What Can Authors Do to Sell Books

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Mar 27 2009

I suspect that after query letters, the most frequently asked question authors have and the most well-attended workshops at writers conferences are those about publicity. What does an author have to do or what can an author do to help sell books?

When asking around you are going to hear a million and one answers to this question. You are going to hear that you need to spend at least your entire advance on publicity or that you have to have bookmarks. You’re going to hear that a Web site is a must and blogging is essential. Well, do you want to know what I think? I think that no one, not one person out there, knows what works and what doesn’t. What everyone can do is speculate that what they did either worked or didn’t, but the truth is that no one knows for sure whether there is a correlation between what the author did and what actually sold books.

I do think a Web site is essential. I don’t think it needs to cost you thousands and thousands of dollars, but it does need to look professional and it does need to be updated regularly. So yes, it will cost some money. Web sites are where a fan base will first start searching for you. If a reader finishes your book and enjoys it, the first thing she’ll probably do is Google your name, and in any situation the best thing you can do is ensure in a Google search that you provide what the readers what. Every single author Web site should include:

  • jpegs of book covers
  • review blurbs
  • information on upcoming projects
  • author bio
  • contact information for fan mail

Other bonus material that I think readers will enjoy and others might find useful

  • a photo of the author and covers in a downloadable file with high enough resolution that reviewers can use it if needed
  • fun facts, recipes, games, etc., related to the book
  • updates on the author’s progress
  • links to other sources that might relate to your book

Whether or not you join a blog or group blog is entirely up to you. I think guest blogging can be useful and maybe more useful than your own blog, since it will hopefully reach out to people who don’t yet know you. A blog should only be done if you really know you can and want to commit to it. I’m here to tell you firsthand how time-consuming they can be, and the last thing you want to do is spend time writing a blog when what you should really be doing is writing your next book. So yes, go ahead and start or join a blog if it’s something you really want to do, but not because you feel like you have to.

Bookmarks, pens, postcards, and other handouts are only useful if you use them. I don’t think that shipping postcards or pens all around the country or the world to conferences so they can sit on tables and be tossed in the trash later is useful. I do, however, think that if you use your promotional item, whatever it might be, as a way to introduce yourself and make a personal connection with readers, they are worth the money. A client once asked me if I thought she should reorder her promotional items and my response was that she really seemed to enjoy her items. She loved passing them out to readers and potential readers and using them as a way of introduction. She agreed. To her they were fun. She reordered. Promotional items don’t do any good without a personal connection. If they are simply picked up off the table they only become another pen at the bottom of a purse.

Video trailers and other multimedia promotion are something I never understood. I know authors love them and certainly they are a fun way to present your book, but do they really work? You tell me. Have any of you ever bought a book based on a trailer. I think they can be a great addition to your Web site and certainly a different way of presenting the book, but unless you are really going to spend the money and make sure they shine and get out there to the public they are just another thing sitting on your computer.

So what is my feeling on what you can do to sell your book? The truth is that the best thing you can do is write the best book of your life and follow it up with an even better book. The rest, the Web site, the blog, the pens, the postcards . . . should only be done if they are fun for you. If you use them to make a personal connection with potential readers. Remember, the point of promotion is not just to pass things out to those who love you and your work already, it’s to introduce yourself to someone new.


52 responses to “What Can Authors Do to Sell Books”

  1. You could go to bookshops and sign copies as well.

    I wonder how many plays Shakespeare would have written if he’d needed the promotional tools of the modern age?

  2. Avatar D.A. Riser says:

    Great post, Jessica, and yes, I agree with you that blogging devours one’s time. Of course, so does reading blogs and commenting on blogs …

  3. Great post, I am a struggling novelist and essayist, and blogging SUCKS up my time. I love it, because of the immediate feedback I get from readers, but I often wonder that I’m wasting my time since I’m not writing THE BOOK. Its a balance for me, one that I haven’t yet figured out yet.

    Cowgirl in the City

  4. Avatar Mark Terry says:

    What you’re saying here is almost blasphemy to some writers–and probably publishers–but in my experience it’s also true. I’ve got another book coming out next year and I’m looking back at all the marketing things I did for the last two and wondering if any of it worked. What seemed to work best for me: good reviews in Library Journal. That was for “Dirty Deeds.” Kirkus had a tepid review of “The Devil’s Pitchfork” and nobody reviewed “The Serpent’s Kiss.” But there was a definite correlation between that LJ review and a jump in sales.

