Promo yes or no?

I’d like to examine this truism of publishing. It goes like this.

Publishers buy books and then don’t do enough to promote them. So each author must pick up the slack and promote his or her own books so the book doesn’t fail and ruin the author’s writing career.

You see authors throwing a lot of money and energy into to self promotion. Bookmarks at conventions. Fridge magnets. Hiring a publicist. Self-financed signings at bookstores. Blogs. Schmoozing with book buyers. Postcard mailings. Etc.

Is this worth doing? Does it really increase sales enough to make a difference? Is the truism true?

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  1. 1. Kelly McCullough

    I tend to say no with a caveat–do promotional things that you enjoy.

    Wyrdsmiths have argued this point many times (wyrdsmiths.blogspot.com) and I’ll pull a bit of my basic thoughts on the subject from over there.

    My basic rules for promotion are that it should involve no money, no time, and no effort. I’m willing to bend the rules a little for pure promotion’s sake, but not much. Some time, a little effort, a couple of bucks.

    I will also bend them for things that I enjoy doing, like cons, readings, and interviews. I’m a social person and an escapee from the theater asylum. I like meeting new people and being out on stage. I would do these things even if I wasn’t writing, though the book sure helps get interviews. But that’s me.

    If you’re a writer who doesn’t like those things, or if you’re not good at them, don’t feel guilty about keeping it to a minimum. Even if you do enjoy them, realize that it’s a trade off. Time spent on promotion is time spent not writing.

    I would never say that a writer shouldn’t do any promotion, just that you have to be very careful about how much and in what way. As I said, I do signings, though not many, and readings, and a few conventions. And all of those things are more important for someone who is just getting started than an old pro.

    One other thing I do and I would urge any writer to do is I stop whenever I’m passing a book store that’s likely to have my stuff so I can make connections with the clerks and offer to sign stock. Likewise when I’m traveling which I do a fair bit for other reasons, I make sure to locate and visit book stores in the area.

    All that said, there are, of course, going to be exceptions to this rule, instances where self-promotion made the difference in someone’s career, but it’s something to think about very carefully.

    The biggest reason for that imho is that if you’re a good enough writer to get something published, you’re almost certainly a pretty damn good writer. This is for the simple reasons that the odds of success are lousy. That means you’ve got a highly specialized skill set for writing. So, one of the first things you have to ask yourself is: do you also have the skills for promotion? If not, you’re almost certainly better off investing the time and effort you’d spend on promotion in making your next book irresistible.

  2. 2. lyda morehouse

    I think the truth is that no one really knows what works and what doesn’t. There are people who swear postcards don’t get readers, but that doesn’t seem to hold true in romance circles (where there are a lot of conferences at which goodie bags are the norm). I know *I’ve* bought books based on things I’ve uncovered in my goodie bags, and I’ve heard from readers who found my books that way. Is the percentage big enough to make the cost worth it? I don’t know, probably not. But, it’s kind of like pulling the slot machine. If you win at all, you feel encouraged to keep trying.

    I used to do a lot of press releases, but I’ve stopped due to a lack of time and energy. I can’t tell if that’s hurt or helped my sales.

    I go to all my LOCAL conventions, but when I talked to the sales rep for Peguin at the MBA trade show, he pointed out that I sold well _regionally_ — of course what he didn’t say (which I later found out) is that didn’t translate to much nationally, which is, of course, where it matters at the end of the day. I can’t afford to fly myself all over the country, alas.

    Things that seemed to have helped: I got a significant numbers boost on Bookscan when I did at podcast with Adventures in SF Publishing. (no kidding). But I had no real control over that, other than volunteering to be on the show. Also, late breaking reviews have helped previous books, but again I have no control over what a reviewer will say or when s/he will publish it.

  3. 3. Deb

    First of all, postcards are good because I use them as bookmarks and always need more. So you should definitely have postcards.

