I’m gonna be honest up front: I have yet to find a marketing strategy that’s worked well for me. I’ve published six novels so far, traditional and self-published, and hustled to market each one. I’ve read a bunch of books and blogs about marketing and tried lots of different tactics. Money was never a limiting factor for me (I make decent dough at my day job, though I’m not rich—#middleclassbabe), so lack of spending was definitely not the problem. I even tried hiring a company to do it for me, and the results were the same: somehow, I’m still not a bestselling author.
So, I can’t offer steps to success like my other blogs…BUT I can offer some hard-earned wisdom and advice.
Marketing requires spending money—there’s no way around it—so it’s crucial you spend your money as wisely as you can. I try to spend my money wisely, but I can afford to take some moderate risks to see what works and what doesn’t…and then report the results back to you!
- Advice Nugget #1: Most marketing doesn’t work
It’s the cold hard truth, so just accept it now. People see ads for stuff all the time, but rarely is their interest piqued, and even more rarely do they actually buy the thing being advertised. Concerning the literary world in particular, hundreds of books are published every day, making it nearly impossible to stand out in the crowd. You can increase your odds of success by targeting places your potential audience hangs out—like romance-specific websites, for instance, if you write romance—but there will still be an overwhelming amount of competition no matter where you go.
I’m not saying all marketing doesn’t work, just most of it. And therein lies the rub: if you do no marketing, you’ve committed to selling few to no books…with some rare exceptions of course, because there are always exceptions…rest assured you will never be one of them. But if you do a lot of marketing, you could still sell few to no books. What this means is that you need to keep close track of what works and what doesn’t, so you can cut or adjust the stuff that doesn’t work and expand on the stuff that does work. This way, you can keep your losses to a minimum while still making a genuine effort to get your book out there and connect with readers. Which brings me to my second nugget…
- Advice Nugget #2: Piecing together a successful marketing strategy is mostly trial-and-error
You can listen to “experts” talk about successful marketing tactics until the cows come home, but the truth is there’s no one fail-proof way to successfully market your book. Successful marketing depends on the standards of your genre, what’s hot at the moment, luck, your own media and marketing savvy, market saturation, the time of year, and a bunch of other stuff you can’t control.
Your best strategy is to treat marketing like an investment portfolio. You want to make small to moderate investments in a bunch of different options (i.e. start out with a broad portfolio), then cull out the stuff that’s not returning a positive investment and expand on the stuff that is. Avoid putting a lot of money into any single marketing option, because it’s unlikely to work (simply because most ads don’t work).
I keep an Excel spreadsheet of exactly how much I pay for an ad and when it’s supposed to drop (this is also helpful for claiming on your taxes), then I track the sales of my book for that time period and see if there’s any correlation between the ad and a bump in book sales. There’s obviously some guess work here, since a bump doesn’t necessarily correlate to an ad (especially on the day of publication, aka launch day), sales don’t always post on the day they were made, and if you’ve bought several ads to go live on the same day you can’t always tell which was responsible for the bump, but ANY bump is a clue that something might have worked, and is worth investigating.
Give yourself a budget you can afford, and stick to it. Personally I’ve never come close to going over my budget (with the exception of the time I hired a marketing company; more on that below). The real limit to my spending is finding ad venues that are worth the money. Don’t expect to recoup your money with book sales; you’re lucky if you break even, even if your goal should be to make money…
- Advice Nugget #3: Your goal should always be a positive return-on-investment
A positive return on investment (ROI) is when you make more money than you spend on something. This means that you should judge the effectiveness of an ad based on how much it cost versus how many book sales you got from it. You can price your book to be competitively cheap, ex: 99cents, but then you’ll need to move more copies to break even. Conversely, you can increase the price of your book to earn more royalties, but then you’ll move fewer copies because people are cheapskates. How you price your book depends on the market for your genre—for instance, many (…most) romance readers will only buy 99cents or free books because they read them like a couch potato eats chips, while a sci-fi reader might be willing to spend more.
