On this month's Special Page:

Bram Stoker Award-winner Tim Waggoner tells writers how to promote their books successfully and professionally (without spamming anyone).


JG Faherty
James Longmore
Nancy Kilpatrick
Kathe Koja
Joe R. Lansdale

Tim Waggoner

Tim Waggoner has published over fifty novels and seven collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. He’s a three-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award, has won the HWA’s Mentor of the Year Award, and been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, the Scribe Award, and the Splatterpunk Award. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.


by Tim Waggoner


I’ve been writing for forty years now, and in that time I’ve published over fifty novels, seven collections of short stories, and three nonfiction books. Publishing has changed a lot in the last four decades – the decline of traditional publishers, the rise of the small press, the advent of ebooks, and the increased presence of indie authors. But one thing hasn’t changed: If you want people to read your book, you have to make sure they know it exists and that it’s worth their money and time. And you’ve got competition for readers’ attention – a lot of it. According to Steven Piersanti, Senior Editor, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, “By 2019, the total number of books published in the U.S. exceeded 4 million in that year alone – including both self-published books and commercially published books of all types.” For some perspective, when I started writing in the early eighties, “at least 48,793 book titles were published in the U.S.,” according to Publishers Weekly.

Big change, huh?

If you don’t promote your book – hell, even if you do – there’s an excellent chance no one will ever hear about it, let alone buy and read it. It’s all about visibility. You need to find ways to make your book stand out in a sea of other books.

You need to promote, whether you like it or not. So let’s talk about some ways to do it.

Book Promotion is an Absolute Necessity

  • The vast majority of traditionally-published writers would rather spend their days creating and let their publishers’ publicity department handle the icky job of promoting their books. But larger publishersspend the bulk of their publicity money promoting writers who’ve already proven their work sells. There’s a greater return on investment that way. With new writers, publishers may do a little promotion, but they basically let the book sink or swim on its own, and if it has decent enough sales, then they’ll put some money into promoting the author’s next book. And if that sells well, they’ll put more money into promoting the third book, and so on. Writers think of publishers as partners in an artistic enterprise, and they are. But publishing is also a business. (Although small-press publishers are more interested in art than money. That’s why they’re small.)
  • Besides, even if your publisher does promote your book, no one else will champion you like you. You are your own best salesperson, so if you want your book to sell, you better start hustling.

