Creating a Narrative for Yourself
I ran a program called Launch Lab for some years about how new authors can market themselves (Celeste Ng was in it for her debut). I always counsel authors to think deeply about what they want from the book launch in both personal and career terms. Goals BEYOND “selling lots of copies.” Get specific about hopes and dreams. Then, think about your strengths and weaknesses, and how to lean into doing things (activities like appearances and writing essays) that give you joy. Try some of the things you’re afraid of, too (you never know—I thought I’d die on live TV and I was wrong). Beyond that, get strategic about your efforts. It’s a lot to handle, but if you start with what you want to achieve and what you like doing, at least you have a helpful framework.
After publishing over 30 books (mostly for kids), I’ve had some flop and some do very well, but one thing remained true when thinking about promotion for all of them: it was always helpful to lift up other writer’s work. When I have a book coming out, I think about what book’s it’s in conversation with, what recent or forthcoming books I’m loving that connect in some way, and then I make sure to hype them wherever I can. For one thing, it eases the angst that comes with feeling like I’m in painful and endless self promotion mode. It also feels good. Promoting a book is lonesome often embarrassing work and lifting others up while you do it makes it less lonely and definitely less cringe. Plus it helps other authors. Readers like book recommendations and if they learn to trust your taste maybe they’ll trust you enough to buy your work too. Maybe other writers pay it forward or back and hype you up sometimes. Even if not, it’s still feels good to lift up another author, no matter the impact it has on your own sales. And in this business, which is hard, we gotta make the good feelings where we can.
Thank you for this Jami! I’m in the midst of launch planning now, with my debut memoir coming March 24 through a traditional publishing path. I’m overwhelmed by all the to-do’s. From asking for endorsements to creating a website to planning a book tour. Is the publisher helping? Absolutely. But as my agent said, “when it comes to marketing, the author is the engine and the publisher is the caboose.” Everything I’ve heard and read about the current market is that a book won’t sell itself, the author’s got to do it. I always find your advice to be reliable and on point, and will help me focus my efforts now. Sending gratitude to you that I normally quietly feel.
Very helpful advice, and equally applicable to self-published/Indy-published authors too, I’d say. It can be overwhelming to sort out what’s worth doing and what’s not. Taking control of your own narrative will help cut through the BS, as will setting a few goals beyond sales. For me it was: appearing on the big local literary podcast (thank you Susan Larson), being invited to speak at literary festivals (a blast and very validating), building relationships with indie bookstores and libraries, and having my novel picked up on the book club circuit. The ultimate joy is having readers—friends and strangers—find their way in to the story and attach to your characters.
I’m not a published writer (yet), but this article is extremely helpful! I will use “conversation about my book” (my wip) to take a different angle on the manuscript I’m stuck with. I’ll interview myself (the author) and maybe my characters (the real narrators of their story).
I love this framing ... "That’s what my books are about, a conversation, and that’s what all my surrounding media output is, too."
I also love this self-review ... "How could I make my output more helpful or entertaining or engaging? How could I have a good time with it? How could I make it feel like it wasn’t a waste of my time or anyone else’s?" I think going into the first and last parts of it with an open mind, telling yourself "There is a way to make the product better. Find it." can be very helpful as a final check.
As a commissioning editor for HarperCollins I love it when authors not only feel happy to go out and promote their books but also when they are keen to think about reaching a wide range of audiences. I think we can sometimes fall into quite lazy habits of assuming ‘readers’ only ever hang out in bookshops, but there are so many varied ways to reach people who would be interested in your book. Get creative! My author Sophia Smith Galer published a book about sex misinformation and decided to train as a sex educator specifically so that she could go into schools and provide workshops. It’s always so clear when an author has a genuine passion and desire to meet and support their readership. Let your love of your subject be your North Star!
I’m not an author but do a ton of self promotion for filmmaking and acting. It’s weird (half exciting and half awful) but part of the job. Reviews are a rollercoaster and you can’t control them or people’s responses to them (like your aunt in Texas) and the more I accept the season and have fun w it the less intimidating it gets each time (kinda like prom). Also I have known years without anything to promote so that helps me get into the spirit of doing it too. Congrats and good luck.
