Book Marketing in the Digital Age

When I look back on my book sales over the past 10 or 12 years, the revenues tend to average out to a shade over $1,000 per month. Some months are better, some are worse, but for years on end I paid all my daughter’s basic living expenses with book royalties while she went through college and now this pays most of my own expenses while living in Mexico in a house we own.

I have accomplished this by consistently minding the marketing. Whether you publish the old way through Random House or the new way on your own, the book marketing is still mostly or fully on your shoulders. If you don’t get that part right, month after month, it doesn’t matter how great the words on the page are. It won’t sell.

Marketing Your Books in a Digital Age

reading a book by Sarah Brown

I’ve got a whole course called Productivity Power for Writers that’s all about getting real work done consistently and much of the focus is on good prioritization practices. Nowhere is this more important than with your own book(s). You can’t do everything, and there are only so many hours in a day, plus you’ve got to take care of whatever else is earning you a living. So go where you’re going to have the most impact.

I first wrote about this idea back in 2012, when I saw a fascinating story on Forbes.com called The Tim Ferriss Effect. It’s long, but go read the whole thing if you have a book out or will put one out later because it shows just how much things had changed already by that point in terms of what really makes a difference for sales. The synopsis is that this author’s appearances on major media outlets—including CNN and the New York Times—barely moved the needle, but appearing with a guest post on the blog of Timothy Ferriss made his book, The Education of Millionaires, an instant bestseller on Amazon.

(Side note: I also did a guest post on that blog once, back in 2010, and also saw a huge spike in sales. The post got more than 200 comments and that month set a record for book sales. Was that a case of “writing for free”? Only if you have a warped definition of “free.”)

Here’s the big takeaway of the article: go where your fans are, and go to the people those fans trust. Go to bloggers who have a strong, dedicated following. To be more specific to the travel world, if your book is about consumer rights, you’d want to connect with Christopher Elliott. If your book is about Pennsylvania travel, it would make a whole lot of sense to connect with Jim Cheney of UncoveringPA.com. If you have a novel set in Lisbon or a travel narrative about moving to the Algarve, you’d be crazy not to connect with James Cave of The Portugalist.

These people founded popular blogs with real fans, but blogs that are run by a single human being. So don’t put together some 100-outlet media list of magazines you’ve seen on the newsstand and start spamming away. Even if you got blurbs in those, they probably wouldn’t help your sales much. Instead, you want to start a dialog with the handful of people who really matter for your subject area. Of course, if you have a connection with someone popular whose blog post subjects are all over the map, like Mr. Ferriss, then by all means work that angle as well.

Speaking of his main claim to fame these days, put podcasts high on your list as well. This is where I actually concentrate most of my marketing focus these days, reaching out to podcasters to get on interviews. I’ve found these to be more effective than a syndicated radio show that supposedly reaches millions or a magazine that everyone and their mother recognizes the name of. Podcasts are long, intimate, and not broken up by multitasking. Most listeners are giving the interview their full attention and the shelf life of an episode can go on for years.

Karma applies though: don’t be an aggressive jerk and do what you can to make their life easier if they agree to give you the forum. Show a podcaster how you’ll grow their audience and wherever you appear, do your part to promote them and your post/interview once it’s out. (And it would be a nice gesture to send them an autographed copy of your book with a personal note if you live in the same country.)

The same is true if you pitch guest posts to other bloggers with a link back. A non-spammy guest post custom geared to their readers, formatted in HTML already, will go a long way. Include everything they need in one e-mail–I have a Dropbox collection of photos I can drop a link to–so they don’t have to keep asking for the rest of the material.

Cultivate the Right Relationships

The best sales month I’ve had in the past few years came from a simple newsletter mention of just a few lines. After my appearance in Recomendo by Kevin Kelly, I sold close to 150 copies in a single week. Now that’s what you call “influence!” Some people pretend to have it and others really do. Your prioritization job is figuring out which is which. (Hint, it’s probably not people posing in front of pretty backdrop scenes on Instagram…)

I met the legendary Mr. Kelly completely by chance. He rented my house in Mexico through Airbnb and we struck up a series of phone and e-mail conversations. He eventually wrote this great story for me in Perceptive Travel about being a backpacker in the 1970s.

Most of the writers, podcasters, and bloggers I have connected with though I didn’t meet by chance. We usually met and socialized together at an in-person conference like TBEX, IMM, or NATJA. Or we traveled together on a press trip. Or they stayed at my house even.

