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Self-Published Book Marketing Without Social Media

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Can you market your self-published book without using social media?

Can you market your self-published book without using social media?

How to Market a Self Published Book

One question that I frequently receive (and that pops up regularly in author forums) asks what else can be used to market one’s self-published books other than social media.

This question is posed by both those who have had their books on the market for a while and those who are just starting out. For the veteran authors, the question typically stems from frustration with low book sales. When it comes to the newbies, it’s usually asked because they’re overwhelmed or afraid of the marketing task ahead of them.

So, let’s look at book marketing without social media and discuss whether it’s even possible.

The "Before Time"

In venting her frustration with low book sales, one of my lovely author friends asked me how self-published authors marketed their books in the “before time,” meaning the time before social media. She wondered if we’re just overlooking some older book marketing methods that can still work. Doing events and trade shows had been good for her books, but the pandemic had wiped that channel out temporarily (and maybe even for the long term). Her forays into marketing on social media weren’t producing the results she was hoping for either. Now what?

Actually, I had done a bit of self-publishing in the "before time." These were mainly multimedia and educational products that I used in conjunction with my teaching and advertising careers. I didn’t have to do a lot of marketing since they mostly had a built-in audience with my current students and client base.

The one product that could be classified as true self-publishing was a sales letter writing resource on CD (yes, CD—it was the late 1990s and early 2000s). The CD was packaged with a quick-printed, spiral comb bound guide since I could do that on an on-demand basis.

When I was publishing this CD product, it was also the before time for Amazon. Amazon had just launched in 1994. Even Createspace had just been launched in 2000 and wouldn't be bought by Amazon until 2005. The Kindle didn’t launch until 2007. WordPress launched in 2003. YouTube didn’t launch until 2005. So my marketing and self-publishing options were limited.

I did advertise that CD in the trade newspaper I repped; the ad space was part of my compensation package. Most self-published authors, even now, don’t have that privilege. I did some advertising in other trade magazines, sometimes as a trade-out, sometimes paid. But print advertising was really my only option to reach this particular audience. If I would have had to pay full price for these ads, I would have sustained a huge loss. Plus, I had to manufacture each CD when ordered, and I had costs there, too.

Events and trade shows were also part of my CD marketing efforts, but those produced few leads and sales because I wasn’t allowed to actually make transactions on the show floor. But for consumer shows, like the ones my author friend used, sales are usually allowed on the floor.

Paid print advertising, events and shows, and direct mail were about the extent of what most self-published authors could use for marketing back then, even though these methods were expensive.

Email marketing was around, but it was still developing. I didn’t use it for book products; I mainly just used it for my advertising sales. I started email marketing in earnest around 2005, and it was great in the early years.

Can these older, non-social media marketing methods work now? They can, but maybe not like they used to. And are there any other non-social media book marketing tools that work?

Events and Shows

There’s nothing like meeting your target market in person, as my author friend’s story illustrates. Authors who have public speaking skills can sell their books at the back of the room at speaking events, whether the event is hosted by them or a sponsor.

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Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic all but eliminated these channels. As the pandemic subsides and economies and travel return, authors can still consider events and shows to market their books. But even if in-person marketing does return, these are still some of the most expensive marketing efforts in that they involve travel, exhibiting expenses, and personal time. Even worse is that authors may end up spending more dollars to promote their participation at these events, in essence paying to market a marketing event.

Is going virtual for events the answer? Yes and no. Virtual book tours via Zoom and other video conferencing tools have now cemented their place as a norm through the pandemic, even for big traditional publishers. The upside is that it can be recorded and offered on replay. The downside is that it’s virtual and doesn’t have the same energy and vibe that in-person events do. And as with physical events, you will have the challenge of marketing the marketing, which would involve either advertising or social media efforts.

Email Marketing

Most of the self-published book marketing advice I see centers around email marketing. In fact, most small business marketing advice does, too. The reasoning behind this is that you “own” this audience. I beg to differ on that, but in theory, it makes sense since your ability to reach your target audience isn’t subject to the whims of social media algorithms.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s bulletproof or that it will always be a successful marketing method. I’m reminded of a story that superstar entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk tells about marketing his family’s wine business in the 1990s. He was quick to jump on the email marketing train and got email open rates in the neighborhood of 90% back then. Today, if you can sustain a 20-25% open rate, you’re doing good. As Gary also emphasizes, marketing methods eventually go away, meaning they’ll be more expensive and less effective.

So, what’s the state of email marketing now? I’m turning to Mailchimp’s published benchmark stats since that’s a popular email marketing service for small businesses. Mailchimp sends billions of emails per month. These October 2019 Mailchimp benchmark stats are only for those lists of 1,000 or more subscribers. Some authors might have that subscription level, but I’m guessing more don’t. However, this is a good proxy for what you might experience.