Core Principles of Book Promotion

  • Consider what you’ll write. If you want people to read your book, then you need to write a book that people want to read. The more marketable your book is, the easier it will be to market it. Makes sense, right? SF writer John Scalzi started out by going to a bookstore, checking out the science fiction section, and determining which books seemed to be selling the best. He decided military SF was, so he went home and began writing Old Man’s War, which sold well and was nominated for a Nebula Award and optioned for film and TV. But John’s an avowed commercial writer. What if your intentions are primarily artistic? If that’s the case, then you’re going to have a harder time marketing your book. You’ll need to convince people that it’s something they want to read, and even then, you may end up with a smaller audience than if you wrote more commercial fiction. If that’s okay with you, then it’s no problem. But if you want to try to make a living from writing, you may need to find a way to balance your artistic and commercial ambitions.
  • Market to your audience. If you write a horror novel, you should market it to horror readers. There’s no point in trying to convince non-horror readers that they will love your book if they just give it a try. Sure, maybe a few will, but the vast majority of readers overall will have no interest in your book and never will. If your horror novel falls squarely in a subgenre, such as extreme horror, quiet horror, cosmic horror, etc., you need to market to fans of that subgenre. Work to identify your target audience, find them on social media, advertise on websites and in magazines they read, do interviews in magazines, on websites and podcasts that focus on your subgenre. I don’t drink alcohol much, so every advertisement for alcohol is wasted on me. I do, however, read a ton of fiction, especially horror. So any book advertisement will catch my attention, and horror book-related advertisements will definitely get me interested. Finding your audience and marketing to them directly is the single best thing you can do to promote your book (aside from writing a kick-ass novel in the first place, of course).
  • Focus on what you can give readers, not on what you can get from them. If all you give readers are ads for your book, you’re marketing efforts are worthless. People are constantly inundated with ads, and they’ve learned to ignore them. So you need to give them something to get their attention. Run giveaway contests, do book, movie, or TV reviews, make humorous or interesting posts on social media, be a contributing member of your genre’s community, etc. See what other writers give their readers and adopt what they do. Along with being a writer, I’m a writing teacher, so I write articles, blog posts, and make videos giving writing advice. I also do a book giveaways in my newsletter.
  • At its core, promotion is about creating awareness of you and your product. People buy products/services from people they like, so you need to sell yourself as much as your book. Readers, agents, publishers want an author, not just a book.
  • People respond best to visuals, so use as many visual techniques in your promotional efforts as possible.
  • Don’t spam. Flooding message boards and social media discussions with constant sales messages – without taking time to become a contributing member of those communities – not only irritates people, but it actively works against you by creating negative associations with you and your book.
  • Don’t be a jerk on social media, email, or in person. And don’t respond angrily to negative reviews. There’s no faster way to derail a writing career than presenting yourself as an emotionally unstable asshole. Agents, publishers, readers, and reviewers won’t go near you if you’re toxic. So try to be the best version of yourself when you’re out there engaging with the public and promoting your work.
  • Read the room. Be sensitive to the emotional environment at the time you try to promote your book. If a terrible tragedy has just occurred somewhere, and you post a cheery buy-my-wonderful-book message, you’ll come across as insensitive and self-centered. Recently, there was an uproar in the online horror community about a novel dealing with a plague designed to kill only white people. Given the increased racial tensions in America over the last few years, a premise that might have seemed problematic in the past sounds like a blatant message of white supremacy now. Sometimes it’s best to wait for the right time to promote your book. (And if you want to write about a controversial issue, maybe check with your friends before you devote your time to writing a tone-deaf novel about it.)

When Should You Start Promoting a Book?

  • Several months ahead of the publication date.
  • You can continue to promote a book as long as you like after the publication date, but eventually you’ll have other books coming out and will need to focus on promoting them.
  • It’s best to promote one book at a time, unless you’re promoting a series – and even then, you should focus on the newest release in the series.

Promotion Methods

  • Web page. You need a well-designed web page. It’s an absolute necessity, as it’s your home base on the Internet and connects all your other stuff – social media accounts, YouTube channel, interviews online – in one place. Readers who are shy about connected with you personally will go to your website to learn more about you, as will agents, editors, and conference organizers. Both https://www.thecreativepenn.com/website-email-help/ and https://writetodone.com/creating-author-websites/ are good resources to help you create a website.
  • You need an author bio. If you feel awkward writing one yourself, ask a friend to write one for you. They’ll make you sound great! An author bio is probably one of, if not the, most used promotional tool a writer has. Write a first-person and third-person version. Write different length bios. I have 500, 300, 200, 100, 50, 30, 20, 10, and one sentence-long bios. I also have bios focused on my writing and bios focused on my teaching.
  • You need an author photo, one that you can use for everything – on book jackets, your website, interviews, posters, etc. Look at author photos you admire and use them as inspiration. Hire a professional if you can. My wife’s an artist, and she takes my author photos.
  • Social Media. This is a no-brainer. Social media allows your audience to find you and it allows you to create free marketing messages. You need to offer more than just commercials, though. Common wisdom is that for every sales message you put out on social media, you should put out three non-sales messages. Celebrate other authors’ successes, promote media you enjoy, talk about your writing journey, give advice to newer writers, give your audience some insight into your life (if you’re comfortable doing so). More common wisdom is that you should use social media that work for you, and that you shouldn’t use more than three because it’s too difficult to keep up with more than that. Some writers only use their social media accounts for promoting their work and being part of a literary community. Others feel they must use their platforms to promote social change. Others just post whatever the hell they feel like. You run a risk of alienating some people by posting about hot-button topics like politics and religion, but you do you. Avoid shit-posting or edge-lord posturing to get attention. People will just think you’re an asshole. And don’t try to pick fights with well-known authors to get attention. Again, you’ll just come across as an asshole.
  • Join writers’ organizations. Many writers aren’t joiners. We’re used to doing things by ourselves, and we like it that way. But writers’ organizations can offer all kinds of professional contacts and advice, including on book promotion. The Horror Writers Association is the premier horror organization, but The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, the International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America overlap horror as well.
  • Attending writing conferences – big or small, national or local – can be good marketing opportunities. You can meet fellow writers and readers who may become part of your marketing network and help spread awareness about you and work. You can learn marketing techniques from other writers and what did or didn’t work for them. You can be a panelist, give a reading, or present a workshop. Even if you have only a few credits to your name, you can be a panelist. Just ask the programming committee or fill out the programming questionnaire on the conference’s website. The biggest conferences for horror writers are Stokercon and the World Fantasy Convention. Killercon, Scares That Care, and the newly launched Authorcon are also good ones, as is the Merrimac Valley Halloween Book Festival. Conferences that focus on horror or have horror or genre fiction in general as an element are best. Horror media-focused conferences like HorrorHound or Texas Frightmare can be good places to sell books and gain new fans. Conferences focused on writing overall aren’t bad, but you may not find many horror readers there. Smaller conferences might not have as many networking opportunities – few if any agents or editors there, and fewer writers – but you get more a chance to meet and interact with readers one on one at smaller cons.
  • Readings and signings. Writers think personal appearances are effective ways to market books, but in many ways, they’re inefficient, especially compared to marketing via the Internet, where you have the potential to reach so many more people (and without travel expenses!). But personal appearances do allow you to connect one on one with readers who may become lifetime fans of your work and spread the word about your books to others. That’s a slower way to market, but the more fans you make, the more champions of your work you’ll have throughout your career. And the pre-appearance publicity – posters, fliers, web and email announcements – gets your name out to those people who don’t attend your event. So even if they don’t come, they still might check out your work. Be warned, though. Readings and signings can be a very mixed bag, especially if the host venue hasn’t properly advertised your appearance. I’ve read to large crowds, and I’ve had readings where no one showed up. So if an event turns out to be a failure, don’t let it get you down. Try to learn from it so you can help make your next reading/signing more successful. The best times for horror writers to do events is in October, naturally. Lots of libraries, schools, and bookstores are looking to present spooky programming then. Make sure to reach out to places several months in advance. Introduce yourself to the staff and let them know you’d love to do a Halloween-themed event for them.
  • Blogging isn’t as popular as it once was. Smaller and more frequent social media posts have replaced it for the most part. But if you have the time and energy to write and keep up a blog, it can still be an effective marketing technique. I think blogs are most effective when they have a focus rather than just being a collection of random musings or incidents from your life. Maybe you’re fascinated with urban legends. Make your blog about that. Maybe you struggle with the emotional difficulties of the writing life. Write about that. Maybe you’re into true crime or cryptids or the paranormal or weird/little-known historical faces. Whatever, just as long as your blog focus connects to your writing in some way. And of course, you should promote your work at the end of your blog entries. My blog, Writing in the Dark, focuses on writing advice, with an emphasis on horror writing. Since all I do is write and teach, that focus works well for me.
  • Develop your author persona. You don’t have to go so far as to create an author character that you play in public, but some people do and find it effective. My advice is to be yourself, but a heightened version of yourself. More outgoing than you usually are, more willing to engage in conversation, more proactive about marketing yourself and your work, etc. Having a signature look can work well to differentiate you from other writers and help you stick out in reader’s minds too. Author Michael West always wears black horror movie T-shirts at appearances. Peter Straub wears a suit and tie. Jonathan Maberry wears Hawaiian shirts. Sephera Giron wears cool black gothic-style dresses. I wear what I call my Stupid Author Branding Hat. (I feel kind of dumb wearing it for writing appearances, but it seems to work, so I do it.) Josh Malerman wears a much cooler hat than I do. If your work is intense, you should look intense. If it’s mystical, you should look mystical. If it’s literary, you should look literary. If it’s humorous, you should look (a little) goofy. Try out different looks until you find one that works for you.
  • Newsletters can be a great way to connect with your readers and keep them informed about your latest releases. Sign up for other authors’ newsletters to get a sense of what you’d like to do with yours. Have a sign-up link on your website and in your email signature. Make sure to give readers more than just a commercial for your work. In my newsletter, along with promotional content, I have sections such as What I’m Working On, The Mind of a Horror Writer, The Other Side of the Page, and Writing and Publishing Tips. I put up a sample newsletter of mine on my blog recently. You can view it here: https://writinginthedarktw.blogspot.com/2022/04/sample-newsletter.html. It’s nothing fancy, but it gets the job done. (My wife designed the cool horror writer graphic at the top of it.) I put out my newsletter roughly once a month. Brian Keene puts his out weekly. Some writers put them out only when they have an important announcement to make. I think regular newsletter releases work best. I use Mailchimp for my newsletter, and it works well, although I still need to learn how to use all its features.
  • An email list of your readers and fans is the most powerful marketing tool you can develop. It allows you to directly connect with your audience – the people who are most interested in reading your books. I use my newsletter to directly market to my audience, but some writers collect email addresses at personal appearances, and they may send short email announcement to readers in lieu of or in conjunction with newsletters.
  • Even people who read a lot respond more strongly to visual media, so making videos can be an extremely effective marketing too. You can make and post videos on YouTube, TikTok, on your website, on social media, etc. I have YouTube channel called Writing in the Dark (which I use as a general branding phrase for media I put out), and I talk about horror writing topics primarily. Adam Cesare makes entertaining videos about horror book and movie reviews. Some authors interview other creatives in the horror field. Promoting your own work is of course part of the reason for these videos, but keep the advertising aspect to a minimum. Remember what I said earlier: focus on what you can give your audience, not what they can do for you.
  • Ask for blurbs. Blurbs are short quotes from authors in your field singing the praises of your book, and they can be used on the cover of the book itself, on your website, on promotional materials, etc. Do they work? Nobody – including publishers – has any idea. For me, when I see a blurb on a book from a writer I respect, I will give that book a closer look. How do you get blurbs? Either you or your publisher ask writers. Approach writers who are better known than you are, and avoid asking your best friends in the writing world. It just looks like your friends are blurbing your book because they’re your friends. It helps if you have some kind of relationship on social media with the writers you or your publisher approaches. Don’t feel bad if a writer declines to offer a blurb. Often we’re too busy to read a book and blurb it in a timely manner. And if someone agrees to give you a blurb but in the end isn’t able to, it’s because they got busier than they expected or life events got in the way. (This happens to me sometimes, and I hate it when it does.) Don’t take it personal.
  • Seek out interviews. Approach horror-related media contributors – websites, magazines, podcasts, etc. – tell them about you and your work and offer to do an interview with them/be a guest on their program. Sending your press kit or your premade interview can help introduce you and provide more info about you and your book. Do as many as you can, and even if you get a lot of the same questions, answer them like it’s your first time doing so.
  • Write a premade Q&A interview for media. Create a short list of questions and answers about your book so you have a ready-made interview to give interviewers.
  • Speaking of press kits . . . These are excellent promotional tools for writers. They contain information that media representatives can use on their sites or to get up to speed on you and your career before they interview you. You can get a professional to design one for you, or you can create a simple one on your own (which is what I’ve done). I can email it to people, but I’ve also posted it on my website so people can get the info without contacting me. You can check it out here: https://timwaggoner.com/bio.htm
