Everything you ever really need to know about marketing your book: an interview with Matthew Dons

Matthew Dons is a British marketing consultant living in Tokyo. In an email interview last month between cancer treatments, Matthew kindly offered his thoughts on book marketing to Patrick Sherriff.  To find out more and to donate to Matthew’s battle to stay alive, click here. Charcoal sketches of book covers by Patrick.

Patrick Sherriff: What does “marketing” actually mean, with respect to books?

Matthew Dons: Marketing your book is the process of selling it via media, as opposed to selling it in person. The key words here are “process” and “selling”. If you expect to sell lots of books in a single step you’ll be very disappointed. And if you think you’re doing lots of “marketing” but you’re not selling any books, what you’re doing isn’t “marketing” at all…

Good point. If marketing is a process, is there a right process to market a book? Are books inherently different from other products, say like sliced bread or microwave ovens? Where should the author start?

There’s certainly a correct process for marketing products (and services), and it doesn’t really vary with the thing you’re selling.

The marketing process starts with finding out what people are willing to buy, how much people will pay for it and how people want to buy it (in a shop, online, at an event, on the phone, for example).

Obviously as an author you have an idea for a book, or at least an area of interest. Let’s imagine you wanted to write a travel guide to Japan. It would make a lot of sense to read the Amazon reviews of lots of travel guides, to see what people want. It’s particularly useful to read the negative reviews, to find out what’s missing from most travel books. You could also ask friends and family what travel guides they like, and why.

This would be an ideal situation. The reality is most authors think about marketing once they’ve published their book. So now it’s really a case of thinking of all the types of people who may want to buy your book. If you’ve published a book of science-fiction short stories your book may be of interest to sci-fi readers, readers of short stories and maybe people who watch sci-fi films. The “maybe” is because there’s not necessarily a big overlap between people who watch films and people who buy books. But we may find we can focus a bit more. I’d guess people who watch arthouse sci-fi films are more likely to be readers, not just of sci-fi but of every genre.

Can you see how marking works? It’s almost all about focusing on people and what they want, instead of being focused on selling lots of books, becoming famous and even becoming rich.

The research stage sounds tiresome, and even unnecessary. But it could be just a couple of days spent on the web, and is likely to make a massive difference in the short, medium and long-term of the book’s life.

Next we need to think about how to reach the potential buyers, and what to say to them. It’s really worth considering who is already talking to them. Magazines? Blogs? Other authors? Do they go to certain events? Listen to certain podcasts? If a a popular author endorses your book if could lead to lots of sales. The same is true of a review in a suitable magazine or newspaper. Or a TV or radio interview.

Remembering that marketing is a process, not a one-off event, it’s vital to be in contact with people who may buy your book. An easy way to start is with a blog or email newsletter, or by joining relevant online forums.

What do we say to people who may be interested in our book? Most people try “Me too!” messages which essentially say, “My book is great. Buy it now”. Marketing expert Robert Collier said “Always enter the conversation already taking place in the customer’s mind.”  So you need to find out what your potential readers are thinking about, and then talk to them about it, gently explaining how your book fits in.

OK, I absolutely see that for nonfiction where the (good) author is solving a problem that readers have. But how about for fiction? You’re not really solving a problem (other than offering something good to read). If you “write to market” aren’t you selling out your artistic muse?


This is a question fiction authors often ask themselves and each other, usually in an attempt to rationalise their lack of sales or profits! Such authors don’t really get anywhere with it, which is a shame because it’s a massively powerful question that can give you great clarity if you think about it deeply, and with an open mind.

Asking yourself this question regularly can completely change what you do with your writing, and can give you the best possible chance of success as an author.

We’ll first ask “Do fiction books solve problems for readers?” If your book can solve a problem it will be easier to sell:

Some readers are looking for escapism, some want to feel educated, others crave mental stimulation. A useful thought experiment is to consider what sort of review you’d like written about your book. A better thought experiment is to ask yourself what you’d like your readers to tell their friends and family about your book.

People sometimes read simply to fill time. A good example of this would be reading on planes and trains. Books sold in airports and train stations tend to be very long, or quite short. The long books have to be real page-turners and have to feel very easy to read. These books usually move at quite a pace. Shorter books sell well if they look like you can read them in one journey. For example, short books for travel in America tend to be 35-55 pages, which takes 90 minutes to read, ideal for an internal flight in the USA.

