By Toby Neal and Holly Robinson
For the purposes of this article, a “pro” is someone who earns his/her primary income from writing. Toby Neal and Holly Robinson are pros (although Toby is mostly an indie and Holly mostly traditionally pubbed), with multiple novels and credits of various kinds, and they’re also friends.
Last last week, both Toby and Holly launched new novels, and in their phone calls with each other, discovered that their experiences and strategies were both different and similar.
They agreed to share them with IndieReader.
What do you do during the months leading up to your book launch?
Indie Pro Toby Neal (TN): I engage heavily with my readers through social media. To build interest in the upcoming book, I post fun photos and videos of locations in the book—for instance, I traveled to Oahu and researched the professional surfing scene for my recent book that launched, Rip Tides. I posted photos, quotes, snippets of video from the research process all along the way, along with personal reflection on why surfing is important to me. I built interest in the book this way, even from people who’d never read my series but wanted to learn more about the elite world of professional surfing.
I also run contests, like: “choose a name for a minor character” and give away prizes (usually signed books, or gift cards.) In Rip Tides, I leaked that I was using some readers’ names as minor suspects. Of course, everyone who heard that wanted to buy the book and see if their name was used! My readers feel invested in the book and the process long before it comes out, and it’s fun for all of us and has a collaborative feeling—though they also count on me to surprise them with the twists in the story!
Traditional Pro Holly Robinson (HR): When you’re with a big traditional publisher, as I am, a lot of the pre-book launch stuff happens behind the scenes. I’m with Penguin Random House, and their marketing wheels are always turning. You’re assigned a publicist who, during the months leading up to the book launch, will send out review copies to newspapers, magazines and other media outlets, trying to get reviewers to take notice of your upcoming release. The publicist will set up book signings and readings for you at major bookstores in your area—and anywhere else you ask her to—and she will run giveaways on Goodreads and work with book bloggers to get you reviews, interviews and guest posts online, generally focusing on sites with the most traffic for your genre. In addition, if you have places you definitely want your publicist to approach, she’s always happy to do that for you. Oh, and the publisher will provide little bits of swag, too, like bookmarks and posters for your upcoming events, and during this time, you’ll be approving those.
This sounds like a dream come true, since you don’t even have to pay this publicist, right? It’s a wonderful thing to have this person in your corner, for sure. But, like indie authors, traditional authors must also do their part to market their books. For one thing, that publicist is probably juggling up to twenty book releases at a time, and she will only give your book her full attention for about three months before moving on to the next crop. So, during the months leading up to a book launch, I do some of the same things Toby does, like photographs of things pertaining to the book (for Haven Lake, that meant sheep, heart-shaped stones, etc.)
I also do “cover reveals” and blog posts about the book. As a freelance writer, I write articles and essays for traditional print magazines and try to have them appear during this pre-launch blitz. I also write for online sites like Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, and Venture Galleries. These three months are busy with setting up personal appearances, too, at book stores, literary festivals and libraries.
What are the most essential marketing tools you use overall?
TN (Indie): My most essential tools are my blog and my email list. At the end of every book is a link to “sign up for new titles.” I have a Book Lovers’ Club where hard-core readers can get more frequent interaction, be Advance Readers, get sneak peeks of new material, etc—and another list that receives notifications of new titles only. I use my blog judiciously by keeping posts infrequent (no more than a couple times a week) and featuring top quality writing and photos. That way, when I post, readers pay attention.
Less important but still part of the overall picture, I engage often with dedicated fans on Facebook. My Twitter feed is over 10,000 strong and abuzz with interesting material. I also do Instagram with an emphasis on quality—I only post art-grade photos, and every so often I put in a thing about books. On Pinterest, I engage readers with boards related to Hawaii and choosing photos that look like their favorite characters.
HR (Traditional): Like indie authors, probably the most essential tool of any traditionally-published author is your social media platform. Like Toby, I have a web site where I blog about once a week. I’m active on Twitter and Facebook, and I’m also starting to do more on Pinterest. Again, I can’t emphasize enough that, even if you have the marketing wheels of a behemoth like Penguin Random House turning beneath you, it’s imperative for you to become part of the marketing effort and engage with readers. Don’t think of this as work. As Toby says, limit the amount of actual promotion you do on social media and just talk to people, post interesting photos, find or write articles that might be useful to people, etc. Think about your social media platform as a way of making new friends with readers and other writers.
What keeps you busiest the week before the book launch?
