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Ten Surprising Secrets to Make Your Book Go Viral

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How to Make Your Book Go Viral Maple Seed tweetspeakpoetry.com

Every author wants to know: how do I make my book go viral? There are services that promise to make your book go viral, if only you do everything they say, in just the right way. It’s a false promise. Any publisher will tell you there is no sure-fire method to creating a top-seller, and serendipity plays a surprising role.

That said, there are things you can do to make your book serendipity-ready. We asked author Jennifer Dukes Lee to share some of the ways she prepared Love Idol to do its very best in the marketplace. Here are her top ten secrets, not including divine intervention:

Ten Surprising Secrets to Make Your Book Go Viral

1. Love your reader. Your best marketing efforts take root in the earliest drafts of your book. Ask yourself on every page of your manuscript, “How am I serving the reader here?” You are, presumably, writing a book to entertain, engage, amuse, benefit, guide or enlighten a reader. Even if the book is about you, it isn’t only about you. It’s also – perhaps even primarily– about your reader, even if you never address him directly.

2. Build a community. I suppose you can call it a platform if you want, but I gently suggest you don’t stand on your platform. Because when you’re standing on your platform, you’re standing on your people. Stand with people, and invite your people to stand with you.

Over the last six years, I have slowly grown my community of blog readers from a few dozen to a few thousand. When I signed a contract with a publishing house, I did not have a huge platform; rather, I had linked arms with a loyal and steadily growing community of people who found consistent value in my message. This was a community of people whom I cared about deeply (see Number 1 above).

About a month before my book released, I invited readers in my community to join the Love Idol Book Launch Team. I was certain they’d help me spread the word, because they already believed in the message. (A launch team member helps spread the word about a book on his or her own blog and social-media channels.)

3. Choose enthusiasm over size. One might argue that an author should choose large-platform people for her launch team. I disagree with that approach. I purposely selected people who brought enthusiasm, regardless of how “big” they were.

Keep in mind: People with large platforms are often bombarded with requests to promote others’ work. While it’s wise to get your book in front of key influencers, don’t dismiss the effectiveness of ordinary people who will enthusiastically and repeatedly carry your message to their own communities.

Do you doubt the power of small?  On the day that Love Idol launched, it broke into the top 1,000 on Amazon. Within three weeks, it went into a second printing.

4. Offer your yes. To Everything. Say yes to every Q-and-A, every podcast, every offer for a reprint or a guest post, even on what you might believe are “small” blogs. Prepare in advance, by prewriting guest posts or getting the necessary permissions for guest posts.

Authors have long compared their books to babies. If you’ve spent much time around human babies, you know they require round-the-clock care. In its infancy, your book, too, will demand much of you. It will want to be fed. It will keep you awake at 3 a.m. Sometimes, you will lean in close to make sure it’s still breathing. So, say “yes” as often as you’re able. I promise you: you’ll eventually sleep again, when the book gets a bit older.

5. Don’t forget traditional media. My publisher and I prepared press releases and sent them to large daily newspapers, and small-town weeklies in our area, months before the book released. The weekly papers, in particular, were eager to cover a story about a local author who had landed a book deal with a large publisher. My book ended up on the front page of no fewer than three weekly papers, and it was featured in nearly a dozen newspapers in our region.

6. Invest in professional marketing. Even with a traditional publisher, I spent money on marketing. I hired Ted Barnett of Contemplate Design to create a well-designed book page. His wife, Annie Barnett, created beautiful printables for an online Love Idol Movement. A local photographer took author photos. And Lindsey Hartz offered invaluable guidance and leadership for my book-launch team.

7. Think like a reporter. What’s a news hook that you can hang your book on? Think about what’s happening in the world, the culture, your community, and then find a compelling news angle that will engage your intended audience. (A good example: Tweetspeak’s book promotional efforts of Glynn Young’s Poetry at Work tied to Poetry at Work Day.)

8. Make lists. Brainstorm lists of every association, organization, professional group to which you’ve belonged. List your past employers. List relationships with people you know who are leaders in your intended market. I emailed dozens of people about my book, asking them to help spread the word. I also sent handwritten notes to nearly 50 influencers, along with a copy of the book provided by my publisher.

