About that ‘promoting your book’ thing

April 9, 2011 § 33 Comments

In response to the ‘traditional or self-publishing’ arguments that are going around lately, I have been hearing quite a few writers saying that they want a publisher because they don’t want to have to spend their writing time doing all the editing, cover design and promoting. It sounds a reasonable enough argument, except that it appears to be based on some unrealistic expectations.

I’m going to skip over the issue of merely getting a publisher in the first place, because we all know how absurdly difficult that is. Instead I want to attack the fallacy of thinking we can get around having to take responsibility for the success of our own books.

Thousands of books are published every week. Many of them sell fewer than 1000 copies. As a result, many first-time authors never get a second book in print. If traditional publishing is so damn good at marketing books, why does this happen? Were all these authors just writing bad books? Maybe, but probably not. In truth, most authors (especially newly published authors) get very little real help with promoting their book – and very little time on the bookstore shelves in which to do it. So book after book sinks without trace into the oceans of words that make it into print every day.

Point in a nutshell: if we want to make a living off writing, we will have to promote our work somehow. End of story. It doesn’t matter how the book was published. This is a daunting prospect, yes. It’s rational enough to be a little bit afraid of it – or simply to prefer to skip over it if possible. But I don’t think we can get away with that.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that hard. Even (or perhaps, especially) if you’re self-publishing and going it alone: there’s no need to try to push a book to make a killing in its first couple of months. The book isn’t going to be pulled off the shelves if it doesn’t immediately perform well. There’s time. What’s necessary is to get the process of ‘Word of Mouth’ started, and help it along a bit.

It is my theory that people love to share, and a lot of people love to help. If readers enjoy our books they will be delighted to help spread the word. Other writers know how hard it is to get noticed, and they’ll usually be happy to help another author whose work they have faith in. What we need to do is get in touch with those people. This is called Being Sociable and it means doing stuff like blogging. Conceivably twittering (tweeting?). Possibly facebooking. Certainly a website, of some kind. Not necessarily all of these things.

Now, I know there are loads of people who say ‘You MUST commit oodles of time to your blog!  You MUST blog at least five times a week or NO ONE WILL EVER READ IT!’ And some people also say things like ‘The best way to promote a product via Twitter is to post links to your stuff eighteen times a day!’ And: ‘It is IMPERATIVE to update your facebook fan page at least once a day, or you might as well not bother!!’ Etc.

Hideous prospect, really, because we’d spend half our lives doing social media only to make our potential readers heartily sick of hearing our names. But, you know, Lots of People talk rubbish. That’s a fact. An important point about promotion is simply this: it’s not necessary to market the hell out of your book, because there’s such a thing as overkill (AKA ‘spam’), and also because it doesn’t take that much work to do enough to get the ball rolling (AKA ‘word of mouth’).

From the past few months of blogging and tweeting I’ve learned that it isn’t that hard to get started. Keeping a blog isn’t climbing a mountain; if we’re writers, we write most days anyway. So write a post a week, maybe two. Sure, it’ll take longer than it (probably) would if you were producing eleven posts a day, but it builds up over time. As for twitter, it really isn’t that hard either. Promise. A few tweets a day will go a long way.

If the notion of spending months building up an online presence seems agonisingly slow, I recommend a recent post by M. Louisa Locke, a successful self-published historical mystery author. She writes about the timelines involved in launching a book yourself (along with some methods that work). The crucial point is that, with self-publishing, you have all the time in the world; your book isn’t going to wander off the bookshelves. Find the post here.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch also wrote an excellent post recently about promotion in the indie book world. The central point of this post is: only a minimal online presence is really necessary, because the best way to promote your first book is to write the next one. Find the post here.

In closing, let me point out one final, important fact: anybody can do this. It is not rocket science. It will not take up all of our writing time. A little bit of effort put in regularly can yield good results.


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§ 33 Responses to About that ‘promoting your book’ thing

  • I really agree. A small amount of promotion can go a long way, but do it too much and you’re just hitting a wall. However, writing a new book seems to generate a lot of interest, and when you promote, you’re promoting two (or three, or four…) books at the same time instead of just the one, and your efforts go that much further.