  • Workshops/classes. Sharing your knowledge and experience not only benefits others and is good literary citizenship, it’s a great way to promote your work. Don’t give the attendees a hard-sell, though. They came to learn, not to listen to what amounts to an infomercial. Have promotional materials they can take home with them, and if the venue allows it, have some books for sale once the workshop is over. Determine what ethical considerations there may be. For example, when I teach a class at my school, I do not promote my work in any way. It’s considered unethical for professors because students might feel pressured to buy your work, and they might even feel they have to buy your work in order to get a good grade. But I have no problem promoting my work when I present workshops at libraries and at conferences. Libraries tend to want you not to sell books on site. Smaller conferences may not care if you sell your own books, but larger ones only allow books to be sold through their onsite bookstore. Check what their preference is.
  • Learn how to give a good reading. Reading your fiction aloud – whether in person at events or in video you post somewhere online – can be a great way for readers to get a sense of your writing and of you as a person. Go to other writers’ readings at conferences, read articles and watch videos on giving good readings, take a speech class or join Toastmasters. Practice reading for friends and family and get tips on how to improve. If, however, reading before others is your absolute nightmare and you’re certain you’ll die the instant you utter a single word, then maybe you should skip giving readings.
  • You can buy ads in magazines (print or web-based), on websites, and on social media. You can make sales posts on social media that are the equivalent of self-designed ads. Do ads you pay for work? Ultimately – like a lot of these techniques – no one knows for sure. But if you are going to buy ads, make sure they appear in places where your target audience will see them.
  • Advance reviews. If you traditionally publish, your publisher will hopefully send out physical or e-copies of ARCs (advance reading copies) to reviewers. But if you’re indie, you’ll need to do it yourself, and for trad-pubbed writers, you will likely get your book into the hands of far more reviewers than your publisher will. If you don’t have physical copies to send out, offer to send electronic copies in various formats. Your publisher will likely send you PDF, EPUB, and mobi files, which you can then send to reviewers. How do you find reviewers? As always, Google is Your Friend. But to save you some time, here’s a link to a list of reviewers on the Bark at the Ghouls site: http://barksbooknonsense.blogspot.com/p/an-easy-guide-to-locating-horror.html Make your own list and keep it updated. Reviewers often post on social media that they’re looking for books to review. When they do, blast your book off to them. Just remember that reviewers don’t owe you a review.
  • Give away free samples, such as a chapter or two on your website, your blog, or in your newsletter. Record a video of yourself reading a chapter and post it on your YouTube channel and/or social media pages. (All with ordering links included, of course.) Readers like getting a peek at a book before they buy it.
  • Netgalley is a great site where reviewers can get access to books a few months before pub date. Hopefully, your publisher has a Netgalley account and will post an e-copy of your book for readers to review. Individuals can have free accounts to use the site and request books to review, but – as the Netgalley site says, “publishers do pay a set-up fee and a monthly subscription rate depending on their number of active books or audiobooks on the site.” You might have to pay the fee yourself, especially if you’re indie, but it might be worth it to you.
  • Add an automatic e-mail signature to your emails that provides a short sales message for your latest book. Example: My latest release is Awesome Book, a pulse-pounding thrill-ride of adventure horror. If you have a cool blurb or review snippet, add that. Always include a link to your website in your email signature too.
  • Fliers, postcards, bookmarks, business cards, etc. Printing various types of promotional material to promote your book can be an effective marketing tool. You can take your promo material with you to events, readings/signings, and conferences. You can also send promo material to conferences you’re not attending, and they’ll put them in the goodie bags they distribute to conference members. (Check conference websites to see if they do this and how much, if anything, it costs.) Vistaprint is one of the best known and most popular printing services on the Internet, and many writers use it to create their promotional material.
  •  Offer some swag! Along with printed promo material, you can order products with your book’s title on them, such as pens, flash drives, mugs, etc. Vistaprint offers these services as well as printing. You can also have small items to giveaway, such as tiny rubber monsters, pens made to look like hypodermic needles, skull-shaped chocolates, etc. All these things are great for personal appearances, and they can be shipped to readers too.
  • Having a sign/banner for your book or for you as a writer overall is vital for when you make personal appearances, especially if you have a sales table at a conference. You want people to be able to find you, right? Plus, a banner can be seen from a distance. When you go to conferences, ask writers where they got their banners from, and take note of which designs you like. Vistaprint makes these as well. If you do a Google image search for “retractable banners for authors”you’ll find a lot of examples.
  • Remember to take pictures and video – a lot of them.(Or have someone else take them for you.) You need pictures for all your promotional efforts – your website, your social media accounts, your newsletter. Whenever you do an event, have a friend or family member take as many pictures of you as they can. Have them take pictures of you writing at home or in the wild, or holding up an author’s copy of a book you wrote or an anthology you’re in. If you like to share some personal pictures of you just living your life, make sure to get those too.
  • Think outside the box. Michael Knost wrote a novel called Return of the Mothman, and he signed copies at a local movie theater that was showing The Mothman Prophecies. He sold a lot of copies that way. Creative promotional ideas like this – ideas specific to your book – can work well.
  • Promote yourself by promoting others. Lift others up and then lift you up. You’ll generate goodwill in your literary community, and your good literary citizenship will be noticed by readers.