9. Create a movement around a key theme or idea. Does your book address a specific felt need? Consider creating a hashtag and inviting people to share on social media around that theme. About a week before Love Idol released, on a whim, I created a Love Idol Movement page. Within a few days, more than 1,000 people had joined the page, and many were using the Annie Barnett printables, along with the assigned hashtags of #loveidol and #preapproved on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

10. Thank people. I was so touched by the generosity of people who helped spread the word about Love Idol. One way to thank people, if you’re comfortable: Give them the opportunity to blog on your site about the topic of your book (not as a book review, but as a response.) This can be an especially nice perk for a blogger who is just starting out. I extended that offer to launch team members early on, and within hours, I had weekly slots filled for an entire calendar year.

___

In addition to her top ten secrets to book virality, we asked Dukes Lee what she believes was the single-most effective technological effort she undertook. She says, “Without question, my book-launch team – built from a community of long-time readers – was the single-most effective effort. Someone with a decades-long career in publishing contacted me afterward to tell me that it was the most effective launch team he had seen ‘in content and delivery.’”

Author Portrait: Jennifer Dukes Lee

Years writing professionally before first book: 20-ish.

Types of writing jobs held: I landed my first newspaper job at age 16, and continued working in news through my years at Iowa State University, where I earned a degree in journalism. After graduating, I covered crime, politics, and feature stories full time for The Omaha World-Herald, and later for The Des Moines Register. I taught journalism for four years at Dordt College in northwest Iowa. I’ve written thousands of news stories, magazine articles, op-ed pieces, and essays for print and online publications and received the national Outstanding Achievement Award for writing from the Gannett News Corporation in 2000. I’m a community editor for TheHighCalling.org, a contributing writer for Dayspring’s incourage.me,and blog three times a week at JenniferDukesLee.com.

Internet presence & current following:
Facebook Author Page – 3,672
Facebook Love Idol Movement Page – 1,459
Twitter – 2,778
Pinterest – 1,190

Best Amazon Book Rank to Date: 707

The average book in America sells about 500 copies (quoted in Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing). If your book sells more than five hundred, you are already above average. Everything else is icing on the cake. We wish you delicious, serendipitous icing. And a few happy secrets.

Photo by Jenny Downing, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

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Your Comments

44 Comments so far

  1. L. L. Barkat says:

    Jenn, this is wonderful advice.

    And I think it’s important for new writers to see just how many years and how much depth of experience and effort generally goes into making a top-selling book.

    • A joy to be here…

      A lot of effort goes into promoting a book, but it isn’t as painful and horrible as some told me it would be. Yeah. It’s been hard work, but it’s also been fun, watching the message ripple out in unexpected ways. I took great delight in promoting a message that I had been carrying around in my heart for a very long time.

  2. Thank you so much for this. It helps and is so encouraging to me right now. I love her approach that platform isn’t really about a bunch of boards you stand on (metaphorically speaking) but it’s about community. I need to remember that as I work on sending out my novel. And I like her admonition to say yes to everything, that there will be late nights and tiredness like there is for a baby.

    (I wonder how I’m going to do teaching and the book promotion and life in general this fall. I wonder about retiring or taking the semester off or just teaching two classes if the boss’s and husband will let me…Well, I guess I’ll take it a day at a time while being sure to ride my ponies!)

    So thanks much…

    • Hi Katie,

      Best of luck as you find a balance between your regular work and your writing. I wrote my book while teaching journalism at the college, which meant that most of Love Idol was written on the fringe hours of the day.

      • Yeah I did the same, writing this book along with teaching, and then rewriting it, and then writing another one and coming back to this one. It took way, way too long. But I have a body of work that has been drafted.

        My life changed, we moved to a farm and my desire to publish died, deader than dead, so I was surprised and unsettled when a publisher wanted to publish it. I chose to do it because I wanted to use the book as an excuse to start a blog and find my readers ah, er community.

        But I am feeling very overwhelmed with the promotion part. I think I am still called to the teaching work, though I need to find ways to be more efficient there as well.

        I watched the roll out of your book too, and was very impressed to see it being mentioned by bloggers I’ve come to know and love several times. What a generous community these women have been to me.

