Marketing for authors – top tips from expert Katie Sadler

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Something a bit different on the blog today, but probably the most interesting and helpful interview I have ever done! I worked with Katie Sadler on my first novel The Rival, when she was working in-house at Quercus. She left to go freelance shortly after and has been super busy ever since helping a range of authors with their marketing. From my background as a journalist, I know lots about PR but not so much about marketing, and so I found chatting to Katie a fascinating insight. Hopefully you will too - whether or not you’re an author, I think if you’re at all interested in books or publishing then ‘behind the scenes’ info like this is always really eye-opening. Over to Katie…

Please can you tell us a little bit about how marketing teams work in traditional publishing houses.

It very much depends on the campaign and the company. In the places I have worked, marketers have a weekly catch up, where they all sit together and talk about what they’re working on, occasional brainstorms, where they think of creative ways to talk about a book or work through any issues they come up against, and regular ‘away days’ where they might do a deeper dive into a single title or talk more generally about ways they can improve how they do what they do.

But, more often than not, marketing teams will all sit together, and we’re usually being told off by editorial for making too much noise, as everywhere I’ve ever been, they are by far the noisiest department. There is always back and forth about campaigns, sharing ideas, sharing things people have seen online etc.

Campaigns can last anywhere from 2 years, for a mega lead title, to a month or two. As an average, I’d say we would start working on a book around 9 months pre-publication and this would run through to a month after publication. But this really does depend on the book – when material is ready, when publicity want to start sharing advanced reading copies, when sales need the material, whether the author has a following to share early material with etc.

How many books will a marketer be working on at any one time?

A LOT. Again, this really depends on the publishing company, as smaller companies might only release one or two books every month.

Often you’re working on books that are publishing in 9 months, 8 months, 7 months… all the way up to backlist books that might have published a year ago but have some kind of activity that means they need some marketing activity around them. So, at a rough estimate, actively, they are probably working on 10+ books each month, with another 5-10 simmering.

The best marketers (and there are a lot of them out there) are really working on all the books they have ever worked for, regardless of publishing house. For example, if someone asks on Twitter ‘what’s a great illustrated book about birds?’, they might well have a great bird book that they can recommend off the top of their head, even though they worked on it 7 years ago (Matt Sewell’s Our Garden Birds, BTW).

Where there is no money, you will often find a creative marketing person trying any and all angles to promote a book

Do all books receive marketing budget?

Sadly, not all books receive marketing budget. There are many reasons why a title would or would not receive a budget, but I am probably not the best person to ask about the ins and outs of that as I was tasked with the spending, rather than the allocation.

Where there is no money, you will often find a creative marketing person trying any and all angles to promote a book: finding partnerships, building creative social media plans, thinking of ways to get copies into people’s hands and to help them spread the word about the book.

I should also note that some books have no consumer marketing spend, but still have a fair amount spent on them. For example, advanced reading copies are actually a surprisingly hefty cost, and are often a really important part of the wider communications campaign, but feel a bit invisible, because they come out so far in advance of the book’s publication.

Marketing budgets are definitely becoming more reactive. Most budgets I have had access to have some contingency built in to them. Often this is put aside in case there’s some crazy last-minute acquisition that is being published in two months and needs a budget, but it can also be reallocated to existing titles that need more support. Sometimes publishers will also have a pot that is put aside specifically to give extra support to books that are taking off. Sometimes a budget might come off a title that isn’t working (or that doesn’t need any more spend) and move it to something that is.

An author’s platform is definitely looked at during the acquisition process, and shared if it’s positive, but if you have no profile at all, just an amazing book, it is unlikely to stop someone buying that book

Do publishers take into consideration an author’s existing social media reach before making an offer on a novel?

