Launching a book into the world is equally exhilarating and terrifying. There’s no magic formula to make sure your pre-launch efforts land the way you intend. It sorta feels like you’re shouting as loud as you can in a crowded room with your best three or four or 40 friends shouting, too. And yet somehow, I survived, a hoarse voice and all.
Not only did I survive, but dare I say I even shined a little? On January 26, 2021, Wings of Ebony debuted (during a pandemic, no less) as an instant New York Times and Indie bestseller! I was even surprised to see it stuck on the NYT list week two as well. Talk about wildest dreams?! I hadn’t dreamt this big and yet… here we are. And I truly believe getting to this jaw-dropping moment was a mixed bag of publisher support, a hefty dose of my own efforts, and a sprinkle of magic.
While some of those things are out of your control as a traditionally published author, I’m going to share five proactive ways to market and buzz-build your book. And you’ll be shocked to find they’re not as daunting as you might think.
But first, let’s rewind and take a peek at where my journey began.
My publishing journey
I entered DVpit in October 2018 — a Twitter pitch contest in which hopefuls share a tweet and hope somehow the publishing fairy godmothers bopity-boo you some likes (agent requests) and retweets (publisher interest). To my nail-biting surprise, my pitch resonated hugely and blew up, earning over 22 requests from publishers and hundreds of likes from agents and members of the writing community.
From there I queried, received a few offers of representation, and signed with my literary agent. We edited the book together for about eight weeks then went out on sub. And about two weeks later, I was already convinced my book would never sell. (This is really dramatic, ha ha. Don’t do this. Most books take four to 10 months to sell on sub. That’s average!) Fast-forward to when I received an R&R (revise-and-resubmit) call with a Big Five house editor at the three-month mark, I was so shocked I half thought it was a prank call. (JK. Just trying to keep you entertained here.) We had the call. Great feedback! I revised over the next three to four weeks and we sent out a new 50-page draft plus a revised synopsis. (Did you know your book can sell on a 50-page sample? So wild!) Within a short time we had interest from several editors and I ultimately signed with Simon & Schuster who guaranteed the book would be a lead title and receive their full support.
Then the work began. Edits upon edits. My release date changed twice. (Once because of the pandemic and the second time because Barnes & Noble wanted to do something special with my book for Black History Month — more on that below!) And then, um, there was this thing called 2020. As momentum built toward my debut I quickly realized bringing a book into the world wasn’t going to look anything like I’d expected when I set out on this journey. With everything virtual, and so many events and festivals canceled all together, I needed a new game plan. So, I got to work.
Here are five things I tried that worked well to market and build buzz for Wings of Ebony. Consider giving them a try!
1. Advocate for yourself to your publisher
Access is a big deal in the publishing process and yet one of the hardest things to get. I was very fortunate that my publisher gave me face time with many of their senior staff early on (approximately five months out). If you’re a debut author, the biggest thing you can advocate for is access and information. If you have the opportunity to ask for things, do. If you aren’t offered that opportunity, ask for it. Ask for a meeting with your publicity and marketing teams. Ask to see your marketing plan. It’s downright intimidating, I know. But you only get this debut moment once, so you may as well shoot your shot. Worst they can say is no.
When I sat down with the heads of all the things, I presented a huge, pie-in-the-sky list of all the things I’d love to have their support with, from cover reveal to influencer box mailings to metallic temporary tattoos. Some they helped with, some they didn’t. But I asked! And that was key. Because who knows if the things they did agree to would have been on their radar had I not brought them up.
For example, I was able to sign 18,000 tip-ins, which are pages authors autograph to be inserted into the book later. I was able to reveal my cover in a big way, via Publishers Weekly. I was able to create a preorder campaign that benefited teens. Wings of Ebony was even selected as the YA Book Club pick of the month for Black History Month at Barnes & Noble, which included an exclusive edition and a slightly amended cover. Wild, right?! Dream. Ask. See the stars? Shoot for them.
But here’s a key point — asking is only half the battle. Your publisher can only do so much for a book and frankly what they do is subject to change (without notice). But one thing remains constant and true: You are the best advocate for your book. So what can you do?
2. Build an organic community
This one seems obvious but it isn’t. Not really. Being present is something so many of us struggle with in our in-person lives. I know I do! But, truly, the book communities on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok (if you have a younger audience) are phenomenal. And while social media isn’t a requirement to publish a book by any means, I think it has huge benefits. And many go beyond the obvious.
Simply posting on those platforms isn’t enough — you also want to build a community. For starters, what better way to learn about your industry than to commune with peers? What better way to create a rapport with your audience and foster a spirit of excitement over your work than to spend time chatting with booklovers? We’re all book nerds, so honestly, it’s just plain fun. Additionally, you can learn a lot about the craft of writing, publishing trends, marketing, the latest dumpster fire, etc. by being tuned in from time to time. (I do, however, think it’s very important to take the online book community in measured doses for the sake of work-life balance and mental health.)
Aside from its relational benefits, the algorithms on Twitter and Instagram seem to give engaged users more visibility. And this definitely has a threshold difference depending on how many followers you have. But it’s decently safe to assume if you rarely show up to post, comment, like, and share others’ posts, your posts won’t get much traction. You’re effectively talking at people. Do you like being talked at? Most of us don’t. You’ll notice the more you engage (and use hashtags where appropriate), the more your posts will gather visibility and your network will grow.