    As for practical advice, I obviously can’t speak from a writer/what works perspective because I haven’t published a book, but from a reader perspective, most successful in getting me interested in a book would be online, possibly author-generated ‘buzz’ (but not really buzz which I think of as artificially generated, but actually talking about the book/author). This could include things that are out of your control–other people talking about the book–but also includes an author who has interesting things to say.

    An interesting author doesn’t necessarily promise me an interesting read, but it usually will get me to check out the books.

  4. 4. Jim C. Hines

    I have no idea what helps or what doesn’t. The only two things that have caused a noticeable bump in my sales numbers were:

    1) Christmas
    2) The release of the next book

    With that said, I still try to do publicity-type things when I can. I don’t let it take away from my writing time, but I’ve made some connections with readers, and I do think it makes some difference. Maybe not a noticeable or immdiate difference, but in the long run, I think it helps.

    Whether or not the payoff is worth the time and energy? That’s a good question, and I don’t have the answer. But I’m enough of a control freak that it would drive me crazy to do nothing. So maybe the payoff is a false sense of control that allows me to retain some shred of sanity :)

  5. 5. Jackie Kessler

    I asked myself that very question this June, when I started thinking about a marketing plan for my upcoming novel. And I decided to really throw my weight into a very targeted promotional campaign for the book, to see if it makes a difference. I’ll know definitively in November whether or not it worked.

    But I’m inclined to say that promotion is essential. But it needs to be the right kind of promotion. I’d go so far to say that authors should do more than push their latest book: they should push their brand.

  6. 6. Kelly McCullough

    Jim, the funny thing about the control freak argument is that I am also something of a control freak about my work and that’s a big part of why I don’t think much of self promotion. With self-promotion I can control the inputs, but I have zero control of the outputs which, for me, is the exact same thing as having no control. I find I’m much happier if I put my time into writing instead because than I’m doing something where I do have some genuine control.

  7. 7. Sarah Prineas

    Lyda wondered, about postcards, “Is the percentage big enough to make the cost worth it? ”

    The percentage of readers that recruits, she means. I wonder about that, too. Is the effort worth the return. One thing I notice about my publisher’s marketing/publicity efforts is that the main target of those efforts is not necessarily readers, but book buyers. The buyers seem to be the ones who make the biggest difference in whether a book sells or not–they are the buzz makers. Readers don’t make buzz, they respond to it. I wonder if our efforts would be better focused on the buyer constituency and not so much on readers. So, you know, skip the fridge magnets and the postcards. The buyers are the conduit, so focus on forming good relationships with them. Toby is doing this more and more, isn’t he? Just as one example?

  8. 8. Alma Alexander

    I have bookmarks printed on both sides, the current new book LARGE on one and the “backlist” smaller on the other. Kills two birds with one stone, as it were. How much actual USE they are I don’t know but they do tend to disappear at conventions.

    One tip I have to share, for what it’s worth – I recently had a small batch of post-it pads printed up with the title and relevant info of the latest YA – any con I’ve had those at, they’ve pretty much vanished off the freebie tables in a matter of hours after being put there. Apparently people find them, you know, actually USEFUL. And if they DO use them the title of my book is constantly staring them in the face. As I said, for what it’s worth.

  9. 9. SMD

    Hmm. Well I’m not a published author like most, but here is what I think on the issue.

    It’s part of the writer’s job to promote his or her book. That much is very clear. It’s your book, your baby, you should be involved in its life. I personally would love to go on book tours and meet potential fans and the like. That all sounds exciting to me. And anything that makes me feel good about writing is A-okay in my book.

    Here is where I think there needs to be a divide though. I don’t think that authors should have to finance their promotional campaigns. Yes, the authors will have to do occasional bits where they might go to small venues and the like, but if a publisher wants a writer to be successful they should be offering to help finance some of the bigger avenues that a writer might go down to promote their work. This might include paying for tables at major conventions (a lot of conventions offer discounts for living expenses too), trying to match up similar artists together to do big book signings at large stores and the like.

