book marketing

Nothing Works Part II: Indie/Small Press Book Marketing Assessed

This is the second article in my series on the various book marketing techniques I tried and which produced actual sales (none did) and which were worth doing anyway. (See the previous post for more on my purpose in writing these.)

Doesn’t Work #7:  Blog Interviews.

I love doing interviews about my book. I hate talking about myself in general, but I love to talk about my work and the ideas behind it.  Doing interviews is great for your writerly self-esteem because it creates the impression that people are really interested in what you have to say about your book.  I manage to maintain this illusion even when I am sent a form interview by someone who has specifically done so because she has no interest in reading my book.  Occasionally I’ve seen comments posted after interviews I’ve done, although most often these were there when the interview was combined with a giveaway and that is what you had to do to win.

In any case, I love doing interviews about my work and its themes, and who knows, maybe the six books I sold in a given quarter went to people who liked what I had to say.

The main thing about interviews is this:  I repeat (from my previous post), people who do not already know you do not care to read about you.  Unless you are a member of a boy band, no one wants to know what your favorite color is or what food you like to eat for breakfast.  The only reason anyone would read an interview with a person he has never heard of before is to learn something about how to get his own books published, or about your book’s subject, or about the creative process.  If you are to have any hope of people being engaged in what you have to say, it can’t be about you and your hobbies.  If a blogger sends you a list of questions about whether or not you have pets, try to do what the politicians do when they do not want to answer something.  Change the subject.  “You bring up an interesting point about pets, I’m glad you asked that.  It relates to a problem I had in the third chapter of the novel…”

I will not say that interviews in general fail to sell books.  When my book The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation came out in September 2001 I did not expect it to sell at all coming out, as it did, in the wake of a national tragedy.  My publicists advertised my availability for interviews in Radio TV Interview Report.  I was doing as many as three radio interviews a day for about a month and the book went on to sell 85,000 copies.

If you have a large budget I would recommend Radio TV Interview Report.  I have never had enough money to buy an ad there myself.  I have been successful with radio friendly books setting up radio interviews myself, and I did even line up a couple for my novel Angel, most notably the syndicated show State of Belief.

Radio interviews, mainstream press interviews if you can get them, will help.  Blog interviews certainly do not hurt.  Internet radio interviews are usually heard by 1-2 people, including yourself, but they are fun and decent practice.

None of these things resulted in a measurable uptick in sales for the novel, but again, you never know when something you put out there will resonate with the person who will become your greatest fan.  So it’s worth doing anyway.

Doesn’t Work #8: Guest Posts

I did a fair number of guest posts when Angel first came out.  A few were on blogs with larger circulations such as The Good Man Project.  I saw absolutely no evidence that it resulted in any sales or even any increased activity among my social media followers.  I have not had an article appear on the Huffington Post, and perhaps it would make a difference if I had.   The fact that most indie books sell fewer than 100 copies tends to suggest that all of that guest posting is not resulting in many new readers.

I am old enough to remember when writers were advised to write spin off articles on their books in order to sell them (that is sell– for money) and make a living wage.   Because of this, I am wary of spending a lot of time writing articles for free.  It is time consuming, and it is writing that is not going toward something more creatively fulfilling or lucrative, such as a proposal for a new book.

I am advised constantly by bloggers and even people in the industry that the key to selling books these days is doing lots of guest posts.  I am convinced that this is one of those things that is passed along without much reflection and that it simply does not work.  It is cheaper than buying paid advertising, but only if you ignore the fact that your writing time has value.   If you are blogging already, the best way to approach guest posting is to take subjects you feel compelled to write about anyway and post them somewhere else instead of your own blog.  This has the potential to make a few people aware of you who weren’t before.  On the other hand, it could just make your own blog less interesting because all your best stuff is posted elsewhere.   Indie writers often get in a hamster wheel of writing constantly and never getting paid.  You take the advice that you need to have a compelling blog, entertaining tweets and lots of guest posts.  You produce more writing than a full time journalist of days gone by but without the salary and then you try to write books on top of that and somehow also earn a living probably with a day job.  Something is not going to be done well, and there is a decent chance it is your next book.

