Harnessing the Power of TikTok: From Self-Published to Traditionally Published Author

Image: Holocaust survivor Gidon Lev stands at the gate of the former Terezin concentration camp in the Czech Republic, holding a yellow fabric Magen David with the word "Jude" stitched on it.

Todays post is by author and editor Julie Gray.

As a writer and a developmental editor, I experience the same highs and lows as the writers I work with. Trying to get an agent and a book deal seems like looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s easy and understandable to get frustrated and give up. Likewise, publishing independently sounds like a confusing marathon without any guarantee of actual sales.

In 2019, I queried agents with my manuscript, The True Adventures of Gidon Lev: Rascal. Holocaust Survivor. Optimist. The manuscript is unusual, and I knew pitching it would be difficult. It’s a book about writing a book about a Holocaust survivor. In other words, I used a meta-narrative to frame and contextualize Gidon’s life story and memories.

I was right; my queries were not successful. After a few months, I gave up. The book’s subject, Gidon, was 83 years old at the time. I decided to publish the book independently so that Gidon’s dream would come true while he could enjoy it. That was in 2020, during the pandemic. Gidon got the book he is so proud of, and to my delight, the book got a starred review in Kirkus and was included in their best nonfiction of 2020 list. It also won an Indie Reader award.

The process of publishing the book independently was an invaluable education for me; I learned every step along the way, from uploading to learning about keywords to getting blurbs and more. I’m really glad I did it. The book sold modestly, but that was okay; Gidon was happy, and I was (and am) also proud of the book and the awards it won.

About a year after the book came out, on a whim, Gidon and I decided to try TikTok. We had no idea what we were doing but figured that #booktok could help us sell more copies. And it did at first. But slowly, our account shifted away from the book toward Holocaust education in general. Today, we have almost half a million followers. Gidon became a TikTok sensation. With a platform like ours, maybe now a literary agent would be interested in the book—even though it was already out as a self-published book.

The accepted wisdom is that it is tough and exceedingly rare for an indie writer to cross into traditional publishing. Who hasn’t heard the extraordinary story of Hugh Howey, whose “Silo” is now airing on Apple TV+ (it’s great, by the way!). There is also the story of Andy Weir, whose book The Martian started as chapters on his website and became available on Amazon for 99 cents. The rest is history. And there are others, too. So–it is possible–but I did not have massive book sales as leverage. But I did have half a million people on TikTok who loved Gidon.

I decided to give querying a shot. What did I have to lose?

I wrote a query letter that started off by acknowledging upfront that my query was unusual. I told the story of the book and its trajectory and, of course, included the surprising phenomenon of TikTok and the resultant media coverage of Gidon. I kept it to one page and hit send eighty-four times.

Reader, I got an agent. Very quickly. In fact, our agent replied on the same day that I sent the query. We signed a contract a month later. Now, an entire “team” is working on our project together with us.

Wait—what project? Well. Because our book was published independently and had had some exposure to the public, our agent (and team) decided we should write a proposal for a different book, something that is similar to The True Adventures, but broader in scope, to include Gidon’s life today, as a Holocaust educator on the world’s biggest social media platform. If this second book does well after publication, then we can discuss rereleasing the first book. This was not exactly what I had in mind—but it is an unexpected opportunity.

The True Adventures of Gidon Lev by Julie Gray

The story of The True Adventures is unconventional, and I cannot say it has been a big success quite yet. But it is an example of how things can work out in unexpected ways. By having the audacity to query with a book that had already been published independently, I was able to give new life to the project in general. The takeaway for you, dear writer, is that there are many approaches to getting your book out there to readers. It might happen with a manuscript you wrote five years ago, with a new cookbook you decide to write, or because your manuscript wins an award or otherwise gains attention. Don’t give up. Anything is possible.

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