All the information from our handouts is below, but you can also download the timeline handout here (pdf).
I Sold It! Now What?
Writers expend tremendous energy on selling their books. But once a manuscript has been sold, there’s a year or more before publication, and the work of editing and promoting has just begun. How can writers make the best use of this time? What are the most important steps in the pre-publication process? Can you really “build a platform” in a year? An author, an agent, an editor, and a publicist discuss both the small- and large-press experience and outline the path to a successful launch day.
AUTHOR: Anjali Sachdeva’s debut, the short story collection All the Names They Used for God, was published in 2018 by Spiegel & Grau. She writes fiction and nonfiction and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and the MFA program at Randolph College. See more at anjalisachdeva.com
PUBLICIST: Alyson Sinclair is a freelance literary publicist and founder of Nectar Literary. Alyson worked in-house at FSG, City Lights, and McSweeney’s before starting her own book publicity business in 2014. Her focus is publicity for fiction/nonfiction/poetry titles and book festivals. Find Nectar online at nectarliterary.com and social @nectarliterary. (email@example.com)
EDITOR: Olivia Taylor Smith is the Co-Founder and Executive Editor of Unnamed Press, an independent publisher of contemporary literature from the United States and around the world. See more at www.unnamedpress.com.
AGENT: Sarah Levitt is a literary agent at Aevitas Creative Management who specializes in narrative nonfiction and literary fiction. Her list includes journalists, academics, historians, scientists, and musicians, among others. See more at aevitascreative.com and @slevittslevitt.
1. What are the main steps between selling a book and the day the book goes on sale?
Please see detailed timeline below.
1.a. What should/could your agent and publicist be doing for you in the year that the book is being prepared for publication?
1.b. What should/could you as author be doing for the book in the year of publication?
Sinclair: Authors need to be prepared to meet their delivery deadline and be ready to work on rounds of revisions with their edit. We’ll talk about publishing schedule, publicity schedule, and early publicity outreach.
Cultivate your network and raise your platform; make sure you’re findable through a website or other social media.
Smith: I would say only use social media if you genuinely love it, and enjoy being connected to other writers. I think it’s important to think about how you can use your point of view -- what makes you and your story unique/interesting? What are the essays you can write to promote your book, and how can you position yourself as an expert?
I think the answer to this also really depends on how much editorial work the manuscript needs. Before signing a contract I’ll have a conversation with the author to ensure we are on the same page as far as the direction we’d like to take the manuscript, and then when the contract is signed the work commences! Revisions can go on between 2 to 10 months, it really depends on the individual title.
Sachdeva: I was surprised by how much time I needed to set aside for various things related to publication: updating my website, re-writing the introduction to the book, asking (and reminding) family and friends to spread the word, scheduling interviews, writing articles (as a way to ‘get my name out’), requesting blurbs, and also making editorial and proofreading changes to the manuscript. Because my book was being published by a large publisher (Penguin Random House), I was fortunate to have a great publicist who was reaching out to many publications and outlets for me to try to get media coverage, so I did not have to do that. But I’ve known other authors who published with a small press and hired their own publicist out of pocket. I have to say that having seen what my publicist did for me, I don’t think I’d have been capable of doing even 10% of that on my own.
2. How do you choose a book cover, and what should you be looking for in a great cover? What should a writer or agent be advocating for, and what does a publisher want?
Smith: I’ll describe the book and a general direction to our srt director who will then develop a few different cover options and styles. Then she’ll probably revise them again before we show what we think are the best options to the author. We do like to see our authors are partners in this process, and want to make sure they are happy. Once we have the author’s blessing, we take it to our sales team at our distributor Publishers Group West for feedback. One important thing to keep in mind is that by the time you are seeing a cover design, it has probably gone through many iterations, and a lot of thought and care has gone in to it. It’s almost an impossible task -- to distill all of the ideas, characters, and emotions, in this manuscript you’ve been working on into one single image, and I promise you your publisher is trying to match your book with the best possible cover, that’s unique to your work but also will extend beyond it, to reach readers.
Anjali: I had no idea what to look for going in, and it was really a learning experience. I got great guidance from my agent (Sarah Levitt) who was adamant about getting a cover that I really loved and also a cover that would be attention grabbing and “Instagrammable.” Things I never thought of: a cover has to look good as a thumbnail. It has to photograph beautifully so that people will share it via social media. My publisher was also concerned that because my book has the word “God” in the title, people might think that it was a religious book. So they wanted a cover that would counteract that perception. We went through several different options before settling on the current version as we were getting close to the deadline. I always felt rude asking for another version—after Rachel Ake, the wonderful artist who did all the covers, just put a bunch of work into creating another version!--but it’s the kind of thing where you really have to advocate for yourself, and my agent was great about encouraging me to do that (and stepping in for me when I was too wishy-washy). I have friends who ended up with covers they really hated because their publisher was inflexible, but mine (Spiegel & Grau) was great and really wanted me to be happy. More than anything else in the publication process, this caused me great anxiety, but I was so pleased with the result.
3. If you have a big online presence, how should you use it in the time leading up to publication? If you don’t have a big online presence, what are the most important steps to take that you can reasonably implement in a year?