It depends. If you are a YouTuber who has written a book that will appeal primarily to your fans, then yes – definitely. If you are a debut author who has written something everyone in house has fallen in love with? No, definitely not. An author’s platform is definitely looked at during the acquisition process, and shared if it’s positive, but if you have no profile at all, just an amazing book, it is unlikely to stop someone buying that book. The publicist and marketing people will almost definitely try to get that author to set one up though.

Do publishers think less of authors that don’t do some of their own promotion?

Authors connecting with their readers, with bloggers, with journalists, etc, is increasingly important, and I believe it can make a huge difference to the success of a book. Engaging with people and building relationships online makes people more inclined to support you, to read your review copy when it comes through, to celebrate your successes etc.

Having said that, there are huge authors who have no social media presence at all. That number is getting smaller, to be sure, but it is possible. If the sales are there, and you are a nice person to work with (key!!), the publisher will want to recontract. 

Even if the sales are not huge, but are growing, and they see potential in you, they are likely to want to recontract. Whether or not you have a social media presence will be a very small part of that conversation.

What's the most important thing authors can do to market their own books? 

Engage with people. Whether that’s online or whether that’s meeting your local book groups or booksellers, I think going out and talking to readers (not just other authors!) is the most important thing people can do.

That and set up an email mailing list.

That’s not sexy, I know, but say you set up an email list on your website and do almost nothing to promote it and only send out two emails a year to tell people ‘hey my book is coming out on this day’ and ‘hey my book is out now’. Even if you get 10 subscribers, those people are committed! They signed up to receive promotional messages from someone they don’t know. You could easily make a couple of sales from those 10 people, with very little effort.

Also, if you ever change publishers, or the Twitter algorithm changes and only 2 people see your posts from now on, that list will be a really valuable way of communicating with your readers.

And, on the flipside, what’s the most common mistake you see when it comes to authors trying to market their own books?

They either only talk about their book, or they never talk about it. I was talking to an author recently about this. She has THOUSANDS of followers on social media, and her book was recently in a Kindle promotion. She posted about it on Instagram, but didn’t include an image of the book or the title! I think authors get so scared of putting people off by being ‘salesy’ that they end up just not sharing their book at all. It’s a fine balance, for sure, but don’t forget to talk about your book!

How do you feel about social media? Which platforms do you think work best?

I think if you absolutely hate it, and aren’t going to commit to spending time engaging on it, it’s probably better to leave it. That said, I know a lot of authors who have been really reluctant to use it who have completely fallen in love with it. 

Different platforms are good for different reasons. This is a massive simplification, but Twitter is often a good place to connect with industry types – authors, agents, book bloggers, journalists, booksellers etc. Instagram can be great for reaching a wider audience if you have a good visual eye and are good at using hashtags. Facebook groups are brilliant for connecting with like-minded people. Facebook pages can still be good for reaching big audiences, but I think if you don’t have a budget to spend promoting your posts, it’s really hard to reach even your existing fans, let alone people beyond that. Facebook advertising is still usually delivering a really good response because you can be so targeted.

I don’t think any traditionally published author ‘should’ feel the need to spend money on their own social media marketing

Ad campaigns can be bafflingly complicated. Should traditionally published authors spend their own money doing them on social media?  

This is a very contentious issue right now! I don’t think any traditionally published author ‘should’ feel the need to spend money on their own social media marketing.

Where there is no budget or a small budget allocated, there is likely to be a reason why. For example, Facebook works best when there is a super clearly defined audience that is very like something that already exists within Facebook’s ad framework. If a book doesn’t have that, getting the targeting right will be really hard, and you might not get a good return on your investment.

I think it’s often better for an author to speak to their editor about what the best way is that they can help support the campaign. Sometimes the best way to get involved is by giving time, rather than spending money. 

That said, a) I think social ads are less complicated than people think. There is a lot of free advice out there, and there are also great courses available to help people (and authors specifically) come to grips with Facebook ads. And b) I know of a few very high profile, bestselling authors, who spend their own money around publication to supplement what their publisher is doing.