    • Charlotte says:

      Yep, indeed. Once that basic online presence is established, your writing time is your promoting time. Simple and effective… I think it’s a shame that a lot of writers still think they have to spend hours and hours every week promoting instead of simply writing the next book(s).

  • DarcKnyt says:

    Well, speaking of sparkling brilliance…

    This is excellently worded and placed. At the same time, you could have gone on about how writing time will be reduced because not only will you have to market the book yourself, you’ll have to go on whatever marketing ploys the traditional publisher ASSIGNS for you. And probably isn’t paying travel for either.

    Great stuff here, Charlotte. Very nicely said. Another ovation for you.

    • Charlotte says:

      That’s a very good point. I wonder how many of those book signing tours around backwater booksellers actually increase sales? More than by two or three copies, that is. Speaking from personal experience I’ve been to very few of them; I only attend signings by authors I’ve read and liked, in which case I was probably already going to buy their next book.

      Thanks for the comments as always, Sir Darc.

  • Ellie says:

    I am the first to put my hands up and admit all of the things I have done wrong when it comes to promoting my first book – and all of the marketing tips that I should have implemented have gone out the window!

    Not because I didnt think they were important, but because the theory and the practice are two different things. Overcoming self doubt is actually a major hurdle.

    When you have that first book released, you have been through the experience so writing promoting the second is the real thing. The first one, will always be a trial run – there is so much to learn I don’t believe you can get it 100% right.

    So now, I will continue to muddle through the first one, and look forward to the second. And then…I will update the first book, A Simple Guide to Self-Publishing (sorry had to slip it in), with additional content. (I should say that everything in my book is valid, not incorrect, but there is more to consider than I included. Not essential but worth pondering).

    • Charlotte says:

      Hey Ellie, how about a few posts on all those things you learned about book promotion? I can think of a few writers (*raise hand*) who’d love to hear about it. It’s absolutely true that theory may or may not prove to be true in practice.

      Oh dear, the self-doubt demons. I think they destroy a lot of us. It’s fabulous that you’ve got your first book done and published – may there be many more!

      • Ellie says:

        Yeah sure, happy to!

        I am running behind on a few bits at the moment and this week I hope to catch up. Overall I only have four weeks left at uni so at the very least I know I shall be able to sort everything properly then.

        First rule of prmoting your book – don’t decide to do it when you are in your final year at uni. Well you can, just dont expect to be able to have a life…at all!

  • Well said. What good does it do you to have a book if no one reads it or buys it? It’s the whole “tree falling in the woods” argument (particularly apropos since books are actually made from trees).

    • Charlotte says:

      The question might be, if you make something available on the internet, is it likely that no one will read it? It’s not like an isolated wood somewhere – once it’s out in the aether people will stumble over it sooner or later. The job of the author-promoter, I suppose, is to try to push the book out onto the beaten paths (if at all possible), so the accidental encounters happen a bit more often.

  • qorvus says:

    The initial step can be a little daunting – more so for some than others. Starting out as a complete unknown jumping into that great big pool and trying to make even a little splash can seem insurmountable.

    Best advice seems to be to just keep writing and hopefully with enough books you will pick up a few fans who will recommend it, and some of them recommend it more until hopefully it goes viral.

    • Charlotte says:

      One could talk quite aptly about drops in the ocean and needles in haystacks, etc – it can and does feel that way. Even starting a blog can feel that way, never mind publishing a book. But I do think it’s not as bad – not as difficult as it can appear from the outside. Word of mouth is definitely ideal, and in that case several more books added to one’s inventory will do the job of twenty blogs, facebook accounts, author appearances and so on.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • mapelba says:

    Excellent points. And I’ve read interviews & posts from published authors about those book tours. They do not as a rule generate sales from what I can tell–and most people who go were going to buy the book anyway. Tours seem to be about connecting with fans, and most publishers don’t pay for tours much anymore either. Or only to a few limited places.