The bottom line is that the money you put into an ad should be proportional to the money you earn in royalties; the more expensive an ad is, the more fruitful it should be. That should be your goal anyway, though most of the time you’ll lose money. Therefore, think long and hard about spending significant money on a single ad (more than $100 is “significant”; most ads will run you ~$10 – $50 a pop) because the more you spend, the harder it is to earn your money back.
I use the Excel spreadsheet method I described above to determine if an ad was worth the money.
- Advice Nugget #4: Think very hard about hiring a company to do the marketing for you…and then probably don’t do it
It makes sense to hire professionals to do something for you that you’re not particularly good at, right? Right?? Well in this case you’d be wrong!
In any kind of business pursuit, value should always flow to the investor; otherwise, the business runs out of money and goes bust. In the literary world, however, there’s an entire cottage industry set up to make money off authors looking for help. Some are straight-up scams, while most are simply ineffective. Whether it comes to editing, formatting, cover illustrating, life-coaching, or marketing, the value of a professional’s work always comes down to their ROI in regards to royalties made from books sold. The fact that authors get so few royalties whether they self-publish or traditionally publish should make the value of any professional’s help a tough sell to an author.
I’ve worked with two literary marketing companies in my day. Both were supposedly “legit” and recommended by my agent at the time. I was negotiating terms with one when they suddenly decided they “didn’t represent books like mine” (no other explanation) and cut off negotiations. So I reached a deal with another marketing company for a flat fee (a LARGE fee, like several thousand dollars), which they told me included an extensive online marketing campaign as well as a social media marketing tutorial I could learn from. What they actually did was spammed my own social media accounts with ads for my own book, then sent me a tutorial…on how to use Facebook. Not how to use Facebook for marketing, just a how-to guide to Facebook in general (“If you like a post, click on the thumbs-up icon!”).
I did not see any significant increase in sales. And then my agent dumped me because I hadn’t sold enough books. That’s the literary world for you.
So…using a literary marketing company turned out to be a major waste of my time and money. I thought about fighting to get my money back, but decided to consider the experience a painful lesson learned rather than waste even more time and money wrangling with the legal system. This doesn’t mean all marketing companies are incompetent, only that you’re probably better off just doing the marketing yourself. I certainly won’t be using another marketing company again without a very good reason to believe the results will be different.
- Advice Nugget #5: Your time is worth something too, so don’t waste that either
Putting together a marketing campaign isn’t just about paying for ads. You also need to fill out a bunch of forms, solicit reviews so you can reach some review threshold required by many advertisers, and track all these ads. You’ll also be running giveaways, sending out advance reader copies (ARCs), signing people up for your newsletter, writing guest posts for any book websites you’ve agreed to blog for, and prepping for your launch day activities. All this crap will eat up a HUGE amount of your time. Unless you have nothing else to do all day, your time is arguably worth even more than your money.
Therefore, make sure you get a decent ROI for your time as well. If an advertising venue has a cumbersome or convoluted application process, then simply don’t use them. Don’t write custom guest blogs for websites with little traffic (in fact I recommend not writing guest blogs at all; see below for more details about that). Don’t make labor-intensive videos or graphics if you don’t enjoy it. Don’t run complicated giveaways that you need to babysit. Set up your marketing efforts so you can do things as simply and quickly as possible, whenever possible; prioritize the ones you can automate. If one effort is sucking up a lot of your time, wrap it up or drop it and move on (don’t forget nugget #1—most marketing doesn’t work, so never spend a ton of time on any one thing).
- Advice Nugget #6: Giveaways can be effective, but stick to your own books and products rather than something unrelated, like a gift card
It’s good to have something you can give away to people to entice them to buy other things. Your own books are the ideal giveaway. For instance, a novella prequel to one of your books, or the first book in a series, are always good freebies because they invite a reader to learn more about you and your fictional world, and hopefully convince them to want to pick up more of what you’re puttin’ down.
There are two main reasons you give away freebies: either as an incentive to convince people to sign up for your author newsletter, or to promote a new release.
The nice thing about newsletters (which I’ll explain more in a future post) is they provide “free” advertising to a core base of readers who’ve already expressed interest in your work. So you need to treat these people like royalty and give them free stuff as much as possible. In theory, this incentivizes them to buy your stuff when it matters (like a new release).
