Marketing Your Book in a Way That Feels Like You

Lessons from bringing all kinds of books to life

Brianna Wolfson
Jul 6 · 12 min read
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

I’ve been part of the journey of bringing 10+ books to life; a couple of my own, and many through starting and working on Stripe Press. Every time I work on a new book I am reminded that it takes guts to publish writing.

Sharing your ideas with the world in your voice for anyone to read and opine on is a deeply personal, deeply vulnerable exercise. I’ve learned just how important it is that a book comes to life in a way that the author feels pride and ownership of. It will make the author happier and it will make the book do better.

I wrote up a step-by-step guide, primarily for authors, about how to market a book in a way that feels like you. I also created this template for keeping track of it all and wrote this post about how I approach book marketing and what I’ve seen work.

I hope it’s useful! If you want to talk more about book marketing or publishing more broadly, say hi! I’m at brianna.wolfson@gmail.com.

Step 1: Your story and “look ma” list

Pub date-12 months

The early stage is the time for the big ideas, big dreams, and taking stock of the story getting here. Launching a book will bring a flurry of demands for your time, attention, and energy. Thinking big and deeply at the outset, and then documenting those thoughts and hopes, will create a north star and source of wisdom throughout the rest of the process bring your book to life.

Your story

This step is easy to skip, but I think it’s a critical one. The story of the book is why it matters. Why does it matter to the author? To its readers? To the world? The answers will become the center of gravity when it comes a time where and how you share it with the world. I encourage all authors to spend some time reflecting on these topics.

For bonus points, practice answering them in a way that sounds good to you. These are the kinds of questions lots of people are going to ask anyway once the book comes out. The hardest question for me to answer is always “what’s it about?” The more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel saying it, and the better it will sound to everyone, and the easier it will be for others to tell the story of the book.

Your “look ma!” list

The “look ma!” list comprises the things that would make you call home and say, “look, ma!” It’s not a list of things you are going to make sure happen. This is a list of the things that if they did happen would make you really, really proud decades later.

It’s absolutely critical to be very, very specific about them and to write them down. I recommend there are no fewer than two and no more than eight.

Some good examples I’ve seen:

  • My book appears on a course syllabus at $university
  • I’m invited to do a lecture at a university
  • The New York Times reviews the book
  • Oprah recommends it
  • I get a mention on Reese Witherspoon’s Instagram
  • I’m asked by Netflix to do a series on the themes of the book
  • My book appears on Obama’s reading list

As you can see, many of these goals are extremely lofty. That’s good! It’ll also help inform future plans, priorities, and big swings later.

I keep my “Look Ma!” list on the wall next to my bed

Stage 2: Setting goals

Pub date-12 months

Document your goals. Don’t just have them in the back of your mind. Actually, write them down! These are the things you are going to bend and twist to make happen. These should be objectively measurable (as a gut check: someone unfamiliar with the work should be able to track against these). These are not the things you will do to market the book (though they will inform what makes it on to that list). Instead, this is the list of things that will happen as a result of the marketing. I call them “pull targets” because it’s the “pull” from the market that you would like to ensue from the “push” of your marketing.

Example “pull” targets

  • XX book sales
  • XX Amazon sales ranking
  • XX new followers (twitter, blog, email list, etc.)

Other ideas (these will depend heavily on what the author cares about):

  • XX invitations to speak at conferences
  • XX companies purchase the book for employees
  • XX blurbs by influential individuals
  • XX reviews on Amazon/Goodreads
  • XX website visitors

Note: books should be evaluated on a long-ish term time horizon. I like to think about marketing really happening 3 months before to 12 months after!

Example from tracker template:

Stage 3: Homes you will need to “build with”

Pub date-11 months

Begin spinning up your homes to talk about the book and making plans for how you are going to reach your outcomes.

