What it Takes to Get Great Publicity for Your Self-Published Book

As a publicist, I get a lot of calls from folks who are interested in getting publicity for their self-published book.

The other day I got a call from a lovely older lady . . . we’ll call her Esther. Esther is an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor who has quite a heroic tale of survival and rebirth in America. She self-published a memoir at the end of 2012 with Createspace, and despite having lined up a fair number of library speaking engagements and getting a review in Kirkus Indie (a pay-for-review service), she came to me because she said she needed “professional help with publicity to create more buzz and sell more books.”

Hearing this broke my heart, because Esther had already spent thousands of her hard-earned retirement dollars on creating and promoting her book--with the net result of 32 copies sold, according to Nielsen’s Bookscan. When I talked with her about realistic options for how we could promote her book at this late stage in the game, she was crestfallen.  “Well-known people and products can get all the publicity they want,” she complained. “But it is people like me, who are trying to have their voices heard, that need help.”

Here’s the hard truth that shared I with Esther: Book reviewers are overwhelmed with review copies and their real estate in print media is constrained. The first books they toss off the consideration pile are the self-published titles. On top of that, Esther had her timing completely backward. She was coming to me a year and a half after she published her book. From a publicity perspective, a book this old is dead on arrival. I tell all my clients, publicity is a dish best served not only warm, but piping hot! This business is about hyping a book before it reaches the market--billing it as “the new, new thing.”

I don’t want you to think that it’s impossible to have success when you self-publish your book, however. Let me tell you about an author I worked with who self-published his book in a very different way and had a lot of success.

We’ll call the author of this self-published book John. John had previously published nine books, all nine split between two large publishing houses. Three of the books had been regional bestsellers which had garnered respectable media coverage and reviews. But neither big house wanted to buy this particular book from him. They felt it was an old story.

John decided to self-publish but in a way that no one would ever know that he did. He wanted physical books in brick and mortar stores, and he wanted e-books. He wanted events at the stores where he’d always done events, and he wanted new events with new audiences. He wanted online advertising and a strong social media campaign. And, of course, he wanted a first-class traditional media campaign.

John edited the book himself, then hired a copyeditor, jacket designer, and an interior designer. He found a reasonably priced printer. He created his own imprint (basically just designed a logo for his “publishing company”) and bought a handful of ISBN numbers from the Library of Congress. He hired a PR and marketing firm (us), and we helped him find an independent sales rep who sold the book into Barnes & Noble, Amazon, the wholesalers Baker & Taylor and Ingram, and into the top 40 independent bookstores.

The effort was a great success. The book garnered positive reviews from national outlets like the Associated Press and The New York Times, fantastic reviews in regional papers, a big NPR show had him on and he was even on a morning show. And no one knew it was a self-pub. To date, Bookscan shows sales of 6,000 copies.

So, here are some lessons to take away from this tale of two self-published books:

1) If you want mainstream reviews, make “the package” (industry speak for “the book”) as professional looking as possible. One rule of thumb is to use cream colored “stock” (industry speak for “paper”), because bright white stock signals short-run digital printing (in other words, a self-published product).

2) Make sure you begin your publicity and review outreach at least four months before your chosen on sale date. Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, says that one way she chooses titles for review is by reading the starred reviews in the trades like PW, Kirkus, and Library Journal. Those trades will only consider books for review if they are received some four months in advance of the on-sale date.

3) It’s more expensive, but if you can manage it, try to hide that your book is a self-pub by creating your own imprint with its own logo. Some outlets, like PW and Kirkus will try to force self-published authors into their paid review service, so be discreet.

4) Do lots of early reader giveaways. You can run them for free on Goodreads and LibraryThing. and lots of bloggers are open to covering your book in exchange for a few free copies to run contests for their readers. Start this at least 3 months prior to on sale.

5) Treat your book like a business. No one else is going to care about your book more than you are. Put your best foot forward and invest in your own success!

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Comment by Karen Szklany Gault on March 19, 2014 at 11:20am

Great tips about publicity; thank you!

Comment by Kristin Louise Duncombe on March 19, 2014 at 8:41am

All good info. Thank you!  The learning curve is enormous.


Comment by Gretchen Crary on March 19, 2014 at 6:17am

Hi Kristin,

Yes, giveaways are key.  We have worked on projects where we've given away thousands of galleys and ebooks. When Knopf was promoting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, they even took out an entire page of the Wall Street Journal to announce a massive giveaway of thousands of copies before the book went on sale. In this day and age, free copies are the currency which buys you online consumer reviews. But the brass ring remains the reviews in the mainstream media and the strategy should be one that at least attempts to get major reviewers' attention. Warmly,


Comment by Kristin Louise Duncombe on March 18, 2014 at 3:01pm

Hi Gretchen!  Thought I'd chime in as I am mentionned in the comments below by Meg Bortin.  I went into the publishing process without much of a plan, other than being determined to get my story out there.  My book, Trailing: A Memoir came out in May of 2012, and I am only just now getting my socia medial platform together.  I regret I wasn't more organized as perhaps my sales/reach would have been even better, but what I found, as a social media newbie/naive person, is that GIVEAWAYS created a platform of reviews and ratings that kept my book alive.  In the first months after Trailing was released, I gave thousands of copies away through KINDLE SELECT, and that seemed to generate a lot of reviews, which gave me the confidence to give interviews, speak at events, etc.  I am about to launch my second book and I will DEFINITELY be smarter with my platform this time around, and will certainly use the tips above!  What I would add to your article is that even if its not optimal, its never too late to go back to the drawing board!  All best, Kristin

Comment by Kathryn Randall on March 18, 2014 at 6:19am

Gretchen, Thank you for the helpful article.  I am realizing that thinking like a business woman and a publicist is as important as having a quality product.  Peace, Kathy

Comment by Meg Bortin on March 17, 2014 at 9:21am

Gretchen, thanks for the quick reply. To clarify, I found your article very helpful in terms of the tips you provide. In fact, I wish I'd read it about a year ago (smile). I cited the case of my friend Kristin simply to suggest that it's not impossible to succeed in promoting a book months or even years after its first date of sale. All best, Meg

Comment by Gretchen Crary on March 17, 2014 at 9:09am

Hi Meg,

My intent here was not to make people lose hope.  Rather to be smart about publicity.  Start early and be aware of the pitfalls.



Comment by Meg Bortin on March 17, 2014 at 9:01am

Well, this is a fairly depressing article. Once again it raises the question of who we are -- writers or publicists? I also find it hard to believe that a book is considered 'old' -- to old to review or be taken seriously -- when it's been out for only a month or two. Maybe that's the case most of the time. But I have a friend whose self-published book came out nearly two years ago, in May 2012, and she's going from strength to strength. Kristin Duncombe's 'Trailing: A Memoir' got a rave review last week, timed to International Women's Day. She has just had a new round of speaking engagements tied to the book. And she won an Indy Writer award last year. So please, speaking for those of us who chose the self-publishing route but have been less than brilliant at early publicity, please don't make us lose hope.


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