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Ready, Set, Launch: Understanding Prepublication Book Marketing

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by Deb Vanasse, Reporter, IBPA Independent magazine —

Deb Vanasse

Don’t overlook prepublication marketing in your book publishing plan.

Article Synopsis:

  • Build the buzz of your book prior to launch by generating preorders and garnering reviews from advanced reader copies.
  • Use genre-specific data from platforms like Bookbub and Goodreads in your marketing plan.
  • Write two sets of promotional copy: one for the trade audience and one for consumers.

Three, Two, One … Liftoff!

If only a launch were that easy. But, as with rockets, a huge amount of advance planning goes into getting a book off the ground. In the flurry of editing, design, and production, it’s easy to overlook the importance of prepublication marketing. Yet without it, a promising title might never take off.

In fact, says Foreword Reviews publisher Victoria Sutherland, “The biggest reason that books don’t succeed is that publishers and authors do not put the necessary time into prepublication marketing.”

Build the Buzz

The goal of prepublication marketing is simple: to generate buzz about a forthcoming title. “Our industry is a word-of-mouth industry,” says Jim Azevedo, marketing director at Smashwords. “Blockbusters are driven by readers who’ve fallen so deeply in love with a book that they can’t contain their adoration. They write strong reviews; they share their feelings on social media; and they command their friends and family to go buy the book. As a publisher, if you spark reader word-of-mouth prior to a book’s release, you know you’re on the right track.”

Anthony Pomes

Buzz isn’t a singular, magical occurrence. Rather, it happens through concerted efforts that propel titles into the limelight. By generating preorders from both the book trade and the general public, prepublication marketing can shift sales rankings at online retailers before a book is even released, says Anthony Pomes, vice president of marketing at Square One Publishers.

Advance marketing also helps publishers reach social media groups and other demographics that align with the book. As word spreads, authors may receive key invitations to write and speak. “Their craft and expertise, crystallized by forthcoming publication of said book, is even more highly valued and sought after than before,” Pomes says.

Nina Berman

By marketing well in advance of a title’s release date, publishers position the book for reviews and media coverage, says Nina Berman, associate editor at NetGalley Insights. “Media coverage usually focuses on books right when they come out, which means that in order to get any major media buzz, publishers need to be thinking about the prepublication phase,” she says. “Reviews, whether from an industry outlet like Publishers Weekly or Foreword Reviews, or on an influencer’s blog or on Goodreads, are a great way to build early buzz and increase discoverability.”

Librarians and booksellers depend heavily on reviews from trusted sources. “Most libraries will not order a book unless there are multiple reviews from trade book reviewers like Foreword Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Booklist,” Sutherland says. “Early reviews are also opportunities to extract blurbs for cover copy and to augment the sell sheets that are sent through consumer channels.”

Photo of Richard Williams

Richard T. Williams

As with many aspects of the business, publishers need to time their efforts for maximum results. “The industry was built on the structure of frontlist marketing and promotion decades ago, and most of the traditions that support the industry still operate with the idea of a long lead time to create interest in a title,” says Richard T. Williams, vice president of publisher development at Independent Publishers Group (IPG).

What constitutes a long lead time? “The trade houses are marketing their books at least eight months before publication,” says Christopher Robbins, founder and president of Familius Publishing. “Accounts and media are making decisions about the next holiday season at the beginning of the year.”

Yet publishers who get too far ahead of a book’s availability may find their efforts counterproductive. “The only real drawback to prepublication marketing is that it can come too early and fizzle before the book ships,” says Sarah Rosenberg, account manager at Ingram. “This is particularly true if the publication date slips. It’s a good idea to keep the big blitz of marketing until a few months before publication.” Timelines are subjective, she notes. There’s no “best time” for every book.

To avoid frustrating readers, publishers should focus on marketing to the trade first and then to consumer markets, Sutherland suggests. She also advises publishers to include the planned publication date in all communications.