    Aside from that, all the library talks, conferences, mailings, visiting bookstores, AuthorBuzz, website, blogging, formal book signings, Rotary Club talks… well, they sold a few books at each event, but it’s questionable if it was worth the time and frustration.

    But then again, some writers just love doing that stuff. And if you love doing it–even if it’s not really selling books–then why not do it?

  5. Avatar Lo says:

    I have bought a book based on a promotional video: Perfect Chemistry by Simon Elkeles. When I saw the trailer, I thought, “This is total cheese,” but the song in it was catchy, and I heard it in my head the next time I was in Borders. Paid full price even.

  6. For me, I’ve always said if you don’t enjoy it, don’t bother. Some people HATE Yahoo loops. Me? I like them and I like chatting with other readers and authors. I find it fun. The ones who don’t like it stick out like a sore thumb.
    I like blogging so I do that. But I know an author who doesn’t do anything but update her website and pay for one advertisement on a popular website. That’s it. She’s a bestseller.
    The promo helps, but it’s the book that sells.
    Every little bit helps though. No, I don’t think people have bought my ebooks based on my book trailers, but it allowed me to promote my book on YouTube.
    Again, I enjoy the stuff I do and I think that makes a difference.

  7. Avatar Anita says:

    I agree with the “best book of your life” thing. Do that, and word of mouth will get your book sold.

    I think meeting with groups works if your book has a hook which relates to the group. And I know more and more authors are “meeting” with book clubs over the telephone…a ten minute call or whatever during the club meeting.

    Regarding sites: Book clubs also look for questions/answers from the author and discussion questions for the club.

    And I think Jessica forgot to mention getting on Oprah. That really seems to help. 🙂

  8. Avatar Suzan Harden says:

    Speaking solely as a reader to all you aspiring authors, write a damn good book. So good that I’ll buy an extra copy to shove into my grandmother, best friend or neighbor’s hand, saying “You have GOT to read this!”

    Speaking as a former salesperson, make friends with your local bookseller. Seriously. I hand-sold the dickens out of one author because she was such a lovely lady as well a terrific writer.

  9. Avatar Anonymous says:

    As a marketing guy, I have to say you are right on…or is that ‘write on’?

    Yep. It’s all about making a personal connection with your audience. All else is a waste.

    I think a website makes sense most of all. The other stuff. Not so much. Blogging? If you have something to say and you enjoy it. If not, forget it.

    Handouts? Mostly a big waste of money…not just for writers pushing their books but in almost all business promotions in my experience.

  10. Reminds me of that old, familiar line: “I know half my advertising is wasted—I just don’t know which half.” Coming from the advertising industry it is amazing to see that ugly ads work, great ads don’t, sun shines and no one’s ads work, it rains same scenario. I agree 100%, when you can’t pin down the ‘why, do the ‘what’ you enjoy, and be nice to everyone. And the be nice part I was taught in kindergarten and lesson driven home in the sales field.

  11. Avatar 150 says:

    I have never bought a book based on a trailer.

    I would, however, buy anything Brad Neely or Neil Cicierega ever wrote, because their YouTube videos, unrelated to any book project, are hysterical. Anything they come up with is gonna be good.

  12. Avatar Janet says:

    I read one book because of the trailer. The trailer was better.

  13. Avatar Angie says:

    Have any of you ever bought a book based on a trailer

    I never have, and I don’t see the point of it. Video and print are two completely different media. A movie trailer works because what the trailer is showing you is a small bit of the experience you’re going to get watching the movie. Watching a trailer is nothing at all like reading a book, though. The trailer could be the most wonderful, best-produced book trailer in the world, with clever dialogue and expert acting and effects and whatever all else, but it still won’t give me a clue whether I’d enjoy reading the book. Or conversely, it could completely suck and turn me off, but the book might still be something I’d love.

    I don’t get all the hoopla over book trailers. I ignore them.