    The writer should still be very involved in getting him or herself out there, but a little nudge in the right direction from the publisher would be nice. It wouldn’t cost the publisher much either, and in theory the sales generated would make it worth it. I mean, $1,000 to send someone from California to DragonCon, or to ComicCon in San Diego, or whatever. How many books might get sold, or how many new people might be looking at the publisher? Any insight? I dunno, I just think a little help from the publisher in a lot of instances would be nice.

  10. 10. Diatryma

    I’m more likely to enjoy a book if I’ve already made up my mind about it. Stupid brain trick, I know, but if I’ve heard it’s good from other people, I like it better. I am slightly prejudiced against postcards because I very seldom see any for books I think I’ll like, unless they’re anthologies. I think someone (SL Viehl at Paperback Writer?) broke down con appearances and sales, pointing out that for most cons, even if you sell a copy to every single person who attended, you won’t make back your plane ticket.
    It seems like most of what the author can do is word of mouth, becoming an author whose books are bought on name alone. I can comment only as a reader, but that’s what works for me.

  11. 11. Blue Tyson

    No ideas about postcards, conventions, etc., never seen one.

    Can never have too many bookmarks, they seem to vanish faster than socks or pens. :) Which might mean not so good for advertising, though.

    Is it worth spending time on a website/blog that at a minimum has a bibliography or occasional update? Yeah, that has sold me stuff. You aren’t going to reach lots of us with any of the above. Eric Flint writes about in JBU how obscure the book market is. He is right. This sort of thing absolutely helps.

    Blogger etc. is free, so meets the ‘free’ rule mentioned above.

  12. 12. Patrick Samphire

    To me it’s fairly clear that unless you’re one of those people who are lucky enough to be pushed as a lead author for a publishing house (hi Sarah! ;p) you’re going to have to put in a lot of effort in marketing both it and yourself. It certainly *feels* fair to say that publishers should be pushing it if they want you to be a success, but what if they aren’t expecting great things of your book? What if they’re putting it out there and then seeing what happens? How much do *you* want your book to succeed?

    Publishers want to earn back their expenditure, of course, and they’d love you to be an explosive success, but they’re not going to put in the kind of money to each book that would ensure it. It doesn’t make financial success to them.

    I think there’s a lot you can do, though, beyond the bookmarks/magnets/postcards thing. If you’re a children’s author, you can go to schools and libraries. If you’re writing adult sff you can go to cons and get involved in online communities. You can do promotion on Youtube and the like. You can think up angles that might get you local news coverage. And so on. None of it will pay for itself directly, but it builds your profile and helps you get that closer to the buzz you need. The chances are no one else will be doing this kind of stuff for you.

  13. 13. SarahP

    Patrick said:

    What if they’re putting it out there and then seeing what happens? How much do *you* want your book to succeed?

    The thing I want to know is, do any of the marketing efforts of a lone author make a difference in how the publishing house perceives the book’s success?

    I tend to think not. Those individual reaching-out-to-readers moves by authors are going to result in how many more book sales? Hundreds? Is that enough to make a difference? The editor might note the effort and appreciate it, but let’s face it, 300 more books sold is not going to matter that much when we’re talking about the house’s bottom line.

    Self promotion seems to me a good way for authors to maintain this illusion that they have control over their writing careers.

    There, that’s worms all over the place.

  14. 14. Kelly McCullough

    For that matter, 300 more books sold isn’t going to make much difference to the author’s bottom line. Here are some numbers I worked out a while back:

    In the first six months of my first book I sold an average of 75 copies a day every day. That earned out my advance plus ten percent. This is fabulous and I’m delighted. But in order to have any real impact on sales I’d need to find something that would improve that by a minimum of something like ten books per day every day for a similar period. To have a career that will allow me to survive without a second job or a spouse who is the primary source of income and insurance I would need to sell at least 150 books a day every day for the rest of my life +inflation. To make a decent living I’d need to make that something more like 300 books a day. To crack six figures it’d have to be ~800 books a day.

    That’s all mass market paperback. Trade or hardcover is going to change the numbers, but 300 books or even 3,000 is a really small number in comparison to the scale of a writing career.

