Rating Self-Promotional Techniques For Authors And Their Books

*writes my book’s name on a hundred hammers*

*hands out hammers*

*crowd runs around bashing people with hammers*

BUY MY BOOK

BUY MY BOOK

ONE OF US

ONE OF US

GOOBLE GOBBLE

GOOBLE GOBBLE

*clears throat*

Okay, yeah, don’t do that. Mindless head trauma is not an effective self-promotional delivery system, as exciting as it may seem. And just the other week I listed out for you what I consider to be the 10 Commandments of Authorial Self-Promotion. Ah, but you may be saying, “So, if my MURDER HAMMER promotional technique will fail me, gosh, what will work?” To which I respond with an eager and hearty shrug and then I flee back into the woods from whence I came. But that’s probably not a very good answer, is it? No matter how enthusiastic the shrug, the (not entirely inaccurate) answer of “Sorry, no idea!” is not helpful.

As such, I have written this post.

In this post, I will tackle (with regrettably short shrift) some of the varying THINGS YOU CAN DO AS AN AUTHOR in order to promote yourself and your work. Some of these I’ve used. Some of these I’ve seen only in implementation by other free-range penmonkeys. My thoughts will be imperfect and incomplete. This will not be an exhaustive list. Which is where you come in. Am I missing anything? Do you disagree with some of my shouty assertions? Then slingshot your derriere down into the comments section and say so.

Let us begin.

Endless Spambarfing

We’re going to get this one out of the way up front: there is literally no value in you frothily screaming the same ad copy / tagline / book cover across your social media channels again and again. You look at some author feeds and it’s just a parade of BUY MY BOOK tweets or updates, with nary a breath in the middle for the things that form the backbone of the Internet: food photos and cat videos. The worse version of this is not just endless shouting, but endless directed shouting — the author tags others across social media channels and just punches them again and again in the kidneys with their self-promotional effort.

This can take other forms, of course — unsolicited emails, unsolicited direct messages, forcing someone to join your BUY MY BOOK Facebook group, breaking into their house and clogging their toilets with leaflets for your latest epic fantasy.

Spamming will find new forms in the future, because it is a nasty little shapeshifter.

But it always feels the same, doesn’t it? So gross. Just so gross.

Self-promotion is a sniper’s bullet. Spamming is a machine gun spray.

Effectiveness: 0/10.

Thunderclap

This sounds like a particularly violent venereal disease.

It’s not. It’s a way to get a message out.

It seems clever, on the surface — as a service, it asks that a number of people sign up for a Thunderclap movement, and those people all agree to “get the word out” about your latest book / widget / protest / photoshoot / bowel movement, timed together so that it forms a singular “thunderclap” (get it?) of promotion.

It’s a shout, not a whisper. That’s right there in the name — it’s about volume from quantity.

You can use the Thunderclap service, or orchestrate one yourself.

This is not a thing I like. It is a thing that feels irritating, at least to me. It’s still spammy, but diffuse — it’s not the author shouting alone like a lunatic, but now the author and the author’s cult shouting like a gaggle of lunatics. It won’t burn the author so completely, because it’s a many-headed creature. But it can still come across as annoying. You’ve got 500 people shouting about a book (they likely haven’t yet read) — it’s noisy and insincere. Turning everybody into roaring, branded racecars for a short period of time doesn’t seem like an effective self-promotional strike, but your mileage may vary. Some people have expressed how well this works, so — try it if you like. (That said, it’s effectiveness won’t last. I’ve seen a sharp uptick of authors talking about this technique lately, which is a sure sign that its bubble will burst.)

Effectiveness: who cares, it’s annoying.

Guest Posting

Ahh, the venerable guest post. Where you pick a topic and go mouth off on somebody else’s space about it. And then in the process, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, buy my book.

This works if — and it’s a big if — if you’re good at blogging.

Kameron Hurley can do it well.

Delilah S. Dawson can do it well.

A lot of you cannot do it well.

