Writing and Self Promotion, A Dialogue With Myself

I’m not at all convinced of the value of self promotion, but I’ve got a book coming out in just a hair over two weeks and I end up going back and forth on the subject. It goes a little like this:

MythOS comes out in 2 weeks!

That means that you’re at the point in the launch cycle where you should be frantically trying to do ninety and nine kind of promotion, right?

*cricket noises*

Right?

No…Maybe…I really don’t know…but probably, no.

Wait, isn’t that heresy. I mean, your publisher isn’t going to do a whole lot since you’re midlister and this a late book in the series. If you don’t do it, no one will, shouldn’t you be panicking?

There’s something to that. My promo budget is almost certainly minimal by publisher standards. At the same time, I’m not going to spend my way to a successful book launch. Not without a lot more money than I’d ever earn back, thus negating the point of the whole exercise. Even that assumes facts not evidence, i.e. that anyone knows how to apply money to the problem of book promotion in such a way as to generate significant sales for midlist books. If it could be reliably done, the publishers who have a lot more experience at the whole thing and a lot more books to sell, and hence greater incentive, would already be doing it.

But what about things that don’t cost much money? Shouldn’t you be frantically running around trying to drum up free publicity?

To an extent, sure. I’ll do any interviews that anyone wants to offer me. But checking in with my radio and print and bookstore contacts takes about an hour. What next? I could spend a ton of time to generate more effect, but I’ve got the same problem there that I have with money. Time is more expensive than money since there’s no way to get it back and there’s a diminishing returns effect that kicks in very quickly. In general, I think most self-promotion is a bad use of a writer’s time

Really? Why is that?

Anyone who is good enough writer to get something published, is almost certainly a damn good writer. This is for the simple reasons that the odds of success are lousy. I’ve got a highly specialized skill set for writing and none of the specialized skill set involved in promotion. That being the case I’m almost certainly better off investing the time and effort I’d spend on promotion in making my next book irresistible. I’ll have more fun that way and I’m more likely to be successful.

Okay I can see that, but I still think you should be out stumping for your book. Got anything else?

How about the numbers argument? Lets say that by doing a ton of promotion I can move a few hundred copies of my book that wouldn’t have sold otherwise. 20 at this signing over here. 50 by appearing on local radio. 50 by going to a con that I wouldn’t otherwise have gone to, and so on.

That’s great!

No, it’s not. A few hundred copies doesn’t really matter that much when a moderate print run is 10,000-20,000 books. Take my first book, WebMage. In the first six months I sold an average of 75 copies (mmpb) a day every day. That earned out my advance plus ten percent. That was fabulous and I was delighted. But I need to double it.

Double it?

In order to make a marginal living I need to sell at least 150 mass market paperbacks a day every day for the rest of my life +inflation. Ooh, better double it again. To make a decent living I’d need to bump that up to something more like 300 a day. To crack six figures it’d have to be ~800 a day. Now do you see why I’m not that excited about spending many hours to sell a few hundred extra books?

I guess so. But you make it sound like there’s no way to win at this game.

I don’t think there is, not through self-promotion. I would love to believe that I could come up with a self-promotional effort that would have an ongoing several hundred books per day kind of impact on my sales and that wouldn’t eat up so much time it would be counterproductive in terms of writing the next book (or preferably the next several books). I’d also love to believe that my cats will support me in my old age….

That’s depressing. All right, Mr. Pessimist, so what do you suggest a writer does about it?

Write.

What?

It’s very simple. Write. If I take the same energy it would take to do a ton of self promotion and I focus it on what I’m good at–writing books—I can produce a complete extra book (or maybe even two) a year. Given that the best promotion that I know of is to have another book come out, one that’s as good or better than the last one, that seems like a simple bet. Especially when I consider that in addition to a new book’s impact on backlist, a new book generates its own sales to add to that books sold per day number. Not only will it promote my books in the best way possible, but it brings in new revenue and it’s a ton of fun. I love writing. That’s why I’m in this business.

Oh, I guess that makes sense. So, you’re not going to do any promotion?

I have a simple rule for promotion: It should involve no money, no time, and no effort.

That sounds like no promotion, all right.

Not quite. I’ll do a little. Here and there. Take this blog post, for example. I’m willing to bend my rules a little for pure promotion’s sake, but not much. I’ll spend 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. I’m just not going to get wound up about the whole thing.

Any last thoughts for the folks who’ve made it all the way to the bottom of this post?

Yep. If you’re a writer who doesn’t like doing promotional things, or if you’re not good at them, don’t feel guilty about keeping your self-promotion to a minimum. Even if you do enjoy promoting yourself, realize that it’s a trade off. Time spent on promotion is time spent not writing, and writing is the point of the whole thing. Isn’t it?

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There are 14 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Alyx Dellamonica

    Oh, the part of me that doesn’t necessarily want to work my way through the promo To-Do list is loving this…

  2. 2. Laura Reeve

    Kelly, Congratulations on MythOS. BTW, I agree whole-heartedly with you, when you say “most self-promotion is a bad use of a writer’s time.”

    Of course, it’s probably due to my current situation. I’m really close to deadline and this is when I have to face the truth: it’s all about the writing, isn’t it?

  3. 3. Jace

    I enjoyed reading this, but really, isn’t this more of a post on self-justification than self-promotion??

    Double congrats on MythOS; I LOVE the title!

  4. 4. Tim of Angle

    This is more or less the conclusion that Eric Flint came to in the latest issue of Jim Baen’s Universe. He said that there is no possible way that the time a writer spends in promotion can be worth more than spending that same amount of time writing.

