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Book promotion sure ain’t what it used to be

In “the old days,” as recently as five years ago, it used to be that book publishers were instrumental in helping  authors with their publicity, promotion, and (for the major authors) advertising.  But, sadly that is no longer true.

Very few publishers these days do anything substantial to support their authors in these areas.  Especially their first time authors.  This lack of support often results in minimal sales and then, of course, the publisher doesn’t pick up their author’s next book because the last one didn’t sell.  It’s a frustrating and vicious circle.

So in this really troubling climate, what is an author to do?

Last spring, my client John Locke wrote and self-published a book titled How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months.  In a nutshell, this book describes John’s marketing system for becoming a bestselling author.  Among other things, he includes information about how an authors needs to identify their audience even before they write their books; how to create a memorable and creative website; how to use Twitter effectively; how to create a simple, no-nonsense blog; and how to write life-changing blog entries.

John’s system worked for him and for many, many he has shared it with.  I strongly believe it can also work for those who publish their books more traditionally as well.

Just last Friday, one of my publishing colleagues, an editor at an established publishing company e-mailed something that I have found to be very important and I think it worthwhile that I quote him here:

“About the digital and social media outreach, the one thing I’ve learned from experience is that it’s a little too late when the book is just launching to start an initiative.  You build those followings over months, even years and then blast them when you have a new product.”

I hope that all of those currently writing books will pay attention to this sage advice.  In this day and age where publishers are pulling back this kind of very important support, the authors themselves must step up to the plate.

Of course, I am always eager to hear your thoughts.

17 Responses to Book promotion sure ain’t what it used to be

  1. Every time I read something about the importance of having a platform and developing an audience even before you’ve written your book, I get depressed, because it sounds like just another unpaid full-time job on top of the unpaid job of writing the book, which usually has to compete for time with the one job you are actually paid for on any regular basis. It also reminds me how very different (and perhaps incompatible) the twitter brain is compared to the sort of brain that writes novels, and how trying to think in blog posts and tweets undercuts the sort of sustained focus one needs to write a sustained work. And lastly, with the elimination of promotion from the publisher’s bailiwick (along with line editing, etc.), what is it exactly they do to earn the lion share of the profits from a writer’s work? Or is this just the publishing version of the death wish that Freud eventually disavowed?

    That’s a kind of scattershot comment, for which I apologize while admitting that yes, this is how publishing works nowadays and a writer really does have to do all these things to have a chance at squeezing a winning hand out of the stacked deck the publishers are dealing from, but sometimes it just feels better to whine. And now it’s back to work…

  2. Kaitlyne says:

    I always wonder when someone will document how well these techniques work for the average author on the whole. I’ve met some people who used them to great success, and others who have said it did nothing for them and made no difference in sales. It would be really great to know, from an objective, studied standpoint, what actually makes a difference and what doesn’t.

    From a personal standpoint, I have two problems with this advice. One is that I wonder how blog fatigue and the fact that so many unpublished authors now have websites and blogs and twitter will affect things. When a few people are doing it well and bringing in massive sales, that’s great, but the more people who do it, the more you have to do to stand out and be one of those few. There are just so many people now blogging and using social media that it wouldn’t be possible for every one of them to have the same level of success.

    I tend to feel like a few people will continue doing well with this, and then the ones who continue to do well are the ones who break the trends and find new and more creative ways of reaching people. I worry that by the time people realize the trend and start jumping on the bandwagon readers will be tired of that platform and be seeking out those who manage to be different and creative. And I worry that authors are so focused on following these steps that they might overlook ways that are more personal and would work better for them.

    My second main concern has to do with quality and audience. I’m someone for whom genuineness is very important. The second I feel like someone is doing something for the purpose of selling a product to me, it pushes me away. I have a feeling I’m not the only person.

    Some people are very good at maintaining blogs, etc., for purposes other than promotion and that’s fantastic, but I see so many (particularly unknown writers) that are either too transparent or who make it obvious that their goal is to sell you a product.

