How I Learned to Promote My Own Books by Getting Paid to Promote Someone Else’s! – by Johnny Townsend

How I Learned to Promote My Own Books by Getting Paid to Promote Someone Else’s! – by Johnny Townsend

Promoting our own books is hard work. For many writers, promotion feels unnatural, perhaps tacky, and even a little tainted. Whenever I tried to promote my own books, I kept finding myself saying, “It’s too hard. I don’t understand. This sounds really boring. I’ll try again some other time.”

However, I was able to develop several useful promotional skills while working for a small publisher promoting their latest release, and you can do the same.

I chose a small publisher in my city, and negotiated a month-long, part-time job at minimum wage while still working my regular full-time job. Minimum wage might feel beneath us but, to be honest, most of us would be lucky to average minimum wage for some of our writing. And, what I’m proposing is accepting low pay for marketing, not writing, so we aren’t cheapening the value of our work as authors by trying this approach. I knew that if book promotion was a “real” job, no matter how small, I would keep at the required tasks even when they were difficult. The publisher paid me for 5 hours a week promoting one of their books.

I recommend promoting a non-fiction book for your first job, even if your specialty is fiction or poetry. These often have subjects with built-in audiences. Libraries, bookstores, women’s groups, and labor organizations (or whoever it is you need to target) won’t want you to just do a reading. They’ll want a broader presentation, and an explanation of how the book you’re promoting adds to that discussion. Many of the skills you learn can be adapted to your own work later, whatever your genre. For instance, a friend of mine who wrote a successful memoir contacted a local LGBTQ organization in her city, and offered to teach a class on writing memoirs. This was a way for her to reach students who, if they found her tips helpful, might well want to see how she implemented them in her own writing—hence, sales.

Even the wildly successful authors whose writing-related lectures I’ve attended as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series don’t just show up to sell books. They offer something that readers can’t get anywhere else – a detailed account of their writing habits, the methods they use to turn ideas into research and then stories, or even, during one truly odd lecture, an account of South Korean television shows, which had nothing at all to do with the successful novel the author had published, but was interesting to listen to just the same.

Whatever our approach, the sales have to be secondary to the benefit the organization receives or everyone involved will see you as only pretending to offer them something. Bookstores often require you to fill out a questionnaire explaining what you’re going to do to bring people to the event. They’re providing the venue. It’s your job to get people to attend.

Many books on promotion are available to give us ideas but I found myself much more motivated to learn them when I was being paid, regardless of the success of my efforts.

For marketing beginners, it’s easier investing energy in someone else’s book because nothing of our own is at stake. If this or that approach doesn’t work, we have no deep emotional sense of loss. I could try, fail, practice, learn, and work calmly. And, because this was a limited duration job at minimum wage, the publisher was willing to take a chance on me as well.

In my case, by the end of the month, I’d arranged for several reviews, readings in bookstores and libraries, an interview at a community-based radio station, and several other avenues to reach the book’s target audience.

We don’t have to make promotion a full-time career but we do need to commit some time and energy into promoting our own work if we want to succeed as writers. Getting a paid job learning the necessary skills is a win-win for both parties.


Johnny Townsend has published stories and essays in Newsday, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Humanist, The Progressive, in the anthologies The Kindness of Strangers, In Our Lovely Deseret, and in many other publications. His books include Marginal Mormons, The Last Days Linger, and Human Compassion for Beginners. He was also an associate producer for the documentary Upstairs Inferno. His books have been named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best of 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. His latest collection of essays is Breaking the Promise of the Promised Land: How Religious Conservatives Failed America.

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