It turns out there’s a whole lot more to writing books than, well, writing. Getting a book out into the world takes both time and money.
Having postcards printed? Nicole Kronzer, author of the YA Books “Unscripted” and “The Roof Over Our Heads,” the latter of which came out earlier this year, paid for those herself. She also made stickers, and spent money on gas driving to Milwaukee, to another event just north of Milwaukee and to other events in the region. Then there were gifts she’d give to her conversation partners at readings and, of course, appropriate clothes for all those events. She also paid for her own table at the Twin Cities Book Festival.
“You basically don’t make money,” Kronzer says of being an early career author. “When I do my taxes every year, I either lose money or I’m just coming out even.”
Kronzer published her first book in 2020, and so had quite a different experience in 2023, when Zoom events weren’t as prevalent. Her publisher, Abrams/Amulet Books, pitched her for The Loft’s Wordplay Festival, but she arranged all other promotional events herself. After one book under her belt, she felt more prepared to take on that role. “It was easier in that I feel a lot more confident,” she says.
Literary agent and author Jennie Goloboy got a crash course in book promotion when she published her own book, “Obviously, Aliens,” with the small publisher Queen of Swords Press in 2021.
“Every book is different, but helping promote my own book did help me find some low-cost ideas that I’ve passed along to my clients,” she says. Goloboy looked for targeted media coverage, like the blog of a well-known author of funny science fiction, John Scalzi.
Some things she tried didn’t work out so well. “As a debut author, staging a book event didn’t really boost my sales,” she says. “Online readings didn’t do much either.” As an agent, she now encourages her clients to partner with more well-known authors for events. She’s also a fan of developing relationships with indie bookstores. For her that meant having her work on sale at DreamHaven and Magers & Quinn.
Writer Bill Burleson, founder of the publishing company Flexible Press, says small independent businesses just don’t have a lot of money for promotion.
Burleson started his boutique publishing house 10 years ago, and puts out four or five books a year. To publicize a book, he sends out press releases far and wide, particularly local press where the author is based. But Burleson says as a publisher, his work can only go so far.
“What I’ve found is, for example, reviewers love to see the authors, they don’t care about the publishers. Bookstores don’t care about me. We’re just salesmen to them.”
In other words, Burleson creates good copy and marketing materials — as well as instructions about how to make a great website for authors, but finds the most effective strategy is for authors themselves to take the lead.
Burleson has experience as a writer too, and thinks often writers aren’t taught the economics of selling books in writing programs. “I have a lot of sympathy for authors who don’t understand that now,” says. “I wonder if that gets taught in colleges for Master of Fine Arts students. I think they’re more worried about craft than they are worried about the business of writing.”
Julie Schumacher, who teaches in the University of Minnesota’s creative writing program in the Department of English, finds her students just want to be writing their book, and aren’t really thinking about marketing and sales. “People go into writing because they love language, they have something they want to say, and they are people who have the discipline to hole up in a room for years at a time,” she says. “Then suddenly, you’re supposed to turn into a promoter or a PR person. It’s a whole different personality trait. So it’s tricky.”
As for her own writing, Schumacher just published “The English Experience,” part of a series of academic satires. She gets lots of support with promotion these days, but it’s a far cry from her early experiences as an author.
“I felt I won the lottery publishing that book,” she recalls. “I was over the moon. But I definitely took it upon myself to promote it. I sent postcards, I sent letters. I made phone calls. I spent weeks working full time on a promotional campaign.” Recently, Schumacher looked back at the file she made of her work at the time. “It was kind of amazing to look back into that file, which I had saved, and find out how much work I’d actually put in,” she says. “I looked up every feminist or women-leaning bookstore in the country and sent them a letter.”
Even authors publishing with “The Big Five” — the five largest publishers in the U.S. (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan) — find they have to be their book’s personal cheerleader.
Junauda Petrus’ books “The Stars and the Blackness Between Them,” which won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award in 2020, and “Can We Please Give The Police Department to the Grandmothers,” this year, were both published by Dutton Books for Young Readers, part of Penguin/Random House. While Petrus has found much support from her publisher, much of the grassroots marketing has come from her own connections and legwork. “As far as figuring out where are the bookstores that are talking about abolition, what are the sort of spaces that would resonate with the work, a lot of that was me pulling it together,” Petrus says.