TN (Indie): I’m usually busy online, arranging guest blog posts with a big network of fellow authors/bloggers, sending out Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) to readers from Book Lover’s Club, prepping tweets and Facebook art with my assistant that announce the launch, and creating interesting contests and ways to engage readers with the book and encourage them to leave reviews.
HR (Traditional): Here, too, traditional and indie authors have similar responsibilities, except that in my case, my publicist is the one who is arranging places for me to submit guest posts or interviews. Oh, and one other difference: I do a lot of media interviews during the week prior to a book launch. When launching Haven Lake this month, for instance, I was interviewed by several newspapers, two regional magazines, and five radio hosts, plus I appeared on several cable news shows. I also go on our local NPR station with commentaries I’ve written from time to time. I don’t send out many Advance Reader Copies myself, because that’s done by the publicist, but I do come up with my own list of names and addresses to share with the publisher.
How do you track your sales to see what marketing strategies have been effective?
TN (Indie): Since I sell primarily on Amazon, it’s easy to see how things are doing! I can get hourly real-time sales numbers for my ebooks, and monthly counts (two months delayed) for my print books that sell through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Rip Tides, Lei Crime Series #9, was a massive success on its first day, with close to 5,000 ebook sales at full $4.99 price point (pre-order and launch day combined) and only my own blog post and email announcement to launch it. This is after 13 books and my own Kindle World, though. I have a committed reader base, and at this stage I can take it a little easier on Launch Day, which for me looked like sending the email, posting a FB announcement, having some tea, and going to work at my counseling job! No parties, no book signing, no cards and flowers. *sigh*
(I did call my agent later on as the numbers came rolling in, so we could jump up and down and scream for a minute or two.)
A few days after the book went live, I went back into Mailchimp, where I have my email list, and analyzed the buying patterns. Those click-through patterns still didn’t explain the big numbers, so I have to assume that Amazon also sent an email to people who had clicked the “new title notifications” button next to my Author Profile on the site.
HR (Traditional): Ha! Track my sales? That happens only in my fantasy life. This is the point where we diverge the most from indie authors. While it’s true that traditionally-published books are also sold through Amazon, there are so many other channels for both print and ebooks that you can’t possibly track your sales. (At the time of this writing, I’d say that my ebook sales are about double my print book sales, by the way, but that’s all ebook platforms, not just Kindle.). Not knowing your sales figures makes it tough to know whether a particular marketing strategy is effective. All you can do is wait for royalty statements, which come every six months from the publisher, and hope for the best. It’s kind of like playing the lottery with a really long lead time on the payout!
Do you hire outside publicists or pay for book reviews?
TN (Indie): No. I have Advance Readers through my Book Lovers Club who post a review in return for a free copy of the book, and I ask for readers to review at the end of the books, in my Acknowledgements section. (Once I started doing that, I got twice the number of reviews.) If I were starting out, I’d network with other authors in the same genre by visiting their blogs, and I’d ask for readers who wanted to post a review in return for a free books. I might also join a read/review group on Goodreads, or put my book up on NetGalley.
Regarding the publicist question: I have an assistant who helps me keep everything going, but no, I don’t have a publicist. I did hire a very good one (Booksparks) for three months when I launched my first book, Blood Orchids. While expensive, I would hire a publicist again to launch properly if I were just starting out. Their advice on branding alone was worth what I paid.
HR (Traditional): I never pay for book reviews, since the publisher sends advance copies to Kirkus, Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and all of the other big reviewing sites, plus I have a lot of readers now from my previous novels who are always happy to review a new book. I have hired a publicist for a few hours with each novel to help me reach niche markets—she just does the same thing as my in-house publicist, but has a wider reach.
How much money do you spend to launch each book, excluding editorial and design services?
TN (Indie): I take out print ads in OnMaui! Magazine, a Hawaii publication, and I boost my Facebook posts announcing the book for awhile, so about $500.00. I do the most advertising around four months after the launch, when the book has a lot of reviews and I put it on sale (all my books go on sale eventually, hooking in readers to try the rest of the series.) At that time, I pay big bucks to be featured on high-powered email lists like Bookbub to get my book into the Kindles of readers at free or deep discount. Many times, they go back and buy the rest of my books at full price and that’s basically how I make a living.
HR (Traitional): Seventy five dollars for one reviewer who I think writes astonishingly in-depth reviews and then posts them everywhere. Oh, and if I hire a publicist for a few hours, she charges $125/hour.
How do you use social media to connect with readers?
