How to Develop the Right Marketing Strategy for Your Book

By   Hannah Bickerton 17 min read

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

Over the past few decades independent publishing has become a far more popular and empowering route for authors to reach audiences all over the world. As an independent author, the success of your book lies solely with you. Therefore, researching and figuring out the best strategy for your book is key. The ultimate and most definitive measure of success is of course book sales. Yet to reach your optimum sales there are many steps on the ladder. How you plan ahead, organize your time, execute your strategy and break up the process into intermediary smaller goals, such as creating a solid following and building your author profile, will have a huge impact.

Strategy Plan and Timeline: Knowing what your goals are and how to achieve them

Book promotion should start well before you even write your book. It’s a long-term and goal-oriented activity and you will need adequate time to identify who your readers are and make them aware of you.

But with such a range of options, mediums and platforms available to promote your book, where do you even start? Firstly, give yourself a reasonable timeline and clearly establish your course of action. Creating a detailed book marketing plan, or author business plan, will help you lay out all the fundamental elements within your strategy. An author business plan should always begin with market research. This research will be crucial in forcing focus, assisting you in identifying your target audience, your Unique Selling Point (USP) for the book, and other competitors in your space. Ask yourself key questions such as what online forums do my readers like to use? Who are the influential voices? What specific topics do my readers engage with, respond to and not respond to? What books do they read? Where are the gaps in the discussion that my book could fill? What are the key events in the calendar I need to be aware of, or attend? 

Once you have completed your research, we advise that you segment your timeline into three main sections: the build-up phase, the pre-publication phase, and the book launch (and beyond!) phase. This is so you can clearly separate out your goals and act accordingly. For the build-up phase, your activities should be geared towards the goals of building up your author profile and network of genuine engagers. Success here would be measured by new followers or connections on key social media platforms, increased visits to a blog or website, new subscribers to a newsletter, and increasing your visibility in relevant publications and media. Note that this is not necessarily about directly promoting your book, but entering and being prominent in a discussion which could interest your potential future readers—a valuable asset to you once the book is published. Social media will likely be a key component of this, so think about where you will post, what you will post, and how regularly. If there are other inspiring voices in connection to you, introduce yourself, suggest a collaboration or feature or pitch a piece you could write for them. And think outside the box! There isn’t a one-size-fits-all here. There also isn’t really a shortcut to this part of the process, and it does take time, so be patient. Confirm the dates you want to post and hold yourself accountable.

The next section of your author business plan, the pre-publication phase, should be centered around the book itself. We advise activating around six months ahead of your publication date. The goals here should be to generate excitement around the book, which could be measured by increased mentions, features, or pre-sales. This is where creativity will be your best friend, as people don’t like being sold to. Rather than selling, instead make it your goal to intrigue and ignite a genuine interest in the work. Release sneak peaks, dramatic excerpts or thought-provoking questions. Play on people’s emotions, such as using humor, or shock tactics where appropriate. Involve people in the process, such as sharing cover design options. Talk about the more personal side of writing a book, top milestones you have overcome, insights on the process. As you approach your publication date, think about special signed copies, competitions or physical events. Let potential readers know where they can go to pre-order copies of the book. Reach out to influential people and send them early copies, politely asking for reviews on your Amazon sales page. Just as with the previous phase, list out all the activities you want to run, then schedule the dates and stick to them.   

Once your book is published and available to purchase, the final phase in your plan is about maintaining the momentum and pushing for sales—the master goal. And this, unsurprisingly, is measured in actual book sales. This is where all your previous hard work in the earlier phases will be realized. Activity here should involve direct messaging and be very action focused. Be clear on what you want people to do and how they can do it, and build that into your call-to-actions or CTAs. One of the huge benefits of online marketing is that you have access to insights such as views, clicks and conversion events, so run different tests, learn what works and adapt accordingly. If it’s an influential review that is resonating with your audience, include that in your marketing messaging. Perhaps it’s a thrilling tidbit you have circulated, or maybe it’s educating your audience with what they will get from the book. Because of all this, it’s in the book launch phase that you need to allow for some flexibility, and you may not confirm your plan of action until you are in the midst of it all. It’s always hard to say how long you should allow for this part of your promotion plan, as it varies from project-to-project and audience-to-audience how wide the major engagement window is from the launch of the book. Actively promote your book for at least a month to make the most of the opportunity before you feel you have exhausted your audience and need to slow it down. Afterwards, you may do pushes at key points in the calendar, or when you feature in related media or events. Books can have lifelong campaigns, so eventually you will have to decide how to embed them within your future activities.        

The very final part of your author business plan is overlaying any budget you want to assign to enable it. Revisit your goals and individual actions in the plan to think about the specific resources required to achieve them. This could take the form of paying for a publicity consultant or marketing specialist. Alternatively, you might want to consider paid media to expand your reach. When allocating investment in marketing, think critically about your expectations on the return. Be clear and explicit about what success would look like and at what point the investment is worthwhile, which in most cases is in the book launch phase. Don’t lose sight of your main objectives here. Just because you can spend money on something, doesn’t mean you should. Keep going back to your market research and ask yourself what makes sense.  

