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September 25, 2017
By Jane Friedman
How leveraging local communities can land authors on the bestseller list.

When I hear professional publicists and PR people offer advice to authors, one theme that comes up again and again is: start where you are. Use the power of your community—and the people you know—to gain momentum.

This is a strategy that does not receive enough serious consideration by traditionally published and self-published authors in their pursuit of bestselling books. Traditional authors can become overly focused on national media attention or industry reviews; indie authors can become obsessed with Amazon rankings and optimization. It’s not that those things don’t have a role to play, but national attention and great rankings are sometimes the result of doing a great marketing and promotion job within a community that knows you. It’s often easier to gain traction that way, and encourage word of mouth to ripple further out as a stepping-stone to the more difficult PR wins.

For the launch of his book Appalachian Odyssey, about hiking the Appalachian Trail, the author Jeff Ryan toured 34 L.L. Bean stores, plus various libraries, over five months and 40,000 miles in his VW Westfalia. Along the way, he landed radio interviews and mentions on various travel blogs and websites, including USA Today. His book is now in its second printing, and he has two more books on the way. While this may seem like a “national” approach, it started off very narrow: targeting L.L. Bean customers—the perfect demographic for his book.

For the launch of Every Father’s Daughter, an essay anthology, the editor and contributors (I’m one of them!) collaborated on multiple book launch events held across the country simultaneously. Contributors headlined their own book events in their cities of residence, then joined a live group session with other contributors, broadcast to all venues via Skype. The events at each location were supported by local media coverage (my Charlottesville, Va., event received radio, newspaper and TV coverage—in addition to a feature in the university news weekly) and then widespread national attention later on.

"A strong regional footprint often leads to national publicity."
Several years ago, Andi Cumbo self-published her nonfiction book, The Slaves Have Names, about the history of plantations in Virginia. Because her book has particular importance within the state and for the living descendants of slaves, her marketing and PR have focused on Virginia (e.g., speaking to the Daughters of the American Revolution there).

But a strong regional footprint often leads to national publicity. When the University of Virginia named one of its buildings for Peyton Skipwith, an enslaved man who helped build the university, Cumbo’s name and book were mentioned in coverage by the Washington Post because her book discusses the history of the Skipwith family. Cumbo continues to do events and publicity across the state, and because of her consistent profile and activities, she has been referenced in broad contexts and conversations when issues of slavery are discussed—such as in the Slate article “Slave or Enslaved Person?”

The same strategy applies to fiction. The novelist Ani Tuzman, author of The Tremble of Love, is doing a series of nationwide events at synagogues and Jewish cultural centers to bring attention to her book, which is inspired by the life of a historical Jewish mystic. The fantasy indie author Jay Swanson devotes much of his promotional energy to fan conventions; the science fiction indie author John Sundman has focused on the tech community for many years (which once earned him a coveted mention at the tech blog Slashdot).

It may feel boring or like you’re not setting your sights high enough if you start local or with the community of people who are likely to be most interested. But why not win over the “easy” people first? They can help you generate word of mouth and build up publicity that leads to greater and more national attention.

As you plan your book marketing and promotion strategies, whether for a new or old book, consider the following:

● Who will be the easiest group to convince to read or buy this book?

● What events, organizations, or businesses exist (regionally or nationally) that focus on my target demographic?

● What local or regional media outlets regularly cover authors? What does that coverage look like or what is it sparked by?

● What local or regional venues (aside from bookstores) regularly feature authors or books?

Study authors you would consider similar to you—but not at the bestselling stage. (Bonus points if these authors live in the same area as you!) What events have they done? What media has featured them? Where do their reviews come from? Use their track record to help point the way for your outreach plan.

Jane Friedman teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia and is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest.