HomeBlogHow to Promote a Book: 8 Lessons from Bestsellers

How to Promote a Book: 8 Lessons from Bestsellers

Author: Brad Smith
Last Updated: January 25, 2024 | Vertical Marketing Ideas

Publishers publish. They don’t necessarily promote.

They might “distribute” (heavy on the air quotes).

But…to where? Borders?

Oh that’s right. They don’t exist anymore. And good luck finding a Barnes & Noble or any other needle-moving retail chain out there.

You want a bestseller? The fact is, you’re gonna have to roll up your sleeves and make it a bestseller. And you can do that by thinking like a smart marketer.

The time to think about promoting your book is before it comes out. Here’s how to do it, with book promotion lessons learned from bestselling authors who’ve taken matters into their own hands.

1. The Old Guards are Gone. Here’s What to Do Instead

Steven Pressfield, acclaimed author of The Legend of Bagger Vance (among many others), also wrote a book for first-time authors looking to hit it big.

The title? Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t.

How to promote a book Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit Pressman

I’m sure your book is fantastic. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s not going to get the Oprah’s Book Club sticker.

But that’s ok. You don’t need her. You don’t need Oprah. (I know you’re reading this Oprah, so just go with me on this).

What used to be the norm for book promotion isn’t anymore. Instead, a targeted, niche approach will see more results than a traditional “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” campaign.

Michael Ellsberg learned this firsthand after trying out the old ways first:

  • Radio interviews
  • National media
  • And an email blast to a miniscule list

Even after all this, his book didn’t break the 1,000 rank marker on Amazon.

But then his 4-Hour Work Week buddy, Tim Ferriss, came along.

Tim wrote up a blog post featuring Ellsberg and recommending it highly. Within an hour, the book reached 45 on Amazon. It even hit #1 in the Job Hunting and Career Guides section on the site.

In the weeks to follow, Ellsberg tried to capitalize on the increased attention, continuing to do traditional press. Nothing, though, was ever able to give him another boost like Ferriss’s post.

So why did one simple blog post perform better than weeks of tireless promotion?

2. Solo Author Blogs Benefit from the ‘Halo Effect’

The Halo Effect is a real thing.

It’s a cognitive bias that explains why some people (or brands or products) are seen as more credible, smarter, or more attractive than their peers. That’s why Apple gets the benefit of the doubt over Microsoft. Or Samsung, Google, and any of their other competitors for that matter.

The Halo Effect commonly applies to people with devoted followings, too. Like crazy televangelists. And Oprah.

The “Oprah Effect” was coined because if she featured you on her show, you became an overnight sensation.

How to promote a book James Frey Million Little Pieces sales figures Oprah trade paperback edition

Nielsen sales data for James Frey’s heavily embellished memoir, ‘A Million Little Pieces’ in both
hardcover and Oprah Trade Paperback editions

Popular solo-author blogs cultivate the same devotion. Even if their numbers pale in comparison.

One reason is convenience. Get featured on the biggest radio show (I literally cannot name one), and someone still needs to wait until they get home or to the office to remember to look you up.

Online, you’re just a link away. So there’s no delay. Less friction between the devoted reader and the Amazon One-Click to Purchase button.

How to promote a book Amazon One Click button

Ferriss has spent years cultivating a following. So when he recommended Michael Ellsberg’s work, it translated into intense action. (More so than anything CNN or the New York Times was able to generate).

Because Ferriss was appealing to a tight-knit group that was primed and engaged.

Online marketer Beth Hayden agrees, and even goes one step further. If you don’t have a Tim Ferriss type to write for you (and not everyone does), connect with blogs with an audience that looks just like yours. This gives you a chance to claim your status as an expert in your book’s topic and puts your book in front of the right people.

Do a little digging and research high-traffic blogs in your book’s niche. Hayden suggests coming up with a few topic ideas that would connect well with the blog’s readers, and then email the blogger to pitch a guest submission.

3. Your Title Is a Headline. So Test It

In Tom Hanks’ 1996 cult hit That Thing You Do, the fledgling band the “Oneders” are taken under the wing of Hanks’ character, record-label exec Mr. White. Mr. White eventually gives them a fresh look and image, but first deals with the most pressing issue: the band’s baffling name.

How to promote a book Tom Hanks That Thing You Do

“Next, this ‘Oneders,’ with the O-N-E, it doesn’t work. It’s confusing. From now on, you boys’ll just be simply, The Wonders,” White said.

“As in, I wonder what happened to the O’Needers?” quipped bandmate Kenny.

Why am I telling you all this? First, because you should see the movie—it’s great.

