Who Do You Know?
By Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
This is part of a series called “How I Book,” a collaboration between New York Times bestselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, and Dan Blank, the founder of WeGrowMedia. The aim is to provide honest, practical advice to writers negotiating the murky waters of publication, especially around their roles in publicity and marketing, where so much is expected and so little guidance is often offered.
Tapping into who you know has a direct relationship to how helpful you can be to your book.
I want to start right out by saying it took me a long time to get comfortable with this idea. I thought that books could and should be judged on their merits alone; that there was a kind of moral imperative to working against popularity contests. The truth is, I still believe this to some degree, and I’m thrilled when books that do not come from the establishment — or what seems like the establishment — rise to the top simply on merit alone.
But the reality is, the chances of that happening are rare indeed. And the truth is that sitting back to let that happen is not a gamble I’m willing to take, not after working my knuckles to the bone writing a book. When it comes time for me to spread the word about my book, I’m going to do everything in my power to do so. And these days, that always involves including the people I know and respect, because their support will increase my book’s chances in the world.
One of the things that changed my mind about leveraging my contacts to promote my own work was realizing that everyone working in this business does it, to one degree or another. The literary scene is a love-fest, and if you’ve written a book, you might as well make sure the people who love you have access to it, so that they can help spread the love (just as, presumably, you would enjoy doing for them). How your pals spread this love runs the gamut, depending on their level of enthusiasm for your project, and their reach within the literary world: from instagramming a #galleybrag, to reposting your good book news on their Facebook page, to sending out a small email to family and friends on your publication day, to writing an Amazon review, to, yes, interviewing your for an article or for their blog, or talking your book up at a party to book-world colleagues. There’s been all sorts of research done about what makes a book sell, and the only quantifiable element is word-of-mouth. Who better to start with than the people who have been with you along the journey of your book’s writing and publication? They are already invested. Chances are they will feel lucky to get to shout your book’s praises.
If you’re nervous about asking, follow my rule of thumb: in order to ensure you’ll never force your work on anyone, always give someone the chance to opt-in. For example, before sending anyone a copy of the book, “double check” her address, which gives her the chance to say “no thanks.” Or once you send her the book, leave your expectations open about how she can help you, while being readily available to help with any logistics should she be back in enthusiastic touch with a concrete idea of how she might.
The list of “who you know” does not have to include anyone famous or especially well-connected, truly. Much more important is that it include people you consider to be part of your community, because your connection to them is genuine. They are not simply on your list because you want them to help you sell your book; they’re on there because you share some aspect of your life with them, some real part of you that connects with some real part of them. These kinds of genuine connections are the cornerstone to this “who you know” strategy, because there is mutual trust already built there. These people know, when you ask them if they’d like a copy of your book’s ARC (or if they could please pre-order it, etc.), that you are not simply asking to benefit yourself, but because you recognize that there is a value in that gesture to both of you. You would like their help, and it’s likely they want to help you.
Here I’m going to say something that might drive you a little crazy, especially if you’re facing down publication day and looking for a quick solution to build your “who you know” list: this list is something you should have been building for years. Don’t panic! Chances are, even if you haven’t assembled or been tending to a more formal list of book supporters, you’ve been cultivating them without even knowing. They subscribe to your newsletter. They follow you on social media, and engage with you on a regular basis there. They belong to the same online writers’ or special interest groups that you do. They attended a book conference or writing workshop with you. They went to the same highschool or college as you and are enthusiastic supporters of fellow alumni.
This is your chance to brainstorm far and wide. It goes without saying that this list should include anyone in the publishing business who you’ve connected to over social media or in person, people you know who work in the press or at news outlets, and any contacts you have at organizations that share categorical interest with your book and might be invested in helping to promote it. My list for JUNE includes categories like “Friends Who Work in Media” (including a high school classmate who now works for Good Morning America, and someone from my mom’s group who is the photography editor at an influential online publication); “Friends Who Work for Reading Series/Bookstores” (including my neighbor who runs a local reading series at a bar), and “Bookish Influencers” (including someone I’ve never met but whose Instagram feed of #galleybrags always makes my mouth water, and which I dream of being included in).
Keep in mind that I do not necessarily know everyone on the list I’ve made this time around — it also includes a “celebrity wish list,” a grouping of people that, in my dream world, I’d love to have access to JUNE (but this wasn’t just a random assortment of famous people; they were all people who, based on their social media accounts, or what they’ve acquired recently for their production company, I feel might enjoy my book). It’s great to dream big, but it’s also important that this list not simply include famous strangers you want to cold call. What do you think the rate of return will be when you bombard strangers with news of your book? They probably get dozens of projects sent their way in a day. Compare that to the rate of return on a Facebook group of your highschool classmates, who will likely be thrilled to spread the word in their own circles about their friend who is publishing a new book!
The word “enjoy” is an important one in this process, and connects back to the notion that by offering your book, you aren’t subjecting someone to an unpleasantness. Instead, this is your moment to step back and let your book shine! To be proud of what you’ve accomplished, and believe in it.
But once you have this list, what do you do with it?
I’ll talk more about that in the coming weeks, especially in regards to how this list can boost the efforts of your in-house publicity and marketing team. More generally, I think that having a list like this in-hand to show your team when you first get together with them — especially if it includes genuine connections with what they call “influencers” — will show that you’re an asset to your book, and that you understand what promotion requires — helping spread the word about your book — and that you aren’t squeamish about participating in this transaction (more on this initial publicity/marketing meeting in the coming weeks as well). This is your place to dream big, to show your team that you’re dreaming big, and to demonstrate the concrete contacts you have that they may be able to leverage on your behalf.