    The problem is that most people aren’t good at hiding their true motivations, and if you’re doing this for the sole purpose of selling books, that tends to show. It seems like the more people emphasize how necessary these techniques are, the worse this problem becomes. I know that for me, personally, it will cost them sales. In fact, I’m less likely to buy the book if I feel this way, even if it’s one I would have likely bought if I randomly came across it in another manner. In other words, a lot of author sites are turnoffs for me.

    I might very well be in the minority here, but I can’t help but think there are others out there like me, and if that’s the case, those are lost sales.

  3. Anonymous says:

    While I don’t mind you all at Dystel knowing I wrote this (I am a client), I am guessing my agent would probably prefer I remain anonymous.

    Almost exactly what you describe happened to me. Sold my first book and due to some excellent negotiating on my agent’s part, they had to decide on my second book long before even reviews were out, let alone sales. So they bought my second book too. But by the time the third one came around, my mediocre sales for my first book were out, and they passed.

    My first book got anywhere from decent to very nice reviews from reviewers, including a nice one from Kirkus and School Library Journal, and really good reviews from bloggers. While I can look back on it and say it has its flaws, very few people thought it sucked.

    I have a background in marketing. I worked my ASS off marketing this book. I worked on it for months…probably a whole year in some respects, before it came out. I was given a publicist (new to the company) three weeks before publication. She’s a very nice person, but I can’t think of one thing that she did for me. Of course, maybe she did, and I just don’t know it. I will concede that. When she left the company, no one even told me. My publicist in my home country (not the US) rarely answers emails, but I do think she mails out review copies when I ask her. She has set up nothing that I know of. Quite by chance, I am friends with my sales rep in my home country, and I believe she is responsible for much of my success in this country, which was actually quite good.

    I got my book on blog tours, set up a whole month of guest posts and interviews for launch month, sent out promotion packets to libraries and bookstores in the area where my book was set, traveled to my hometown (at considerable cost) and did three book launches (selling over a hundred copies), did a launch where I live now which sold sixty copies, kept a website, Facebook book page as well as a personal page, and tweeted. And because I hate the in your face marketing, I have never once asked anyone to buy my book online and I haven’t even given it away on my site, so I don’t think I’ve ever crossed over into obnoxious marketing. Instead choosing to give away other author’s books and then let them give my book away.

    I did a follow-up mailing six months after the book came out. I landed a radio interview on a national book program. Before publication, I sent out over 40 ARCs at my cost. I gave away prizes for launch week. And I managed to get a slot at a major literary conference, as well as be the keynote speaker at another.

    If you go to my goodreads page, even 18 months after publication, there are still over a thousand people with the book on their “TBR” list, which means that at least they’ve heard of it. I feel pretty confident in saying that they heard of it because I was out there with it online.

    Because of my “poor” sales, my publisher is doing a tiny print run for my next book, and I’m not expecting anything in regards to publicity other than them sending out review copies. I do have a new publicist, so maybe they’ll surprise me.

    I am less than enthusiastic about putting out this kind of effort and cash again. I mean, I can’t see that it made much difference. Or scarily, maybe most of my sales came from my effort and without them sales would’ve been worse.

    I haven’t read your client’s book, but I am wondering if it would help a novel? It seems designed (from your description) for nonfiction, but perhaps I’m wrong.

    The one thing that has remained wonderful throughout this experience is my agent’s support. Without my agent, I don’t know how I would face going out there with book three to some new publisher.

  4. Hillsy says:

    I think what’s been said above has pretty much covered most of my thoughts. I’m a data analyst by trade (God help me) and I know that taking one or two example authors from literally thousands is flimsy ground to base an argument on, albeit one that could still be right.

    I will add a couple of things though:
    1) John Locke’s success was inevitable. Really? Yes. Once you get your head around the fact that it’s unlikely someone WON’T win the lottery twice in their lifetime, you realise taking a case in isolation doesn’t tell the whole story. I’m not saying that John Locke didn’t work incredibly hard, or brilliantly smart, or tirelessly long, because by all accounts he did. I’m just saying his tactics improved the liklihood of his success, not guaranteed it.

