When I first connected with James Morehead for a consulting call, he was planning to publish his first book of poetry, canvas: poems. That was in February of 2021 and the book was published in June of 2021.
I thought James’s story was important to share for two reasons. First, he was committing to pre-release marketing by giving himself enough time to build up awareness with other influencers.
Second, I could tell James was willing to experiment. This is especially important for new authors, who often begin with no readership to speak of.
During the months before and after his release, James has been regularly sharing updates with me on his progress and successes. I’m excited that he agreed to answer several questions and provide those details here in the hopes they will help other new authors.
1. Did you establish a budget for marketing? Can you share those details?
While my ultimate goal is readers, not revenue, I’m thinking about every expense in terms of how many books I’ll need to break even. The initial book production, including hiring a designer, cover artist, copy editor, photographer (for a book-appropriate profile photo), consulting services (from AuthorImprints), and advance-reader expenses (printing and mailing proofs, custom bookmarks), was under US$5,000. Overall, including marketing, I wanted to keep the total investment under $10,000.
My approach with marketing expenses has been to try many things at a low cost—and then double down when I find something that works consistently. Again, leaning into advice David provided during our consulting meetings, my focus right now is on readers, not revenue. Here are some of the things I’ve tried:
- Goodreads Giveaways: I’ve done this twice (the second Giveaway is in progress right now). A Giveaway costs $119 and I’m giving away five signed copies of canvas. The first Giveaway, which ran for a month, had the following results:
- Entrants: 1,215
- Goodreads “Want to Read” Shelvings: 1,088
- Winners: 5
The total cost was $119 plus book costs (approximately $2.50 per book) plus shipping (approximately $5 per book). It’s difficult to connect the dots between this promotion and direct sales but my goal is readers, and more than 1000 people have had some level of engagement and awareness of my book.
- Amazon Ads: I’ve been experimenting with Amazon promo ads and have spent about $75 so far—unfortunately without any direct sales attributed to ad clicks, but my understanding is it takes a month or two for the flywheel to start spinning. If the trend continues for another month, however, I will likely pause Amazon Ads.
- Bookstores: Getting placed in local bookstores doesn’t cost money, but it does take time. I’ve been successful getting local bookstores to carry a few copies of my book through targeted outreach—walking into the store and asking for the owner (who will usually be working). I bring a copy of my book, a sell sheet, and the custom bookmarks I created through Vistaprint. Having my book on both Kindle Direct Publishing and Ingram Spark is important because the first question I’m asked is whether or not the book can be wholesaled through Ingram. For stores I visit in person, I agree to come back and sign copies when the shipment arrives.
- Website: I built a website for my imprint (https://viewlesswings.com) and documented the self-publishing experience in a series of articles. Building up traffic to a website is a long-term play that is close to free in dollars and expensive in time but has lasting value.
- Publishers: I was able to secure three interviews through targeted outreach to local publishers. My pitch wasn’t “I have a new book” but rather “the first-time author experience” and “writing during a pandemic.” I made my pitch more universal (and then talked about my book).
The biggest single marketing expense to date, which was unplanned and serendipitous, has been having an animation created for my poem “tethered.” I worked with an Italian animator, and all-in, including editing expenses, the animation cost $4,000. I’m not, realistically, going to measure the success of that investment as a pure marketing expense because the animation isn’t transient; it’s a permanent creation that will help get my name established. I’m now submitting the animated short film (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tQlmC7EiYk) to festivals around the world. I also plan to use the film as a “calling card” when pitching speaking engagements at events.
2. Can you give us an idea about your use of social media?
Because of my day job, I have built up a large network of friends and colleagues. I am active on many social networks but have the largest following on LinkedIn. I already had an active Twitter account for myself, so I created a public Instagram profile for my imprint, Viewless Wings. . I also created a Viewless Wings TikTok account as an experiment, and while the videos I’ve posted there consistently have hundreds of views, the effectiveness of generating readers isn’t clear. Building a following on social networks takes time, and paying for followers will result in follows by poor-quality accounts, not readers. I’m experimenting with low-dollar-investment Instagram promotions, because I can target promos to people interested in poetry; it’s too early to gauge the impact.
