Book launches and marketing for first-time authors

Last weekend I had a fantastic time mentoring emerging writers at the Writers of the South Coast Writing Retreat. I love being surrounded by writers. With so much creativity and enthusiasm it’s impossible not to come away motivated and ready to take on the publishing world.

And that’s where today’s post comes in. Harry Connolly has kindly agreed to let me share his advice on his book marketing and promotional experiences, particularly in relation to launching a first book.

Thank you so much for your time Harry. Take it away!

Book launches

Headshot of Harry Connolly wearing a black t-shirt.

You’d generally want more than a few months to launch a book, but if it’s your first and you’re self-publishing it won’t matter as much.

According to figures I heard a long time ago, the number one reason readers buy a book is because they’ve read and enjoyed one of the author’s other books. Number two is the recommendation of a friend. All other reasons, from title to cover art to whatever, are in the single digits.

Since you can’t target an existing group of readers with a first book you’re going to have to aim for the second: good word of mouth.

To do that you should have three areas to focus on:

  • reviews
  • exposure for the book
  • exposure for the author.

First, reviews

Reviews are the best and the most difficult to get.

I would suggest you start first with Booklife, the self-pub review arm of Publishers Weekly. Getting a star from them was a great boost, and reviews from places with prestigious names make for great blurbs on your Amazon page.

Cover

Do you have a great cover yet? You’ll need one before you send the book for reviews. A great cover assures the reader that the book is professional and worth picking up.

You should also target other reviewers who handle self-published work. Make careful notes of the lead times for each reviewer and follow their guidelines explicitly. Make it easy for them to pick you over one of the dozen other authors who sent books that week.

Second, exposure of the book

You’ll want a pithy way to describe it, first as a one or two paragraph description of the setup, then as a log line.

Traditionally, log lines are thought of as “[Protagonist] much [goal] before [plot deadline] or else [consequence of failure]” but it doesn’t have to be. That’s just a place to start, and the real task is to highlight what you think is cool and unique about your story.

Book cover: The way into magic by Harry Connolly featuring a woman wearing a hat while using magicWhen I was Kickstarting The Great Way I described the books as “A sentient curse causes the collapse of an empire.” That worked, but I still got questions from people who thought a log line-style description was supposed to focus on the protagonist.

And yeah, that’s a good starting point. But it’s like The Hero’s Journey or other plot frameworks: It’s a proven and effective method, but if you know what you’re doing you can do what you like.

The biggest risk you face with a first book is obscurity, so you want an appealing cover and title.

You want to quickly describe the book in a way that catches interest, and you want other people – preferably people who are not family or friends – telling everyone they know that your book is awesome.

To do that you need to get people reading it and that means complementary copies given out with the understanding that they’ll write an honest review.

  • First rule is to never send a book to someone without their permission.
  • The second is to never react to a negative review. When you ask for an honest review you have to accept what you get.

As Jim Macdonald says, responding to reviews is the ABM (Author’s Big Mistake).

Social media

Do you know people with a large social media presence? Are you guys sort of friendly? Ask if they’d be willing to read your book for an honest review. Include the (excellent) cover and the intriguing description.

Next, skim through Goodreads and Amazon for books that are very like yours and find reader-reviewers who:

  • are open to reviewing self-published work (because they’ve reviewed it in the past)
  • read a lot of books (so they’re more likely to actually review your work)
  • get a lot of responses to their reviews (because they have a significant number of followers)
  • show enthusiasm for the genre
  • favorably review books similar to yours (in other words, don’t send grimdark to the reader who only gives 5 stars to Terry Pratchett),

You don’t want to give your book to someone who is famous for snark, either.

Research

Start compiling names and contact information. Some of the top Goodreads reviewers will get a lot of contacts, so target ones with smaller followings. Send them messages with the same offer as the other reviewers. Send them books only if they ask for them.

You’ll need to send the book to as many people as you can because the enemy here is obscurity, and of course it’s cheap to attach an ebook to an email.

But you don’t want to send copies to places that are unfriendly to the sort of book you’ve written since that wastes your time and ensures a negative review, even if the book is good. So, when you make your list of reviewers, include the ones who seem inappropriate, either because of tone or preference, but mark them as inappropriate somehow. Red text works for me. That way, if you see the same somewhat generic name more than once you won’t waste time researching them and ruling them out.

But don’t worry about lost sales. Keep in mind that while review sites will often expect their review to come out on or near a publication date, readers are less picky and you can often offer books weeks or months after it comes out.

If you’re getting five-star reviews that will help sell the book.

Third, self-promotion

Last is to promote yourself, which is the weakest promo method.

Do you have a platform that will impress people, like teaching medieval history in college or teaching longsword? Mention that.

Are you well-known in some other field, like film reviews, tech reviews, that sort of thing? See if there are ways to leverage that by including your book title in the bio line of your articles.

Offering books to your co-workers, I’ve found, is a waste of time. Unless a person reads a lot – and I mean, a lot – people place no value on things they get for free and they’ll never look at what you give them.

Besides, word of mouth from strangers is always stronger than word of mouth from friends and family. “Read this awesome book!” is great. “Read this awesome book that my cousin wrote” less so.

You can try blog tours and such. I’ve done it. I think they’re most useful for established authors to remind readers that they’re still around writing books.

Good marketing

A great title is good marketing. A memorable author name is good marketing.

George RR Martin doesn’t really have to middle names starting with “R”. In reality, he realized that “George Martin” doesn’t really stand out, and he added the initials to make himself easier to remember.

A man in armour holding a spear - book cover by Harry Connolly

But the best marketing of all is a great book. You could spend a year walking all over the country with a sandwich board sign telling people that your novel is exciting and fun, but it will never be as effective as the testimonial of a few complete strangers. And you only get one shot with those strangers, so it’s better to delay the release of your book if you can’t make reviewers’ deadlines or don’t have your cover sorted.

So offer free books on Twitter.

Put yourself out there as a writer with a message.

Do all the things that make lucky people lucky.

Try to get that word of mouth churning.

If you’ve written the right book and you have a bit of luck, you can start prepping for book 2. Good luck.

You can find Harry at his website or on Twitter: @byharryconnolly.

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