        I think we are in the same region of the country and wonder if you’d like to meet sometime? I do understand being busy…

  3. Jennifer, this is so great to read!

    I love your thoughts on inviting people to share how the book affected them–that’s so much more powerful than a standard review. And as a member of Jennifer’s launch team, I can add my amen to how well-run it was. When the book ended up doing so well, I felt like I’d had a teeny part in her success, and I’m sure other people who participated in one way or another, whether part of the team or not, felt the same way.

    • We really had a fantastic team, and there was so much going on behind-the-scenes, which made it highly personal and quite unforgettable. People believed in the message, and willingly carried it to their own communities. I’m incredibly grateful. The launch team made all the difference. Thank you for being a part of it, Megan.

  4. My favorite is the #3. It makes us “small” but enthusiastic promoters feel better. :) Over the past several months, I’ve found that promoting others’ books is one of the funnest, most satisfying things I’ve done.

    Thanks for this list. Even though it’s about making “your” book go viral, I can use it to promote other books!

    • Yeah. And you know what, I really don’t like the word “small” here. It feels like I’m minimizing the influence of the good people who were a part of the team. But honestly? I’m “small” with them. Quite truthfully, my publisher took on Jennifer Dukes Lee, a small-platform blogger because the editors there believed in the message I had. Publishers still do that. Grateful.

      • L. L. Barkat says:

        Small is good. Small can fit in places that big cannot. It’s a matter of uniqueness and role and scale.

        Of course as a publisher we wish for the big promotional breaks, but many popular things (including books) begin in small places.

        I like small. Maybe for obvious reasons ;-) But? I wouldn’t mind if many of our authors became big. It’s a happy thing to have a beautiful work move out into the larger world.

  5. Ann Kroeker says:

    I love reading this summary–thanks, Jennifer, for sharing your experience, and thanks, L.L., for bringing the stats and story to us here at Tweetspeak.

    The writing life is work, and this is a part of it that a lot of writers don’t know much about or feel overwhelmed trying to pull off. Knowing you enlisted professional services along with individuals who were readers and friends, shows what a huge effort it entailed.

    But a huge payoff, too.

    I’m sure hiring a professional writing coach just prior to launch helped. ;)

  6. sarah says:

    Great advice. I love the way you have kept heart within the process, rather than just numbers.

  7. hmmm. small is me.

    i hang more skivvies from a half-load of laundry on my clothesline than i have everyday readers. ;-)

    thanks for the behind the scenes information and writerly encouragement miss JDL.

    blessings.

  8. I wish I could copy and paste a photo of me smiling my way through these words…Joy at LL’s generous gift of space here at Tweetspeak for Jennifer to share her launch story and joy at the small but mighty ways God still uses people.

    What an encouragement all around. So tickled (as Megan said) to be a teensy bit of a part of this success.

    It’s so fun to see a plan come together :-)

  9. Donna says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I’m saving this in my resources file – these are wonderful pieces of advice – definitely timely, too. :)

  10. Linda says:

    This comes at a time when I’m trying to wrestle through all of these, to me, overwhelming things. The actual writing of the book came so much easier than all of this. I have so much ground to cover.
    It is a gift to have an excellent writing coach. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a trial to poor Ann.

    • Linda,

      Are you done with your book?? Congratulations!

      I hope that this book is a good starting point for you as you venture into the next stage. Honestly, while it was hard work, it wasn’t as horrible as I thought it would be. I actually rather enjoyed it, and I am certain that’s because I went on the journey with friends. At the same time, two other friends were releasing their books, and I signed up for their book launch teams, and still found time to help promote their books. We’re all in this together. Like my friend Lisa-Jo Baker says, “We’re not a competition, but a community.” And when your book comes out, put my name on the list of people who want to walk with you.

      • Linda says:

        I have a very long way to go Jennifer, but thank you so much. I have you on my list of people to read it when it’s ready for “public viewing.”

  11. Great info, so good to know! Now I just need to write that book! ;)

  12. Fascinating post, Jen – thanks so much. I’m wondering how you went about getting your blog readership to grow so exponentially – you say it was in the dozens and then it jumped to the thousands?? How does that happen?

    • Hi Diana,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Actually, my growth hasn’t been exponential at all — but slow and steady, one reader at a time. It never once jumped. It grew, with a lot of hard work, plugging away, on blog post at a time.