TN (Indie): I’d be lost among the millions of self-published authors without it. I shared a lot of my strategies using social media already, so I won’t rehash—but it’s important to remember that good social media is just that: GOOD. There’s no motive but to enrich people’s lives, and eventually doing that results in goodwill coming back from others who experience that “paying it forward” attitude.
Doing good social media has been the main plank in my author platform. Isolated out here on Maui, I can’t physically connect with many people—but through my social media, primarily using beautiful and uplifting Hawaii imagery, I literally reach the world. I have loyal readers all over the globe who follow my posts, folks who, when I am able to meet them in person, feel like real friends.
HR (Traditional): Even though I’m in Massachusetts and can easily drive anywhere, all I can do is reiterate what Toby says here about doing “good” social media to connect with readers. Far too many writers are focused on using social media to scream “buy my book!” instead of personally engaging with people. Your social media is only effective if it’s honest and useful. I have met many readers and fellow authors through Facebook and Twitter in particular, including Toby!
Do you meet many of your readers in person?
TN (Indie): Yes! They let me know when they’re coming to Hawaii and if I can, I meet them for coffee or beach walks, which is so fun. When I take trips, I post on social media that I’ll be in a city, and does anyone want to meet? Inevitably readers pop out of the woodwork to meet me and we’ll set something impromptu up. On my last trip to San Diego, readers hauled in over fifty books for me to sign at a coffee shop we picked to meet at! Readers really enjoy telling me great places to eat and things to do in their cities, and I’m grateful the “insider scoop.”
I’m increasingly doing more formal events as my name becomes known—I’ve done several book signings, and I speak at high schools and other venues, like the upcoming Hawaii Book and Music Festival. But nothing like what Holly tells me she does, because I simply don’t have the same level of print book presence in stores. Most of my interactions with readers are online.
HR (Traditional): Definitely. As a traditionally-published author, it’s fairly easy to set up events in bookstores and libraries. I also connect with book clubs either in person or via Skype. I usually begin meeting readers with a big book launch party in my local bookstore—we typically have about 80 to 100 people at that one—followed by smaller bookstore events and literary festivals. Last weekend, for instance, the Newburyport Literary Festival brought 5,000 people to our town, and I was on a panel of authors speaking to a big crowd, then signing books afterward. I also belong to a panel of cross-genre authors that goes around to various libraries, speaking with aspiring writers. That’s my favorite part about a book launch, actually: connecting with readers in person.
If you could merge a launch for a traditionally published novel and a self-published novel, and could only pick three marketing tools, what would you put in your Book Launch toolbox?
TN (Indie): I’d pick Twitter (for broadcasting news and connecting to anyone in the whole wide world!), my own blog and my own email list. I’ve built all three of these tools into a powerful personal PR machine that works because it adds value to peoples’ lives—it’s not just sales, sales, sales. For deepening relationships with core, committed readers, I’d have to add Facebook as a fourth resource tool. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gotten ideas, encouragement, and tons of free PR through interacting with my readers on Facebook.
HR (Traditional): Like Toby, I would definitely say that Twitter and my blog are the two most effective ways for me to reach people around the world. But my third pick would be in-person events. These might not reach as many readers as social media, but they give me the most joy.
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Toby Neal is the author of the bestselling indie Lei Crime Series mysteries. She grew up on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. After a few “stretches of exile” to pursue education, the islands have been home for the last fifteen years. Toby is a clinical social worker, a career that has informed the depth and complexity of the characters in her novels. Outside of work and writing, Toby volunteers and enjoys life in Hawaii through outdoor activities including beach walking, photography and hiking. You can find her books and blogging here, follow her on Twitter @tobywneal, and connect with her on Facebook at Toby Neal Books.
Holly Robinson is a journalist, essayist, celebrity ghost writer and novelist whose work has appeared in a wide variety of national publications. Her first book, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir (Crown) was a Target Breakout Book. She self-published her first novel, Sleeping Tigers, in 2011 and published her second novel, The Wishing Hill, with NAL/Penguin in 2013. Penguin also published her third novel, Beach Plum Island, in April 2014 and her newest novel, Haven Lake, in April 2015.
Holly holds a B.A. in biology and an MFA in creative writing from The University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She lives on the Massachusetts North Shore with her husband, where they’ve raised five children and are fixing up a 1790 Colonial one shingle at a time. Learn more about Holly and her writing here, follow her on Twitter @hollyrob1, and connect with her Facebook page.