When my novel was released, I depended on "hope" marketing. I just hoped people would discover the book and it would just take off on its own. A celeb supported my book tour and shared his fan base. The novel was in the New York Times. It was largely well-reviewed, and an Indie Next pick.
I thought all the work was being done for me, but those weren't laurels to rest on, they were breaks to capitalize on with marketing efforts--but I wasn't equipped. I wasn't ready.
So, that was a huge mistake, but it wasn't my biggest mistake.
My biggest mistake was in the aftermath, after I swore I would learn what I needed to take control of my next novel's release. I wanted to control my own destiny. So I spent a ton of time learning about book marketing from book marketing experts. The advice was all over the place. Nothing felt right, and it too me a year to realize the glaring error . . .
The biggest mistake I made was trying to learn how to market like an author, when I simply needed to learn to market like the best marketing experts on the planet.
That was my next field of study, and now, two years later, I can look at an author's marketing efforts, and I can offer results-backed advice from experts from all disciplines . . . and that's what I'm doing in this post.
Nicole Dieker self-published her literary novel, THE BIOGRAPHIES OF ORDINARY PEOPLE: VOLUME 1: 1989-2000, and chronicled her entire self-publishing effort.
The details of that effort are at Jane Friedman's blog, but I'm going to summarize them and try to offer some additional insight in this post, but you don't have to read it to get a lot out of this breakdown.
Disclaimer: I don't know Nicole, and haven't read her book, but she's done everyone a service with this kind of transparency. In fact, you can only have this kind of transparency if you self-publish and control every cost and track your own ROI (return on investment). No easy task.
First, the final results from her post: 167 e-books sold and 118 paperbacks sold, with total royalties and earnings totaling $803.90.
One reason she self-published is that agents told her the book was "too quiet" to be marketable. Those results prove the agents correct, and even though Nicole appears to be a capable freelancer with an excellent network and all the tools required to self-promote, it's hard to call those results anything other than a disappointment.
The good news? That $800 appears to be profit, but I bet if you divided out the "per hour" rate of work (writing, editing, and marketing activities), we're talking pennies per hour of work.
Obviously, there's some artistic merit and intrinsic satisfaction to consider, but setting that aside--could she have sold more books?
What did she do to promote the book?
How well did it work?
What could she have done differently?
Let's dig in.
Nicole had 3k Twitter followers, 1.3k on Tumblr, and 20k on Medium.
My take that I've been pushing after months of research and testing--social media is almost worthless for converting followers into book sales, with Twitter near the bottom of that list. Relationship-building? Fine. But converting? No.
Now, the 20k Medium followers were of interest to me, since this is a community that rallied around (presumably) her writing on Medium. That type of organic audience, drawn to her writing, seems like they would have the kind of relationship to trust her and purchase her book.
They didn't. Less than a half a percent of her Medium following purchased.
Also, the engagement she saw on socials were from the "true fans" that had already purchased. She wasn't earning new ones.
So if you think building a big following on socials is going to help you sell your products, think again. Building and maintaining a big following requires a tremendous amount of energy and resources. Is that the best use of your time?
Some of you are thinking, "But she didn't use Facebook!" Facebook is not a sales funnel, folks. A Facebook post with a link gets throttled and buried. They want you to pay to play, so unless you're doing FB ad spend on your target demographic, you are wasting your time.
Socials, in my opinion, are better as a way to engage your customers and fans AFTER they have converted from other marketing means.
They operate as designed--networking with fans, friends, and family.
Email is king in many circles for a variety of reasons. You own it, you can track the open rates and clicks to see what messages are resonating, and you can guarantee EVERYONE gets your message (unlike socials).
Nicole had 105 subscribers on her Tiny Letter email list. She achieved a 75 percent open rate, but obviously, this small number of subscribers are "core" supporters who might have purchased via another channel.
What she fails to mention is why she didn't focus on building her email list in advance of the book's publication. I was testing out various strategies and grew my email list from like 50 people to around 2200 in the span of 2 months.