4. What are other steps you can set up to help promote your book, aside from social media posts? Do bookstore events/readings “work”? What are creative ways to get the word out that you yourself or you and a publishing team can think about?
Sachdeva: I don’t have a big online presence, and knew I wouldn’t be great at cultivating one, so I tried to focus on writing articles and doing interviews to get my name in the media in other ways. I also signed up to do a lot of college and even high school visits. College visits typically need to be booked 9 months to a year ahead of time, or even sooner, so it’s worth thinking about before your book comes out (though if it’s your first book it’s hard to get people interested before you have some press, unless your book has a very specific and unusual topic that appeals to people). I also realized that I had to just start talking to people about my book as much as I could, something I don’t like to do when I’m writing the book (just as a personal preference). This not only helped me spread the word but also gave me practice at pitching the book; the first few people I described it to just kind of said ‘huh’ but I got better responses over time.
5. How important are pre-sales, and how can you get them?
Sachdeva: My editor told me not to worry too much about pre-orders, that at this point they don’t expect to see many of them until a few weeks before the on-sale date. But that doesn’t apply to a smaller press.
Sinclair: Pre-orders are really important because they help us determine the initial print run.
6. What are some potential pitfalls, and how can writers deal with them (e.g. your editor leaves, someone else comes out with a very similar book, etc.)?
Sinclair: Be your own publicist, as best as you can.
Smith: When we found out that FSG was going to be publishing a book with a similar topic as my author’s, my author panicked at first, but then he read the novel, and saw how different the two books really were. So he actually interviewed the author for a newspaper! There are ways to find connections and build community even when you least expect them.
Timing: Publicity / Marketing Action
6-7+ months before pub
Publishers usually send out an author questionnaire. Incredibly important for setting the tone and helping the publisher formulate how to frame your book to booksellers, media, and potential readers.
Create and fine tune basic publicity and outreach plans for title. *What media outlets and reviewers to target, cities the author plans/is willing to travel. Find out the travel budget (if any) from publisher.
Publisher should set up phone call or in person meeting to talk through the plans and get a sense of what the author is comfortable with: how much time do they have to collaborate? What is their schedule and availability like? Are they good with social media?
Once you have a cover and pre-order link, begin to share the good news and encourage pre-orders.
4-5 Months Before Publication
Publisher sends bound or e-book copies of the book with press release to all relevant long-lead media, influencers, and potential event spaces.
Pre-mailing pitches and follow-up with long leads (mostly print media on a monthly+ schedule), 2-3 weeks after the mailing.
Blurbs begin to come in and should be shared widely.
Make sure the book appears with proper cover, description, price, and author bio on all e-retailer sites (Indiebound, B&N, Google, Amazon are top sites). If there are any issues with the e-retailer feeds, distributor can provide guidance for fixes.
If author has a website and/or social presence (including Goodreads) make sure that the info is up and appears correctly in these spaces as well.
If you are booking author events, this is the time to set those up.
1-3 Months Before Publication
Follow-up with contacts who received the galley to secure advance reviews, features, interviews, and events.
Ideally, early advance copies will be available to mail out 4+ weeks before the publication date. Supplement the galley list and send top-tier contacts from galley list finished books
Share media hits, good quotes, and links with distributor/sales. Keeping them informed of press + tour helps them sell the books and helps them advise monitor stock + event orders (ONGOING)
Check-in with short lead reviewers to let them know about the book and that they’ll receive a copy of the final book
Follow-up with indie booksellers for feedback and to encourage Indie Next and regional picks
Pitch or follow-up with any local/regional media for all tour cities about 1-month before their scheduled event.
Create (or add to events feed) Facebook events for each public event. Make sure to tag and invite author/artist and venues. Encourage them to share too.
1 Month Before Publication
Pitch and follow-up with all relevant media contacts and influencers in advance of launch to secure as much coverage as possible at launch date. Also, do targeted outreach in the markets where your events are held to boost attendance. Share pre-pub reviews and other good media hits with the venues to give them additional reasons to push event + book on social media.
Make sure to celebrate the publication day in multiple ways: e-blast, social media, etc. and encourage the author to do the same.
As much as possible, all media + marketing to peak in the weeks following launch.
1 Month After Publication
Follow-up with all relevant media contacts to secure additional coverage.
Continue outreach in markets where author has forthcoming events
Continue sharing good press hits with publisher/distributor and on social media
2 Months after Publication & beyond
Realistically, unless the tour is ongoing for months after pub OR you really luck out with a big seller and/or there is a newsworthy hook, the window for press attention shrinks considerably after pub month. HOWEVER, there are opportunities like year-end and topic-specific gift lists and roundups where you’re book may appear later on. Also, poetry isn’t usually seen as “time-sensitive,” reviews usually continue to role in up to 2 years after the original release date.
Continue to push on social and come up with other ways to remind people about the title occasionally. Take part in events and conversations. Take part in the community in a way that doesn’t drain you and pull you away from your writing goals.
Helpful articles and resources:
Lit Hub Ask the Publicist’s “What’s the One Thing I can Do for My Book”
Poets & Writers "How Independent Publicists work with authors"
Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast “How Literary Publicity Works” (audio)