      I’ve been blogging since the summer of 2008. That’s nearly seven years ago. That summer, I had one consistent blog commenter: Billy Coffey.

      I Googled around for “Christian blogging communities” because it felt rather lonely out on the Internet, and I came across several other writers: L.L. Barkat being one of them, along with several others who eventually led me to The High Calling.

      I continued to write, through all of those early months and years, with just a few followers and regular readers — maybe 100 or so that first year, according to that Blogger “friend” reader thingyg that a lot of us used back then.

      And I continued to write. More and more words. In 2010, I joined the team of The High Calling, which likely contributed to more growth — not a significant jump, but certainly some exposure.

      I continued to write and produce content that was interesting to more people. I wrote for a few months at Internet Cafe, where I met more people.

      My writing continued to improve, with all of those thousands upon thousands of words I was writing. I could see my readership growing — again, slowly.

      In 2010, I had an idea for a book, but had a pretty small platform. I continued to develop my voice, and my readership continued to grow incrementally some more.

      In 2011, I wrote the first chapter of that book, and workshopped it at Laity Lodge. I continued to write on my blog, and my subscribers via email inched upward each month.

      In 2012, I signed an agent. Three months later, I had three publishing contracts to consider, and picked the one that seemed like the best fit for my project.

      All the while, I kept on plugging away at my writing, and it kept on improving, and the community kept on growing, one reader at a time.

      Ye,s I have a few thousand subscribers now, but honestly that’s been a gradual growth over SEVEN YEARS, and it’s been a lot of work doing what I love: writing. There was no quick fix, or trick. It was just plugging away at doing what I loved: writing to real people who kept on coming around to read the words.

      I have continued to grow in my writing, and have grown more and more comfortable in my own voice. That’s a process that has continued to happened, despite the fact that I have been writing professionally since I was 16, when I took my first news job. Ideally, we continue to improve, and that continues to attract more readers.

      I hope that the common denominator here is clear: I continued writing.

      I suppose I could have done some better things on social media to cause a spike in growth, but it has truly happened slowly over time, and with a lot of hard work on the message itself. I’ve always kept #1 on this list in the forefront of my mind. That’s my heart’s desire.

      I hope that gives you more detail about the slow and steady growth. No magic bean. Just hundreds of hours logged at these keys.

      • L. L. Barkat says:

        I *love* this chronicling. I think many writers have the idea that a writing life simply appears.

        And now I am remembering Billy Coffey’s zero comments (on his blog). I don’t know if it was him who found me or vice versa, but I committed myself to comment on his blog for one month, until he had commenters other than me. I distinctly remember introducing the two of you, so you could be an encouragement to each other at that time (and then you became one of his commenters and, I believe, he became one of yours… and I moved on (and later hired you both at THC! Though Billy didn’t stay as long).

        What journeys these are. How we sometimes forget the work and the ways.

        • L.L. — I believe you hired me, after Billy left. I took his spot as contributing editor for family. I’m glad you did. :)

          (Excuse the typos above, L.L. and Diana. Ack! Maybe my growth would have spiked more if I had been more attentive to such details during all those years of writing. :) )

          • L. L. Barkat says:

            Oh, look at that. Yes.

            (Typos are fun. I have my favorites. ;-) )

            I wanted to add, btw, to Diana and to maybe others…

            not all of us go on to be top-selling authors, even if we do many of the things that should produce such an effect.

            Some of us, like me, have both above and below average book title sales. And we find that maybe we prefer a different segment of the writing life (or even if we don’t prefer it at first, we find we are better fit for it). I’d say I am better fit to encourage writers, to bring them to light, to be a model of what good writing is (I work hard at my writing and also love to write about writing), and to overall help writers grow in skills and the writing life itself.

            Sometimes I marvel that I still write books at all. I think I do it for the reasons above, more than anything. And for personal reasons and to serve a small but dedicated audience that likes to hear from me in longer form from time to time.

            I don’t recommend that every writer write a book. And it’s definitely a full time job (not the kind I turned out to be good at).

            I admire your hard work on this book and its advent, Jenn. It will be interesting to see, longterm, what segment of the writing life you prefer, even though you are a top-selling author. :)

          • L. L. Barkat says:

            !