3. Did you distribute advance reader copies (ARCs)of your book? Did you send eBook, print, or both? How did you go about doing this and what were the results?
My advance-reader program was a success. I built up a base of 50 advance readers, mostly in the US, but several in Canada and overseas. US-based advance readers each received a “kit,” including a signed copy of the book, custom bookmarks, and a custom wax-sealed and personalized letter. I used Mailchimp to share periodic updates with my advance readers. The result (so far) is 12 high-quality reviews on Goodreads, 10 on Amazon, and several more on Barnes & Noble. As of this writing, a month after publication, and based on a survey I issued after launch, I can expect several more reviews in the month ahead. I was also able to secure several high-quality blurbs by networking: everyone I met or knew heard about my book months before launch. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be evangelizing your book at every opportunity.
4. Did your city have a history of appointing a poet laureate? How did you make this happen?
Dublin, California, had a poet laureate a decade ago, and for a variety of reasons, there was a gap. One of my advance readers made me aware of the poet laureate application, and through my advance readers, I had a strong foundation of support for my application. The process was competitive, and having a book (published or soon to be published) was a prerequisite.
5. Related to the previous question, this is another nice “calling card.” Has it opened doors?
Having the “badge” of poet laureate has benefited my outreach to organizations, including starting a Poetry & Pizza Open Mic at a popular pizza place in our community. When I meet with local bookstores, it’s the first thing out of my mouth, and it’s the first thing I mention in my cold-call emails. I’m also getting opportunities to perform poet laureate duties with local businesses (organizing a restaurant poetry walk is one example). My book is a terrific source of published material that I can re-purpose for use at events.
6. What are some other ways you are going “beyond the book” to market your poems?
Leading up to the book launch, and ongoing, I’m participating in poetry open mics across the country (all virtual because of COVID-19). At these events, which can range from 15 people to 150, speakers are encouraged to show their books and share links.
As noted above, in my role as poet laureate, I’m starting monthly poetry open mics in my local community, and I’ll have myself filmed at such events whenever possible and use that video for promotional purposes.
Finally, I just started a podcast, inspired by several of my advance readers who were very interested in the backstory of my poetry. Creating a podcast is essentially free—just costs time—through services like Spotify’s Anchor.fm. This is a longer-term play that will take months to assess.
7. You mentioned in our online conversations that you've been surprised by the length of the feedback loop. What did you mean by that? What should new authors expect?
My day job is intensely metrics-focused and has real-time feedback. The feedback loop with book sales is the opposite of real-time. Neither Kindle Direct Publishing nor Ingram Spark provides real-time metrics for physical book sales. KDP doesn’t share orders placed—just orders shipped—so there is a lag of up to a few days (longer for international sales). With Ingram Spark there is a 30-day running window, and you can ask for an aggregate report. It’s very hard, therefore, to connect the dots between a marketing experiment and impact. As a result, I’m trying not to overlap experiments, so that I can gauge what’s working and what isn’t. Using a service like https://tinyurl.com can help you understand where clicks are going. There’s an even bigger delay for bookstore sales; one local bookstore didn’t get the copies they ordered for over two weeks.
My advice is to treat everything as a long-term play. A book like mine is evergreen, so my goal is to steadily build a base of readers and grow from there. I might not break even on my first book, but the success of my first book, as reflected in the number of quality readers, will lead to being published many more times. Ultimately, that’s my goal.
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About James Morehead
James Morehead is currently the Poet Laureate of the City of Dublin, California. He's a product manager by day, poet by night. His debut collection is canvas: poems. While attending the University of Waterloo for computer engineering, he took every English course he could fit into his schedule. He calls both the US and Canada home, and is currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
James’s publishing imprint is Viewless Wings Press
canvas: poems is available from Amazon and other retailers
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