, is different; and those differences don’t just fluctuate based on the content of the book, but also the place and the time it’s released, and the goals of the author and publisher. That’s why it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint a single method that works every time. As a marketing director, I was promoting established authors, with the support and collaboration of a seasoned team of professionals. As an indie novelist, I’m just getting started establishing my reputation and building an audience, and I build my team as I go along — partnerships with places like CHAW and the library, local businesses, friends with a passion for marketing or design who are willing to offer their support in exchange for a silk scarf I have lying around, and the bartender at my local pub who keeps his copy of my book on the bar for people to pick up and explore.

That journey has put to the test my own marketing philosophy, which I developed over many years, starting in my childhood as the daughter of author Libby Sternberg and learning from her publishing adventures as well as my own. That philosophy: don’t write for financial success. Write only because you can’t live without writing. Market your books in the same way. If you’re seeking publication, it’s probably because some part of you seeks connection with your readers — to share the ideas and stories that you previously carried silently in your heart. I’m not telling people to give up on financial success; just don’t let it be your primary motive in marketing. That sounds counter-intuitive, and would give every sales director I’ve ever worked with a heart attack. (Sorry guys.) But readers can tell when you’re using them as a checkbook, and unless you’re already a top-tier bestseller, it’s going to be a major turnoff.

Instead, make connection your priority. How can you become more intimate with your readers? How can you make them part of the experience, rather than just a ticket-holder? How can your book change the world, you as an author make people’s hearts warmer, your story and your message bring people together? Build a community, and maybe financial success will follow. Maybe it won’t — sometimes financial success in the book world really does seem like a lightning strike, and maybe it will hit or maybe it won’t. But this way, whatever happens, you’ll be improving yourself as a person and making the world a little nicer, and that’s not a bad consolation prize at all.

That’s why I thought a brief class on book marketing would find a good home at CHAW, a place that’s all about arts and community-building. This is not a get-rich-fast book marketing class. You’ll get the basics of how the book biz works and how to navigate it as a first-time author, but I can’t promise you the magic formula to success. What we can do is talk about how to build a community around your writing that supports youand your readers, and maybe on the side experiment with ways to hoist your own financial lightning rod.

Hannah Sternberg is the author of Queens of All the Earth and Bulfinch, which was named a Notable Teen Book for 2014 by Shelf Unboundmagazine. She is teaching a three-week book publishing and marketing seminar at CHAW on Monday nights in May and June. Register here.

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