How to Market Yourself on Instagram without a Book to Sell (Yet)


Melissa Frey is the debut author of The Secret of the Codex, a supernatural thriller in which four archaeologists discover an ancient well-guarded secret, each other, and themselves—with some superpowers thrown in for good measure.

She’s always loved writing but didn’t find the guts to seriously pursue it as her career until well into her thirties. Now she writes novels and uses them to teach others how to better themselves and the world around them.

She loves yoga, the mountains, super-dark chocolate, and her husband. You can find her at and fangirling over her eclectic book collection on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

I’m a brand new author.

Well, I’ve been writing my book for a decade, but the book marketing thing is definitely new to me. And my book’s not even out yet! (But it will be on August 28th!)

I’ve heard for years that I need to “work on my platform,” but I always got frustrated with that. Okay, sure, build my platform . . . but what does that mean? I spent years languishing in obscurity with my follower stats barely maintaining the status quo.

Then, a few months ago, that all changed.

Now, I don’t profess to have it all figured out. But I have learned a few things along the way: that you have to put in the work, act with intention, and cater to the platform you’re on.

For me, that’s Instagram.

Oh, I’m on Facebook, I have a Twitter account—I even have a profile on LinkedIn and Google+ (and don’t forget Goodreads!), but, for me, the best bookish social media platform has been Instagram. Why?

Reasons Instagram Is a Great Bookish Platform

  1. The #bookstagram #writerscommunity is HUGE. (As of this writing, #bookstagram has over 22 MILLION posts. WHAT.)
  2. All the #writersofig are rooting for you. (As well as the #writersofinstagram, the #authorsofig, and the #authorsofinstagram.)
  3. There are some incredible #authors on there for you to connect with. (And lots of #womenwhowrite too!)
  4. You can #fangirl about your book and post #bookish quotes all while enjoying other authors posting all day long about #allthebooks.

See what I did there?

Recommended/Related Reading: 5 Reasons Why Every Author Needs instagram

My Experience

As you probably know, Instagram, like Twitter, is driven by hashtags. This is how people find out about you (and how you can find out about them!). Here’s a real stat about hashtags from my personal experience: My usual Instagram story averages about 35 views. When I add #bookstagram and some other key hashtags to it, I’ve gotten over 600 views.

That’s just crazy!

Yes, but it’s true. When I really started working on building my Instagram following, I had just over 400 followers. (This was in mid-April, April 15th to be exact.) Now? I’m closing in on 1,000 (as of this writing, 925).

But enough with the stats—you all want to know how I did it right? Okay, okay.

But First . . . 

Here’s the most important thing to remember:


[CLICK TO TWEET: It’s difficult to do, but when I’m struggling with things to post or wondering why I’m not getting the engagement I’d like, I go back and ask: “Am I making this all about me?” And, if I am, I stop what I’ve been doing and ask: “How can I make this about them?”]

Giving back always—ALWAYS—gives you social media gains. But that’s not even the point, right?

Glad we’re on the same page. Now let’s get to the tips and tricks part.

Nine Ways to Use Instagram as an Author

1. Utilize hashtag challenges

I put this one first because it’s HUGE. There are a ton of bookish hashtag challenges out there. I have participated in a few, and they are so fun! Basically, someone creates photo prompts, puts them on a cute graphic, and circulates the pic. Then, when the challenge starts, you post an image and caption about that prompt using the predetermined hashtag on each specific day!

To give you an example, if the photo prompt for the day is “Introduce your WIP,” you figure out a photo and caption that introduce your book, and post using the hashtag of the challenge. It’s a pretty simple concept, but a powerful one. Anyone can jump on a hashtag challenge bandwagon, and you’re instantly thrown into a ready-made writing community. Awesome, right?

But why do it? Because you’ll have ideas of what to post each day. Instagram rewards those accounts that utilize their platform the most, so consistent posting (daily, if you can) will help you be discovered by other accounts.

2. Know and love your bookish tags (including your own!)

I’ve already given you a few ideas above, but there are so many more! (I also love #amwriting, #amwritingfiction, #booknerdigans, #bibliophile, and #booklove.) There are also websites that list several bookish hashtags for you to use. Just use the trusty Google!

But use them strategically. You only get 30 hashtags per post—so make them count. And they should correspond with your post. For example, if you’re doing a challenge (see #1 above) and the prompt has you take a pic of a book, use the hashtag #bookfie! Because, why not? But it wouldn’t make sense if the photo was of nature, right? They have to make sense.