Is it possible to “write to market” without “selling out”? Genre fiction tends to sell well. You may feel it’s generally trashy, but the books of Raymond Chandler, Arthur C. Clarke and John le Carre are considered serious works of literature despite each being of a clear genre.

When thinking about whether to “write to market” also consider “What problem will my book solve for me?”. Writing and publishing a book can help you do so many things, if you market it strategically.

OK, how else can writing a book do much for my bottom line? Of course, a bestseller which leads to a blockbuster movie would be a dream come true, but how else can writing a book financially benefit the author? And if there are different goals other than selling a ton of books, how does that affect how you market your book?

If you want your book to make you money, then you probably need to write for a niche, and you need to know a bit about why and how some books make money, while most books don’t.

There are several reasons to write and publish a book. Looking at the different reasons and the mechanics of using different types of book to achieve your goal is very helpful.

Here are three common kinds of books, the money-making book, the positioning book and the lead-generation book.

1. The money-making book
It’s hard to make money directly from selling books. Especially a single book. But it’s not impossible. What’s needed is a knowledge of marketing and a lot of thought about who could buy your book, and how to reach those people.

For example, if your fiction book is suitable for teenagers or children you can write a teacher’s guide for it. This suddenly opens up thousands of potential sales because schools all over the world could order it in batches of 30 or so. And this could last for many, many years.

Deciding against a single book makes things much easier. Could your fiction book be part of a series? For some reason many authors and critics usually have a low opinion of series fiction. The easiest way to ignore them is to think about what Liberace allegedly said when asked about some bad reviews he’d got “I cried all the way to the bank!”

If you’re writing a non-fiction book, does the topic have a “long tail”? This means can it naturally and easily be expanded into many books each serving a very slightly different group of people?


An example makes this clear: you’re writing a book for non-Japanese parents in Tokyo about how to choose a school. Instead of publishing it as one book “The Parent’s Guide to Schools in Tokyo” you publish it as 23 different books, one for each ward of Tokyo. 70-90% of the content of each book would be identical. Obviously some of the books would sell far less well than others but because it only takes a bit more time, money and effort to write and publish all 23 books it could be extremely worthwhile, financially. You could even do 69 books just by doing different versions for elementary school, junior high schools and high schools for each of the 23 wards of Tokyo.

Some non-fiction books lend themselves to being republished every year, with just a little updating. Others can be made into hundreds of different books by selecting narrow target markets: “The architect’s guide to free accounting software”, “The doctor’s guide to free accounting software”, “The restaurant-owners guide to free accounting software” and so on. You may want to partner with an industry expert for each version of your book.

There are also hundreds of ways to make money indirectly. Could your book be dramatised as a radio play or TV series? Can you sell the film rights? What about an audiobook version? Could it be translated into other languages? (473 million people speak Spanish as their first language!) Could your book lead to paid speaking engagements? Could it be serialised in a newspaper or magazine? These questions are pointless if you’re with a big, lazy, stupid publisher but if you’re self-publishing then anything is possible, and many of these things are relatively easy to do.

2. The positioning book
Simply being an author can open many doors, and can be part of a very rewarding lifestyle.

Let’s think about our sci-fi writer. Maybe the real love of her life is going to book fairs, sci-fi conventions and related events. She’d like to be more involved and realises a book may be just what she needs to turn her hobby into a lifestyle. She doesn’t expect to make money from her books and is ok with losing money, as long as it’s not too much. So she writes a book, self-publishes it and sends out loads of review copies. As a result, she starts getting booked as a speaker, and sometimes gets interviewed. She now has her own booth at sci-fi conventions, from which to sell signed copies of her book. She doesn’t really make any profit, but her sales usually cover her costs. She loves sitting at her booth, chatting to sci-fi fans, and selling a few books. Not to mention the magical feeling she gets when she meets her favourite sci-fi authors, and is able to introduce herself as a published author…

3. The lead generation book
A low-cost, self-published book that you can give away (or send people for just the cost of postage-and-packing) can be a great way to generate “leads”. A lead is the contact details of someone who may want to buy a product or service from you in the future.

If you own a catering company you could publish a guide to healthy wedding food. The guide could be available exclusively from your website so you get the contact details of everyone requesting a copy.

If you’re selling your book indirectly, eg. through Amazon you won’t get the contact details. In this case you need make a free offer in your book in order to capture the contact details of the reader. One way to do this is have an unlisted page of your website where your readers can enter their email address and then download a PDF, MP3 or video file. For a fiction book the “lead magnet” could be an interview with the author or a sneak preview of an upcoming book. For non-fiction books the “lead magnet” may be a checklist, a bonus chapter or a resources list. Put your “lead magnet” offer in your book in at least three places: the introduction or preface, on the back cover, and in the conclusion or afterword.