To promote a new release, you can either offer your new book for free in exchange for an honest review (more on that below), or offer the first book in a series or a prequel for free if they buy your new release. This can be difficult to do if you’re traditionally published, because you won’t have the rights to give away your books for free—this is a big drawback of traditional publishing over self-publishing, where you have the rights to do whatever you want with your work.
You can also have a giveaway for your new release, where the first five or so people to sign up for your newsletter on a certain day will receive a signed hardcopy of your book as a prize. The key is they still have to give you something of value—their e-mail addresses for your newsletter.
I don’t recommend giving away something that’s not your own work, such as a gift card or a tablet or whatever. You’ll mostly get people who only want the thing you’re giving away and don’t care about your work. They’ll subscribe to your newsletter for a chance to win the thing, then immediately unsubscribe when the giveaway is over. I gave away an Amazon gift card once, and that’s what happened…other authors report the same thing.
- Advice Nugget #7: The jury’s still out on whether it’s better to splurge on advertising that drops on the day of or right after your book launch, or spread it out over several weeks…but the former is probably better
Some authors swear by a big launch, because in theory that’ll catapult you into the top Amazon rankings for your specific category for at least a short period of time, giving you much needed visibility for potential readers who otherwise wouldn’t know your book existed. Meanwhile, other authors claim the opposite: that blowing all your marketing budget on a big burst of activity on launch day will diminish the momentum that could carry you into more sales over a longer period of time, and you should therefore spread it out.
The big-launch rationale makes more sense to me, but there’s no reason you can’t do both. Many ad venues require a minimum number of positive reviews anyway, so you’ll need to wait for readers to post their reviews before you can even buy an ad, which will put you at least a few days past your launch date (for Amazon—and I think most self-publishing platforms—people can’t post their reviews until the day of publication…there used to be some ways around this but Amazon keeps changing their terms of service, and I think they closed that loophole). Also, you often won’t be able to buy an ad for your specific launch day because the slots are full, so that’ll force you to pick a date farther out.
In a nutshell, it’s probably best to cluster your ads to as close to your launch date as possible, but availability and review thresholds will force you to spread some of it out anyway.
- Advice Nugget #8: It’s a lot easier to do your own marketing if you self-publish
Traditional publishing and self-publishing each have their advantages and drawbacks. As I mentioned earlier, one big advantage of self-publishing is that you own all the rights to your work, which will make your marketing efforts a lot easier. When you self-publish, you can send out your work to whoever you want whenever you want, as opposed to having to go through your publisher for a trad-pub book. You can also give out any books from your backlist for free if you’ve self-published, which make for great freebies and giveaways. If you’ve traditionally published, you’ll need to buy your own books from the publisher and then give those out “for free.” It’s a major pain; trust me, I’ve done it.
This is a huge reason why I highly recommend if you’re going the traditional publishing route, you insist your publisher commits to putting a decent effort into marketing your book before you sign your rights away. Because if they’re not (and most don’t), and they’re not offering some significant advance (most don’t), then you might as well self-publish. In this case (which is most cases), you gain nothing going the trad-pub route.
- Advice Nugget #9: Reviews aren’t as important as some people think; you only really need a minimum of about ten positive reviews either at or shortly after your book launch
Reviews are important, but they’re not going to make or break a book. A ton of reviews are usually the result of a lot of sales, not the cause of sales (ditto for social media engagement…but that’s for another post).
The real purpose of reviews on launch day are to signal to a potential reader that your book is worth their time and money, and to reach a threshold required by some ad venues (which is usually five to ten four-to-five star aggregate reviews).
There are three ways to get early reviews: organically (a reader reads your book and writes a review about it unprompted), through an ARC list you’ve built, and from a review service that provides you with a list of people to send ARCs to.
