The Business Rusch: Promotion

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The Business Rusch: Promotion

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Finally, a week that’s a little slower than some others on the news front.  Yes, there are some great blogs out there and some interesting news stories, but nothing earth-shattering.  Or should I say, nothing that can’t wait until next week.

Since December, many of you have asked for a blog on promotion in this new world.  For some reason, people believe that Amanda Hocking promoted herself onto the bestseller list.  She didn’t. Others think that constantly marketing your book is the only way to sell it, especially if you’re an indie-published writer who has only published one thing.

I hate to break it to you, folks: this argument has been around since I’ve come into the business. In fact, I was reading Greg Lawrence’s so-called literary biography of Jackie Kennedy, Jackie As Editor, and in it, he discusses the whole author promotion myth.  So many writers tried to get Jackie Kennedy Onassis as their editor simply because they believed that one connection would make the book sell extra copies. And if Jackie showed up at their publishing party or book signing, well, they had it made.

Nope.  Didn’t work then; doesn’t work now.

For more than a century, the book industry has done surveys on what sells books.  I can confidently these surveys have existed that long because, as I searched for a recent survey, Google served me up one from 1904 in its Google Books archives.

So…what sells books?

The most recent survey I found in my quick scan came from the American Booksellers Association.  This study, published last year, polled self-selected avid readers from a variety of online sites.  More than 9000 people responded. The study is worth looking at, not just on this point, but for the e-book items. The study was completed between Fall 2009 and Spring 2010. We’ve moved lightyears since then on e-book habits, which is why I haven’t cited the study before.  But the results on why people buy books is the same as it has always been.

According to this study, people buy books because:

1. Author reputation (52%)

2. Personal recommendation (49%)

3. Price (45%)

4. Book Reviews (37%)

5. Cover/Blurb (22%)

6. Advertising (including online) 14%

If you don’t like those figures, let’s examine these, first published in Publishers Weekly a few years ago.  The survey is buried in their archives, but I found it on a website devoted to Christian publishing because, at the time, Christian publishing was trying to break out from mainstream publishing. Christian publishers were looking at the same things indie publishers are looking at now, and trying to figure out what works.

The earlier study (still conducted in this century) found people buy books because:

1. Personal Recommendation (49%)

2. Familiarity with the author (45%)

3. Description on the jacket (32%)

4. Reviews (22%)

5. Ads (21%)

6. Place on the bestseller list (17%)

7. Reading Group pick (16%)

8. Cover (12%)

Note that this survey asked different questions from the previous survey.  They probably designed the question like this:

What factors influence your book buying

A. Cover

B. Reviews…

You get the idea.

In the older survey, no mention was made of price, because no one was arguing about price like they are now.  When the 2010 survey was underway, the e-book/hardcover pricing argument was dominating the news.

Still, we can see some similarities here. The two main reasons that people buy books are: personal recommendation and author familiarity.

In other words, if a friend recommends a book to you, you’re likely to buy it.  If you’ve already read an author and like her work, you’re likely to buy her next book.

The question, then, is how to get someone to pick up your book if you’re an unknown or if you are writing under a brand new pen name.  According to the older survey, advertising worked 21% of the time.  But the more recent survey said that advertising including online only worked 14% of the time. This may be because book advertising venues have decreased in the past five years.  But I’ll wager the real difference here is in the people surveyed.

The new survey is of avid readers, folks who read a lot of books. The older survey was just of book readers, some of whom might only read one or two books per year.  Avid readers know that just because a publisher has put hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertising doesn’t mean the book is any good.  It just means someone in a publishing house thought the book was good.

A friend is a more trusted source, and so is the reader’s previous experience.

So…word of mouth.  That’s what modern promotion is all about, and that’s exactly what promotion through the decades was about.  Traditional publishing started screwing itself about thirty years ago when it did not allow books to remain on store shelves long enough to generate word of mouth.

Now, with e-books, word of mouth can happen much more easily.

How do you promote?

Let’s start with what you don’t do.  You don’t push people to buy your books.  You don’t go on the Kindle boards or in your writing group and force people to buy.  You don’t do book signing after book signing all over the country and press your trade paperback into the hands of shoppers in the local mall.

You want people to buy your book because they’ve heard of it, and because they want it.

