You might wanna go grab a cup of coffee — this is kind of a long one.
I’m going to get to the subject of the title of this post in a minute, but first, I want to talk about the blog post that inspired me to write this. It’s a post from Dean Wesley Smith, whose advice I usually listen to and respect, and with good reason — as he points out in this post, he has published over a hundred novels and has been making a living with his fiction for over thirty years.But in his latest post, “The New World of Publishing: Promotion,” he basically tells writers not to worry about promotion, saying, “Authors do not sell books. Publishers sell books.”
Even though he goes on to say that the situation is different for self-publishers, that caught me up short. With all due respect, I honestly don’t think that’s true anymore — at least, not for the majority of writers. I’ve read a ton of articles and interviews that say that for the most part, the promotional efforts that publishers will perform for new and mid-list writers have dried up and disappeared, as they have focused their energies on promoting the few books they think will be blockbuster hits. Everyone else is saying that even traditionally-published writers have to do their own promotion these days, which is what’s driving many writers — myself included — into the arms of self-publishing. So, honestly, it feels to me like he’s writing about a world that doesn’t really exist any more.
Aside from saying that writers should just sit back and let the publishers take care of things, he also warns against specific kinds of promotion:
3… DO NOT spend all your time promoting your book through reviewers or bloggers or worrying about bad reviews or even caring about any of that. A complete waste of your time.
5… DO NOT blog about writing or your writing process. No real book buyer cares.
While I agree that you shouldn’t worry about bad reviews, and I agree that one shouldn’t spend all one’s time courting reviewers and bloggers, I don’t think it’s a waste of time. Everything I’ve read indicates that getting more reviews on your Amazon listings, for example, does affect your sales.
As for “don’t blog about writing” goes — I see that advice a lot, and I don’t really get it. I understand how that would work for non-fiction writers — as he says, “If you are doing books with cooking, blog about cooking” — but I don’t see how that makes sense for writers of fiction.
I suppose it comes from the idea that non-writers wouldn’t care to read about writing. Even if that’s true, if your blog only attracts other writers — well, other writers are “real book buyers,” too. But I don’t think it is true. I think today more than ever, with the disintermediating effect of the Internet, people care more about getting personal insights into the artists whose work they admire. I’m not an actor, but I love to hear actors talking about their methods. I’m not a musician, but I like to hear about what it’s like to tour and perform. I would think the same would be true with writing.
(Also, I really have to stop and ask — did Dean Wesley Smith honestly just use his blog about writing to tell people not to blog about writing? Really?)
But anyway. How does he think self-published writers should promote themselves? I’ll give you the list, here — I’m not going to quote the whole thing, but to boil it down to just the subject headings:
- Write the next book. [....]
- Be nice. [....]
- Never [...] talk about politics or religion. [....]
- Make every book better in writing skills. [....]
- Keep learning the business of publishing. [....]
- Sell short fiction to major magazines. [....]
There’s something I notice about this list that strikes me as odd. Now, to my mind, I would loosely define “promotion” as, “any activity that you do that gets your name and your work in front of new eyes.” And the first five items on this list don’t do that. Only the last item does, and it’s a great suggestion, because, as he says, you get paid for doing it. Which is nice.
Finally, his last completely discouraging piece of advice is:
Don’t even bother [with promotion] if you only have ten or so titles out. Start promoting select titles when you get past twenty-five or more titles. A total waste of time before that because you get no reader rebound to your other work.
Now, I can see that promoting once you have twenty-five books out (which for me, at my current pace, should happen sometime around the year 2024) would have a lot more effect, I can’t honestly believe that promoting your current books before you reach that point is a total waste of time. Not worth putting a ton of effort into, maybe, given the return on the investment of your time. But for my part, I’ve noticed that my promotional efforts have started to move the needle, however slowly, on my sales. This is, as he always points out himself, a long game, and I think this will pay off over time. If you’d like there to be an avalanche someday, then it’s never too soon to start rolling pebbles down the hill.
Okay. So. I think indie writers should be promoting themselves. What kind of promotion should they be doing?
I’m glad you asked.
First of all, though — does promoting a book work at all? For anyone?
Here’s the problem I keep coming back to — most of the advice I see out there comes down to, “study what successful writers are doing, and do that.” But we don’t know what promotion methods are successful. We can’t know. All anyone can tell us is, “I did this, this, this, and then this, and after that my sales took off!”
So, okay, you think — I’ll just repeat what Author X did, and then my sales will take off, too! If only it were that deterministic.
When I read “Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should”, by David Gaughran — which is a book I’d recommend, by the way — I was particularly interested in the section in the back called, “Success Stories,” which was several first-person accounts from people who have done well with self-publishing. I noticed the same common thread coming up again and again — their stories usually went, “I did this, this, this, and then this, and then I kept doing those things, and nothng happened. But then suddenly my sales took off! I don’t know what changed!”
