Cheap Marketing For Starving Writers

I’m poor. Chances are, I’m poorer than you. As in I have five kids and am a full-time writer and student poor. As in I qualify for every social program under the sun poor. As in I just got a real bank account last year poor. As in the only people poorer than me are living in boxes under the freeway poor.

I’m poor.

I’m not telling you this to impress you with my glamorous state of poverty. I’m telling you this because I know 99% of writers are poor like I am. There’s a reason we’re called starving artists, after all. So if you’re reading this because you’re a writer, I want you to know that when I say these tricks are cheap, I mean even I can do them.

And if I can, so can you. Fact.

In these days of print on demand and e-book publishing, it’s so easy for a writer to be published that not to do it, even if only to build one’s platform for the big houses (like I’m doing), is almost asinine. Still, that doesn’t guarantee any kind of success. Writing is a multi-tiered career choice, especially these days when publishers and agents want a writer to promote themselves, and as I have said before it takes tenacity and professionalism to succeed.

But above and beyond all of that, it takes marketing.

After all, your book can be the most profound piece of literature since “The Dead Sea Scrolls”, but if nobody knows it exists, it’ll flop. Bad.

Still, short of word of mouth, which only works in bulk if you already have bulk to begin with, most traditional marketing takes cash. A lot of cash. More cash than the people who really need marketing have. It’s a catch-22 of epic proportions.

Or is it?

Below I have outlined a few marketing techniques that I have found are not only entirely affordable but actually work to boot!

Disclaimer: these may not take much (or any) money to do, but most of them do take a lot of time and effort. If you’re not serious about your writing career and are not willing to work hard to succeed, these will not work for you. That is all.

1: Become a Visiting Writer

Total Cost: $28 or less per visit ~ Total Reach: Anywhere between 30 and 1000 potential fans 

Depending on how well your local school district budgets for extracurricular academic activities, you could actually be paid for this one. Of course, even doing a school visit for free is a wonderful marketing opportunity and it only takes a few hours of your time. Not only that, but you’re helping out your community and promoting literacy to the children there. Win win WIN!

Here’s how you do it:

  • This one takes publication. Of course, this is easy to do these days. But if you’re not there yet, skip this option for now.
  • Put together a lesson plan and/or speech presentation. This can center around your genre, the moral of your book (though do this sparingly; kids don’t like being preached at any more than adults do), the storyline, creative writing itself, or whatever. A good idea is to speak with the teacher(s) and see what subjects they are currently teaching in their English classes that you could embellish on.
  • Contact the librarian / library media specialist / principal at your local schools. Depending on what age group you write for, this will be at elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and/or even colleges. Offer your services as a visiting writer, but don’t mention payment unless they ask. As I said, some schools don’t have the funds,  and even if you are willing to do it for free, if you mention payment first they will assume it is mandatory for you and you could lose that school, and potentially hundreds or thousands of new fans.
  • Order extra copies of your book well before your visitation day. Use one to read from and sign the others, offering them to the school for their students in whatever way they see fit. I usually bring up to four copies for the school. Depending on the price of your book and your own author’s discount (CreateSpace does this… I don’t know if other self-publishers do as well), this is usually not expensive — for me it costs around $24 per visit — and is well worth it to get the word out.
  • Make bookmarks with your name, book title and website address that you or the teacher(s) can hand out to the students. I have four bookmark styles, myself: Guts, Glory, Books and Echo. Action illustrations are best for MG, and use colors… lots of colors. These bookmarks can be made in many ways, though my favorite is simply to buy multicolored card stock, design the bookmarks in Photoshop (or whatever image program you prefer), print them out and cut them into strips. There are also many companies online where you can design bookmarks and they will print them and send them your way for a small fee. Either way, this will cost you some money. However, it is exceedingly important that the kids bring home a reminder of your story and an easy way to find you online. Otherwise, your trip could be unsuccessful in the long run. Making bookmarks yourself costs around $40 for well over 1000. I take an average of 100 bookmarks per visit, though more for an entire school assembly and less for a single classroom reading.
  • Pick a chapter or scene to read from your book to the kids as part of your presentation. This should be fairly short — up to 15 minutes max — and exciting. Get your audience’s attention and keep it. And end on a cliffhanger so that they simply must know what happens next.
  • Have fun! Kids will react best to a writer who makes them laugh. I wear jeans and t-shirts, sometimes a baseball cap (though many schools don’t allow hats inside), and am laid back and comfortable, which makes them comfortable too. If possible, wear a shirt with your character(s) on it. (More on that later.)
  • You can visit as many schools as you wish, though of course set it up with the administrators first. It is a perfect way to directly connect with your reader base, and costs only few dollars and a little of your time.

