Author Self Promotion

By Mike Briggs

Originally posted in 2008 as a blog entry, and reproduced here for convenience.

Someday I'm going to add a section on writing to the web site. Patty gets quite a few letters, especially from new authors, asking about various aspects of publishing. There's some information in the FAQ (which is poorly maintained), and some good information on the Forum, but I probably need to aggregate a little more information and put it out where people can find it. In my excessive free time, of course. This week we got a very nice letter from the author of three books asking about self-promotion. I tried to answer her, and I thought others might find it useful as well.

Disclaimer: This is one of those controversial subjects about which everyone has an opinion. What follows is just another opinion; I'm claming no divine guidance or special knowledge of the subject. Feel free to disagree.

Publishing houses generally have a publicity or marketing department responsible for promoting the books they publish. They have access to graphic artists, fancy printers, national media, travel agents and all sorts of pretty toys designed to help advertise and hopefully sell books. However, there's a fly in the ointment. Advertising costs money, and the publisher's goal is to maximize the return on their advertising budget. Launching a glitzy media campaign for a best-selling author sells more books than launching the same campaign for a relatively unknown author. The result is that a few big name authors get the lion's share of the available marketing money and the crumbs are scattered among the other authors deperately trying to attract new readers. Predictably, the big fish get bigger still while the smaller fish fish are fighting to survive.

While the allocation of marketing dollars makes economic sense, it doesn't feel very fair to the author pouring heart and soul into books that lauch without fanfare and are pulled from the shelves in a few months. It needs to be said that pure, dumb luck plays a major role in this phase of the game, where careers are balanced on a knife edge. A good review in a major publication, a blurb from a celebrity, a particularly beautiful cover, any of these can swing the balance. If an author gains little bigger audience it may trigger a positive feedback circuit. People read popular authors. Cross the tipping point and word of mouth spreads, selling more books, which take up more space in bookstores, which makes them less likely to strip your book, which makes it more likely they'll sell, which brings in more readers. Suddenly, the author is a big fish, and getting a share of the advertising dollars, which further accelerates the cycle. Or not. Midlist authors are kind of like Cinderalla waiting for her prince to come; and waiting for blind good fortune or word of mouth to magically transform your career is very frustrating.

In the mid 90's, when Patty was a new author the buzzword in the author community was "self promotion". The idea was simple: if the publisher's won't do it, the author can lauch their very own promotional campaign. No more waiting for lady luck, go out and make your own luck. For an author captive to the whims of chance, the idea that you can kick-start that feedback engine, and be off to the the major leagues with just a little effort is a welcome and seductive concept. There were some well-publicized success stories of authors who had apparently rocketed to fame and glory on a flame of their own igniting. Naturally there were books on how to do this, and panels at conventions, and even professional packagers who would organize as much promotion as an author could afford, for a price.

Soon bookstores had piles of free bookmarks, bookplates, and other kitsch stacked around the cash register, and authors were no longer at their keyboards, they were stalking promotional opportunities. Some authors were successful, but telling the average author that success depends on getting out and hard-selling their books was disasterous. I own several books purchased just because it was the only way to escape the room. We also know a few authors who spent a great deal of money, money they couldn't really afford to lose, hoping to spur their career to new heights. Not wanting to be left out, we bought several books and began planning "the campaign".

Since our means were modest, we weren't able to contemplate a nation-wide media blitz and superbowl ads. In fact, we couldn't even afford ads in the local newspaper. Here's basically the logic we followed in planning our stategy:

  1. We needed to generate a substancial number of sales, at least several thousand, in order to make a meaningful difference to Patty's career.
  2. A promotion should not only increase sales, it has to leave a favorable impression of the author. If you sell five copies of your book, and simultaneously convince a book-store owner that you're a pushy, unpleasant person, you've lost.
  3. Whatever sort of kitsch we gave away had to largely pay for itself. Given the large numbers of sales needed, we couldn't afford to give away a $10 mouse pad to generate a book sale that would bring in fifty cents.
  4. Patty needed to keep writing new material, not be on the road promoting her old material. This is vitally important. A few authors are able to do both, but know yourself before you decide you're one of them. In a related vein, honestly evaluate your social skills before you decide to go cross-country hand-selling books in shopping malls. It works for some people.