Thank you for this generous and sumptuous post! signed up to your event and looking forward to seeing you in Paris very soon! (i'm on an artist residency there so your words feel like extra balm as i re-centre my writing) 🙋🏽♀️💜
I will be in Paris on May 16 -- it's my last day here, and going to your talk will be a wonderful way to end the trip. Can't wait!
Hi Jami, You don't know me from Steve (rather than 'Adam' ha ha) but my day job is developing websites and I noticed your own squarespace website is not using an SSL certificate. It makes your site load as an unsecure one, which will cause google to ding you on your SEO score for not upgrading to s as in https as in https://www.jamiattenberg.com/ . I love your work and esp 1000wordsofsummer so thought maybe I could help you with this one thing. You can do it for free in squarespace. If you want my help, let me know. I do such things allll the time.
Such a brilliantly helpful post, thank you! I’m looking forward to part two...
Hi there, chiming in with a bit of an add on to what Alex said. Find your tribe. Who do you love reading? Follow them on socials. What have you been reading? Post about it and tag their publisher and their socials. Comment (in a totally genuine way) on someone else's post about a book they've read. If you have genuine themes in your story, create a storyboard of posts you can roll out from about 4 months before publication to peak reader interest. And yes, you do really need a website so that podcasters and book bloggers can find you. And it's especially important to make sure you have downloadable assets, such as a couple of professional (preferably) or decent headshots in portrait and landscape and a short bio (100 words) they can cut and paste. And if you do have upcoming events, have an events page and post about it on socials. I could go on 😊😊😊
Who knew that 37 years after I left college that I would return to writing as my love.
Who knew it would save me from a soul-crushing year in my career that brought me to my knees, taught me humility and gratitute for the nineteenth or twentieth time I needed to learn it in my life.
Who knew it would be just what I needed to give myself permission to turn away from the trappings of success and to learn that they can be yanked from underneath my feet even as I try to dig my toes in and press my heels hard into the earth like a good yogi, but that it still ends up being too much for my body to stop the movement and shift that's happening beneath me.
Why has it taken decades to figure out that, in order for a story to bloom, I can't merely bang it out on the keyboard when it pushes against the corner of my brain demanding to be heard, but rather it needs time to bump against and fill the crevasses that have been left unattended in the garden. I've been sweeping the corners of my garden and rooms and brain which all feel the same, scratching the bristles of the brush against the tiny corners that I usually ignore because who does that anyway, the deep cleaning? Isn't that left to people who give a shit about small details?
But then I remember that, in order to get this book finished so it resembles something like a shitty first draft, that it's my job to grab an old toothbrush and dig into those corners. To make friends with it instead of thrashing about in a wrestling match between time and stillness. To smash those bristles against the wood of the siding and clear out the muck so I can see the corners as they looked when they were new and fresh. As much as my jumpy brain resists this kind of focused work it feels necessary right now. I don't know if it's the pandemic or my age or my kid's age or just the change of seasons to spring that is making me feel this way, but there it is.
I want to crawl inside my book and live there for at least a few weeks, but then the rest of my life would suffer. So, that's really what it is, how to go all in with something that is burning inside while at the same time holding the rest of our lives together so we can march on. On through today that greets me with red printed sheets floating on a clothesline in the field that make me really smile inside, or the chickens clucking in the yard alongside my fears that this thing, this idea might die inside me without ever seeing the full light of day that it deserves. Even if no one reads it but my sister and husband, then I can really say I've done it since it's out there. Whatever it ends up looking like.
What is your it? That's mine.
So my agent sent my book on submission this week. Any advice on what to do so I don’t freak out about it.
Perfect timing again, as I prepare for my memoir to launch in September. I spent many years doing this sort of thing with authors when I was an editor and marketing coordinator at a small press. It is *so* weird to be doing it for myself. Love all the great comments too. Deep breaths, all. Thx.