How Not to Market a Book

How Not to Market a Book January 19, 2016

John Turner had an excellent post last week on book marketing for academics. I have also written here before about the counterintuitive art of promoting books. Many academic historians (and other professors) range somewhere between squeamish to clueless on how they might actually reach out to a general audience. But our lack of outreach often means that history book sales are dominated by popularizers, some of whom are outright charlatans.

Piggy-backing on John’s post, here are three ways that definitely don’t work to market a book.

1) Joining social media in order to promote your book. A sure-fire way for me not to follow people back on Twitter is if their account is clearly created just to market their book. Some really effective people on social media create secondary accounts for their new books, but in general we go on social media to interact with people, not with products.

Barnes & Noble bookstore in Clifton Commons in Clifton, New Jersey. Photo by Luigi Novi. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Wikimedia Commons.

2) Doing dead-end speaking appearances, especially when they involve travel. The worst here is out-of-town bookstore appearances. Unless you are already a celebrity, these DO NOT WORK. The absolute worst speaking appearances I have ever done have been at bookstores in Dallas and Austin. Nobody knew who I was, I sold no books, and the total combined audience was about 3 people, one of whom was my wife. I have had better results speaking at our local Barnes and Noble, or at special-interest groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution.

3) Trying to get newspapers and other outlets to run puff pieces that are simply advertisements for your book. It is hard enough to secure book reviews in newspapers, but they are definitely not interested in giving authors space to plug their new book.

So what does work? Check out my counterintuitive art post for further thoughts, but one sure-fire method is cultivating long-term networks of friends and followers who appreciate your work, and for whom you become a trusted resource. This takes a lot of time and work. Again, the focus is connection and helping people, not sales. When your book release is imminent, it is too late to start.

Also, do timely blog posts, op-eds, etc. that have a news hook related to your work. (Our colleague Philip Jenkins is a master of this, and has taught me a great deal on the issue.) If you want to be of service to readers and editors, offer an expert and novel perspective on a timely issue, or give historical (or other specialized) background on a current news story. But this requires you to move fast and to work with editors’ short deadlines.

There’s really nothing any author can do to guarantee that a book will become a bestseller, unless you can draw on an already-existing massive platform. For most authors, there are too many contingencies to guarantee great sales. But authors who choose not reach out pretty much ensure that they will be surpassed by those who do – especially those who reach out in a smart, effective way.

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