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Traction: Treating your Book like a Startup or 19 Ways For Writers and Publishers to Get Readers


One of the more sobering realizations you’ll have after you finish writing your first book is that now you have to sell and promote it. Even if the book is published by a larger, well-established publisher, a book–especially a debut book–only has 2 to 3 months to get itself reviewed and in the hands of readers before the stores and, unfortunately, your publisher (who has dozens of other authors to attend to) have to decide it’s no longer worth selling or promoting. Once it’s off the shelves or no longer in libraries, and your publisher has moved their extremely limited resources to the next author, it’s pretty much over. Especially if you’re not treating your book like a startup.

So what can you do?

Here at Submittable, many of us are writers and artists. We’re pretty familiar with the undignified, often-painful hustle of selling yourself and the things you make.

Our company is based in Missoula, Montana, a few thousand miles from the pretty insular traditional publishing and media worlds. To get our software in the hands of thousands of great clients, we’ve generally had to resort to inexpensive DIY marketing.

And we’re constantly reading books on the subject. Most suck. But recently, an acquaintance, Benjamin Bryant, who ran Digital Marketing for the original Kickstarter darling Pebble, which raised $43M in crowdfunding, gave me a book called TRACTION: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth*. It was written by Gabriel Weinberg, the founder of DuckDuckGo, and Justin Mares, former Director of Revenue at Exceptional, a software company that Rackspace acquired.

I found the book to be exceptionally relevant to our company, but it also occurred to me that as a writer, I’d find many of their tactics valuable for promoting books (or any project).

The main thesis of the book is that there are 19 traction channels you can use to create growth for your company. For this post, I’ve jiggled them around a little to make them speak to book promotion (basically, a guide to treating your book like a startup). Some of them may seem stupid or to not have a large enough audience to make a difference, but often the smaller channels are paths into the bigger ones. And often, channels such as Public Speaking or Sales, which put you (and most people) out of their comfort zone, are the channels that won’t have much competition and can be done cheaply and with the most effect.

Some might just seem tasteless. As authors, promoting your book isn’t really too far from promoting yourself. At least with a product or startup, there’s some distance between you and the thing the client might be paying for. But with a book, you’re basically asking someone to listen to your thoughts for a week or two straight.

It’s like having someone pay you to rant at them. You have to shake that off and remember that people other than you made sacrifices for this book to get out the door: your family and friends, your publisher, potentially your children, who are making both financial and time sacrifices so that you could write this book. You owe them all.

Please think about these with an open mind before you let doubt talk yourself out of trying.

19 Ways of Looking at Book Promotion

1. Targeting Blogs

Make a list of 100 blogs that might be interested in reviewing your book, printing an excerpt or a post you’ve written. Read and research the blogs and their editors. Create a list of ideas that might be pertinent to each post. Send personal emails to each, offering review and give-away copies to the editor. Be sure to read the blogs and be clear why you think this book is relevant to each specific blog. Success doesn’t have to be a book review. It can be reprinting an excerpt, a review of a similar book, or essay demonstrating your expertise around your book’s subject matter. You’ll generally find more success if you tweak your goal from “getting my book reviewed” to “what can I do that provides value to this blog’s editor and audience.”

Some of the most obvious book blogs or communities are The Millions, The Margins: Asian American Writer’s Workshop, RealPants, BookRiot, Jane Friendman’s blog, Penguin’s Hazlit, ElectricLit, BuzzFeed Books, Huffington Post, HTMLGIANT, The Rumpus, and the blogs of your favorite literary journals such as BarrelHouse, Kenyon Review, Hobart Pulp, Iowa Review, etc. But don’t limit your reach to just book blogs. You should approach blogs that might be relevant based on subject matter. For example, if your book has a character who is into video games, you may try Kill Screen. Or a book that takes place in Italy might be of interest to Italian travel blogs like Girl in Florence. (Shameless: we also accept guest posts.)

