Penny Sansevieri Is the Accidental Entrepreneur Who Can Help Market Your Story

Penny Sansevieri started Author Marketing Experts without much experience or money, but the lessons she learned on the way to mega-success can be applied to any business.

Penny Sansevieri Can Help Anyone, Including Business Owners, Tell Stories That Sell

In 2000, Penny Sansevieri’s experience marketing her first two self-published romance novels had taught her valuable lessons she realized other new authors needed to know — even those whose work came out from a major publishing house. 

Amazon had only started six years earlier and had not yet begun to put physical bookstores out of business. Its Kindle offering would not be launched for another seven years and Twitter (now X) would only start reducing attention spans to 140 characters in 2006.

It was always hard for 99% of books to get into stores, and only a handful would become bestsellers or at least quite profitable, but authors back in the digital Stone Age only faced competition from about 500 new books per day being published.

“Now it’s over 8,500 daily and growing because it’s relatively easy to offer a book on Amazon or some alternative and promote it through social media,” Sansevieri, founder and CEO of Author Marketing Experts, Inc. (AME) of San Diego, California, told Startup Savant. “But very, very few are successful by any measure, which is frustrating for those who feel they have an important story to tell.”

Another 20 of her own books later, plus having had some bestsellers, has given her a lot of experience to draw on to help wannabe authors.

Look for Market Opportunities and Listen to Prospective Customers

At 9, her father, who owned a barber shop in Anaheim, and her mother divorced and she and Penny moved to a farm in Belgium. 

“She had grown up in the area and her relatives were there, so she worked at local stores, but the farm had no running water or heat and it was a shock for me to not have the conveniences I was used to,” she recalled. “I was unable to even talk to anyone in the beginning, since I didn’t know any Flemish, though I eventually learned it, as well as French, German, and some Latin. I also became fascinated by the history of World War II, so in some ways the experience turned out to be very positive. But Belgian women then were expected to get married at 18 and have kids, while I wanted to become an entrepreneur like my dad, so at 20 I moved back to Anaheim.”

A lover of books, she had thought about becoming a librarian, but that wasn’t for those seeking an entrepreneurial opportunity, so she took jobs in corporate marketing. But after she was laid off twice, it made starting her own public relations and marketing company seem attractive. 

“I was really an accidental entrepreneur, and since I didn’t know anything about marketing books, I went to writer conferences to learn what they needed and was even asked to speak at some about my research on how publishers did not give them sufficient support,” she said. “It took about a year before I felt I could take off my training wheels. I used to go to New York a lot, but now the industry is much more decentralized and new challenges come up constantly. I always had a virtual office, so my overhead was low, but I needed help and found it hard to hire someone remotely who didn’t eventually disappear because they didn’t have to actually show up in person for work.”

Then in 2011,  Amy Cornell volunteered to help her edit a newsletter and eventually she became co-host of their book marketing podcast and co-author of AME’s posts, covering topics like “How to Advertise a Book: Tips to Save You Money” and “How to Get More Traction for Your Social Media Engagement.” 

“Before Amy, I was courted by some big publishers, but now we can keep clients on track with their deliverables using Basecamp,” she said.

Sansevieri’s subsequent books have included titles like “The New Business Card: Write and Publish a Book To Attract More Clients, More Media, and More Speaking Engagements,” and “How to Revise and Re-Release Your Book: Simple and Smart Strategies to Sell More Books.”

She’s also had home runs with her clients, notably some of the authors in the mega-bestselling series “The Secret,” 2009’s true crime story by Kent Whitaker, “Murder by Family,” and the 2011 sensation, “The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence.” 

Additionally, she helped the Ron Goldman family market O.J. Simpson’s “If I Did It,” which he had written in 2006 as his “hypothetical way I would have committed the murders” of Goldman and Nicole Brown in 1994, hoping to profit from it. The public outrage caused the publisher to cancel it and the Goldman family won the rights to publish this with essays about the case in 2007 and it became a bestseller.

Guy Kawasaki, author of 15 books and best-known as one of marketers of the original Apple Macintosh, praised her “for showing me the way with my book in promoting it.”

Guerrilla Marketing for Independent Authors

Most books, even from major publishers, get little more than a press release, according to Sansevieri. Regardless of whether one is lucky enough to have even that, every author needs to take ownership of how their book is promoted.

A successful book starts with the cover and the interior design of the pages, factors overlooked by many authors who opt to self-publish. A lot has to do with the target market: the cover might be sensational for some audiences, but inappropriate for those expected to be the buyers. Sansevieri takes this so seriously that she will often refuse to take on a client who will not improve it because it shows her they don’t understand their genre and subgenre.

Authors also have to be willing to do a lot of publicity and promo themselves and not just leave everything up to her firm. “It’s completely acceptable to hire us to do things they can’t do, like implementing our Amazon Optimization program or pitching bloggers, influencers, and the media, but if they refuse to provide some support on social media they will fail, so there is no point in taking them on.”

She finds most social media advertising too expensive from an ROI standpoint (especially Google AdWords), but to have a chance to make it work requires being extremely specific about the target audience. Use “negative keywords” such as “free e-book” or topics that are unrelated to its subject to be sure social media or Amazon don’t include readers interested in those in the results. “Also add some urgency, such as a limited-time deal,” she advises, but “BookBub’s Featured Deals are expensive, but running them internationally can be easier and less pricey to produce lots of quality impressions.” 

She is especially enthusiastic about authors who are willing to do events, whether signing at a bookstore, coffee shop, restaurant, or gift store, or can speak to a club or nonprofit whose members may have an interest in the topic.

She also encourages authors to make an audio version of their book available because so many people are willing to listen to them while traveling or taking breaks and these appeal to those who have challenges with reading. “Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing has launched a Virtual Voice which is a surprisingly good form of AI, since the voice doesn’t sound robotic,” she said. 

“Asking family and friends, let alone customers or vendors, to post reviews is a big ask and authors should not assume that everyone will be willing to do this, so just because you know 500 people does not mean you will get a lot of those types of reviews. Maybe they just don’t like reading the genre you’ve written about.” 

In 2010, Sansevieri taught book marketing at New York University, commuting weekly and now does this occasionally as an adjunct. “My core message to my students was they needed to know that hope is not a marketing plan and that applies to every author.”

headshot of Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.

Read more from Scott S. Smith