What A Big 5 Publisher Will Tell You About Marketing Your Book
(But you probably have to ask.)
I confess: I’m using my debut author husband as a guinea pig.
His first book just came out this summer: my eighth book comes out next April. Since I had to learn the publishing ropes myself — and made a lot of mistakes on the journey — we’ve decided to test drive some of the lessons I learned the hard way and see if we can get a bit more momentum for his career right out of the starting gate.
First Up: Promoting Your Book and Building an Author Brand
My husband asked his Big 5 publisher for help on both counts. I’d asked two of my Big 5 publishers for a leg up with this myself (we actually have the same publisher for my third), but the most I ever got was a spectrum of “Seems like you’re doing great” to “Just post what feels good.” I suspect this is why my books struggle for visibility. We wanted Zach to avoid this struggle himself.
His imprint is huge for his genre (thrillers, though Zach’s book is genre-bending) and has a very small list, which we though meant he’d get lots more in-house attention. He’d only gotten one podcast interview and one online interview with a small outlet before and after the book came out, so it was hard to build momentum on the publicity front. His publisher didn’t have him doing anything else, and as a debut he didn’t have a wide network to draw from.
Still, we couldn’t figure out why he only had a couple hundred followers despite his book getting great reviews and chosen as a Library Journal Summer Best pick.
We’re not social media mavens, but we were following the rules. He posts regularly about interesting topics, engages with other people online, does the things you’re supposed to do…Nothing was moving the needle. “Just ask them for help. Outright. Straight-up,” I said.
Because here’s the thing: Our publishers are major corporations with a global reach and millions of dollars. It would stand to reason that the people they hire to do marketing and publicity and sales could pay their know-how forward and help their writers out. It’s a win/win: the writer has a better reach, the publisher sells more books.
They have insider knowledge, the use of analytics, and helpful tools culled from years of being professional promoters. Check out this Twitter thread by former HarperCollins marketer Margot Wood if you don’t believe me. She drops some serious knowledge writers need to hear while throwing down about all the ways publishers could help authors, but for some reason unknown to ALL of us, do not.
Here’s a snippet:
At HC I was on a task force that spent over a year analyzing what made YA books popular. We were trying to find that pocket of gold but only found veins. I wish I had shared our findings publicly bc the information was valuable but ultimately the higher ups didn’t even listen.
So maybe we shouldn’t have been disappointed when, after this debut author told his publicist that he was struggling to build his Twitter profile and amplify his author brand, the extent of advice he received was a four-page Word document on best practices in social media that your high school daughter probably could have created.
I mean, don’t get me wrong: some of it was helpful and ALL of it is helpful if you’re a person of a certain age who has zero experience with social.
If my mom decided to write a book today, this thing would save her life. But for a millennial author? Yeah, not so much.
While we’d both been hoping for some insider secrets from publishing marketers on how to promote books (again, read that Twitter thread by Margot), with insights ideally based on years of publishing analytics, getting that Word doc still felt like a win: At least he got something of some use when he asked.
Does Anything You Do Matter? I Mean, Really?
I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that the current culture does not include author brand consultation. We ALL know that in-house help on that front is not usually forthcoming, unless, perhaps, you’re a big title for them. But it could be. It should be.
Helping authors build robust brands is a cultural shift that needs to happen in order for the book industry to truly thrive, especially now that so much promotion is the author’s job.
If you only have two more seconds to read (does anyone finish an article these days?), I’ll sum it up real quick:
The fact is that if your publisher isn’t pushing your book, there isn’t much you can do unless you are a social media maven, and even then, that doesn’t mean people will buy your books. They might pirate them, though. Arrrrgggh.
In case you didn’t realize this, Writer, you do not have the marketing prowess of a major corporation.
Does that mean you should throw in the towel on all marketing efforts? No, you lazy git, it does not. But it does mean you need to put those efforts into perspective, be realistic about your expectations, and spend most of your time just writing really good books.
Doing social as best you can will allow you to connect with readers, network towards writing gigs and local visibility, and be part of the writing community as a whole.
Will it move books? Probably not, unless there are other ways you’re getting attention that ultimately amplifies your backlist.
What One Big 5 Told Its Author About Author Branding & Promoting
What I share below is a quick download of the advice given to my husband in that Word document from his publisher. It’s some of the only advice you will ever receive from a publisher. None of this is going to blow your mind, but I’m just here to pay the info forward.
If you’re at all savvy or born after 1980, you likely won’t need this information.
Also note that no date was put on the Word doc, so we have no idea if this information reflects the recent change in Instagram’s algorithm or any other shifts. Not so great, considering how fast things move in the tech world.
General Social Media Best Practices
Be Consistent: The publisher suggests you have one website rather than an author site and then separate book sites. I wish I’d been told this when I made special sites for my fantasy trilogy and another for a contemporary that dealt with dating violence. I’d seen big books get this treatment — the fancy website just for that title or series — and assumed that doing that, even if I had to roll up my sleeves myself, would help. Nope: it was a waste of time, money, and effort.
Frequency of Posting: This is where the document became more useful: they tell you how often you should post for certain platforms. It can be hard to cull through all the social media advice out there, and it’s all changing anyway, so I appreciated hearing this from industry professionals.
Mix It Up: You probably know this, but many authors don’t seem to have gotten the memo:
If all you do is push your book, people will not enjoy following you. Have diversity in your posts.