It’s a lesson she’s had to learn along the way. “If you think about it, the publishing industry publishes so many books every year, especially these big ones,” the author says. She learned quickly that to do meaningful marketing with the communities she wanted to connect with for her book, she’d have to take the lead.
For her first book, “The Stars and the Blackness Between Them,” Petrus spent $1,500 on travel and other expenses. She sought out opportunities, including an event with the singer Chastity Brown in Atlanta, an event at a Black-owned bookstore in Washington, D.C., and another event with the Free Black Women’s Library in Brooklyn, to name a few. “All of these were things that I created myself,” Petrus says. She kept costs down by staying at friends’ houses and using public transit when she traveled.
For her most recent book, “Can We Please Give the Police Department to the Grandmothers?” Petrus spent $4,000 for various book events, between paying for catering and traveling to other cities.
“I think there’s this idea that writing an amazing book, and having a good heart means that people will promote your book, but you have to promote your own stuff,” Petrus says. “Even if it’s a good book, you’ve got to promote it.”
No matter what the publisher’s size, self-promotion is part of the game, says Shannon Gibney, who has published children’s books, YA novels, adult literary pieces and scholarly pieces. From October of last year to October of this year, she’s got four very different books coming out with different publishers.
“For myself, and really most BIPOC writers, and writers from marginalized communities, our whole life is hustle,” she says. “We just assume that’s what we’re going to have to do.” Whether that means texting friends to come to launch events, tapping teacher colleagues to find out who’d be willing to incorporate the book into their classrooms, or promoting on social media, getting the word out about a book’s release is a lot of work.
“You just kind of say yes to everything that you can, whether it’s a workshop, or doing a keynote or a signing or whatever — you really need to do it. “
In some cases, there’s been a learning curve on the part of the publishers, Gibney says. When she published “Dream Country,” which is about five generations of a Liberian and Liberian American family, back in 2018, she asked her team at Dutton what their plan was for Black History month promotions. “They were like, ‘what?’ They were scrambling. They learned though.” With her most recent book, “The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be,” Gibney noticed a big change. “They were like, OK, this is what we’re going to do for Black History, like targeted ads like this, and that this is what we’re going to do for MLK Day. They were really intentional this time about pushing it as specifically a Black book, which I really appreciated.”
Often, there’s slim to zero money for travel, or holding book launch events. This fall, she’s releasing an anthology for teens she edited with Nicole Chung about the adoptee experience, “When We Become Ours,” working with HarperTeen. Gibney feels very supported by HarperTeen in other ways, but had hoped there’d be a budget for flying contributors to Minneapolis and/or hosting events in other cities where contributors live. “But we don’t have any budget for that,” she says.
Still, there are exceptions, like for the book Gibney co-authored with Kao Kalia Yang, called “What God is Honored Here?,” an anthology about miscarriage and infant loss centered around BIPOC women’s experiences. “That was published through University of Minnesota Press, which is not one of the ‘Big Five,’ — they’re going to have sort of less reach and resources, but their mission is way different,” Gibney says. “They actually had money set aside to fly, not everybody, but a few contributors in for a book launch event in Minneapolis. That was so meaningful to myself, Kao Kalia Yang, and the other contributors as well.”
Emily Hamilton, the marketing director for the University of Minnesota Press, says in an email the press wants to meet authors, “where they are in terms of their marketing experience and motivation.” The press conducts a detailed questionnaire with each author, gauging where they are at in terms of previous experience, contacts and media spaces. “It’s a long and sometimes laborious process,” Hamilton says. “But it’s invaluable to creating an effective, creative plan for marketing that specific book.”
All this is happening in a changing landscape. For instance, having a social media presence can be a big help to get the word out about a book, but only if the author has an established presence. “It takes a long time and dedication to gain a following and no one wants to read a stream of one-dimensional promotional posts,” Hamilton says. “If you want to be on social media, pick the platform that suits your personality and goals best and be consistent and dedicated, long before you have a book to sell.” She notes that Twitter (er, the platform now known as X), was one place authors could go for community and promotion discovery. “That is changing and bound to change even more,” she says.
One bit of advice she suggests? Be nice to your publicist. “Your marketing team is made up of busy and dedicated professionals who are on your team,” Hamilton says. “It can be a frustrating and opaque process for authors, but we are actively working on your book and the communication lines are always open.”