Here’s what most indie writers forget: Promotion is about selling books in the short term.  In other words, promotion is a produce model.  Traditional publishing only has six months in order to sell a book. That book has to earn back a publisher’s mid-six-figure investment in half a year.  Most publishers would prefer to earn back that investment in the first month, and then realize a profit on the book after that.

This goes for every book published traditionally from bestsellers to the midlist book to the bottom of the list.  (If you don’t understand lists, see this post of mine from the publishing series.  Every traditionally published book has to earn back its investment within six months or be considered a failure.

I’ve used this example before, but it’s instructive:  Traditional publishers would rather have a book that sells 100,000 copies in its first month and then sells no more copies than a book that sells 15,000 copies per month for one year.  Why? Because the second book will not earn back its investment by the six-month window even though that book will outsell the other book in the course of a  year.  (And the second book will probably continue selling for years—except the traditional publisher might just take it out of print because of its “poor performance.”)

Yeah, I know. Bitch at me all you want about traditional publishing, but before you do, read these blog posts of mine on why it works the way it does. (Start here and read the traditional publishing posts.)

Even though traditional publishers have long known that word of mouth sells books, it’s not in their business model to encourage it. They don’t have time for a slow build.

However, indie publishers do have the time.  Now that e-books are here to stay, the shelf space is infinite.  If a friend recommends a book written in 1995, and I can find that book online, I’ll read it.  In fact, one of the great things about e-books is their accessibility.  If someone recommends a book at our regular writers lunch like a friend did last Sunday, I can take out my phone, open an e-book app, and download a sample of that book before I forget the book’s title.  When I was teaching last week, I recommended several books in the middle of a conversation, and at least two people downloaded the free samples while we were talking.

Word of mouth.

Most indie writers, however, were raised in the traditional publishing model and are in a great hurry to promote their books.  These indie writers finish one book, put it up, and then market the hell out of it.

It makes no sense to me. Because readers might pick up the book, and they might even like it.  But then what? By the time the second book appears, the readers will have moved onto other authors.

Because…look at those statistics up there.  What’s either first or second?  Author recognition.  In other words, if a reader likes one book by an author, the reader will want another book by the same author immediately.  If the reader can’t get that book, the reader will move onto other authors.

So the best way to promote your book is to write the next book.  The more you’ve published, the more ways a reader can find you and the more chances the reader has of finding a book of yours that the reader loves.

Barry Eisler and J.A. Konrath discussed this in their long announcement post a few weeks ago.  Eisler said it succinctly:  “It means that a writer’s best promoting tool is once again her writing.  Advertising costs money.  New stories make money.”

Got that? The best way to promote your work is to write (and publish) more work.

He goes on: “Now, with digital books, once again there’s no more profitable use of an author’s time than writing.  Not to say that authors don’t need a strong online presence; of course they do.  But any time you’re thinking about some other promotional activity—a blog post, a trip for a convention, an hour on Facebook—you have to measure the value of that time against the value of writing and publishing a new story. The new story earns money, both for itself and your other works. The social networking stuff doesn’t.”

So why do the social networking stuff at all?  Because readers have questions.  You don’t need a Facebook or Twitter account if you don’t want one.  You don’t need to do a blog tour or bombard bloggers to review your work.  But you do need a website.  Readers need to know what stories are in a particular series, how to order your books, and what’s coming next.  They need to be able to find you with a simple online search.

And that’s all.

So how do you write to promote?

Ah, I thought you would never ask.

Here’s where traditional publishing comes in.  In previous posts, I recommended that fast writers sell a book or two every year or so to traditional publishing.  If you’re writing four books per year, then you’re “losing” one book to traditional publishing.

You have to count that book as lost.  Because it will not earn what the indie published books earn—and may earn nothing more than the advance.  But what you’ll be doing is piggybacking on the effort of the traditional publisher.  If you’re lucky, the traditional publisher will do everything right—send to reviewers, take out ads, promote the heck out of the book.

But even if you’re not lucky and the book “tanks” in the traditional publishing world, your book will hit bookstores, making them look up your print on demand inventory (and you will have that as an indie publisher, right? If you’re confused about how to do this, see Dean Wesley Smith’s articles on “Think Like a Publisher”.  Readers who discover you in traditional bookstores will then look for your other work in online bookstores like or Barnes &  Readers who have e-readers will immediately download your backlist.