Tactics and Strategies

It’s no small feat for publishers to understand and evaluate all available prepublication marketing tactics, says Helena Brantley of Red Pencil Publicity + Marketing. To guide the process, she recommends using genre-specific data from platforms like Bookbub and Goodreads. “I am big on Goodreads giveaways, and I almost always see value in galleys or ARCs, print and digital,” she says.

Bookbub works well with established backlists, says Williams, while Goodreads has strong followings in some categories but not others. “At the end of the day, experience is key,” he says. “New publishers who have no experience in marketing should try all low-cost approaches because there is really nothing to lose. Any marketing is better than nothing.”

One size doesn’t fit all, says Ingram account executive Heather Cameron. “ARCs are always good for fiction, and some narrative nonfiction books can benefit, as well,” she says. “Bookbub is a bit different; it’s not going to work if the author doesn’t have a previous title to sell at a low price, with a teaser of the new book in the back, and the categories that are successful are very limited.” Overall, Goodreads and blogs are great for prepub buzz, Camerson says, and giveaways can also generate buzz.

Completed four to six months prior to publication, author questionnaires are an excellent resource for developing title-specific plans, says Brantley. “We learn insights about the author, the book, the relationships the author has with their audiences, and also how comfortable the author is with different platforms and technology more broadly,” she says.

Equipped with this knowledge, publishers can engage authors in their prepublication strategies. “There is no substitute to having an author who already has a captured market through a podcast or consulting business or other platform,” Robbins says. “Being able to market directly to that group ensures immediate success and mitigated financial risk as well as seeding word-of-mouth marketing.”

Whether by writing an op-ed, reviewing other writers’ books, or teaching classes, authors can draw attention to themselves and their work, Cameron says. “Make sure [authors] are ready to be out there, pumping up interest in their upcoming title and making sure their followers know when the book will be available first for preorder, then for sale,” she says. If authors are active on at least one social media platform, publishers can amplify the buzz by reposting on other platforms.

Robbins also recommends publishers write two sets of promotional copy for every title, one set for the trade audience and one for consumers. He also points to metadata as an effective prepublication tactic. “As so much is done through online searches, I believe that metadata is the marketing of the 21st century,” he says. “It’s critical that publishers and authors research the correct keywords that align with their readers’ searches.”

Cameron concurs. “The most important thing, aside from having a good book to sell, is to have very robust and correct metadata,” she says. This includes a description of the book, the bibliographic detail with correct BISACs, praise for the author’s previous works, prepublication endorsements, and comparative titles from within the past three years. Metadata deployment platforms like Firebrand enable digital sharing, as do Edelweiss and NetGalley (see sidebar).

Publishers might also consider selling or sharing, with a link-back arrangement, first serial rights to excerpts from a book. “A perfect example, if only because it worked so well and the book remains such a strong seller, would be when The New Yorker chose in September 1965 to run a series of long excerpts from Truman Capote’s ‘nonfiction novel’ In Cold Blood—and to do so before Capote’s work was finished and the book was published,” Pomes says. “Those prepublication excerpts were so popular that Capote’s book was virtually a guaranteed bestseller by the time it came out a year later.”

The Art of the ARC

By providing advanced reading copies (ARCs) sooner rather than later, publishers help their distributors put them to good use in metadata feeds and sales approaches, says Williams. ARCs also facilitate endorsements and reviews from trade magazines such as Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, BookList, Kirkus, and Foreword Reviews.

Cevin Bryerman

Trade magazines are a great resource for creating industry demand, but publishers need to know their audience and pay attention to submission guidelines, says Publishers Weekly (PW) executive vice president Cevin Bryerman. For instance, PW needs to receive ARCs three to four months prior to publication, while School Library Journal reviews books post-publication.

When publishers identify libraries and bookstores as part of the audience for a book, trade publications are a good way to reach them, says Bryerman. If a title features a topic that’s especially interesting or current, or if the author is notable, publishers may want to pitch additional coverage, such as a Q&A or an author profile. At the same time, they need to recognize that trade publications receive far more titles than they can review. For instance, PW receives approximately 60,000 books per year but only reviews about 10,000.

