Marketing a Self-Published Book Series: An Interview with Author, Jennifer Vassel
Jennifer Vassel is an author and an entrepreneur. In 2016, she self-published the first book in her “I Am Unique” picture book series. Her book has found readers in Africa, Australia, and Europe. What started as a single story has grown into a franchise with more books in the series, toys, merchandise, and a potential animated TV series. Jennifer’s publishing path has been documented in Forbes, Essence, Black Enterprise, and Thrive Global. We checked in with Jennifer to learn more about her marketing practices.
Tell us a bit about your picture book series, I Am Unique!
“I Am Unique!” is about a little girl named Erin who has a birthmark on her face and a passion for acting. She wants to try out for the leading role in her school’s play, but when her best friend questions whether or not she would be good for the role due to her birthmark, she has to decide if she’s going to let a perceived flaw get in the way of her dream.
In the first book, Erin overcomes her insecurity. In subsequent stories, she helps other kids overcome their insecurities and share their unique gifts with the world.
The story of I Am Unique! comes from a personal place because I have a birthmark clinically known as Nevus of Ito. It covers a quarter of my back and a part of my shoulder. I was insecure about it growing up – so much so, that I wouldn’t wear certain tops or dresses that exposed it. Fast forward to today, I realize that no one should feel so insecure that they cover a piece of who they are. When we live in a time where media largely influences our self-esteem, we have to be sure kids (and adults) know it’s okay to be who they truly are.
How did you create a brand for the series and for yourself as an author?
Shortly after publishing I Am Unique! in 2016, I realized the need to scale and create a children’s media company that would reach the masses. I released a parent guide and teacher’s guide that aligned with common core curriculum because I wanted to equip parents and educators with tools to teach self-love at home and in the classroom.
I started building my personal brand as an author and speaker by sharing my story on and offline. People resonated with what I had to share and took interest in our budding children’s media brand.
Describe your marketing plan for the series.
The top 5 marketing strategies we use are:
Social media – Erin (the main character in our children’s series) has been places that we haven’t set foot in yet like Kenya, Uganda, Philippines, France, England – and that is directly attributed to social media. We also use social media as a tool for cross channel marketing (e.g., collaborating with brands that have similar messaging and hosting giveaways with fellow authors).
Live events – We vend at relevant events that we know our ideal audience attends. This helps to build community with our readers.
Pitch media outlets – As a result of pitching to journalists and reporters, we’ve been featured in local and national outlets like Essence, Forbes, Black Enterprise, xoNecole, Thrive Global, and most recently, the local news. We were recently featured on Spectrum News 1, where our story was shared in 1.9 million homes across greater Los Angeles. Getting press helps build credibility and can help to further establish you as an industry expert.
Ads – We run ads on Facebook and Instagram to build brand awareness, increase sales, and reach our ideal audience.
Brand/influencer partnerships – We partner with brands and influencers who are in alignment with our messaging.
How do you plan to expand and capitalize on the success you’ve had? What are your next steps?
I Am Unique! started as a children’s book series, but our vision has expanded to include guides, a coloring + activity book, and apparel. Our current project is writing more books in the series and adapting our book into an animated series. We’re working on our pitch bible right now (the deck used to present your show idea) and are planning to pitch to video streaming platforms (e.g., Apple TV+ and Netflix) in early 2020. My business partner and I are currently being mentored by a woman who owns a toy manufacturing company. Her dolls are in major retailers such as Target, CVS, and Walmart. We plan on developing a prototype of Erin with her and bringing it with us when we pitch our show to streaming platforms.
We have built relationships with key decision makers in the industry by leveraging professional and alumni networks such as the Children’s Media Association, Women in Toys, Loyola Marymount University, and Azusa Pacific University.
Another priority for us is to continue to be a better partner to our team and customers. We’re investing in product research, validating new products, and understanding how our solutions fit into people’s lives. Most importantly, we plan to keep an ongoing dialogue with our customers on and offline because we believe you cannot build good solutions for problems you don’t truly understand.
What specific marketing and branding advice do you have for self-published authors?
The first mistake I see authors do is not clearly identifying their audience. Your book is not for everyone; identify your target audience early on and evaluate your product market fit. Create an avatar which represents your ideal reader. Ask yourself these questions: Who is your book for? What are their interests? Their demographics? How does your book solve their problem? Knowing your ideal audience will help you laser in on your marketing efforts.
Once you’ve identified your audience, you need to build community. There’s nothing more disheartening than putting your blood, sweat, and tears into your book, publishing it, and then hearing crickets. You can’t and shouldn’t rely on friends and family to push your book/business forward – it’s not sustainable. I started a crowdfunding campaign for my children’s book and wasn’t successfully funded because I didn’t take the time to build my community. Networking to add value, collaborating with like-minded individuals, and creating mutually beneficial relationships are ways to build community. Build your community BEFORE launching your book into the world.
And another note to add: ENGAGE with your community – even if it’s 1 person. How are you going to effectively engage an audience of 1,000+ if you ignore the 10 you have now? Focus on authentically and consistently connecting with your early adopters now. The numbers will come later.
Is there anything self-published authors should avoid when marketing and promoting their book?
Here are 3 Things to Avoid:
Spamming your friends, family, and associates – You might think sending mass emails/texts to promote your book to your fan base is harmless. Well, there are actually some regulations around this (see: CAN-SPAM Act of 2003). You don’t want people’s first introduction to your book to be being looped into group texts or emails they never opted into. This is off-putting and can damage your brand image.
Producing low quality work – Self-published authors get a bad rep because of their book’s poor quality. If you put your self-published book side-by-side with a traditionally published book, would people be able to tell the difference? They shouldn’t. If you release your book into the world and it’s riddled with grammatical errors and low-resolution graphics, what does that say about your brand and level of professionalism? I can’t tell you how many times I see people without a professional headshot on deck and not prepared for an opportunity that might fall into their lap. Invest in your presentation. Get quality, hi-res photos of yourself and your book. You are a brand – presentation has got to be a priority.
Going at this alone – There are resources out there that’ll help you through the self-publishing process, such as this free 10-page guide that outlines the steps I took to publish both my books. I also offer 60-minute Pick My Brain sessions if you’d like to learn more about my proven book marketing strategies, or just need someone who has been in your shoes to bounce ideas off of. Happy publishing!
If you’d like to learn more about “I Am Unique!” visit their website at www.iamuniquebook.com. You can also follow them on social via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at @IAmUniqueBook.