The art of all this is really in the planning. And you should factor all of the above into your timeline. This foresight will garner interest and a genuine potential readership. It’s a lot to wrap your head around, but breaking it up into separate phases will help with direction and focus. It might seem like a lot of effort, time and energy that could instead be spent writing, but trust us, it will be worth it in the end. Whatever your goals, you want people to read the book you have worked so hard to write and publish. A clear marketing plan and timeline will be fundamental to achieving this.

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Targeting Readers: The importance of understanding your audience

The key to an impactful campaign isn’t marketing everywhere and anywhere. The idea isn’t to do more—more social platforms, more tools, more time and money spent on marketing—but instead to consider doing less. And by this we mean refining your marketing approach and knowing who your target readers are. This will help everything else fall into place, such as determining the right copy use, which social platforms to be on, where to feature and which influencers to connect with. The reality is that not everyone will be interested in reading your book, so don’t waste your time and energy trying to convince them to do so. And we can’t emphasize enough that when it comes to your book’s audience, it’s quality, not quantity that will have the biggest steer on sales.

To accurately identify your target readers and market to them, begin by asking yourself who would want to read your book and what kind of person you had in mind when writing it. Even if you didn’t write with a particular reader in mind, you most likely still have a rough idea of who would enjoy your book—young adults, women, parents, entrepreneurs, sports enthusiasts, for example. For fiction, you’ll want to know how to appeal to your target reader, how to relate, emote and entertain them. With the right research you can find topics and content that certain demographics will be likely to find interesting. Age, gender, education, orientation, sociopolitical factors, buying habits, life experiences and preferences are just a few contributing demographic traits that will help you discover the type of person you are talking and pitching your work to. More often than not it will be a book’s genre that determines the target audience, along with the category. For example, contemporary adult fiction will most likely have a target audience of people over the age of eighteen who prefer stories set in today’s world, featuring uncommon but possible challenges. Whereas a middle-grade science fiction book will be read by children ages eight to twelve years old who enjoy advanced technology set in a futuristic world. 

Authors of non-fiction books will need to be constantly aware of their more niche audiences and how their work will resonate with them. Narrowing your audience to a specific demographic is an advantage, as you can be very targeted with your messaging. Focusing your marketing efforts on a smaller group of readers who have demonstrated interest in your book’s themes will provide you with a better chance of sales success. You need to understand enough about their preferences to cater accordingly to retailer descriptions, blog posts, website synopsis, social media posts, etc. Creating a profile of an imaginary ideal reader will keep your messaging consistent and on brand. Determine answers to questions such as how old are they? What is their occupation or profession? What media do they read, watch and/or listen to? Are they in a relationship? Where might they live? Where do they shop? Did they attend university? What did they study? What are their hobbies? What challenges are they currently facing? What are their political views? It might seem a bit excessive, but this exercise will allow you to connect with your readers as more than just consumers but also real people. As a result, your messaging and your marketing strategy will be far more personable and impactful.

Having a clear understanding of the audience you are trying to reach will not only assist with the direction of your content and messaging but also where you’ll locate them and therefore the places you should be allocating budget and time. Consider both online and offline channels, such as the social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc.) they use, the podcasts they listen to, the blogs they read, and the films and TV shows they watch. It’s also worth noting the social media groups and/or forums where people with an interest in your book’s topics or themes may have a presence. Researching comparable book titles—those similar to yours that readers of your book would enjoy—and their authors is also a valuable tactic to learn more about your ideal readers and how these authors’ works have reached them. Find out who is writing reviews about these titles, who is commenting on their blogs, who is sharing their social media posts. Make it a priority to start reading more in your genre or subject area in order to acquire a good understanding of what already exists in the marketplace and select a group of comparable titles to analyze. In fact, comparable titles can often be used to actively market books, such as M.L. Rio’s novel If We Were Villains being described as a shadow of Donna Tartt’s emblematic The Secret History, which share similar dark themes, chilling atmosphere and dark academia aesthetic. Comparable titles are a great reassurance for authors in providing confidence that there is a potential audience for your book.

Once you have established who your readers are and where you can find them, your approach to promoting your book will be elevated; rather than simply asking the question ‘how can I sell my book?’, you’ll now be asking ‘how can I reach and engage my ideal reader?’

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Discoverability: The power is in the positioning

To help explain this point, firstly let’s think about how you yourself would normally go about finding a book you want to buy online. Say you want to find a new sports biography to read. To start, you might go to an online bookstore and filter for ‘sports’ or ‘biography.’ Or you might type ‘best sports biographies’ or ‘new sports biography’ directly into your browser and see what you get. Then you’ll have a look at the results. What grabs your attention in the shortlist for the five seconds you spend looking? Is it a dynamic image of a sports star on the cover? A sports player’s name in large capitals? Or a punchy title, maybe a sports pun or a play on words? When your interest in a title is finally piqued, you’ll likely head straight to Amazon to look at the reviews. All these actions have to happen before you click on the magic ‘Buy Now’ button. 

