Business Musings: Advertising, Marketing, and Connection

Business Rusch free nonfiction On Writing

Every time I turn around, someone is talking about advertising. It seems like every news story mentions it. Many of the magazines I subscribe to mention it. When I go on social media someone is discussing it.

Right now, every business article that revolves around Hollywood or movies or TV mentions advertising, because it’s changing. Streaming services that once had one tier, paid for with a single monthly fee, have now added an “ad tier.” A couple services have added more than one ad tier, meaning that the consumer can choose whether or not they want one or two ads per show or thirty seconds of ads or the entire ad profile, whatever that is.

But it’s not just streaming services. Most commercial websites have ads built in, some that run along the side. The ads are targeted to the user, often using browsing history or whatever the user allows the site to use in the user’s browsing history.

Obnoxiously, if a user has their privacy settings on what I consider to be reasonable—only a little contact, not the whole megillah, the website does not work. Continually, as I work on these blogs, I encounter articles that will not allow me to read more than a paragraph unless I shut off my ad blocker. Sometimes I do because I need/want that article. Often I don’t—and I go to a lesser source or something that is less intrusive. I also have too many news subscriptions because I find myself using a handful of news sites a lot, not just for these non-fiction pieces, but for others as well. I go through the freebies in the paywall in the first day or two of the month.

The point is to trap and save data, so that any ads I receive (you receive—we all receive) are targeted. As I prepared for this piece, I found a long analysis about the history of “surveillance advertising.” As you can tell from the phrase, this piece has an agenda, and that agenda is that this is all bad, especially from a privacy standpoint.

I’m a bit on the fence here about that part, and have been for a long time. In 2001, Dean and I were guests at the Williamson Lectureship at Eastern New Mexico University. Jack Williamson was still alive, and this lectureship was his baby. We were already discussing the rise of the data collection back then, and I made the point that if you take a boatload of data from everyone, then it’s not as Orwellian as it sounds. The data becomes impersonal. Jack agreed.

I’m not sure if that’s the case any longer, and I’m aware that this kind of data collection can be weaponized against anyone that an authority wants to weaponize it against. The political arguments are inherent to this problem, and yet, not what we’re going to be discussing here because 1) political and 2) too vast to handle in a few short paragraphs or a single comment section.

So if you bring your political agenda to the comments, I will not post that comment. (This is why my comment section is regulated…by me.) If you make that kind of comment so that I see it, and you did it to “inform” me of my ignorance, you will be blocked from ever making a comment on this site again.

The data collection is still impersonal. For example, I get swept into the category of 62-year-old women who live in the U.S. and like cats. The difference between now and 2001 is the level of detail that these sweeps can provide. Down to where someone lives (exactly) and what their preferences for anything are.

I know you’re familiar with this on some level, but bear with me for a minute. Many of us were raised in a mass media environment where advertising was something that could reach a lot of people quickly and generally. Here’s an excellent example from that article I mentioned above:

In 1965 an ad campaign could reach 80 percent of eighteen- to forty-nine-year-old women by purchasing three television commercials; a few decades later, it required nearly a hundred prime-time spots to achieve the same result.

I have no idea what it would take to reach 80% of any age group now. I’m not sure it’s possible. But it would take a lot more ads (and ad buys) than it did in 1998, which is where that example came from.

We used to think about ads as a mass phenomenon—reaching a ton of people for a ton of money. But in the past 20 years, advertising has become a targeted art form, reaching a handful of people—the right people—repeatedly.

Microtargeting—the art form of hitting the right folks with the right product—was a lot easier five years ago. That’s the heyday of writers using ad platforms like Amazon or Google or Facebook to hit readers in the right demographic with a targeted ad about a particular book.

The Rule of 7, developed in the 1930s, showed that an advertiser needed to catch a consumer’s attention seven times before that consumer made a purchase. In the days of big media buys, that was a hugely expensive proposition.

In the digital age, you can hit your target consumer seven times in a single day. We’ve all seen the stupid way to do that, repeating seven times on the same day on the same platform that you have something to sell. (Blergh.) But the rule of seven doesn’t refer to the same hits on the same platform.

It might mean having your book appear as a sponsored product on Amazon when the consumer gets something similar, having the book appear in that same consumer hits Google for some information, and then making that book appear on various social media sites in someone’s feed.

Back when microtargeting was easy, writers who were also good a promotion had ad campaigns on the various sites that were minutely targeted to the “right” kind of readers. A lot of writers made a lot of money by doing this. They made that money quickly—and most of them spent that money on targeted ad buys.

