Book marketing in the world outside of prison is fairly straightforward. The author writes a book, ideally has the foresight to build an author platform in the process, and then uses the platform and other tools to market their book once it is published.
These other tools often consist of a snazzy website, writing commitments at relevant and visible publications, outreach to book reviewers, optimizing Amazon sales page copy, and targeted advertisements. Many, many books profile this straightforward, yet work-intensive and challenging process.
But what if the author is in prison? What if they don’t have access to a computer, the internet, email, or even a regular landline or cell phone? Now things start to get interesting. This article focuses on my experiences as an incarcerated book author and my efforts to promote my books, even from within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where I currently reside. It is presented with the hope of helping those inside prison in marketing their books, and to enlighten regular book authors of how good they really have it.
Find A Dedicated Outside Assistant
Authors outside of prison have it easy. Their first question is, “Where do I start?” This is often several steps down the road for incarcerated authors. For the incarcerated author, the first question is, “Who can help me do what needs to be done?” And this can often be a crippling issue.
Incarcerated authors understand early on that they cannot possibly market a book from prison without the expert assistance of someone outside of prison, someone who has access to a computer and the internet. Often this position can be filled by a dedicated family member or friend, or, if absolutely necessary — and if funds are available — then by paying an assistant or helper. Due to the hustle and bustle of regular life outside of prison, this latter option is often the best by far. While it is challenging, effective assistants can be found on websites like Craig’s List. It is this outside assistant that will help with most of the following tasks. Finding a good one is perhaps the most essential task in the book marketing process.
Create an Author Website
One of the best tools for an incarcerated writer — or any sort of writer — is a website with a hosted blog. While prisoners can’t access the internet, their outside contacts can. Through the use of platforms such as SquareSpace and WordPress, websites can be created and hosted fairly inexpensively. By using templates — and generous support services — the outside contact can get by not even knowing a bit of coding.
This website should have several different landing pages. There should be a succinct homepage which essentially summarizes the incarcerated author’s work. A bio page is also very helpful since it educates visitors about the prisoner and their plight. A contact page is essential for fans and supporters to have a mechanism through which to connect with the incarcerated writer. By incorporating a blog into the website, the prison writer can regularly appear in front of their target audience and grow a fan base. This blog should be hosted on the website itself, not on an external blogging service. And last, as they publish each new book, a new page should be published which focuses specifically on the book in question.
My website is an example of a good website for an incarcerated writer. At my website, we incorporate much of the advice in this article.
Let’s face it, most visitors come to a website perhaps once or a few times, forget about it, and don’t return. This is akin to a newspaper selling a single copy of their publication to a reader, then not bothering to remind them to buy another. Well, the same concept applies to websites. By incorporating an email newsletter feature — whereby visitors can input their email addresses to receive updates — not only will the incarcerated author be able to reach past visitors via email, but they will also be constantly growing a targeted email marketing list for when their books are published. Prisoners should have their website managers take a look at low-cost email marketing services like Mail Chimp and Constant Contacts. These provide tools for website integration and statistics tracking on all emails sent.
Author Platform Building
Author platforms are very subjective and topically specific. To start, an “author platform” is any mechanism by which a writer can get in front of their target readership. In this day and age, this is primarily done through websites and other online publications, although it can also be done in print publications, even if this is substantially more challenging due to space limitations and fierce competition.
Incarcerated fiction authors should focus their platform building efforts on their blog, any websites that publish fiction, or literary journals. They could also submit to award competitions like Glimmer Train, or even the free PEN American Center Prison Writing Competition. For incarcerated nonfiction authors, there are many more opportunities, especially if the writer focuses on prison law or social justice topics since there are several worthy print publications who regularly publish writings by prisoners. The two premier print prison publications are probably Prison Legal News and the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. Since Prison Legal News has the largest circulation in the prison marketplace of any publication the world over, it is an excellent publication to submit quality content to.