    2) There’s a really boring number in graph theory called ‘k’. It’s to do with the interconnectedness of something within a network. A more exciting way to think of it is: ‘k’ is the rate at which you can spread the zombie apocalypse. Before cars, everyone had quite a low ‘k’ because they couldn’t infect people from out of town – they didn’t know anyone. As soon as mass transport developed, everyones ‘k’ increased drastically, one person could drive to ten cities, infect one person in each, and end the world! (I’m paraphrasing massively here, by the way)

    Back to literature, because of the facebook, twitter, etc, the ‘k’ potential can be MASSIVE, which means should something “go viral” the potential market is nigh on limitless. Now a strange quirk to this structure is that social media actually polarises how ‘k’ works – there’s almost like a threshold limit. Competing subjects, all with their own ‘k’, cut off and thwart the spread of a other subjects constantly. A book/author is but 1 of those subjects. The more subjects, the shorter the lifespan of a subject. However, once you ‘break out’ of this cycle, you actually have little competition and – BOOM! – the lid comes off the pressure cooker. As a result, ‘break out’ novellists sell more and more because of the increasing interconectedness of modern society.

    OK, now having shoved my inner geek back in it’s box (lined with star wars posters and a bag of d20s to keep him amused), I also lament somewhat the (not loss exactly…err atrophy?) of this arm of publishing. But until authors only sign with publishers who DO market heavily, making it a more valuable commodity than, say, the advance, or someone else in the publishing chain (agents, editors, 3rd party companies, amazon etc) steps up the the plate with an advertising/promotional package, advertising and marketing (both skill and funds) will continue to grow in importance in an authors toolbox.

  5. Kaitlyne says:

    Hillsy, you should so be a teacher. I love your zombie apocalypse comparison!

  6. Cricket says:

    What everyone else said. One hundred fold.

    I’m already working two day jobs just to survive and writing my books in my “free” time.

    I have no idea how I’m going to webmaster…blog…promote…stroke…and sell my work with the time I have leftover.

    There is none.

    This blog upset me. I don’t want to give up, as my penned words are one of the biggest parts of me, but I kind of feel beat down now.

    And yes, what is it that the publishers do while I’m doing all this?

    …off to work!

  7. Heidi says:

    And the author gets only 10-15% of the cover price after doing, apparently, all the work? Maybe we should go stage a massive protest in New York,….er, hold that thought.

    Seriously, though, where is the rest of the money going?

    P.S. Loved Hillsy’s analyis too!

  8. Andrea says:

    Just wondering… Raise your hand if Twitter, Facebook, a blog etc. has ever made you buy a book.

    I buy books that are recommended to me by a good friend whose judgment I trust, or books that I notice in the bookshop (because a well-designed cover and a well-chosen title make them stand out on the shelf, or the virtual shelves of Amazon) and that grab my interest with an interesting story, or books recommended by authors of books about creative writing or literary criticism, or books by authors whose work I´ve thoroughly enjoyed before.

    I don´t buy books because the author has a witty blog or a Twitter account, because I think writing a good novel is a completely different skill from writing a blog entry or Tweet.
    Also, I get a little suspicious if a writer is trying too hard to sell his/her book.

    • Colin says:

      Actually, I can think of three books off the top of my head that I bought based on recommendations I read on a blog. So I’m raising my hand. :)

    • Scott says:

      @Colin 10/28/2011 3:06pm

      You bought the books based on recommendations from A blog, not from reading the author’s blog, correct? So the blog recommendation can be compared much more readily to the Close Friend Recommendation than to an Author Blog Shill.

      I’m with Andrea, I have never even considered buying a book because I saw it on the author’s blog, and I really don’t think it’s a valid way to sell novels.

  9. Joelle says:

    I have bought quite a few books from authors I met on Twitter. Not because they asked me to, or even because I heard about it there because they tweeted constantly (in fact, if you ask me to buy your book, I block you), but because I liked the people so I looked at their books and though they sounded good. I have read even more books than I’ve bought from the library after hearing about them on Twitter – both from the author and other readers.

