Book Marketing in (Late) 2020: Tips for Publishers and Writers Who Aren’t Jerks

10/08/2020

To say that COVID-19 has impacted book marketing in 2020 for publishers and authors would be a laughable understatement. By this point, we’re all familiar with shuttered bookstores, canceled and reimagined events, postponed release dates, unpredictable sales trends, and packed online calendars. And realities for the publishing industry will likely continue to shift.

The scramble of spring and early summer to push and pivot, driven by panic and bursts of excited energy (wow, virtual events!) has become somewhat routine. And acceptance is hopefully setting in for presses and writers across the industry—book launches just aren’t going to look like they used to, at least not for a long time. 

This doesn’t mean book marketing in 2020 is any more doomed than usual in a volatile market—it’s just doomed differently. There might even be a few benefits (see virtual book festivals) one can eke out of the world being broken. Here are some tips drawn from great internet minds and our experience at Submittable, with an emphasis on care and on carrying our book people out of the burning building that is 2020 successfully. 

Bolster community health

It’s rough out there—if you can focus on holding up the publishing community rather than boosting sales, do it. These pursuits aren’t always antithetical but sensitivity and generosity are paramount right now. 

Countless writers and publishers have watched book releases, launch events, and marketing plans tank. These are your people, so connect with them and offer support however you can. Read and promote their books, attend and share their events, like their stuff on the places likes count. Do this regularly and even methodically. Everyone needs support. If you’re organizing something, reach out to these people and partner.

When they can afford to, authors and presses should use books as a way to fundraise for organizations and individuals that matter to them. Donate copies to people that can demonstrate they’ve given money to causes you value.

If these causes have a direct tie with the writer or book subject, great! If not, it still gives potential readers an opportunity to know the author or press better, and also feel good about giving back. 

You can use even a nascent platform for good. Commit to contributing a certain percentage of any profits towards the greater good. Give books away to communities in need. Leave books in little libraries. 

Get creative online

Online events are everywhere. Many writers and publishers looked at each other in spring of 2020 and said, “Why weren’t we already doing this?” 

The benefits to online readings are multiple:

  • You can convene presenters who wouldn’t or couldn’t convene in real time
  • You can reach an audience that wouldn’t or couldn’t be at your event (and reach them after the fact with recordings)
  • You can reduce costs (for venue, AV, travel, and staffing as an example, not to mentioned planning time saved)
  • You can easily track data for attendance and measure results

As the internet filled with virtual book events in spring, the downsides were also quickly evident. Online events are easy to plan on attending but then skip (especially when there are so many), with an audience that intends to watch them later in a moment that never arrives. The technology itself can pose challenges for organizers and attendees. 

Virtual events are also difficult to generate revenue for and you miss out on readers who enjoy buyings books in person to meet authors. Online events can pose unique accessibility barriers. There’s also a certain energy presenters and their audience enjoy when people pack into a room—a reciprocal energy that fuels powerful readings—that online can’t match. Perhaps the biggest downside: no free wine.

All this to say, it’s not easy. But given the alternative (no book events or pod groups only) and the upsides, virtual events are fantastic for book marketing in 2020.

Here is some advice for:

Keep in mind that while book marketing may have to live mostly online, every event doesn’t have to be a reading.

Explore interactive formats and don’t be afraid to get a little weird with it. Webinars, panels, conversations, interviews, workshops, podcasts, or even costume parties can all be fun alternatives to a traditional book launch or promo event.

In keeping with being less of a jerk while book marketing in 2020, try to give as much as you might take in the event space, if not more. If you organize readings for yourself or for an author from your press, be sure to support and attend other events too. If you can pay presenters, do it. This calendar from Poets & Writers is a fantastic resource for upcoming virtual literary events—list here but love here too please. 

Explore virtual venues 

What if you didn’t have to organize your own event to promote a new book? Any comprehensive plan for book marketing in 2020 should include an online reading series or participation in a virtual festival. As book festivals move online, barriers previously presented by factors like geography and travel have been removed. This list of book festivals includes over 30 events still remaining in 2020. 

Here’s another listing of book events that includes 2020 events, as well as 2021 (odds are, most will still contain some virtual element). You can also search Submittable’s Discover feature with tags such as performance, event, festival, and reading for opportunities like LITRO Live! (deadline 8/31). 

Keep in mind that virtual events don’t necessarily equate to less stress for organizers. In fact, the need to pivot events that have been held IRL for years can be a giant headache.

Always proceed with professionalism, empathy, gratitude, and above all else, patience when coordinating with series and festivals. There isn’t a single person who isn’t facing new personal hurdles as a result of COVID-19 that can make their work more challenging and delay correspondence.   

Aim for more writing, more publishing

Just because promoting a new book is about visibility doesn’t mean you (or your author) have to share from the new book exclusively. Successful authors continue to write and publish widely in anticipation of their book release and for months after the fact.

It’s not uncommon for authors to write editorials that center them as experts on a topic related to their book. Every author is an authority on something and there are countless ways to establish this. You’ll find great examples on LitHub and Electric Literature, where new authors often write articles about a topic related to their new book (even loosely related), or the process of writing and publishing it, in order to provide valuable content while reaching potential new readers. 

We’ve also done a couple posts along these lines on Submittable’s Discover blog by writers when their books were new, including Alison McGhee, Kimi Eisele, Aaron Hamburger, Anca L. Szilágyi, and Jason Morphew. Recent authors have even incorporated current events: for example, Karina Lutz wrote a piece about the value of poetry read aloud, both in her personal life during quarantine and also in promoting her new book. 

In the names of good citizenship, this published work can focus on lifting up others, praising role models and leaders, making social change, increasing equity and visibility, and rebuilding our world for the better.

When authors with new books write on a topic they care about with an intent towards service, there’s inevitably going to be some link to the new book you (or your author) dedicated so much love and energy towards—and readers will respond. 

Writers and publishers can use Submittable to find new venues for essays, articles, and blogs that will help authors with new books get heard. 

Explore alternative formats

People seem to be reading more since the pandemic began, which is a positive—even if they are doing it to escape reality, home-school kids, not be racist, or because they have more idle time than they wish they did. Concurrently, COVID-19 has radically changed how people consume books—some publishing industry trends from 2019 have continued and some have reversed course. Although big box stores continued to drive physical book sales, e-book sales have risen, as have those of audiobooks. Libraries (and the free availability of these digital resources for cardholders) are helping drive demand.

What does this mean for authors and publishers? If you can create digital or audio resources and distribute them, do it. If you’ve already got them, include them in promotions and shout from the rooftops. Authors without alternative formats of their new book should encourage their publishers to get on board, and self-published authors can create their own materials. Cal LaFountain shared some great tips for creating an audiobook with us based on his personal experience earlier in 2020. 

Use time (which may no longer exist) wisely

If you can’t be touring, if you can’t leave home, if you can’t be promoting your new author, you can still do something. You really can. Of course, rest when you need to because everything is exhausting right now—when you’re ready, here’s stuff you can pass time doing that will ultimately help fuel book promotion in 2020.

Clean up and update

Take this endlessness of days as an opportunity to row your ducks. Make sure your website is the best it can be. Freshen up online profiles wherever you have them and your portfolio whenever you can. Check your email signature and clean out your inbox. Consolidate to-do lists. Do the things you’ve been putting off (software updates, saving things to backups, security checks), especially the digital maintenance work that, if things go bad, could really impede your ability to promote a book or even, like, exist.

Educate yourself

If the boon in online class enrollment is any indication, people like using extra time to get smarter. Join them. There are loads of great free online education that can help you learn more about marketing, budgeting, writing, editing—all the things that will make this book go better and help the next one too.

Read

Reading can make us more intelligent—it should also make us better writers, better allies, and (hopefully) better humans. For anyone that has any role in publishing, a love a reading likely got you here. If you want to stay in publishing, it’s vital to know what’s going on by reading new books. Old books are also great. Take the time to read for erudition, read for community, read for pleasure, and read for karma (whether you believe in it or not)—if you’re not reading, the expectation that others read your new book puts the universe off-kilter. 

Check in with real people

This is networking but it’s also a nice thing to do. Catch up with old acquaintances. Write fan mail to people whose work you admire. Avoid mass email in favor of personalized correspondence and lead with kindness. Leave your book out of it to see how people are doing. We all need human connection. 

Pitch and submit

The more visible you are, the more visible the new book will be. Writers, pull out old work to revise and submit. Make those pieces you cut from the manuscript into something. Write new work and send it out. Start on the next thing. If you need inspiration or help, Submittable is here. Publishers, look into placement opportunities for work you write (or could write) that establishes you as a thought leader in the field—or even as a creative practitioner of the kind of work you publish. We like this blog by Ashland Creek Press on lessons learned publishing an anthology.

Be social but also smart

You know this already: social media is a powerful tool for book promotion. It’s importance is magnified in the absence of normal, social, person-to-person contact. Social media is also an increasingly strange space full of more noise every minute. 

It’s nearly impossible to spread the word about a new book in the current moment without using social. People far and wide have written on this topic so follow their advice, with awareness that everyone is strained and overwhelmed.

As a general rule, lift up others at least twice as much as you toot your own (new book’s) horn to avoid adding to collective fatigue.

Some other ideas (keeping in mind that all strategies will be dependent on what’s going on in the moment):

Let’s go, book people

This article isn’t comprehensive. At this length it should be, but alas. We didn’t discuss book reviews, pr kits, paid marketing, and a million other things publicists and driven authors will utilize to succeed at book marketing in 2020.

Here are more resources because many smart people have put serious thought into getting this process right (including Submittable co-founder and CEO Michael FitzGerald) and we want you to succeed, no matter what the rest of this year tries to pull:

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If we missed any relevant resources, please reach out

Interested in exploring Submittable to support your publishing house or press for book marketing in 2020? Our publishing software is perfect for collecting useful marketing content, running contests and campaigns, and so much more. We’d love to talk with you anytime.  

Rachel Mindell

Rachel Mindell is Senior Editor for Submittable's Marketing Team. She also writes and teaches poetry. You can find Rachel's creative work here: rachelmindell.com