One reason I suspect that guest posting is not very effective is the same reason paid print ads tend to be ineffective for books.  Professional advertisers know the key to a successful campaign is repetition.  GEICO does not run one ad and hope you act immediately.  They hit you over the head with their lizard.  Most writers don’t have the money to buy an ad campaign with enough repetition to have an impact and they do not guest post on a single blog regularly enough to become familiar to that blog’s audience.

There may be a savvy way to make guest posting work and shift some units.  The way it is usually done generally does not.

Would You Pay Someone To Read Your Book?

I came across a web site today that charges $150 to have one person read your book and post a review on Amazon.  When I balked at the idea of paying to have someone read my book and express an opinion the “promoter” replied:

“It’s expensive to hire smart, well-read, well-written people to review a book. Most authors are lucky if they sell 100 copies in a book’s life. You never know what the right reviews can do.”

Think for a moment about this pitch and compare it to the data you might get if you considered buying ads from a traditional media outlet.  The Detroit Metro Times, for example, provides a media kit that provides testimonials, gives data on its circulation and so on.

The online book promoter says “hey you never know who might see the review.”  You never know.

Also embedded in his sales pitch is the fact that most authors sell fewer than 100 copies of their books.  What he fails to mention is that this figure includes authors with great reviews on Amazon.  In other words, one good review on a book review site is not likely to alter that fate.

“Hey you never know who might see it” is not a marketing strategy.  Yet it seems to be the one most employed by struggling independent authors.

Paying someone to write a review for Amazon is ethically muddy. They claim the reviews are objective, but if you are paying good money do you really expect them to come back with a negative or even a lukewarm review?  These services run the risk of making all legitimate positive reviews look fake.

My personal feeling is that when you get to the point that you have to pay someone (more than $100!) to read your book it might be time to pack it in.  What do you think?  Would you pay $150 for a review of your book?

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.








I Hate Book Marketing!

There, I said it.

You hold the first print copy of your novel with a sense of pride and accomplishment.  But after a few days in the self-promotion trenches, you start to feel about as dignified as a telemarketer who calls during dinner hawking herbal Viagra supplements shipped from Uzbekistan.

I hate those rah-rah, go-get-‘em, book marketing web sites. You know the type. It’s run by a cheery expert whose claim to fame is his circular ability to sell himself as an expert on how to sell. His only book is an ebook on how to sell an ebook. Each page is framed by six different ads for the product. Every article (“7 Ways to Market Your Branding,” “10 Ways to Brand Your Market.,” “6 Surefire Ways to Get everyone Buzzing about Your Book Buzz!”) is embedded with at least three references to it: “As I mentioned in the third chapter of Marketing Books for Book Marketers….”

I roll my eyes and then get back to work.  I fire off a guest article pitch to a popular book blog.  The article is focused on a subtle lesson I learned while writing my novel. (Angel by Laura Lee available wherever fine books are sold) That’s when I start to wonder if there is really much difference between me and Mr. Buy-My-Book-Marketing-Book.

But I want you to read my book.

You see my problem?

The process of writing a novel was as selfless as anything I’ve experienced. After a lot of effort and trial and error, when I finally came to what my story should be, I felt as though I had discovered it whole. In the past when I wrote fiction I labored. This time, once the pieces fell into place, I wrote in a complete state of flow. I felt as if my characters were real beings.  Because I was the one who had found them, I had a responsibility to them to get the story right and to work on the craft of writing to the best of my ability.

In the best possible way, I did not matter. I wrote in order to lose myself and to see life through someone else’s eyes.  By so doing I hoped to have an intimate conversation with far away people I would never meet. My role was matchmaker. I would introduce my characters to someone in Boise, Idaho, and with any luck they would be meaningful to his life in some way.

Once the writing was done, though I had to shift gears entirely. I had to talk myself up to potential publishers. I had to think of my fictional world in terms of sales and market niches.  I had to boast about my resume.

Now I’m in the awkward position of asking people to drop what they are doing in their busy lives and to pay attention to what I have to say. Buy my product! Listen to me! Listen to me! This part feels anything but selfless.

I’m trying to find a way to overcome this feeling and see the shameless book plugging as part of the matchmaking process too. I can’t introduce my characters to the world by being quiet and hoping people discover the book on their own. This part does not come as naturally or comfortably to an introverted literary type like me, but I am trying to persuade myself that it is the next responsibility that I have to my characters.  I must do enough talking so that the people who are supposed to meet them have the chance.