But aren’t books old hat? Isn’t video the future, or social media? Hardly anyone reads right? Besides, if anyone can self-publish doesn’t that cheapen the value of a book?

It’s hard to believe, but print book sales have been rising recently. And certain niches are growing very quickly such as sci-fi and political books. (No comment…)

In the US, ebooks have now exceeded print books in sales revenue but yearly sales of print books are still massive, around $8 billion.

Perhaps strangest of all, print magazines are doing really well in some countries, such as the UK.

So, clearly people are reading a great deal. When we consider population growth and the emerging economies it’s safe to say people will be reading books for a long time to come.

The strength of magazine sales in the UK is interesting and informative. Over the past 15 years a new type of magazine has become very popular, propping up the whole industry. The new magazines are published as a series, usually 6-12 issues. They sell very well, and are usually on quite specific topics. This should give authors quite a hint about regarding one way to be successful.

People generally value things based on what they get from them, not the process required to create them. Marketers sometimes emphasise the process but this doesn’t usually work well. One exception to this is when you’re explaining to a potential customer that the process would not be worth them doing themselves. For example, if you published a book about study-abroad opportunities you may emphasise the time and money you spent on doing the research, and how you’ve collected it all together in one, easy-to-use guide. You could explain how someone would waste many hours of their time calling different schools in various countries, when instead they could just buy your book and have all the information they need straight away.

In reality, the barriers to entry for self-publishing are now almost non-existent. But there is still a huge perceived barrier. Being an author is something that so many people continue to respect, and maybe even aspire to. So now is the perfect time to publish a book!

What do you think most authors get wrong? Or, what one thing should authors stop doing? What one thing would set them off in the right direction?


The thing most authors get wrong is believing that books sell themselves, instead of knowing it takes research, money and effort to sell a book. Successful self-published authors build the “cost per sale” into the price of their books. When you’re starting out this number is a guess, but over time you get an accurate number with testing, experience, research and knowledge of marketing. If you’re selling a guidebook using adverts in travel magazines, and you can usually sell 30 books from a 500-dollar quarter-page advert, then your cost per sale is 17 dollars. If your book sells for 15 dollars and costs 7 dollars to print and ship, you are losing 9 dollars with each book you sell. In this case you could try different adverts, different magazines, other ways of selling, different prices or even try creating extra revenue streams such as a travel phrase book to go with your guidebook.

The one thing authors should stop doing immediately is “playing the game”. Every industry has “industry norms”. These norms dictate how most people make things, price them, market them, sell them and think about them. Following industry norms hugely limits your chances of being successful. The only winning move in this very silly game is not to play. A perfect example of this is the self-publishing “gurus” who tell you how to get ahead with Amazon. They tell you the latest strategies for selling your books via Amazon, and convince you to keep coming back for more. But in reality Amazon is just a single channel, and one that you don’t control, unlike your email list and your website. Amazon can change the rules on you any time, without warning. By all means use Amazon if it’s appropriate, but don’t rely on it. The same goes for any platform or any business relationship. The most dangerous number in any business is one. One product, one marketing channel, one type of customer, one way of doing things…

The best way for an author to start moving in the right direction is to read some useful books! These five books give you a really serious grounding in proven, timeless marketing principles and techniques:
1. Commonsense Direct & Digital Marketing by Drayton Bird.
2. Book The Business: How To Make Big Money With Your Book Without Even Selling A Single Copy by Dan Kennedy & Adam Witty.
3. Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy.
4. The Copy Writer’s Handbook: A Step-By-Step Guide To Writing Copy That Sells by Robert W. Bly.
5. First Hundred Million: How To Sky Rocket Your Book Sales With Slam Dunk Titles by E. Haldeman Julius.

How should I, as a fiction author, use Twitter (and all the other social media sites for that matter)? I hate those spammy messages and buy-my-book posts I see other people do. I just use Twitter and FB as a place where people can find me and my mailing list and my books. Am I missing a trick here?

Social media channels such as Twitter, Snapchat, FB and Instagram can take a lot of your time without producing many sales. It’s important not to rely on any single marketing channel, and also to ensure you’re using offline media channels as well because they tend to work better.

