By now, you probably know who Luvvie Ajayi is. If you don't, you will.
Photo: Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times
From an award-winning digital strategist, to a renowned speaker and writer and blogger, Ajayi put out a New York Times best-selling book I'm Judging You in September 2016 - and landed herself on every TV show, in every article, and subsequently on every bookshelf since. A small producer and writer in Hollywood, Shonda Rhimes, just picked up I'm Judging You to be part of a new comedy series for Shondaland.
Needless to say, Ajayi's star is on the rise -- from a New York Times profile to high-visibility speaking engagements where she challenges the way we think and act, particularly around race. She is beloved for her ability to challenge and make people laugh and think, and her unique tone and humor writing (which has since been copied extensively).
Full disclosure: Luvvie is a friend of mine, and more than anything and watching her succeed, what I wanted to talk to her most about was her ability to promote her book.
As someone who has circled around the book world, writes proposals with clients, counsels on the industry and particularly on book press, I sat down with Luvvie to talk to her about the promotion machine behind I'm Judging You: her.
I was well aware that Luvvie put herself on the New York Times bestseller list with only the effort of her own (and her large audience and community, as you will read), which is nearly impossible to do. She didn't have a large industry chunk of change or big funders standing behind her.
Which means, that more people should follow her lead when putting out a book too.
On Getting Started
Meredith Fineman: Tell me a little bit about your desires to write a book, your expectations to write a book.
Luvvie Ajayi: I've been blogging for about 11 years, and I knew I wanted to write a book because I wanted something that people would be able to hold onto. You know, blogging online, being on digital is great, but I wanted to create something that would last longer than I would. But I wanted to do it when I had something book-worthy to say, not just a series of blog posts put together.
When I got the idea for [I'm Judging You', I was like, this is it. And it was one of those light bulb moments when I'm like, "Ah, duh, yes! This is what I need to do." And the idea for the book came on August 4th, 2014 at 6 p.m. Central Time, and that's highly specific, because that day a journalist plagiarized my work. [The journalist] took about three paragraphs, gave me no credit.
Q: What would you suggest to someone who wants to write a book?
Ajayi: I would suggest that, one, you have a clear idea of what you want to say and accomplish in this book when you go out. And then also, how important a proposal is. My proposal was really important in my writing process, because I would refer back to it to keep me on task, and you know, I didn't have writer's block, because if I was like, I'm not sure what to write about today, I could always go back to my proposal and be like, ah, yes, this is what I said I was going to write in this chapter. So, that's just a really important piece.
You Never Know Who Might Be Reading
Q: What advice do you have for someone that has a book in them and has no connections to the industry and wants to find an agent?
Ajayi: My agent found me because he'd been to my blog. He approached me and was like, "Hey, um, I read your writing and I think it's good." But I think honestly, maybe what to take away from that is that, if you want to be a writer, you have to be writing constantly.
The cool thing about the internet now is it's democratized platforms. Like, anybody can create a blog. Anybody can give themselves some type of place where their work is visible. So, for me, the fact that I had that blog was really important in me getting this agent. Because I didn't even realize that I was auditioning for an agent until an agent dropped in my lap. So, if you don't have connections to notable people, start a blog, you know. Have a place that people can always go to to find your work.
Q: How is writing a book different from what you thought it was going to be like?
Ajayi: Writing the book itself was just me with my computer over months, was the easy part. I had clarity of what I wanted to write, and that made a world of difference. I happened to have an editor in a publishing house that trusted my voice and they let me do what I do.
The Cover Counts
Q: Let's talk about promotion for a second, because I've done book press for a long time. I promote lots of different stuff, but I have never seen a machine like what you did. Tell me a little bit about that process.
Ajayi: I wanted my book cover to be one where, if somebody saw it in a store, they would be compelled to pick it up at the minimum, just look at the back. Judgey Pop became its own character. It created this buzz for the book, because you saw it, and even if you didn't know what it was attached to, people were wondering why this lollipop was giving you side eye.
On the day that my book launched, people were so excited to share it, and people were saying that they tried to buy the print version, as opposed to the eBook, because they wanted to be able to be reading the book in public and be judging folks at the same time.
This book was able to soar because of the people behind it. My friends, who are influencers, hit me up and were like, "Hey. How can we help?"
People shared it on Instagram, they shared it on Facebook, they called their friends to read it. They wrote book reviews for it. They added it to their book clubs.
And that ownership that people have for my book was really important, because folks thought, like, if my book was a success, they will be successful, too, and I think that was really important. Honestly, was humbling for me to see how dedicated, committed people were to see my book shine.
Q: I saw you had influencers, you had social media groups, you had big social media pushes, you had big media pushes. How did you sort all of those different elements out?
Ajayi: Six months before my book... I dropped the cover for the first time six...like, literally six months before it came out.
I used sharing the process of the book, from preorders to drafts, as a marketing tool. So, I shared news with my audience, like, "Oh my gosh, I just finished my last edit." I shared pictures of when I was recording the audio book. I shared just the milestones. I brought my audience with me in the process so they felt ownership in that way, too. It's like, oh my God, we've been with her along this entire journey. This book to be...to fly off the shelf, because they felt like they had been a part of the creation of the book.
Making Your Readers Feel Agency and Pulling Back the Veil
Photo via Chicago Tribune.
Q: So, showing the process, whereas a lot of other authors just, you know, send out a link for preorder.
