Whether you write fiction or non-fiction,
exploit your book’s subjects for optimal sales and visibility
I had you at hello, right?
For years my book publishing company specialized in nonfiction regional books and it taught me a lot about maxing out all the themes of a book, things that any author of nonfiction or fiction can adapt in their publicity, marketing, and sales efforts.
Before you mine your themes for all they’re worth, figure out as many themes as possible. Find them in these four groupings:
Broadest Theme For most of my books, this was the region: Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Seattle. For you, it may be history, sports, business, biography, gardening, technology, etc.
Primary Themes These are the more specific themes of your book and they will be the top sources of promotional inspiration. We had a book about Chicago firehouse dogs. Its primary themes were fires and dogs. Your history book may be about college and football. Your business book may be about startups and blockchain.
Tangential Themes These are the deeper, related themes you can tease out of your primary themes, other places you can turn to connect with others for attention and sales. We published a title about about Chicago’s Civil War connections. In addition to Civil War buffs, we promoted the book to Abraham Lincoln fans, military history aficionados, and general readers of early American history.
Tangents may go broader (not just dogs, but all animals) or narrower (not just dogs, but working dogs) within a niche. They may pull out the most popular person or sub-themes of a topic. One book collecting Carl Sandburg’s film reviews during the silent film era, also got mileage by focusing on Charlie Chaplin, silent film actresses, and old movie house organs/organists.
For your purposes, think broader, narrower, lateral, and name-brand people, eras, and movements.
Customer and Reader Themes I like to distinguish between customers (those who actually buy books, which includes distributors, stores, libraries, etc. as well as individuals) and readers (those who actually read the book, whether or not they have purchased it). What are the peculiarities of the customers and readers of your book that expand options beyond the norm?
For us, guidebook customers always included anywhere tourists went, such as museum shops, hotel lobby shops, and souvenir stores. As examples of how deep you can go with specific customer/reader quirks: For the firehouse dog book, we also pursued those with Dalmatians as pets. For the Civil War book, we also sought the attention of the historical re-enactment crowd as well as participants in Civil War roundtables.
And, on to that naked book contract signing…
1. Social Media What elements of your themes work best for the social media platforms where you’re active? Where and when will you be doing visual (even click-bait-y) things around your theme as an author, while writing, in the middle of the process, after the book’s out?
Before social media really took off, there was this time, this gimmick. In another era we coulda really done something with it…
One of my authors-to-be, burlesque artist and teacher, Michelle L’Amour, signed her book contract with me for Sexy Chicago at 11 p.m., during the intermission of one of her Naked Girls Reading shows. I was 7 months pregnant and 2 hours past my bedtime and she and her stage mates were lithe, lovely, covered with a feather or two, and stark naked. (BTW, this book was never written or published.)
2. Book Parties Never pass up the chance to launch your book with a party or series of parties connected to your book’s obvious themes. We launched our best-selling book ever, Chicago Haunts, in a haunted bar. We premiered Great Chicago Fires at G&L, a Chicago firefighters bar. Hollywood on Lake Michigan’s big to-do was at St. Augustine College, in an auditorium that was once a soundstage of Essanay Studios, one of the first motion picture studios of the silent era.
These theme events are more likely to draw guests, animate the crowd once they arrive, and attract local press coverage. The optics are usually better for social media — your own and what you can inspire your audience to produce.
3. Non-Bookstore Stores Get inside all the nooks and crannies of your customers’ minds and figure out where they go on a day-to-day basis where they can stumble upon your book.
Where did we consistently sell dozens of copies of the book A Cook’s Guide to Chicago every month for years? A hole-in-the-wall knife sharpening joint. One of the best places for selling a book called The Beat Cop’s Guide to Chicago Eats happened to be an Italian food shop with a deli counter in the back. Now, this is just a theory, but my guess is that this was a place that let police officers eat for free and some of them repaid the owner for the kindness by buying a book from the point-of-sale stand we provided. Those sales really added up.
Other non-bookstore outlets where I’ve sold more books than bookstores include: gift shops (stand alone, in museums, at historic sites, at tourist traps, police and firefighter gifts), women’s clothing boutiques, consignment shops, ethnic grocery stores, bars, bike shops, toy stores, and art galleries.
4. Volume Sales Where can you sell books a dozen, 50, 100, or 1,000 at a time? Can you partner with a suitable organization ahead of time in a way that can sell more books or provide some early financing?
