Let me preface this article by saying that this isn't a new trend, it's been building for a while, but changes in the industry are forcing this even more. What changes, you say? Well, Amazon for one thing. And no, this isn't an article about how Amazon's Kindle Unlimited is the devil (though many think it is) and how authors are jumping ship in KDP Select (which many are), this is about the deluge of books published, the changing environment for consuming information and the surge of mobile.
There's a saying in the music business: if you can't be a hero in your hometown, you can't be a hero anywhere. Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel both played bars that likely you and I wouldn't be caught dead in. Seedy, no-name bars playing to a room of pretty inebriated folks. They did that to build their fan base. Did it work every time? No, it did not, but it worked enough that it's become a pretty normal thing for the music biz.
So how does this translate to publishing? Well, I spend a lot of my time talking to authors (a lot) and most of the time I love it. I'd be too Pollyanna and probably lying if I said I loved it every time because sometimes it's downright painful. "I want to be famous, on a grand scale, you know a movie. My book is written like a movie." I get it, I want a movie, too - a day in the life of a publicist. The reality is, that ain't gonna happen. Now, I'm not trying to be all buzz kill but rather, I want to prove a point.
Now, more than ever, the steps to gaining traction for a book are self-evident and, they are also small. I mean micro-small. I mean: one person at a time. Yes, it's easier to go for the big targets. "Let's get the New York Times to review my book." Sure, we can do that, but that isn't a good use of your time. Instead, focus on your hometown. While it may not seem as glamorous as a walk on the red carpet, it will likely pay off for you in bigger ways.
I've mentioned in other blog posts and articles I've written that we've been testing this book. Unknown author, super cluttered genre and we've been testing it doing all sort of things to see what readers gravitate to and what they don't. I've talked a lot about Super Fans, getting right to your target market, making them feel important, spending most, if not all, of your time trying to reach readers - and, also, building your mailing list because both of these things will be crucial.
By now most of us have heard of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, but before John Green was well-known he was on YouTube, posting videos that engaged his readers. I was just at Digital Book World and a lot of publishers talked about picking up authors who were micro-celebrities. Great online followings, not on a massive, national scale, but big enough that the publisher felt their base was really strong.
A lot of authors spend a lot of time focusing big and I get that, I love thinking big. Big rocks. But so does small, because small often grows big if you handle it well. So, back to my example of the book we've been testing. At some point I knew that we had to do something beyond what everyone else was doing. Pitching bloggers, doing Goodreads giveaways, sending review copies - all of that is great, but we needed something different. I decided to write a letter, a soft request to readers to get engaged, to help out, to become the reason that this author does well. I asked for a review, I invited them to write in. Then we did a freebie giveaway. Yes, I get that a lot of people do freebies and yes, I know a lot of folks say that we're inundated with free books and the freebie stuff no longer works but that's because (in my humble opinion) they're doing it wrong.
We ran the giveaway and got 61,000 downloads, reviews went from 19 to now over 250, and the author got in excess of 300 letters from readers. Now you may not think that's a lot for 61,000 downloads but in my view, it's a great start.
From there I had her engage, directly, with each reader, thanking them and inviting them to read her blog and become an exclusive reader for her next book. All of this to focus on building her base, her hometown.
For some authors, as was in this case, free can be used to help jumpstart a fan base, for others it's going to be something different. But the point here is that you have to look small, in order to get big.
Micro-celebrity can look like anything. It could be a super engaged Twitter following or YouTube fans. And if a movie is something you aspire to, why not find a way to create short book trailers that maybe speak to different elements of the book? The point here is that while it's great to have broader goals, you'll never get to a national level without being a hometown hero.
What this also means is that if you can only be on one social media platform then do that and do it well. Engage like crazy because you don't have to be everywhere, just everywhere that matters.
The term buzz is often misunderstood. For many, buzz means being a trending hashtag on Twitter but that isn't something that is afforded to many of us. Instead, start thinking of buzz on a more intimate scale: your readers.
There was a time when the industry tossed out the word "platform" like it was confetti, but much like the term buzz, platform was also misunderstood and because of this, most did not really know how to grow it. Now that we have the term micro-celebrity, let's look at some other strategies that can get you there:
Reader outreach: People ask me all the time, "I get it, now how do I do it?" Reader outreach isn't that hard and if you've tried to do it and haven't been successful, I can almost guarantee you're doing it wrong. How do I know? Because readers love to engage with their favorite authors. By reader outreach I mean you need a way for them to get in touch with you, and for reasons related to Amazon eBook formatting do not put that in the front of your book. Your readers may never find it there. Put it in the back where readers will see it, right at the end of the actual book itself - so behind the last chapter. If you don't have access to your book block or can't add this letter, there are other things you can do. Your blog, for example, could be a great way to gain reader attention, and I would say the same rule applies here: if you're not gaining reader attention (and have been doing this for a while and regularly) then you may need to change up your blog topics.
Book as a sales tool: Every book should promote every other book you have. If you are releasing books that don't link to other titles, this is a huge loss in terms of reader engagement and sales.
The importance of importance: One of the biggest keys is also to make your reader feel important. If you get a reader email, respond to them. Thank them, offer them your gratitude. You'll be surprised how far this goes. Even in my own business, I respond to every email I get from readers. Reader love is earned, over time, and it starts one reader at a time.
Gifts and swag: When a reader is engaged with you, you want them to feel important as I mentioned above, and writing a note, a thank you note, can go a long way. You also may want to think about doing swag or small gift cards (who would say no to a $5 Starbucks gift card?) or something else you feel you can afford. Here's the funny thing, this is where I get a lot of pushback. "But that really adds up!" You're right, it does, but so does a whole lot of marketing effort that no one sees. We had an author who ran a big ad in a big publication. While I can't be 100% sure I think it ran her over $2,500 and she got little or no return. You can buy a whole lot of $5 gift cards for that amount of money and engage people directly and in a way that is far more long-term and effective. This isn't about bribing readers, this is just about finding new and creative ways to say "thank you."
Find your outlet: As I mentioned earlier, you don't have to be everywhere but be everywhere that matters. Find an outlet, or outlets, that works for you. That may be social media or something else. For some of you, that might be speaking or other types of author events.
The key really is to focus in a more narrow, more beneficial way. Find things that will grow your celebrity on a smaller scale. Keep in mind that small does not mean fewer sales. In the example of the author I cited earlier, we built the fan base such that by the time the pre-order for her latest book came out, she got 600 orders for it and then within 10 days of launch, another 1,000 orders flooded in. Granted 1,600 book sales won't get you on a bestseller list or a red carpet, but remember that there was little or no marketing other than reader outreach - no major blog push, very small social media following, nothing else. Just readers. In that light these numbers become significantly more impressive.