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Book marketing is not a monolithic thing, it doesn't happen at one single time, and your marketing activities will change over your career as a writer.
There is no magic bullet, only a number of different options that you can utilize along your author journey to craft the best plan for your book.
Here are some of the opposite polarities on the marketing scale that, along with your definition of success, will help shape your marketing activities.
You will move up and down on these scales with every book and as you change over time. There is no ‘right' way, just a series of choices that can result in multiple combinations of book marketing approaches.
This is an excerpt from How to Market a Book Third Edition, available now in ebook, print and audiobook formats.
Short term vs. long term
Many new authors with only one book will focus on short-term sales spikes because they can't yet imagine a future with more books. I was exactly the same! Short-term sales are fantastic for that initial launch push, but they often cost money and are not sustainable over time. After all, once you hit the top of the charts, there's only one way to go from there.
If you want a long-term career as an author, you also need to think about long-term marketing. You want to build a sustainable baseline income, money that comes in from your books consistently every month. This comes from having more books on the market but also from building your email list and other platform-related marketing activities.
Focused vs. eclectic
Some authors focus entirely on one brand, one genre and one type of marketing. They go deep and become an expert, ignoring everything else in their strategic direction.
I wish I could be like that sometimes! But the opposite is someone like me who likes to write in multiple genres, who has a bit of a magpie brain and likes to try different things over time, who can't focus on just one way of marketing.
Both can be successful, and because it often does come down to personality, it's important to avoid comparisonitis with other authors who do things differently. See my book The Successful Author Mindset if you are struggling with this or other mindset issues.
Income vs. brand building
Some marketing activities are about making direct income, whereas others are about brand building. For example, getting on a network TV show or a national radio show can be amazing for building awareness of your author name, and as social proof for your website. Having a physical book launch party at a swanky location might make the local paper, or give you some great photos for social media.
But if you want to make direct income, you'd be better off publishing a multi-book-boxset and using some paid ads to direct sales there.
Paid vs. free (or money vs. time)
I've spent nearly ten years building up an author platform using my time, not my money. It costs little to set up a professional website with an off-the-shelf theme, and it's free to write articles, or podcast, make videos and share on social media. It's free to self-publish on all the major platforms, and you can find out everything you need to know from free and cheap books and resources. You can definitely build an author platform and generate good sales from free marketing – but you will pay with your time.
If you are short on time and want to pay for marketing, you can spend whatever you like, from $5 a day on Facebook or Amazon Ads to hundreds of thousands for a TV advertising campaign or even just by ramping up those ads.
Traditional publishers have been using paid advertising for years. They know that there is competition for attention, and to get ahead of the pack, you often have to have a coordinated marketing campaign. Many authors are now using paid marketing activities alongside their longer-term platform-building. It's certainly how I use it.
The book vs. you
There are two main ways that your book can be discovered – through the book itself, or through you as the author.
Discovery through the book doesn't require you to have a Facebook page or an email list. These sales are driven by your book's metadata and the algorithms of the distributor, as well as paid advertising. They are based on keywords, book title, book cover, description, people's browsing history, the sales of your book, reviews and rankings in particular categories and everything else that exists within the online bookstore ecosystem.
Discovery through you as the author includes activities such as interviews, guest posting, social media activities, audio or video, speaking at events, networking, PR or staying in touch with readers through your email list.
You may have a different focus per book. For example, I recently launched a new sweet romance series that I co-wrote with my mum. It's under a pen-name that I'm not disclosing (yet) because I want to keep the audience segmented away from my thriller and non-fiction niches. We won't be doing any platform-building or blogging or podcasting or anything that involves us as authors. My mum is 70 and is not Internet savvy, so she doesn't want to do all that, and I'm already running two other active brands under my own name. So we are relying entirely on the books themselves plus paid advertising. This is quite common for authors using multiple pseudonyms, as it is hard to maintain multiple platforms, and it is definitely possible to make a decent living from books using only this method.
