Building a Career as an Indie Author: Marketing Plans #1

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Do you want to sell more books? Write more books. Write short stories. Write informative, engaging articles. The best marketing for your latest work is always going to be your previous work. 

Of course, you will need to do at least some directed marketing to get noticed, especially if you’re just starting out. And that’s terrible, because marketing is expensive. Even free marketing costs you time away from writing. If you’re serious about building a career as a self-published writer, it’s a good idea to start mapping out your marketing plan as early as possible so you aren’t left scrambling at the last minute or – even worse – putting up ever-more-desperate Facebook posts six months after your book’s release.

A quick note: this first article will be most valuable to independent authors who are currently on the final drafts of their first or second books and who have a solid publication date that’s three to six months out. Some material will be useful for more seasoned indie writers, but the bulk of the information in this article is aimed at people who have very little experience with self promotion. I’ll get into advanced marketing techniques later (much later) in this series; today, it’s all about learning the ropes.

Let’s start with a few definitions.

  • Book blogs are dedicated to books: they usually focus on reviews, but some also feature author interviews, book-related cultural commentary, and industry news.
  • Book vlogs are video logs, usually posted to YouTube or Vimeo, which are dedicated to books.  These are usually limited to reviews, although a few book vloggers will arrange for author interviews.
  • When I say reviewers, I’m referring to people who have dedicated their blogs or vlogs to book reviews. Most authors have to submit books to these reviewers themselves. Many of the reviewers will read books for free; others request a fee. Some of them post to Amazon, Goodreads, and other sales or social review sites but many limit the reviews to their own blogs. Please note: I’m distinguishing the reviews you get from these sources from fan/general reader reviews, which are spontaneous reviews by readers who’ve happened upon your book. I am also distinguishing them from industry reviewers, which are the big boys: the companies like Kirkus Reviews (who charge a great deal for their reviews but who also have far stronger ties to the traditional publishing industry than most book bloggers).
  • Cross-posting as it relates to reviews means that the book blogger also posts their reviews to Amazon, Goodreads, or other sales or social review sites.
  • Advance readers are not reviewers as I’ve defined them above, even though many of them do write reviews. These are people who already have a presence in the genre or industry you’re writing in or about. They can be other hard science fiction writers, if that’s what you write. They could be your creative writing professor. If your book’s on training kittens, your advance reader might be a stage performer who works with housecats.


Yep, that’s an actual thing that people actually do.

Please note: unless you have industry connections, your first advance readers will probably be people you either know personally or are (at most) one person removed from. Advance readers whose names would be widely recognized are going to be most effective at helping you sell your books, but even if they don’t have large followings it’s good to have someone who’s reached at least the next level above you in your genre or industry endorse your book. A good rule of thumb if you’re approaching advance readers yourself is to reach out to people you genuinely admire, and with whom you have a relationship that you wouldn’t have to spend twenty minutes reminding them of if you ran into them on the street.

  • A guest blog or guest post is what it’s called when one author posts an article on someone else’s blog or website. These are pre-scheduled articles, often on a particular topic. Some websites charge to have guest bloggers appear, but you can often arrange free guest blogs among friends or within online writers’ communities.
  • Blog hops are large, coordinated guest blogs within a large group of writers. In a blog hop, each author will write several articles and then send them out to the others; that person then receives a number of articles for her blog in return. Everyone in the group then posts the guest blogs up on their sites within a set period of time (usually a one- or two-day period). This can be a good marketing tool when several writers all have a release within the same week, especially if the blog hop coincides with a related holiday or event.
  • Social media, unless stated otherwise, encompasses all of your social media outlets: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram, Vine, YouTube, LinkedIn, your personal blog, and so on. If it’s online and it’s yours, then I’m counting it. This does not refer to your company website even if it’s a company website for the publishing house you invented to put your books up on Amazon, but it can refer to the blog portion of that company’s website; professional websites and social media are completely different animals. I’ll deal with the distinction – and some best practices for the various social media platforms – in a much later post. Right now, I’m going to use ‘social media’ as a catch-all term as outlined above.
  • Distribution platforms are the websites where you’ll sell your book: Amazon, Draft2Digital, and so on. There are far too many to list here.
  • Print on demand companies print hard copies of self-published books and make them available for sale through distribution platforms: CreateSpace (Amazon exclusive), Lightning Source, and Lulu are the big players here. There are hundreds of others, some of which are better for different kinds of books: an excellent children’s book printer may not be a great cookbook printer, for example.

Marketing Your First Book: A Sample Timeline

None of these are hard-and-fast rules, and no one piece of advice is going to work for everyone. Some non-fiction strategies also don’t work as well for fiction, and vice versa. Still, this sample timeline is full of ideas to get you started.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about with some of these items, don’t fret – I’ll cover them all in this series.