“Blogging is not fiction writing!” Captain Obvious shouted obviously. So, just jumping on somebody’s website and stitching together some shoddy, meandering promo-waffle about this or that won’t really be that effective. But if it’s a good post? Now you have some juice. If it’s a good post that isn’t explicitly about buying your book (because, honestly, people don’t like to be sold things)? Double juicy. If it’s all that and it runs on a blog with some real reach? BOOM. TRIPLE JUICE. Which was also my nickname at Sex Camp back in the late 1990s. “TRIPLE JUICE,” the Sex Coach would say. “YOU KNOW YOUR WAY AROUND THAT FUCKTRON-909 ANDROID.” I’d give a pair of finger guns and boy howdy would my teeth gleam.

Anyway.

It’s effective if you do it right and find the right host.

(It becomes less effective the bigger you get as an author, mind you.)

Effectiveness: 5/10, but with +1 modifiers based on good / not exploitative / strong blog, and likely with negative modifiers the bigger an author you have become (at which point, you should probably have your own established blog or social media channels).

Book Blog Tours

This is the weaponization of guest posts. You don’t just write one. You write five. Or ten. Or twenty. For blogs big and small. It’s you running laps around the Internet like some kind of Johnny Contentseed,  pollinating blogs and their reader-bees with your precious book dust.

I think this is less effective than doing a few strong guest posts, and here’s why:

You start showing up at a buncha blogs all at the same time, everybody knows what’s up. HEY SOMEBODY’S GOT A BOOK TO SELL, they all groan collectively, and then go back to doing whatever it is they were doing before: eating Pop-Tarts and masturbating probably? It isn’t spammy, but it can start to feel that way. You’ll reduce that feeling if every guest blog you release in this fusillade is top shelf content, mind you — but that’s also tricky. Because now you don’t have to write just one crackin’ guest post, but like, thirty-seven of them.

And really, shouldn’t you be writing books?

(Note: if you can monetize this, then that rocks. Kameron Hurley, as I understand, does these blog tours but then aggregates her posts to sell them. Which is smart authorin’, if you ask me.)

Effectiveness: 4/10, but with +1 modifiers based on good / not exploitative / strong blog.

Bookstore Tours

The mainstay of authorial self-promotion:

Leapfrog across the country from bookstore to bookstore, signing books and talking to readers and shaking babies and kissing hands. (The young adult version of this is visiting schools and libraries. If you write board books, maybe you tour a bunch of daycares? I dunno.)

And with every book tour arrives the inevitable stories of spectacularly failed events. “I travelled 400 miles to promote my new book. I showed up at the store with party hats and a trained chimpanzee accordion band. But nobody else showed up. The bookstore people were mean to me and hit me with dictionaries. I read my book aloud to four cockroaches that wandered inside. I ate the chimpanzee band. My life is a dismal, existential pit.”

Bookstore events are tricky. I’ve had good luck with them — and no horror stories, as yet, though I know they will come — but I also don’t do a ton of them, either. Further, publishers don’t often pay for these until you’re at a certain point. Self-publishers will have a hard time because bookstores are notably and understandably hesitant about dealing with self-published authors.

Seems that a bookstore tour is not unlike a Kickstarter campaign — they’re effective if you have an audience there to support you already. Otherwise? Not so much. Big authors can get a lot of mileage out of tours or even single bookstore visits. Smaller authors have a harder shot of bringing people in the door (which is why some events put a few authors together for such an event).

Effectiveness: 7/10 if you’re established, 3/10 if not.

Conventions and Conferences

You go to a con, you sit on panels, you sign some books, you press the flesh and try out your elevator pitch. It works in part because the crowd is already there — and while they’re not there to see you, they are there to roll around in the sweet grease of pop culture goodness. AND YOU EXUDE JUST SUCH SWEET GREASE.

It works, I think. I’ve met a lot of great people this way. Met a lot of great authors, too.

Consider me a fan.

Effectiveness: 7/10, add negative modifiers if you’re an asshole.