    I read of one author who offered himself up for a tour for book clubs–if a member of the club would let him sleep on their sofa. That might be more viable for a man, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t do that kind of tour. Great for the adventuresome though.

    I don’t kid myself that going with a traditional publisher will mean less work marketing. I’ve read a ton about how publishers market these days–which is precious little.

    Now digital changes this somewhat, but I’ve never seen a self-published book with a cover and paper I like. This may be dumb to some people, but the physical appearance of the book does matter to me.

    I’ve been following a lot of these self-published vs traditionally-published arguments online too. It bothers me that so often one side treats the other side as if they are clueless. I’ve thought long and hard about how I want to go about my writing career, and I am open to changing my path later if certain things that matter to me change.

    Of course, writing and marketing do not take the same skills or personality. I still have a horrifically hard time asking people to read my work. When I do I often suffer panic attacks later.

    But marketing talk makes me think back to your post on book trailers, which do seem foolish and contradictory. But tons of marketing in the world doesn’t make sense. Why would a video game make me want to see a movie? It would be absurd to force a writer to have a book trailer, but if a writer wants a trailer, then hey, any tool that you can use with all the force of your imagination, then you should use that tool. I actually did buy a book because of an author video (Dennis Cass’s “Head Case”). That doesn’t really count as a trailer, but I had never heard of Cass until I saw that video. And it was so clever, I wanted the book. (And I liked the book a great deal too.)

    First and foremost, of course, write a good book.

    This comment is now way too long. Thanks for your thought provoking posts!

    • Charlotte says:

      On covers – we all instinctively connect everything that comes with a book – or any product – with the quality of it. Rationally I know that a poor cover doesn’t necessarily mean a bad book, but nonetheless it has an influence. That, then, is a big problem for self-publishers – any cover artist really worth his or her salt (as it were) will probably charge a lot, but it’s got to be managed somehow for the sake of professionalism.

      I agree about the publishing debates – some of the arguments are getting pretty insulting, which is a shame, but that’s humanity for you. I read a lot of them anyway because there are still a lot of good points being made in the midst of the acrimony. I do think self-publishing has a lot to recommend it, but it’s not for everyone (at the moment. Hard to say how it’ll all develop in time).

      Marketing skills… yes. I hate the word ‘marketing’ because it suggests all manner of aggressive foisting-of-product-onto-unsuspecting-masses and I hate the idea, too. Directly asking people to read work is nerve-wracking. My own preferred style, I suppose, is (or will be) to try to create some presence for my work as widely as possible, and leave it to readers to decide whether or not to bite based on synopsis & cover. A rather passive style, but I hope it’ll work out, because I’d be useless at serious marketing.

      My opinion of book trailers is derived from that general resentment against marketing, I think. There is too often a sense of disconnect between the product and the marketing material used to promote it; essentially because the role of marketing isn’t necessarily to accurately represent the product, but to encourage people to want to buy it. Think of all those car adverts. I often don’t even know what they’re advertising until the final shots of shiny cars rotating slowly under glossy lights, while some voiceover tells me it’ll change my life. Weird. You’re quite right that if tools are effective, they ought to be used; nonetheless I remain dubious about book trailers. I think the world’s cluttered up with enough manipulative marketing as it is.

      Maybe that shows my inability to survive in this world. We’ll see! Thanks for the detailed comments 🙂

  • Stacy says:

    I mentioned this on Twitter yesterday, but this was an excellent post! I’m working on my second book (it will be my first attempt to get published) and the idea of self-promotion/marketing is so daunting to me. I’m just getting my feet wet with my website, and I’m learning how to network.

    You broke the whole concept down well and made it seem more manageable. Thanks for sharing with everyone.

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks Stacy, glad you found it useful (even if some of it is just theory at this point). ‘Marketing’ is a word to give a healthy writer nightmares, I agree, which is why I like the approach of slowly building a basic online presence… nerve-wracking enough to begin with, but once you get into the swing of it, it’s essentially rather harmless. (So far). The part that surprised me is that it’s fun in itself, having a blog. Once you’ve been writing it regularly for a couple of months, you’ll probably have enough regulars to start getting some great discussion going on each post. It has value in itself irrespective of other motives.

