What Has Not Worked in Book Marketing
Everyone has ideas about what works for getting more sales, more readers, and more engagement. It is rare that someone shares where they’ve failed. I’ve tried a lot of things over the past eight years of writing full-time. I’ll share what did not work for me. Some of them are at the top of the list for many people who claim to have book marketing prowess.
Writers are faced with hundreds of opportunities to be part of someone else’s income machine. For the most part, my advice is to not do it. When someone is inviting you to sell your book via their platform you have to know their platform is designed to help them more than you. They get affiliate money for each book sold, or they charge you a fee, or they get you to use your readers to to increase readers to their platform. Most likely it is all of those things together.
A certain amount of using someone else’s platform is required. For example, to sell books you have to use distributors (Amazon, Kobo, Apple, Google, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, etc.). None of them are there to help you grow your sales. All of them are there to make money off your books. They really don’t care whether you sell ten books or ten thousand books. Because if they sell lots of ten books here and there they still make millions. Of course, if you sell 10,000 books regularly they may offer you some incentives, but still, know it is only to get you to stay with them and to get them more money. That’s business.
Unless you have loyal customers already, these distributors are a required part of your sales costs. Building loyal customers is your number one job and finding a way to do that on the backs of distributors is a key to being able to not rely on them all the time in the future. Once you’ve done that you have the option to sell directly to your customers and cut out the middle man.
When evaluating options to work with other organizations, distributors, marketers, look at what the cost is to you in time and money. Then ask yourself the most important question: “What will this bring to me?” If it is through someone else the answer is likely not a lot of sales. However, if the numbers or demographics are good, the answer may be exposure or contacts that can translate to sales years down the road.
Here are things that many marketers suggest, or you may even think would be fun. However, these have NOT sold very many books for me:
I average 7–15 book sales no matter the venue or the number of people who attend. I’ve signed in bookstores with anywhere from ten people to a hundred showing up. I’ve signed at major conventions with thousands of people showing up for hundreds of writers. I’ve signed at venues where I’m the keynote speaker with hundreds of people attending. In all cases, the average is still 7–15 books sold.
I give up anywhere from 3 hours to an entire day — after adding in driving time, set up and take down — to attend and participate in one of these book signings. That is an entire day I am not writing. Not worth it to me for marketing or PR. I do still do them once or twice a year. But I do them not for sales. I do them as a way to support a bookseller who I love, one that supports local authors. Or for a venue I know supports writers in general or literacy or something similar. But I never do it hoping to make sales anywhere near a hundred books.
Caveat: There are bestselling authors who can do in-person events and sell hundreds. Some of them are household names and others are not but are still in the $100,000 and up in income. I am not one of those, but if you are, ignore my advice above.
The most I’ve ever sold from an FB party was 20 books in 2014, and that was an anomaly. It’s never happened again. Most FB parties consist of the author, along with other authors, giving away books with the hope the readers will fall in love with the story and buy more down the line. The best case scenario for this type of event is to have authors who have the exact same readership you do. The closer the relationship, the better the outcomes.
It’s nearly impossible to know if readers at the FB party buy unless they come to my direct sales platform. For the most part, giving away a free book does nothing for me unless I get them on my mailing list. I haven’t done a FB party since 2017. I just don’t find them worthwhile. I will do FB events, but those are purely for exposure (PR) not for marketing and with no expectation of any sales.
In 2011–2013, a good blog tour for a new release used to bring me 40–50 book sales. Not any more. They began being less effective in 2014 when I could not attribute more than two or three book sales to blog tours. I haven’t done one since 2016. They are time-consuming and cut into writing time.
Blog tours are great for book bloggers who get affiliate money from people clicking to look at a book — even when they don’t buy your book but go on to buy something else at the retailer. Where it used to be a way for true book lovers and bloggers to connect with authors and like-minded readers, it is now a money-making venture. Most tours involve static Q&A posts or just a cover and blurb. They also don’t get much engagement with actual readers. Even on the big tours of 25+ blogs, where the potential for 30K or more impressions is there, I find that those who are engaging are the same 5–15 people at every stop. And none of them are buying. In fact, often the respondents are other bloggers who are part of the tour and got your book for free.
Caveat: Doing a blog tour with non-book sites that relate to your themes or topic can be worthwhile because the readers are not as jaded or have the expectation of freebies. However, choose those carefully.
Ads in Book-Specific Venues
I’ve put ads on sites that get a million hits and in magazines that have 100,000+ readers. I’ve spent $10 for a month of ads at a smaller site and $300 to $500 for a ¼ page placement in a national magazine. No matter the venue, the average number sold because of an ad in those venues averages 10 books. Not worth the time or money for me. And almost impossible to measure.
Caveat: This does NOT include FB Ads, Bookbub Ads, or AMS Ads. Those ads exist in an entirely different ecosystem. Those Ads can and do consistently work for me. However, the money involved can be substantial.
Blog Interviews or Guest Spots
I rarely see a single sale from any blog interview or article I’ve contributed to as a guest blogger. That’s not to say I should never do it. But it is not a marketing technique that provides measurable return on my investment of time. The reason I continue to do guest blogs or accept interviews is that it builds my brand. I see it as PR and I actually enjoy interacting with Q&A live or with writing the guest posts. If I didn’t enjoy them I would not do them.