Newsletter / Email List

I don’t have a “proper” email list — though I do have over 7,000 subscribers to the blog, which means they all get these posts in their inboxes (full text, no links) whenever I post ’em.

It’s pretty effective for me, and I’ve heard that authors with newsletters and email lists find it effective, too. Some services like MailChimp give you good analytics that tell you how many folks opened the email or clicked the links or printed out the email to use angrily as toilet paper.

It’s a good way to speak to people who are your audience or who want to be.

It’s a good way to also not be spammy, because they consented to be on the list.

Effectiveness: 8/10

Swag

Bookmarks! Stickers! Mugs! T-shirts! Temporary tattoos! Ball-gags! Hand grenades! Live tigers! All emblazoned with your book and tagline and cover and web address! IT’S SWAG, BABY.

Swag: free promotional shit you give away.

Does it work?

You know, I dunno. Some people are swaghounds. They sniff out free swag. You ever go to BEA or Gen Con or anywhere like that, there are whole roving packs of people who vacuum up every free piece of garbage hanging out on every table. They will, and this is no exaggeration, pick up everything at the table and ask if they can have it. “This pen? This book? This laptop? This child? Is it free?” And then sometimes before receiving an answer they will pitch the thing into the bag and merge back into crowded superorganism from whence they spawned.

I wish I were kidding. I’ve seen people walk away with books. With signage. It’s absurd.

Anyway.

Here’s the thing about swag:

If it’s cool, people will want it and they’ll remember it.

If it’s ennnh, people will want it but probably trash it soon after.

Bookmarks are… fine, but maybe only so functional. It feels a little like giving out buggy whips — so many folks read on e-books that you gotta wonder what the value is of a bookmark. And not all physical readers use bookmarks. Whatever it is you give, too, it has to be a thing not only of some utility or interest but also has to effectively sell a book. It’s gotta feature a hook or a great cover or something that creates that vital bridge between “I am holding this FREE THING” and “I will now go and purchase that person’s book.”

And then the other side of it is:

Swag is free for them, but can be expensive for you.

Sometimes it’s a nice reward for established readers, though.

Effectiveness: 5/10, but with negative modifiers based on cost

Free Copies

Word of mouth is the finest, sharpest, most functional form of promotion there is. Because, ha ha, it’s not self-promotion. It’s somebody else legitimately, earnestly promoting you or your book. “I love this, so you will love it too,” someone says. We believe that kind of outreach. It feels sincere. And so, we listen. Buzz about a book is hard to orchestrate — you can feel when it’s artificial. But real-deal buzz? When people are just… talking about a book? That’s something special.

And you cannot engineer it anymore than you can piss lightning.

But, you can maximize it a little bit — er, the word-of-mouth, not the lightning-urine.

If you want people to talk about your book, you need them to read your book.

And if you want them to read your book, sometimes you gotta give it to them.

For free.

Now, free is a word that rightfully makes a lot of authors clench their sphincters up so hard they risk causing a full body implosion. (“Floomp!”) They start freaking out about piracy or not getting paid or dogs and cats getting married and suddenly it’s the apocalypse.

But free books in a targeted way is a good path to getting the word out.

Publishers do it. They send free copies all over the damn place.

You can do it, too.

At cons. In giveaways. To reviewers.

It should be a targeted effort, of course. Some people just like free things and yet, do not respect free things. They get it because of the dopamine rush, but then view it as being worth what they paid to get it — which is to say, nichts, nada, bupkiss, bullshit. “YAY, FREE STUFF,” turns swiftly into, “WELL IT’S PROBABLY NOT THAT GOOD.”

So, targeted free things has value.

Get the books into not just any hand but the right hand.

Effectiveness: 8/10

Buying Ads

Yep. You can buy ads. At Goodreads. Across Twitter or Facebook. On some blogs.

Worth it?