  5. 5. Kelly McCullough

    Alyx, yep, there’s a certain amount of pleasure to be had in coming to a logical conclusion that also saves effort.

    Laura, thanks! I don’t know how situational it is. I’ve never been convinced that it’s worth the effort, even when I’m months away from release and not working on anything else. And, absolutely, in the end, it always comes back to the writing.

    Jace, tomayto-tomahto…. Sure there’s some of that, but I also really don’t believe that most self-promo makes much sense. Oh, and thanks!

    Tim, thanks for the reinforcement. Eric’s a good guy and very smart. I’ll happily add him to my list of seasoned pros who come down on this side of the line.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Well put.

  7. 7. Jeff VanderMeer

    You’re thinking tactically, not strategically. Of course PR doesn’t result in direct sales. It results indirectly in sales through repetition and its “performance” is across your career. Engaging the right kinds of PR–ones that you enjoy and don’t stress you out–help protect your *career* not an individual book.

    Of course the emphasis should be on the creativity. But I find I need breaks from writing. I just do the PR during the breaks, so I can recharge.

  8. 8. tanya

    Reader here…I dont pay attention to “promotions” will occasionally look to see if a writer I like is passing thru town (so i can get my book signed)….BUT i do read books and find books from sites like this….i will follow a link made by one writer on one site and if i like their blog – then i will pick up their book.

    I say KEEP writing – i will be here. Oh and please don’t stop writing the Ravrin series – really like them. It is a very cool and different concept in the UF world. Many thanks!

  9. 9. Kelly McCullough

    Sam, Thanks.

    Jeff, I don’t know about that. I think that most author generated PR falls into the category of bad tactics and bad strategy. It doesn’t generate sales in the short term and it mostly comes across as noise in the long term. But I definitely agree that if you enjoy doing a particular PR thing it can be worthwhile. Hence my doing cons, readings, and interviews. I think that both in terms of this book and career, you’re better off devoting most of that time and energy to writing another book, because over the long term it’s good books and lots of them that are your best way to build a career. Of course, I find taking breaks from writing to be stressful rather than relaxing, so that slants my take some.

    Tanya, thanks for the data and the compliment. I’m glad you’re enjoying the Ravirn books, and, you’re welcome.

  10. 10. Angela Wilson

    I love this post.

    When I first started reading, I thought it was completely the opposite of what I think and believe, but some points resonated with me.

    I write, but not as much as I’d like (preaching to the choir, I know!). My “day job” (which keeps me in chocolate and writing supplies) is a social media consultant (i.e. online networking nerd). I teach businesses and nonprofits how to market themselves online. I started a blog for authors about this very thing – cheap, DIY promotions authors can afford. (Because you don’t need to break the bank to do a little promotion.)

    One thing I run into with authors is the All Work and No Play philosophy. They believe they must promote themselves 80 hours a week for three months to be a success. They get burned out, don’t want to check their email and cannot stand to even think about the computer for weeks afterward.

    They don’t realize that more isn’t better. It can actually hurt – in many, many ways.

    Balance is really key. Do the things you like. If there are other promotional things you MUST do, but hate, then get friends and family to help. (Most work for food – especially kids and grandkids.)

    Some authors will need more promotion than others to really take off. That is just the nature of business. But doing it wisely is key to success – and keeping sanity.

    Kelly, thanks so much for a great post! I’m bookmarking this one to reread again.

  11. 11. Kelly McCullough

    Thanks, Angela. I’m glad you find something of value in it, particularly given that it’s an area with which you have considerable expertise. I’ll definitely be popping over to your blog next.

  12. 12. hwm

    Frankly, your essay strikes me as odd. I can understand why somebody wouldn’t like doing promotion and it’s clear that not every method is effective. However, if nobody knows your book is out there, nobody is going to buy it. Now that the booksellers have reduced the return time, the first few weeks might be the only ones your book is on the shelves. Afterwards it’s word of mouth that will bring you sales.

    There are tons of books to choose from and as a reader on a budget I’m less likely to try an author I’ve never heard of. Often it takes several favorable mentions on blogs, forums et cetera to make me buy a book.
    Your novel might be fantastic. If I’ve never heard about it, I wont care, because there are many that are just as well written and whose authors embrace promotion.

    However you’re completely on spot when you say that promotion doesn’t compensate for bad writing – except when it does ;-) Dan Brown, Christopher Paolini, Stephenie Meyer anyone?

  13. 13. Kelly McCullough

    hwm, my contention is not that no promotion works, just that the vast majority of authorial self-promotion has no real effect on visibility and is in fact a waste of author time and/or money, and that because of that it is counterproductive both to long term career-building and short term sales. My secondary point is that nobody knows which promotion works beyond the law of diminishing returns. If publishers knew that doing X promotion would result in Y sales for a net profit of Z, they’d be doing it all the time. Since they don’t I think that’s a fairly safe pronouncement. As for bad writing, I try to avoid making those calls, because it’s a highly subjective measure. I prefer to think in terms of success. There are books that I think are awful that are highly successful and vice-versa. How much that is dependent on promotion and how much it’s dependent on mass tastes is an open question.

  14. 14. anne michaud

    Amen, brother!

    I feel the exact same way about all that self-promotion nonesense.

    You know what? I would much rather write than waste my time on something that might never lift off – unlike my writing.

    And have you noticed how the ‘big cheeses’ of writing are NOT involved self-promotion? I know, it’s because they don’t need it, but mainly it’s because they write good books that people WANT to read, instead of wasting time doing something else, ie self-promoting.

    Kelly, we should start a club: The Non-Self-Promoting Types. TNSPT, catchy.

    anne :)

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Author Information

Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.

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