In late August of last year, just days before Lara Prescott’s debut novel, The Secrets We Kept, appeared in stores, actress Reese Witherspoon’s book club posted a brief video teasing its upcoming book pick. The video didn’t reveal the title, hinting only that it involved female spies, history, and a literary love story.
Yet, following the process in real time, Prescott was stunned to see how many viewers correctly guessed the pick was her then-unpublished novel, about a clandestine CIA campaign to distribute Boris Pasternak’s banned book, Doctor Zhivago, in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s.
“I was like, how does this even happen?” she says. “I’m a debut author; no one knows who I am, but hundreds of people were commenting The Secrets We Kept.”
This early interest in a novel few people outside the publishing industry had read can be traced in no small part to an elaborate marketing campaign by Prescott’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. In mailings of advance copies of the novel, for instance, Katie Burns, Knopf’s director of advertising and creative marketing, and her colleagues included a kit containing a scarf, a tiny replica of a U.S. passport containing excerpts from the book, and a small pen disguised as a tube of lipstick.
Later, at BookExpo America (BEA), the publishing industry’s annual trade fair held last year in New York City, Knopf staffers dressed up as 1950s-era secretaries and handed out the tiny passports along with more promotional materials. “That was a great way to build awareness, and we also took a lot of photos of secretaries with the book, which we used in our advertising and creative marketing as the campaign went on,” says Burns.
In the weeks before the novel’s publication date, Prescott, who before she turned to fiction worked in digital marketing for nonprofits and political campaigns, watched in amazement as photos circulated online of readers’ dogs wearing the publisher’s promotional scarf and a pair of sunglasses. But the response to Reese Witherspoon’s book club—itself a significant marketing coup—showed Prescott that her marketing team’s efforts had paid off.
“That just told me they had moved from the industry to the public realm through things like Instagram and social media with the same concepts and the same imagery, and by the time my book came out, book buyers had already heard the title,” she says.
Few debut novels will receive the kind of splashy marketing blitz Knopf launched for The Secrets We Kept, which reportedly sold for a seven-figure advance, a sum that gave Knopf ample incentive to try to recoup its investment by boosting readership. Of course, campaigns for high-profile books can also bring unwanted attention, as they did for Jeanine Cummins’s controversial Mexican immigration novel, American Dirt. In January, Bob Miller, president and publisher of Flatiron Books, which published the novel, issued a rare public apology for making “serious mistakes in the way we rolled out this book.” These errors included claiming Cummins’s husband is an undocumented immigrant without mentioning that he is from Ireland, not Mexico, and organizing a dinner for booksellers featuring centerpieces with a barbed-wire motif, photos of which were circulated to much anger on social media.
But the basic building blocks of the successful The Secrets We Kept marketing push—eye-catching visual elements combined with savvy use of social media and digital advertising—also undergird campaigns for books with a fraction of the marketing dollars behind them. And authors with the time and the digital know-how can leverage their publisher’s efforts to promote and market their books.
Two decades into the digital era, the line dividing publicity and marketing has blurred, but at most publishing houses publicists still largely work to garner so-called earned media, including reviews, interviews, and TV and radio appearances, while marketers focus on “paid media” like advertising, in addition to running campaigns on social media and sites like Goodreads.
“I’ve always thought a useful way of thinking about it is that marketing is what you say about yourself and publicity is what others say about you,” says Nathan Rostron, an editor and marketing director at the Brooklyn, New York–based indie publisher Restless Books.
Marketing campaigns typically begin eight to nine months before a book is published when marketers, together with the publicity department, present preliminary plans for how they will position and market the book to the publisher’s sales team, whose job it is to persuade bookstores and e-tailers to stock copies of the publisher’s books. A few months later marketers start distributing advance reader’s copies (ARCs) to social media influencers and early readers on sites like Goodreads.
Customer reviews on Goodreads have become increasingly important as traditional outlets for book reviews in newspapers and magazines dry up, and many readers have grown accustomed to checking what others say about a book online before they buy it. But it’s a risk. Giveaway copies are randomly assigned to Goodreads members who ask for them, and publishers can influence the response to a book only by ensuring their marketing materials draw in readers already inclined to like the book. Still, a strongly positive response can boost a book’s chances for success by building early buzz and driving preorders. “It’s good to have a four-star rating or higher on Goodreads, and we definitely work to build that rating pool up,” says Burns, the Knopf marketer.
Writers who want to boost awareness of their book on Goodreads can become active readers and commenters, says Katherine Turro, marketing manager at Flatiron Books. “We use Goodreads a ton here, and if the author is really active, has their Ask the Author feature turned on, is reviewing other books, and is interacting with readers, I think that’s a good way to build more followers,” Turro says. “We often use the people who follow them or have shelved their book as a want-to-read title to do advertising and outreach to later on in the campaign.”