      Let me know when you are ready to start promoting yours and I will add you to my blog list. I really liked your first post.

      Thanks for visiting & commenting 🙂

  • Lissa says:

    Thanks for the post, Charlotte. It’s not easy to choose which publishing method you want to follow – there’s good and bad points about both of them. But from a promotional point of view, legacy publishers are getting lazier and expecting writers to do more work, rather than simply write the book. It’s happening all over the world in this economic climate, and in every other industry as well. People are expected to work harder for same or less pay. To get more out of what they’re doing.

    • Charlotte says:

      Absolutely true. I think it’s partly a symptom of the fact that the industry is simply more and more competitive – so many people want to be writers now that the bar has to be raised higher and higher, because there aren’t enough opportunities for everyone. If one wishes to get noticed in the growing ocean of writers, it’s necessary to promote somehow. It’s imperative to recognise that fact and accept that it’s part of the job now, regardless of how one gets published. I’m always so sad when I see great books sink into anonymity because most of their potential readers never knew they were there in the first place.

      Thanks for commenting, Lissa.

  • mjcache says:

    Great, but sobering advice.

  • Nice post. I’ve been engaged on some of these debates about the new-thing e-self-publishing versus the old traditional publishing (I’m currently agnostic and seeking a better understanding of the realities of each). One of the things I’ve wrestled with, wrt to the new e-self-publishing, is the degree to which “self-promotion” is a part of the package and, if so, what that really means.

    I think there’s a fine line between effective self-promotion and an endless stream of “buy my book, please!” tweets and updates. The latter, as you mention, is spam. Good self-promotion is something that engages me, as a reader, with the writer, makes me interested in what they have to say and curious about what they’ve written. It can focus on the writer or on the story, but it is something that makes me curious. “buy my book, please” does not make me curious…

    • Charlotte says:

      That’s a nice, encapsulated discussion of why spamming links does not work. Then again, I suppose most spam is automated, so it’s another example of people trying to get round it, in a way. You set your twitter account up to post links to your book every hour on the hour, then go away to write. Job done! If only it were that simple, eh?

      It’s vital to be an actual human about it; as you say, we want the story, not the marketing jargon. I personally think the only real obstacle to selling books (or any other product) is that, to begin with, nobody even knows it’s there. Your task as writer-promoter is simply to inform people. Make sure the book, the synopsis and the cover are as good as you can make them, and readers will make up their own minds about whether to buy or not. As a voracious reader and regular book-buyer, I think that works fine.

  • Claire King says:

    Great post – I like the relaxed attitude to blogging ‘write a post, maybe two, per week’…I think that’s spot on. A platform is important these days but The Writing is even more so.

    • Charlotte says:

      Yep, nothing beats writing for getting the writing AND the promoting jobs done. I think the only reason to try to blog five times a week, or to man a twitter account for five hours per day, is if you’re trying to race against the clock. Start early and take it nice and easy, that’s an approach that I like much better. Relaxed, as you say! Thanks for commenting.

  • Barbie Scott says:

    I’ve just started out and am finding reasonable results from tweeting 2 or 3 times a day and blogging twice a week. I also promote (gently) on various forums.

    I do think it’s important not to batter people with information, as this can have a negative effect.

    • Charlotte says:

      ‘Battering’ people is absolutely the worst approach, I do believe. I’ve been on twitter for a few weeks now, and it’s been great, but I’ve come across several authors taking the ‘deluge of promotion’ approach to selling their books. The sad part is I might’ve been interested in the stories, to begin with, but after a week of seeing my twitter wall scrolling endlessly with the same links in blocks of ten at a time, I’m sick of it. I unfollow the author and forget about buying their book.

      As a reader I’m much more inclined to be influenced by a more subtle method of promotion – or indeed ‘gentle’, as you rightly put it. It takes longer, perhaps, but it pays off more in the end.