A couple examples from my past include selling 3,000 copies of The Chicago River Architecture Tour to Wendella tour boats — at a discount that made sense for the volume — to sell as a souvenir to the scads of visitors who patronize this top Chi-Town attraction. Similarly, we sold over several different purchases 10,000 copies of A Chicago Tavern: A Goat, a Curse, and the American Dream to the Billy Goat Tavern to sell aside its cheezeborgers at its eight different locations.
Other actual volume sales customers that might spark an idea for you: large speaking events, workshops funded with government grants, institutes and professional organizations, realtors for closing gifts, conventions, convention goodie-bag vendors.
5. Your Events Where can you do theme-related events? Start by running through lists of libraries, historical societies, clubs, organizations, professional societies, schools (grade to grad), tours, bookstore/gift store events, at bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and booths (festivals, conferences, trade shows, conventions). (Read this for a full primer on Author Events.)
Every book has more opportunities than you will initially imagine. I’ve published an author with a four-book series on the history of Chicago’s public waterworks (i.e., water reclamation, sewage, stormwater management)! In addition to scores of neighborhood and suburban libraries and historical societies, author Dick Lanyon also presented and sold books to engineering firms, college classes, planning societies, the Chicago Maritime Museum, and the Chicago Underwater Archaeological Society.
Note that these are not only places to sell your books, many are also opportunities to get paid for your speaking.
6. Other People’s Events Similarly, where are other people holding events that you can latch on to, either by selling your book at their thing or having them sell it without your being present?
Ted Okuda is a prolific author on narrow film and TV topics, two of which I published (The Golden Age of Chicago Children’s Television and Chicago’s TV Horror Movie Shows). Assorted dealers have hosted him countless times at their fan and collectors show booths to sign and sell his books. A book, Finding Your Chicago Irish, had multiple sales opportunities with different vendors who set up shop at ethnic festivals, holiday bazaars, heritage festivals, and post-church get-togethers.
Note for your events and other people’s events: collect names for a mailing list, share your social media handles, take and share photos, ask for online reviews and referrals for other events.
7. Your Classes You are presumably an expert of some degree in your book’s topic and/or related skills that you can share with others. As with many events, you are not just selling books to/at your classes, you should be making money from giving the class or workshop.
Grace DuMelle, author of Finding Your Chicago Ancestors, gives sought-after workshops to beginners and experts on general and niche “how-to” genealogy topics. From here she also gets clients for her house history and oral history work. Professor Joe Schwieterman uses his book, The Politics of Place, in graduate and undergraduate classes.
8. Other People’s Classes ABC. Always Be making Connections. How can other people, whether they teach kids, teens, college, or adult ed classes use your book with their students? Classes move multiple copies of your book at once.
Our book Creepy Chicago (Chicago Haunts for kids) was used in grade schools for reading classes, by workshop leaders helping kids write their own ghost stories, and by the book’s illustrator in her own drawing classes. The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History was used in high school history classes, college and graduate-school planning and environmental science classes, and in hands-on, outdoor adult enrichment programming.
9. Your Tours Do any of your book’s themes lend themselves to walking or bus tours? Our best-selling author Ursula Bielski bought an old school bus, painted it black, and was on her way to building a 20-year ghost-tour business around her Chicago Haunts series.
10. Other People’s Tours Also good…are other people hosting tours that mesh well with your expertise and your book? The City of Chicago once paid Dennis Foley, author of The Streets and San Man’s Guide to Chicago Eats to do a series of tours to eateries in his book for their Downtown Thursday Night events.
A couple notes for those who may only sell e-books or print-on-demand versions of their books:
If after analyzing your book’s options according to this article you’re fired up with the possibilities, consider investing in a couple dozen print copies to test these ideas out. If you hit on some success, you may want to move up to short-run printing, which can give you price breaks for 100, 200, 500 copies at a time. Once you’re ready for printing in the thousands, move on to traditional offset printing for the best prices.
The pandemic has led many brick-and-mortar stores to develop the e-commerce side of their businesses. Find those stores that align with your themes and pitch them on including your ebook in the online version of their store.
First, find all your themes: The broadest theme, your primary themes, tangential themes, and customer/reader themes.
Then, explore ways to max out those themes: social media, book parties, non-bookstore stores, volume sales, your events, other people’s events, your classes, other people’s classes, your tours, and other people’s tours
If you need help generating ideas: I share my favorite simple brainstorming practice in this Medium article. (It’s #8, so scroll down.)