My first middle grade novel came out with Scholastic in fall 2017, and I’ve learned a lot about marketing since then. I am not a marketing expert, and I do believe that only publishers can significantly move the needle in terms of sales. By significant, I mean that publisher activities can generate thousands or tens-of-thousands of sales. Having a title featured in the Scholastic Book Fairs can do that, for example. You probably can’t.
But that’s not to say you shouldn’t promote your books as a traditionally published author. I actually love marketing and promotion, because I adore events, live for making cute graphics, and eat up the chance to mingle with readers and fellow writers.
Also, school visits are the only time I get to feel famous as an author. I once had a student rush up to me after a visit and ask me to sign their forehead in Sharpie. I reluctantly declined, but I have had students cry and cheer telling me how much they loved my books. And that is SUCH a good feeling. It’s the kind of promotional juice that actually feeds the writing spirit.
I want to talk about those kind of activities in this article, along with a breakdown of what hasn’t worked, why, and some special considerations for marketing middle grade.
Middle grade (MG) readers are typically eight to twelve years old. They’re not on Twitter or Facebook. They may be on TikTok, but if so they’re probably more focused on funny cat videos than authors. This means that none of our social media efforts as MG authors are reaching our target audience directly.
Kids also don’t have credit cards, or the ability to drive themselves to their local bookstore and buy whatever they want. But don’t despair, because the first step in marketing MG is to identify who is buying our books. This is generally librarians, teachers, and parents, i.e. the gatekeepers.
Keeping this in mind, I tailor my social media presence to these gatekeepers, especially on Twitter where educators seem to be most active. Teachers love connecting with authors online, and they especially love winning free books. Much of my effort on Twitter has been focused on gaining teacher followers through fun giveaways.
I’ve found these giveaways to be the best way to reach my target audience on social media, i.e. educators. And many teachers have gone on to schedule virtual or in-person school visits with me, the real sweet spot when it comes to marketing MG.
Social media is also a great way to build a network of fellow authors. In fact, you may notice early on that most or all of your followers are other writers. This isn’t so great when it comes to reaching your actual target audience (i.e. readers), but it is great in terms of A) finding new friends and making the whole promotion thing more fun and B) creating opportunities for cross-promotion.
Back in 2018, I helped organize an author collaborative called Spooky Middle Grade that’s still going strong today. We have a private chat where we share, rant, talk business, and plan fun spooky events for kids. Our main activity throughout the years has been our 30-minute virtual Q&As that we offer to schools across the country (and world!).
I’ll talk more about the amazingness of school visits later on, but one thing I’ve also gained from this group has been the opportunity for a little backup on social media. If I have an important post that I’m hoping will get some traction, I ask my Spooky MG pals for help. Those extra retweets upfront can be a huge help in getting my tweets seen.
Am I selling a zillion copies thanks to a few extra retweets? No. Do I feel less terrified that literally zero people will like something I tweet, sending me into a spiral of gloom and self-loathing? Yes!
There are definitely plenty of other ways that networking with writers has helped me over the years, apart from Spooky MG. But the benefits are usually on the touchy-feely, intangible side. I’ve made great friends through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), for example. Hey, I’ve even sold a few books at conferences and events where they invited me to speak.
But would I call the various writing groups I’m connected to sales opportunities? Not so much. *A wise person once said that you can’t expect to sell fiction at a non-fiction (i.e. craft-centered) event. So true. But I’ve gained knowledge, friends, experience as a speaker, and a venue for promoting my non-fiction stuff (i.e. editorial services and courses for writers).
So go forth and network. And if you can find opportunities to network with teachers, even better. I have participated in NCTE (a national conference for teachers), as well as numerous NerdCamps (events where educators come together to talk literacy, often with authors invited as special guests). These happen in regions across the country, and can best be found with a quick search on Google or Twitter.
*Footnote: I believe that wise person was Lindsay Buroker from the self-publishing podcast Six Figure Authors, but don’t quote me on that.
This is the biggie. School visits are the one time that middle grade authors get to pitch their books directly to kids. And they’re pretty magical. Not only do kids at school visits assume you are famous, but you have the rapt attention of an entire class, grade, or school. If you give an engaging presentation, you could not only make a ton of sales that day, but potentially get kids excited enough to tell their parents and friends about the book.
This is marketing in its most direct form. Try getting the attention of 500 kids all at once on social media (remembering they’re probably not even on the platforms you use). So the big question is, how the heck do you actually schedule school visits?
