Bookselling: Nothing Works (And Why This Post Will Not Go Viral)

I have a pet peeve.  I can’t stand those cheery articles (if you have any writers in your twitter feed you surely know what I am talking about) on how to sell tons of your self-published books using the tremendous marketing tool that is social media.  These articles are generally rehashes of advice the blogger read on some other writer’s blog and passed along as conventional wisdom without any actual sales figures to back them up.  The days are gone, they say, when the author could just sit back and let the publisher do all the work.  (As if those days ever really existed) An author has to have a personal relationship with readers and a strong social media presence!  By all means a writer has to blog, blog, blog.  You have to get out there and do guest posts!  You need to start a conversation with your readers!

There is one thing the writers of such articles tend to have in common: they are not famous authors. In fact, when you start to really examine things, you will find that they tend to have fewer social media followers than you do.

Think of the social media “stars” out there.  Most of the really huge ones, Stephen Fry comes to mind, had fame in the traditional media to begin with.  In any case, you will not see Stephen Fry posting about how to get lots of twitter followers.  It would be boring.  He gets on with the business of being the Stephen Fry we all love and musing on his own obsessions.  (In his case, using six different smart phones to tweet about 19th century playwrights.) 

In the articles I am talking about, you are much more likely to hear boasts of huge numbers of twitter followers than of book sales.  This is because the fact of the matter is, a few freakish outliers aside, most independent authors sell fewer than 100 books.

Twitter followers are easy to count, and it gives one the feeling of reaching an audience even as your book languishes.  Authors on twitter tend to grossly underestimate the number of other writers who have followed them solely in the hope that they will follow back and buy their self-published vampire sci fi thrillers.

Our true religion in America is the one that says that success in any venture is possible if you have enough optimism and marketing savvy.  If you fail, therefore, it can only mean you did not have enough of one or the other.  That is why you find so many blogs by writers speaking with tremendous enthusiasm about novels that have, in reality, sold about 20 copies.

The idea that succeeds is not the one with the most truth, but the one that has something in it that aids in its transmission.  In this case, people hunger to learn how they, too, can succeed.  They do not want to read about how they might fail.  (This is why this post will not go viral.)

Because these types of articles annoy me so much, I had planned for some time to write a practical antidote.  I have worked as a PR professional in the entertainment field and my past efforts on behalf of my own traditionally published books have yielded front page magazine articles, huge newspaper features and probably hundreds of radio interviews over the years.  I assumed that I had enough marketing savvy to come up with a plan that would work when it came time to promote my own novel, Angel, put out by tiny Itineris Press (an imprint of Dreamspinner.)

I would keep track of my own promotional efforts on my novel, and use actual spikes in sales to determine which methods were effective in selling books and which were not.  Over the course of a year and a half I have tried many promotional methods.  In no quarter, however, have I sold a combined total of more than 20 print and e books.  In short, I have had to conclude that nothing works.

I know what you’re thinking, “Yes, but that probably means your book sucks.  Mine does not.”

That is a fair point.  There are a lot of books out there that do not sell because they do not deserve to sell.  They fail because they do not deserve to be read.  I would be willing to concede that mine might fall into that category, but reviews by bloggers who I did not know, who owed me nothing, and who I did not pay, seem to suggest otherwise.  I have gotten enough feedback at this point to feel confident that suckiness is not my problem.

But there are some other issues specific to my book which might skew my results.  Angel is the story of a Christian minister whose world-view is challenged when he realizes he is attracted to another man.  As quickly as the world is changing, this theme is still considered controversial, and reluctance to recommend a controversial book might stand in the way of some natural word-of-mouth it might otherwise get.  It has also consistently been mislabeled as “erotica” which will put off some readers and most serious reviewers.  Just to make things clear, I have nothing against erotica or romance novels gay or straight, it is just that it is not a good description of what the book is, and therefore it is not helpful in bringing the book to its ideal audience. 

In the past when I promoted my non-fiction books, I had a lot of success getting local media coverage– newspapers, radio interviews and so on.  It may be the false “erotica” label that has dogged the book that hindered my ability to do this rather than any inherent disinterest in fiction by local authors in the age of the self-published book.  I can’t say. Your results may vary.

While I have established through actual sales figures that nothing works, there are some things which have a much greater guarantee of not working than others.  Given that, I hope that his assessment of things that don’t work and the ways in which they do not work will be helpful.

Doesn’t Work #1: Getting Your Friends to Talk You Up.

You have more than 200 Facebook friends, so you assume that you can surely count on selling at least 100 books.  Half of your friends must want to buy your book, and that’s probably underestimating once they learn how good it is and start telling their friends.

First of all admit it, most of your Facebook friends are not your friends.   Even among the people who you count as true friends, it will be harder than you think to arouse interest in your book, and even harder muster enthusiasm for a third, fourth or fourteenth book.  (Angel was my 14th book, I think.  Even I lose count.)  Your friends are busy. 

You will encounter at least one who will smile and refuse to buy your book saying “I don’t like to read science fiction or poetry or romance or literary fiction or westerns or… books.”  You will smile through gritted teeth and start to reassess how much you spent on the gift for her second wedding two months ago.  This experience is inevitable and you can not count yourself as a professional writer until you have had it.

Among those who are close enough to you to buy your book just to be supportive, there are a certain number who will never actually read it.  They may, in fact, stop inviting you to come over because they’re worried you’re going to ask them how they liked it.  For the sake of your friendships and your ego you should never ask this question.