            And I just remembered the day I made the decision that feels like it sealed everything.

            A big agent wanted to sign me and sell
            ‘God in the Yard’ and I told him I didn’t want to be famous… I didn’t want the life that came with it. But I’d be happy to be a mid-level author (I won’t say who he was serving, but they were real career authors, traveling everywhere speaking, writing books that sell, sell, sell).

            He kindly thought through what I said and retracted his offer to me. “Contact me if you ever want to be a big author,” he said.

            You see what happened, after all. I am a person of solitude. A person happiest when in the background. I had to give up a dream that, in the end, was not going to work with my soul.

          • “You see what happened, after all. I am a person of solitude. A person happiest when in the background. I had to give up a dream that, in the end, was not going to work with my soul.” – L.L. Barkat

            -What wisdom. THIS ministered to my soul. Sometimes we get “grown” to be where He sends us, sometimes we “get” to choose the direction – not right/from God or bad/from the devil – just 2 good choices for Him to grow us and season us through…

            And to know that someone else chooses the road less traveled, the quiet way, the solitude… inspiring.

            Thanks for sharing…

      • LW Lindquist says:

        And I’m smiling as I remember that one month that both Billy and Jennifer first commented on my blog, sometime in 2009. There was some celebration around here that might have involved a fatted calf. ;-)

        I love the way you’ve laid this out, Jennifer. The steady work that it takes and “no magic bean,” though there are certainly folks out there selling the beans on the way to market. And the constant of continued writing–no matter how well you write right now, continue to do the work and strengthening your voice.

        I think it’s also important to note the way that you also continue(d) to build relationships with readers–not as “platform-building strategy” but as part of #1 above, and it seems there is some natural growth as a result of it.

        Really love seeing you here, and seeing the success of your book. :)

        • L. L. Barkat says:

          Very interesting.

          Looks like all we need is Billy over here, and we’ve got a “beginnings” reunion :)

        • Thank you Laura and Marina for your comments here. It’s deeply inspiring that you knew you didn’t want to be famous and so turned down the agent. Not sure many people would do that because there is pressure on us today to go for the big, fancy, dream. And Marina thank you for saying that both choices lead us to good things through God.

          You all here have left me with much to think about as well as not feeling so alone with my ambivalence about my novel being published. And since most books are quiet and mine is certainly that, maybe i can relax and enjoy that students and friends will get to read it. (I met with a former student tonight who is thrilled this is happening for me.) And let the rest go.

  13. I just love you, Ms. Barkat. Thanks for the ways you’ve been so true to who you are. But, while you seem comfortable in the background, I’d say you do a pretty stellar job out front, too. :)

    And yes, … it is hard work. But I like hard work. I like digging deep and peeling back the layers — through writing — and discovering what’s really going on underneath. That’s never easy. But it’s worth it.

    Regarding numbers … I’m not a big numbers person. And it was a bit uncomfortable for me to even list these, above. I don’t see myself as a “big” blogger, but as someone who has a message that resonates enough with people that they are willing to keep coming around for it. I think that’s why I had a rather loyal and dedicated book launch team. We’d built real relationships over time. They weren’t people who showed up because of some gimmick on social media. They were friends who’ve been walking the journey with me. Not pawns. Not boards on a platform. Real souls who cared about me, and whom I care about deeply. #1, above… is #1, always.

  14. Jennifer, your heart shines through in everything you do. Congratulations and thank you thank you for sharing things we others, we us, about the process.

    What a generosity of spirit you have.

    So honored to know you and to have you in my writing life and world.

    Your passion and exuberance for life and love and faith are contagious, girl. What a servant’s heart you display, humbly in all you do.

    Thank you for pouring out and into us here.

  15. Jennifer – I don’t think I stopped here to let you know how very much I loved this post, particularly your emphasis on loving people, genuinely caring about readers, fellow writers, members of your launch team, etc. It seems like such a good way to succeed, through love. At the same time, if it hadn’t worked, it seems like a worthwhile failure: to have erred on the side of loving people.


Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] her recent Tweetspeak Poetry article, “Ten Surprising Secrets to Make Your Book Go Viral,” Jennifer Dukes Lee talks about her recent successful book launch. She talks about things like […]

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