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.
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.