  14. Avatar lynnrush says:

    Great post.
    I’ve actually bought a book on a book trailer. Shade, by John B Olson. It was great. Book was even better:-)

    I know authors play a big role in helping sell their books, and I think someone who is open and willing to do marketing is so important.

    Thanks for the post. Have a great Friday!

  15. Have any of you ever bought a book based on a trailer.

    I once was thinking of buying a book based on it’s back cover description, then saw the book trailer and decided not to buy it after all. I’ve seen a few book trailers that made me decide not to bother with a book I didn’t know about previously.

    But, no, I’ve never bought a book because of a book trailer. These days I even avoid them because they seem to have such a negative affect on my book buying habits.

  16. Avatar Kristan says:

    I love your basic advice here: “The truth is that the best thing you can do is write the best book of your life and follow it up with an even better book. The rest, the Web site, the blog, the pens, the postcards . . . should only be done if they are fun for you.”

    Because it’s so easy, in this day and age, to get caught up in the second part instead of the first.

  17. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Sad to say, I think a book signing in a bookstore defeats the purpose. You’re competing with thousands of other books and famous authors and often must “convince” people to give you a shot.

    Why not try alternative avenues tied-in with your book? Then you’re a novelty, not a novice.
    I think an original, creative approach can work wonders.

  18. Avatar Sooki Scott says:

    I’ve found advice on this subject to be everywhere, so much so it’s invisible. Like white noise, proper marketing information surrounds us, but the sheer volume of differing opinions make the wisest approach difficult to distinguish—until now. Thank you for the clarification.

    Confucius says; men’s natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart.

  19. Avatar E. J. Tonks says:

    I despiset hose little promotional videos on Amazon–they almost never mesh with the image I’ve created from the book’s synopsis (they’re always worse–I’ve got a *hot* imagination) so I end up not buying the book because the video clip ruined it for me!

  20. I think book trailers can be used not just as a promotional tool on a website/YouTube/etc, but as a visual in the sales room. My recent book trailer, which isn’t finished yet, will be used by my foreign rights agent to pitch the book to prospective buyers abroad. It will also be used by my publishing house and their sales team.

    But perhaps the biggest bang for my buck, so to speak, has been an outreach to book clubs. I speak to several a week, and this has made an enormous difference in readership.

  21. Cowgirl, I’m with you. Blogging is fun, but I’m struggling to make the most of my writing time.

    My verification word is scess, as if it is poised for success, but missing a key element or two.

  22. Avatar jimnduncan says:

    Generating word of mouth interest is certainly what you try to do with all of these marketing tools, and I too have looked around at everything people try to do to accomplish this, and wonder wtf I will do if/when I become published. I don’t think you need to get your name out to the four corners of the universe to make it happen. You just need a few of the right connections. Of course, what these are for any given book can be and generally is a great mystery. I for one, whatever I might end up doing, don’t want to spend more than an hour a day on this stuff. I have stories to write after all, and to spend more time than that would certainly take away from what I enjoy the most.

  23. Avatar ryan field says:

    Good post. I don’t mind the blogging end of things. Blogging has to be kept up to date, always, but helps you connect with readers. I also find tweeting helps too. I recently landed two radio interviews thanks to networking through twitter.

  24. Avatar Ava Quinn says:

    Thanks for giving some good down-home common sense advice, Jessica. Great entry, as usual.

  25. Avatar Wendy says:

    Some wonderful quotable points in this…something all writers could gain wisdom from.

    My favorites: “Promotional items don’t do any good without a personal connection.”


    “I think that no one, not one person out there, knows what works and what doesn’t. What everyone can do is speculate that what they did either worked or didn’t, but the truth is that no one knows for sure whether there is a correlation between what the author did and what actually sold books.”

    Thanks for the honesty–it’s refreshing!

  26. Avatar Janet says:

    Inspired by this post, I’m running a poll on my blog about book trailers. (Feel free to delete this comment if it violates your comment policy.) Please come tell me if trailers make you buy.

  27. You know, I’ve never really gotten book trailers either. If I’m interested in researching a book online, I’ll look for an author website or some reviews (whether formal or just off someone’s blog who has nothing to do with the publishing industry). If I have a few spare minutes to spend watching videos, book trailers aren’t usually what I search for. I did buy THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN after seeing the trailer, but that was a book I was planning to buy regardless.

