Self-Publishing Essentials – Active Marketing

Jun 19, 2013
So many books! (and yet not enough)

So many books!
(and yet not enough)

It is a truth universally known that an author in possession of a book must be in want of an audience. You’ve done the work, written a great book, polished it with an editor, written great cover copy and hired a designer to make it look spiffy. And now comes the hardest part of all: getting people to read it.

I’ve read and heard some astounding statistics recently. According to the Association of American Publishers, 22.55% of all book sales in 2012 were eBooks. That’s up from 17% in 2011 and 3% in 2009. While there is some indication that those numbers have or will plateau, there are other predictions that they will continue to rise. Another article – a rant really – that I read suggest that self-publishing is the new slush pile. And frankly, that’s a brilliant analogy! Nowadays, instead of hundreds of thousands of half-baked novels that are not ready for publication and shouldn’t yet see the light of day gracing slush piles in agents’ offices, they’re up online, available for 99 cents. But as the article also pointed out, there are brilliant works of fiction in slush piles. So how do you lift your book out of the slush and rocket it to success?

Well, I can only speak from my own experience, but with all of the choices and possibilities for active marketing out there, some work and some don’t. And now we take off our writer hats and put on those ill-fitting, ugly, uncomfortable sales and marketing hats. As any sales guy will tell you, the key to selling is to get as many “leads” as possible into the “sales funnel” so that you have a better chance of making more sales. Translation: you need as many people as humanly possible to see and know your name and the names of your books so that they will come back and buy books from you. Exposure is everything.

First and most important, you need to have an online platform. I’ve talked about this a bit before, and really there’s nothing I can add that Kristen Lamb hasn’t already talked about in her book We Are Not Alone: A Writer’s Guide to Social Media. From the notes of my experience, I can only handle so many social media platforms at a time. Facebook, Twitter, and my blog. That’s where I concentrate my effort. I tweet as much as I can using the 80/20 rule – 80 percent fun, informative, or interesting content and only 20 percent promotional content. Most of my effort goes into Facebook and this blog.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have a pattern to the blog. Mondays I post interesting history tidbits connected to the time period in which I’m currently writing. Wednesdays I post about writing. Fridays are Fun Days. I try to post something random and engaging that people can relate to. Interspersed through these regular posts are Book Reports. I don’t have a schedule for those since I’m not reading at a consistent rate. I also want to note that I’ve shifted from writing them as reviews and focus more on what I’ve learned from the books. I do this because I’ve made the mistake of expressing a negative opinion about a few books and reaped the consequences. Never again. But I should also note that since I started writing book reports, I’ve had a lot of emails from random people asking me to read and review their books. This is a good sign! My name is out there. People are listening. That’s what we want. (Incidentally, I very politely decline these requests because I choose what to read as a way to improve my craft and frequently the books offered have been in genres I know nothing about and tend not to enjoy)

Facebook is a somewhat quieter venue, but one that is easier to keep up with and, I suspect, gets me the most notice. It’s really easy to share memes that make people laugh, smile, and click “like”. But I always add an original comment when I share. I also post about what I’m doing and ask questions. Much of the way I handle my Facebook page is modeled after what I see writers like Julia Quinn and Eloisa James doing. I recommend following leaders in your genre on FB and paying attention to what they do. I will also admit, freely and proudly, that I spend money on Facebook ads. Not a ton, but enough. And as I type this I have 1544 “likes”.

Here's a basic example of a marketing funnel courtesy of Wikicommons - Steve Simple

Here’s a basic example of a marketing funnel
courtesy of Wikicommons – Steve Simple

Side-note: Is it cheating to get people to like your page based on a Facebook ad? NO! It’s called advertising! It’s how products are sold. If someone who has never heard of me likes my page because of an ad, then likes several of the things I’ve posted, then suddenly I have someone who is invested in me who wasn’t before. And if they buy my books? Welcome to the point of paying money for ads.

Okay, what about some of the other well-publicized active marketing plans out there?

I heard some people like hanging out on Amazon boards and Goodreads groups. I tried, but it became too much of a time drain. I have done free giveaways of my novels and had a lot of success with that. It puts your books on a lot of people’s “To Read” list. Do they ever buy those books and read them? Eh, maybe someday.

I’ve also done blog tours – both the kind where I beg a bunch of my friends to host me on their blogs and the kind you pay to be involved in. What do I think of them? Actually, I really, really like doing them! But that’s because I love writing blog posts. Have I seen mass quantities of sales from these tours? Not really. Do the tours mean my name has gotten out there? Absolutely.

