The date of August 15th was stuck in my mind. That was the day my pre-order campaign was scheduled to begin. Unlike finalizing the book website or changing my social media profiles, this date mattered because it marked a very personal phase of the project that would find me emailing virtually everyone I know.
This sort of campaign is practically a requirement for authors like me. Before the book comes out, my personal network is where it all begins and it’s my job to contact people and encourage them to pre-order the book, or share a link. With their help, the book can earn attention before it comes out.
I never look forward to self-promotion, or promotion of any kind, really. I wish there was a way to put something into the world and have people buy it on merits alone. But that doesn’t work for books that are not yet published. I must be involved.
In normal times, I would dread the process of promoting the book. I’d probably write one big email, add everyone I know to the BCC line, and send it. The process would be over in an afternoon and I could move on. I’d probably get moderate results from moderate effort.
These, as you know, are not normal times. COVID has changed everyone’s life in ways large and small. Millions of people are out of work and people are dying in unthinkable numbers every day. We’re on the cusp of an election and social unrest that sucks the air out of everything in the media. What an excellent time to launch a new book!
The dread I felt for self-promotion became magnified by the pandemic. Not only do I have to promote the book, but do it in a turbulent and unpredictable environment. I worried that I would come off as someone who was ignoring the reality of other people’s lives. I expected people to respond with messages like, “DUDE, read the room!”
I reviewed my list of friends and peers and tried to imagine what I could say that would encourage them to be involved. How could I approach them in a way that felt natural?
As this weighed on my mind, I thought about how I would want to be approached for something like a book in this environment. I’d want it to feel personal and authentic. I’d want to feel like it was sent to me, exclusively. I would want to feel like a relationship had been rekindled. This prompted an idea: Instead of blasting a single email to everyone, what if I took the time to email every person, individually?
The business person in me said this strategy was inefficient. And that’s probably true. A single email blast would work well enough. I’d get over the icky feeling and hope for the best.
But then something changed. It felt like I didn’t have a choice. The only way to promote the book, in my mind, was to send hundreds of personalized, individual emails. These weren’t just personalized by name, but actual messages to that person with the goal of making a real connection.
After five or six hours of research, I made a spreadsheet with every person, their email address and a place for notes about them. This was the foundation and it looked daunting. Over 300 emails, many to people I respect and admire. I felt pangs of dread.
One morning last week, I reserved a few hours on my calendar and dove in, starting on the first row. It didn’t take long to feel the first glimpse of delight. For each person, I tried to identify at least one thing I could mention that would show I’m thinking about them, exclusively. This might be something I saw on Instagram, a memory from the past, a funny anecdote. Inside jokes are often the best connectors. Going through each name on the list forced me to think back about our relationship, how I knew them, when we saw each other last.
If I needed inspiration, I’d find something by searching for them by name. I’d see that they switched jobs, moved to a new location, or got married. I’d learn about their lives and then show them, in email, that I was aware. I made the effort. This reflection time was delightful because it made me appreciate the people in my life. At a time when my physical contact was at a minimum, these reflections gave me a sense of community that’s long term and will last through the pandemic.
The project was taking hours each day, but it was more fulfilling than I could have imagined because it was personal. Sure, I was promoting a book and asking them to pre-order it, but I was also reaching out as a friend who knows them. I was showing them that they mattered. I didn’t compose every email as a soliloquy, but I did make it clear the email was exclusive to them. In more than one case, I learned a friend was recovering from an illness and was able to approach them with that in mind.
Of course, not everyone was engaged and I’m sure some didn’t have the time and had to ignore the message. I expect that. But I was also surprised by how many people chose to reply and keep the conversation going. Friends pre-ordered the book and posted messages on social media encouraging others to do the same. People I hadn’t seen since high school joined in and it filled me with delight. They were excited to read the book and help in any way they could. Some pre-ordered multiple copies. People wanted to help at a level that surprised me.
As much as I’d love to think this reaction was because of my carefully chosen words or nature of the book, I believe other factors are at work. We are all feeling the effects of the pandemic in ways large and small. Our physical distance may be highlighting new ways to feel generous and gracious. We still value helping and supporting one another, but now it’s using digital bits instead of atoms.
Publishing a book under these circumstances isn’t a best case scenario, but I now have a completely new perspective. What I’ve discovered is that we all want to be a part of one another’s lives. When that’s not possible physically, we can do it in other ways and with other goals. Today, it might be telling someone about the book, tomorrow it could be me congratulating a family with a new baby, or a graduation. I would love to know if a friend I haven’t seen in years is starting a new business or moving to a new town. These are the things that can connect us and now, they are just about the best we can do. I encourage you to reach out to your friends. Give them an update, ask a question, offer an idea. Reminisce.
You might end up feeling, like I do, that there is a support network on our side and helping us through. They’ve shown us that it’s OK to reach out and ask for support. It’s OK to be in touch after years of distance. We all need that and it’s a delight to feel connected again.