It turns out that the second point was critical for us. Cheap kitsch is, well, cheap. Probably not very persuasive. Most of the little bookmarks lovingly printed by authors on their home printer probably go in the trash without generating a sale. Given book prices at the time, Patty was making about fifty cents for each book sold. Now, what percentage of giveaways would result in a book sale? Picking a number from thin air, let's be wildly optimistic and say that 50% of our kitsch would result in a book sale, if we can think up something sufficiently cool. So, what can I make and distriubute for a quarter (half of fifty cents) that would be awesome enough to convince half the people who get one to buy a book? Think about it . . . we did. And came up empty. There's simply not enough profit in selling an indivual book to make the personal-kitsch plan very attractive.

OK then, we need kitsch that sells to more than one person. The Goodyear blimp, maybe, or radio spots. If we sell a kidney, maybe we can make it work. But how many books have you purchased because some radio advertisement told you to? That's what I thought.

Finally we came up with a workable idea. When we got the cover flats for her next book, we ran down to the copy shop and had some 11 x 17 inch color posters made. Patty signed them, and then we had them laminated with that extra-heavy plastic. The result is a colorful, reasonably large, personalized poster that's very durable. Final cost, just over $5.00. We sent them to some bookstores in the area, hoping they'd be nice enough to get hung up somewhere, and then be seen by lots of customers. Did it work? We don't know. Some of the bookstores put them up, which was good. One of the difficulties with any sort of advertising is trying to evaluate how effective your efforts were.

Having done some self-promotion, and watched the efforts of other authors, I must confess that I've become skeptical. If you could reliably create a bestseller by just throwing some promotion at a random author, the publishers would be doing that instead of paying bestselling authors. They've tried it several times, by the way, and it's just not a reliable technique. If they can't make it work, with the experts and personnel they have, how likely is it that the average author can do it? I've come to believe that most authors are probably better off writing books. That's what they're good at, and it's a craft that can take a lifetime to master. Besides, staying home writing is far better than going bankrupt or getting an ulcer trying to organize and sponser a publicity campaign you have neither the training nor the funding for. Publishers are actually pretty smart, and they try to promote whenever they think they can get more money out than they're putting in.

Even in the face of my skepticism, there are lots of good oportunities to inform the public about who you are and what you do. Having a professional web site is a great opportunity, and it's very affordable. Blogs and podcasts are cheap to produce and can potentially reach very large audiences. We've been amazed at how much traffic our forum gets, and we installed it almost on a lark. Not only has it given readers a place to hang out, it's provided some surprise benefits for us. One huge benefit is that the readers have assembled an encyclopedia of all of the characters, places, and lore in the Mercy Thompson series, complete with references and page numbers. Patty had a sheaf of scribbled notes, which she's now thrown away -- the on-line version is more accurate and far more comprehensive.

Finally, it's always a good idea for an author to stay on good terms with the owners of local bookstores. Doing local signings is good publicity, and well worth the time, even if you don't actually sell very many books. It doesn't hurt to mention your publications to local newspapers. All of the little, personal touches that make you part of your community are important, and even the most reclusive author should probably take time for this level of self-promotion. Perhaps, however, the superbowl ads should be left to the professionals.

Additional Reading

David Edelman wrote a lovely piece called Ethical Self Promotion on his blog, which is well worth your time.

Speaking of unethical self-promotion, Dear Author and Smart Bitches have both been covering the case of a small publisher who was gaming the Amazon review system. This got a lot of digitial ink, but this is a good place to start.

Cynthia Sterling wrote The Top 10 Self-Promotion Mistakes which may save you considerable time and money.