Inside BookExpo: How Publishers Promote Books

Today I want to showcase the variety of ways that publishers promote books within the publishing industry. I will share with you what I saw this week at BookExpo, a trade show held each year that is open only to those in the publishing industry. I want to make a big point here: publishers use a wide range of new and old fashioned ways to promote books. If you are an author wondering how you should develop your own audience and readership, take note of what is happening here. I’m going to explore it piece by piece, so please read the captions to the photos, they are critically important.

Who is the audience at BookExpo? Librarians, booksellers, distributors, agents, media, and so so so many others who play roles in how publishing works.

Let’s dig in:


The first thing to note is that publishers spend loads of money to be a part of this event. It was held in the Javits Center in New York City; just look at the size of this place:

People travel from all over to come, and publishers will send loads of employees:

They construct booths that all attendees are welcomed into. It’s kind of like walking right into the offices of each of these publishers. Here are some of the booths of major publishers:

And of course, there were many small publishers, individual authors, and publishing services who had booths:


For many of the big publishers, a primary reason they participate in BookExpo is to have pre-scheduled meetings with partners. Each booth has an area that is meant only for private meetings. Some of the bigger publishers have screened areas just for meetings:


Okay, here I am going to list out a wide range of ways that publishers tried to market books at BookExpo. We’ll start with huge banners. Like, mega huge. Something to note: these publishers are convinced that John Grisham’s books won’t sell themselves. Nor Dan Brown. Nor Tom Hanks. No, their name recognition is not enough. They require a 50 foot wide banner. Think about that for a moment. So many authors assume “once I make it big, things will get easier.” Look at these banners. These publishers (and the authors) are working hard to try to succeed with each and every book. It’s not easy.


Then there are the tote bags. Yes, tote bags. These are hugely popular on the show floor, and people will wait on line for them, and collect them feverishly. I was super impressed with this woman’s collection:


Yes, this publisher spent big money and big space to promote a little book series called Harry Potter. I can’t even tell you how many authors I have spoken to who have cringed at the idea of doing paid advertising. You can tell that it somehow made them feel dirty. They simply wanted readers to magically find their books. Yet, here is the publisher advertising Harry Potter in their booth:


Free books are a huge part of BookExpo. It is why many people come. Now, there is something to note about these books… many of them won’t be published for months. The publishers are promoting books for the Fall now to try to get on the radar of librarians, booksellers, and others. Some of these books are highly coveted. People will wait on a long line for them. Others are stacked up in huge piles, free for the taking:


I saw this constantly, a publisher handselling a book to try to get someone to take it for free! Imagine this. You walk into the Penguin Random House booth, there is a huge stack of a book that won’t be released until the Fall, and one of their employees comes up to you and is trying really hard to get you interested in the book. The goal? That you take a free copy!


Publishers aren’t just pushing their new books, there are loads of displays showcasing books that have been in the market for months or years. I was so glad I got this photo of someone pulling a book down off of a high shelf. This works!


There were loads of cameras, video crews, live interviews, Facebook Live sessions and so much else. Some of this was traditional media organizations, and some was media created by the publishers themselves:


There were lots of events setup throughout the show. Some were instructional, others took you behind the scenes of a book. There are actually a bunch of concurrent events that go on during the show, entire conferences on the lower levels of Javits Center:


Anything you can think to attract people, these publishers did it, including live music, costumed characters, and free drinks in the booths during the last hour of the day.


I saw this while on line to get Gretchen Rubin’s new book — signing people up to her email newsletter list. So many authors don’t want to bother with email newsletters, they get sheepish about putting a sign up box on their website. Yet here is Gretchen having a member of the Penguin Random House staff go person to person to get them onto the list:


At every opportunity, no matter how big the author is, there was a new opportunity to advertise their upcoming book:


This is a huge part of the show, just wandering through the booths and chatting with colleagues and friends:


Both within booths and in a large autographing area, there was a wide range of authors signing their latest books:


This always astounds me… how even the most famous names and bestselling authors travel to BookExpo to handsell their books one person at a time. As you look through these, consider how famous some of them are, how many millions of books they have already sold. So many writers seem to bemoan the very idea of marketing, saying, “I just want to write.” Would some of the people in the photo below have preferred to wake up on this day and work on their craft, or spend time with their family? Maybe. Yet, they show up. Here are some people I met or saw:

Mo Willems:

Amy Tan:

Denis Leary, John Hodgeman, and Isla Fisher:

Maria Shriver:

Harlan Coben:

Scott Turow:

Malachy McCourt:

E. Lockhart:

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner:

Astronaut Scott Kelly (this guy spent more than 500 days in space!):

A. J. Jacobs:

Gretchen Rubin:


Okay, this marketing tactic didn’t come from a large publisher, it came from an indie bookstore owner from Tennessee that I met, James Lund. We were discussing the ins and outs of running a bookstore, and he told me that something that he resisted for months, but ended up working was advertising on a small AM radio station. Go figure. Great guy, check out his bookstore Duck River Books.


There was so much else I couldn’t capture. Yes, many people were Tweeting, Facebooking, Instagraming, and there were other things happening to market books that I simply didn’t get a photo of. My point is this: even for large publishers with the most successful authors, it isn’t easy to market a book. They try a variety of methods, and even then, it is difficult.

No, you do not have to spend the kind of money that these publishers do. But many of the tactics listed above can be done for free, or with a small investment. You do not have to do them all. But if you are serious about finding success as an author, I would encourage you to not ignore marketing out of some romantic belief that “good books simply find readers.” Does it happen? Sure. Does it happen as often as it should. Nope.