The 10 Commandments Of Authorial Self-Promotion
*dumps stone tablets on the ground and most of them break*
*coughs for like, 40 minutes*
OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE. WHY DO PEOPLE WRITE COMMANDMENTS ON STONE TABLETS. IF GOD’S SUPPOSED TO BE ALL POWERFUL WHY DIDN’T HE JUST HAND ME AN IPAD. DOES HE HAVE A THING AGAINST APPLE? GOD’S ONE OF THOSE STRIDENT ANTI-MAC PEOPLE ISN’T HE. SO HEAVY. IT HURTS. IT HURTS SO BAD.
Ahem. Okay. Yeah. Yes. Hi!
It is time to speak about the sticky subject of self-promotion. You’re a writer. You’ve written a book and somebody — you, a big publisher, a small publisher, some spider-eating alley hobo — has published it. And now you want to know how you promote the book so that the world can fling money at your face in order to greedily consume your unrefined genius. But it’s not easy. You don’t know what works. What makes sense. You don’t want to just stand on a street corner barking at passersby and hitting children with your book. But you also recognize that you’re just one little person, not some massive beast of marketing and advertising, hissing gouts of pixelated steam and vacuuming up potential buyers into the hypno-chamber that is your belly.
What do you do? How far can you go? What should you say?
Thus, I bring you these ten tablets.
Ten commandments about self-promotion for authors. In a later post I’ll get into the larger practicalities of self-promotion — what seems to work for me, what seems to do poop-squat for me — but for now, we’re going to cover the overall basics.
Let us begin.
Thou Shalt Throw Pebbles
The self-promotional reach of a single author is not very far.
Big publishers and companies have giant cannons.
You, however, have a satchel of pebbles.
A publisher will ideally dp outreach that puts your book in front of various folks within the distribution process — book buyers, librarians, the secret tastemaker cabal that operates out of a warehouse in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. You, as lone author, do not have that effect.
The best you can do is pick up one of your pebbles and throw it.
And here you say, “But I really don’t want to throw rocks at my readers or potential readers,” and I agree (unless your readers are going through your trash cans again, at which point, let ’em fly). Instead, though, I’d ask you imagine throwing pebbles into a pond rather than at other people.
You throw your pebble into the water — with a tweet, a blog post, a conversation or interaction, a cover reveal, something, anything — and it does not make a huge splash but what it does make are ripples. The pebble’s point of impact is small, but ripples go farther. They reach unexpected parts of the pond. They reach that lilypad, that patch of cattails thrust up, that dead body over there, you know, the one the neighborhood kids are poking with a broom-handle?
Practically speaking — beyond metaphor — what this means is that your self-promotional effort will reach one, ten, maybe a hundred people, and turn some of them into readers. Mathematically, that’s not enough to sustain your career. But, consider the ripples. If your work is good and you aren’t a total fuckface, it’s a good bet that those ripples go further because the readers who read your work will now say to their readers: “Hey, this author’s book was the cat’s meow.” Then they’ll say that golden phrase: You should read it. Some of them will. And those folks may tell others and it’s like a giant Amway pyramid scheme of viral pop culture transmission.
Then, you go ahead and throw another pebble. And here’s an interesting result — some readers won’t immediately jump on a book based on a single recommendation. This is for a lot of reasons: lack of trust, limited funds, or they’re simply distracted by the bottomless (but oh so shiny) pit that is the Entire Goddamn Internet. Ah, but those same readers may take the jump when they see other mentions of your book. A second pebble creates new ripples that intersect with other ripples, and at those points of intersection you may find readers who say, “I keep hearing about this author and her books, and so I have to see what all the fuss is about.”
Here you might ask, “Well, why don’t I just fling all my pebbles into the water? I’ll load up this shotgun with all the pebbles and start firing wantonly across social media!”
First, assume the number of pebbles you have is limited. How few you have, you do not know — that is concealed from you. But assume your supply is mysteriously finite.
Second, assume that pebbles thrown and ripples made adds new pebbles to your satchel.
Third, recognize that too many ripples in the water becomes just chaos — it’s all noise and no signal. Any reflections you may have seen in the water or any elegance those ripples might have held is gone when you upend all your stones into the pond.
Thou Shalt Not Crush People With Boulders
Just as you shouldn’t explode people’s faces with your Pebble Shotgun, you also should not crush them with boulders. What I’m trying to say is, your goal in self-promotion is not to crush others beneath its weight. BUY MY BOOK BUY MY BOOK HEY YOU BUY MY BOOK DID YOU KNOW BOOK BOOK LOOK BOOK BUY IT REVIEW IT NEED IT I HAVE STOLEN YOUR PETS AND WILL NOT RETURN THEM UNTIL YOU BUUUUUY MYYYYYY BOOOOOOOK.
