My books have gone into six printings, been on the best-seller list for months and been optioned for film. Let me tell you how to promote your work, from books to blogs to businesses.
So you've written something cool. Maybe you’ve written a 300-page, fantasy novel set in the year 2547, or maybe you’ve penned an academic treatise on the botanical history of roses. Or maybe you’ve just managed to survive parenting a teenager and you want to share your insights with the world.
That’s great. I love cool writing. But there’s often a missed opportunity after your writing is released, and that’s spreading the world about your accomplishment.
That’s the point of this guide. I want to share some thoughts and ideas on how to spread the word about your writing, whether it's a book, op-ed or a blog item.
Why I Wrote This Guide. For years, friends who were first-time authors would ask for advice about releasing a book and so I’d send a long email about lessons learned. Recently, I thought that I’d turn this into a guide. At some point, I’m hoping to turn it into an online course.
I should add that I’ve been doing the communications thing for a while. I’ve written three books, and many of them have been successful, at least in terms of promotion. One book was optioned for film and spent more than six months on the Boston Globe’s best-seller list.
Another was either featured or excerpted in a half-dozen publications including The New York Times, the Washington Post, Wired, US News, and Fast Company.
Today, at my company the Learning Agency, we often help clients with communications work. We work with a variety of researchers, writers, and organizations to help translate their work into high-impact public-facing content and to make sure their message gets across.
For our team, this isn’t a coincidence, and communications is pretty similar to teaching — and learning. When people walk away from a newspaper article or podcast, for instance, the author wants the reader to remember something—a fact, a feeling, a story. The tools that make for effective teaching also make for effective communication.
To be more exact, I like to think of book promotion as a form of instruction, a way to build a true community. How to get people interested in your book? Well, how does a good math teacher get her students interested in math? By making it relevant to students’ lives, showing them something surprising or counterintuitive, or demonstrating what you can do with math knowledge.
I like to think of marketing as a form of learning, a way of bringing together a community.”
The same principles can be applied to promoting your work, whether it’s a book, film, website, new product or service, or any other type of project. It’s all about helping others understand your work and making connections to it.
The Awkwardness Of Promotion
Before we get into the details, I wanted to note something things. First, if you're a writer, you're introverted. That means that you don't--typically--enjoy promotion.
I get that, and a great if outdated video that outlines the emotional pain of marketing yourself.
If you have done something cool, it’s taken time. That’s the nature of doing something cool, after all. You’ve spent hours doing research.
But the work isn’t “complete” when you’ve typed the last sentence. There may be a temptation, after all you’ve done, to sit back and let the accolades start flowing in. But, for better or worse, the publication or launch of your work is just the beginning.
You need to start to share and promote your project. With all the content out there vying for attention, you can’t expect your audience to simply come to the work without any encouragement.
Communications firms can, of course, help craft messages and do outreach. But the key thing to understand is that you—the creator—need to be at the center of the conversation about your work. People respond to people. They want authentic stories that give them a peek behind the curtain, a look at what took place and what you learned as you achieved your goal and how they might apply your experience to their lives.
But here's the more important issue. Your publisher will not help you. Yes, you will get a PR person. Yes, your PR person will mention big names like the New York Times. But that person is swamped.
I've had my books published by major presses like HarperCollins and landed my research on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and unless you're Malcolm Gladwell, you will not get much support at at all from your publisher.
You will not get much support from your publisher, whether for a book or a podcast.
Create A Tribe
The key to building a tribe is connection. We all have a need to feel like we are important and that we matter; this speaks to that desire to bond with and trust others. As you promote your work, more important than the actual piece or product, you need to promote a sense of trust among your network. Connectedness will always matter. Although technology may make genuine connection difficult in certain instances, but when we use it in thoughtful ways, it can also present tremendous opportunity for getting your message out, refining it, and finding an audience.
The key to building a tribe is connection.”
Reciprocity has to be part of the equation. Instead of just treating email and social media as a one-way street that you use to make announcements, encourage others to ask questions, make suggestions, and pose criticisms. And then write them back, ask them about their own projects, and do them favors. The result, eventually, will be a loyal network of engaged followers who will help promote and even improve your work.