Compare this approach to how I run Joanna Penn, my non-fiction name, and J.F.Penn for thrillers. For both of these brands, my photo is everywhere, I blog and podcast and use multiple social media sites. I have a very active platform for both names. I use paid ads to supplement these activities, but my marketing is often centered more around me as the author.
Your very first book with no audience vs. later books when you have a readership
When you're first starting out, you have fewer options for book marketing. You need a significant number of reviews for promotion on the bigger paid email blast sites, like BookBub, so they might not be an option. You can use other types of paid ads, but if you only have one book and no sell-through to others under your author name, you will likely be out of pocket.
However, once you have a number of books, preferably in a series or aimed at the same target market, you will likely have an email list that you can use for marketing a new book, as well as readers ready to leave reviews. You will have a budget for paid ads, and you will be more confident of sell-through. You'll also be clearer on your author brand and your target market. This is the benefit of time and a longer-term focus, consistently growing your readership book on book, year on year. Trust me, it gets easier!
Traditional vs. indie publishing
This is all about control. If you are traditionally published, you will not be able to change the price on your book, or switch out the cover, or change the category, which are tactics that many indies do to rejuvenate sales. Some agile publishers will do this on your behalf, but most traditionally published authors focus on marketing through literary festivals, live events, relationships with book bloggers and PR. Indie authors often focus online, with paid advertising, price promotions, boxsets and other activities that require control of the book.
Stand-alone vs. series
A few years ago, I co-wrote Risen Gods with J. Thorn. It's a stand-alone dark fantasy thriller set in New Zealand at the beginning of an apocalyptic event. It gets amazing reviews, but it's tough to sell.
Compare that to my main ARKANE series, which has nine novels right now, with more to come. It's much easier to market as I have a free first in series book on all platforms, which gets people into the series every day. If people enjoy the first book, they are more likely to read the next one. I also have box sets and can afford to do price promotion on earlier books to lead people into the series. The principle is the same with non-fiction.
If you write stand-alones, consider what might tie them together, for example, sense of place, or the same target market.
Exclusive vs. wide
Your marketing will differ depending on where and how you publish.
If you are exclusive to Amazon with the KDP Select program, then you will have visibility in the Kindle Unlimited (KU) ecosystem, which has become its own market. KU readers pay a set amount per month and can read as many books as they like – as long as those books are in KU. Some of them may buy other books, but their preference will be to borrow, rather than buy. These are high-volume readers who can devour a series quickly, giving you a lot of page reads and a good author income. There are also specific KU marketing options like free days and Countdown deals, plus some authors claim evidence of an algorithm preference for books in KU.
However, if you're exclusive to Amazon, you miss out of the huge audience that shops on Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook and all the other retailers that are springing up in markets around the world, as well as the merchandising opportunities there.
Publish fast vs. publish slowly
Publishing fast is a form of marketing in itself, because the Amazon algorithms favor new content, much as Google does. Some authors choose to write and publish at a faster pace, within a 30, 60 or 90 day period, using email lists and paid promotions to keep their books high in the rankings.
Most authors choose to write and publish over a longer time-frame, with an annual or bi-annual schedule, using sporadic launch promotions and longer-term marketing tactics.
Writing to market vs. writing the book of your heart
“Writing to market is picking an under-served genre that you know has a voracious appetite, and then giving that market exactly what it wants.” Chris Fox, Write to Market
Writing to market is baking the marketing into the book by writing something that will sell because there is an audience waiting to devour it. This suits writers who can write fast and adapt to new niches, but also where the author reads and loves something about the genre.
A great example is LitRPG, which features characters trapped within MMOs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). A lot of indie science fiction and fantasy authors, who are also gamers, got into this niche quickly, writing books to this market and some of them did incredibly well.
This tactic works until the sub-category on Amazon becomes saturated, then the market becomes harder to sell in, and some writers move onto other genres.
“Be an artist: write what you love. When you're done, then worry about marketing it.” Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Discoverability
Most authors start out writing the book of their heart, the book their muse wants them to write, the book that has been itching for years to be created. They write that book without any thought of marketing and worry about reaching readers later. Many will continue in this vein, satisfying artistic needs before marketing considerations.