But, but, but, you say.  That book won’t earn me money outside of the advance.

But it will.  It will help the indie books sell better by promoting you to a  new audience who gets to sample your work.  It’ll develop word of mouth for your new readers.  It won’t earn the money directly. But indirectly, it’ll make the sales of your other books rise.

As Eisler says, advertising costs money.  New stories make money.  If you sell a book into traditional publishing, you’re getting paid to advertise your other works.  In some cases, you’re getting paid more than you would pay out to an advertising or public relations firm which would do the same (or less) work.

Got that?

Think of it this way.  All of the online book sites, be they print sites or e-book sites (or both) have a little listing at the bottom of the screen that says People who bought this book also bought these books.  If you write more books and readers like what you do, guess whose books appear in that slot? Yours.  If you only publish one book, then those slots get filled by other writers’ books.

Those slots, by the way, are just another form of word of mouth. Readers who liked this book bought these books. Since you liked this book, you’ll probably like those books as well.

An even better way to promote your writing is to write and sell short stories traditionally.  Unlike book publishers, short story publishers only hold onto exclusive rights to the story for a limited period of time.  After that period of time, either the rights revert to you or they become non-exclusive. (If you don’t understand this, buy a copy of the Copyright Handbook now.  Writers don’t sell books/stories. They license copyright for a certain period of time.)  In other words, after a period of time specified by contract, you can then put that short story up as an e-book or put it in an e-book collection of your own (or both), without having to remove that story from the place of first publication.  That’s win/win, and here’s why.

Short story markets will allow new readers to sample your work.  Readers you would never ever reach.  Readers pick up anthologies because they like the topic.  Readers pick up fiction magazines because they like the editor’s taste, which then makes that a sideways version of word of mouth.

Because here’s the one thing none of the book studies have looked at yet.  Sampling.  Sampling is the most important way to hook a reader.

Other retail businesses known the importance of sampling.  Sampling works. For example, when you go into a grocery store on a busy Saturday, some poor employee is standing in the back offering you the latest food craze.  A bite of cake, a slice of pizza, some salsa and chips.  If you like it, you get a coupon to buy the product, so that you can take it home and with luck, you’ll eat it all and buy more the following Saturday.

Those sample bottles of shampoo and conditioner have been around as long as I can remember, and now a lot of personal products get promoted through hotels that will give the product to you as part of your stay.  You sample some high-end soap or a new mouthwash for the two days you’re in the hotel, and with luck, you like that product and buy more.

In the past, book studies didn’t include sampling because sampling was nearly impossible.  Some publishers would do a sampler—the first chapter of each book in their spring list—but they’d only hand those samples out at conventions or to bookstore owners.  And no one read them, no matter how well they were packaged. They weren’t convenient.

Now, however, you can download samples of any book published electronically.  If you like the book, you’ll read until you run out of text. At that moment, the sample asks you if you would like to buy the book.

If the author has done his job, you’re clicking that “buy” button without even checking price.  I suspect that five years from now, “free sample” will rank just below word of mouth and author recognition as an influential factor in buying books.

What did Amanda Hocking do right so that her books sold well? It wasn’t her blog or her Twitter presence or her social media savvy.

First, she told great stories.  Storytellers sell better than writers who craft lovely prose.  Storytellers keep you up all night.  Stylists make you admire them.  Storytellers force you to read the next chapter—or buy the entire book from the free sample.

Second, Hocking published a lot of books in a short period of time.  Readers were able to find more books from her quickly.

That’s all.  If you’ll notice, almost all of the indie writers who have reached the top of the Kindle bestseller list have all published more than one book.  In fact, more than one book of theirs is usually on the top 100 at any time.

And let’s take a side trip here. Those writers who work hard to get on an indie bestseller list—what are they pursuing?  According to the survey above, only 17% of readers buy a book because its placement on a bestseller list.  On an e-book list, that’s 17% of the 10% of readers who buy e-books.  That’s a produce model, and not an efficient one.

What placement on a bestseller list gets you is a fleeting bit of name recognition. That’s all.  It won’t convince romance readers to buy your horror novel, any more than a reduced price will.