I’ve never done it personally, so I have no guarantee of its effectiveness. I know this: when I see an ad on Goodreads, if it looks interesting, I might click. Or, if it’s reminding me of a book I wanted but didn’t realize it’s out, I’ll click. Same goes with social media ads to a point. I’ve seen a book advertised on Facebook or Twitter and the first time I see it, I think, “Okay, sure.” And then I see it again and again and again and then I get irrationally irritated at the book and the author (even if the publisher paid for the ad). Again, there’s the rub: in our social media channels we bristle against too much promotion, don’t we? We expect ads in certain places, and the interiors of our social media feeds just isn’t one of those places.

Ads do work somewhat, though I can’t speak to how valuable it is against cost. When the publisher pays for it — well, hell yeah. I had some Kindle screensaver advertising that was epic in terms of how many books it sold. Goodreads ads were far less effective, but still effective.

Effectiveness: 5/10, unless somebody else is paying for it, then whee

Earnest, Sustained Outreach

Biggest and best self-promotion:

Be the best version of yourself online.

Just be you. And sometimes that means occasionally talking about your books.

This won’t be a magical solution. It will not turn you into a bestseller overnight, if at all. It will not move heaps and mounds of books off of shelves and into hands. But it does slowly-and-surely gain you audience. It interjects you and your stories into other people’s ecosystems. Suddenly, you’re just there. Like a cat they didn’t mean to adopt. Like a smell — and hopefully a nice smell, like baking cookies or the fear-sweat of your enemies.

It’s not at all effective in the short term.

But I think it’s very effective in the long term.

I’d argue that self-promotion isn’t about selling yourself but rather about being yourself.

Do that, and people will watch, and talk, and laugh. They’ll come to hang out with you.

And one day they’ll click buy.

Effectiveness: 1/10 short term, 9/10 long term

Write The Best Book You Can

Well, that one’s just obvious, I hope.

There is no better promotion for one good book than another good book.

Write more books, bookmonkey.

Effectiveness: 10/10

What About You?

What worked? What didn’t? What forms of self-promo don’t you care for? What am I missing?

* * *

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91 comments

  • Question: For folks like me, who use Feebly or some other push service for their blog-readin’ needs, do you, the author, get stats from those readers as well? I know you do with ChimpMail, but do push services interfere at all?

  • Giving away free stuff? How about printing the first 5 pages and giving it away at the Con? (I’d like to find a place that makes refrigerator magnets, because everyone uses those.)
    I think the bottom line is there is really no good way. It is a bootstrapping thing. As a newly self-published author I don’t have legions of fans to promote myself so I will have to be content with selling a book here, a book there… I have announced my publication to most of my facebook groups & friends, and that’s about it. PS people hate ads even more than they hate promo. Most people use Ad-block. So how can Ads be effective?

    • I recently listened in on a webcast by Tim Grahl. He is bery experienced in the area of self-publishing and one of his main thrusts was focusing on the e-mail list of your fans/followers/readers. He said that if you invite your audience to engage with you e.g. give away a freebie in exchange for them signing up, then this builds a relationship with them that is more likely to lead to sales. Twitter and facebook followers/likes will then follow. Worth checking out his website, most of this information is for free.

      • Tim Grahl may be very experienced, but the email list building, even following all the advice, was an exercise in futility for me. I ended up with a whole bunch of obviously fake email addresses and not much else. I never did figure out why on earth someone would use an obviously fake email address to sign up for an unknown author’s email list, but I’m proof it happens. Oh, and the freebie in exchange? I’ve had a grand total of *three* downloads out of over 300 of these “sign-ups.” And when I sent out my first (and only so far) newsletter, offering *another* free story? Two, count ’em two, downloads. I call phooey.

  • June 21, 2015 at 7:56 AM // Reply

    You’ve covered everything. EVERYTHING. And lo, it has made me clap my hands with joy and smile to bursting. And, I think I love you.

  • Thanks for making me laugh. I will have to get the rest of the series! The best outcome my self-promotion has had so far is to have my real-job partner’s secretary put ‘artist’ instead of ‘house wife’ (sic) as my profession on a conference form.

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