This polarity can also be described as writing for readers vs. writing for yourself. The purest example is poetry, because you write it for the love of language, to nurture your creative soul, rather than for money. Poetry is hard to market and is not a top-selling niche, so you will always write it for you. If you want to write for readers, then check Amazon or AuthorEarnings.com for the top-selling genres and you will find plenty of voracious readers for your words.
It's important to understand that you can do both over your author career, and your approach will differ per book over time. Many authors start out writing because they have a burning idea they want to get into the world and they are passionate about a particular niche. Later, they may write to market, especially if they are now writing for a living. You gotta pay those bills!
I do both. My fiction as J.F.Penn is all written for the Muse, each project born from my curiosity. Much of my non-fiction, including this book, is written to help others on the author journey. I have an audience who want this book, so in a sense, it is written to market.
Neither option is ‘better' than the other. What's so fantastic about the creative world we live in now is that there's room for writers of all types, and many more authors are making a living with their words.
Online vs. offline. Global vs. local.
Offline marketing is anything you do in person, for example, speaking at a local event about your book. It might be running a class at a school to promote your children's book, or attending a networking event, or speaking at a literary festival or a book club at a library. The benefits of this type of marketing include immediate sales and local brand building, as well as the possibility to develop a community and other author friends.
The problem with offline marketing is that it is not scalable. You can only reach the people who are physically with you at that moment. Compare that to spending the same amount of time writing a blog post that could touch thousands online in multiple countries, or going on a podcast interview that could reach a global market, or curating photos on your Instagram channel within your niche. I choose to spend most of my marketing time and budget online in order to grow a global audience, but I also do a few speaking events and writers’ festivals every year. I do both, but I focus on global, online marketing as the most effective and scalable use of my time.
Introvert vs. extrovert
Thanks to Quiet by Susan Cain, many writers are happily claiming their introversion. I'm an introvert, which means I get my energy from being alone. I hate small talk and large groups. I'd rather think than speak, and write rather than talk. I rarely answer the phone. I'm INFJ on the Myers-Briggs scale, and many authors fit a similar model. This also means that conferences and events are tiring, so I can't do too many of them a year. If you're like me, then we're super lucky these days, because online marketing suits introverts. We can attract an audience online and connect with readers, while still spending time alone.
In contrast, extroverts get their energy from people, so live events are fun and energizing for them and may be a much better way to market and connect than it is for introverts.
Ebook vs. print
I recommend you have both available, but different forms of marketing suit the different formats. This relates to online and offline above because print books often sell very well at live events and speakers can do well with ‘back-of-the-room' sales. Non-fiction also sells better in print and I certainly find that December sales of print are always better because of the gift season.
Ebook-specific marketing includes free promotions, which can't be done with print books because there is always a cost of production and shipping. So you can give away thousands of free books, and it won't cost you anything, whereas most authors put a cap on the number of print books they give away.
Fiction vs. non-fiction
My non-fiction marketing as Joanna Penn is different to how I market my fiction as J.F.Penn. For non-fiction, I have a blog and a podcast. I curate information on social media and I do live speaking events. For J.F.Penn, I concentrate on writing a series in a popular genre, using a perma-free first in series, utilizing paid ads and price promotions, boxsets and networking with other authors in the genre. For both, I concentrate on building an email list of readers, but they are quite different in the focus of marketing activities.
Your own name vs. a pseudonym
If you are writing books under a version of your name, as I do for Joanna Penn and J.F.Penn, then you can use your own face, your photos and details about your life in your marketing. You can do videos and audio and PR and generally be more open. Platform-building is easy and sustainable over time.
If you're writing books under a pseudonym that you want to keep secret or separate from your name, as I do for the sweet romance, then platform-building is difficult. If you don't want to use your face or your photos or your voice, then you're more likely to focus on writing a series, price promotions and paid ads.
