I get into perennial discussions with other authors about whether or not blog posts, or bookmarks, or reviews, or carrier pigeons, or flash mobs sell books. The cold reality is that any of these tactics, when done as a one-off, probably doesn’t sell more than a book or two, unless the person convinced to buy a book during that breakdancing skit at SuperWowCon was a minor celebrity who ended up loving it and telling all their friends.
Ending up loving it is the key, there. If nobody loves the book, they aren’t going to talk about it.
But nobody can love a book they don’t know about.
So what happens after you write a good book?
You hope the market is ready for it.
And then what?
You get to work.
Sure, you might get lucky and have a big advance book, and your publisher does that amazing thing where they’re able to convince those key book buyers at the big chains to make massive orders, and you can just sit at home eating bonbons and updating Twitter. (OK, let’s be real: we all want our publishers to magically figure out how to do this, not so we can screw off, but so we can have more time to just… you know, write more books. That’s how a lot of us thought this business worked. Alas.)
The reality is that when the buyers aren’t convinced the market is ready for your book, your push is going to need to start from the ground up. You will be out here in the trenches with authors like me, firing up the marketing machine with every release, even if you sometimes resent it. The truth is that there never really were ‘‘good old days’’ where an author didn’t promote their work. The advent of the ‘‘reading’’ was a purely promotional activity. If you’re from a traditionally overlooked group that’s had a tougher time getting reviews and shelf space, promotion is especially vital. We’ve all seen the statistics on how often women and writers of color are reviewed in mainstream publications, compared to their white male counterparts.
Where I see a lot of authors falling down in this is that they’ll write a blog post, or make a book trailer, and call that it. When they do the book trailer and it doesn’t magically ‘‘make’’ their book a bestseller, they declare that book trailers and blog posts don’t sell books. And that’s true – your chances of connecting with readers who have big followings that can start the word-of-mouth machine going are incredibly low when you just throw a couple bookmarks on a table at SuperWowCon.
Placing all your book’s hopes on a book trailer is a heavy burden for one book trailer. Or one postcard. It’s hoping that just that one effort and nothing else will connect with the right people, who love the book and share it. Because the truth is, if you’re a low-advance mid-lister like me, not necessarily beloved by book buyers, your best shot is to try and reach as many readers as directly as possible, through as many different venues as you can in the weeks leading up to and directly adjacent to your book release.
No, the postcard won’t sell the book. But when they read a review on their favorite book blog, read a blog post from you on their favorite site, see a Facebook ad, listen to an interview with you on their favorite podcast and pick up a postcard at a con – all in the same week – all those touches reinforce one another. They say to somebody: ‘‘This is a project folks are investing in and talking about. This is a project worth taking a look at.’’
So let’s pretend a couple of amazing things, first: you wrote an excellent book (the talent part). The market is ready for it (the gamble part). Now what?
I tend to point folks toward author Saundra Mitchell’s simple, inexpensive and practical marketing plan (<http://saundramitchell.com/blog/marketing-for-authors>). It gives you the bare minimum to get started, and encourages a mixed approach: personal postcards, ARCs, giveaways, website, appearances, signings. Wash and repeat. Easy.
What if there’s stuff in that plan you don’t like? Well, find something else you do like.
One of the greatest things I’ve learned in this part of the business is to only do the things I enjoy. Author Tobias Buckell advised me on this one early. If you don’t like readings, don’t do them. Signings? Scrub them out. Focus on what you enjoy. For me, that’s meant a lot of guest blogging, giveaways, postcards, some convention appearances, and free swag of the postcard and sampler variety. I also get a kick out of making book trailers, and have learned how to update my own website, which is a constantly evolving entity.
Jeff VanderMeer offers another great resource for writers struggling to balance writing and the business of promotion, called Booklife. I’ve been using strategies from that book about dividing writing, networking, and promotion time since my first novel came out, and it’s been a great sanity-saver.
I suspect that what makes marketing talk among writers such a contentious activity is that one can do none of these things and have a massive bestseller, or do all of it and sell 600 copies. Why is that? Well, remember what I started out this conversation with: first, write a good book. Second, the market has to be ready for what your good book has to say. If those things aren’t in place, there will be less return. But will you still get some return? Yes.
At the end of the day, I sleep better knowing that when a book goes off into the wild – the way I’m about to send off The Mirror Empire, my new epic fantasy – that I’ve done all I could to help it out into the big bad world. My marketing work – blog tours, convention appearances, interviews, and the like – takes up six weeks of my writing time.
Isn’t six weeks of my life worth it, for a book I’ve been working on for ten years?
Writing is a largely solitary business, and what makes many of us perfectly suited for writing makes us terrible at promotion. Today’s noisy world, though, will often require us to push out into areas where we’ve not been as traditionally comfortable. Many were raised to speak softly, to not talk about themselves, to believe that if you did anything of worth, it would be spoken about without you raising a hand.
In the sea of books and films and games and other entertainment options we have today, we must look for ways to cut through the noise in the hopes of getting our work into the right hands.
It’s a magical thing, when readers get caught up in a book so completely they press it on all their friends, they cosplay as their favorite characters, they dabble in imagining their own, and completely fan-out when they meet their favorite creators. They – and me! – are super passionate about books, and love to speak about the ones that connect with us.
Yet I can’t read and share what I don’t know about… and neither can our readers.