I would recommend having these four channels ready to talk to your followers and “build with.” There is a way to do this in a non-icky way. I promise. You don’t have to say “buy my book” a million different ways. You can simply focus on telling your story (ups and downs!) and talk about what you care about and observe as it relates to your book coming to life. Aim to do outreach at least once a month, and probably more often around the book launch (before and after). Make moments as often as you can, as creatively as you can!

  • Website, with a “subscribe to hear updates” email list: It should feel like you! Show who you are and what you care about. Harken back to “your story” if you need some inspiration. Think about what might appeal to the people/organizations on your “look, ma!” list. Note: this can be super simple. I’ve even seen google docs work (with comment access so people can add their names to a list)
  • A way to email your subscribers: This is how you’ll “build with” in longer form.
  • Twitter account: Twitter is *insanely* good at selling books.
  • Instagram account: Books are visual and Instagram is a great place to tell the story of your book visually.
If you’re looking for more examples, People & Company and Will Larson are excellent at this

Ideas for moments:

  • Found your publisher
  • Picked a pub-date
  • Pre-orders launch
  • “Teaser” excerpts
  • Book trailer
  • Galleys arrive
  • Really, really nice photos of the book
  • Someone reviewed the book
  • Shout-outs to those mentioned or cited in the book
  • Why you wrote the book

Hot tip: books are visual and tactile! Use photos and videos to enhance your posts.

Some example “moments”

Stage 4: Your outreach list

Pub date-10 months

Now, it’s time to create your list of potential outlets. These are the inputs that you want to ladder up to your outcomes; the “push” to your “pull.” Below is a list of the main buckets of potential outlets I’ve seen work. I’ve roughly ordered these by median time/distribution^engagement and **’ed the ones I’ve found to be most impactful.

  • Major publications/review targets
  • **Influential people that will share with their personal followers (Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
  • Friends and family
  • **Influential podcasts
  • **Influential watering holes (online/offline communities, newsletters, blogs, chat groups, etc.)
  • Conferences/events targets: I’ve had mixed reviews with these so choose and prioritize wisely!
  • Bookstores: authors can often walk into indie shops and ask the bookseller if they’d be willing to sell the book.
  • (potentially) Companies/schools targets

It’s hard to prioritize, but it’s going to be a critical part of the planning phase. Develop some principles for how you prioritize (it’ll likely be some combination of audience, effort required, etc.). The contract to yourself should be that you do your very best to get all of the p0s done, most of the p1s, and any energy remaining goes to p2s.

Example from tracker template:

Stage 5: An extra push on your push list

Pub date-10 months

There are some places your book should show up that you don’t know you don’t know about. You’ll want to supplement the list from stage 4 with these places. There are two good methods for finding these; asking others and doing research.

Asking others:

  • Who to ask? Who was on your list of people who will definitely buy your book? What do they have in common? Who was on your list of people you want to read your book? What do they have in common? In short, who are your “key audiences”?
  • What to ask? I often reach out and ask “where do you go when you get curious about [INSERT TOPIC OF YOUR BOOK HERE]?” This will help yield a set of people and watering holes that you may want to have your book show up in. This also may be a good starting point for asking for a warm intro.
  • Don’t be shy about asking. People want to help you, I promise!

Doing research:

Tactic A

  • Make a list of comparable titles
  • Add to your spreadsheet the list of places these titles appeared (ex- what podcasts did they go on? What publications reviewed their books?)
  • Add to your spreadsheet the list of people who became champions (ex- who blurbed the book? Who tweeted about it? Who said very nice things in the comments?)

Tactic B (borrowed with pride from friends at Campfire Labs)

  • Go to the facebook pages of your watering holes, communities, publications, etc.
  • Like the page (you can un-like later)
  • Look at the list of suggestions for what else to follow!