Look at that traditional publishing model of 100,000 books in a month versus the 15,000 books per month spread out over the year. The indie writer pursuing a list is working that traditional model. Think of it this way: the indie e-book can never make a list and sell consistently.  Or you can force the book to a list, and then have it drop off, with nothing to follow it.  Writers who promote their single title to get it on a list reap no future benefit at all.

Write the next book.  Be patient. Write some short stories.  Market those traditionally.  If the story doesn’t sell after going through the major markets, publish the story yourself.  Eventually readers will find you.

So how do you promote? Write a lot.  Constantly improve. Challenge yourself.  Publish the books/stories. Readers will find you.  And if they like what you do, they’ll buy more books.

The key is patience.  You might sell one book in the first month. Two in the second.  But if you’re good, and you publish a lot, more and more readers will find you as they scroll through all the options.  Don’t artificially jack up your sales with overzealous promotion.  Just write the next book.

And have fun. Because if you’re having fun, your readers will too.

I’ve been grumpy these last two weeks because I’ve been outrageously busy, carving only a few hours to write the blog.  But here’s the truth of it: I do have fun writing this blog.  And I’m planning some labor intensive blog posts in the next few weeks.  I appreciate all of the support. Thanks everyone for commenting and e-mailing and sending me links.  I also appreciate donations.  They help pay for my time. And that time is becoming increasingly rare.  So if you found this post useful, please donate or forward the post to your friends.  Thanks!

“The Business Rusch: Promotion” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.



94 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Promotion

  1. Excellent article, Kris. It’s a gem. I’ve written a science fiction trilogy and a collection of short stories and I’ve witnessed what you have related here.

    I’m writing my fourth novel, now. I’m at chapter 6 so forgive me if I don’t have more time to make this post longer 🙂

  2. This is a very informative post. I attend a lot of marketing teleseminars and I have to say the majority of them advise to use other strategies to earn money, after you’ve had a book published, such as doing your own seminars, workshops, coaching, etc.

    But, your advise is sounder. If you’re a writer, write; the more you write the more visibility will come your way.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. You want people to buy your books because they like to read, not because they feel obligated (such as they do for a seminar). Thanks for the comment, Karen.

  3. Promotion is highly useful if, and only if, you have a platform already. Very, very few authors have this before publishing their first book. And even then, the platform must somehow be relevant to the book written. Usually this type of promotion is free and only takes a little time. Or a successful author can do a bit of promotion to charge up an existing fan base, get them excited about a new release. Not something to get too involved with, though, or it becomes a waste. More books written = more happy fans.

    Basic promotion may also be effective if you are within a community and can target that community efficiently. Again, not worth spending money or a lot of time on.

    Otherwise, I agree that promotion is useless, writing more books is best in almost all cases.

  4. What a brilliant article. I love it. Many thanks for the insight – I’ve been trying to promote when I should have been writing – you’ve just made my day

  5. A friend just sent me this article, and what a relief it has been to read it.

    I’ve just jumped into the “self-publish via ebook” market and put out two collections of short stories, the first as a practice run to see if I could figure out how to do it, the second just to see if I could do it all again and do it better. And I’m ready to do a third (maybe).

    But I feared I was making a big mistake by 1) doing collections of short stories and 2) by putting two ebooks out a month apart. I’m also very bad with “social networking” and worried about my inabilities there.

    Now it looks like I MIGHT have been doing it right and my lack of “social networking” skills MIGHT not be a big problem.

    Thanks, Kris, for this reassurance. 🙂

  6. Great post. I’m an editor for a trad publisher, as well as a 15-book published author, writing as Denise Dietz and Mary Ellen Dennis. I wish I had fifty cents for every time I’ve told one of my authors, “Please, please spend the majority of your time writing a great book.” Because I’ve noticed a trend. Several of “my” authors spend so much time promoting, the quality of their second (third, whatever) book suffers. “But, but,” they say, “if I don’t promote heavily and often, no one will know about my book.” Sorry, but that’s simply not true. A well-written book by a great storyteller gets great reviews. A well-written book gets word-of-mouth. A well-written book sells. Example: I did no promo on one of my Mary Ellen Dennis historicals. None. But it got terrific – including some starred – reviews and lots of word-of-mouth and it went into 4 printings. I can’t wait to see what it does as an ebook.