2: Set Up a Merchandise Store

Total Cost: $0 ~ Total Reach: Immeasurable

If you write for kids, chances are you have some dynamic characters. Come to think of it, if you don’t have dynamic characters, why are you writing for kids anyway? These characters are your lifeline when it comes to merchandise marketing. Are you an artist too? Wonderful! But even if you’re not, you can find an illustrator (here and here are my favorite places to find them) who will help you bring your characters to life by offering a % of book and merchandise sales, and of course putting their name on the cover, too. Jessica and I have a wonderful professional and personal relationship, and without her illustrations I don’t know what I would do. Our set-up is perhaps unconventional, but it works for us: I get book royalties and she gets merchandise sale profits. I chose to do it this way because, after all, it’s her illustrations that make the store! And it’s free advertising for me, which in the end is worth more than all the sales combined as far as I’m concerned. For each person who buys a shirt, button, or bookmark with my characters on it, many more see them wearing or using them and ask what they’re about. It’s perfect! And costs… nothing. That’s right. This is free! (Unless you buy some of your own merch, which is a good idea but entirely voluntary.)

Here’s how you do it:

  • Create some crisp, dynamic vector images of your characters. You can do this yourself if you’re an artist, work with your illustrator (as I am doing), or have your illustrator do them themselves. Whatever way you chose to go about it, make sure they will print out well. This is vital. Vector graphics are best, and the .dpi should be at least 300 if not more. Jessica is drawing mine, and I am taking them into Photoshop, coloring and optimizing them for printing. I have a total of seven designs I’m using. You can have more or less, though I’d recommend at least three for variety.
  • Sign up for an account at a print-on-demand merch company. My favorite is Zazzle. There you can put your images on just about anything for people to buy while you earn a % of the profits. If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s a lot like print-on-demand publishing, only it’s been around a while longer. You can add words, too, which is often a good idea. Catch-phrases, character names, whatever catches a person’s eye. Do this on the website, not in Photoshop, as the words will come out far better that way.
  • Put a link to your store on your website, and viola! You may not sell many at first, but the point isn’t to make a lot of profit right away. It’s to get the word out! Remember that. 😉

3 – Social Networking

Total Cost: $0 ~ Total Reach: Immeasurable

This is probably a “duh” to most of you. After all, everyone knows about Facebook, Twitter, and blogging right? But see, that’s just the point.  Everyone knows about them, and everyone is on them. (OK not everyone, but you get my point.) The question, then, isn’t whether you should join social networking, but how to make it work for you.

The funny thing is, though I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress, I’m still learning how to do this myself. So rather than give you shoddy advice from the ameture that I am, I’ll direct you to an expert whom I myself am still learning from and move on.

4 – Join a Writers’ Group

Total Cost: $0 – $100 / year ~ Total Reach: Many, many inside publishing connections.

I’m a member of a few writers’ groups, though only one has cost me anything to join. That one is SCBWI, or the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and it cost me $85 to join and $70 a year after that. This may seem steep, but we spend far more than that per year on coffee, fast food, and other things we really don’t need. And SCBWI is more than worth it. It’s an international group, and one that is known and respected by the big publishing houses and agents. Being able to say you belong to SCBWI in a query letter tells the agent/editor that you’re serious about your writing. More than that, SCBWI offers support in so many ways, from community message boards to conference scholarships to a quarterly magazine-style bulletin they send to every member full of the latest trends in publishing. To me, this is immeasurable if you are truly serious about your writing. Of course, this is more a marketing technique within the publishing community than the general public, but if you’re self-publishing to build your platform like I am, this is certainly something you should consider to make vital connections to agents and editors everywhere.

