A few years ago, I wrote a post here about how to promote a book of poetry with a chronic illness or a disability. That post was a digest of ideas from my how-to book from Two Sylvias Press, PR for Poets. With everything going on, I thought it might be an appropriate time to write an update to that post.
I have a friend who just had a novel and a book of poetry come out right as the country went into lockdown - and she was wondering, in the wake of cancelled conferences, book festivals, readings, and college appearances, how she can promote her book during a pandemic. Here is what my response was to her - and I thought it might be helpful for you, too.
During a pandemic, we're actually more in need of good, stimulating reading material, not less. People turn to art to help deal with the stress and chaos they've been experiencing. But they can't go browse in a local bookstore and they probably have a hard time filtering promotional posts on social media. So how to get the word out about your fantastic piece of hard work and help your press sell your book so they can stay in business?
A little background about me: I have multiple sclerosis as well as a primary immune deficiency, so ever since my first poetry book back in 2006, I've had to figure out ways around the "normal" ways of promoting your books, since I was unable physically to do a big multi-state book tour, or do a ton of college or conference/book festival appearances. (And every single appearance I did do had a big health repercussion, so I had to make difficult cost/benefit ratio decisions.)
So, I've tried a variety of ways to reach out to readers through different mediums: blogs, postcards, e-mail newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Zoom, YouTube - I've tried them all. Even before coronavirus came into the picture. Here are some ideas on how to connect with your audience, where they are, right now.
Your Author Web Site
Your own personal web site becomes more important than ever when the only way people can meet is virtually. Make sure you've got a picture, bio, samples of your work, links to your social media, and most importantly (I'll cover this again) a way to buy your new book. Blogs may be considered outdated, but I still love writing and reading them, and still have an active one myself. Long-form writing - rather than being limited to 144 characters - seems right, right now, doesn't it? Like old-fashioned letter-writing, sans the germs.
If your web site is in need of a refresh - say, it doesn't run on modern browsers or you've gotten feedback like "it hurts my eyes" - this is a great time to do touch-ups or even a re-design. If you can't afford a designer, sites like WordPress and SquareSpace make it pretty easy to design your own.
From recording a video of yourself doing a reading it and posting it on Twitter, Instagram or YouTube, to doing readings via Facebook Live or Zoom or Teams or other tools, doing "virtual" appearances has suddenly become the norm.
Readings and Classes
Your colleagues who teach would probably welcome a virtual classroom visit for their stressed, worn-out students. Your friends who miss going to in-person readings at their local bookstores or coffee shops will want to be invited to your virtual event. Even just putting faces to names of other poets can be cheering, so a group Zoom reading is even more fun. My advice to is to make sure the host of the Zoom reading has used Zoom before, has a professional account (otherwise the meeting times out,) and applies password protection (because Zoom hacking is ugly). (Make sure you also know how to run the software.) Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams are two other options for group readings. Make sure your audio and video settings can be temporarily muted, and set a Zoom background if you don't want family or animals showing up.
Videos and Audio Recordings
It can feel awkward making a video with no audience, but it gets easier with practice. Several programs are available for both audio and video recordings, but I've found iPhone's video recordings to be easy to make and upload. They are large files, though, so keep that in mind. If you have the technical know-how, when you upload to YouTube or Twitter, try to find an app that adds captions for the hard-of-hearing. I know YouTube will provide some closed captioning, so I like that.
Make sure you are in a place that's relatively quiet (a closed room or even an outdoor space, if you have quiet neighbors) and a background that's appealing but not attention-grabbing - bookshelves, a garden, or an office all work. If you have a tripod, you can set your recording device on that; if you are using another person for the recording, careful of shaking or tilting of the camera (which is very easy to do).
There is special software used, say, for podcasts, that costs money and gives you great quality recordings, but for most of us, an app for a smart phone like VoiceRecorder (there are dozens that let you save files for free) work just fine. Upload mp3s of poetry readings to your web site or SoundCloud (The Poetry Foundation has a stream on it, along with a channel on YouTube.)