2. Viral Marketing

How can you incentivize readers to get other readers to buy your book? There seems to be some opportunity here around book groups. For example, you could offer free book group readings or signed copies to any group that demonstrates 5 purchases or more. They could do the proof of purchase by posting a picture on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. You could give group discounts for a purchase of more than 10 copies. You could offer a free book consultation to any reader that posts a picture of themselves with your book on the social networks.  Bottom line: Create ways to reward readers for sharing your book.

3. Publicity

Get on TV, the radio, a podcast, etc.. From the outside, it’s not always clear, but media outlets are constantly under the gun to produce new shows or content. The larger, better-known outlets will have years of backlog, but if you make it effortless for them, getting press is relatively easy. Be polite and concise in your contact letter. Demonstrate that you’re easy to work with. Make it harder for them to say “No,” than to say “Yes.” Once in the media, be sincere or at least very entertaining. (It’s different for most people, but I try very hard to just be myself because I’m not really clever enough to be anything else. I’ve found anytime I try to be clever, I make a fool of myself.)

There are dozens of excellent independent podcasts such as Minorities in Publishing, Tin House, Nuestra Palabra – Latino Writers Having Their Say, BookFightLit Up, Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (and other people), David Naimon’s Between the Covers, Brad Listi’s Otherppl, LA Public Library’s ALOUD, Lewis Robinson’s Talk Shop, Writers on Writing, The Turtle Book Club and Mostly Lit. And don’t be scared of reaching out to some of the larger mainstream outlets like The Write QuestionKCRW’s Book Worm, Slate’s Audio Book Club, and The New Yorker‘s Fiction Podcast  (If I missed any, please add them in the comment section below.)

Make a list of every book reviewer that you’ve ever read and enjoyed. Buy a bunch of manila envelopes. Send out 2 to 3 packages per day to those potential reviewers. Be polite, concise, and don’t expect anything in return. If anyone does end up reviewing your book, even if they say it’s crap, send a thank you note. Nothing is ever personal and all exposure helps.

Also, make it effortless for potential reviewers to request copies of your book. Make sure your website has multiple ways of getting in touch with you: an email, a phone number, and a form for requesting review copies like they have here on DZANC Books.

4. Unconventional PR

Remember that time a guy jumped out of a spaceship in order to promote caffeinated sugar water?

Or did you ever see the time Heineken pranked a bunch of Champion League soccer fans? How about when Uber brought ice cream to your house? Or basically any time Richard Branson steps out the door? Entertaining stunts that get attention don’t have to be billion dollar undertakings. Show up at your next city council meeting in a bear suit. Shovel your neighbors’ sidewalk with a flame thrower. People can’t order your book unless they’ve heard of you.

5. Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Buying ads on Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and other search engines is pretty straightforward and can be done fairly cheaply and effectively if you target well. Some ideas would be to create ads around your book’s subject matter, historical or regional topics within the book, or even your own bio. For example, you could target your graduating high school class. (When Submittable first started, we used to buy editors’ names so that they’d see our ad when they searched themselves.)

6. Social and Display Ads

On search channels, you can target display ads the same way you target text ads, but adding social networks allows you to target by additional profiling data. For example, you can target by job title on Linkedin or interests on Facebook. If your novel has a character who loves to cook Middle Eastern food, you can promote to anyone else interested in that.

Look for smaller channels like BlogAds Book Community or advertise directly through the publisher like RealPants or Mamalode. Many publishers are sympathetic to authors and may be open to giving you a deal on ads, especially if you contact them during a slow time.

7. Offline Ads

TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, yellow pages, billboards, and direct mail… I know. Who uses or interacts with any of these things other than my parents? You’d be surprised. The offline ad market today is still larger than online. Because it’s looked down upon, there are often cheaper and effective opportunities. As an author, seeing yourself on a billboard would probably feel comically gross, but working for 5 years on a book and only selling 4 copies would as well. I’d spend at least a few days calling around your local stations and papers inquiring about rates. (You can have your spouse do it if you want. Have him pretend to be your publicist.) This could also open up the potential of having them do an actual story on you and your book.

8. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Would you ever build a house and forget to put a front door in it? Would you ever not put a name or address on the mailbox? Make sure your website can be found on search engines and make sure it loads fast and is available on all devices. There are tons of free tools for testing SEO. Don’t kill yourself trying to figure out the best. Just pick one and test regularly.

9. Content Marketing

See 19 Ways For Writers and Publishers to Look at Book Promotion.

10. Email Marketing

Often a euphemism for spam, but really you should be creating email lists of people who might possibly benefit from your book (also add your friends and family). Emails should be succinct, informative, and, ideally, entertaining. They should also be personal. Email is a very different relationship from traditional marketing. Your emails will be in a box next to notes from friends, family, and co-workers. Write them to fit that context. Create a schedule so that you can be regular about sending them, but also promote great reviews or anything you feel is pertinent to the audience.

You can spend a little money in ConstantContact or MailChimp but tricking out Gmail with a few plugins like Templates will usually be more than fine.

11. Engineering as Marketing

This might be more challenging for books than for software products. In software, you can often add features that enhance shareability. Or you can create pricing that makes it effortless for your users to add more users to the platform. For a book, you could have a coupon in the first book that gives you half off the price of a second book.

12. Business Development (BD)

Partner with other organizations that might share the same audience as your book. Work hard and make sure that both parties have a clear path to measuring and succeeding with the partnership. For example, if you wrote a book where cows are prominently featured, you could partner with your local ice cream shop to give away copies of your book. Make it so the partner has to do as little as possible in order to feel success from the partnership.

13. Sales

Call or talk in person to other human beings and ask them to give you money for your book. (Aaaaaahhhh!) It’s brutal, it’s humiliating, it’s 10 times harder than writing a book, but it’s ultimately the reason you wrote the book. When we first started Submittable, I used to cold call 10 people a day. It was the most soul-crushing, humiliating experience. 99% of people just said “No,” and easily 90% of them were pissed. But I was broke and I had small children to feed and I had talked my partners into making huge financial sacrifices. I had to do something. So I used to drink 2 Bud lights and walk around the halls of the mostly empty building our 200-square-foot office was in at the time, and I would call 10 strangers each day and pitch them our software. I sucked at it and the occasional success was not something you could scale. But the real value was that it steeled me against the years of rejection that would come in the future.

If you experience hundreds of rejections a week, you’ll eventually get to a point where they don’t faze you. (Oddly, many of the publishers I called and was rejected by in the early days eventually, 3 to 4 years later, became clients. With a book, I’d just put a bunch in your backpack and walk through a neighborhood and try to sell a few. Just do it for 30 minutes every day and see what happens. I think you’ll be surprised. (At the very least, recording the humiliating experience might make for good marketing materials.)

14. Affiliate Programs

Make it profitable for others to sell your books. For example, give blogs a way to earn income from each book that gets sold as a result of a post or advertisement.

15. Existing Platforms

Does your book have an app? I know you’re saying, No, my book doesn’t have a fucking app, you asshat. I’d say that too. And yes, this is a little more relevant for software companies that actually build apps. But really the goal would be to somehow get your book into an existing ecosystem that has millions of users. So for a book, it might not be an app, but making sure there’s an audio version available on Audible or even something more DIY like SoundCloud could prove very valuable.

16. Trade Shows

AWP and BEA are great. Those are your people. A highly concentrated group of readers and writers. Those are a no-brainer. But honestly, I think the best conferences are places where they’d least expect you. If you’re a bookseller with a table among thousands of other booksellers, you have the tall task of differentiating yourself. But if you’re a bookseller at a Bass Fishing conference, you will get endless WTFs. You will get noticed.

When we first started Submittable, my friend, Elke Govertsen, the founder and publisher of Mamalode, brilliantly suggested I attend the BlogHer conference because it was all women bloggers and I was neither. This was 8 years ago. It’s since become massive. But at the time, it was a few hundred women bloggers. There were no actual software companies and there were about 3 men in the entire audience. As a middle-aged guy, I stuck out. Within a few hours, every other attendee knew who I was (the CEO of a software company that could potentially be used by bloggers.) Find your own BlogHer.

17. Offline Events

Run or sponsor local events. For example, offer to do free author readings for local book groups or via tools like Google Hangouts, Skype, or Facebook Live for non-local groups.

Buy some letterhead and cards that you can use to write personal letters to anyone who helps along the way. Thank you notes are just the right thing to do and make a lasting impression.

18. Speaking Engagements

When my first book came out over 10 years ago, I was living in Boise, Idaho, and I had a full-time job and two children under the age of 3. I was mostly exhausted and didn’t feel particularly young and hip or worthy of speaking in front of a room full of young hip readers and writers. But I had reached out to another Boise writer, Tony Doerr, who was pretty well established at the time and has gone on to be a massive best-selling writer. He offered to have coffee with me. He said (and I’m paraphrasing), Spend 1 hour per day on promotion: get review copies out, write thank you letters, and reach out for speaking engagements or reading series. (He also said you need to be able to describe your book in 2 sentences.

Imagine sitting down next to a stranger on a plane and having them ask, “What do you do?”) So I started reaching out to the reading series in the bigger cities that I would have wanted to be an audience member of, namely Jim Ruland’s Vermin on the Mount and Amanda Stern’s Happy Ending reading series.

I don’t know if this will always work, but to approach Jim and Amanda, I did the following: 1) I read their books (which, thank god, I loved. Amanda’s first book took place about an hour from where I grew up and covered a few real events that I remembered from college). 2) I read the books of authors they recently had read. 3) I wrote sincere letters telling them why my book and I would be a good fit for the series and asking if I could send them a copy of the book. 4) I did stupid things like bookmark sensational scenes in the book with overindulgent drug taking or sex or just scenes that had sentences I was particularly proud of. (I did this so that they wouldn’t have to read the whole book to decide whether I might be an entertaining reader.) 5) Then I followed up every two weeks or so.

It’s important to remember that all of these people get hundreds of requests like this and it’s rarely personal if they can’t fit you in, it’s mostly timing and a million other things going on. They both eventually responded and for better or worse let me come read. As luck would have it, Jim paired me with Ron Currie Jr. and Katherine Taylor, who both had debut books coming out, and, at the Happy Ending Series, I read with Joshua Ferris. I was definitely the loosy warm-up act at each reading but being on stage with such talent was extraordinarily productive.

Make yourself available and an expert and be good at it. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Ideally you spend 4 hours preparing for every 1 hour you’ll be speaking in public. Decide on the piece you’re going to read a week ahead of time. Cut it in half. Nothing is more painful than a self-indulgent reading or speech. (He says on page 12 of a blog post.) Read out loud in front of a mirror or camera. Don’t get drunk. Don’t do drugs. (For my LA reading, I prepared by staying out the night before until 5 am with high school friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years. It was the biggest mistake of my writing life.)

19. Community Building

Take part in social media and forums. Review other people’s books. 10 years ago, Good Reads was excellent but I’m sure there’s something better now. But demonstrate that you read and review other people’s books. Don’t let things escalate in the comment sections or get too worked up about negative feedback. Just act sincere and people will generally reciprocate.

Ok, that’s a lot. I hope this was helpful. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with questions or suggestions on how to make this better. And please list any additional ideas or resources I may have missed in the comment section below.

Even if some of these ideas struck you as useless, I think the most important thing about promotion is to do something, anything, every day. Treating your book like a startup takes dedication. Make it habitual. Use 50% of the time you used to use to write to get your book in front of people. If you have a full-time job, wake up early for the 6 months around your book launch and spend 1 to 2 hours per day doing something that makes you uncomfortable. Promotion is mostly about being habitual, getting your book in front of one new person every day. It’s not too different from writing in this way. Don’t sweat the rejection. Don’t give up.

(If you found this post helpful, please feel free to republish it or any piece of it on your website. We just ask that you link back to the original. Thanks!)

*Our cynical blog editor, Asta So, wants me to make sure everyone knows this post isn’t “sponsored content” for TRACTION. It’s not. I just strongly feel the book could help authors.

Once you’re treating your book like a startup, why not write for us at Submittable?

Michael FitzGerald

Michael lives in Missoula, Montana, with his wife and two sons. He’s the CEO and one of the founders of Submittable and the author of the novel Radiant Days.