But, second, because no one cares about, or understands, your obscure or kitschy title. When it comes to marketing your book, picking a bad title can be catastrophic.

Instead, think of book titles as an ad or article headline. Because they, like book titles, are often the single biggest determinant of who sees your finished work. A great headline entices people to read what’s inside.

How to promote a book children's book parody


Ogilvy once said, “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.

Some headlines will routinely work better than others. That’s why you do things like use power words and headline formulas online to boost your chances of success.

The point is that even book titles should be tested in order to determine what works best, and what should eventually appear on that book cover. A simple Google AdWords test can give you some insight into what your potential reader wants to see. AdWords made all the difference for Tim Ferriss.

How to promote a book Tim Ferriss 4 Hour Work Week

For a quick $200, Ferriss tested six different title and subtitle combinations using AdWords and creating text ads for the titles, monitoring the click-through rates for each.

The 4-Hour Work Week” emerged from what could have been “Broadband and White Sand” or “Millionaire Chameleon.” The winning title and subtitle combo were not even his first choice, proving how important it is to test the market first (instead of relying solely on your own intuition, or worse, your publisher’s).

4. Go to Where Your Most Devoted Target Audience Is

When Lewis Howes of The School of Greatness fame set out to market his book, he knew he needed to identify his audience and then go to every one of their favorite corners of the internet.

He outlined the interests of his readers, their professions, where they lived, and even their age – basically he defined a customer persona. From there, he designed a plan tailored to their interests.

He then created content based on themes and ideas from his book, but more digestible for the format. In other words, he repurposed his content so that it could expand into:

  • Scannable blog posts
  • Pithy social updates
  • Short videos for Instagram and Snapchat
  • Interviews on related podcasts
  • And longer-form clips for YouTube that still stay on message and on brand for the book

James Altucher turned to Reddit when promoting his book Choose Yourself. He hosted an AMA (ask me anything) conversation with the help of marketing agency Brasscheck, and ended up with 3,200 comments and questions between him and interested readers.

How to promote a book Stephen King Reddit AMA

One of the more memorable moments from Stephen King’s Reddit AMA
from several years ago.

“The ability to put a link on the page where people are seeing you talk about your product is really powerful,” said Mignon Fogarty, creator of Grammar Girl and Reddit user.

“It’s much easier to get people to take action online than it is on radio or TV where they have to take that extra step to go to their computer or phone to find the address or page. I really like doing things online where you can provide links to what you’re talking about. It’s very effective.”

5. Incentivize the Action You Want People to Take

Years ago, there was the videotape.

You know, that big, blocky, black thing that would literally have film coiled up inside.

How to promote a book Blockbuster Video store ruins overgrown

You find yourself in a small clearing, in which the ruins of a once-great civilization
are being slowly reclaimed by the vegetation that surrounds them…

Then DVDs started appearing. Not only was the quality superior. But the storage capacity was too.

So in order to actually raise the price, DVDs started offering extra bonus material or footage to those who decided on the more expensive purchase.

In other words, consumers were incentivized to spend a few more dollars than they were used to.

James Altucher did a good job going to where his audience was in order to promote his book. But then he took it one step further with a too-good-to-be-true incentive.

Altucher created a special Slideshare to promote his latest book (to business people).

On Slideshare, authors can upload their own PowerPoint presentations and visitors to the site can search for slide decks by keyword or topic. Good presentations should be full of pictures and exclusive snippets from the book.

Altucher did all of that. But then at the very end, he included a call to action, promising the reader their money back if they could prove they bought and read the book.

How to promote a book Slideshare presentation

In other words, he was creating his own echo-chamber, incentivizing people to leave reviews (that would only help to expose others to his work) and further cultivating the relationship with his audience.

6. Establish Your Own Halo Effect By Recording an Audiobook

Initially, a professional voice actress was going to perform Geraldine DeRuiter’s memoir.

Geraldine was a first-time author. And this was like “standard procedure.”

However, Geraldine didn’t like the idea. She’d spent years building a loyal audience at her blog The Everywhereist. The story was personal. And so she wanted the performance for listeners to be personal, too.

Recording your own audiobook is like the equivalent of someone having a conversation with you for ~10 hours during their commutes.

How to promote a book audiobook concept

That was no small hurdle, though. She had to convince her agent. Who then had to convince her publisher, Hachette. When they relented, it took another 18-23 hours of studio recording time.

But it was worth it.

In the first three quarters of 2016, audiobook sales have continued to climb by nearly 30 percent.

And with everyone carrying around a portable library in their pocket (thank you iPhone!), audiobooks are becoming more the norm. In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently called audiobooks the “fastest growing format in publishing.”