TikTok is a bit of an exception. I’m still learning about the platform but as it stands now, it doesn’t seem to penalize users who don’t post often. In fact you can go from a non-poster with three followers to a viral post overnight. (Not an exaggeration!) This is the greatest thing about TikTok and who knows how long it’ll last. So get in early if you’re curious about it and have a younger audience.
I’ve noticed a few more things that may be helpful:
- The book community on social media is huge and very vocal.
- The audience is largely teens and young adults which for YA writers like myself is huge.
- Emotional, vulnerable, authentic content tends to do really well. Check out the video of me seeing my hardcover book for the first time.
The one caveat to all this is: social media works best when you’re authentic. Sure, you can force yourself to comment on 10 people’s posts every day and be robotic about the entire thing. But that only gets you so far. If you thoughtfully respond to someone as if they were sitting across from you, you’ll more effectively build a community. It’s also worth mentioning I am no social media expert — this is just what has worked for me.
Authenticity coupled with organic engagement will grow your social media community. And your community, because it’s authentic and organic, will be excited to root for you! See how that works? Can’t have one without the other.
Street teams can generate great word-of-mouth marketing. And while running them might seem daunting, it may be easier than you think. A street team is basically a hype squad — a group of people to help spread excitement about your book. You can ask your street team to retweet, share posts on social media, tag friends in the comments of a post, call a library to request your book, reach out to an independent bookstore on your behalf and ask if they’ll be stocking your book, leave reviews for the book, and more. But where do you start?
Get new members. I created an application on Typeform and shared a link on my website and social media announcing that spots would open and close at a certain time. I received around 200 applications and ultimately selected 100 to participate.
Decide where to host your team. Setting one up doesn’t have to be complicated. A group DM on Twitter or a private Facebook group could work. I used a combination of Slack and email, sending out weekly updates and requests in the event they were lost in the Slack chat (which can move very quickly).
Foster a community. My street team quickly became a place for community and we chatted about all things books, publishing, writing, and real life.
One thing to keep in mind with street teams is not to start them too early! You don’t want people to burn out on excitement for the book. I suggest kicking off your team about four months from release. I also suggest engaging in your group personally, being present, and getting to know your team. Talking at them isn’t effective, as discussed in the point above. We had a bunch of activities and banter in our Slack channel, including a #TeamJulius #TeamJhamal debate where fans of each ship created dating profiles for the characters and debated (in a spoiler-free way) which love interest is the best for Rue (my protagonist) based on the dating profiles. That was a ton of fun!
4. Prepare materials for teachers and librarians
Connect with educators. You might not imagine that your book fits in a classroom, but you’d be surprised how many teachers are hungry to put new stories in front of their students. Oftentimes, the greatest barrier for teachers introducing new books is finding the time to create an entire curriculum to go with it. So almost anything premade you can give them is helpful.
I admit developing a curriculum guide like I did was quite labor-intensive. It’s a five-week unit of day-by-day lesson plans to teach Wings of Ebony, exploring the book as a work of literary fiction, including its creative writing mechanics and use of literary devices. It also examines the story’s real-world relevance and its application to Black history while weaving in discussion on topics such as social justice, racism, allyship, and privilege. Feel free to take a look at it here. If you’re interested in something that comprehensive, but aren’t sure how to make one yourself, there are educators and former educators you can hire to create one for you.
I recommend at the very least you develop something simpler, such as a discussion guide with questions for each chapter. You can also pull out a couple of words per chapter and build a vocabulary list. The great thing about a discussion guide is it can often double as a book club kit.
5. Launch a preorder campaign
The final suggestion is a fun one, but I want to be clear that the value of a good preorder campaign (in my opinion) isn’t in actual preorders, but in the buzz around the campaign. If you can excite people about preordering your book by including a cool piece of swag that’s a conversation piece because it’s a nod to some subtle, lesser-known part of the story, that can create interested readers. For my campaign there were all sorts of swag ideas but as a former teacher I really wanted to get the word out to educators about this book and how great of an asset it can be in a classroom. So I asked that my publisher create a donation component to my preorder. The result:
Because my publishers managed the donation part, I didn’t have to track numbers or collect receipts. My street team and I promoted the campaign on social media, and the receiving institution, Project LIT, also hyped it. Not only was it a really important cause, but the buzz it generated was great! So as you design your preorder campaign, think about the moment you’re creating just as much as the actual giveaway item.
Also note there are legal considerations about giveaways and sweepstakes and whether or not proof of purchase can legally be required. So be sure to check that out. Easily Googleable.
I sincerely hope some of this helps boosting your own book seem a bit less daunting. Wishing you so much success. I can’t wait to see your book on (physical or virtual!) bookshelves!
The views and opinions expressed in this guest post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BookBub.
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Click to tweet: Love these tips from @AuthorJ_Elle on how to build buzz for a book pre-launch! #WritingCommunity https://bit.ly/2Z9AiOH
Click to tweet: How author @AuthorJ_Elle built buzz for her debut novel:
📚 Advocated for herself to publisher
😊 Built an organic community
📣 Created a street team
🍎 Prepped teacher/librarian materials
📆 Launched preorder campaign