Want your book to sell? Build your audience first

'Marketing strategy' text on ragged cloth

Recently, a message from an aspiring author popped into my inbox, asking if they should start a business and build an audience for their book before querying an agent.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘Here’s the thing: I definitely can’t advise you whether you should start a business or not!’

What I can advise, though, is if you want to publish, yes – you do need to build an audience first.

For self-help, personal development, business books and any trade non-fiction that’s going to guide people, you need a solid concept and traction for an agent or publisher to sit up and take notice.

And especially for any content that’s giving advice, genuine experience and/or expertise in the topic.

Authority is important, because – and I know this is really obvious, but it still needs to be said! – readers (and agents and publishers) are going to want to be confident that you know what you’re talking about.

More often than not, reputably published advice and how-to books in the non-fiction sector are from people who are qualified and/or already practising in their field. They’re writing to help others, but also for expert positioning, thought leadership and as a lead magnet to their practice.

In the business sector, experience of coaching, consultancy, leadership, entrepreneurship, business ownership or a recognised position in an organisation make for a solid grounding.

The thing is, regardless of how expert we might be, that alone isn’t necessarily going to make readers hit ‘buy’.

Every time a book by say, Deepak Chopra, Seth Godin or Tim Ferriss comes out, they’ll already be well on readers’ radar.

When we’re seeking expert positioning for our own enterprises, we need to get working to tell potential readers who we are – and the process needs to start well before the book comes out.

At minimum that means building a following, and targeting the right agent and/or publisher with at least some audience already in place.

Social proof, a good proposal of how and why you think the book will sell, how you intend to market it, and to whom, are all part of the pitching package.

In the personal development sector, ‘I’ve had X/Y/Z experience: maybe if I write about it, it could help others’ isn’t necessarily a strong enough reason alone for a publisher to offer a deal. What might hook them is your unique take on your topic, if it fits with their list.

The thing is, the same topics have been written about a million times before. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for another book on them – the fact that so many books exist means there is a market for them – but it does mean that agents, publishers and readers are likely to be looking for something fresh and different.

If your book is coaching or offers active, practical guidance, having your own system – and being able to show that your method is already working – can be an attractive way in.

So, how to go about this?

  1. Research the market first, see what’s already out there in your topic.

2. Distinguish how your book and its content are different from the competition – identify its USP.

3. Start by building an author website for your book. If you can, set up a mailing list.

4. Publish blogs and articles, and post on social to create an online presence.

5. Network – become known not through selling, but by who you are and how you interact. When you network well, the contacts and connections who know and like you become your ‘street team’. They’ll help you publicise your book when it comes out by reviewing it, giving it airtime on their own social media platforms or podcasts, or via personal recommendation.

6. If you can, ask for a foreword or endorsements from leaders, influencers or significant, high-profile individuals in your field. This lends terrific social proof and makes your book a more attractive proposition.

The key is to get yourself out there and become known. If you’re feeling a bit hesitant about this, or perhaps reticent about stepping into even a niche limelight, it could be a barrier – it isn’t really possible to publish successfully without being willing to do that. Publishers will expect you to be proactively involved in marketing your book, whether that’s via book signings, webinars, events, readings or social media.

There are lots of good resources online about how to build an author brand, so do check those out to begin with.

Querying can be a long and challenging process, but having profile can help.

All of this applies to self-publishing too – even more so, as going it alone doesn’t have the support of a publisher’s lovely marketing or PR people. The good news is you can always engage digital marketing and other specialists to help you strategise; publishing packagers offer this service too.

So don’t rule that option out either, if you’re willing to put in the time and finance. Creative control is what you gain by self-publishing.

The main thing is getting your wonderful knowledge out there and working in the world!

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