Write a Great Synopsis

  • Writers loath writing synopses (I know I do) but they’re one of your most important sales tools.
  • Create synopses of different lengths: ten pages, five pages, three pages, two pages, one page, three paragraphs, one paragraph, one sentence. Admittedly, this is a pain in the ass, but you need different lengths for different purposes. Cover copy, text for your website or Amazon, text for promotional materials like postcards, synopses for agents and editors, text for interviewers, text for your press kit, text for your email signature . . .
  • Develop and practice an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a short verbal description of your novel around thirty seconds long that gives a listener the basic concept and feel of your book and (hopefully) makes them want to learn more. You can use your elevator pitch when talking to interviewers or agents and editors at conferences, but it also helps you discuss your book with potential readers. Practice your elevator speech until you’ve got it down cold and can give it at a moment’s notice. Here’s a resource on how to create a compelling elevator pitch: https://insights.bookbub.com/steps-to-writing-a-killer-elevator-pitch-for-your-book/ 

Understand that Promotion is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

  • You need to get good at two types of promotion: short-term (for one project) vs long-term promotion (for your overall career).
  • There’s no sure way to know that something you try actually works, and you need to make peace with that. No one – not publishers, not agents, and certainly not writers – know for sure what promotion techniques work and how well they work. If they did, these use those surefire techniques all the time. Over time, you can get a sense that your career is growing, and of course you can track sales of individual books, but self-promotion is much more art than science. You want to do everything you can to get the maximum return for your self-promotion efforts, but you also need to understand that there’s a lot of factors you can’t control, no matter how hard you try, and chance plays a large role too. If a promotional effort seems to fail, try not to let it get to you, and move.
  • Do as much promotion as you’re comfortable with – mentally, emotionally, and physically – and don’t beat yourself up for not promoting 24/7.
  • Promoting today’s book also promotes tomorrow’s book, and the book after that. You’re really promoting your career more than you are any one book.Remember that you’re in this for the long haul.

While this article may seem long, it’s merely an overview. If you want to go into more depth about book promotion (and why wouldn’t you?) I recommend the following books:

  • How to Market a Book: Overperform in a Crowded Market, Ricardo Fayet
  • How to Market a Book, Joanna Penn
  • From Book to Bestseller: The Savvy Author's Guide to Book Promotion, Smart Branding, and Longterm Success, Penny Sansevieri
  • Marketing with Teeth, Michael Knost

All of this might seem overwhelming to you, but keep in mind you don’t have to do every single thing possible to market your book. I write and also have a full-time gig as a college writing professor. I don’t do everything that I’ve listed above. If I did, I’d never get any writing or grading done, and I’d burn myself out quickly. Do what you can, what you’re most comfortable with, what works for you. And don’t forget to enjoy your writing time. In the end, your writing – and how it feeds your soul – is the most important thing of all.

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