Even Altucher saw a 500% profit on his initial investment to record an audiobook.

How to promote a book book sales by format 2015 to 2016

Recording your own audiobook is a powerfully simple way to establish your expertise in your field. Your reader is not just seeing your words, but hearing them come out of your mouth. It’s like listening to a good friend give you advice or tell you an interesting story.

Is this thing on? Get recording!

Put that smooth, buttery voice of yours out there for all to hear! Embrace the age of the multitasker and give “readers” the opportunity to listen to your book while doing one of their 42 other tasks for the day.

7. Sell Your Writing Better with through a Visual Book Trailer

Tim Ferriss had dabbled with book trailers in the past.

But for the release of The Four Hour Chef, he had two professional trailers created with the help of an ad agency.

The extra expense was worth it in the end, generating 1.5 million and 550 thousand views respectively. Here’s what Tim had to say about the process:

“The [previous] book trailers were all fairly dry and they were relatively low budget; maybe there was some sort of Animoto type text being used. I wanted to make a book trailer that from a cinematic standpoint looked just like a movie trailer.”

Tim pointed to the success of other cooking-related online properties, like Epic Meal Time (and their three million subscribers), as evidence of these “micro communities” that are rabid online.

Joanna Penn, of The Creative Penn, sees five obvious benefits of book trailers:

  1. Videos are popular
  2. They are easy to share
  3. They help the reader get to know you
  4. They keep your book fresh in the reader’s head
  5. They can be easy to make and don’t require further investment.

You don’t necessarily need a Michael Bay Transformers-level budget to create a quality trailer. Write the script for the video and pick the photos you want to include. If you’ll be featured on screen, come up with a good location or backdrop for filming. Wistia has everything you need to create a DIY studio.

How to promote a book book trailer shoot

And if your production skills aren’t Oscar-caliber just yet, there are lots of apps and programs out there that take the guesswork out of the final product.

Finally, make sure people actually see your book trailer! You can promote your video through platforms like Facebook.

8. Get as Many Reviews as Possible

You’ve found who’s gonna read your book. You’ve found who they follow (and who will tell them to read your book). And you’ve found where they find out about your books.

Now, find the people who’re gonna talk about your book.

How to promote a book How to Avoid Huge Ships


How to promote a book How to Avoid Huge Ships review

Classic Amazon reviews

A Dimensional Research study found that 90% of those surveyed consider positive reviews when making a purchasing decision. And the more reviews you have, the higher your book goes in the Amazon search rankings. So play the algorithm-game and get as many stars as humanly possible.

Start with the low-hanging fruit.

You should have advance copies at the ready (whether galley editions or simple digital copies) for readers from previous books or publications.

From there, connect with Amazon’s top reviewers. Their reviews are highly-valued and can be the push that your book needs. Top reviewers are public domain on Amazon, and you can search for those who write reviews in your book’s topic or genre. Milena Canizares of Blurb.com suggests coming up with a list of 100 or more in hopes of walking away with 25 or so reviews.

How to promote a book Amazon reviews

Explore outside of Amazon, too, to connect with book bloggers who would be willing to read and review your book. You can search a nerdy SEO tool like Followerwonk to find niche-specific bloggers on Twitter.

How to promote a book Followerwonk

And Blogmetrics.com will rank bloggers, so you can prioritize which ones will come with the most cachet and biggest following.

Where the Hell is Tesla author Rob Dirks used this method to help sell 10,000 copies of his book. By his own account, no one knew he was, and yet he was able to self-publish and sell lots of books. On his publish day, he had already lined up 25 reviews to be live on Amazon. He gave free books to reviewers and reaped the rewards of credibility of having others confirm his book’s quality.

See Your Name on the Bestseller List

Authors can’t afford to write anymore.


Instead, the promotion-monkey is now falling squarely on the backs of authors themselves. And because of your already jam-packed schedule (of you know, actually writing the damn book in the first place), you need a viable, repeatable promotion system.

Start by recognizing the ramifications. And how you’ll need to find the new influencers, like solo author blogs within your niche, who’ll promote your book to those that matter most.

You can also take a cue from mainstream digital marketing campaigns, like testing your headlines, repurposing content for different formats (even video), and then incentivizing them to leave reviews that will help bring in brand new people in the future.

It’s not easy. It takes time and tons of effort. But it also means that the ultimate success of your soon-to-be bestseller is entirely within your own control.

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Meet The Author

Brad Smith

Brad Smith is the founder of Codeless, long-form content creators for SaaS companies. Their work has been featured in The New York Times, Business Insider, TheNextWeb, Shopify, Moz, Unbounce, HubSpot, Search Engine Journal, and more.


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