I wish I had a magic formula for this, because I could definitely use one. My key strategy (apart from connecting with teachers at events or on the socials) has been to email school librarians information about me and the visits I offer. In my experience, it’s almost always the librarian (or media specialist) who’s responsible for scheduling authors, so that’s the person you need to reach. I have even resorted to sending physical postcards on occasion, because librarians don’t always have time to read emails from random authors (assuming we’ve never met).
My response rate with this strategy has gotten better over time, as I’ve become more well-known in the community with each new release. But it can be tough as a brand new author. It can be especially tough if you write about difficult topics for kids — many of my books deal with death and grief, for example. But I’m a fun-filled person, promise! Still, I’ve noticed that authors with more upbeat books do seems to have an easier time scheduling visits.
But don’t let that deter you. If you haven’t already, make sure you have a decent website describing your school visit offerings. Include details like pricing, virtual options, types of presentations, travel details, etc. And don’t expect librarians to magically find your new website. Share it far and wide, with the right people, and soon you too can have kids begging you to sign their face in Sharpie.
Oh, and my #1 tip for the actual presentation? Energy! The content isn’t as important as how you sell it. Remember, you’re giving a performance, so make it one that gets kids excited and leaves them talking.
Another great step in your marketing journey is to make friends with local booksellers, especially from independently owned stores. Best of Books, an amazing indie here in Oklahoma, handles sales for most of my school visits. These wonderful folks can connect you to local events, talk you up to readers, and help you coordinate sales of your books at school visits or conferences.
Aw, the classic book signing. We all know the drill. You show up to find a table at the front of the store with huge signage of your face and a line around the block. The rest is a whirlwind of raving fans and lightning fast Sharpie work.
This may happen to you, or you may show up to an unmarked table in the back of the store and spend the next hour talking up your books to random strangers.
Don’t get me wrong, signings can be super fun, and they’re kind of a rite of passage in the author world. I’ve had successful launches where friends, family, and the rare unknown fan turned out to show their support. I’ve also had signings where you sell six or seven copies to people who happen to be wandering through Barnes & Noble at the time. And I’ve had signings where it was literally me and the crickets.
Here’s the thing with book signings, and I think this applies to most areas of marketing and promotion. You can sell a ton of copies if you’re already a bestseller with a huge fanbase. If not, you’re unlikely to attract new fans through signings, apart from the handful of delightful strangers who stumble upon your table.
That said, I still love signings, because they make me feel fancy. And who doesn’t want to be reminded that they’re fancy once in a while? If you’re scared that no one will show up, take my advice and hold a joint signing with one or more author pals. Sitting at a table while customers awkwardly avoid eye contact is way more fun with friends.
And it is helpful to bring bookmarks with your website and social media info so people can find you online. Strangers may want to internet stalk you before deciding to buy your books. And, hey, they may even swing back around to your table before you leave, or decide to buy a signed copy later (assuming the store asked you to sign any leftover stock).
We’ve mostly been talking about how to get the word out after launch (school visits, hooray!), but what about before launch? This is when people start talking about pre-order campaigns, street teams, and all that jazz.
Here’s my take on pre-order campaigns (you may sense a theme going forward). It can be super fun prepping all the snazzy swag you’ll give away when someone pre-orders your book. But once again, this is not likely to gain you any new fans. Your swag would have to be pretty darn amazing to convince someone who has never heard of you to pre-order your book AND send proof of purchase. And the typical bookmark, pin, or mug with artwork from the book (that remember, they’ve never heard of) is unlikely to be convincing.
But pre-order campaigns are a great way to reward loyal fans and to direct readers, who were already planning to buy your book, to do so early. Publishers use pre-order numbers to determine print runs and how many marketing dollars to put behind a book, so they are super important.
But the reality remains that the pre-order campaigns getting huge numbers are for books that fans already wanted.
Does that mean new or mid-list authors should give up on pre-order campaigns altogether? Maybe. Or, you can follow my motto and do what’s fun. If you love swag and want to reward your fanbase (no matter how small), then you do that pre-order campaign! And if you direct twenty or thirty readers to order early, instead of waiting for release, then bonus points. It may not make a blip on the publisher’s radar, but it sure can’t hurt.
We talked earlier about the power of author networking. Having writer friends who can help boost your posts (even a few retweets here and there) can be super helpful. Street teams take that to the next level. These are groups of fans, reviewers, readers (in our case, mostly educators) who agree to help get the word out about your new release. Usually they do this in exchange for an advanced reader copy, access to a private group or chat, and exclusive news, giveaways, or contact with the author that’s not available outside the group.
In organizing street teams for my last two books, I created a Google Form for participants to tell me what grades they work with, why they want to join, and how they plan to promote the book.
