I have published three books in the United States, one in the 1990s, another (basically an updated version of the first) in the 2000s, and most recently, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship (Rivertowns Books, $14.95) in April 2019.
While the publishing industry has certainly changed since my first book came out, some of the methods I used many years ago to promote my books inexpensively still work. You can actually make a small amount of money go a long way if you are creative. For example, Random House budgeted $1,000 for what they expected would be a one-event “tour” in a single city in 1996. But I surprised them by stretching that sum to support 21 events in 11 cities using some of the techniques outlined below. During that first effort, I sold a decent number of books and had a lot of fun. I’ve reprised some of those approaches during my current tour that began last month.
This post aims to share tips with newer authors about how to create traction for and buzz about their books without spending much money. Let me preface this by saying that if you go with a traditional publisher, which I did twice, be hopeful but also realistic (i.e., skeptical) about their promises to promote your work. My experience is that if your book doesn’t start selling well within around three weeks, most publishers scale back their promotion efforts and quite a few will discontinue them entirely. Unless you are an author with a proven track record of selling a lot of books, it’s pretty safe to assume that you are largely on your own, regardless of whether you go the traditional or self-publishing route.
Further below, I will offer some ideas and tips related to embarking on a low-budget book tour. But there are quite a few things that you can do to promote your book without ever leaving town. They include:
1. Check out online resources, such as this one, that list methods to inexpensively promote your book. (Some of the ideas below are ones I took from this and other websites and had success using.)
2. Once you have a title for your book, advertise it (initially as a forthcoming work) as part of your email signature, on your business card, and on social media platforms you use. You can add something to the bottom of each email you send that can be as simple as, “Author of [Book Title], forthcoming in [Month, Year]” and perhaps a description of the book if the title is not self-explanatory. Once your book is published, change this tagline to include a link to someplace where people can purchase it.
3. Where possible, name people in your book (especially in the acknowledgements section) whom you may later ask to help promote it. (Remember that you can refer to people by name when you have something positive to say about them and omit or change their name if it is something that might embarrass or offend them.)
4. Ask people to edit, react to, or comment on parts of or the entire book while in draft form once it is in pretty good shape. This will make them feel a part of the project and it might improve the manuscript as well. Later, they will probably be more likely to buy, review, and promote the book.
5. If making money on your book, or limiting the amount you lose on it, is important to you, be cautious about giving away too many free copies – it is a slippery slope that once you start down can be difficult to control.
In terms of organizing a low-budget book tour, here are my tips:
1. Make a list of people you could ask to host and/or help organize book promotion events in cities around the country (and even beyond). The list may include friends, family, acquaintances, people you know who are in a field that the book is relevant to, colleagues, former colleagues, people you have served on boards of directors with, people who organize speaker series, and others.
2. Prioritize that list, taking into account the varying costs involved in travelling to different cities. Don’t be too fast to discount people’s interest in helping you – if you ask, you may be surprised how interested they are in doing so. Then start contacting those at the top of the list. Express appreciation if anyone offers to help, but don’t be too quick to agree to come to a city until you have a critical mass of quality events confirmed or close to being confirmed.
3. If possible, schedule events at times when you won’t feel like you have to serve refreshments – such as in the mid-morning, the mid-afternoon or the late afternoon/early evening. However, if you feel you must serve something, your host may be willing to foot the bill –though you should offer to reimburse them any reasonable out of pocket costs they incur.
4. Schedule events in venues that ideally have the following characteristics: are free or nearly free, permit you to sell books, are big enough to accommodate a decent-sized crowd if your event gets some traction, and where you can have food and drink if you and your host decide to provide that. Universities, for example, are usually great for most of these items except for being able to sell books – so be sure to check that before you commit to such a venue.
5. Be cautious about doing events in bookstores. In many cases, they will not promote your book signing much (if at all), and instead expect you to turn out a crowd of a certain size or larger. In such cases, doing the event in another venue that allows you to sell the books (and earn more on each sale) makes more sense.
6. Bring (in your luggage) or ship (as cheaply as possible) books that you have bought at the author rate to your events, unless you or your host can convince a reliable bookstore to handle sales. Bring a supply of black Sharpie pens to sign books that people buy. Have them write their names on an index card before you sign the book, so as to ensure that you don’t misspell their name in the inscription.
7. If people that you approach aren’t in a position to organize an event for you, they can still show up at an event organized by others, put you up for the night, or promote the event to people they know.