I get 30 to 50 percent of people to at least "open" my emails. I get click rates of 5 to 15 percent, which is solid according to most metrics. When my old book was down-priced, I sold dozens of copies with a single email.
I'm not sure about Nicole's mindset, or if she didn't have enough time, or just thought 20k Medium followers was the same as an email list, but a lack of email emphasis hurt her self-pub effort significantly, in my opinion.
As for list-building, those techniques are an entirely different post.
Here's another one of my premises--"No book ever became a bestseller because Kirkus said it was awesome." In fact, I once did a lot of anecdotal asking around, just to see how much editorial reviews moved the needle. I couldn't find a single person who said they recently purchased a book because of a positive review in, say, Publisher's Weekly.
My first novel was briefly but positively reviewed in the New York freaking Times. At the time, I was thinking "This is it! This is going to sell a ton of copies." I'm in no position to tell you how well it translated to sales, but I wasn't on the New York Times page we'd all LIKE to be featured in, and that's the bestseller list.
Nicole paid $924 for reviews in Kirkus, BlueInk, and Foreword Clarion Reviews. The book, which by all accounts seems to be legit and well-written, was glowingly reviewed in those outlets.
She doesn't have hard data as to how the reviews impacted her sales, but she assumes that NOT having the reviews would have hurt sales. With a literary book, she's probably right, and also says that for a genre work the reviews "may not be worth it." I agree.
Folks, if you have 900 bucks to spend on book marketing, go out there and spend it on actual marketing--drive traffic into a funnel and convert them into email list subscribers or customers.
I did an awful job of turning buyers into reviewers, which Amazon greatly favors. I didn't know the importance back then, but I'd rather have a handful of organic, free Amazon reviews than pay 900 bucks for a starred review in the Booklists of the world.
I'm a fan of influencer marketing, and Nicole attempts this by reaching out to book bloggers. She had some hit and miss success finding legit book blogs that were operational, and then, of course, had to send them books. She paid for the books and the postage.
She says that the best book blogs are "flooded with review requests." This is par for the course; if you're an influencer, you have influence (see how that works), and as the Joker says, "If you're good at something, never do it for free."
She doesn't have a great feel for the ROI on sending out those books to blogs for potential review and coverage. Here are a few ways to consider using influencer marketing to better effect:
The "dream" list. Write down a list of 10 people or blogs that could dramatically impact the book's sales. In the months in advance of the book's release, just go to work for them and their audience. Offer them and their audience value. Create a relationship. Then, you're in a better position (trust, reciprocity) to get them to do something positive for your book's exposure. You have to plan to pull this off.
Use a blog tour service. Save time by investing in someone who curates blogs, their traffic, and their genres/readership. The fees I've seen aren't cheap, but aren't totally unreasonable. Pair the blog tour with a massive KingSumo type giveaway, that way, even if you're not selling copies, the exposure collects email addresses along the way so you can re-touch them in the future and perhaps turn them into fans over time.
Good time for one of my hard-earned, number one hints: NEVER EVER EVER NEVER EVER GIVE AWAY A COPY OF YOUR OWN BOOK WHEN YOU'RE TRYING TO SELL YOUR BOOK. Everyone is going to wait to see if they win it before they buy a copy. Huge mistake. Give something "indirect" away, a book in a similar genre, or a physical item tied to the book.
Leverage Instagram. Instagram is the place where you can get cheap real estate. What's that mean? You can get free or inexpensive exposure just by using Instagram search and offering value to the influencer.
There's plenty of book influencers on IG, but don't underestimate how an IG model on a beach reading your book might affect sales. I've seen influencers with tens of thousands of followers and big time engagement selling posts for $50.
Tell me something--is it easier to build your own loyal following of tens of thousands of people, or just pay 50 bucks for someone to share your product organically?
I know I just said most socials are worthless for converting sales, but you have to consider the STATUS of the person that is the face of the account.
Nothing moves the needle on a purchase decision like STATUS. In fact, I feel status is the number one most important thing for anyone in business or marketing, and I could write a LOT about this subject alone.
Just remember, on IG and other platforms, status can be "rented" to help you achieve your own.