Data focused vs. people focused
Marketing is diverging into two poles: the kind that uses data analytics to drive decision-making and advertising, and the kind that focuses on attracting like-minded people.
Data focused marketing includes tools that dig down into the Amazon sub-categories, looking for under-served niches and focusing on algorithm changes, as well as spreadsheets for keyword focus, return-on-investment (ROI) and tweaking website SEO to reach more readers.
People focused marketing includes speaking, collaboration, writing articles, podcasting, making videos or using images to attract like-minded people and then developing a relationship with them over time.
There is room for both, but they suit different people, and you may find one more attractive than the other.
Push marketing vs. pull marketing
Push marketing is also known as interruption marketing, things like paid advertising that push your work in front of people. Pull marketing is about attraction and permission, drawing people to you by providing useful, entertaining or inspiring content and developing a relationship that makes them want to buy from you over time.
So, these are some of the polarities that you will navigate through your book marketing journey over time. Think of them all as sliding scales that you move up and down along the way, focusing on different aspects over time. Remember, there is no magic bullet when it comes to marketing, only what is the right thing for you and your book over time.
This is an excerpt from How to Market a Book Third Edition, available now in ebook, print and audiobook formats.
Icy Sedgwick says
I love this post! So much of the advice seems to have become a set of ‘rules’ and writers are parrotting what they’ve seen elsewhere. “You can only write one genre”. “You can only sell if you have a series”. “You need to be doing ads or you’ll never get signups”. Etc. My question to these maxims is always “Why?” and if I don’t get a satisfactory answer I do what makes better sense for me. People kept saying there was no point blogging as an author, but I get more signups for my mailing list through my articles and posts than I do through free books! Plus blogging and using social media means I get to build my “personal brand” (as much as I hate that phrase) so I’m selling ‘me’ as much as the books…which is handy when you write in multiple genres. According to Sally Hogshead’s Fascinating personality test, my personality is the Provocateur so I don’t like doing what I’m told anyway!! Posts like this are way more useful because it gives both sides and lets me make up my own mind according to what suits me, not what’s sold as a “proven formula”.
And I’m an INTP 😉
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Icy. I think so much advice becomes polarised because it’s easier to stand out that way. But the truth is a selection of these attributes which change over time – a nuanced marketing approach 🙂
Aaron Leyshon says
Bang, saved straight in Evernote to read again and again. Thank you, Joanna, this is such a fantastically comprehensive post. I really like how you’ve broken things down and discuss things from your own experience, it’s been a while since I’ve been to your blog but I’m very glad to have found my way back.
Thanks for this info. Looking forward to launching my second book at the end of January. Your info is always so helpful and much appreciated!
Tricia Van Buiten says
I’m a new author and I have explored many websites and blogs for new authors. I enjoy and learn from your blog better than any other I’ve read. This article is no different. Thank you for always delivering and helping give me confidence that I can do it, motivating me to dive into completing unfamiliar tasks that can scare me sometimes and the tools to actually succeed in both writing and marketing my book, More Hands to Hold; How I Survived the Sandwich Generation.
John McCone says
This is something I love about Creative Penn books, blogs and podcasts: the extent to which you cover the whole range of possibilities rather than advocating one particular path. I think there’s a treasure trove of advice inside that magpie brain!
One question I would have is whether you can have winning combinations of polarities and losing combinations of polarities.
For example if you write from the heart, my gut tells me it is better to do pull marketing than push marketing. If your book is less targeted I would have thought it would be more important to get people interested in you as a person. If you push something in front of someone’s face without their consent it seems to me that they are only likely to buy it if it’s well targeted at them.
I wonder it this applies to other combos of polarities….
Joanna Penn says
Thanks John 🙂 I definitely think there is a range of possibilities and so much of it is about who you are as a person. I think the winning combinations are whatever works for you and what you can do sustainably for the long-term. So for example, I have been blogging and podcasting for nearly 10 years, so clearly that works for me. But try as I might, I find paid ads unsustainable as a daily activity, so I only use them in spike marketing. You have to find the combo that works for you!