Then I created a private Facebook group where I shared news, excerpts, information about giveaways, etc. to try to build excitement. My earliest members received physical ARCS (advanced reader copies) to read, review, and hopefully pass on to friends. I asked members to help me promote certain social media posts and to share about the book online.
It was a fun experience, but here’s the thing about street teams for middle grade. First, all the old adages apply. A) You’ll get out of it what you put into it. B) You’ll get more interest if you’re already a well-known author. But I would add another thought here, which is that teachers (your primary audience for street teams) are extremely busy. They don’t have the time to fangirl online the way that other super fans might.
I certainly got some boosts and reviews from my amazing teams (each had about 20–25 members), but it was tough asking my already overextended crew to stay engaged for months and months leading up to release.
And the majority of a street team’s activities will come in the form of promoting social media posts. That’s awesome, but we’ve already seen that social media reaches the gatekeepers of MG, not the actual readers. This is another aspect that makes the fandom for MG different from adult or YA and harder to engage directly. Remember, your street team members are not kids. They’re adults who will be sharing your posts with other adults.
I mentioned reviews. One way that street team members can be wonderfully helpful is by leaving you reviews on Amazon. Some members will follow through on this, others won’t. The more consistently you engage with the group, the more likely they’ll be to actually leave you a review after release.
If you’re interested in starting a street team, it’s time to begin connecting with educators and MG book review groups on Twitter. Use the strategies I’ve mentioned (like running teacher-specific book giveaways) to build your following, so that when you reach out for street team members, you’re talking to the right people.
And then try to keep up excitement in the group by offering early reveals and exclusive giveaways in the months leading up to release. Street teams may not be a magic bullet, but a few loyal fans can go a long way to helping you have a successful launch.
These are kind of a thing of the past, but I bring them up here because I paid for friends to create a BEAUTIFUL book trailer for my debut. And I paid a lot. Did they make a wonderful animated trailer that I could use at school visits? Yes. Did Scholastic even share it on their website around release? Sure. Is it so, so gorgeous and amazing? Indubitably. But was it in any way worth the money in tangible terms (like actual sales generated)?
But it was my first book, and I had gotten a very nice advance after selling at auction. So, at the time, I was like, hey, I’ll probably never do this again, but won’t it be super cool? It was cool, but I could also really use that money right about now 😉
Websites, Bookmarks, and Ways to Get Fancy
No one will ever, ever visit your author website unless they specifically Google your name. Okay, I might be exaggerating. They might Google your book, or stumble on a popular blog post by topic (assuming you write some), or follow a link you post on social media. But your website is not a tool for gaining new readers. It is a tool for existing readers to learn more about you, your books, and your school visit offerings.
With that in mind, I do not think a fancy author website is necessary. If you have tons of disposable income to spend on a beautiful site, fair enough. But if you just want to create a professional place for kids to find more info about you for school book reports, then cheaper is better. Personally, I use a super basic WordPress.com site, because I couldn’t even be bothered to use WordPress.org.
It has been perfectly sufficient. And, unlike folks I know who have spent thousands of dollars on designer sites, it costs about $100 a year.
Bookmarks and swag are another way to get fancy. I do enjoy having bookmarks for big events, and GotPrint is my favorite company for ordering them so far (at last check, it was $32 for 1,000 bookmarks). But again, bookmarks are nice rewards for people who have already purchased your book. They’re unlikely to gain you new readers, apart from a few folks who happen upon you at signings and other events.
With all types of swag, I go back to my cardinal rule. If it’s fun, do it, but don’t expect it to generate sales.
The Bottom Line
Promoting middle grade books is very different than promoting books for other audiences. Your readers aren’t on social media, so you have to identify and connect with gatekeepers. If you’re like me, a large percentage of your sales won’t even come through regular outlets (like bookstores), they’ll come through school and library purchases.
It’s important to know who you’re targeting, how you can reach them, and how you can use your efforts most effectively. When in doubt, think about the fun vs. tangible benefit ratio. If the fun level is off the charts, then maybe it’s okay that you’re not getting any tangible benefit in terms of sales. If the activity is unlikely to generate many sales AND it’s not fun, head for the hills.
You only have so much time and energy, and it’s important to use both wisely.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KIM VENTRELLA is the author of The Secret Life of Sam (HarperCollins), Hello, Future Me, Bone Hollow and Skeleton Tree (Scholastic). Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Her most recent middle grade novel, The Secret Life of Sam, was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2020. Bone Hollow was chosen as a Best Book for Kids 2019 by New York Public Library, and Skeleton Tree was nominated for the 2019 Carnegie Medal in the UK. For the latest updates, follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.