Your very close friends who liked the book will often not want to post to review sites because they feel uncomfortable about nepotism. They are not sure how to rate it, should they compare it honestly as not as good as Dostoyevsky, give it less than five stars and risk hurting your feelings?  It’s tricky.

If they do recommend your book to their friends by saying “my friend wrote this great book” it is unlikely anyone will believe that.  People’s friends, the psychology goes, do not write great books.  Their friends just say that to be supportive.  Abandon the idea that your circle of friends will become evangelists for your work in any great number.  It will not happen.  Be grateful for the friends who do.

Doesn’t Work #2: Book Reviews on Blogs

I am speaking here only from the point of view of book sales.  Angel has had tremendous reviews by wonderful bloggers, some with large numbers of followers.  Some of the reviews have been followed up on with comments and discussion by readers (most of whom were other bloggers who received complimentary copies in exchange for a review.)  I am aware of at least one that generated one sale.  (You don’t usually know this kind of thing.)

Reviews matter, not because there is any direct correlation between the reviews and book sales but because it is the only thing that will keep you sane when the royalty statement comes in saying you’ve sold six copies.  It will give you the sense that someone is reading, and hopefully appreciating, your book.  Reviews also help in providing information to theoretical future buyers.  This is one of those things that seems as though it doesn’t work, but you should do anyway.  Who knows, one day an influential person might read one of the reviews and buy your book and change your trajectory. 

Doesn’t Work #3: Amazon Reviews

This also falls into the “doesn’t work but do it anyway” category.  Reviews on book selling sites such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble help readers who are specifically looking for your book or books like it.  This is useful, especially if your book does not fit neatly into any niches.  The more reviews the book has, the more information for readers. 

Do not fear negative reviews.  (Unless they are all negative, in which case you might want to consider my earlier point about suckiness.)  Think about how you look at reviews when you are thinking about buying a book.  If there are nothing but glowing five star reviews, you might wonder if the author stacked the page with false praise from her friends.  One or two people who had reservations among those who loved it actually creates a balanced view.  Not everyone is going to love your book, and some people will hate it for the very reason another loved it. 

Doesn’t Work #4: Goodreads. 

Goodreads reviews have the potential to be more valuable than those on the bookseller sites because recommendations appear to the poster’s friends.  They do not have to know about your book or to be looking for something on the subject to discover it.  Even though Goodreads does not seem to have led directly to sales, I value every reader who is kind enough to post a review there.  (See also my earlier point about reviews keeping you sane as a writer.)

Goodreads provides a number of methods for authors to promote their works.  Speaking as a user of the site, I will say that the most annoying and ineffective is to head into various discussion groups and look for excuses to plug your book.  Don’t do that. 

I, personally, had no luck at all with the Q&A with the author forum.  I don’t know if no one wanted to interact with me or post questions about the book or if the fact that you have to join the forum in order to post questions curtails discussion. 

Giveaways on Goodreads are a great way to make people aware of your books.  I did four giveaways on Goodreads and had four gratifying upticks in the number of people who listed the book as “to read.”  The number of those who will actually go on to read the book remains to be seen.  If all of the people who said they wanted to read the book on Goodreads actually bought copies I would have sold five times more books than I have.  Still, every time someone adds your book to their “to read” shelf some of their friends become aware of its existence.  So it didn’t work in terms of directly selling books, but I have not thrown in the towel completely on it.  It was worth doing.

Paid ads on Goodreads, however, unless you can afford the big ads that Random House puts up, is like throwing your money in a shredder.  Don’t bother.

Doesn’t Work #5: Social Media

It is better to use social media than not to use social media.  It is free, so you have nothing to lose.  You certainly have more chance of making people aware of the existence of your book with 2000 twitter followers than without them.  It is worth giving some serious thought to social media, why you are doing it, what you hope to get from it, and to think about whether tweeting is becoming your full time job.  Is the time you devote to it really in balance with what you get from it?  If you blog because you love it, or because you have something to say, by all means do it.  If you are thinking of it as a marketing tool then you should only put in as much time as the results warrant. 

In any case, let’s assume you are putting messages out there because you want people to react to them.  You have a much better chance of building an audience if you have a fairly consistent theme beyond “this is me!”

I cannot stress this point enough: outside of your circle of friends no one cares who you are– until you give them a compelling reason to.  People read because of who they are, not because of who you are. 

If you tweet “here is the interview I did with such and such blog” it will not get many clicks.  If you said something in the interview that was funny, topical, deep put it in quotes with a link.  Someone who is interested in the thought will click on the page and might be interested enough in who the writer is who said it to read the whole thing. 

This may not sell books, but it has a better chance than the other way.

Doesn’t work #6: Huge, long blog posts

In my experience people have short attention spans and are less likely to read or share long posts like this one than, say, pictures of cats on water skis.  So I will return with another post on more great book marketing tricks that do not work including guest posts, virtual tours, print ads, book signings, and more on another day.









  1. I enjoyed the huge long blog post, but would have been happy to see a water skiing kitty at the end anyway. It would be sort of like the prize in a box of cracker jacks or breakfast cereal. I buy a lot of books and read a lot of books, but I don’t do social media because I don’t usually have the time. Ditto for Good REads, although I do visit it on occasion. The reviews on Amazon do influence my buying habits, although I’m loathe to admit it in public.

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