Your book is done. It will appear in print, digital and perhaps audio formats, the last being the fastest growing sector of book sales in the era of smartphones and earbuds. Authors who can record their own narration are personable and persuasive proponents of their work – a plus.
And every little bit of effort counts in connecting to prospective readers, which will take determination.
This is what moves the book from shelves or warehouses to the readers’ hands. It means catching their attention with something -- advertising being the time-honored means. One-time insertions in publications and repeated digital images are expensive, which why is publishers so rarely buy them now. The book advertising in The New York Times Book Review, for example, consists mainly of “house ads” for books drawn from Times material. There are some full-page ads from the larger self-publishing operations, which the authors pay for. The thrill is worth the price.
There are always a few authors who buy ads for their own life stories or arguments, in certain cases for months – a measure of self-regard.
The New York Review of Books carries the most print ads, mainly from university presses, with full-color cover shots of multiple titles, because media publicity for academics is exceptionally hard to get.
In bookstores, display is the goal. A stack of books in the front of the store or “face-out” on the shelves is what an author wants. Crowded shelves, where a single copy resides with only the spine visible, is discouraging.
Extra display is provided by stores in two ways. First, the publisher can pay for better placement. This has been the case for years in airports and chain stores – pretty much along the lines of how grocery and drug stores handle goods. Or the bookseller in your local store makes choices as to which books will be featured, inspired by publishers sending early “galley” copies. This is usually a taste-based selection rather than pay-to-play.
Amazon, by far the largest purveyor of books, has “editors’ picks” and very narrow categories in which a book can become a “bestseller” by virtue of selling a handful of copies. I don’t know how all this works, but my guess is that Amazon is not inclined to do favors for free.
Printed galleys and catalogs, which used to the primary tools for sales reps, have been largely replaced by digital versions, the best known of which is Edelweiss. While galley reading on screens is inexpensive, when offered a choice most people prefer a printed copy. Yes, that is usually the case.
So, what does work?
In the broadest sense, word of mouth (what a friend tells you), what you read online, or the recommendation of a bookseller, book club, or librarian. Paid marketing will always be part of the process, but it is gratifying to conclude that the old-fashioned ways of reaching people are still preferred.
Social media is really word of mouth writ very large. For some books, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, etc., are very influential. Today’s version of “Mad Men,” the advertising professionals of the twentieth century, can run from scruffy to slick in designing and placing these promotions. If you think it might work for you, make sure you know what you are doing – lest the effort be a waste.
This is a single term encompassing a vast array of media notice – which almost always is not paid for. The Oprah Book Club phenomenon or an appearance on her program in its heyday was the ultimate triumph. Celebrity recognition rarely comes to serious nonfiction. For those books, the audience is reached over airwaves, streaming services, and screens. NPR, especially Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air”; public television; or a story somewhere “off the book page” about the author or the book are traditional publicity and the most effective overall.
Bookstore events or speaking to groups reaches small numbers at a time and can involve travel and expense. Since Covid-19 upended travel, virtual appearances are now common. These tend to attract a bigger audience than in-person events in a store, but the resulting sales have turned out to be modest.
Publicity requires publicists to make the pitch and bookers or other gatekeepers to respond to it. There are so many pitches being made that it has become standard practice to not respond to queries. The common term for a rejection is “pass.” But way too often, in my view, not even that courtesy is extended. Personally, I strongly advocate acknowledging every ask, if only with an automatic reply, saying that if there issues to be discussed, a follow-up will come.
As I wrote in Part One, nobody wants to be turned down. That goes with the territory. But the arrogance of ignoring a request altogether makes writing and promoting a book a test for every author’s and publicist’s pride and ego.
Misfortune can be useful unless it discredits the book as allegations of plagiarism do. Book bans may appeal to the advocates of the practice, but do provide notoriety to the title, an asset. American Dirt by Jeanne Cummins, a huge bestseller was attacked because the writer was not herself a Hispanic immigrant as was the protagonist of the harrowing saga. Ultimately, the book was too good to be disqualified by the scolding it received.
Court controversy, recognizing its peril.
Authors should remember that a review is one person’s opinion. And whatever time the reviewer spent with the book is a fraction of what the author did. Influential book reviews have always been the sharp end of a very long cone of visibility. And there are fewer of these than ever, in the premium venues of legacy newspapers, magazines and online outlets because of space – and, unfortunately, because book review sections don’t generate enough paid advertising to make them profitable.
Still, you and the people who are supporting your book, should make every effort to reach reviewers because books deserve attention if they provide information and entertainment to readers.
Here again, the major book reviews are so bombarded with submissions that they usually don’t acknowledge them unless for some reason they register as intriguing.
This is not a process category. It is what every author, and everyone from start to finish in the world of books deserves and too often doesn’t get. A small percentage of all books will fulfill the complete array of success measurements. One thing I urge all authors to have is a book party around the time of publication. This is the real finish line, surrounded by friends and family.
There was a time when publishers threw lavish fetes for their top-tier authors. Maybe there are a few these days, a very few. But an apartment or backyard, with perhaps a local bookseller on hand offering a stack of copies and a chance for the author to talk about the book and get a toast, is an act of respect for the book itself and for the people responsible for them.
And to repeat what I’ve written and said elsewhere, do not diminish the accomplishment. Books are better than buildings. They have your name on them and won’t be torn down.
This is excellent, Peter. Thank you for writing it.
First-rate advice from America's greatest living publisher! One other suggestion ....
" 'bestseller' by virtue of selling a handful of copies. I don’t know how all this works, but my guess is that Amazon is not inclined to do favors for free."
Actually, I never paid for this listing. BUT what I did do is to tell everyone I knew to buy a copy of my book the VERY DAY of its publication. Concentrating such purchasing did indeed catapult it to the top of several of Amazon's 'categories' thereby becoming "a #1 Amazon best seller."