    However, I know if a publishing company wanted to make a trailer for my book, I wouldn’t protest. Although a few of the commenters reported being turned off by a book’s trailer, I imagine that overall it probably couldn’t hurt the book too badly. And in the future, book trailers might be something more people are interested in.

    There are a lot of good ideas thrown out in this post, but I also appreciate your comments regarding the actual fruitfulness of some of them. Don’t get me wrong, I do plan to utilize some of these ideas if/when I ever get published. But in a world full of “you must absolutely do ____ or your book won’t sell”, it’s nice to be reminded once in a while that the most important thing is the writing, and all else is supplemental.

  28. Avatar Anonymous says:

    On book trailers: I think their main use is that they allow you to advertise (for free) the book on popular Youtube and any other vid-sharing sites. So by doing that you’re reaching a different audience, which is the whole idea.

    The trailer should look as professional as the book itself is, however–don’t represent your book with anything that is not on the same level of quality as the book itself.

    I thibnk the social netowrks are good, too, for individually reaching out to people about your book.

  29. Avatar Rick Chesler says:

    Great post on promotion–thanks for the info!

  30. Avatar Carradee says:

    *thinks* I’ve been convinced to read a book from my local library from a trailer.

    Sample chapters online also go a long way towards coaxing me into bothering to find something to read it.

    I very rarely buy novels, mainly because I live with parents who aren’t happy when I do buy it. My list of what I want to buy when I’m on my own contains many things that I only found from the excerpts and short stories the authors offered for free online.

    Oh, covers can go far in prodding me towards or away from something, too. Provocative covers make me go the other direction.

  31. Most book trailers are really bad. And none of them has ever convinced me to buy a book.

    Blogging is fun for connecting with other writers. At some point when I have a book out, I suppose the content of my blog will have to change. Or I’ll have to start a new blog. Yikes!!

  32. Avatar Marti_L says:

    I’ve sold a lot of books using Twitter. I can track my sales since I used CreateSpace and they send me a notice whenever I have a sale, so I can directly correlate sales to a mentions on Twitter (by me or someone saying, “I read this and enjoyed it”).

    Of course you can’t just tweet, “Buy my book!” You have to be conversational, and offer people a reason your book would be good reading for them.

    Excellent post – thanks for sharing your thoughts. I got here from a mention by Nathan Bransford.

  33. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Michelle, congrats on your great book! I first heard of it while surfing ebay (a bad habit) and saw it as a banner ad…

    Really caught my eye cuz I’ve rarely seen a book advertised that way. Was it reasonable/effective?

  34. Hi Anon,

    Thank you! Actually, I don’t recall advertising on Ebay, so I’m sorry I can’t tell you whether or not it was effective. This is the first I’ve heard of it, in fact. I’ll have to ask my publishers. I know that you can do cheap, targeted ads on Facebook, and I believe this is something my house is looking into…

  35. Avatar AstonWest says:

    I’m a big fan of using promotional material as a means of introduction. I do that with bookmarks and sampler CDs myself, and believe it goes over quite well.

  36. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Michelle, I don’t think it was advertised on ebay per se, but it happened to pop up while I was wasting time on ebay…The graphics, etc were so good that I wanted to rush out and buy your book!

  37. Avatar Speed Reader says:

    I'm a book blogger and have been wondering whether book blogging activity (reviews and author interviews/guest-blogs) have any measurable impact on sales?

    I started because it was fun to talk about the books my friends & I were reading and discussing. I had no idea that I would be asked to review books and interview authors.

    It's a lot of fun for me, but I would love it if I could be more effective in helping authors get more readers and/or sell more books.

    If books blogs are not effective, is it because they are not being properly utilized or is is it just not a great marketing channel?