As their book’s publication date draws closer, writers can also begin to coordinate with their publisher’s marketing staff to raise their profile online and on social media. At the most basic level this means maintaining a personal website—this is now easy and economical to do, thanks to website-building platforms like WordPress and Squarespace—and stocking it with images of the cover of the book, the publisher’s own marketing copy, and the writer’s contact information, says Stephen Bedford, director of marketing at Simon & Schuster. “That should be one of the most important things on that homepage right up front is a way for people to contact you and say, ‘Hey, I loved your book,’ or ‘I’m a bookseller and event manager at this bookstore and I’m curious if you’d be interested in doing an event,’” Bedford says.
An effective social media presence is trickier, and marketers warn that writers who aren’t already active on sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or who don’t feel comfortable with the sometimes-abrasive culture of social media, may not want to engage in that way. Writers who do dive in should use social media to interact with readers and network with other writers and influencers rather than merely as a blunt-force sales tool. Pestering friends on Facebook and Instagram with posts begging them to buy a book just turns people off, marketers say. Instead writers should try to give potential readers a behind-the-scenes look at how a book was researched and written.
“Take people into your process,” says Bedford. “Show them the manuscript pages and the reworked sections. Maybe you have some edits from an editor and there’s so much red on it that it looks like someone spilled wine on it. Show off your writing space. Take people to your favorite bookstore. Recommend some of your own books that you’re reading now or inspired you. It’s about being a good literary citizen and not just badgering people to buy, buy, buy.”
Bedford recommends that writers who are new to the world of social media influencing but are eager to give their books a boost online enroll in a digital marketing course at a local library or comunity college, or check out online courses and webinars offered by platforms like LinkedIn Learning and AdEspresso to get a better sense of the dos and don’ts of promoting a product on the internet.
For her part, Prescott drew on her professional digital marketing experience when she was promoting The Secrets We Kept, though she admits she found it easier to ghost-write posts for political clients than it was to toot her own social media horn. For the most part, she says, she didn’t directly plug her book. Instead, on Instagram and other platforms she posted photos of historical artifacts in her personal collection, such as her copy of the CIA-produced translation of Doctor Zhivago, along with links to reviews and information about upcoming readings and events.
Most of all, she says, she uses social media to interact directly with readers. “I think the most important thing for me was when people would tweet about the book or post a review on Instagram, I would comment on it and thank them for the thoughtful review,” she says. “I still do that. If I see someone say, ‘I loved this book and here’s my thoughts on it’ and give these really thoughtful reviews on social media, I would just comment, ‘Thank you so much,’ and they would reach out and say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe an author responded to me.’”
But posting regularly on multiple social media platforms can be exhausting and may not ultimately move the sales needle all that much. It’s rare, marketers say, for any single mention of a book or an author to prod a reader to make a purchase; instead readers respond to a constellation of information, online and off—a positive review, a compelling podcast interview, a witty video book trailer, a friend talking up a book at a party—that pushes them to plunk down actual cash.
Ideally this process is organic and the book serves as its own best advertisement, but marketers also routinely seed the market with paid ads. As it has with everything else, technology has disrupted advertising. While book marketers still buy ads in print publications like the New York Times Book Review or Entertainment Weekly if they think potential readers of the book they’re promoting read that publication, much of the industry’s advertising dollars have migrated online, where marketers can micro-target the readers they wish to reach.
For nonfiction books on a particular subject, like Civil War history or cancer recovery, marketers can target readers whose online browsing habits suggest they might be interested in these topics. But for novels, which may not be as easily categorized by subject matter, marketers can compile a list of authors whose work is similar to the work of the author they’re promoting and tap into the sophisticated algorithms of a social media platform like Facebook to advertise to fans of those comparable, or comp, authors.
Unlike traditional print ads, digital advertising campaigns can be constantly recalibrated to ensure the marketer is getting the most bang for the buck. “If we’re doing an ad on Facebook and there was a list of five authors that we were targeting in that ad campaign, we could go in and say three authors are performing really well, those are good targets for us, but these two authors, the cost-per-click is really, really high, so clearly that target isn’t working and we’ll turn it off,” explains Turro, the Flatiron marketing manager.
While a marketing budget is often an indicator of how fully a publisher is getting behind a particular title, marketers say writers shouldn’t get too caught up in the size of their publisher’s ad buy or the slickness of their social media campaign. A smart marketing plan can help a good book find its audience, but marketing muscle, no matter how forcefully exercised, can only do so much for a book that doesn’t deliver on the page.
“For a debut author particularly, it’s going to be those early reads, those early endorsements and that natural groundswell of enthusiasm, I think, that is the best way to get noticed and start that word of mouth,” says Bedford, the Simon & Schuster director of marketing. “Paid advertising and paid media is only going to carry you so far when you’re an unknown entity trying to break through.”
Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.