    I probably have much more to say, but I need to get back to writing my next book 🙂

    1. Thanks, Denise, for the additional confirmation. In my long career, I’ve seen too many writers ruin their careers with promotion, including several writers who artificially jacked up their numbers through mall signings, etc. These writers sold to people who felt sorry for them sitting there in the mall, not to readers who wanted to read the book. The difference? Those people never read the book and wouldn’t buy the next one. A great reader who loves your work will hand-sell it to friends and increase your sales–all without meeting you.

      So much appreciated. Now I too have to get back to the next book. 🙂

  7. Interesting article. Word of mouth, writing more and good story telling sound like the keys I can deal with. I haven’t gone near the E-book idea yet as reader or writer.

  8. Light bulbs blinking to life all over above my head. You hit it dead on. Thank you thank you.

    This is so freeing. I’ve been trying so hard to network and market, when what I really want to do is write. You’ve given me permission to do what I love.

  9. Extremely interesting! As an author with 8 books published by small presses in 3 years, I hate promoting because I feel like it either sounds braggy or it sounds so much like “buy my book!” that people just roll their eyes and move onto the next thing. Obviously, I do promote online and elsewhere, but I mostly try to focus on writing worthwhile stories and snagging those good reviews. That way, when I promote, I have something to back it up. All I can do is hope that a potential reader is impressed enough to buy the book, tell their friends, and check out the other books I’ve written.
    Thank you for this very informative article, Kris! 🙂

    1. You’re welcome, Jessica. It sounds like you have the right attitude and are doing well. Getting word of mouth through good storytelling. That’s all we can hope for. 🙂

  10. Thank you thank you thank you! I’ve been waiting for this post FOREVER! I found when I used to write, I sold more books, but the more I got into this advertising and being ‘seen’ everywhere, the less sales I am making. Coincidence? Is it just everyone is hard-up for cash? Do I need a ‘new’ voice? Maybe. Possibly. But I do know this, I’m getting so grouchy from spending all my valuable spare time trying to advertise everywhere, and finding that I have hardly any time to write. I work full-time, I need the time I have to write. I have a website, a newsletter, and I try to guest blog on other writers’ sites now and again. I recently joined another social network and I am over it!!! LOL This is not for me. I know the importace of some advertising, of being seen, but I need that balance that I’m not getting anymore. Thank you for helping me see where I’m going wrong! LOL

    1. You’re welcome, Angela. Glad to help. 🙂 The other stuff is gravy. Writing is the important thing. (And having fun while doing so!)

  11. The conclusion that, despite being a bestseller now, he decided to spend more time writing and less time doing other things, not that he was passed over by the promo gods and came to this conclusion. Sorry if leaving that out confused anyone!

  12. John, I agree that outlier promotional energy is worthwhile, and that if you get blessed by the promo fairies, by all means take full advantage! (The corollary question, “so how do you know you have an outlier bestseller?” is probably unanswerable except mostly in hindsight. You can aim for it, but you won’t necessarily hit it.)

    I’m not so sold on promotion over writing/pubbing for midlisters and newbies, because I’ve seen the “pub and promo” thing fall apart for authors (especially in the romance genre), and yet the writers who do minimal promotion and keep writing and pubbing survive…because they keep producing. The ones who get sucked into promo usually stop writing, and their careers are dead in the water until/unless they write and pub again. Or they get stuck in a write-pub-promo cycle and lag the write-pub, write-pub authors.

    I’m pointing that out from an opportunity cost situation, you have a limited time to devote to your writing career. Are you going to spend it writing (and improving your craft, and learning the business), or are you going to spend that time promoting what you’ve already put out?

    If you have a massive bestseller on your hands, the calculus changes, of course, but once the spotlight moves on, you either retire if you’ve made a bundle or write the next book (or both).

    If, after one book is out, the bestseller promo gods pass you over, then I’d venture to say that writing more and putting out the next book is a better use of time.

    At least, that’s the way it seems to me. In fact, the author you referred to came to a similar conclusion. 😉

  13. Kris, while your initial blog post on E-books and publicity is spot on, I’m finding the resulting comments equally interesting. I haven’t dipped a toe into the E-book waters, yet. But soon, oh, so very soon….

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