These personal relationships formed after days together can bear fruit for a lifetime. Your friends–or at least acquaintances–are going to open your e-mails and take your calls. Strangers probably won’t. The people who know you will scratch your back and know that later you’ll be there for them if needed.

This whole process is much easier if you really know the right people instead of just having them on some virtual friend list from social media. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to go to conferences based on your subject matter, whatever that may be. Once you’re moving in the right circles, it’s easier to tap those circles for mutual benefit. In-person meet-ups are always going to trump everything else, which has been a problem during this pandemic, but don’t ignore the other ways to gather virtually.

Do Something Regularly to Market Your Book

The book marketing bible when I published my first title in 2002 was 1,001 Ways to Market Your Book and there’s a 2016 version you can still buy on Kindle. I probably tried at least a hundred of the items in there over the years. Printed bookmarks and starting a blog worked well, in-store appearances not so much. Novels, children’s books, and non-fiction all get marketed very differently, of course, so you need to cherry-pick which methods work the best for your genre.

The one easy-to-remember point I took from that book though that still sticks with me today is this: “Do two things every day to market your book.” He doesn’t say which things and it’s going to vary for different kinds of books, but it’s the act of making this a habit that creates long-term gains. Every day do two things, or 10 a week if you take off the weekends. Send tweets, post something to Instagram in a pinch, but mix those in with more leveraged actions, like pitching a guest post or interview. Travel Writing 2.0 2nd

I’ve only dealt with non-fiction, for my own books and as a ghostwriter. These are a lot easier to market, especially if the book has a narrow appeal to a specific audience. It’s quite easy for me to figure out who would buy Travel Writing 2.0 of course. I probably reach a sizable percentage of that audience just through this blog. I have reached others through guest posting, podcast interviews, and getting quoted in the media. If I were to spend money on advertising, I could target travel writers easily on Facebook, or advertise to people buying other books on the subject on Amazon.

For my moving abroad book, my audience is people who are looking to move out of their expensive home country. That can range from digital nomads in their 20s to retirees in their late 60s, so that’s a broader potential audience. There are just a few subsets of people though, so again I can target the ones that matter and ignore the rest. For A Better Life for Half the Price, the most effective marketing tools have been the following:

1) My own e-mail newsletter lists of 10,000+

2) Podcast interviews

3) Mentions in news stories about moving/living abroad

4) My own blog posts on the subject on my Cheapest Destinations Blog

5) Social media plugs, including in walled-off Facebook groups

6) Guest articles/posts for other publications

The two editions of this book have netted me more than $50,000 so far, so I think I can say these methods work. This doesn’t mean these are the only methods I use, but they’re where I spend most of my time and effort because in my ongoing testing and evaluating, these are the steps that have made the biggest difference. I’ve also found that getting reviews early on with Amazon can help you show up more in their search algorithm, provided you’re also selling copies regularly too.

I’m a bit behind on the reviews effort with this second edition because I didn’t do any kind of pre-release hype or pre-orders. I was trying to get it out before the holidays and that was more important. In past releases, I’ve gotten to 20+ reviews in a hurry whatever way I could.

Market First, Writing Second

Most novice book authors make the mistake of writing their book, then figuring out who (if anyone) is going to buy it. The one valuable exercise of submitting a proposal to a publisher is they make you think long and hard about two things: 1) Your market. 2) Your platform. You should go through this evaluation process if you’re self-publishing too because it’s super-important.

someone reading a book Who is your market? Who needs this book bad enough to pay $10 or $20 for it? How will you reach these people? How will you convince them that yours is the superior choice? Who is your avatar–the ideal customer for what you’re selling? Who reaches that ideal person already?

If the last question’s answer is, “Me!” then that’s the ideal situation. That means the book is a great match for your platform, so you should get automatic sales right away just by talking up your new project. You can show your work along the way to build up anticipation, easily cultivate user reviews, and get the word of mouth going from the start. For a book called The World’s Cheapest Destinations, what better place to find the ideal audience than on the Cheapest Destinations Blog?

If your platform is just the tip of the iceberg though, make a plan about how you’re going to reach out to your peers to reach the whole audience, or at least a good percentage of it.

In the end, book marketing through digital media is more effective now than getting into print media or even on TV. The good news is, you can do this from your home office, even when everyone is sheltered at home. The bad news is, it’s still on your shoulders to make it all happen. Go do it, two things every day, so you can eventually start cashing those virtual checks.

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