Launching a Best-Seller Without Selling Your Soul: The Rewards of Self-Promotion

by
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore and Dan Blank
1.21.15

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore was a failure, or at least she felt that way. Her first two novels—acquired together in a six-figure deal in the mid-2000s—had suffered disappointing sales, and two subsequent manuscripts were met with zero interest from publishers. So when an editor at Crown Publishing fell in love with her next book, Bittersweet, Miranda’s excitement was superseded by her pragmatism. Sure, Crown’s publicity and marketing departments seemed deeply engaged, and her editor was passionate. But Miranda knew this could be her last chance to prove her work had sales potential; for that reason, she wanted to do everything in her power to help find Bittersweet’s readership.

Miranda’s previous experience in self-promotion felt a lot like standing at the edge of a chasm, straining to hear her publisher whisper its expectations from the other side. As founder of WeGrowMedia—a company that offers consulting, courses, and training for authors to find and connect with their readers—Dan Blank helps the parties standing on either side of that promotional chasm build a bridge over it. Before working together, Miranda thought of the Internet as a mask to hide behind, but for Dan, social media, websites, blogs, and newsletters are simply extensions of the physical places where authors can engage genuinely, and generously, with others. In fact, what he believes is not unlike what Miranda was teaching her four-year-old: Be kind to others and they will reciprocate. True connection requires more than simply slapping up a website; you must understand who you are in order to know what you can—and want to—offer your readers.

A year before the release of Bittersweet, we strolled the show floor of BookExpo America (BEA), the annual trade fair in New York City. Bubbling over with dreams for Bittersweet’s success, we clung to each other like nerds who’d snuck into the cool kids’ party. We agreed to have weekly meetings and sealed our partnership with a handshake under the Javits Center’s soaring glass ceiling.

The year that followed was a revelation. Miranda learned that self-promotion does not require flinging herself into the promotional chasm, and that online marketing is only sustainable (and enjoyable) if you’re exposing your deepest, truest self. Together, we embraced the idea of iteration—revising, reworking, and learning from our missteps. Because we could always change what we had made, we were emboldened to explore a variety of new initiatives.

From our initial list of possible projects, here are five we undertook that proved successful:

 Blogging the Book Launch

Looking back, with more than 130 posts under our belts, a blog about our work together seems obvious. But we had concerns. Were we interested enough in the process of promotion to blog about it? Should we expend energy dissecting our approach rather than finding readers? Did we really want to expose marketing attempts that might fail?

But when we looked for case studies of what other literary novelists had done to promote their work, we came up empty-handed. By offering the blueprints to the bridge we were building, we hoped to encourage other writers to think practically about this necessary aspect of their working lives.

We aimed to demystify every aspect of the prepublication process. Miranda’s “Anatomy of a Book Blurb” series outlined how she was reaching out for quotes from writers she’d much admired but never met, including Kate Christensen, Maggie Shipstead, and Lauren Groff. We blogged about our weekly meetings as well as those with Crown’s publicity and marketing team, detailing in-depth conversations about blog strategy, website design, and outreach to book “influencers.” Miranda also wrote about the shame she’d felt about her previous commercial failure, receiving hundreds of responses from writers who identified with the headline “I’m a Big Failure and I’m Proud.”

Bittersweet’s publication was the blog’s organic expiration date. Overwhelmed by jitters and tasks, Miranda stopped contributing regularly, but Dan picked up the slack. Over the course of the year we’d gained a loyal following, with many writers thanking us for revealing the behind-the-scenes details of a book launch. Rather than distracting us from finding our readership, the project ultimately extended our network beyond Bittersweet, which will prove valuable for future projects.

 Redesigning the Author Website

Static since 2007, Miranda’s website consisted of an author photo she hated; a formal, impersonal bio that read like something out of corporate America; and no mention of Bittersweet. And since the site was designed in HTML, she had no ability to revise it on her own.

When Dan suggested she change her website name from MirandaBeverly-Whittemore.com to something shorter and easier to spell, she scoffed defensively in the way only the lifelong hyphenated can. Dan nodded patiently and explained that the simpler her website name, the more readers would be able to find her. And wouldn’t it be great if her website matched her Twitter account (her name has too many characters for Twitter), which, in turn, matched her other social media accounts? We bought MirandaBW.com and didn’t look back.

Dan taught Miranda how to use Wordpress by making PDFs with screen grabs so she could understand each step. He urged her to think of the website as a place to reveal her true self; she uploaded pictures from the span of her life, and penned a first-person bio with much more than just a list of her accomplishments. The site, now easy to navigate and revise, has changed according to our needs, incorporating them for the ten Bittersweet book trailers made by Miranda’s filmmaker sister, as well as hosting a twenty-fourbook giveaway (see below). But there is still tweaking to do: A formal bio and downloadable author photo need to be added, and information about Miranda’s next novel, June, recently acquired by Crown, must be incorporated into the website’s design. Still, Miranda knows she can do it, and on her own. The site’s flexibility—which once would have been overwhelming—is now one of its biggest charms.

 Crafting a Thoughtful Social Media Presence

Aside from having a personal Facebook account, Miranda wasn’t well versed in social media. At Dan’s encouragement, she joined Twitter, at first simply following those she admired. As she got more comfortable, she joined the conversation, interacting as she would at a party—warming up to the room, asking questions—and began to gain followers. This new skill set became useful around publication, as bloggers and librarians tweeted about Bittersweet, and Miranda found herself able to respond in real time. She’s met and befriended Twitter followers at BEA—people with whom she’d never otherwise have a personal connection. And she recently hosted a few Twitter chats—on one occasion taking over the Crown handle to reach out to its nearly forty-four thousand followers—and finds the platform to be one of her favorite ways to interact with readers.

Although many authors don’t discuss book promotion on their personal Facebook page, Miranda keeps her friends in the loop as good news develops, setting it alongside more personal daily updates. On her author page—which Crown requested she start—she’s had a harder time finding her voice. During a research trip for her upcoming novel, she experimented by posting photographs exclusively on this more official page. Facebook analytics helped her understand exactly how these posts were boosting engagement, and she is looking for other opportunities to make the page feel personal on her own terms.

It’s the personal angle that led her to join Instagram—and kept her there. The desire to share visual snippets from her life is organic, reinforcing that what feels most natural is what is most easily incorporated into daily life. And being on Pinterest has proved valuable; among other things, the visual inspiration that inspired Bittersweet was used by Miranda’s editor to build enthusiasm for the book in-house.