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.
If there’s anything I like better than a compliment, it’s a random, unexpected compliment. That’s just what I got yesterday when I fired up my Twitter client and saw this:
— Steve Tannuzzo (@BostonProWriter) March 8, 2012
That definitely made my day. I’m very pleased with how the cover for Slices turned out, but honestly, I’m a little self-conscious about it. I designed it myself, and the prevailing wisdom for self-published authors is Thou Shalt Not Design Thy Own Covers. (But, like I said yesterday, there are no experts on how all this works, so I shouldn’t let that worry me.) So it was nice to hear someone else say that my cover shows “professionalism.”
At some point, I should tell you about how I made that cover — but not today. Today, I’m going to tell you about the process fellow Seattle writer Luna Lindsey went through to get her new cover designed, since she posted this not long after I received the above tweet, and I still had cover design on the brain:
By browsing [DeviantArt], I decided I wanted a photo manipulation style, and then I let my visualization processes stew for a while until I imagined my character in the pose I wanted, with props and background. I made a terrible sketch in pencil just so I could remember the details, bookmarked the artists and images I liked [...]
I chose three artists based on these criteria: 1) I liked their art, 2) they seemed professional — i.e. they presented their gallery in a professional manner, they listed the fact that they took commissions, they had their own website, and they had a portfolio of previously commissioned work.
[...] What impressed me most about Ana was her professional attitude in her email replies. She stated that she always produces a “sketch” or outline of the art before spending too many hours on it, so that if there were foundational corrections, it saves time and money. That showed me that she’d given this lots of thought. If you are commissioning cover art, I would strongly recommend you request this of the artist. Given that this is a digital image, my “sketch” was full color and consisted of the basic model standing in front of the basic background. Details such as her hair, props, touch-ups, color-finishing, etc. had not yet been done. The feedback I gave at this level greatly improved the direction of the image, so I was able to get exactly what I had envisioned.
Very cool, and definitely the route I intend to take when I need a cover for Still Life, the novel I’m revising. Her cover looks great, and you should go take a look at it.
Now, I’ll admit, I’m as big an advocate of the self-publishing revolution as the next guy. And a little hyperbole in support of The Cause doesn’t really phase me — I tend to just smile at the writer’s enthusiasm and move on.
But this particular little gem made my mouth drop open in disbelief. In a review of a new book about self-publishing:
Stephen King’s advice to writers has always been to stop reading books about writing and to just begin writing. Excellent advice when authors were still discovered by big publishing houses and social media possibilities were just ideas. Not so today. There’s competition. There’s…one hundred and one excuses for not finishing that novel, or if you’ve finished, not working to get it out there.
The strength of this guide is that all of the authors are experienced writers, who have worked within a community of other indie writers and shared that experience. Perhaps most important, is that they’ve learned to work the social media route through their own trial and error, and they’ve become saavy enough to know how to give advice and take others step by step through what is necessary to succeed. [....]
And I can’t help but think that if Stephen King had read this book, he wouldn’t have had to spend so many years waiting to be discovered, but would have just gone out there and made it happen. His advice still stands though, and the authors must agree. So stop reading about writing already, and just WRITE!
…. Yeah. That poor Stephen King. If he’d had all the social media advantages we have today, if he’d been able to just go out there and make it happen — man, maybe he really coulda been somebody.
I think most people are pretty clear on this concept — art takes as long as it takes, and if it takes a writer a little longer than expected to come out with their next book, well, so be it. Or, as Neil Gaiman so memorably said to a fan who was impatient for the next “Song of Ice and Fire” book, “George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.” A writers have contractual obligations to their publishers, not to their readers.
Except, well — what happens when your readers effectively are your publisher?
Six years ago, Diane Duane started to ask her readers if they’d be willing to subsidize her next book through subscriptions as she wrote it. Things went great for a while, and then they didn’t. Diane’s health, circumstances, and life went through a long, bumpy patch and her book went off the rails.
Now she’s finished it, and put it online with a long and heartfelt apology to the readers who’d backed her.
This is an important — and underreported — problem with “micropatronage” and “street performer protocol”-style artistic experiments. Writers are often late with their books. [....] This is normal, and we know how to deal with it in the world of traditional publishing. But in the world of public writing-as-performance where there are hundreds or possibly thousands of people with a financial stake in the book — people who aren’t editors at a house with 400 books under contract, but rather people who’ve never been around a book during its creation — it gets really difficult and sticky.
(I know, I posted something else about Diane Duane just the other day, but doing that reminded me that I had this link buried somewhere in all my “you really should blog this someday” bookmarks.)
This is an interesting question and a problem we’re going to start seeing more often as these models of direct patronage become more common. The answer seems to be communication, communication, communication — keeping your readers in the loop. If you’re going to involve them in the production of your book from the beginning, you have to keep them involved, letting them know each step of the way if something changes.