  • Average open rate for all industries analyzed: 21.33%
  • Average click-through rate* for all industries analyzed: 2.62%
  • Average open rate for media and publishing: 22.15%
  • Average click-through rate* for media and publishing industry: 4.62%

*Note: Click-through rate is the percentage of successfully delivered emails that got at least one click.

While publishing’s open and click-through are higher than the overall average, it’s still a small segment of your entire email audience. You have to remember, too, that not all opens and clicks result in sales.

Open versus Opt-In

Open rates mean nothing unless you can get people to opt in to your email list. Most opt-in stats that I’ve seen over the years hover in the low single-digit percentages of web traffic to the opt-in offer page. According to Sumo, an email marketing company that analyzed over 3.2 billion views of their email capture pages, the average email opt-in rate is 1.95%. I personally have a one percent rule for achieving any result online, so I’m not too far off.

The fact is that people who opt into your email list don’t magically appear. And you just can’t add people to your list without their permission due to CAN-SPAM and GDPR privacy and data collection regulations in the United States and the European Union. You have to drive traffic to your opt-in offer and hope they subscribe.

I had to laugh when one of those email marketing “experts” had a promotional webinar where she bragged about how one of her clients went from having only two subscribers to maybe 2,000 after taking the offered program. Of course, I’m curious how that happened. But another webinar participant beat me to it by asking what else you would have to buy in addition to the several hundred dollar program to achieve these results. Answer: Facebook ads. In my experience with Facebook advertising and advertising elsewhere online, that could mean hundreds (maybe even thousands) of dollars to achieve an opt-in result like the one featured.

I’ve kind of gone far afield on the email topic, and as you can see, it ended up with the prospect of advertising on social media.

The Reader Magnet Myth

Ah, the mythical reader magnet. I’ve ranted on the challenges of reader magnets before.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, a reader magnet is a giveaway of a chapter (or even a whole book) as an incentive to get potential readers on your email list. The hope is that these email subscribers will buy the whole book or a future book.

Many authors use services such as BookFunnel or StoryOrigin to facilitate getting people onto the list and delivering the giveaway. Some services are free; others have fees. There is nothing wrong with these services. They provide a valuable service for authors in delivering their reader magnet giveaways and compiling their email lists.

But currently, BookFunnel states on their website, “You found the readers, let BookFunnel handle the ebook delivery.” What about “you found the readers” tells you that they are going to find readers for you? They don’t.

This is the biggest problem I have with self-published authors who get sucked into the reader magnet myth. It takes a huge amount of effort and usually money to drive enough web traffic to your reader magnet offer. And as discussed earlier, the opt-in rate can be pathetically low.

Plus, readers can use Look Inside or get a free Kindle sample on Amazon before buying. Even BookFunnel offers an option for people to download your ebook giveaway without signing up. These defeat the purpose of the reader magnet, which is to get people on your email list.

While a reader magnet is also not social media, it may take social media advertising to get people to see your reader magnet offer. Are you seeing a continuing theme here?

Newsletter Swaps

A newsletter swap is when you send a promo email about a fellow author’s book to your list, and your fellow author friend does the same to their list for your book.

This is not—repeat not!—a swapping of your newsletter or email list. Never ever do that unless you have specific permission from your email subscribers to share their addresses and personal information with third parties. Otherwise, sharing would violate email regulations.

As with bartering for anything, newsletter swaps only work when both parties have something of equal value to exchange. If I have 10,000 subscribers on my newsletter list and you have only 100, I don’t really get much from doing a newsletter swap with you, but you get a greater benefit.

In theory, though, this can be a low-cost way to reach readers without social media if the audiences for both authors’ books are similar.


For those who don’t use it, Goodreads is a “social network” for book readers where they can post reviews and discuss books. Goodreads is also part of the Amazon-verse and integrates with Amazon. Some programs help authors distribute free copies of their books to potential reviewers, but those programs are paid.

Authors I have talked to about using Goodreads for the free book distribution program have mixed emotions about it. Some are in love with it. Others feel they wasted their money. It’s also my observation that it’s a better fit for fiction authors than nonfiction.

I’ve had my books listed on Goodreads since around 2011 with very little action. But then again, I’m a nonfiction author, and I haven’t deemed it worthy of my time and monetary investment.

However, because of its integration with the Amazon mega-verse—Amazon reviews show up there—it’s worth at least having a free profile there and listing your books.