Tactic C (also borrowed with pride from friends at Campfire Labs)

  • Pull your list of target publications and review targets
  • Build a list of keywords (in this case, about your book)
  • Combine them in a search query (ex- “engineering management site: bloomberg.com)
  • Add to your spreadsheet the list of who is writing about your topics across all these publications

Stage 6: Invitations to join

Pub date-9 months through launch

In this phase, it’s time to actually do something with the plan. Once you have your target lists for outreach (and prioritize across it), it’s all about reaching out to those people, communities, companies, and institutions and inviting them to join in on our conversation. Some things I’ve learned about doing this outreach here:

  • Strategically-time your outreach. Reaching people early-ish allows them to join in on some of the “build with” phase. But, if you reach them too early, they may not have enough social proof to listen. Also, when it comes to media, “newness” matters. Media often wants a moment to latch on to and the book launch is a universally-accepted “moment.” Doing things in waves is acceptable. What’s most important is that you are prepared to respond and deliver on what comes in once the ripples go out.
  • Warm intros are better when you want someone to actually read the book. (This is where your champions, likely readers, family, friends, and colleagues can help you!). Remember, you’re asking people to spend a precious asset; time.
  • Tailored invitations that show how the offer is a value add. Why is this person, this outlet, particularly well-suited to join the conversation? How will this book add value to them, their readers, or their communities? We try to articulate why we believe we are helping them in some way, not just asking for something. The more detail and specificity, the better. It’s often more effective when the author reaches out versus the publisher.
  • Sharing an artifact, even if it’s not the hardcover book. Can you share an advance copy or a set of photos, screenshots from the interior, a bookmark designed with your book, etc?

Through this process, the buzz should be starting. Ideally, these efforts snowball and traction is increasingly easy to come by. You may notice that your “push” (reaching out to people to read) is starting to create a “pull” (people asking you if they can read). You should also see it showing up on your outcomes! Track against this so you have some data to help you understand what’s working.

Stage 7: Pub day!

Pub date

The launch moment is a big one because it combines the enthusiasm about the idea within the book and a specific moment in time when readers can start reading. While book marketing is more of a steady drumbeat, the goal is to make a lot of noise on pub-date by having two or three “big moments” lined up on the day. This could be a tweet from an influential leader, an article in a widely-distributed publication, a podcast with a wide reach, or more.

No matter what, take a moment to soak it in and celebrate. This is a huge, HUGE, accomplishment. From this moment forward, you will always have had published a book!

I really like to celebrate with personalized cakes

Stage 8: Drumbeat

Pub date ++

Many publishers place more emphasis on the pre-launch phase. I’ve found more momentum focusing on the post-launch drumbeat phase that *begins* when the book is published. One hypothesis is that the constellation of recommendations starts filling out and burning brighter after more people have a chance to read (and from there, start talking about posting about it). In this phase, you want to keep the conversation going. Once the book is out, look at where the ideas or themes from the book are being discussed and who is discussing them and help fuel more of that. Here are some other ideas on top of “more of the other stuff”

  • More of what’s working. Do a “what’s working?” retrospective ~a month after pub-date. This can be hard to quantify without a daily sales dashboard you can link up to activities, but lean into what feels good, productive, and feels like you. Listen to the qualitative signs like people tweeting, commenting, or emailing you when something happens. Note: use a combination of data and intuition. A retrospective exercise I like is “stop, start, continue.”
  • Highly-targeted book giveaways. Depositing some goodwill and good ideas into the right places can create new, deeper champions that will make big ripples. (For example, I find giveaway recipients extra likely to post on social). I try not to pat myself on the back for getting books just anywhere; I really try to make giveaways targeted. I hate the idea of stacks of books somewhere collecting dust. I always make sure to talk to a human that will be on the receiving end of the books. I also always ask for feedback (and photos) for how the books were received to help tune my models for where giveaways add value.
  • Small, curated discussions over meals. In many ways, nothing can replace a really solid IRL experience. We’ve found the most impactful one to be getting a group of experts from different fields in a room (with yummy food) helps people connect to the material in a way that I’ve seen scale really meaningfully.

Et, voila! Reminder, if you want to talk more about book marketing or publishing more broadly, say hi! I’m at brianna.wolfson@gmail.com. Seriously, my friends are getting sick of hearing about it.


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Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

Brianna Wolfson

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Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

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