Okay, what about things like triberr and other sharing conglomerates? I don’t know. I’ve had some very kind people share twitter links for my promos with their triberr groups and I have a dear, dear friend who is sure to post my promo links in the reddit groups she’s a part of when called for. Is this helpful? I think so, but I don’t have the energy to personally be a part of the groups and do all that sharing.

Which brings me to Street Teams. As I understand it, Street Teams are super-fans who post your links everywhere, give you good reviews (maybe?), and generally do all the rah-rah-rahing when you don’t have the time to. They may be the single most awesome invention in modern eBook marketing. The trouble is, you kind of have to have a following already to get people who are that excited to volunteer their time to do all the thankless grunt-work for you. Or you can hire them, but they’re expensive.

Another personal favorite tool I’ve stumbled across are sites like Book Bub and Pixel of Ink. These are companies that email daily links to book deals online. I get the Book Bub email for Romance every day, and yes, I look at it every day. However, they cost money. Also however, I’ve heard of writer friends being rejected because their book isn’t “good enough” (although I don’t honestly know what that means from Book Bub’s point of view). But does this service work? YES!

Last summer, when I did my first free promo of The Loyal Heart, Book Bub listed the book in their daily email. Cover, blurb, and a notice that it was free. I had over 50,000 copies of the book downloaded! The thing is, I didn’t ever contact them. I got SUPREMELY lucky, because they had a day when no one had signed up to have their promo email-blasted. When I contacted them to thank them a million times, they explained that they sometimes list free books without the author paying them as incentive to have the author work with them again in the future. But that was a year ago. I don’t know what their policy is now. They’re awesome though.

Which brings me to the absolute best marketing technique I have discovered to date. This technique trumps all others in its effectiveness. I have seen exponentially more results from this one than anything else I’ve done, and yet it is my belief that this is the culmination of all of the other techniques: offering a book for free.

free books for saleHere’s the thing about free eBook promos though. You can’t just toss up any old book for free and expect to retire a millionaire. Giving away a book for free works best if it is the first book in a series. It works best if you have already built an online platform and gone on a blog tour and have your street team or online peeps telling everyone they know about it. It works best if you already have an audience with whom you can share the news of the freebie. And yes, it only really works if the book you’re giving away for free is a really damn good book.

I’ve also played around with various aspects of the free book promo. I was so shocked after having 50k copies of The Loyal Heart downloaded after my first promo that I can’t even tell you. I was shocked and delighted to sell so many copies of the sequel! But I wondered, did I have so many books downloaded because I told everyone and they told everyone? A couple of months later I set the price of The Loyal Heart for free again for roughly the same amount of time, but this time I didn’t tell a soul. I didn’t breathe a word of it. But a few of my friends did find out and shared links & such. Result? I had about half of the number of copies downloaded for free and an equivalent amount of sales of the sequels. Not one to rest there, I threw in my “control group” giveaway and offered TLH for free again, this time telling everyone loud and proud. That time I had many more downloads than the previous time, but not quite as many as the first time. With the proportionate amount of subsequent sales.

The conclusion? Free promos work wonders. You can still do well if you keep quiet about it, but you will do better if you scream and shout about them. Also, I tested the waters of offering the second book in the trilogy, The Faithful Heart, for free. Downloads were dismal and I kind of killed the awesome sales of that book that I’d been experiencing. Note to self: never discount the second book.

And at the risk of boring you to tears, one more note about free promos. I offered the first book in my western historical Montana Romance series, Our Little Secrets, for free in May. It blew my mind how many downloads I had (I’m estimating at about 75,000, but I don’t have all the figures yet). Sales of Fool for Love were also insane – in the good way. Here’s the thing. I believe I pulled that sale too soon. Yes, Our Little Secrets was free for almost but not quite 3 weeks. It was staying consistently in the top 3 historical romance downloads on iBooks and Amazon, and fluctuated between about 13 and 28 on the Top 100 Free Kindle Books list for two weeks. It was still going strong and holding its spot when I ended the sale. Numbers for both of the Montana Romance books stayed super high for about a week after that, then dropped. A big part of me believes I should have kept OLS for free until it dropped off the charts and out of existence. But hey, I’ll have another chance to experiment with length of free promotions later this summer *wink, wink, nudge, nudge*

So those are some things that have worked. Here are some things that were a colossal waste of money and some things that I’ve seen other authors do that make me want to kick puppies.

Paying for reviews? Pointless. And now it’s also frowned on. It wasn’t when I gave money to that review company two years ago, but seeing as they never actually reviewed the book, it doesn’t matter.

