Ah, the woes of running a book launch during a pandemic! Or, even writing the book for that matter.
So, folks, back in the pre-COVID days, I had set a goal for myself. My goal was to publish–and promote–four books during the calendar year 2020. This was my New Year’s resolution, and I didn’t want to let myself down. Very much like my parallel goal of losing forty pounds! I would be svelte when I scheduled my bookstore readings! Ah, the olden days.
Back in the fall I had pulled together a Booklaunch Tracker. I mentioned the tracker in Book Launch Strategies, Part 2. If you haven’t taken a look at the blog post, please understand that this was my “road map.” It was my way to keep myself sane during the writing, editing, and launching of my books.
My goal was to put in place a system that could be replicated–for me and for you! I would start small, and then apply the lessons learned to the next launch. Like all of you, I would rather spend time writing books, and I figured that systems would allow me to protect my writing time.
The Monkey Wrench
As we all know by now, life did not go according the plan. I had, of course, used my Book Launch planner, but with bookstores closed, I needed to pivot and do two back-to-back book launches using only resources available in the virtual world. I want to give you an update on how that went and what I plan to do next time. This post is a cautionary tale of what to do and what not to do.
My sisters are going to laugh when they see that phrase “the plan.” My mom always had a “plan.” As in…”What’s the plan?” Now, I’m way less of a planner than my mom. In fact, my thought last fall was that I had to get over myself and actually MAKE A PLAN. I didn’t have to follow it 100 percent, but a road map on the back of an envelope would be better than nothing. (Prior to last fall, just writing a book and getting it up on Amazon felt like victory. Only after the fact did I try to get reviews.)
Hence, I spent five or six months coming up with my ginormous spreadsheet, out of which I hoped to pick five or six strategies that I could manage without cutting into my writing time.
I don’t write fast, nor are my books in a popular genre like romance or fantasy, where avid readers gobble up books as soon as the writer gets the next one out. So, I figured that I’d build the launches around independent bookstores in two places where I had friends and where I could expect people to turn out for a reading. If I was fortunate, I could get local papers to cover the launch. Because I had also been a writer-in-residence for the Mesa Public Library, I knew I could count on former students to turn out for live events in the Phoenix area, and the library had promised to invite me back for a presentation.
To supplement live events, I had scheduled some online events. Good thing, too. I have a large Twitter following and expected that I could persuade a few followers to buy my book. It’s hard to tell if that was successful or not. I’d say not.
Book Riot pushed my book out to their readers. Very little happened as a result of that, probably because their readers prefer other kinds of books. Or, possibly, they didn’t like the cover. There was no detectable uptick in sales, nor any reviews.
What did work well was Bookish First, one of the resources listed in my Book Launch tracker. The deal with Bookish First is that you upload a sample of your work and then their readers decide if they want to see more. (I uploaded three stories out of the twelve in my book.)
The site runs a week-long raffle featuring the work of a few authors–five, if I recall correctly). The avid readers who are part of the Bookish First community must post mini-reviews and give the book a star rating. At the end of the week, Bookish First conducts a drawing for readers who have submitted reviews with three or more stars. So, in other words, their readers have to be interested in your book in order to get it. You also have to be willing to give away 50 to 100 books, and if readers want paperbacks, that’s going to run you some money.
My takeaways from this experience are as follows:
- The cover is more important than the content. Many readers did not like the cover on BODY LANGUAGE.
- Ebook formatting is key for online promotions. (I’ll say more about this in a minute.)
- Getting the books into readers’ hands prior to the book’s official release is absolutely critical. (Because of the pandemic, I sent the books directly from Amazon rather than going to the post office. The fact that the book wasn’t autographed disappointed at least one reader.)
- Bookish First costs money, but it was a lot easier than trying to self-schedule a blog tour.
The experience of trying to get pre-release reviews and of coming up with a modest P-L-A-N taught me a lot. I learned that formatting creates a positive first impression. My books aren’t full of bad grammar or typos, but I had formatted my books in CALIBRE, an app that allows an author upload a Word document and then have the file converted to other file formats, such as those for Kobo, Nook, and Kindle. I have also used Smashwords. Both of these apps are widely used in the self-published-author community, but I found they had drawbacks.
- They were both time consuming.
- Calibre required knowledge of html.
- Smashwords produced files that were plain and unappealing.
Smashwords can be beneficial for authors who want to push their books out to a number of different books sites in addition to Amazon. Smashwords is an “aggregator,” meaning they send your book to the Apple bookstore, Google books, Kobo, and Nook. The other popular aggregator is Draft2Digital, but I wasn’t trying to push my books out. I was simply trying to create readable e-book files in a variety of formats, my goal being to create appealing samples for prerelease readers.
Fast Forward to Vellum
I discovered that many indie authors had found Calibre and Smashwords too tedious. A friend told me to try Vellum. I had to buy a Mac on eBay to do that, but two weeks ago my new used computer arrived, and I’ve uploaded all my Word files to Vellum.
The program is amazing and intuitive. It has save me weeks of time and untold aggravation. I am getting ready to release a new book–my third this year–and this time, I have beautiful electronic files for every single online bookstore. What’s more, Vellum also magically transforms my text into a print book. The text is the same for both. Only the output differs.
Here are the advantages:
- Error-free files upload seamlessly to Amazon.
- A longer book can be shortened to a preview version, simply by removing chapters.
- Fonts and spacing are easy to adjust.
There are two downsides:
- You can’t kern fonts, so if you’re used to laying out books in Adobe InDesign (which is how I’ve always laid out my print books), kerning is a feature you’ll have to do without. (Kerning means adjusting the space between letters.)
- There are a limited number of design options for chapter styles, section breaks, and the like.
However, now I can finally spend time writing and forget about the aggravation of formatting my books in html.
What Am I Going to Do for This Book Launch?
Here’s my action plan, building on what I learned from the previous launches.
Since Bookish First provided a way to reliably get those important early reviews, I’ll be going back to them.
- I’ve put a lot of focus into getting a stunning cover, and I hope that will invite readers to give my words a try.
- I’ve formatted the book in Vellum so that I can enter last minute changes without too much grief.
- I’ve uploaded properly formatted e-book files to Kirkus Reviews and other prerelease review sites.
- I’ve set up a prerelease e-book on Amazon so that I can begin trying to get advance sales.
- I am going to set up a series of prerelease emails to my mailing list.
The last item is new. I didn’t do this in a systematic way before. My hope is that some fraction of people who follow my blog will want to support me during the launch. (I use ConvertKit to handle email, but I have never “segmented” my list so that people who subscribe only get email that could potentially be of interest to them.)
As you can see, I’m not trying to add fifty things to my “to do” list. In reality, I’m just adding one thing–creating a series of launch emails. To do this I will need to watch ConvertKit’s “how to” videos, and then apply them to my list.
My expectation is that if I keep piling these blocks on top of each other, I will be able to develop systems that can be reused for each succeeding book. I know many writers just hate the marketing side of the writing business, but we all want readers, do we not? Yes, we do!
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.