Below are some links to a few writers’ groups that I recommend (mostly inside the US… sorry I’m American so those are the ones I mostly know). There are far more than this, however. So if none of them seem like a good fit for you, click here to find more. 🙂

5 – Advertise

Total Cost: $5 + ~ Total Reach: 0 – 1,000,000,000… Relative to Payment

I know, I know. We’re doing this so we don’t have to advertise. After all, it’s so costly! But really, it’s only costly if you don’t know where to look. I myself have just put in my first advertising package to the Children’s Book Review, and I’m psyched! Here are a couple of cheap but effective places to invest your small but important advertising budget in:

  • Facebook Ads: Like many of you, I thought Facebook advertising would cost far beyond the boundaries of any possible payments I could make. But I was amazed to find out that it can be done with as little as $5 or as much as $5,000,000,000 depending on your own budget. Of course, you reach far more people the more money you can invest, but with Facebook’s pay-per-click  and maximum budget options, you can assure each dollar goes for a new fan and never have to worry about FB taking more money than you can pay. For example, if you set your maximum budget to $5 and chose pay-per-click, Facebook won’t take a dime until someone actually clicks on your ad, and will stop running the ads and charging your card once the $5 limit has been reached. My example doesn’t result in many fans, but you get the idea. Even a small budget can result in more and more fans on your fan page over time (personal pages can’t be advertized but fan pages are free to set up as well).
  • The Childrens’ Book Review: The Children’s Book Review does review books for free. However, it’s a very difficult and time-consuming processes. To make it easier and faster for writers, they have set up advertising options as well that are beautifully priced for what you get: Author Showcase:  ~ Giveaway: ~ and Traditional Advertising: I’m doing the Author Showcase and paid for the premium package which includes an advertisement banner that shows on every page of their site for a month and is linked to whatever URL you wish, a personalized interview highlighted on their featured gallery on the main page for a month, a dedicated page for your book blurb and/or book trailer, and multiple inbound links all over the place for your URL. This cost me $109, and will be worth every penny, as The Childrens’ Book Review is a huge name in the business, and a place where libraries and schools get their new book order ideas. Other packages cost $55 and nothing, depending on which you chose.

These are the two options I have found so far. I will update you on more as I find them, and of course if you know of any more please post them in the comments section so that we can all benefit from your knowledge as well. 🙂

OK, I have to go and work on my Guts and Glory Mercantile Store (coming soon!) now. I hope this helped you a little, and happy writing!


7 Responses to “Cheap Marketing For Starving Writers”

  1. Thanks for the advice, but more importantly you write well. 🙂 May the force be with you.

  2. N Michael Hawe Says:

    Thanks! This was a great guide and covered some things I hadn’t even considered. Starting out as a writer is well known as a difficult and low paying proposition, stuff like this really helps though! 😉

  3. This is great! What an excellent guide.

  4. […] I’ve hit on this before, but it warrants repetition. There are many ways to advertise, even for the poorest of us, and it’s very important because when an agent/editor looks you up on Google or Ask or Bing or whatever you need to be on the first page of results. Advertising is the best way to do that. For me, a Google search for “Morgan Marshall” brings me up under images,  but the rest of the first page is other people and businesses. If you look up “Morgan Marshall Books or any derivative thereof”, however, I’m every page one result but two and those are near the bottom. This is because I have put myself on a lot of websites, including Facebook, Twitter and here (“Build an Internet Presence”), Smashwords and Createspace (“Self-Publish”), and writer’s groups and networks such as SCBWI and AbsoluteWrite. All these sites (save SCBWI which I have spoken of before), are free, and a form of advertising in and of themselves, but together… together they are an unstoppable force of SEO value (which means they get you up on search engines really well). Another great result that comes up for me is my interview and book trailer on The Children’s Book Review. This wasn’t free, but it’s been worth it, and your fee can be anywhere from $105 (which I paid) to free, depending on what you want on there. Speaking of reviews… […]

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