We’ve all seen those charming mutants who feel that the best way to let the world know about their new book is to fill up their entire Twitter feed with the same advertisement. Or they tweet it at people (likely those they perceive as tastemakers) — HEY STEPHEN KING I WROTE A BOOK HEY NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON I WROTE A BOOK HEY CVS PHARMACIES I WROTE A BOOK. Or they direct message everybody. Or they force you to join Facebook groups about their book release. Or slather you in tons of email spam from which you can never unsubscribe (it’s like herpes — once you catch it, it remains and flares up). Or they badger bookstores to carry their books and yell at them when they don’t. So many boulders. So many crushed heads.
If you do any of these things, I hate you. I hate you so bad. When you do these things, I imagine you being covered in ticks and bees and plague buboes and blinded with Axe body spray and then you’re thrown into the Sarlacc pit for good measure.
Self-promotion is a seduction, not a kick in the crotch.
Thou Shalt Always Demonstrate Your Talent
You are a writer. You tell stories.
If your self-promotion is not well-written, then you’ve really scroobled the poodle. If your self-promotion does not tell a story or use the talents you possess as a storyteller, then once again, you have supremely doinked the donkey.
You’re a writer. Your entire job is to — inside the pages of your book — get people interested so that they read past the first sentence, first paragraph, first page, first chapter. The sum total of your modus operandi is to keep their eyeballs entangled with the story you’re telling. Turn that same talent to self-promotion. Tell a story: your story, the book’s story inside or outside its pages, their story, somebody’s story. Hook them with mystery and interest. Be funny, or create tension, or make that strong and emotive plea that connects with them.
You wrote a book? Congratulations, but nobody gives a hot cup of shit. Everybody writes books now. Twitter is full of people who wrote books just as the shelves of the bookstore or the digital shelves of Amazon are chockablock with those books. You wanna stand out? So, stand out. Be you. You are your self-promo efforts. Bring your talents to bear. You’re a writer, so write.
Thou Shalt Perfect Your Pitch
Have an elevator pitch — a one-sentence fish-hook to catch in somebody’s cheek. You’ll use it online, at conventions, at bookstores, with your friendly neighborhood spider-hobo. (Time to cue up the theme song to that beloved 60s-era superhero cartoon: SPIDER HOBO SPIDER HOBO / GOES WHEREVER A HOBO GOES / EATS SOME BEANS AND SOME FLIES / HE’S A HOBO WHO HAS EIGHT EYES / OH FUCK! HERE COMES THE SPIDER HOBO).
You’ll get people who ask, “What did you write? What’s it about?” And your job is not to sit them down and lecture them about your book for four hours. Your job is to say, “IT’S ABOUT A KILLER ROBOT WHO LEARNS TO LOVE.” And that very short pitch will give off pheromones that crawl up inside the listener and tell them whether or not they might like your book. You’re giving them hints, transmitting signals, sending out feelers. Some will think, I like robots and I like love and so because I like those things, I am intrigued. Some will think, Not for me, and that’s okay, too.
Endeavor to perfect that single sniper bullet sales pitch. You can practice something slightly longer, too — a short paragraph rather than a single sentence — but for the most part, shorter is better. Don’t waste anybody’s time. Don’t waste your own time. If your book doesn’t sound interesting in 30 seconds, it won’t get better with 30 minutes.
Thou Shalt Be Aware Of Your Limits
You are a person with limits. You only have so much time. You have only so many talents. You can only be so comfortable. Stick to those things.
What I mean is: your job is to write books. If you don’t know how to do a book trailer or possess the time to learn or the money to pay someone, don’t do a book trailer. If you don’t have the time for a big-ass blog tour, don’t even try to do a big-ass blog tour. (Real talk: book trailers and blog tours can be effective when they’re done right and with a strategy in mind — but overall, not so much.) Know your limits. Work within them. It’s like social media — nobody wants you to operate inside social media channels you despise. If you hate Twitter, for the sake of sweet Saint Fuck, do not tweet. Don’t wanna blog? Don’t blog.
“To thine own self, be true.”
Someone very important said that. An important writer.
That’s right. Dan Brown said it. Dan Brown. I’m pretty sure.
Thou Shalt Not Treat It As Broadcast (But Rather, As Conversation)
“HOLD STILL WHILE I YELL THIS CANNED SELF-PROMOTIONAL ADVERTISEMENT AT YOU,” is not a very effective way to get new readers. For me, I’ve found readers climb on board the Wendig Train (sounds kinkier than I intend it) when I speak earnestly and honestly about my work. I talk about it and engage on the subject. It’s a conversation, not a broadcast. I share frustrations and triumphs. I get excited (because if I’m not excited, how can I expect you to be?). Social media is about engagement. It’s a conversation in a smoky bar, not a soapbox-and-a-bullhorn. Self-promotion is literally about promoting yourself and your work, but we’re in an age now where we’re no longer staring up at an artist on a stage. The artist is now part of the crowd. We’re all artists, now. It’s not just about talking, but about listening, and answering, and asking.