In fact, a lot of these writers spent more on targeted ad buys than they earned, not because they were dumb, but because the system was bound to fail. Somewhere along the way, the consumer mentally went, Yeah, yeah, I know. I bought one of that guy’s books, never read it, and never will, and started ignoring the targeted ads.

As that happened more and more often, the sales went down even though the ad buys remained the same. The writer would lose money before even realizing what was happening.

Advertising is not a magic bullet. Just because you advertise something, it doesn’t mean that readers will buy that something. It just means they’re aware of that something.

Then the entire system changed again, partly because of privacy laws in Europe. Online privacy acts there have been in place since 2018 and there are a lot of proposals to make them even stronger.

Because a lot of these companies are global, what happens in other countries could have an impact in the U.S. The recent Supreme Court Roe V. Wade decision has made protecting privacy online a personal imperative for people who are pregnant.

Companies like Facebook (Meta) and Google have been trying to block this by tightening their own privacy rules, particularly as they relate to politics. That has had the sideways impact of making microtargeting less effective for entertainment.

In July, it became clear that digital ad revenue at major tech companies was down—not across the board (TikTok and Snap saw an increase)—but enough to scare the tech giants, who are blaming it on an “economic downturn” not on the growing ineffectiveness of their service.

People learn how to ignore ads on any service. But at first, they don’t. That’s why streaming services are moving more and more to ads. Mark Williams at The New Publishing Standard are postulating that digital ads will show up on book streaming services at some point.

So the question for writers becomes…yet again…how to rise above the noise. If advertising doesn’t work as well as it used to for anyone, then what about the lowly writer who doesn’t have the income to spend thousands on advertising that might or might not work.

Well, folks, we’re back to where we were in the 1990s. What happened then, with that mass media ad buy, was that book publishers did not want to spend money on TV ads for their authors, even though James Patterson repeatedly showed that those ads worked for writers.

How do writers and independent publishing houses rise above the noise? They have to forget there even is noise. If you want to join the advertising fray, you’re in the sell-it-now mindset, and yes, while that is addictive, it’s not really important.

What is important is building a feeling of community with readers. Marketing (not advertising) is about reaching the existing consumer of your material to inform that consumer of a new product, and reaching the consumer who might like your products (plural) with any one of those products.

That’s why you see so many people discussing a brand’s ecosystem. I finally stepped over the last line with my Apple Watch, dumping my Fitbit tracker because it tried to compete with something that was already integrated (well) with all of my other Apple products. Fitbit lost me because its ecosystem was not as attractive to me as a consumer as Apple’s.

We writers build tiny ecosystems. The worlds we create end up beloved by a subset of readers. Other readers like those worlds and will buy the next book in those worlds, but not right away. Then there are the readers who encountered those worlds and hate them and will never buy another book for any reason. And finally, there are the readers who aren’t in any of those categories at all because they haven’t yet discovered those worlds.

That’s why we discuss discoverability so much. I wrote a book on it years ago, which has some dated recommendations (see: years ago) but I tried to focus on the principles of discoverability not the current tricks so that the book would remain relevant. Check it out for those principles, which I’m not going to repeat here.

Instead, let’s go back to the basics: seven touches before a reader decides to even look at a book, let alone buy it.

Those touches are not hard to do for free in this modern noisy world. Dean posted a piece on free advertising a while back. Look at it and the comments. I’m going to crib liberally from it.

First, make sure you have a website. Make sure the website helps people find your books. (Mine sucks at that. Been meaning to improve that for years now. Sigh.)

Extra websites also help—one for each of your series, because readers often remember the name of a series, but not the name of the author.

If you know how to tweak your search engine profile, make sure you do that so that your website or your series website shows up at the top of a search about that series/book or your work. (Look up Search Engine Optimization if you want to know more.)

Have a store on that website, so that people can buy directly from you. Thanks to the pandemic, people are much more comfortable buying from small websites instead of from Amazon.

Social media is another source of free advertising. It’s a balancing act. Try not to get into fights. Decide if you’re going to be political. (I am, because I believe that remaining silent in these times makes me complicit with the bigots. But Dean avoids politics entirely.) Make that decision ahead of time.

You can’t be active on every social media platform and still find time to write, so pick the platform that is most compatible with who you are, and then be active. Talk about things other than writing. Cats or weather or food or whatever interests you besides reading and writing. If you’re not the social type, then stay off the platforms. Delete any account you have so that your readers have no expectation that you will appear.