Advice for Individual Platforms
This is where publishing lives. Here’s what you need to know:
- No maximum amount for posts on Twitter — have at it, kittens.
- Allow for thirty minutes between posting. Do you have enough self-control Twitterheads?
- Twitter is all about conversation, which is important to remember. I often put up a tweet, then forget all about it.
- They suggest calls to action, such as “Like this post if…” Personally, that feels gross. You do you.
- They don’t want you to follow more than 1K people.
I wish someone would tell us why, as a culture, we have these rules on social about having way more followers than people we follow. This is so dumb. It reminds me of Amy in Little Women, hoarding limes.
Their last bit of advice, which is actually the mic drop at the end of the document:
Things to Avoid on Twitter
• Do not engage in Twitter wars.
Good luck with that if your stuff goes viral. Good advice, though. You can’t win ’em all. Besides, don’t you have books to write?
Unfortunately, this document had nothing to say about the new algorithm, nor does it get into some of the savvy maneuverings I hear tell of, like how to hack the whole hashtag game and get that sweet, sweet verified blue check.
You probably know the basics of how to make things not look like an aesthetic swampland, so I won’t be forwarding that advice. Here’s some helpful hints they gave about frequency and content:
- Maximum of two posts daily
- Three hour window (at least) between posts
- 1 to 10 IG stories per day is considered a good range, as viewership will decline after the first story is posted. My guess is that it might be best to save them up and post all at once, but I’m not sure about that.
- Behind-the-scenes stuff is fun for readers to see. I’ve personally noticed more interest in my posts when it’s a photo of my first pass pages or editorial comments, etc.
- Stick to a semi-regular posting schedule, whatever you want, just make it so that people know when to expect a post from you.
- One interesting thing they said that I’d never heard was to not post tour graphics or traditional quote cards that look like ads. Which, of course, begs the question…um, what are those doing for us, then? I’ve had publishers TELL me to post them. Perhaps the analytics of this publisher suggest they don’t perform well.
As with everything in publishing, I generally have to throw up my hands like Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare In Love, share an exhausted grin, and say, “It’s a mystery!”
- Maximum 3 posts daily
- Each post should be spaced at least three hours apart
- Facebook’s algorithm works better for you if you post a wide range of content — different media, etc.
- Posts that include links generally perform better.
- Videos perform well — especially live ones — with the algorithm.
- The reason why it’s so important to ask a question at the end of the post isn’t just to be open and encourage engagement — the algorithm itself works in your favor if there is a lot of engagement.
The Approach To How Publishers Advise On Marketing Needs A Revision
One of the more disappointing aspects of this document is how it doesn’t help you strategize (should you share snippets of your book on Instagram, as I’ve seen popular YA author Tahereh Mafi do?), how to use inbound marketing, or DEAR GOD NEWSLETTERS, which everyone says is gold.
Nor does it mention anything about the publishing timeline. How should one be promoting the book leading up to publication, on pub day, and in the weeks after? Much of the information provided are general best practices ANYONE could use, not just authors.
And while this publisher simply advises its writers not to get into Twitter wars, the rise of bullying of authors online by their fellow writers, industry pros, and some readers suggests that a more nuanced, comprehensive approach to this issue is called for. (There are many definitions out there of what “bullying” is or isn’t, but I’ve definitely seen it happen — #litbullies are out there in droves).
#Cancel culture is real and authors need to be educated on how to navigate this minefield. They also need to know what the publisher considers professional and unprofessional behavior online. This is especially true when authors using harsh language or publicly shame their colleagues write for children and teens. These kids look up to them as role models, and they have access to author’s social platforms, which are often advertised in their book jackets. We need to be treating one another in a way that acknowledges one another’s human dignity, regardless of whether or not we agree with each other. I believe this is why it’s essential for publishers to have a clear code of conduct for their authors.
One author I know, who publishes with Penguin/Random House said that there’s actually a really informative author portal they’ve got going on, which gets into more of this and even tells authors how much their books are making (gasp!). I hope more publishers follow suit.
Advocate For Yourself
One big thing I hope you take away from this part of the debut author experiment my husband and I are conducting is that in order to get help from your publisher, you will likely have to ask.
Notice how even though the publisher had this handy(ish) resource all ready to send writers, this debut author was never given the material! He had to ask.
This brings me to my number one rule when engaging with publishers: Be your own advocate.
You might not know what to ask for. That’s okay. Tell them, “I don’t know what to ask for here, but I know I need to promote my books and I need help. What should I do?”
Then keep your eye on the important conversations happening here at Page Count and in the #amwriting, #writingcommunity, #authorlife spheres on Twitter. Pay attention to the people you follow and notice what makes you keep coming back. Beeeeeeeeee yourself. And, for the love, spend most of your time on your books. That’s what readers “like” best.
Heather Demetrios is an author, writing coach, and teacher for scribes. She lives in Durham, NC with her writer husband and very imaginative Devon Rex cat. Her novels include Little Universes, I’ll Meet You There, Bad Romance, as well as the Dark Caravan fantasy series. Her non-fiction includes Codename Badass: A Feminist Pop Biography. She is the editor of Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors and Teens on the Dark Side of Love. Find out more about Heather and her books at heatherdemetrios.com and visit her on Twitter: @HDemetrios and @page_count. Her newsletter, The Lotus & Pen, provides resources for the writing life.