      Thanks for visiting & commenting 🙂

  • opheliajasmin says:

    I’m so glad you visited my site because it gave me the opportunity to find yours. I loved this post and the comments. And I’m looking forward to reading more.

    One of your points reminded of a twitter incident the other day – an ebook site sent a message out warning against excessive marketing tweets – unfortunately it came in the midst of a barrage of ten tweets from them. Maybe they were just illustrating how annoying it is!

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Ophelia, thank you for visiting. I liked your post, too, very rational and balanced an argument. I wanted to comment but I ran out of time yesterday; I’ll get to that soon.

      Haha, I love that anecdote. How ironic. One hopes it was intentional, indeed – sounds like it was an effective demonstration of ‘how not to conquer the world of twitter marketing’!

  • DarcsFalcon says:

    My favorite author has been on the New York Times bestseller list multiple times, and still he goes on book tours (I even met him!) and does Twitter and Facebook and has a website and he blogs. He is considered a “big name” in writing, and self-promotion is still necessary.

    You are spot-on, Charlotte, to point out that this is simply a fact of “the writing life.”

    And you have a great way with words. 😀

    • Charlotte says:

      Thank you! One tries to have a way with words but it doesn’t always succeed. Sometimes it’s a smooth, plausible, super-charming sort of Way and words more or less fall at one’s feet (5% of the time). Then at other times it’s more of a desperate wresting struggle with each letter of the alphabet in turn and one takes rather a beating by the end of it (95% of the time). Story of a writer’s life I guess.

      Your comment made me think of Neil Gaiman, whose blog and twitter account I follow. He’s so active on both I wonder how he finds time to do the writing bit. Obviously he makes it work somehow, and apparently it continues to pay off. If he hasn’t already been declared King of the Fantasy Fiction Universe, I’m sure that award will be rolling around quite soon.

      Unfortunately, I haven’t met him. Lucky you to meet your favourite author! (Though I always wonder what one says to an idol. It can’t be considered proper to drool all over their shoes and I suspect that’s all I could manage to do if I actually saw some of these people. Do they really ooze perfect phrases from every pore?).

  • Nancy Beck says:

    @mapelba: I’ve been following a lot of these self-published vs traditionally-published arguments online too. It bothers me that so often one side treats the other side as if they are clueless. I’ve thought long and hard about how I want to go about my writing career, and I am open to changing my path later if certain things that matter to me change.

    Couldn’t agree more. In fact, I blogged about it , because the sniping upset me. As long as everyone goes into this with the facts from legit sources, I don’t see a problem going trad or self pub. What works for me might not work for you or the next writer, and so on.

    Can’t we all just get along?

    @Charlotte: Nice blog. Came here from Kristine Rusch’s post on promotion. Years ago, I tried to post to my blog every day. What a struggle! I decided to resurrect that blog and commit to only posting twice a week, Wednesdays and Fridays. I tweet maybe once or twice a week, that’s it; I have a placemarker for a FB fan page only because I haven’t self pubbed anything (yet).

    I also have a trade name for my publishing business (LOL – that just sounds SO funny to me); I’ll be starting up a free business checking account within the next week.

    The idea for a trade name came from Dean Wesley’s Smith’s excellent series called Think Like a Publisher.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Nancy, thanks for visiting. I love Kristine Rusch’s blog, it’s so useful. And wow, yes, isn’t blogging tiring when you try to overdo it. I used to post three days a week and even that felt like it was taking over my life.

      Thing is, the blog is great fun but unless the blog itself is the product, it just isn’t worth putting that much time into it. Inevitably it will end up eating into the time one should be putting into generating the product, whatever that is.

      I like Dean’s blog too, lots of useful insider info. Your publishing business sounds exciting, what services are you planning to offer? Good luck with it!

  • carolyninjoy says:

    Reblogged this on Reviews & Recommendations and commented:
    Well written & worth reading. Thanks.

  • carolyninjoy says:

    Well written & worth reading. Thanks.

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