They don’t know. They can’t tell you. The main thing that drives the sale of books is word-of-mouth, recommendations from friends, and God knows what these authors did to make that happen — some random combination of tactics that eventually put their books in the right hands at he right times to reach that critical mass.
Basically, the highfalutin way to say what I’m talking about here is that correlation does not imply causation. Those writers could just as easily have told us that they wore their lucky underpants every day until they started selling books, but it doesn’t mean that A lead to B.
You know all this, if you’re a struggling self-publisher. You’ve read all the advice — start a blog, you have to be on Twitter, you have to do giveaways, and on and on and on and you’re thinking, “But I’m already doing all that!”
As I’ve said before, no one in self-publishing really knows how all this works. Traditional publishers don’t know how to sell books, either, really. If they did, then the industry wouldn’t be in trouble right now. And as I’ve said before, The fact is, some books just sell like mad and some just don’t.
I think you do need to put yourself out there if you want a chance to be noticed. But the success of any promotion you do is really going to come down to just that — chance. But you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.
Let me finally get to the point of all this — the only kind of book promotion you should ever do, as promised:
Make sure you’re doing all your promotion from a solid base. By this I mean, make sure that you have your own website to drive people to, at a domain name you’ve registered yourself, to attract your fans, and make sure you have your own e-mail newsletter, to keep your fans. You don’t want to rely too heavily on Facebook, Twitter, or any other platform that belongs to someone else. They could go out of business — no one’s too big to fail — or kick you off for some perceived violation of their terms of service. Or maybe just lose popularity. Years ago, every writer was told they had to have a Myspace page, that Myspace was where all their potential fans were. I really hope the writers who advocated this didn’t rely on it as the only point of contact with those fans.
Only do promotions you can genuinely afford. Two things — first, you have to be able to afford the time, by which I mean, you can’t let it cut into your writing too much. (I don’t really care if it cuts into your television-watching time, or your Internet-surfing time. But if it cuts into the writing, into the actual thing you’re trying to promote, well, that’s a little counter-productive.) Second, you have to be able to afford the money, if you’re doing any kind of advertising or paid promotion. (I’m not convinced that advertisements can be all that effective, but try it if you want to.) By “afford” it I don’t just mean, “Can I scrape together enough cash and still be able to buy enough Top Ramen to last the month?” I mean more like, “If I spend this money and it doesn’t lead to a single sale, will I be able to just laugh it off?” If that makes you think twice, then forget about it — concentrate on any of the free methods of promotion that exist instead.
Only do promotions you can “fire and forget.” It’s hard, really hard, to track which of your promotional efforts directly led to sales — there are ways and means, none of them perfect. By all means, if you want to attempt to keep track, then take a shot at it, but I think it’s not going to be worth spending a lot of time and stress over. Just do a bit of everything you want to try and keep at it. Constantly trying to figure out if you’re doing the right thing is only going to lead to ulcers and sleepless nights.
Only do promotions that would work on you. This is probably the most important suggestion on this list. You write the kind of fiction you’re interested in — at least, I assume you do — so you are a perfectly fine example of your own target market. Think back to the last promotion that worked on you. Did Author X’s promise of a free e-book convince you to sign up for his newsletter? Did the review quotes that Author Y posted on Facebook convince you to buy her book? Emulate the very tactics that you find enticing. Conversely, if Author Z kept posting links to his Amazon author page every hour until you unfollowed his account and swore you’d never buy one of his books as long as you live, then maybe you don’t want to be doing that. Never assume that your readers are gullible rubes who will fall for any old marketing tactic that you’d be too smart for.
Only do promotions that you enjoy. Look, since this really is all just kind of a crapshoot anyway, and since life is too damn short as it is, I think this is a big one: if you’re doing promotions that you don’t enjoy, stop. Seriously, just stop, and do something that you do enjoy instead. Do you like participating on message boards? Great, do that! Would you rather interact with people on Twitter? Great, do that instead! Mind you, if the truth here is that there isn’t any kind of promotion you enjoy doing, then, well, you might have to reconsider whether or not you’re actually cut out for this. If you just want to write, if you don’t have it in you to be a bit of a huckster, then great, just write for your own enjoyment — but if you want to be a published writer, if you want to get your writing out to the widest possible audience and maybe even make a living while you’re at it, then you’re going to have to hustle a little. Some of it can be fun. Find the parts of it that are and concentrate your efforts there. I’m not just saying this for the sake of your own enjoyment — if you keep doing promotions that you don’t enjoy, if your heart’s not really in it, people will see through that. If you can’t bring your own authentic, genuine excitement to bringing people your work, then they’re not going to have any enthusiasm for reading it.
That’s about it, really. Anything else you think is missing from this list? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading.previous post: Wednesday Writing Links for October 10, 2012 | next post: Seattle Halloween Horror Reading, This Friday, October 19th!