It’s one thing to write a book, quite another to make sure readers can discover it, and to make them want to buy it. So now let’s apply this to your book. First off, people do judge a book by its cover. If a book jacket doesn’t look professionally designed, buyers will instantly brand the book a low-budget product—if the cover is low-budget, what about the text? And the cover not only has to be professional in design, it also needs to look genre-appropriate so that it sets the correct tone for what is inside. For example, a thriller needs to look atmospheric, mysterious and exciting, whereas a self-help book needs to appear bright and empowering. As much as you might think you can do this part yourself, the honest truth is that book design is a very specific skillset, and so unless you are trained in it you will be doing a disservice to your book. As with any profession, cover designers spend years learning their craft, and trust us when we say that your book jacket is worth getting 100% right.

A less exciting part of the publishing process—but an equally important one—is how you set up your book to be discoverable. This is far more technical and requires an understanding of things like metadata and Amazon categorization, but the basics are actually very easy to get your head around. If you think of all the information that makes up your book: the title, subtitle, description, your name, the barcode and ISBN, the publication date, format, page count, genre… that is all metadata. This is all the information that separates your book from others, but it also helps internet browsers and online retailers such as Amazon make sense of your book in order to categorize it appropriately, which is essential for making sure your book is discoverable online by your target audience. There are over 500 categories (more commonly thought of as genres) on Amazon; the categories the everyday reader is more familiar with (such as crime, biography, food and drink, or comedy) are known as parent categories, and within each parent category are a number of subcategories: specific ways of categorizing your book, such as doctor–patient relations, theater & performance artist biographies and practical & motivational self-help. Amazon ranks its books according to sales figures (with separate bestseller lists for paid books and free books), and automatically updates every hour. To become a bestseller, you simply have to outsell the other books in a particular category, and even if it is just for one hour before the system updates, your book will be number one. Realistically, it’s going to be very hard to compete in the parent categories; this would involve investment in a big marketing campaign. But if you choose your subcategories carefully (bearing in mind that you can change them whenever you want) you may be able to watch your book steadily rise through the Amazon ranks to number one. 

Given that so much has to happen before a reader even opens a book to read the first word, make sure you don’t overlook the positioning of your book—an essential part of getting noticed.

Author Brand: Building an authentic author image

Personal branding is nothing new, but it can be a relatively fresh concept, especially to first-time authors. A common pitfall for many is to focus solely on promoting your book and forgetting to promote yourself. And remember that buyers make emotional purchasing decisions. Whether you’ve written a novel, memoir, self-help or business book, your readers are undoubtedly going to want to know more about you. The person behind the book.   

View your identity and credibility as an author as part of your profile. Your brand. By building up an author profile you enable readers to form a direct relationship with you and your work, laying the foundation for your writing career. And if you are considering multiple book projects in the future, this is of particular importance. As an indie author your personality and individuality is something you are in complete control of, so use it to your advantage to build trust and loyalty with a readership. Whether consciously or not, people want to buy books from strong and authentic author brands, ones they associate with a powerful literary influence, noteworthy reputation or proven authority. So, it’s crucial for an author to be visible ahead of any book launch so that they are forming a tight community rooted in reader confidence. Your author brand doesn’t necessarily have to be who you are in real life, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to provide any more information about yourself publicly than you feel comfortable with. Consider it more of a writing persona—as long as you are consistent with it—that reflects your principles and values in everything you do, say and post.

You can begin building your brand by evaluating your true passions and goals. Defining your USP will be essential to differentiating yourself from other authors. Ask yourself these key questions: What do I want to be known for? What is my personal promise and message to my audience? How do I want people to perceive and describe me? What experience or feeling do I want my readers to have while reading my books? Developing a brand voice that is unique and consistent across your platforms will be an important aspect too; it should be the tone you use in any place you feature as well as in the content you share. For example, you may be better suited to an informal and witty tone over a more serious and assertive one. Whatever you choose, make sure it reflects your work and values. And to state the obvious, wherever possible for any written content you share publicly be sure that you’re always associated with exceptional grammar and free from typos so that there is never any doubt on your author credentials! 

In addition to your tone, people make quick assumptions and judgements based on the look and feel of a brand, so it’s also important to consider any outward branding when circulating content, i.e. the color palette, graphics and visual cues, photos, typefaces and logos, and they need to be consistent. These should all form an extension of your voice and general themes. A children’s author would be wise to choose bright and cheerful colors and include a lot of illustrative elements, for example, whereas a horror/thriller author might instead consider a darker color scheme with more gothic aspects. Implement your branding everywhere, on all your promotional platforms, so people will start associating the branding you have built and designed with your work and author name. 

All of this conveys to your readers why they should emotionally buy in to you as a writer, help them place you in the noise of other loud voices, and give them an idea of what they can expect to see from you. Once your author brand is successfully anchored, when it comes to actually promoting your book your readers will be ready and eager!

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Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.