6 months before release:

  • Determine your marketing budget for this book. Remember to include the costs of printed materials, books for reviewers, and registration and travel costs for local (at least) and national (if possible) conferences.
  • Set up a separate bank account for your writing expenses and income. If that isn’t possible, use your bank’s online banking tools to set up categories that clearly separate writing expenses and income from all other monies. This will make things infinitely easier when tax time rolls around.
  • Seed your writer’s bank account with marketing budget money. Don’t freak out if you don’t have it all now; divert what you can into the account as you can. This will make things infinitely easier when it’s time to register for conferences or order copies of your book.
  • If you don’t already have one, create a blog and begin adding content. Don’t bother with a paid site yet. There are dozens of free blogging platforms, but writers seem to like working with these four in particular: Wordpress, Blogger, weebly, and tumblr. Making your blog available through one of these platforms increases the likelihood that your peers (and your readers) will find you. They all have different user interfaces and different strengths and weaknesses (I’ll cover those in detail in future posts). Take a look at all four platforms, and select the one that feels like the best fit. Shoot for at least one post – preferably on a topic that relates to your book – each week. It isn’t necessary to go on about the book just yet; in fact, aside from a small teaser or two, it’s probably a good idea to write about almost anything else for a while as you build your audience.
  • If you don’t already have other social media accounts, start setting them up now. Non-fiction authors do well on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook; non-fiction authors with visually appealing subjects can also get large followings on Snapchat, Instagram, Flickr, and Pinterest. A handful of people are still hanging around Google+ so you may as well create an account there too. Fiction authors do well on all of these sites (although LinkedIn doesn’t seem to be quite as effective) and I’ve even seen some creative fan fic tie-ins via Vine. If you like being in front of a camera, then you may also want to start a YouTube channel.
  • Start pulling together a list of free and low-cost marketing opportunities: cover design contests, reviewers, book clubs, and Meetup groups that are actively seeking speakers in your area of expertise are great places to begin.
  • Start tailoring a marketing plan to your particular genre or niche. Get creative: everyone uses Twitter to sell their cookbooks, but not everyone partners with a local Farmer’s Market favorite to incorporate your county’s most popular honey into a few recipes.
  • If you don’t already participate in online discussions, this is a good time to start. No matter what your passion is, there are websites for it. Probably hundreds. Find two, and read some articles you’d read anyway. Comment on a couple of them – not as if you’re selling a book (you aren’t; it doesn’t exist yet) but as if you’re having a conversation*.
  • If you have a workable draft of your book ready to go, contact the people you are hoping will be your advance readers now. Let them know if it’s still rough. Most advance readers won’t mind, as long as they have a heads-up…and they’ll appreciate the long lead time. If you don’t have a near-polished draft available, do not send out the book. Find out if they’re willing to read it on a shorter timeline. If not, you’ll have to find someone else to be your advance reader this time around. Don’t get upset with them if they say they can’t do it this time; after all, you’re asking for a favor – and kind of a large one. Respecting a person’s boundaries will make them more likely to say ‘yes’ the next time around.
  • Set up a marketing calendar, and coordinate it with your publication schedule: look at local and national conferences and decide if it makes sense for you to attend them this year. Familiarize yourself with your printer of choice’s turnaround times and make sure you give yourself enough time to get the completed cover and manuscript to them. Look at book reviewers’ timelines; many reviewers like to read books that are going to be available by the time the review comes out so they can cross-post, but some don’t. Put as much thought into your calendar now as you can afford to. The active part of marketing takes a lot of energy, and I’ve seen dozens of authors who are trying to do reviewer research on top of everything else just sort of stall out.
  • If you’re crowdfunding your book, this is a good time to begin planning your campaign. I’m not going to add a crowdfunding timeline here because this post is already going to clock in at around 3,000 words…but if you are crowdfunding, then that campaign absolutely has to be part of your marketing strategy and you should start working on it now. I’ll cover crowdfunding in later posts.

*A civil conversation; unless your book is about being a complete assh*le, screaming at people online isn’t going to help you sell a single book. 

4 months before release: 

  • It’s time to start building your email list if you don’t already have one. MailChimp is a wonderful service that offers free and paid options for email list management.
  • If you have a solid release date, then it’s time to start mentioning that you have a book coming out. Don’t blow up all of your social media accounts every day with postings about your book – but if you have a cover, you can post that. You can also post a favorite quote or short excerpt. The idea here is to let people know about the book without pushing a hard sell just yet.
  • Some reviewers will want the book around this time. Send those reviewers the best draft you have available, as long as it’s reasonably complete. Make sure they know it’s an ARC, so they don’t ding you in their reviews for grammatical errors and the like. If you don’t have a reasonably complete draft available, don’t send out the book.
  • Start lining up any paid advertisements with long lead times: print magazines sometimes have space sold out months in advance. Reserve slots for the advertisers of your choice (they don’t have to be print) as far ahead of time as you can afford. Remember to mark your calendar with their drop-dead deadline for the text and/or art for the ad; then subtract two weeks to give yourself time to get it done without stress.
  • Set up local appearances, readings, and speaking engagements around your release date, especially if your book has a natural tie-in to local events or national holidays.
  • Remember to tell people you have an email list. If you can, offer them a free short story or book excerpt as an incentive for people to sign up.