Organic reviews are the best ones because they’re genuine and require zero effort on your part, but they’re also rare; you can anticipate maybe one review for every 100 organic readers. An ARC list—which is a list you’ve built of people who have said they’re willing to review your future books (I’ll expand on this in a future post…damn I’ve got a lot of future posts to write)—is the next best thing, because they’re people who already like your work and are willing to do you a solid. Finally, a review service is the last option (and the only one that costs money), but perhaps the most fruitful due to sheer bulk. A review service’s job is to either put you in touch with potential reviewers who’ve expressed interest in your work or genre (via their newsletter or something), or they’ll send your ARC to potential reviewers for you. You usually pay a fee based on the number of reviewers they send your ARC to; this can be dozens to hundreds of people, usually depending on how popular your genre is. You can expect maybe one review for every ten reviewers (the return rate is higher because people who sign up for this service will often feel obligated to do a review, which is good for you).
Note that you’re paying for the opportunity to ask people to consider reviewing your novel, not for an actual review (so this doesn’t contradict my next nugget of advice). The only thing you actually give to the reviewer is a free copy of your book for their review.
These review sources combined are almost certainly enough to get you to the ten-review threshold. Don’t worry about getting more; the extra effort won’t translate into more sales.
I recommend not asking blogs and websites to review your book, or at least being selective about which you ask, because it’ll mostly be a waste of time. The popular ones will only review books from well-known authors, and the smaller ones don’t have enough traffic to make a difference. They also often have cumbersome review request forms, and even sometimes charge a fee; neither is worth it. The only good reason to ask a blog or website for a review is so you can use one of their (positive) quotes for your own advertising efforts or on your book jacket, but that’s about it.
- Advice Nugget #10: NEVER pay for reviews!!
Never pay for someone to review your book, period. It’s usually very expensive (the book review website Kirkus, for instance, charges around $500 (!!) for a review), won’t result in a big increase in sales, and readers could consider the review biased toward the positive even if the paid reviewer claims they’re being “honest.” You’ll get the same benefit from the review solicitation methods I mentioned above, and for a fraction of the cost.
- Advice Nugget #11: Book tours, whether physical or online (ex. blog tours), aren’t effective at selling books
Book and blog tours can be fun, but they suck up a lot of time and don’t significantly increase book sales. Nobody really attends book signings for authors who aren’t already well-known, so if you spend a bunch of time wheeling and dealing your way into a book signing at your local bookstore, print out a big sign and produce swag to give away and all that, it’ll be for naught…unless you just want to do it for fun, then go ahead. Hell, do anything that brings you joy in this harsh business!
Ditto for blog tours. Blog tours are basically virtual “tours” an author can go on of different websites, where authors can do things like virtual interviews or guest posts. These used to be big a few years ago, but like all new and promising marketing strategies it eventually reached the point of saturation and now offers diminishing returns. If you decide to do some blog touring anyway, I suggest you limit the original content you produce and stick to something that’s mostly a short excerpt of your book.
- Advice Nugget #12: Prioritize the things that bring you joy
Marketing SUCKS. It sucks a big one. It costs money, takes a lot of time, and is mostly ineffective. Add to that the fact you’re trying to market something you put your heart and soul into, when you get so little return on your investment it can be crushing.
You can’t control if someone’s going to buy your book. But you CAN control how you spend your time. Joy is a real and tangible return on your investment—even more so than money, I think—so if you like doing something, definitely do that, whether or not it results in book sales.
- Advice Nugget #13: Consistently publishing is ALWAYS your greatest marketing asset
The one thing you can do to consistently raise your odds of getting noticed in a crowded field is to publish regularly. You don’t need to publish multiple books a year like a romance author, but if your backlist continues to grow, you’ll become a better writer (…hopefully) and your fan base will grow as well. You’ll increase your odds of finally getting a hit book (if that’s your goal), and once that happens, marketing becomes infinitely easier. Name recognition is like 90% of successful marketing.
I could go on and get really nitpicky with my advice—for instance, clicks versus impressions for pay-per-click advertising, the questionable practice of trying to combine newsletters with another author, using a pen name to try to reap the supposed debut author boost, etc.—but I’ll end it here for now.
If I stumble onto something that works well, I’ll update this post with that info. Until then, don’t forget the last two nuggets—keep publishing and doing what brings you joy!