I also like to vary the hashtags in terms of their popularity. I feel like the variety makes sure I don’t disappear in a sea of posts (for the more popular hashtags) but also gives me a chance to stand out in a hashtag with lesser popularity.

Pro tip: You can see an approximate number of posts next to the suggested hashtag when you’re typing out your caption. Just start typing and Instagram should do the rest!

Caveat: If you think you’ll figure out your 30 hashtags, save them on your phone, and copy/paste into each post, DON’T. Instagram doesn’t like that and will eventually think you’re a bot. They may block your account altogether, or just block your use of hashtags. So don’t do it. I use most of the same hashtags, but they’re rarely in the same order, and I change a few of them up from time to time. Just to keep things interesting. Plus, you want to keep changing your hashtags! How else will new people find you?

Oh, and be sure to create a hashtag for your book and start using it every time you post! Once you have the final title, of course.

3. Connect with other authors and readers through purposeful comments and likes

This is SUPER important. People may find you through hashtags, and maybe even follow you, but you will not engage them if you don’t, well, engage with them. From time to time, make sure you’re liking photos, following accounts that have followed you (it’s not a must, but it’s definitely recommended unless you have a good reason not to follow them), commenting on photos you love (and try to contribute to the conversation, don’t just post a heart emoji or, even worse, say “This pic is great. It reminds me of mine last Tuesday. Would you please go like it?” That sounds a little desperate. A little subtlety, people.), and even direct messaging authors you love (when you have a good reason to, like if they’re publishing a book around the same time you are).

Bonus tip: I always try to comment on every comment I get on my posts, and usually try to match the tone and “style” of the person commenting. If they give me a heart emoji, I feel good about replying with a smiley face. But if they took the time to write out a long, thoughtful comment, I respond in kind with a thoughtful response. A heart emoji might seem rude in that case. It’s mostly common sense.

4. Use Instagram stories early and often

Instagram stories are so fun. I mean, you get to be sarcastic if you want to, snarky if it fits, and they have a bunch of built-in features that are fun to use. It’s a great way to engage with your audience, especially with the interactive features like Questions, Poll, an emoji slider (you’ll just have to check it out for yourself), and fun things like GIFs, location tags, mentions, and hashtags. Plus, you can type your own text, choose between 5 different font styles, and perform endless tweaks. You just have to get started. You can either upload a photo you like, record a video up to 15 seconds, go live, or have some fun with Boomerang. And don’t forget some pretty filters too.

Video is huge! I’ve not done videos for very long, but getting comfortable in front of the camera will be a big asset to you in the future. #authortube is real, people.

Stories disappear after 24 hours (unless you save them as a highlight on your profile), so I see it as a good way to post anything and everything that pops into your head to post. (Okay, maybe not everything.) Plus, it’s a great way to post longer book excerpts and interact with your followers!

Also, you can save your favorite stories on your profile as a highlight. I’ve done this with setting inspiration pics, book excerpts (see #8 below), and “meet the characters” sneak peeks. It’s also a good place to collect reviews of your book when you get them—you can share someone’s story or post of their review of your book to your Instagram stories, then create a highlight from it.

5. Take (and source) pictures that others like to like

First, this one can be a little frustrating if you don’t have a book to sell. But no worries! You can post pictures that capture the feel of your book, or the setting. You can even find pictures of people who remind you of your characters! And participating in the hashtag challenges ensures that pictures of you holding your book aren’t the only things on your feed (don’t get me wrong; you want those, too). Plus, when you finally get that cover done, what a great way to announce it to the world!

I’m not the best at “theming” my photos. There are several free and paid courses about how to make your Instagram feed beautiful, and they produce amazing results. But I’m only one person, and I’m trying to work full-time while marketing my first book, writing my second one, reading like a fiend, and, oh yeah, trying not to ignore my husband. So this girl does what she can.

But I think it’s turning out okay. My book is very nature-based, and I love nature photos, so most of my feed gets the outdoorsy treatment. Though (spoiler) . . . I don’t take most of the pictures myself. (Gasp.) I source just about all of my photos from, a free photo site that hosts a ton of awesome, high-quality, Creative Commons Zero photos (photos that are free to use without having to attribute the photographer). 

As a self-employed author, I like to be careful which photos I use online. I may not ever get into any trouble, but I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry.