Getting people to review your book for book blogs or magazines? Very, very useful for gaining quotes to stick on the cover of future books, but I haven’t seen many sales based on those reviews. But I also think it’s a great idea to foster a good relationship with reviewers.

Spamming people through Twitter or Goodreads with links to your books? Please don’t make me hurt you. I have and continue to unfollow and unfriend authors who do this. It gets you absolutely the wrong kind of attention. So does posting nothing but “buy my book” links on your Twitter or Facebook feed.

Hiring publicity services to do the work for you? I don’t know. I have never used one of these services. Mostly because they’re really expensive and I don’t have that kind of money.

Bookmarks, postcards, fliers, and other giveaways? Waste of money, in my opinion.

Interviewing other authors or having them write guest posts on your blog? Seriously one of the coolest and most fun ways to build community, support your fellow authors, and to have fun! I cannot recommend doing this enough. I’ve interviewed huge names in Romance – like Eloisa James, Nicole Jordan, and Delilah Marvelle, and Courtney Milan is going to be stopping by at the end of July (yes she is!) – and I’ve had up-and-comers visit too. It’s awesome. But have these interviews led directly to sales? Not many. But who cares! Eloisa James was on my blog!

All right, all right, this post is way the heck too long already, so I’ll wrap it up. The moral of the story is, active marketing is all about getting your name and your books’ names out there. The day I knew I had succeeded as a marketer was when I was at a writing workshop introducing myself to some fellow writers and one of them, who I’d never met before, said she’d heard of me. Best day ever! But it too time. Lots and lots of time. Lots of blog posts and guest posts and tweets and hours on Facebook. You have to keep doing it, putting quality content out there, even when you aren’t seeing the results you want. Active means continually active. It means persistence and it means patience.

So what did I miss? Has anyone else found success through means I didn’t mention?

Comments (25)

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  1. cassandracharles

    You’ve mentioned free already, but Wattpad is a good place for new and existing authors to upload their work, especially if it is at the draft stage and you want to drum up some attention for the finished novel.

    Reply
  2. cassandracharles

    Also you mentioned inrerviews. Written ones are okay, but sometines it’s good for people to see you, get to know your character a bit better. Skype interviews can be a good way to generate interest.

    Reply
  3. Shawn Kuhn

    A fantastic blog. Bottomline: Be the most interesting person in what ever room you find yourself in. And work hard like you do Merry.

    Reply
  4. claudiaauthorscientist

    I do the bookmarks, but I don’t give them away to other authors! (at writer conferences, for example). Bookmarks & flyers are for when you’re in a completely new environment – a local book fair, local book store, or even at the grocery store, to hand to folks who might be curious about your product. I have some with me all the time. It helps with bullet 1 on your marketing funnel – ‘awareness.’ People will not buy what they’ve never heard of. In bulk, bookmarks can be very inexpensive (per bookmark — like pennies). Like you say, hard to gauge how much of any of this stuff translates into sales, but aimed at the right audience, these kinds of giveaways also provide a draw.

    Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      Here’s my weird hang-up about bookmarks (and I emphasize the “weird” aspect). 99% of my book sales are eBooks, so would a bookmark really be part of my brand? Hmmm….

      Reply
  5. Beppie Harrison

    Merry, I am continually fascinated by the things you know about! I am going to be sticking not a toe but the whole great foot in the self-pub market with my Irish trilogy in April, May, and June of 2014 (assuming that the world doesn’t come to an end or my entire family produce emergencies between now and then), so this whole promo thing is coming to be a central issue. Should I start getting my name out now, when I’m still obsessively writing, or can I kind of ease into it the beginning of 2014? I have to admit I am baffled by where everyone gets the time. I find email and writing soaks up enough hours so that I am really wary of getting into Facebook and Twitter. I’m there now, but super-passively.

    Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      Thanks, Beppie! And without hesitation, I say get your online platform started NOW. And read Kristen Lamb’s book “We Are Not Alone: A Writer’s Guide to Social Media” as you do. She explains why starting an online platform long, long before you publish is the right way to go. Promoting does take time, but it’s also necessary. And once you get things set up, it becomes part of your routine. Although I absolutely do wish I had more time to write.

      And I know a lot of things about writing, history, and books, but not so much about other stuff. 😉

      Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      Thanks, Ella! I think that the more that the market and the publishing world change, the more authors of all ilks will need to learn how to sell their own books. It’s painful, but inevitable.

      Reply
  6. Scarlett Scott

    Great tips! Thanks for sharing your insights. Sometimes, social media can feel a bit as if I’m hollering into a well with nothing but the echo of my own voice coming back at me. It’s good to know that it *can* be effective.

    Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      Oh yeah! I felt like I was yelling into a hole for two years before I saw the results of anything. I still feel like I tweet into oblivion. But I am also coming to believe in the silent majority, who are listening even though they don’t reply. It takes time and patience, but it does pay off!

      Reply
  7. Lacey Falcone

    Great post, Merry! I need to go back and catch up on all your other posts about self-publishing. There is a world of opportunity open for us newbies…the hardest part is treating it like a business (when all I want to do is be an artist)! Thanks so much for sharing your lesson’s learned!

    Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      Thanks, Lacey! As soon as I have time, maybe this weekend, I’m going to link all of the posts together so future seekers can click through them all. And you’re right: the key to succeeding as a writer, self-published or not, is to treat it as a business more than a hobby.

      Reply
  8. Jnana Hodson

    Thank you, Merry, for your relating your experiences and observations.
    I’ve long been concerned about the syndrome of relying on writers’ reading other writers, which you touch on in the bookmarks distribution, rather than nurturing new ranges of readers. Contrary to the common assumption, people ARE reading, it’s just not in the traditional places.Look at all the texting, everywhere! That, in turn, suggests that too much published material simply hasn’t been speaking to or for a lot of people, or at least connecting with them in a meaningful way. When’s the last time you heard someone exclaim “I wish I’d written that” or “that could be my life’s story”? If the new slush pile is in self-publishing, it’s still better than sitting in filing cabinets. Who knows what bit will strike a chord and go viral?
    At any rate, you seem to be connecting … congratulations!
    Now, if my Hippie Drum, will only do the same.

    Reply
  9. writingmom2013

    I don’t have anything to add with respect to self-marketing, but wanted to say that I loved those first 2 lines of your post – great way to hook us readers in before giving us the information.

    Thanks for posting!

    Reply
  10. T.J. (@tjloveless3)

    My own Lucky Number Six is up … although despite following rules and advice, Amazon refuses to let me list it for free. *sigh* Apparently if you get sales straight out the gate they can refuse. Ah well. But I jumped into Smashwords and holy moly! It’s still d/l at a consistent rate.

    I also signed up at a few places to be their “spotlight author” – Heading over to the two places you mentioned now LOL Hopefully it pushes sales a bit more.

    To be honest? I’m saving all my favors for when Unlucky Number Four goes up – a contest to be a part of the book, and then heavy promo. Why? I have the feeling most would love to take a shot at Murphy and those bloody laws of his, and UNF is all about that. So I think it might be my best selling novella? At least I hope so …

    Now, enough gabbing, I’m taking all of your advice and off to work!

    Reply
    1. merryfarmer

      I’m curious, T.J. Did Amazon say why they refused to set the price of the book for free? Had you set it for free on Smashwords first and waited for it to go free everywhere else or attempted to go through KDP Select? Because if you go through Smashwords and make it free on every other platform, Amazon usually price matches. I’ve heard myths of them refusing, but it doesn’t make sense from a business model point of view for them to let every other retailer undersell them, especially when freebies almost always equal more sales of subsequent books for them. Yeah, I’d be very interested to hear what their reasoning for refusing you was.

      Reply
      1. T.J. (@tjloveless3)

        It isn’t myth *sigh*

        Despite going through SW first, because I had a few sales from the minute it went up (I’m talking not even double digits here) they’ve sent me five emails so far stating they have the right to refuse to allow me to post the book for free. The reason is the same, immediate sales and a reminder that according to their guidelines, they have the right to refuse to list the book for free.

        I’m not the only one, as I’ve learned. Another author I know had the same issue for seven months before Amazon allowed her to list it for free. What I wonder, is it novellas? Hers is also a novella and she didn’t tell anyone until she’d argued successfully. I’m talking to twelve other self pubbed authors I know at the moment, who are also putting up novellas. I’d love to hear if you have any issues with your upcoming novella.

        At this point, I’ve stopped arguing and clicking the “tell us a lower price” link. Going to try other avenues first. I just don’t have the time necessary to commit to arguing with Amazon.

        Reply
        1. merryfarmer

          Huh. That just seems so bizarre to me! Out of curiosity, is the book you tried to have listed for free part of a series or stand-alone? And you say it’s a novella? Hmm. I do plan to run a free promo of Sarah Sunshine once I publish it in August (promo probably in September), so I’ll be interested to see what Amazon says and if they go for it. I have seen free novellas – Courtney Milan’s “The Governess Affair” was free last time I looked – so I’m really curious now about what the criteria from Amazon’s POV are. I’ll let you know what I find out when I find it out.

          Reply