Outside of print publications, incarcerated authors can also submit to quality online outlets like AND Magazine, Slate, Salon, Examiner, and others. While some swear by article banks such as Ezines Articles, Article City, and others, my experiences with large article directories like these is that they have been lackluster and unimpressive. Instead, incarcerated authors are encouraged to submit to targeted and active outlets like PrisonEducation.com, PrisonLawBlog.com, and Solitary Watch.
Amazon Sales Copy Optimization
Perhaps the most important sales channel in this day and age for all authors is their book’s product page on Amazon. While many authors are ignorant of this, those with books for sale on Amazon can apply for an Amazon Authors page. This page allows authors to add a bio, syndicate their latest blog posts into the page, add photos and other extras, but most importantly, edit their book’s product details.
Every author with an Amazon Authors page can edit and add to the existing marketing copy their publisher submitted. Often, traditional book publishers have such a huge workload that they can’t spend the time required to optimize the product details for each of their books. And this is sad since Amazon really is the largest small bookstore in the world. Incarcerated authors — and regular authors alike — should spend the time to provide as much effective copy as they can. This can only improve the book’s discoverability.
To see a good example of an optimized Amazon book product page, take a look at my Directory of Federal Prisons page.
Goodreads and LibraryThing Author Profiles
Goodreads and LibraryThing are a mix of book catalogs, recommendations, and social media websites all wrapped up into one. While readers can catalog, review, and rate the books they’ve read on each of these websites, authors can edit the details of their products, engage in easy outreach to readers, and syndicate their blog posts (ideally from their stand-alone website) into their author profiles. Thus, while some initial legwork is required to create and optimize the Goodreads and LibraryThing website profiles, all the incarcerated author and outside contact need to do is post to the blog on the author’s website, and the new posts will effectively update the profiles not only on Goodreads and LibraryThing, but the Amazon Authors page, too.
Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
While prisoners love the idea of being on social media, it is often more hassle than it’s worth. The return on investment — both in terms of time and any funds spent on a professional presence — just isn’t there. But what does work on these three social media channels are automated updates from the incarcerated author’s blog. Just like with the syndication of blog posts, both SquareSpace and WordPress both allow for posts to be automatically tweeted on Twitter, shared on Facebook, and G+ed on Google+. All of these social media profiles can also be integrated into the aforementioned author’s pages. Marketing automation at its best.
Online Author Tours: Book Reviews and Interviews
By and large, independent authors are shifting away from expensive time-based publicists to lower-cost service-based online marketers. This is a good thing, especially for the incarcerated author since they usually can’t easily do interviews in person, on the telephone, or via email.
The model that appears to work the best for incarcerated authors and their outside helpers is to retain the services of an online book tour expert to promote the book, schedule book placements on relevant blogs and websites, and handle all other busy work surrounding such a project. For $1,000, upwards of 50 placements can be secured. These placements often consist of guest blog posts, book reviews, or interviews, which the author can answer ahead of time. Thus, the disconnection of writing from prison doesn’t become a detriment to book publicity or marketing.
Targeted Advertising: Online and in Print
Much of the time authors get hung up on the big book outlets like the New York Times Book Review or Publishers Weekly. After all, these are the big dogs, and, as such are where the world’s largest and most influential publishers regularly advertise. Since an incarcerated author’s entire book marketing budget might only be a few hundred dollars, their money is much better off spent in specialty, hyper-targeted media because that is where their readership resides, and costs are significantly reduced.
An incarcerated author’s budget in print should be spent at Prison Legal News if their book is nonfiction and about prisons or social justice. If it is of a more general flavor or fiction, they shouldn’t bother with print advertising. It’s plainly much too expensive. Regardless of the type of book, advertising on Goodreads is an excellent option. The Goodreads self-serve advertising system is based off of clicks (called “Cost Per Click” or CPC), not impressions (called “Cost Per Impression” or CPI). And the cost is based on the bidding system. This means that the prisoner, via their outside helper, can set a total campaign budget (say, $100) and a bid per click (say, 10 to 50 cents per click), and they only have to pay for the ad when it is actually clicked on. This is very low cost advertising which is only incurred when an active user actively follows the link to the incarcerated author’s book page.
