Self-Publishing Guide Part 4: Marketing Planning


One week until my book releases! Thanks to everyone keeping an eye on my blog. I’m very excited. Over the next couple weeks I’ll be trying to release a few additional posts to help build some additional visibility. Speaking of that…

We’ve finally reached the end of my personal self-publishing guide. Today we’re focusing on a thing that frustrates most self-published authors (including me): Marketing. This topic is a little different from the others in this guide for a few reasons. First, there is no “correct” way to do your marketing, because a strategy that worked for one person will rarely work for a second person, sometimes even in similar genres. Second, we’re going to start with a paradigm shift about your book as a whole, and discuss some things you may want to think about before you ever get to the actual selling your book stage. And third, I’m nowhere near as confident in my knowledge of the practical elements of this area as I am about the others in this guide. That said, I’ll tackle this as thoroughly as I can and hopefully be of use to others trying to build a career in self-publishing.

Since I got a little more long-winded than usual this time (and marketing is a complicated topic), I’m actually breaking this into two posts. Below is an overview of the things to do to prepare for your marketing journey. In a couple days I’ll be releasing an additional post in this guide, which will outline specific marketing resources and their pros and cons. I highly recommend taking a look at the content below and making a plan before moving on to the next one. Using good resources poorly will hurt you more than using the wrong resources. Why, you ask? Because good resources will get you in front of readers, and then those readers will think your book is bad. Bad resources will simply waste money and get you little to no visibility.

So, to start off, let’s look at some basic principles of good marketing. You need to have a good product (write a good book), have good packaging (buy a well-designed cover), and present the product in an interesting way to the right people (properly identify your genre and sell it well). Each of these is its own mini challenge, and we’ve covered some of them in the previous few posts. You may see some repeated messages (do not skimp on editing), but remember that in this post we’ll be talking about the effect of each of these on your marketing, as well as looking at some ways to utilize those earlier decisions in your presentation of the final product.

Before we go any further, please take note: your book is a product. It is not your personal baby or your journey to self-discovery or your dissertation on how the world should change. It can be any or all of those things in the writing and editing stage, but when you’re ready to sell it, your book is nothing more than an object that some people might want to purchase. If it doesn’t give a particular reader the experience they wanted, then it was not a good product for that reader. It will almost inevitably be a great product for a different reader. Your job, as a marketer of your book, is to get your book in front of the readers who will consider it a good product.

Where Do I Even Start?

The first step of marketing your book is determining who to market it to. Many successful marketers will tell you to determine your readers before starting your book, and to some extent you should, but as a discovery writer I tend to lean away from that sort of pre-determination. I sat down to write an epic fantasy novel. The fact that it became a character-heavy, slow-burn political epic fantasy with LGBT+ characters was just something that happened along the way. Despite that, when I started planning marketing, I needed to know that I had a character-heavy, slow-burn political fantasy to know how to sell the book. I’ll address the LGBT+ aspect in a moment.

The value of determining your readers is that it let’s you determine what they consider a good book. Every reader group will have a different definition of this, so it’s important to know who you’re targeting so you can see what other books they’ve enjoyed. This will determine what types of edits to make. An epic fantasy audience is far more likely to enjoy longer scenes with subtle character work and expansive descriptions. A more traditional high fantasy audience probably wants a faster pace, fewer descriptions or more minimalistic narration, and slightly less subtle plot. Whether or not a particular passage is an info-dump will largely be determined by your target readers, not your editor and definitely not the publishing world as a whole. Your readers’ favorite books are also a great source of cover art information to help you determine what elements work best as visuals for your packaging. There’s a few static things all readers like (books without copious typos and covers that look like the elements go together, for example), but a lot of things will vary by target audience. So know your audience before you start trying to sell the book (preferably before you edit the book).

Determining your readers is best done through beta readers. They are the ones who can tell you if the story fell flat for their expectations and what they wanted out of the read. You’ll probably start out with just a few close friends or family, or maybe even members of your writing group, as members of your beta team. It’s a great idea to find additional sources of feedback from places like Scribophile, paid readers from Fiverr, or maybe even twitter or discord groups. This can give you a much broader view of the work you’re creating so you know who to target it toward.

What genre am I, really?

Once you think you know your genre, it’s time to decide how to target your descriptions of the book. As I said, I started with “epic fantasy” and ended at “character-heavy, slow-burn political epic fantasy with LGBT+ characters.” That second level of specificity is something you need to convey in your marketing text without dropping the entire description every time you mention the book, and it’s important that you target the book at that subset as precisely as you can. Here’s why.

My book currently has a 3.5 star rating on Goodreads. The reason for that is that it was characterized in a way I didn’t expect in some of the early reviews. They referred to the book as a “queer political fantasy.” Many of these reviews were extremely complimentary and I love how many of them engaged critically with the book and discussed both positive and negative elements they encountered. I, personally, recommend the review by “Lexi” on Goodreads to anyone wavering on whether or not they’d like my book. I think they did an excellent job, highlighting reasons why someone might or might not enjoy the work. But I would never pitch my book as a “queer political fantasy” because, to me, that implies that I addressed serious issues related to LGBT+ relationships, lifestyles, or just in general focused the plot line around LGBT+ interactions. That’s not my book. My book is about a man who is technically considered a traitor trying to keep peace against a nobility that dislikes him for fighting against the previous emperor in a civil war. The fact that my main character is a gay man in an established relationship with another man is largely a sidenote to the plot (although I am genuinely humbled by people who point to my book as an example of positive LGBT+ representation). However, because of the label “queer political fantasy,” a number of readers came to my book expecting a heavy focus on the LGBT+ relationship, expecting a homo-normative world, or potentially just not really excited by slow-burn, character heavy political epic fantasy but still interested in what this book was doing. Predictably, my book did not connect well with those readers, and they left honest (and universally extremely polite) negative reviews. I appreciate those negative reviews for helping to clarify what my book isn’t and helping guide the right readers to the book, but let’s be honest. Sometimes it hurts to see the lower rating. And, of course, that’s not the only negative reviews I’ve gotten. No book is right for every reader.