Do other kinds of promotions or moneymakers. Kickstarter works for us. It’s a different way to promote our books and it appeals to a different audience. And it’s an event, so people have fun participating.

There are other apps and platforms that allow you to do some events for free. Do those occasionally. I’m not that familiar with them because my time is crammed, but some of you might be. If so, please share in the comments.

Distribution channels like D2D and Kobo sometimes offer free promotions that you can apply for or you can put your book into. Do so.

Make sure your follow pages are up to date on as many platforms as you can, so that people can find…your website or your books or whatever.

Patreon and Substack let you go on there for free and build a following. It’s time consuming, but worthwhile. YouTube is the same way. You can go there and do your work for free, maybe read a story aloud or comment on the work in progress. You can build a following there too.

Have a newsletter, but for god’s sake, don’t bother the people who sign up too often. Most people get annoyed when someone is constantly spamming them.

You might want to use your newsletter in a different way. Some writers do a daily motivational email that fits with their other writing. We send out a daily newsletter from WMG for the Holiday Spectacular, but only from American Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. WMG also has a Substack newsletter called “Every Day’s A Holiday At WMG” that goes out weekly with a specific deal. People have to deliberately sign up for this.

I am part of a voiceover community (not doing the work yet though) and I get a weekly motivational newsletter from them, not to mention a daily newsletter from an organization for runners that promises me they’ll only take six minutes of my time. Sometimes they take less, sometimes more. But make these newsletter signups clear so that the readers know what they’re getting into.

Yes, yes, I know. All of this is time consuming and much of it takes time away from the writing. I will tell you this, though. I’ve done major book tours and lots of convention and speaking engagements, and nothing works better than online free stuff that I have organized in one way or another.

Because this is all targeted to people who are already interested.

Finally, the main way to do free advertising is to have someone else with more reach than you advertise for you. That’s why I tell writers who are negotiating a movie or TV deal that the most important thing is not money, it’s credit. Visible credit. You want your name or the name of your book or preferably both on its own title card in a place that will be visible to viewers.

If you are lucky enough to get a TV series made, then that credit will be worth its weight in gold. If you fail to get the credit, then the TV series will promote itself but not your work. The financial windfall that you will have will be tiny in comparison to what it could have been.

Other ways to get someone else to advertise for you? Any kind of licensing, from t-shirts to coasters to big ticket items, like games. Gamers come in all forms, from people who play board games only to people who play on their phones to people who spend thousands for large gaming systems.

Tap into any of these, license them properly (as in making sure you have that all important credit), and you will see a windfall in your book sales.

Other, smaller ways? One I use a lot. I sell my short stories to various non-WMG Publishing markets. I get paid for my story sale and then a new reader will encounter my work. Rather than pay, say, Asimov’s, for a one-page ad that most readers won’t even look at, Asimov’s pays me for a story that will 1) show the reader what my writing is like, 2) will build a new readership through the people who like their magazine and recognize that giving my work 10-20 pages of that magazine means that there’s a good chance the reader will like my work, and 3) Asimov’s also does targeted advertising (usually using the methods above) that promotes my work on their social media outlets.

Win, win, win.

I often use reprints in the same way, appearing in a lot of anthologies and other magazines that use reprints, because the publication and I get a mutual benefit. They get to use my name and I get to piggyback off their marketing.

I know a lot of you think that such marketing is small, but another key marketing concept is this: it’s better to find your consumers one by one and keep them than it is to go for huge numbers of which only a handful will even give you a try.

(If someone offers you a huge promotion for free, though, one that doesn’t even cost you time, then it’s worthwhile.)

That principle is why I don’t do big newsletter promotions, and haven’t done so since experimenting with one about eight years ago. That just brings in names, not readers. Back in the microtargeting heyday, a lot of companies even marketed a direct-to-newsletter product so that someone who spent more than five minutes on a website was automatically added to a newsletter.

Ever wonder why there’s that “I never signed up for this” on the newsletter unsubscribe page? It’s because of those mass sign-ups way back when.

My newsletters, my Twitter feed, and any other social media thing I do have not had the benefit of targeted advertising to get people to sign up for them. Whoever is on my newsletter or social media sites is there because they want to be there. And they’ll remain there until they no longer want to be there.