Recently a friend release a book, and he started sending an email blast. In each blast, he listed what he wanted from others: “Buy my book” was one subject line. “Come see my talk at xxx bookstore” was another. This is bad practice. It reads as abrupt and thoughtless, even imperious.
To be sure, you should email your network. If you don't already use something like MailChimp, consider it. And think about the timing of your messages. You don’t want to flood people’s inboxes, but you also want to keep them in the loop and remind them of important dates. Maybe send a message two weeks before your release, two weeks after, and when you have a speaking engagement or publish an article. Include reviews, blurbs, etc. People want to support you—they just need to know about the book.
But most importantly, don’t treat your network instrumentally, as a mere means to selling more writing. Instead, I encourage “building a tribe.” In other words, work more on building relationships, helping people solve their problems, sharing information and feedback; talking and, more importantly, listening.
When we treat our network as a “tool” versus a group of individuals who share an interest, we lessen our influence and impact, and will lose the very reason we create networks in the first place; we lose our human-to-human connection.
Used well, social media is a legitimate way to connect with people outside of your immediate circle, and a real way to expand your reach. It can also open the door to a myriad of other ways to get the word out about your book among both professional and the general public.
Bloggers need guest-bloggers. Maybe your book or work is a good platform to talk about extremism in the United States, or the continuing deterioration of a meaningful, democratic education system. Write your pitch for that specific blogger and their audience.
“Leverage” who you know. One of my colleagues talked about reaching out to friends: "Exploit every person you know in the media. I was loath to do this, lest I come across looking desperate and unprofessional, but wound up getting so much press this way. My book wasn't reviewed by The New York Times until a few months after release, and I'm convinced it happened at all only because I pitched Sam Tannenhaus (the former editor of both The New York Times Book Review and the Week in Review section of The New York Times) directly."
Use your network like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. But, even better is a personal email to a friend, neighbor or colleague (or even a friend of a friend) who works in the media. Don’t be shy in asking them for a review, to post something about your book, or to help you make a connection.
Whenever you ask for something, offer something in return. In other words, consider plugging their work on your own website, blog, or YouTube channel, for example. Show your appreciation by writing personal thank you notes, and expressing your gratitude for them taking time out of their day to help you out. Be polite and patient.
Go For The "Grass Tops"
Again, tribes are key, the most important thing. But it's also good to work on "grass tops" or getting thought leaders in media or the space to engage.
The issue here is that when you’re working on a long-term project, its importance and relevance can begin to seem self-evident to you. But your audience won’t be as close to the material as you are. They need a hook to draw them in and show them why they should care.
Something is newsworthy because it offers readers or viewers new information.”
One easy way to get people interested is by framing your project as a contribution to a conversation that’s already taking place. In this regard, it can help to know something about how news and news cycles work.
The news is, well, new. Something is newsworthy because it offers readers or viewers new information, or because it shows how something they didn’t know about is relevant to what’s going on today.
Writers and editors of op-eds often talk about a “news peg.” Even if the opinion put forward is relatively general, in the piece’s introduction or “lede,” the view is framed in terms of a particular story that’s of general interest at the time (or “pegged” to it).
You can do the same thing with your project, framing it in terms of a debate that’s been going on or a recent event that has garnered attention and interest. This will help generate buy-in; readers who are already interested in the topic will come to your work eager to learn more and gain new perspective.
Of course, your project may not lend itself to a particular item in the news cycle, and you don’t want to stretch it if there’s no genuine connection. There’s still plenty you can do. The key here is framing. Is there something unusual about your project that can draw interest? Does it undermine some commonly held intuition? Does it help solve a problem where other methods have failed? It’s okay if this hook is not necessarily at the core of the project. The point is to give your audience something latch on to. They’ll come for the curiosity, but they’ll stay for the quality.
Finally, it’s often worthwhile to see if you can come up with a human-interest angle, especially with material that may be abstract and difficult for the layperson to otherwise relate to. Is there a particular community that might be most impacted by the insights you make in your book? Is there an anecdote you can share that people will relate to? Might your book change how people engage in a particular activity in the future? Finding a human-interest angle can help bring things down to earth and engage both your audience’s and your own imagination.