If you are nervous about your voice or your appearance, take a deep breath before you read and try to read slowly and read in a slightly lower register than normal. Most poets worry way too much about what they look like on video - when people are there for your poetry, they want to see the real you, so don't worry too much about glamming up. If you, like me, feel washed out by video cameras, try a little extra lipstick, and wear a bright-colored top and funky glasses.
Radio and Podcasts
If you are lucky enough to know people at your local NPR radio station or run a well-known literary podcast, reach out. Those guys are probably desperate for content right now, and you would probably be an entertaining guest. Make sure you're prepared to talk not just about your book, but some anecdotes about how it got written and published. Once again, make sure you have a quiet place to do your interview.
Snail Mail and E-mail
So, the mail is still a great way to communicate, with two caveats - people may be disinfecting or outright throwing out mail for fear of contamination with coronavirus, and the post office's future is far from certain right now. I used to send out postcards to my holiday mailing list for every book. Right now, though, I'm not sure it's worth it.
Let's look at e-mail. The e-mail newsletter is very popular, and if I had a book coming out, I would most certainly sign up for a mail letter service like Mail Chimp so that I could let people know my news. Personal e-mails are always better if you have the time or energy for it, but if you have a longer list, a managed newsletter is probably the best bet.
What do you need to include? News about your book, a picture of yourself and the cover, maybe a blurb, and a little talk about how you are and maybe a story related to the book. Make it interesting, and more than just sales - right now, everyone is looking to feel a little more connected. If you offer one-on-one manuscript consultations or classes, mention it. And of course, a way to buy your book.
Social Media, Still
Social media has become the way we keep in touch with friends and family. Zoom and FaceTime and phone calls have replaced in-person visits. So how to reach out to strangers so that they can get to know your work?
I have been attempting to get comfortable with Instagram (which I use along with Twitter and Facebook pretty regularly) to share pictures of poems, short video recordings (ideally less than one minute), and scenes from my life (in my case, flowers, birds, and my fluffy grey-and-white cat with various books). It's sort of a switch for a writer (like you and me) to try a visual medium, but you probably know some poets have been very successful - and sold a lot of books - from their Instagram accounts.
Twitter can help a poem go "viral" (terrible word right now, I know) so if you want to share a poem on Twitter, don't just share a link, share a picture of the poem as well. You can even share short video recordings there as well.
Facebook is great for the over-forty audience, and probably a lot of your family will see your postings there as well. It's okay for your posts on Facebook to be a little more personal and chatty, which is what people expect on Facebook. Facebook Live has replaced live, in-person bookstore readings for a lot of famous writers, so I encourage you to try it and see if it's for you.
Create a YouTube channel and connect it to your author site. (I haven't done this yet, but I need to.) Your YouTube reading videos or interviews can be great for helping an audience connect to you and your book.
Also, share not just your own good news and work but the good news/work of your friends on social media. This will help build community and a good spirit and helps shine a light on the people you care about and who care about you. Hey, it's apocalypse-y out there, we need all the help we can give each other right now.
Help People Find Where to Buy Your Book
Since people can't walk into bookstores anymore, it's important that you provide links to places where people can buy your book. Sure, everyone thinks of Amazon, but there's also SPD, your local indie bookstores who ship to you (my hometown favorites include Seattle's Open Books, Third Place Books, and Elliot Bay Books) and the new Bookshop.org, which supports independent books.
If you already have an author web site, make sure it is easy for people to buy your books there. If they can buy them directly from you with Paypal, Square, or Venmo, even better (no one wants to use checks or cash right now anyway.) Make sure you have prominent links on every page to where someone can buy your books.
I hope this has been helpful to my readers who are wondering how to promote their work during the pandemic. For more in-depth information, please check out my book, PR for Poets!
Links to order the book from Two Sylvias and Amazon:
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Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She’s the author of five books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist's Daughter, and Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the SFPA’s Elgin Award. She's also the author of PR for Poets: A Guidebook to Publicity and Marketing. Her work appeared or will appear in journals such as American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. Her web site is www.webbish6.com. Twitter and Instagram: @webbish6.