2 months before release: 

  • Get your cover, book description, and book blurb ready to go. These will be your best marketing tools for the next few months.
  • Set up guest posts and blog hops around your book release date. You can write your posts and send them to the hosting blogs now, to save yourself some hassle later.
  • Most reviewers will want the book around this time. Just like before, send those reviewers the best draft you have available. Again, make sure they know it’s an AR, so you don’t have to worry about losing a star or two for [insert your particular grammatical speed bump here]. And I’m going to keep saying this because it’s important: if you don’t have a reasonably complete draft available, don’t send out the book.
  • Start lining up any paid advertisements with shorter lead times.
  • Start mentioning your book every third or fourth blog post, and once or twice a week on other social media outlets. You can even mention it more often than that, but we all know and hate the person who puts up a BUY MY BOOK PLEASE SHARE!!!! post every half an hour across every social media outlet that’s ever been invented. Don’t be that person.
  • Set up your distribution platform and print on demand company accounts if you haven’t already.

1 month before release: 

  • It’s been a rough few months! Take a break.

BWAHAHAHAHA NOPE

Buckle in. This is about to be your busy season.

  • If you’re planning to do a book giveaway through Goodreads, this is a good time to start lining that up.
  • If you want to do a book giveaway on your site or if you’ve arranged for a reviewer to host one (some do) then this is also a good time to kick that off.
  • Line up additional blog hops and/or guest posts for yourself.
  • Write a press release and send it out to local media. Small community papers that like to do human interest features are most likely to respond.
  • Create an advance information (AI) sheet and package that together with the press release; use these to reach out to any local Public Access channels and/or podcasts which focus on books.
  • If your book has local or niche appeal, it’s worth creating postcards highlighting that appeal and getting them printed up this month. When the book’s available, shlep them around to venues which are likely to allow you to set them out and which are likely to have your target audience members as patrons. After you’ve spent the time and money to print up 2,000 postcards advertising your history of the Civil War, you don’t want them to collect dust at the local dog groomer’s. Some places allow people to come in off the street and leave flyers and other advertising materials. Others want advance notice. Ask ahead of time so you don’t drive all over town for nothing.
  • Talk your book up on your blog and social media accounts. You still don’t want to be the BUY MY BOOK PLS!!!-person, but you also want to remind people it’s dropping soon.
  • Change your social media account banners to reflect your book cover. Put the release date in there if you have room.
  • Your advance readers have probably sent in their blurbs by now. Put those blurbs on blast. Thank the advance readers on your blog. Thank them on your social media accounts. Take a couple of days, and then thank them again (and work the blurbs into your posts).

1 week before Release Day

  • Ask a few friends and family members if they’d be willing to share posts from you on Release Day. Do this discretely – contact them through private messages or, better yet, ask in person. Tagging a bunch of people who had nothing to do with the production of your book in a BUY MY BOOK post on social media is tantamount to publicly begging them to help you. Which is cool, if that’s your thing…but from the outside it can look pushy and desperate.
  • Use your social media accounts and your blog to thank everyone who was involved in the production of your book. You might have thanked them already, which is super cool. Now do it again.
  • Send an email to everyone on your email list. Don’t send an email to everyone in your personal address book; this is the MailChimp or other account you set up a few months ago.

Release Day

TIME TO GO ALL IN, Y’ALL! Get up early today. You’re going to need every possible minute.

  • Submit your book cover to every single free cover award contest you have on your list. Joel Friedlander’s Monthly e-Book Cover Design Awards has set the standard, but there are dozens more. You waited until Release Day because most of these contests want a live buy link; if you have that before Release Day, you can submit it then.
  • Notify any reviewers who’ve asked to be informed when the book is live (for cross-posting).
  • Spend most of the day on social media. Talk up your book all over the place. Today, all of your BUY MY BOOK-ness is not only forgiven, it’s kind of sweet.
  • Spend part of the day dropping those postcards off at places around town that are a) a good fit and b) have agreed to let you leave them.
  • This is also a good time to talk up any future appearances you have scheduled.

There’s a lot more to marketing your book than the few (yes, really) steps I’ve outlined here, but following these guidelines will give your book a boost that tens of thousands of other books never get.

Almost everyone finds it daunting to promote that first book. If you take the time to come up with a system that works for you, you’ll find you have a smooth routine down by the second or third book.

I’ve created a basic marketing plan template to help you get started. It’s a stripped-down version of the template I use to create marketing plans for my clients. It’s a handy way to collect information on potential reviewers, events, and other marketing opportunities in one place. It also includes space for budgeting. If you’d like to check it out, you can find it here.


If you found this post useful, please consider supporting this series by spreading the word or by buying me a cup of coffee* on the way out.

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Dora Badger
Dora Badger is a writer and designer living in Detroit. Her short stories can be found in several small press publications, and her books Lemonade Songs, Charley Cat's Carnival: A Dark And Bloody Business, and more can be found on Amazon.

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