8. For each event, develop a webpage to advertise it and allow people to register (which helps you plan for how many books to bring and how many chairs to set). EventBrite worked well for me, but there are others. Also, develop a flyer and make it possible for people to go from the online version of it directly to the registration page. Keep in mind that the number of people who turn up at events is usually somewhere between 50% and 110% of the number who register in advance. EventBrite has functionality that makes it easy (or even automated) to send reminders to people who signed up 1-2 days before the event, and/or to send messages after the event is over where you can thank people for coming and ask them to publish reviews.
9. In addition to creating a website event invitation, take a few minutes before each trip to send some personal emails inviting your target audience (individuals and organizations) to your author talk event; or better yet, give them a call. Consider who you want your target readership to be and what contacts or relationships you might want to build for the future. Develop a list of names and organizations and then check the websites or LinkedIn. Often an organization’s website lists the email addresses of leading staff, and it only takes a moment to send a personal invitation to your event. Never underestimate the value of an invitation, especially to a free event, regardless if the individual can attend or not. And if they reply and are interested, you have a new relationship and contact. Even if someone cannot attend your event, they might have strong influence over their network to promote your book/message.
10. Set up an account on Square (or other payment service) and get a credit card reader to plug into your phone so you can take credit card payments. It’s free and the fee on each transaction is only around 3%. Test the reader with your own credit card when you receive it, and again 24 hours before each event. Have your Square username and password handy if you need to sign in (which sometimes happens if you haven’t used it in a couple of weeks), as well as the telephone number for their helpline.
11. When you have an event, encourage but don’t pressure people to buy one or more copies of your book after you complete you author talk. Even more important, tell them how grateful you will be if they become an evangelist for the book by talking it up to other potential readers, which can include writing online reviews on Amazon.com and other platforms.
12. If people give you leads about potential places to speak, especially if they have in-built audiences so that you are not solely responsible for generating a crowd, follow up quickly and aggressively. Also, be sure to keep the person who generated the idea informed and make them feel appreciated, even if it does not pan out but especially if it does.
13. Consider signing up for a credit card if the sign-up bonus for free flights or hotel rooms far exceeds the annual fee. You can always cancel the card after getting the bonus. This will help reduce the travel costs for your tour.
14. Be discriminating about offering discounts on your book – for example, I only give them to people who are students and/or interns.
15. During your author talk, try to make people laugh in the first five minutes. The laughter will probably relax them, and they will pay closer attention and enjoy the experience more. (One of my recent lines: “And if you don’t buy a book now but prefer to go home and buy a Kindle version, I can sign your arm if you want. I don’t necessarily recommend it, but I will do it!”)
16. Consider using social media platforms that you don’t normally engage in to create buzz. For example, I have a LinkedIn account but rarely used it until I realized that it was a great way to promote the book among a certain segment of my potential readers.
17. Prioritize cities where you have other reasons to visit beyond selling books (e.g., you have friends or family there, or it has other attractions of interest to you). Consider scheduling a book event in a city you were already going to visit on business or as part of a vacation.
18. Some companies bring authors in to talk as a perk for their employees, and buy books as a giveaway for the first few dozen people who sign up to attend – so be on the lookout for such opportunities.
19. Ask bloggers to review your book, or alternatively if they would agree to publish a review by someone you identify. When people positively review your book online, even if it is just two sentences long and on Amazon.com, thank them quickly. Always encourage people who review your book to create a link to your website and/or a place where they can buy your book.
20. Don’t take too many questions after your talk, since quite a few people may want to buy a book and get on with their day at that point. A prolonged Q&A period dominated by a few people may cause you to lose sales. Tell everyone at the very end of your presentation that you will stick around as long as people have questions to ask you one-on-one (assuming your schedule allows for that).
21. Tell people not just about the book, but also about the process of writing it – especially things that were surprising/unexpected and that could be useful to other aspiring writers.
22. If there is a small turnout for one of your events, don’t feel bad about it. It’s an opportunity to do your talk with low stakes, potentially trying out new stories or presentation techniques. I have found that in intimate events, the percentage of people who buy books if often higher than in larger ones, and I also seem to make the best new contacts.
So there you have it – twenty-seven strategies I have used and had success with. Good luck with your books and let me know what you learn from applying these as well as your own techniques. Don’t forget to celebrate when your book is published – that’s a big deal! – and when you have even modestly successful promotion events, reviews, and the like.
I would like to thank Susan Stearns for inspiring me to write this post and for helping to edit it and also for adding valuable content.