We speak to authors all day who ask about marketing. What is it? How do I do it? Can someone take care of it for me? Here is an article to answer these questions and teach you how to market your book. Hopefully it will leave you feeling clearer about what marketing is and why it’s important to an indie author.

What is book marketing?

Book marketing is to book publishing what plates and silverware are to a home cooked Thanksgiving meal: not having any makes it much more difficult for people to enjoy your book (or your turkey, depending on which side of the simile you’re standing).

Marketing literally means bringing your book to market. In other words, making your book available to potential readers. In today’s competitive book market, it’s important to make sure your book is readily accessible to your target readership.

In contrast to book promotion, which is all about encouraging people to buy your book and to spread the word about it, marketing is about making your book as easy to buy as possible so that you can reap the rewards from all your promotional efforts. Without proper marketing, all the promotion in the world won’t help boost your book sales since there won’t be anywhere for people to buy your book.


Why your book needs marketing

Like promotion, marketing is an often-neglected part of the publishing process. This is particularly the case among indie authors, and even more so among first-time indie authors. Marketing can be intimidating to an author with little publishing experience. It stands outside the average author’s comfort zone, far from the familiar solitude and introspective work that writing involves.

However uncomfortable it may feel, marketing is actually an essential part of book publishing. It’s just as essential as editing, cover design and printing, the three building blocks of traditional publishing. If you’re serious about becoming a published author, the time will come when you’ll need to think about how you’re going to market your self-published book. And the sooner you do this, the better, because how you decide to market your book can have an impact on how it is designed and even written.

The book market: trade vs non-trade

If marketing means bringing your book to market, then it’s important to first know what we mean by “market.” The market includes any and every place where your book might be sold, borrowed or gifted. The book market is typically divided into two categories: trade and non-trade. These two segments of the book market involve different players and will call on you to employ different strategies. Before we get into which strategies work best for an indie author, let me say a few words about the trade and non trade markets.


In book publishing, “selling to the trade” typically refers to selling books to bookstores and libraries. The trade marketplace includes:
  • Physical (“brick-and-mortar”) retailers
  • Online retailers
  • Public libraries
  • Private or specialty libraries
  • School/university/college libraries
  • School/university/college bookstores
The trade marketplace is characterized by a well-established distribution system. A publisher or indie author must go through this system of distributors to access the trade market. Books sold to the trade are sold on consignment. This means that bookstores and libraries effectively borrow books from the publisher or author and can return them for full credit.


The non-trade market includes every potential bookseller that is not considered part of the trade marketplace. This might include:
  • Book fairs
  • Direct online sales
  • Gift shops
  • Lectures
  • Corporate sales
  • Crowdfunding
  • Specialty retailers that carry books of interest to their clientele, such as pet shops, health food stores, cooking equipment stores, cafes, meditation centres, etc.
Because they’re not part of the trade market’s established distribution system, members of the non-trade market typically require a direct relationship with the retailer, shop or institution. The non-trade market often accepts non-returnable books (“hard sales”).

While there are ways for indie authors to access the trade’s distribution system, the issue that tends to make it difficult for indie authors to sell to the trade is the fact that books are sold on consignment. Consignment means that if your book is selected, your distributor may require that you provide several hundreds of copies of your book, printed at your own expense. These copies will be distributed to bookstores on a long-term loan (typically 6 months or a year). When the loan period comes to an end, any unsold books are returned to the publisher (you).

Consignment sales involve a great deal of risk. It’s a risk that big publishers are able to absorb, but most indie authors don’t have the means to gamble such a large investment on the trade market, especially when there’s no guarantee that it’ll sell more books.

For this reason, most indie authors will focus their energies on the non-trade market, where hard sales are more of a common practice and direct relationships with the bookseller make it easier for an author to target their readership.

The future of indie book sales is online

With the monumental rise of self-publishing over the past decade, the non-trade market has responded in kind with emerging opportunities for indie authors. Most of these opportunities are to be found online.

Considering that the average indie author is publishing on a restricted budget, the Internet is an ideal way to reach the largest possible readership while spending as little money as possible.

The online reader market today is huge. In 2017, 52% of all books purchased in Canada were bought online. While many of these sales still go through major retailer platforms like Amazon or Indigo’s online bookstore, we’re seeing a shift towards more grass-roots strategies that emphasizes author independence.

Listing your book through a major retailer like Amazon means having to subject yourself (and your book) to their rules. In Amazon’s case, these rules have become increasingly restrictive for indie authors.

In a 2018 white paper titled Self-Publishing 3.0, the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) introduced new marketing ideas for indie authors that combine a number of different marketing channels around a central hub: the author’s website. “It’s about building a sustainable business,” writes ALLi director Orna Ross, “not a flash-in-the-pan success. It’s about the mindset shift needed to take control of an author business and not put all publishing eggs in somebody else’s basket.”

The Internet not only provides an indie author with the means to reach a wide audience. It’s also an opportunity to achieve true independence. For this, new marketing practices need to be developed, and a new emphasis placed on those that already exist that most benefit the interests of indie authors.


Online marketing strategies for indie authors

As an indie author, it’s in your interest to focus on the non-trade market. Keep consignment sales to a minimum and prioritize opportunities where you can make direct sales—not only because these are hard sales but also because they’re opportunities to connect directly with your readers (don’t underestimate the power of readers, they’re the most convincing ambassadors for your work). The following two marketing strategies will provide an indie author with the exposure, control and independence needed to succeed online:

The author’s website

According to ALLi, a robust indie marketing plan includes an author’s website at its core. This website is not only a hub for your reader community (by way of blog articles and/or a newsletter). It’s also a digital storefront with built-in e-commerce.

Encouraging your readers to buy directly from your website is the best way to stay in control of your sales and maintain true author independence.

It ensures highest royalties on online sales, and helps to fuel your promotional efforts by adding names to your oh-so-crucial mailing list.

Online distribution

As a complement to your author’s website, online distribution can be an interesting way to achieve wide distribution across a number of online retail platforms.

Online distribution has the advantage of being print-on-demand, which circumvents the traditional barrier of consignment sales, while still getting your book listed in catalogs of major bookstores.

Distribution comes with its limitations, though: the royalties are much lower and you’re completely disconnected from your buyer. What’s more, the listings on major platforms like Amazon can end up competing with your author’s website. Although a valuable part of a serious marketing plan, online distribution should be used with discretion by indie authors.