  15. 15. --E

    Seems to me that the reason bookbuyers are important in the equation is that they’re in a position to put the book in plain view. There’s a big difference between a book on a special promo table (or even a book face-out on the shelves) and a book that’s buried on some lower shelf somewhere. (Yes, I know the publishers pay for the display tables. But it’s pointless if they don’t get the bookbuyers to agree. B&N can choose to sell the space to a different publisher.)

    There’s also a big difference between three copies of a book on the shelf and ten or twenty copies. Sell-through can never be 100% because (a) the fewer copies of a book on the shelf, the less noticable it is, and (b) readers recognize, at least subliminally, that “popular” books have more copies available. Aggregate is eye-catching.

    But author promoing directly to readers has a different function. Given that the #2 reason people buy a particular book is friend-recommendation (#1 is that they liked the author’s previous work), what a writer needs is a critical mass of “seed readers”–people willing to try a book by someone they never heard of. Ideally the readers fall in love with this book and start pressing it on all their friends, reviewing it on their blog, using it as an example in literary discussions. With enough of these people, you get a repeat-echo effect, which works much like the “many copies on the shelf” effect: If we’re seeing it a lot, it must be worth checking out, say readers.

    Buzz comes in different flavors. So does success. Sometimes authors hit big on their first novel. More commonly (particularly in the reader-driven genre markets), they build a following over the course of several books. The slow build is usually the result of savvy readers liking the books. When that number gets high enough, the pub house adds their push, in order to find the less-savvy readers who never go further than the “New Books!” display at the front of the store.

  16. 16. Patrick Samphire

    –E said:

    But author promoing directly to readers has a different function. Given that the #2 reason people buy a particular book is friend-recommendation (#1 is that they liked the author’s previous work), what a writer needs is a critical mass of “seed readers”–people willing to try a book by someone they never heard of.

    I agree with this. The critical mass of readers, and a degree of name recognition, are what really count. It’s true, of course, that you’re not going to make sales to every person you talk or read to. Maybe only a fraction of them. But if they tell their friends, and if they recognise your name, you’re building an audience.

    As to whether a few hundred extra sales makes a difference, well, that depends on how big your print run is. If your print run is 100,000, it doesn’t make a jot of difference. If your print run is 5,000, it certainly does. If it means fewer returns from bookstores, then you’re building your chances for your next book, and so on. And, of course, you want people to read your books, right? That’s why you wrote them? I’m happy every time anyone reads one of my stories.

    Of course, if your publisher is promoting you heavily, all you need to do is go along with it. If they’re not, are you really going to just sigh and wait for fate?

  17. 17. SarahP

    If they’re not, are you really going to just sigh and wait for fate?

    Nope, I’ll be writing my next book.

  18. 18. Simon Haynes

    I’m all for promotion as long as it doesn’t cross the line into making a nuisance of myself.

    I’ve been working in small business since 1988, and I always seem to end up in a marketing role, whether that’s designing brochures, writing ad copy, laying out artwork or knocking up websites. Therefore, treating my own books as a product to be promoted comes naturally to me. In fact, I thrive on the challenge.

    I spend a fair bit of money giving away many copies of my books, which I believe is the most effective form of promotion. Sure, posting a book overseas costs as much as a fistful of bookmarks, postcards or other widgets, but what’s the chance someone will just throw a free book away?

    As an example, this is what I ended up with:
    http://www.spacejock.com.au/HalNotify.html

    The other point is that I’m writing a series of books, not standalones, and if I get someone hooked there are other titles in the same series for them to buy & read. (I’m just putting the finishing touches to Hal Spacejock #4 – No Free Lunch – and already have books 5 and 6 planned out.)

    If you’re a series author, then promo could be the difference between obscurity and slightly less obscurity. And don’t we all lust for the latter?

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Sarah Prineas

Sarah lives in Iowa City, Iowa with her mad scientist husband and two kids. Author of the Magic Thief series; the first book is coming in summer 2008 from HarperCollins and a bunch of other publishers around the world. Visit site.

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