…. Holy yikes. Just saw this posted at Making Light:
“S.K.S. Perry is a Canadian writer. He had a hard time getting an agent interested in his novel, Darkside, so he posted it on his web page.
A couple of weeks ago someone suggested that he put it on Kindle as an e-book. He thought that was an excellent idea. Someone else agreed: To his surprise he found that person already had. He posted about this on his LiveJournal on March 30 (two days ago), and since then has found that Amazon doesn’t care.”
The situation has gotten both better and worse since Making Light posted about it — Perry writes:
“First the good news: I received offical notice from Amazon’s Copyright Agent today that they were taking down the stolen version of Darkside.
Now the bad new: they took all the reviews you nice folks wrote about how that copy was stolen, and applied them to the legitimate copy!”
Good Lord, what a nightmare. These are clearly the early days of self-publishing, and there are definitely some growing pains and kinks to be worked out. I hope Amazon can figure out how to get some better copyright safeguards in place pretty quickly, and I really hope they get Perry’s specific situation sorted out even sooner. My heart really goes out to him.
Remember a few posts back, when I wrote about writers and depression? Well, when I saw a post from Joe Konrath entitled “Depression and Writers”, I thought it was going to be along the same lines, talking about the phenomenon in general. But instead, he was talking about a very specific case. He shared with us a letter from a writer named Kiana Davenport, whose depression over her failing writing career was taking her as far as depression can take you:
“With dwindling publishers, rock-bottom advances, I didn’t see any reason to write anymore, which is what I LIVE for.
Unemployment is staggering here, I couldn’t find a job. I sold my good clothes and jewelry, made out a will leaving the land to my daughter. I felt I’d rather die than scrape and starve. (I’m a good swimmer, I’m half Hawaiian, I know how to swim to exhaustion, then unconsciousness.) If I couldn’t make a living at what I love to do – publishers and bookstores folding left and right – I felt I’d rather pack it in. I was dead serious, I’ve never been afraid to die. Its a Hawaiian thing – we always have one foot in the other world.
At first friends thought I was kidding, but then they saw me making plans, they watched me begin to withdraw. Then one day a friend came to my house and said two words. ‘JOE KONRATH.’ That’s what she said. ‘This man is going to save your life.’”
I was in tears by the time I was done reading this. And it has a happy ending. Kiana read through Konrath’s entire blog, read all his advice and research and hard numbers about self-publishing, and decided to try it. Long story short — she’s happy writing again.
Joe waves away any notion that he, personally, saved this woman’s life — but it’s clear to me, his modesty aside, that his words and his ideas did exactly that.
I’ve struggled with thoughts of suicide my whole adult life. Sometimes they can come out of nowhere on a bright clear sunny day. I know the voices that tell you that you don’t have a single good thing left in the world. They’ve never been pulled so far deep that I actually started making serious plans, and I can’t even imagine what level of hell that would be to live through. But she did live through it. Another one stepped back from the edge. That’s one more, one more little miracle.
Her self-published collection is called House of Skin, and Konrath says: “Let’s see how low we can get her Amazon ranking. Right now it’s #134,555. I’d really like to see it crack the Top 1000.” Not a bad idea. The collection is just $1.99, and I think that’s a pretty small price to pay to let someone know they’re not alone.
I’m getting Slices ready to put up on the Kindle store — fixing the typos I’d missed, re-writing the introduction, putting together a new cover because I’m not happy enough with the old one — and something I’ve been thinking about while I’ve been doing this is, how much will I want to charge for it?
A huge number of indie writers have been pricing their Kindle books at 99 cents. That seems — well, kind of ridiculously low to me, and to a lot of other people. But I’ve heard some good arguments for it, and I’d been seriously considering it, especially after reading J.A. Konrath’s interview with John Locke, who set out to “become the world’s greatest 99-cent author,” and recently ended up at the top of Amazon’s Top 100 — the first indie writer to do so.
But on the other hand, here’s the perspective of Zoe Winters, an indie who started out at the 99-cent price point but soon abandoned it:
“I noticed that 99 cents drew some unappealing customers [....] A strange but true rule of business is that the customers paying the least amount for a product or service always complain the most and try to squeeze more out of you. I really don’t want to participate in the Walmartizing of literature or cater to that audience.
“Then there was the fact that I wanted to cultivate a loyal following and most people who expect ebooks to be 99 cents aren’t that loyal. They’re shopping by price as their main deciding factor. I just don’t want those readers [....] I think the readers I attract now are truly interested in MY work, and not just a bargain. I feel like the readers I’m attracting are the types of readers who are going to be passionate about the work and tell other people. I also think that people don’t expect it to ‘probably suck anyway’ if it’s $4.95. That negative assumption with 99 cents devalues the work because human beings are psychologically wired to get the experience they expect with many things. Fiction is one of those things [....] At the higher price point, people just expect it to be good. And I work hard to deliver on that expectation.”
She definitely has a point. I guess I just kind of inherently think my book is, well, worth more than a dollar. I suppose I’d like my readers to think so, too.