Pitching Your Work
If I have a big project, I usually block out a few weeks during the release to pitch, and that’s all I do from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. After all, I’ve spent months or years working on the project; now it’s time to spend a few weeks getting people interested.
Depending on your budget, you should hire someone to help, from a recent college graduate to a paid professional. These folks can help you track which editors you’ve sent a pitch to, follow up with media contacts, or tap into their own networks. When looking for someone to help, I’d encourage focusing in particular on a few things.
Note that pay to play is still a thing. A friend of mine paid around $4,000 for a radio tour and regretted it. He says that you should "hold off at least a month after publication to book the radio tour so you can see what else materializes. If you get on Terry Gross or another big NPR show, that's better than 100 radio tours put together."
Play The Angles
The secret to a great pitch is to have an angle—well, actually, angles. You need a well-formulated angle for the publication or outlet that you’re trying to reach.
A generic pitch generally will not cut it. Each pitch should be tailored specifically to your audience; the specific editors or producers at the program or publication you’re trying to attract. Only then will it feel authentic, and have the potential to connect with the person, the human being, reading your pitch.
A generic pitch generally will not cut it.”
Here are some angles. The first is typically the most common.
For example, Vox has a “First Person” series. So, you would pitch them with a first-person story, emphasizing the individual perspective you have to offer. Slate, on the other hand, loves counterintuitive content—so, maybe you argue that xenophobic activists are actually good for the United States because they show that free speech is alive and well.
For Scientific American, for example, I provided a spin-off of my Learn Better book with a science-y angle. For the Washington Post, I included a political angle on the issue of learning, specifically about U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
Here’s an example of a pitch I wrote for Learn Better.
I'm a deeply devoted fan of “Here and Now.” I try and catch every show. I've heard Jeremy Hobson's voice in my sleep.
Robin had a fantastic interview with Lynn Cox last year that I think about every time that I'm swimming--I mean who swims through icebergs?
I'm emailing now, though, because I just finished up a book on the new science of learning. Titled "Learn Better," the book takes a broad look at how people can gain skills more effectively.
My publisher mailed you a copy of the book some weeks back, and I wanted to follow up. Any interest?
The book is getting some nice attention. Slate ran an excerpt of me taking basketball lessons in my forties. Vox ran a piece about me relearning math. I also talked with the Atlantic recently.
As for the book itself, it is deeply narrative, and as part of my reporting, I spent time with the nation's foremost ER room doctor--and profiled the man who used some of the recent learning research to dominate the game show Jeopardy.
I'd flag one interesting angle. Specifically a lot of the conventional wisdom on training is wrong. There's little evidence for learning styles, the idea that some people learn better visually or auditorily. Highlighting has also been shown to be an ineffective learning strategy.
What does work when it comes to learning? Surprisingly, the answer is things like deliberation and self-quizzing.
The book was released last month, and the reviews have been good. Publisher's Weekly called the book "engaging" and "thought-provoking," while author Walter Isaacson said the book was "alternately humorous, surprising, and profound.”
As for me, I write a lot about education, and my work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. I'm also the founding director of the Center for American Progress's science of learning initiative. More about me--and the book below.
Thanks for the time. Keep up the great work, and tell me if you didn't land the book. Oh and I also sent this pitch to Dean and Alex.
Praise for Learn Better
“Boser’s thought-provoking work unpacks the complex subject of how we learn… littered with personal anecdotes about his own struggles and successes with learning, crammed with descriptions of exciting research in the area…. This work infuses a sense of fresh excitement and accessibility into a topic sometimes considered stodgy.”
"Author and education researcher Ulrich Boser digs into the neuroscience of learning and shows why it’s so hard to remember facts."
—Olga Khazan, The Atlantic
“Boser’s smart and approachable writing style engaged me at once as he laid out six methods for becoming an expert at whatever you like, whether it’s basketball, parenting, or quantum physics,”
—Adrian Liang, Amazon’s Top Picks for the Best Books of the Month
“Witty, engaging writing… It’ll challenge you to re-think the way you see facts and process information. Pick up this new book and see why your brain is even smarter – and better – than you think,”
—Tim Chan, Spy
"When it comes to how we learn, much of what we think we know is, in fact, wrong."
—Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard
“Wide-ranging in its scope and approach… very useful insights into how learning operates throughout our lives, not just in the classroom.”
—Natalie Houston, Chronicle of Higher Education
Other Things To Keep In Mind
Speaking. There are many ways to spread the word about your writing. Private companies, universities, community groups, etc. Again, your pitch is key here, so make sure you to approach individuals who are most interested in the subject matter; in my case, for example, departments of education at colleges and universities, as well as libraries.
When sending your pitch, make it personalized.”
Start where you might already have contacts; from there, you can make connections to bigger venues. For example, if you start at your local public library, you can land speaking engagements at your local community college, then your local university, then on to bigger, nationally recognized venues and educational institutions like Harvard Business School and the Library of Congress. As you add venues, add their names to your pitch, which will help you book “bigger and better” venues.
When sending your pitch, make it personalized. For example, a brief but chatty letter with publicity materials for the book and copies of early reviews. Tell the recipient that you’re planning a speaking tour and would love to come to their area. When a venue responds with interest, they will typically ask what your speaking fee is.
Speaking fee? Yes. You’re not just getting the word out about your work, you can also develop additional resources through these types of targeted speaking engagements. One of my colleagues, when trying this angle, found their “standard fee” through trial and error; starting with $500, up to $2,000 and finding a “sweet spot” at around $1,200-$1,500.
Reviews. Similarly, if you’ve written a book, get people to write reviews on Amazon and other sites. There's no reason that you should not have ten reviews up on the day that the book releases on Amazon. They should all be five-star. Best to ask friends and other authors who are familiar with your work and can comment on it in a way that will draw additional readers. You can reciprocate when they release their books.
Comments for blogs and other writing are also incredibly powerful. These almost act as testimonials, which are a very effective means to build trust and connection with your new audience.
If there’s a particular niche website, blog, or social media page where people congregate to discuss new work in your field, you should also reach out to friends and contacts who post there to let them know about your book. Finally, if you have contacts you might think would be interested in pitching a long-form review for a publication, by all means be sure the book, app or other work gets in their hands.
Video. Videos are not for the faint of heart, but well worth the time. I pulled together a little video trailer for Learn Better. Lots has been written on video, and either way, I would highly recommend hiring a professional videographer. For the trailer, for instance, I worked with local videographer who charged me $1,200 to make that video, which I thought was a reasonable price.
Online courses. Online courses require considerable effort. They are also an increasingly popular form of education that can help build a tribe of folks interested in your work. Once developed, they require relatively low maintenance costs and can be a long-lasting resource that consistently develops your name and your work.
There are many different platforms for online courses. I would recommend using one that you can embed in your own site; this ensures that, as you build momentum, visitors will browse more of your content rather than moving on to something else on the platform’s page.
Google.org. If you’re a nonprofit, Google.org offers up to $10,000 monthly of in-kind advertising for nonprofits. It’s a free pay-per-click structure. So Google charges a certain amount per click (e.g., $2) with every click being free up to $10,000/month or $329/day.
The grant program is not competitive; any nonprofit that applies through the somewhat complicated administrative process seems to get the money. The rub is in the ongoing marketing strategy. Google expects grantees to be active users, regularly refining their defined search terms and advertising language for maximum clicks. The process takes 6-8 weeks. More here.
On one hand, you’re on your own. You’re the one who did the work, after all. You conducted the research, learned the lessons, and tried to explain them to colleagues and friends. This puts you in the ideal position to promote your work to a broader public. You need to think about to frame your project and make it resonate.
But, really, it doesn’t need to fall all on you. Tap into friends and colleagues who have forged this journey before you. Be open to their advice on what’s worked and what hasn’t. Take their advice with a grain of salt; for example, some people have had tremendous success going on a radio tour, and others not so much. Get a feel for what might work for you, commit fully for a good amount of time to do it right, and if you see no results, consider what you could do differently, or move on to another strategy.
Don’t give up on yourself, and put in the time, effort and yes, money, needed to publicize your hard work. Sometimes it can take months or even years to gain a foothold in the fickle world of publishing your work. Stay the course, be patient, and enjoy the ride.
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