But this brings me to a very important point about choosing your readers. At the end of the day, the readers define your genre more than you do. I wouldn’t define my book as queer political fantasy, but a lot of readers have, so I have to accept that label. A similar situation happened with Daniel Greene, a popular fantasy YouTuber. He released his debut novella back in March and was surprised that it was rated among the “dark horror” genre. Now, from what little I know of the book, it should be, but he didn’t think to categorize it that way. Nonetheless, his book is in that category because it’s the category that his readers use to tell others like them what to expect. This is actually a story that I’ve heard several times among self-published authors: they wrote a book, pitched it to their audience as one thing, and after release or in ARC reviews got feedback that it didn’t fit that thing but worked well as something else. So, be aware that the elements you include in your story may define it in ways you don’t intend. Have a gay protagonist? It’s LGBT+ regardless of your intentions. Have a mutilated baby in the first few pages? It’s dark horror (and why did you think that wasn’t, Daniel?). Have a book that centers around two characters starting a romantic relationship? You’ve written a romance, whether you intended to or not.

So, when you’re planning your marketing copy, consider what elements you want to highlight as central to readers and what elements you won’t be able to escape. From that you can start deciding how to pitch the book to readers. And that pitch is critical.

Finding the Right Pitch

The primary marketing text for your book is the description on the back of your book. This has several different names depending on the circle you’re talking to. I’ve heard it called the book blurb (or back cover blurb), the synopsis (a real synopsis for a literary agent is a VERY different thing), or even the book catchline (also a different thing). I think the proper term is back cover blurb (from my connections in the publishing industry) so feel free to call it whatever you want, but that’s what I’m calling it here.

One of the most common mistakes that debut self-published authors make in preparing their books for release is not creating the back cover blurb well. I have no statistics to back that up, but this is a hill I will die on. A massive number of self-published novels have back cover blurbs that say things like “[Novel Name] is a thrilling new mystery featuring [plot element 1] and [plot element 2]!” Traditionally published novels don’t have back cover blurbs that read like this because all that says is that the author of the blurb (likely the author of the book) thinks the book is good. The point of a back cover blurb is to tease the feel of the book, not explain the idea behind it. Read the blurbs of some traditionally published novels to see what I mean. There may be lines that say things like the above quote, but those are always attributed to a different person that the author, often a well-known review site or another author. These lines aren’t actually part of the blurb but are actually cover quotes, often also called “blurbs” by traditional publishing in what sometimes feels like an intentional attempt to be confusing. But they are never written by the author. The blurb on the back of your book is basically the same as the blurb you’d write for a query letter. Here’s a few tips:

  1. The back cover blurb is almost always in third person, present tense. This is true even when the book is in first person and/or past tense. There are a few examples of blurbs in different tenses that work, but they are mostly gimmicks that work once or blurbs that work for a specific type of book but not in general
  2. The blurb follows an established formula: introduce character along with some hints of inner conflict—>introduce central conflict of the book—>hint at difficult choice character will have to make. If you have multiple important characters, introduce them in the order that makes sense for the flow of the blurb and then make sure your conflict and choice paragraphs address both characters. If you have more than two important characters, find a way to cut it down to two. Maybe three characters can work, but that’s pushing it.
  3. Make sure your blurb has a mini-plot arc of its own to tell. That arc has a beginning in the character description, a turning point in the central conflict introduction, and a cliff-hanger resolution in the choice paragraph. If those elements don’t flow from one to the other like a story, then you’re blurb is either confusing (and probably focusing too much on small details) or boring (and probably glossing over things too much).

Keep in mind that editing is just as crucial here as it is in the rest of your book. If you have clunky sentences or confusing wording in your blurb, most people won’t even give the book a shot.

A Final Warning

A last thing to remember. A lot of sources will recommend that you start building a following on social media, a blog, or on some other platform before you ever reach the point of discussing a book release. Be careful how you do this. I’m going to use Daniel Greene again as my example here, because I was really excited for is book until I learned what it was about.

Daniel Greene has built a reputation as a YouTube book reviewer, fantasy commentator, and all around SF/F buff. I came pretty late to his channel, but some of his favorite series are also some of my favorites. So when I heard that he was writing a book, I assumed that it would be in the genre that he built his reputation around. Admittedly his world is fantasy, but as discussed above, it’s also horror. And not just horror, but semi-modern fantasy horror surrounding detectives investigating a murder. Nothing could be further from the books I came to his channel to hear about (and still be in the fantasy genre, at least). His “marketing” tricked me into assuming his book was something it wasn’t, and I was very disappointed and may never even attempt to read his work (not because of some personal offense, but because I just can’t handle horror stories).

A similar story is true of both the iWriterly channel and Jenna Moreci’s YouTube channel to lesser extents. They were both more clear about what type of books they were creating, but their YouTube content has nothing to do with their book topics. Someone who came to their channel for writing advice would have no reason to think their books would appeal to them and vice versa.

To be clear, none of these authors have done anything wrong, per se. I picked three relatively popular YouTubers who had released books precisely because they are examples that it can work to build an audience from unrelated content. But it’s worth considering if that’s the audience you really want.

That wasn’t the audience I wanted, so my solution was this blog. Half personal experiences with publishing that even non-authors might find interesting and half fiction bits taken from world-building for my novels.

Find the middle ground that you enjoy and believe in and stick with it.

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