    There were people at my book launch who came because they knew me on Twitter. Not many, but a few. I have received a fair amount of tweets from people who have read my book, too.

    My husband read this post and the comments and told me he agreed with the person who said Tweeting can get in the way of writing a good book. This is what I told him (and I’m not defensive in any way, it’s just an explanation).

    It’s not that I don’t like the Twitter comment, it’s that I don’t agree with the commentor. I don’t think tweeting affects the quality of my writing negatively at all. It’s possible that if a person lets it get out of hand, it can affect the AMOUNT of time spent writing vs. tweeting, but actually, tweeting has improved my writing by teaching me how to tighten sentences. Also, just for the record, when I’m working, I sign out of Twitter. I started writing my book last Wed, and I think it was Thursday that I signed out of twitter and haven’t been back to tweet since. I think of it as an amusement and a way to stay connected with other writers and occasionally to keep up on the business side of things. It’s all how you use it. Some people watch TV, I tweet.

    I’m the first to admit I hate Facebook. I don’t use it enough to know how it works, I have a lame page for my book, and a personal page with about 450 friends, most of who have sought me out (high school, family, some readers, etc.). While I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book because of it, it does sell books for me though. Maybe not a lot, but I had a huge turnout for my book launch because all my high school friends who I hadn’t seen in 20 years read about it on Facebook.

    I would like to close my FB account, but I probably won’t because of the few friends I really do want to be in touch with, and because it gets the word out about my book. If I actually used it, it might even work better for me!

  10. Joelle says:

    P.S. My friend wrote a book which was published without a lot of fanfare or promotion on her side, but the sales are skyrocketing. Why? Because she wrote an amazing book and got nominated for the National Book Award. All our time is probably better spent writing amazing books.

  11. Eric Christopherson says:

    A recent tweet from MJ Rose: “I know 3 authors who say they are overcome with apathy. Promoting is sapping their creativity. How to balance?”

  12. Colin says:

    A few thoughts from an unagented, unpublished writer (me), for what they’re worth:

    * Social networking begins with people you know. Utilizing social networking is like the political “grass-roots” movements. It’s not something a publisher can do for you, because it’s based on people you know and connections you make on a more personal level than a publisher can. This is part of the way things are now. And its part of the way people–especially younger people–operate. They find things because of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs. Utilizing these doesn’t guarantee success, but NOT utilizing them is cutting yourself off from a large section of your potential audience that you can reach better than any publisher.

    * In my mind, there is no functional difference between writing a novel, blogging, or tweeting. It’s all writing, and it is as creative, mundane, trite, or passionate as you want it to be. Sure, they are all different types of writing. You wouldn’t write your literary fiction the way you write your blog (though you could!). But writing your blog isn’t taking you away from writing. It’s forcing you to write in a different way that might inspire the way you approach your novel. Or it might be a nice break from writing your novel that still keeps you sharpening your skills. I don’t blog just to build an audience, though sure I would love to be read by thousands. I blog because I love to write. And while it may be a while (if ever) before anyone outside a handful of people read my novel, my blog gives me a way to write something that people anywhere in the world can read now.

  13. Linda Clare says:

    Maybe all this comes down to personality, but for me the social networking component of author self-promotion has been quite amazing. I live in a mid-size university town a way out in the Pacific Northwest, so I needed all the help I could get in reaching readers. Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads have been helpful. I’m grateful to the person who described k factor, but I’m kind of mystified about “x” factor–the elusive quality that makes a book grow legs. Word of mouth that spreads like wildfire, whether it’s a tweet a Facebook post, Goodreads recommendation or a simple verbal exchange in the checkout line, is and will always be the thing an author wishes for most. At least I do. So I keep working: I write my absolute best, blog about what I know, try to answer that What’s In It For Me? question and tell every stranger I meet what I do for a living (write). I don’t force my way in past that, but I’ll take the chance that someone will block me on Twitter. After all, no one can read a book of which they’ve never heard.

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