Future posts will explore book marketing’s complexities, but first let’s acknowledge the central challenge for writers after they’ve created their work: getting someone, please God, anyone to read it.
Unless you’re writing for your bottom drawer, you’ll need to alert a potential readership about your work’s existence and appeal. This applies to both traditionally and self-published authors. While agents and publicists (assuming you can afford one) may help, you know your book better than anyone giving you irreplaceable marketing insight.
However, in an environment packed with books, desperation particularly among lesser-known authors is predictable. This is partly due to the relative ease a self-published work has getting into sales channels such as Amazon, Kobo or IngramSpark. As noted in a previous post, nowadays writers can deploy modest funds and technical skill to self-publish thereby bypassing customary gatekeepers such as agents and acquistions editors. Democratization in book distribution allows writers without connections in the literary firmament to get their work to readers, but it also means barriers to entry are low resulting in armies of competing authors vying for bibliophiles’ attention. In most genres, a nearly infinite supply of books far exceeds finite demand (c’est la guerre).
The repute of established authors with large fan bases defends against obscurity. However, some lesser-known writers resort to frantic promotional tactics to gin up interest in their work including giving away free books or commandeering virtual readers’ forums to tout their latest opus. In fact, desperation leads to all manner of counterproductive marketing choices that don’t represent the book well and may actually antagonize prospective readers.
Paradoxically, desperation per se isn’t bad and sometimes inspires clever, effective book promotion – if you work from a plan, not out of frustration. In planning marketing, the writer needs to determine their goal. Is it to sell enough books to be profitable? Or is filthy lucre less important than simply getting someone to read your stuff? In other words, are you running a business or engaged in a mission? There is no right answer, just what’s appropriate for you, but this choice guides how you promote your work. In this post, we’ll focus on authors whose goal is to profitably sell their work.
Authors play the long game and build a robust reputation by aspiring to craft creatively-written, thoroughly-edited, and well-packaged books. Yes, easier said than done, but a focus on quality sets you apart from many (most?) self-published and indeed some traditionally published books which can seem more concerned with hefty word count than thematic excellence or interesting characters. A professional approach has implications for your marketing tactics: try to leverage your work’s value to pull in potential readers rather than pushing your work toward ambivalent or disinterested folks. For sure, high quality, especially for one book, won’t necessarily be recognized or rewarded, but building a credible reputation spanning several works improves the odds of durable success.
Returning to some of the ‘desperation tactics’ noted above, engaging in a price competitive race to the bottom by providing your work free or steeply discounted on eBook sales platforms is a problematic tactic if used in isolation. Consumers tend not to value what they don’t pay for. However, book giveaways aren’t necessarily ineffective if this is part of a broader pricing strategy with thought-through plans for how this helps eventually gain paying readers. Though a discussion of pricing and discounting tactics is well beyond the scope of this post, briefly, book giveaways may work if they introduce readers to one book in an oeuvre. Hopefully, the reader will then be impressed enough to pay full fare for other works resulting in a net monetary and reputational win for the author. Similarly, providing free sample passages of your writing on your website may pique potential readers’ curiosity enough to purchase the book. Ultimately, the writer has to trust the value of their work enough to price it fairly for both the reader AND themselves.
Regarding tactics such as ‘bookwhacking’, a term coined on Goodreads and other reader forums to describe an author’s tone deaf attempt to hijack a conversational thread by inserting a gratuitous plug for their book, one can’t force others to acknowledge let alone like and buy a creative work just because it’s forced to their attention. Keep overt promotion of your book to designated spaces in such forums. Authors won’t gain anything but ill-will by doing otherwise. In place of bookwhacking, try drolly written self-promotion on your website; go ahead brag on yourself, it’s totally chill in this setting. Writers might also consider ads alerting folks to their work. While advertising generally is only marginally more popular than bookwhacking, an appealing and appropriately placed ad just might generate awareness for your book and at least your potential reader isn’t run off the road by an author inserting themselves unexpectedly into an inappropriate setting.
Face it, desperation is inherent in promoting your writing, but a marketing plan helps productively channel this sentiment. Importantly, desperation is a self-centered emotion which distracts from the outward focus you’ll need to understand your potential reader’s perspective, where to reach them, how to (deftly!) make them aware of your work, how to avoid pissing them off, and what messaging creates a desire to look at your book.