All of the things above that don’t work for me, in terms of sales, can work as PR. If I do any of the above, I approach them with the idea of engagement and of getting my brand known to new people. Over years of doing this consistently, it does add to the discoverability quotient and my branding efforts. If I can build a mailing list based on those engagements that can help with marketing down the road.
The question you need to ask yourself is if it is worth your time and effort at this point in your career. If you are giving up writing the next book because you’ve scheduled 12 blog interviews, four Facebook parties, and three in-person signing events, then you are giving up on the most important part of moving your career forward — having more books to sell.
What Has Worked for Me?
What does my marketing entail? First, it is done through email and social media campaigns to my fans. These are rarely buy-my-book campaigns. Instead, they are campaigns to explicitly proclaim the value of my book by talking about the characters, doing excerpts, providing social proof (reviews), and getting good word-of-mouth from books that preceded the new one.
Techniques for this vary, but the #1 way that works for me is engaging directly with my fans and then asking them to share what they like with all their friends; and finding ways to reward them for that sharing. The majority of my communication is about my brand, themes that interest me, my process for writing, and what I’m excited about during that process.
It’s not that I never talk about a book release, or never have a link to buy my book. I do! When I do a launch for a new release, I do send out an email about its availability and let them know they can now get this experience again. I also do a Facebook post and a Tweet and Instagram and Pinterest about the availability of that book.
However, I do not do those posts three times a day for several weeks. I do not obsess over the fact my selling numbers are down one day and increase the buy-my-book fever on the next day. I trust that my relationship with my fans will win out over a number of months. I concentrate my direct marketing on potential new fans.
In reality, I am marketing all the time, helping readers get to know my brand. I talk about the themes and compare them to things in my life. If I’m writing about grief in the book, then I’m sharing snippets about grief I’ve had or other people in the news. If I’m writing about a romance where opposites attract, then I’m talking about the psychology behind that, giving examples in life and in movies, and asking for them to share as well.
Yes, I do still share my book cover when it becomes available and tell them how much I love it and why. I do talk about my excitement when I’ve written a particularly amazing scene — and sometimes I’ll share it. I also talk about the hard scenes I write and why they are difficult for me.
The intention is to share enough interesting and free information without asking them to buy — just enough to entice. If I’ve done my job well, the reader will want to buy it when it’s finally available. In fact I hope they will be craving it when it comes out and will read it right away. This marketing takes place over a long period of time. It does not start up the two weeks before and end two weeks after release.
Marketing is continuous. It is not something that only happens for a launch or a new release. If readers only hear from you to exhort them to buy something, they will stop listening. Some will run to get off your email list and they will stop visiting your social media sites. Others will simply ignore you and you’ll never know except in your decreasing sales.
The biggest mistake most authors make is trying to capture the maximum market in a large genre.
Most books fit in a narrow band of readers. Even in the big genres, like romance and mystery and thrillers, your book won’t be a good fit for all of those readers. You need to find that group of readers who are most likely to love what YOU write — your voice, your themes, your way of crafting a story in a sub-genre, or your way of sharing the experience through a nonfiction book.
That is exactly what the lead up to a release is doing. It’s narrowing your audience. It’s getting the people who are truly interested in your type of book to engage. Once you get that group, they will then share it with people in their circle who like that kind of book, too. That’s also why it usually takes more than one book to build that kind of readership.
I wrote two fairly extensive articles on this topic you may find useful if you want more detail. One is on author branding and the other is on using social media.
Quick Social Media Management Tips
You have to know yourself, including how you write, your process, and how easily you are distracted or procrastinate.
To limit my distractibility I choose to use a piece of software, Buffer, that allows me to plan my posts all at once and post to any number of platforms at the same time with only minor modifications. If I’m really on top of things, I can plan these posts out months in advance and schedule them. When I’m not on top of things, I try to set aside a couple of hours each week to at least schedule my posts for that week.
Here are some truths I’ve found for myself:
- I must write every day first thing in the morning after breakfast. That is before I look at email before I look at how my books are doing at distributors before I do posts anywhere. If I don’t do that, it is extremely easy for the day to slip by without me writing a single word on a new book. Your schedule may be different. Find a time and consistently do nothing but write during that time. Whether it is only an hour or several hours. Plan it. Do it. Stick to it.
- Spending money or a lot of time on marketing before I had three books in my inventory was throwing money into a dark hole without much return. Spending time writing the next book, with the occasional branding and sharing of the process, is much more successful.
- Building a mailing list of true fans is the easiest and most consistent marketing effort I can directly correlate to sales.
The Bottom Line
Not all marketing is equal. The things that may appear to be really great, and even fun, with potential large readerships, may not have much return at all in actual sales.
The #1 technique to enhance sales is to build your mailing list.
The #2 technique is to have a backlist to leverage.
The #3 technique is to consistently engage with your readers in whatever platform they favor AND that you can tolerate using consistently.
PR requires time and energy (and can cost money). Marketing requires time and energy (and will cost money). On the PR side, do only those things you enjoy doing and save your time and energy for writing. On the marketing side, do only those things where you can measure ROI. Give it time (e.g., six months to a year), budget a set amount each month, try different approaches and tweak what works.
Then measure your return on investment. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. If it does work, understand why and use it as much as you can until it stops working. Things do stop working or become too costly when the market is saturated with the same techniques. Get Better. Evolve.