Thou Shalt Promote The Unholy Fuck Out Of Other Books And Authors
Fact: if I promote my books and I promote someone else’s book, the link to someone else’s book usually gets about three times the clicks. It’s for a lot of reasons, I guess — some of you are already on-board the aforementioned Wendig Train, and so you don’t always need to check out my work. But also, we tend to trust recommendations more than sales pitches. And shit, why wouldn’t we? BUY MY STORY WIDGET is so less endearing and honest than HOLY SHIT I JUST READ THIS AMAZING BOOK. I get that you want to sell your book, because you want to eat and pay rent. But when you sell someone else’s book? I assume you’re taking the time and effort because it really struck you. We have a bigger circle of trust online, and “word of mouth” means something more than just our close friends. You tell your social media network about a book that really got you, that matters. We’re listening. And we’re ready to click.
Promote other authors. And not just in a quid pro quo way — this isn’t about favors for favors. It’s about Book Love, baby. It’s not just about promoting yourself. It’s also about promoting what you love. That creates community. That creates connection. You can make fans for other authors and, in a roundabout way, fans for you and your work, too.
Thou Shalt Spend Money To Make Money
Crass, callous fact: you want to do self-promo beyond just bleating into the starless void, you’re going to have to put up some coin. Buy advertising. Pay a publicist. Rent a llama and spraypaint your book name on its side and let it loose in a shopping mall. Shit, I dunno. Big publishers will spend money, ideally, on promoting their authors and if you do not have that luxury and you wanna do more than just throw pebbles —
Open thine wallet.
Which may not be an option. And that’s okay. Further, not every expenditure of cash is meaningful — I don’t really know how well “promoted social media posts” really do, but I do know that doing them on a site like Facebook can have longer-term negative ramifications. Plus, not every publicist is amazing, and not every advertisement will land the way you want it to.
But real reach costs money. Cold truth.
Thou Shalt Not Feel Bad About It
As a writer, I expect that some of the people who follow me do so because they like my writing. Maybe they like my blog, or my Twitter, but hopefully, some of them also like the books I scribble and punt into the world. I follow writers and I expect — nay, demand — that they tell me about their new books. Because that’s how we find stuff out, now. If an author has news, I wanna know about it. If they have a new book out, damnit, I hope to hell they tell me otherwise that news will slip past me like a sneaky little ninja. Sometimes? I just need a reminder.
That’s why you shouldn’t feel bad. We expect and even require a little promotion from authors. The worst thing in the world (okay, just behind genocide) is when a beloved author has a new book out and it was like, six months ago but you never found out. You ever have that happen? “Holy shit, Dan Brown’s newest, The Macchiato Conundrum, came out in 2013 and I never knew? Why, Dan Brown, why?” *shakes fist at the heavens*
Thou Shalt Write And Finish New Stuff
Self-promotion is part of your work.
It is also not the point of your work.
You’re a writer. Your job is to write.
So: write more stuff.
The best sales pitch for pre-existing work is new work. All your efforts build upon prior efforts. Someone reads one of my books, they sometimes follow that trail back to the books that came before it. (I can’t speak for all of us, but I bet a whole bunch of us here will, upon discovering a new author that we like, read deep into that author’s slate of books.) That’s not to say you should just defecate your words into a bucket until it overflows — I know a certain nasty strategy of some self-published authors is to churn out books of marginally low quality built on the dubious supposition that MORE IS ALWAYS BETTER, but the core of that strategy is not entirely terrible:
Go write! One book isn’t working? Write another book.
Because here’s the real secret: nobody knows what works. There is no single magical self-promo bullet that will make your book a bestseller. There is no social media service that will guarantee sales. There exists no switch to flip or palms to grease or wizard to battle. Some books land, and some don’t. Yes, you probably increase the chances of your book doing well if you actually talk about it (meaning: fling those pebbles!), but talking about it isn’t guaranteed to do shit for you, either. No author really knows what works and what doesn’t and what does work for one won’t necessarily work for another. We’d love for this to be like math, but really, it feels more like alchemy. Sometimes lead becomes gold and we often don’t know why.
So, you do what you do. And you cleave to that one thing you can control: the writing.
(Now? Go read: “PLEASE SHUT UP: WHY SELF-PROMOTION AS AN AUTHOR DOESN’T WORK.” By the inimitable Delilah S. Dawson.)
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Eight books: those pictured, plus 30 Days in the Word Mines.
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(*cries into crap bucket*)