If an author decides they do want to spend money on Facebook ads or pay to create their own video assets, or whatever it might be, then the main thing is that they communicate with their publisher about it first.

I 100% believe that all authors should have their own websites

Do authors need their own websites? And do authors need to blog?

Author websites are so old hat, aren’t they? But yes, I 100% believe that all authors should have their own websites, purely so that there is one place that doesn’t belong to a retailer, where all of their books exist together.

Setting up a self-hosted Wordpress or Squarespace will only take a few hours even if you’re only vaguely computer-literate and is not hugely expensive.  If it’s built with SEO in mind (clear naming, clear layout, labelled images, search-friendly copy), it is likely to rank highly on Google.

AND I still believe in the power of blogging, because content marketing is a great way to bring people to your site that have never heard of you. Share interesting, useful information and tell people about it. I don’t think authors NEED to blog at all, but every time you write a blog post, you are giving people a reason to visit  your website where you also highlight your book. And having a site that is regularly updated also feeds into the Google algorithm, so that’s another win.

How do you feel about email marketing for authors? Any tips for authors wanting to build their email database? 

I think an email list is something all authors should have, which I’ve talked about a bit more above. Setting up a mailing list takes minutes and is free up to a certain number of subscribers. Even if no one subscribes, you haven’t forked out a lot of money or time to do it.

The general advice for building a mailing list is that you need to have a lead magnet – ie, something free that you give people when they sign up (free short story is a great one for fiction authors, free ’10 tips to help you do something you really want to do’ is good for non-fiction). That can definitely be really powerful.  

For me, the best thing you can do is get your publisher to add a link to the list at the back of all of your ebooks. If a reader has read a book of yours that they loved, they are probably at their most willing to sign up straight after finishing it.

Also: don’t forget to tell people you have one. Put it in your online bio, make the link to sign up clear on your website, talk about it on Twitter or Instagram captions. If you have a blog, make sure anyone who visits sees a sign up prompt.

What is the one thing you wish all authors knew/understood?

That by including us in your acknowledgements, most marketers will bend over backwards for you. Most authors don’t meet their marketing person until the acknowledgements have been written, so we almost never make it in there. But your marketing person will be assigned when you write them! Find out who they are and thank them!

Also, please don’t underestimate the power of just saying thank you when someone’s helped you. Or sending a card to people on your team if your book does well. People really, really remember small gestures like this and it will make them work harder on your book.

What's your favourite thing about working in book marketing? And your least favourite?

I love the creativity, the people and the access to free books. I very much do not love the to-do lists when you are looking after a large number of titles.

9 times out of 10, book marketers are in the industry for their sheer love of books

Tell us something surprising about book marketers.

9 times out of 10, book marketers are in the industry for their sheer love of books, not because we like seeing great ROI charts (although those are nice, too).

I feel like marketers on TV are often portrayed as the ‘no’ people in publishing (“marketing says no, so we’re not buying this book”). A) We do say no sometimes; editors ignore us. And B) We say yes more often than we say no, because if an editor loves a book, chances are we will too.

Tell us a little bit about your background/route into author marketing.

After a brief stint in online media buying in the early naughties, I have been working in book marketing for over 11 years, and have worked for Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Hachette. I went freelance in Spring 2019 and now work with publishers on specific projects and offer marketing support for authors. I help advise authors on their marketing plans, can brainstorm ideas for their content marketing, and also offer ongoing mentoring for anyone who has a specific goal in mind but needs help creating a plan to get there. You can find out more about what I offer on my website.

After banging on about newsletters, it would be remiss of me not to also mention my own, where I overshare my life on a monthly basis (there are also interesting links and great books, if personal stories aren’t your thing!). You can sign up to that here. I love talking to authors about their own experiences and helping out where I can. You can find me mostly on Twitter and Instagram @katiemorwenna.

You can order my debut, The Rival, here. Unfollow Me is out now!