Whether to provide print or e-galleys depends on the genre and the reviewer, Bryerman says. Some reviewers don’t like e-books, and in genres such as children’s books that feature illustrations, printed ARCs are essential. On the other hand, e-galleys may be fine for reviewers of mass-market fiction. Publishers can query magazine staff about which format they prefer. Pantagonia Books recently settled the print versus digital question internally, announcing that as part of the company’s commitment to environmentally sustainable practices, they will be issuing only e-galleys for forthcoming titles.

Christopher Robbins

Whatever the format, Robbins suggests publishers send ARCs to all sales representatives and key buyers as well as to trade review publications. “The quantity one prints is dependent on the number of influencers a publisher intends to reach,” he says. “Some titles need very few copies. Others need many, particularly if you are focused on a nationwide audience and need key reviewers, bloggers, and buyers to be aware of the title.” He adds that buyers will typically not purchase a children’s book they haven’t read, since there are factors such as values and diversity to consider.

Early in the process, Brantley sends galleys and ARCs to media, bookstores, speaking venues, and influencers whose endorsements will add to the buzz. “Long-lead news outlets especially need time to decide if and how they want to engage with a title or author. They may need to find a reviewer or a person to write a feature or a Q&A,” she says.

With the ARC, Brantley always includes a well-designed, one-page backgrounder. “Years ago, a Washington Post reporter told me she received too many books, but if the info was of interest, she would keep the press materials,” she says.

At a minimum, Pomes recommends printing 10 to 15 ARCs per title at a local office store like Staples. “If you believe a title has a very solid chance at multiple prepub reviews above and beyond review coverage from the trade publications, then you might look to print anywhere from 30 to 50 ARCs with a printer, preferably one that is local and specializes in short runs,” he suggests.

When deciding how many ARCs to print, publishers should also consider the size of their sales force, says Ingram account manager Sarah Rosenberg. “For a key title with a full indie sales force across the country, each rep would probably like to receive 10 to 15 ARCs,” she says. “Reps know that not all publishers can afford to give the full amount, so they must be used judiciously. Got an author in Seattle? Then your Pacific Northwest rep should receive the most ARCs.” In addition, she recommends publishers keep an extra stash of a dozen or so ARCs to satisfy last-minute requests.

Genre is another factor to consider. “Fiction is absolutely the top category that can benefit from ARCs,” Rosenberg says. “Popular, narrative nonfiction can also profit from a good number of ARCs.” For other types of nonfiction, ARCs aren’t essential for the sales force, she says, but they’re still useful for reviewers, publicity, and endorsements.

To maximize the benefits, publishers need a timeline that allows them to incorporate endorsements and review material derived from ARCs into the finished product. “Get blurbs from the most prominent people you can,” Rosenberg says. “You can never have too many blurbs. Pick the very best one and put it on the cover of the book.”

As Amazon sells more and more of its Buy Buttons, publishers are dismayed to find their printed ARCs being sold by the third-party vendors. To discourage this practice, Pomes suggests placing in fully visible capital letters with the words “ADVANCE READING COPY – Not for Sale” across the top of an ARC’s front cover, at the top of the first pre-matter inside page, and on the back cover. He also recommends omitting bar codes from ARCs.

Frustrating as ARC resales can be, Robbins reminds publishers that books suffer more from a lack of discoverability than from piracy. “We don’t worry about our ARCs,” he says. “We want them read.”

Getting It Right

As Robbins points out, the toughest parts of publishing are discoverability and conversion. “This is a never-ending study to get right,” he says.

Why wait? By engaging authors and aligning tactics with the needs of distributors, review publications, and consumers, savvy publishers generate buzz well before a book’s release date. Grounded in research and experience, these prepublication marketing strategies can make all the difference.

Deb Vanasse is the author of 17 books. Among her most recent are the novel Cold Spell and a biography, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold. She also works as a freelance editor.

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