Social media is a very busy, distraction-rich environment so it’s challenging to get good results from it. The email inbox is not perfect, but it’s a better environment than social media so, yes, the best way to use social media is generally for capturing email addresses, and building a relationship so that people won’t feel it’s spammy when you mention your books.

Industry norms are that you must pay for a pro cover. I get that the cover is important to setting your image, but if you can self-publish the book, why can’t you self-make the covers, assuming you have a good approach?


Generally you should make the first cover yourself, so you’re familiar with the process. After that, you need to consider whether it’s really a good use of your time. If you come up with a good approach to making covers, write it down, make it very clear and easy-to-follow, then hire someone else to make the covers for you.

Doing things yourself to save money doesn’t work in the long run because when you add up all the time you’re putting in you’ll find you’re making less than minimum wage. You may as well be flipping burgers. This is quite depressing.

Time is our most valuable resource because we get so little of it. Our second most valuable resource is attention, that’s why outsourcing and out-tasking are so powerful; you can let someone else do things so you don’t even have to think about them. I love using the online transcription service http://www.Rev.com because I just upload an MP3 audio file of my voice and they email me back a transcript within 24 hours. I find this way of writing much easier than trying to write at the computer. Their service happens to be cheap (for the time being) but I’d use it even it it was 3 times the cost because it saves me so much time and stress.

Having said all that, if doing a cover yourself for your first book is holding you back, preventing you from publishing your book, just get someone else to do it quickly!

The book “Virtual Freedom: How to Work with Virtual Staff to Buy More Time, Become More Productive, and Build Your Dream Business” by Chris Ducker is the best book on outsourcing, out-tasking and using virtual assistants. It’s essential reading for anyone serious about self-publishing. Maybe the best 14 dollars you’ll ever spend.

How important is getting reviews? How can I get more?

Reviews are useful in two ways, one obvious the other not so obvious. Reviews are clearly useful if they are read by people who may want to buy your book. For this reason, the most useful reviews are those in a publication (or on a website, Facebook page, web forum etc.) closely matched to your target market. A general publication may have a much bigger readership, but may not result in many sales.

Regarding Amazon reviews, the most robust approach is to build an email list before publishing your book, that way you can get some momentum early on. When asking for reviews be specific. People review books because they enjoy it, not because they want to do you a favour. So ask things like “What did you find most useful about the book?”, “What do you hope to read in my next book?”, “Who do you think my book would be suitable for?”.

The second, and more import reason reviews are valuable is that you can make use of them. Very few authors do this. They get a review and then think “that was nice”. And that’s it. The most they may do is tweet the link. You should make maximum use of every positive review you get. For example, if you’re trying to get a media interview, a publishing deal or a speaking gig you should send print-versions of every single positive review to the person in question. Don’t expect them to go and find your reviews, make it easy for the. Although it’s counter-intuitive, you should certainly send reviews of your books to your readers. People like to read reviews of books they’ve already read because it reaffirms their good judgement. And it may prompt them to recommend your book to other people.


To get more reviews, send more review copies to the right people. Make sure you build this cost into the price of your book. Make your book easy and attractive to review by including a detailed cover letter explaining why the publication’s readers will be interested in your book. Send you book at the right time, this means tying it in to a relevant news event, or simply sending it at the right time of year. For example, if you’ve written a horror novel you can send it out every year just before Halloween. And of course find out exactly who you should send the review copy to, don’t just send it without an addressee’s name and hope it will get to the right person, it probably won’t.

Should I ever give away my work for free?

Give away your books, if it makes sense to do so. But you must emphasise that you are giving it away because it’s valuable, not because it’s worthless! You may want to offer your book for free to the first 5 people who register for an event you’re running. Or, when launching a new book, you could give a free, signed copy of one of your older books to the first 10 people who buy your new book. In this case you could ask them to email you their receipt as proof of purchase. A much better method is to ask them to email a photo of themselves with your book, which you can then put on your website. This results in “social proof”, which is a very effective method of getting more sales.

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Matthew Dons is receiving treatments for Stage 4 terminal cancer. To find out more and to donate to his battle to stay alive, click here.

Patrick Sherriff, an Englishman who survived 13 years working for newspapers in the US, UK and Japan. Between teaching English lessons at his conversation school in Abiko, Japan, with his wife, he writes and illustrates textbooks for non-native speakers of English, releases Hana Walker mystery novels, short stories, essays and a monthly newsletter  highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. Saku’s Random Book Club is his latest project to spend more time with books.


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