This is also why I have targeted newsletters. Fey fans might not want to see anything about the Grayson romances, so the Fey fans have an option to have a Fey-only newsletter. Unless I have something that I truly believe will appeal to the Fey fan, I never mention anything else I publish on that Fey newsletter.

It keeps the level of noise down for the reader even if it would be more convenient for me to lump it all into one newsletter.

It’s always key for you, as a writer/promoter/business person, to think about how you respond to other people’s promotions. If you hate what they’re doing, then don’t do it yourself, even if some marketer somewhere swears that it’s the thing to do.

And I don’t want you to get the complete wrong impression. Sometimes targeted ads are a good idea. With the right project and the right amount of planning, a series of targeted ads might raise the project’s profile. Will those ads sell books fast? Rarely. The only place I have ever seen make the investment back quickly is BookBub. Other, smaller Bookbub-light sites do push books a little, but never quite as much as Bookbub itself.

Will this get you through the noise? Not entirely. Someone who wants information from you will remain horribly uninformed because they’re not active in the same sites that you are. Eventually they’ll find you. Or you’ll find them.

The key here is to stop running after the newest latest. I never thought that microtargeted digital advertising would decrease at the levels it has been declining this past year. But the longer the internet is around, the more it will be regulated or it will change.

I think that’s the key. Often what works in advertising works for the folks who do it early. The people who jump on the bandwagon have little or no success. It is ever that way.

The key isn’t to stay abreast of all of the trends, just the ones that interest you or are relevant to your writing.

You have to write after all.

Because the best thing that will sell books…is to write the next book. The readers who love your work will buy it as soon as they can. Algorithms on the various bookstores will flag all of your work when there’s a new book, so your book will get in front of new people.

And then there are the people who are binging what you write. They want the next book and the next book and the next book. You gonna tell them that you’re promoting instead of writing? Then they’re going to find something else to read.

If you think of marketing as connecting to your audience, remember that they want to connect to your work. They don’t give a rat’s tiny behind about you. They want to know when the next book will come out.

Make it easy for them.

Write it. Now.


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“Business Musings: Advertising, Marketing, and Connection,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / iqoncept.

7 thoughts on “Business Musings: Advertising, Marketing, and Connection

  1. Website design is absolutely critical. A surprising number of writers seem almost apologetic for having a writing website. I’ve seen a lot of sites where the writer doesn’t even have their name on the site. Site navigation is also important, and often neglected. I had a wake-up call to this when I had a reader tell me she couldn’t find my mystery books. On the site, I had a link called “Mystery.” I had to change it to “Mystery Books.” People these days are racing through everything. They won’t click on “Novels”” to discover what genres you have.

    1. Kris, do you still feel the same way as you used to about permafree/99 cent books for discoverability? You’d mentioned only doing free temporarily or if you’re giving it away to get an email sign-up, but this post was from back in 2014.

      I see a lot of authors giving the first book in a series away to get subscribers (but keeping the book full price on stores). I’d guess you’ll have a lot of non-buyers on your list. (And it’s not free to have them there.)

      1. Given what I see with my lists, I don’t have many nonbuyers. People sign up slowly, never in bulk. We do first-in-series free, but usually on a schedule…or if it’s a long series (like Diving) permafree.

        Thanks for checking on 2014 info. Some of it’s good, and much of it reflected the time…which seems like decades ago now. ?

  2. I’m so glad to read this right now. I had given up on trying to understand the big ad platforms for awhile, but September had a big dip in sales for me. I decided to bite the bullet and try again. Both FB and Amazon ads had changed their set up since my last foray. I signed up for a couple of free courses and they were already obsolete making suggestions for things that weren’t there. That made me put things on hold again. I keep hearing that there are “many paths up the mountain” but I think it’s gotten to the point where it’s the mountain that keeps changing.

  3. I’d add updating and publicizing any events.

    We (Peschel Press as we both write) do occasional local events and advertise them on our social media. We list upcoming events in the upper right hand corner of the website where they’re easy to see. We also make a post for Instagram, Facebook, and put it in our newsletter.

    Since I link to other authors in my post, I see who hasn’t updated their events since 2017. Or hides their public appearances, appearance I KNOW they are doing, yet they don’t let anyone know.

    I think this is especially important for Instagram as it’s very searchable.

    And yes, you are so right about a website. Too many authors don’t have one. Yet it isn’t that hard to have a basic site that says who you are, lists your books, provides buying information, lists any public appearances you do, and is updated when a new book comes out.

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