I can already feel the heat from those approaching with pitchforks! But if you hear me out, I think I can convert at least some of you to the idea that if you don’t enjoy marketing, you’re doing it wrong. Let me explain.
Sometimes marketing can seem like a Sisyphean task. There’s always something you could do to promote your work, and there’s never enough hours in the day. Many writers are already hard-pressed with demands from the rest of their lives and have to battle hard to carve out writing time. The pressure to promote squeezes that precious writing time even further.
On top of that, many marketing tasks just seem unpleasant. Writers can often be introverts who don’t like pressing the flesh – either in cyberspace or meatspace – and the very idea of marketing is hive-inducing. I get that, I really do.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, I think that if marketing is making you feel icky, you’re probably doing it wrong. If it’s too expensive, you’re definitely doing it wrong. And if it takes up too much time, guess what? You really are doing it wrong.
Stuff that can make you feel icky:
- Book signings
- Hanging out on Goodreads
- Emailing reviewers
- Spamming reader forums
- Tweeting buy links
- Posting to reader groups on Facebook
I don’t bother with any of this stuff. Some is completely ineffective (Twitter spam) and some is potentially useful (emailing reviewers) but isn’t worth the time cost. In certain genres, a Goodreads presence can be very useful, but if it makes you feel uncomfortable then you’re not going to execute effectively and should just avoid. Anyway, if you need reviews (or readers), there are easier ways.
Stuff that’s too expensive:
- Hiring a publicist
- Any advertising without a positive ROI
I’m keeping this section short because these are the two most common mistakes. I can see the attraction in hiring a publicist – you hand over some money, to a pro, and you put your feet up and watch the sales roll in (or spend more time writing). But it doesn’t work like that. Publicists are incredibly expensive, and they don’t focus on promotional opportunities that actually shift e-books. They tend to specialize in carving out traditional media attention, which has a poor track record at shifting digital products.
I’ve been interviewed in national newspapers with millions of readers. I know writers who’ve had appearances on national radio and television. The result is always the same: a slight movement of the sales needle, nothing more – less than an appearance on a small blog would generate, and dwarfed by the sales spike an ad on a large reader site can bring. If a media appearance falls in your lap, great. But that’s about as much effort as I’d recommend putting in.
As for advertising, there’s a whole army of sites competing for your advertising dollars. Many will make huge claims about the size of their audience, but only a small few will return a positive result. It can be tricky to discern which is worth your money. Some sites will claim huge numbers of Facebook fans, but if you look closely at their page you will see little or no interaction – a sign that all those Likes aren’t actually seeing their updates, making advertising with them pointless. There’s a chapter in Let’s Get Visible about how to evaluate any advertising opportunity, and I’ve uploaded the relevant excerpt here (PDF) for those who want to read it quickly.
Go through the process outlined there. If it looks like you won’t get a positive return on your investment, don’t advertise. Be realistic. Avoid magical thinking. You won’t just save yourself money, you’ll also vote with your feet, helping to ensure these sites beef up their audience or cut their prices.
Don’t say “It’s only $20, what’s the harm in trying.” Every site will have been tried by someone already. People tend to share their results (at places like Kboards). If you pay the $20 despite the poor track record, you are simply encouraging the site to continue providing poor value (and wasting your limited budget for advertising).
At the other end of the scale, I’ve seen people spunk $5,000 or more on a major Goodreads or Amazon campaign. And I’ve never seen anyone come close to getting a positive return on that huge outlay – even writers with an extensive backlist. Don’t be tempted, however much cash you have to spare.
Stuff that takes up too much time:
- Blog tours
- Guest posts
- Platform building
Blog tours can be effective in some genres, but for most of us it’s simply not worth the time required to generate all the necessary content needed for each site. Blog tours can also be expensive – either in terms of time setting it up yourself, or cash to an organizer – and in most genres the effort or expense is a waste. Guest posts and interviews fall into the same category. I still do them occasionally, but that’s usually reserved for a big release.
Given that I have a decent-sized platform, you might be surprised to see platform building up there. But here’s the thing: platforms shift way less books than you think. IMO, they aren’t great at shifting books on a continual basis. They can be great for launching books – and the distinction makes sense if you think about it. Your blog readers can only buy your book once.
Platform building is the kind of thing that pays out long term, but it’s a slow build, and quite a slog. It’s also very time intensive. I think you have to enjoy something like blogging for the sake of it, and not expect a quick pay-out.
If you have extra time to spare after you hit your writing targets, and have devoted a small amount of time to the kind of marketing I recommend (explained below), then you can spend a little time on things like interviews, guest posts, and platform building. But only if you enjoy it. It’s certainly not a necessary condition for success, and definitely not a sufficient one. You still need books to sell, and you still need to make readers aware of them through marketing.
The good stuff:
- Mailing lists
- Cheap/free intro to a series
- Advertising on sites with a positive ROI
- Group promotions
- Box sets
All of this stuff is effective. None of this stuff will make you feel icky. Every one of these tools is something that you can afford in terms of time and money (within reason when it comes to advertising).
I think when people caution writers not to waste time or money on marketing, they think of blogging, interviews, hiring a publicist, and spamming Twitter or Goodreads. But that ignores a whole bunch of stuff you can do which fits your budget, doesn’t take up much time, doesn’t make you feel like a huckster, and actually works at selling books and building your audience.
It takes no time or outlay to make the first book in a series free or 99c. It takes five minutes to email BookBub or ENT about an ad spot. It might take you an hour or two to learn how to set up a mailing list, but that’s something you will benefit from for your entire career (and the most powerful tool at your disposal).
I’m not disagreeing with those who say that writing should be your primary focus. Of course it should. The more books you have, the bigger return you’ll get from any marketing effort. But I don’t think you should wait to promote. Whether a book takes you two months or six months (or longer), isn’t it worth an hour or two of your time to put together some kind of promotion for the launch?
If a book’s sales have flagged six months down the road, isn’t it worth an hour or two of your time to use one of the (effective) tools above to resuscitate its sales?
What do you gain from waiting? More writing time? I’m not suggesting cutting into that. At all. I’m suggesting finding the time elsewhere. For those of you with kids, or two jobs, or an illness to manage, I get that time is tight. But everyone should be able to find an hour or two around a launch to give their book a good push, and maybe another couple of hours six months down the road when sales dip. Even if you’re releasing four or five books a year, that’s not a crazy time commitment.
A good launch can mean the difference between hitting a good rank for a day or two, and hanging around in the upper echelons of the rankings for several weeks. A good promotion can pad your bank account, swell your mailing list, and bring you a horde of new readers who will both check out your existing work and eagerly await the next.
But hey, if you don’t want to promote, that’s your call. You’re just making it easier for the rest of us.
If you do want to market your work, and you stick to the stuff I suggest, I can’t guarantee success, but I can guarantee you will enjoy marketing more. You still need a good book, well presented. And you still need a little luck. But if you keep at it, you will get the hang of it and start to see results.
And that’s what we’re all doing this for, right? We all want to be read, otherwise we’d just leave all these stories on our hard-drive – which is roughly the same amount of readers you’ll have if you do nothing to actively build your audience.