And you can always take your own. Sometimes you’ll need to. Try to get good (natural) light, a decent background, and almost always use a filter. Walk around your house and find things you love that you can include in your pics as well as some things that would make good backgrounds (a table, your bed, the floor, your bookshelf, etc.). All you need is your phone’s camera. You can even tweak other photo settings, but that’s a little out of the scope of this article. Just experiment and have fun!

Also, I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention Canva here. is a free online photo editor, and it will be your best friend. It allows you to place text or other symbols over your images and tweak them to your heart’s content. And it’s just fun! I love to create aesthetic photo collages for my Instagram posts and I use Canva to do that. I like to tweak the colors in the template a little so it doesn’t look like a stock graphic, and I think they turn out pretty cool.

6. Explore IGTV!

When I started writing this article, I hadn’t attempted IGTV yet. But then I recorded a video that I really liked—that was about 7 minutes long—so I randomly decided to upload it. I’ve seen other authors use it, too, and it’s pretty cool. Kind of like a cross between YouTube and Instagram Stories. It’s a way for you to record longer videos (remember, video is KING online) and put them in front of the audience you already have on IG.

IGTV ideas:

  • Writing advice for aspiring writers
  • Clips of you speaking or attending writer conferences/workshops
  • What inspired your current work-in-progress
  • Anything teachable that viewers might find fascinating
  • A quick reading from your work-in-progress
  • Book mail and/or book reviews

7. Tag other authors and readers

Okay. Don’t be obnoxious. But if you get a cool idea for something that you think other people would like to post about, give it a try. You can tag both in stories and in your posts. To make sure I keep tagging accounts I love (to keep the love going), I try to tag some accounts weekly using the hashtag #followfriday. (#sundayshoutout is also a cool one to use, and there are probably more.) It’s a way to show some love to other authors and give your audience new people to follow. Win, win!

And here’s a few little secret tips: I tag accounts I love, yes, but sometimes I tag those I haven’t connected with a lot yet. I try to tag people who have interacted with my posts in the past week (reciprocation) or accounts I really like. I also tag new accounts I find, but—and here’s where the secret comes in—sometimes I tag strategically. Sometimes I tag people with a small following, and sometimes those with bigger followings. Both will help you—don’t just focus on the bigger fish. You never know when that smaller account will blow up—and they probably won’t forget that you were one of the first people to promote them on Instagram. Especially if you stay connected with them. Plus, it’s just good karma.

8. Don’t be afraid to post *edited* excerpts from your book

Emphasis on the EDITED part. I mean, a quick quote from your current WIP would probably be okay, but if you’re posting an excerpt, it’s probably a good idea for it to be mostly finalized. I’ve used this strategy when promoting my upcoming book, The Secret of the Codex. Since it’s already to the printer and finalized, I can confidently post excerpts without worrying they’ll get deleted from the final product.

My strategy was to reread my book a few months out, before it was at the printer. It helped me remember all the nuances so I could speak about it intelligently, but it also helped when I came across excerpts I wanted to post. Sometimes it even helped me catch typos I’d missed before. Plus, it made me excited about it again, and an author excited about their book is one who’s talking about it.

9. Have fun and stop worrying about being perfect

Of all these tips, this is the most important. No one posts a highly engaging Instagram caption with a gorgeous photo every time. Do the best you can then give yourself grace. Doing is better than perfect!

The Wrap-Up

Social media is SOCIAL. I know, shocker. But people don’t like people who only talk about themselves. People value authenticity, vulnerability, people who are willing to admit their mistakes and show they truly care about people. Do that, and you’ll be well on your way to building your #authorplatform on Instagram. And your #instabook will be just plain #instagood.

What about you? Do you have an Instagram trick I missed? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

P.S. Don’t have an Instagram account yet? It’s easy to set up. I’d recommend choosing a username with “author” or “writer” in the title so people know immediately who you are and what you do. Make sure your account’s public, then start posting. And don’t worry about looking like a newbie—the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Just start!

Preorder now!

Somewhere, buried deep underground, lies an ancient secret…

Preorder Melissa Frey's The Secret of the Codex now.

Shayla Raquel Bio Photo.jpg

An expert editor, seasoned writer, and author-centric marketer, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with authors and business owners every day. A lifelong lover of books, she has edited over 300 books and has launched several Amazon bestsellers for her clients. Her award-winning blog teaches new and established authors how to write, publish, and market their books. She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist, The Rotting (in Shivers in the Night), and her novel-in-progress, The Suicide Tree. She lives in Oklahoma with her two dogs, Chanel and Wednesday.