Ajayi: Right. Right. I showed entire process. Like, along the way, I shared all of them on social. Like, "Oh my God, I just turned in my manuscript." "Excited to share the cover with you guys."
I just thought today, also, here is the first time I'm holding the actual book in my hand. Um, "I think I'm going to New York to record the audio book." That took three days.
After that was done, I shared, you know, just anything in this process to kind of pull back the curtain, because I feel like publishing can be such a veil so much, and people don't know the process. So, I wanted to interview with my first book, so everything about it was new to me, too. So, I loved bringing people into that.
Q: I think it's really unique that you took joy in the process, whereas so many people will say writing a book is hell, you know, all of "this is hell".
Ajayi: It was important for me to find joy in it, it's an 18-month process. I did not want to be in a hell hole for the 18 months. One, it's important to pick the right publishing house. So, I think it would have been more hell if, like, my...my publishing house or, like, my editor, when they got my manuscript, were like, "Nah, this is not the book. We want you to do it again." That would have made it hellish.
Just finding joy in the whole idea that I'm doing this thing that a lot of people don't get a chance to do. You know, like, having a book deal with a major publishing house, a lot of people want that and they don't get a chance to have it. So, the gratitude, that also followed me along.
The Digital Push and Launch Day
Q: Tell me a little bit about the digital strategy piece that you brought in, the social media strategy piece.
Ajayi: I wanted this book to be everywhere. So, on launch day, one, I picked the hashtag "I'm Judging You", which is a popular hashtag because I wanted to take over the very popular hashtag, so that when people clicked it, if they don't even know about the book, they end up seeing the book all over the place, which is what happens. Like, on Instagram, if you click on "I'm judging you", the hashtag, my book is what shows up the most.
Q: A lot of people would, like, put "book" at the end of something. So, you're like, no, this is just going to become a saying, period, of mine.
Ajayi: Right, where that becomes so tied to my book that even people who have no idea about this book that click on it, they're like, "Oh, snap. I didn't know about this." So, that was a very conscious thing. So, just asking my influencer friends on that day to get information and all share it. I wanted people to see this book cover so many times on their timeline that they felt left out that they don't have it.
I would see folks say, "Oh my gosh. Like, I've seen this book from so many people. All right. I'm gonna go get it." People could absolutely be peer pressured into doing something.
And that's what the buzz is for. "Man, all the cool kids have it. I need to get it." So, that also worked.
Q: Right. Well, also this idea of it being an event that you're invited...everybody's invited to, but sort of a party, almost.
Q: So, for someone who is putting out a book who doesn't have the kind of following that you have, or that you've built over the past decade, you know, what would you say to that person, in terms of gearing up for promotion to do whatever they can to make their book a success?
It helps to get a good publicist. From my publisher (Henry Holt & Co.), I was working with Alison Klooster. And then I also had Mocha Ochoa Nana from The Oracle Group. Together, they made sure my press was tight.
Come with a correct pitch. Why is your book relevant? Why should they care about your book? The reason why some people even came to me was because my book was the perfect thing for their outlet. But if you know your book is the perfect thing that this outlet would want to cover, absolutely pitch them. Find who the producer is and tell them, "Here's what my book is." Have copies ready to send to people.
I had my media kit on the ready for anybody, so they also could see what my work is about. Um, it does help to have a following, but it's not impossible to get press just because you don't have a following.
I took advantage of doing videos on Facebook Live. Like, on my launch date, I actually went on Facebook Live and read a piece from my book. So, when people see that, "Oh, wow, that's actually really interesting," they'll be more willing to buy the whole thing if you give them a preview.
I always drop the imjudgingyoubook.com link. That was important, to have a place where people can go to go find all the information they'd want about the book, where they can order, blurbs from important people, press that the book has gotten, dates for my book tour. So, it became, like, the mothership for the book. Having a very clean call to action, "Hey, check out imjudgingyoubook.com for more info and where to buy," it's good. That hashtag also helped me.
Hitting the Bestseller List
Source: Awesomely Luvvie
Q: What is it like to hit the New York Times Bestseller list?
Ajayi: It was nuts. It was the best feeling, I was so grateful, because I realized, like, man, how many people have wanted to hit this list and did not, and here I go doing it the first week my book came out. I screamed for, like, 45 minutes. [Laughs]
Q: What about continuing promotion?
Ajayi: You just can't stop promoting your book. You know, so every week or so, I make a...a shameless plug of, "Hey, do you realize I have a book? You should consider getting it." You know, again, the way I've made sure I...I'm Judging You is not far from my social media is, you know, I share tweets from people who just got it. So, their fresh excitement is great for me.
We tend to think because, oh my God, this book has been out so long, surely everybody already knows about it. I still get surprised by people who are like, "Oh my God. I didn't know you had a book." And I'm thinking, damn, I thought I'd been talking about it nonstop. No, there are still people who do not realize the thing exists.
A book is not a short-term project. It's essentially your baby, so it takes a lot of work. But it's really good when other people feel like that book is tied to them, also.
Putting out a book is absolutely a lesson in vulnerability, because it doesn't matter how much of an audience you have. Some people who have giant audiences can't sell books, because those audiences don't feel like they need to give them their money.
So, it's a new process to kind of, one, relearn that book publishing is its own beast. Like, it is its own beast, as in you might be a celebrity and your book tanks.
So, you have to think about your book as its own different project. You have to give it your attention, as opposed to assuming that the people who know you will automatically support it. Don't take that for granted.