Advertising and Direct Mail

Print, TV, radio, and other mass media advertising is out of the reach of most self-published author budgets. The same goes for postal direct mail, which also has the same challenges when it comes to collecting personal information as email. These days, advertising on social media is the most affordable venue for self-published authors.

Does social media advertising work? In my experience, it can work to draw people to look at your email opt-in offer. But to directly sell books? No. The problem with social media advertising for books is that Amazon does not allow a Facebook or other tracking pixel on your book’s product page. So, you won’t really know if your book’s sales are coming from the ads or some other efforts.

Amazon Advertising

I’ve talked about Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) advertising in more depth before, but to summarize here, Amazon advertising used to be a good non-social media marketing channel that put your books in front of potential readers who are already in a buying mode on Amazon.

Lately, my ROI has been dropping due to increasing competition in both book titles being advertised and limited advertising space. Experimentation and constant monitoring of ad campaigns are necessary to avoid runaway ad costs that don’t result in sales.

Content Marketing

Around the early 2010s, content marketing was touted as the way to get people to opt into email lists and build a following. While blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos could and should become part of a self-published author’s marketing toolbox, the competition for reader attention has also escalated from everywhere, including social media, streaming services, gaming, and apps.

But as non-social media content has exploded, so has competition, making it a less effective tactic. Today’s conservative estimates are that at least 500 million blogs exist—closer to 1 billion if you count those on Tumblr. To put that in perspective, there’s currently one blog for about every eight people on the planet. That’s a pretty saturated pool. Also, according to Statista, 500 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute.

Again, it may take advertising to market your content to get views and clicks.

Marketing the Marketing

To break through the ever-increasing number of blogs, podcasts, videos, and emails usually requires some sort of paid advertising. Events and shows have always had hard dollar costs to help drive traffic to them. All of these are examples of marketing the marketing.

In other words, you must pay to get your ads and content seen—and your books sold—without relying on organic social media. But social media should be considered at least a part of your overall book-marketing plan due to expense issues and to establish your visibility to your target audiences.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2021 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 24, 2021:

Adrienne, even though a majority of my career was in the pre-social media days, I can't imagine life and business without it either. My trip down memory lane was quite eye opening. :) Thanks for your comments. Hope all is good with you. Enjoy the rest of your summer!

Adrienne Farricelli on August 23, 2021:

Heidi, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience on marketing strategies. With social media so overly present nowadays, it seems hard to imagine how life was before. Yet, I sometimes have nostalgia of life back then.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 23, 2021:

Great suggestion, Maria! Whether the interviews are on podcasts, blogs, or YouTube, they certainly can help boost your visibility online. Indeed, some the "before time" marketing methods do still work, it's just that they've become more expensive over time. Thanks so much for that great addition to the discussion! Have a great week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 23, 2021:

Dora, glad I answered some questions for you! Thanks for reading and commenting, and good luck with your book!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 23, 2021:

Flourish, authors don't believe me when I tell them that once your books is written the real work begins. Writing is work, but like hobby work, even if you do it professionally. Thanks for putting the exclamation point on that point! Have a great week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 23, 2021:

Hello Chitrangada! Glad you found it helpful. Indeed, marketing is the toughest part of being a writer these days. Appreciate your thoughtful comments! Have a lovely week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 23, 2021:

Hi Bill! Well, I think you've come to a place where the writing is more about what it is for you personally. It's not writing for the market. So, yeah, walk those doggies!

Thanks for stopping by before your walk! Have a wonderful week!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 23, 2021:

I did quite a bit of it with my first novel ten years ago. Since then it's been mostly social media. My heart hasn't been in either approach. lol I would rather walk the dogs, which I'm going to do in about an hour under beautiful August mild sunshine.

Have a fantastic week, my friend!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on August 22, 2021:

Excellent and well researched article, written with experience and knowledge.

Marketing is perhaps the toughest part, for the writers. It involves extensive efforts, involvement and of course, money.

Thank you for sharing so many options, the pluses and the minuses, of each one of them.

A very useful and helpful article indeed.

Thank you for sharing.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 22, 2021:

So many options that it makes writing the book look like the easy part!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 22, 2021:

Thanks, Heidi. This article is very much appreciated. I've completed a non-fiction small book and want to get it published, first edited. You've answered my questions on self-publishing.

Maria Giunta from Sydney, Australia on August 22, 2021:

Hello Heidi, great article as always. I'd like to add one to your list - the author interview. I have been interviewed a few times and this is a good way to get your name out there. Some interviews are online and others are questions emailed to you by the interviewer. Once the interview is live you will be sent a link to send out via social media, for your website or email to your list. I agree it's hard to market when you're self published and thanks for this article, some of those 'before' ideas may still work.

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