Let me begin by telling you about the late, great E. Lynn Harris. I worked with him back when I was a baby publicist at Doubleday, and I remember him for many reasons. He was kind and funny, full of good gossip and southern charm. He was generous in the extreme and used his good fortune to care for a vast entourage of friends and family. He also sent us the best thank-you gifts ever after publicity campaigns. His work itself was delightful, veering from his poignant, heartbreaking memoir of growing up gay in the South to his tales of the raucous and raunchy secret lives of Atlanta’s elite; I’m still not convinced that The Real Housewives of Atlanta did not spring fully formed from his brain. E. Lynn had an extraordinary backstory, the kind of up-by-your-bootstraps tale that politicians like to trot out to show what makes our country special. He was born in 1955 and grew up poor in Mississippi and Arkansas before going on to graduate from the University of Arkansas, where he became the first male cheerleader and the first black yearbook editor. He went on to work as a computer salesman for IBM before finally quitting to pursue his writing passion. When he couldn’t find a publisher for his first book, Invisible Life, he self-published it. Mind you, this was 1991—none of the sleek self-publishing print-on-demand models that have taken over the marketplace existed; no one even bought books online yet. But E. Lynn knew there was an audience for his work, and he knew just where to find it. E. Lynn drove around to Atlanta beauty salons, natural hubs of chitchat and connection (this was pre-social-media), and told the ladies about his book. Via this deeply authentic word-of-mouth marketing, E. Lynn sold thousands of copies out of the trunk of his car (literally) and was eventually picked up by Doubleday, who published him until his sudden death in 2009. Every single one of his books became a New York Times bestseller.
I miss E. Lynn. I still think about him, and I bring him up frequently when I speak in conferences or classes. I think of E. Lynn as the patron saint of self-publishing, and as one of the best examples of grassroots book marketing the world has ever known.
Keep his story in mind as you head into what is for many authors the most difficult part of the process: marketing your book. Getting attention for a book has never been easy, and it’s tempting to think that it’s harder than ever now, given the deluge of new titles hitting shelves every week. But never have there been so many tools with which to market your work as an author. You, my friend, need not pack your trunk full of copies of your novels. (Though I still think beauty salons are a brilliant place to market.) So, what do you do?
Don’t rely on traditional media. If you have a best friend who happens to be a book reviewer or radio producer, sure, give them a ring. But regardless of who is publishing your book, opportunities for media coverage have diminished drastically while the number of titles going on sale every week has exploded. It’s especially difficult for fiction, as the meager book-review section is often the only opportunity for coverage. And most reviewers are still pretty reticent to review self-published books, not because they’re snobs about it (though some probably are) but because they’re so inundated with books that they have to draw the line somewhere.
Embrace social media. Now is the moment to ditch your technophobia and harness the power of social networks. Social media can help you every step of the way in your self-publishing journey, from raising the money to fund your book project with sites like Kickstarter and Inkshares, to finding a community of beta readers on Book Country, to helping you market your book to readers through blogging platforms, Twitter, Goodreads, and more. This landscape can feel daunting, but it’s also incredibly empowering for authors to have these tools at their disposal. Just as you no longer need to wait by the phone for a publisher to give you a green light to publish your book, you no longer need the approval of the traditional media to let people know about it.
Start early. Don’t wait until your book is coming out to start promoting it. You need to be finding and attracting your audience long before the book goes on sale. Connections, whether online or off, take time to build, and these are going to be the centerpiece of your marketing efforts. Books take time to create (though self-publishing is much faster than traditional publishing), so while you’re waiting for the book to make its way through the editorial and production processes, start thinking about how you’re going to sell that puppy. Using some combination of the above-mentioned social media tools can be a very effective strategy, but it takes a sustained effort, ideally one that starts six months to a year before the book goes on sale.
Build relationships. Marketing your work is not about telling people to buy your book. It’s about building relationships: relationships with bookstores, with other writers, with online communities, with librarians, and with any other potential readers and champions of your work. Always be on the lookout for how you can find, contribute to, and nurture these communities. Don’t neglect the part of the process that involves being a loyal reader, customer, and friend.
Know your audience. Maybe you’re writing on a subject that easily lends itself to social media content: vegetable gardening or World War II fighter jets. But maybe it’s not so clear what to blog or tweet about. This is a problem for many novelists in particular. Therefore, I encourage you not to look at your book’s subject matter but rather at its audience. What are they interested in? What can you give them besides your book? This is where finding and connecting with authors of similar books (something in-house folks do frequently for blurbs and endorsements) can be key. Get to know your audience to best learn how to serve them.
If approached the right way, marketing your book can be rewarding and even fun. So go forth and find your readers, and may the legend of E. Lynn Harris light your way.