A side component of the Goodreads advertising system concerns book giveaways. Goodreads allows users to give away copies of their books through their system. This is a free service which the Goodreads staffers manage. So, for the price of 5 to 10 books at a time, an incarcerated author can have a steady stream of book giveaways. The huge bonus here is that many of the readers who receive a free copy of the book will also review the book and post the review to Amazon.
The Truth About Online Press Releases
One fable often promoted in the independent author industry — and, in particular, in the prison writing genre — is that press releases result in massive amounts of attention and possibly book sales. This is plainly not the case. Much of what is distributed through these online press release companies is simply spam that results in no return on investment. Some outlets charge thousands of dollars for an SEO optimized press release, a gross overpricing for a relatively simple action that is usually accompanied by unrealistic promises of its effectiveness.
The long and short of online press releases is that it is generally a good idea to send one out announcing a book’s release, but to not spend an arm and a leg on it. This money is much better spend on a quality online book tour, or better yet, if funds are very limited, on optimizing an Amazon Authors page. With literally no money to speak of, an incarcerated author could easily create an Amazon Authors page, optimize the product description for their book, and post blog posts to the profile. While not nearly as good as a stand-alone website, certainly a good step in the right direction, and one which doesn’t require a large expense of capital.
The Focus of All Efforts: Selling the Sizzle
Even with all of the hurdles to effectively marketing a book from prison, incarcerated authors have one huge step up on fellow, non-incarcerated writers: the novelty of writing from prison. This simple fact offers a certain controversy that can help to open doors. Readers, much like the American people as a whole, tend to be fascinated with crime. They also generally believe that those in prison aren’t the sharpest pencils around. Because of these two factors, a well-spoken prisoner — or better yet, a talented incarcerated wordsmith — not only surprises and catches the attention of editors, book reviewers, and readers, but also commands a certain amount of authority, and cachet, when writing about prisons, corrections, and criminal law.
Incarcerated writers and authors must use this as their hook in everything they do. While some might try to minimize this aspect of their circumstance in an attempt to look more professional, to do so is a grave mistake. There are many good, even superb writers in the world. But in prison, there are only a handful. Incarcerated writers should use this novelty aspect of their circumstance to open doors, sell more books, and create something they can then take with them upon their release from custody. Not only will the bottom line become more favorable, but their chances at success upon release from prison will improve, too.
The Long and Short of Book Marketing from Prison
Effective book marketing is hard. It’s hard with a ton of money at an author’s or publisher’s disposal, and it’s even harder if there is no money at all. The key is in prioritizing expenses, finding smart outsource opportunities, and managing the rest of the legwork oneself. Virtually all of the components discussed in this article are optional. The only mandatory component concerns finding a dedicated person outside of prison to act as the communications manager. This is essential. Effectively marketing a book from prison is not possible without a reliable outside contact.
The best advice in this realm comes from personal experience. My personal experience marketing my books about prisons and prison education has been to spend the majority of available funds on a central platform (i.e., our websites PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com). This is because these are our own properties, and can be used for all of our book projects. Following this, the best money spent is on a virtual book tour. They are very effective at pumping up book sales, but they can be time intensive and sometimes too technical for an outside contact to plan, engage, and manage. Last, if funds are still available, targeted, low-cost advertisements are very helpful, but they should be focused on an audience who are already engaging in ways the author wants engagement (e.g., ads on Goodreads promote book reviews, ads in Prison Legal News promote sales to prisoners, etc.).
Writing books in prison is hard. Prison administrators and prison guards like to shut prisoners up or otherwise hinder their public advocacy. Prison mail rooms and the communication protocols in place make timely correspondence very challenging. And lack of internet and true computer access make book marketing almost impossible. But by following the above plan, effective book PR is possible. The proof is in the results of those of us who have come before and succeeded. And the results can be replicated through thorough research, trial, and error. But as missteps are made, a road map too is created. And eventually, the road map of what works will prove to be sustainable and will afford even someone stuck in a prison to become a visible, world-class author.