  38. Avatar Kim Kasch says:

    Just thought you might like to see that you got an Honorable Mention in ”The Best of the Best for Blogging Agents”

  39. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    My personal take on promotion is that if you love it and it doesn’t interrupt with your writing schedule, do it. I don’t use my trailers to sell books. Their purpose is name branding, and with so many readers adding my Wolf Tales trailer to their MySpace pages, I know they’re getting out there. I enjoy promotion–and the chance to meet my readers–as much as I love the writing, and with four books a year contracted, I have to be sure that what I do isn’t wasted time. I’m currently on a trip through the Southwest that’s part reader meetings and part research. Tomorrow I’ll be locked in my hotel room writing, Sunday and Monday meeting readers and then it’s on to Phoenix and Tucson for more of the same. I love my bookmarks and hand them out all over the place–tonight they went to the waitress in our restaurant and the clerk at the minimart where I bought some munchies. I just returned from New York where I met a couple of readers and took them to lunch–they were online friends, now I know them in real life, and I love having that connection. Last night I met one of my beta readers in person for the first time–another online friend who has become a real-life friend, but again, it’s the connection with people who read my books that is important. I’ve got readers who refer to themselves as my “pimps,” because they’ve talked so many people into reading my series–you can’t buy promotion like that, but more important, I’ve gained more really cool friends through all the fun correspondence their “pimping” has brought me. Promotion might not sell books, but it does sell authors. It all depends on what your priorities are and where you’re willing to spend you time, which is even more valuable than the money.

  40. I actually decided to buy Carrie Ryan’s “The Forest of Hands and Teeth” the second I saw the book trailer. I was instantly intrigued, and I knew I had to read it. So I think if book trailers are done well, then yes, they can help with book promotion.

  41. Avatar Vacuum Queen says:

    And my son’s school gets local authors in all the time. They meet with half the school at a time and tell about writing the story and funny life stuff, etc. And then, just by handing out a photocopied version of a lame bookmark, my son comes home super excited and googles the author right away and ALWAYS wants to order the book. It’s something at least.
    Not hard to hit a few schools a week. Plus, the school often pays for it.

  42. Avatar Chiron says:

    This may be the best one yet.

    Thanks So Much.

    Chiron O’Keefe

  43. Refreshing to see someone say writing a great book and the next one is key. A lot of the agents nowadays seek your publicity potential much more than the strength of an idea. They claim the most important thing about you is your CV. And no wonder there are these inane books by Phds who no one in their right mind would or could read.

    Useful points for the blog/ website – I’ll be using them.


  44. ….Or do you mean this for the fiction writers only?

  45. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Shakespeare wrote his plays for presentation on a stage not for publication as books. None of this would have been of the slightest interest to him

  46. Avatar Linda Austin says:

    Bought Garden of Eve, good book, based on its (professional) trailer. I think the trailer posted on my website adds interest. Authors getting out there face-to-face, esp doing presentations can really sell books. Leaving comments on popular blogs is a good idea, too. Publicity helps sell even mediocre books.

  47. I just found your blog. I’ll be back.

  48. Thanks for the great article. I agree that the *very best* thing an author can do is write a fantastic book. Beyond that I believe every impression will help your book, whether it comes from a book trailer, a guest post on an applicable blog or a schlocky little pen…not that I’m gonna print up pens for my novel. C’mon now.

  49. Avatar ~Sia McKye~ says:

    Yes, I have bought books based on the creativity used in making a trailer. It gives you the author’s view of their book too.

    Blogs do take up a lot of time as do the reading of them. I spend about two hours a week, at least, reading them. But, mine I’ve keep to 3 regular posting a week. I don’t know how others can do everyday, write, deal with family and life, and do a daily blog too.

    I make it easier on myself by highlighting authors on Mondays and Wednesdays, the person behind the book. It still takes time but not as much as if I wrote every article.

    In today’s economy, and online presence is important, and cost you your time, but it does build name recognition and that’s what any author needs. Having said that, you need to organize yourself with a specific focus when you do it so you don’t waste your time.

  50. Avatar Mark says:

    I’ve had a blog for several years, but I don’t spend much time on it. As little as even mid-list or lower publishing pays, I wouldn’t spend money on trinkets of promotion. The work should sell itself using the usual channels, the most important being copies on shelves across the country.

  51. Avatar Anonymous says:

    As a publishing insider, I agree with much of what you’re saying, but I also believe that an author can’t do enough to promote themselves either through publicity or promotion. My new book, 101 Author Tips: Creating A Successful Book Campaign offers authors a quick guide to achieving publicity, promotion AND sales. Look for it starting June1, 2009!
    Publishing Insider

  52. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Keep on posting such articles. I like to read stories like this. Just add some pics 🙂