Nicole had a quality freelance network, which allowed her to write five articles and appear on four podcasts to promote her book. She says it resulted in small bumps--two sales here, five sales there.
She goes on to say that by staying in her network, she was likely being exposed to people who might have already purchased her book, and then she hits a BINGO on one of the greatest challenges for authors, and that is what I call the "book marketer's dilemma."
In the non-fiction or business space, books are commercials for other products on a value ladder, so they're sometimes given away for free.
When a conscious effort is made to sell a book, it's a simple equation--they can blog, do a YouTube channel, do a podcast, create an email list, build a following, all around the subject of the book. So if you're writing a woodworking book, you create an online presence that gives a ton of value to the woodworking niche. You collect a few thousand followers, the book comes out, and they're a natural fit--they're going to buy it.
That same stock advice is given to fiction authors ALL THE TIME. Here's the problem: writer's write about WRITING. So they attract an audience of other writers who are just looking to write better and sell their own books. Suddenly, here comes a literary novel about the lives of real people, or perhaps even a weird genre-mashing superhero coming-of-age tale. The audience doesn't fit the product, sales suffer, and it's just a matter of an ill-fitted value ladder.
Nicole admits to talking about writing with those articles and podcast appearances, and that's, of course, a natural subject to talk to a writer about . . . but if a woodworker is on a podcast talking about his four BEST woodworking tips, and then says, "pick up my complete guide to woodworking," you can see how much better that's going to work.
What could she have done to better leverage those media appearances? I'm not sure! I haven't read her novel, but to my understanding, it's about the autobiographies of real people. Perhaps curating some moving stories from the people in the book and marketing those stories effectively would have improved her results, but again, it's hard to tell.
Are you starting to see how hard it is to market a novel to a new audience?
My very first bookstore appearance had like six people at the event. They're notoriously hard to put together if you're trying to build an audience. I mean, they're great if you're Stephen King, but for regular authors (who are often footing their own expenses to do the events) it's almost impossible to come out ahead.
Nicole was no different, listing expenses for snacks, travel, plane tickets, hotel rooms, etc. She didn't sell nearly enough books at those events to justify the costs. The physical bookstore appearance is pretty much dead for the new to midlist author from a pure ROI standpoint.
She did get some nice social proof--pics for social media--but if you don't have a significant presence on those channels, what good can they do you?
I've jotted down a lot of ideas on how to solve this, and cross-promoting with other authors to drive attendance doesn't solve much. I was at a three-author event where we outnumbered the people who showed up.
I just think most people (myself kind of included here) think that book events are boring. Who really wants to listen to someone reading out loud? Chuck Palahniuk turns his readings into weird and wonderful rock concert-type events. He even has a hype man! But that is all rather silly if you can only get five people in the door.
If I were to test out my own live event strategy at this point, I'd cross-promote with other performers from different walks of life. So if I got a local musical act and a stand-up comedian and we did it at a bar, and called it "An author, a singer, and a comic walk into a bar . . ." and make it fun, would that get a better result? I don't have the answer, but I do know what is currently being done just isn't working for most authors.
She got the book distributed at libraries, which is nice. But even if that took ten minutes of effort, it's probably wasted effort. Is it nice that people are checking your book out and reading it? Sure. Is this going to save your ass in the sales department?
Spoiler alert, but no one is going to the library with their credit cards out, folks.
Submitting a book for awards costs money, and you're probably not going to win. However, the upside is pretty high--if your book wins the Pulitzer, you can probably count on a significant sales bump.
This one's simple. If your book has the chops, it's worth the gamble, but I'd keep this one relegated to the literary novel department. Your steamy vampire romance isn't going to win the Pulitzer.
This is an industry staple. Run giveaways for your book, right?
You are never, ever, ever, never-ever, going to get significant sales running book giveaways. It cheapens the product, and psychologically, who in the world is going to buy your book if they have a chance to win it for free?
I like to run giveaways, but I've learned my lesson. I have done indirect giveaways. If you like Chuck P. or Stephen King or Drew Magary or Neil Gaiman, you may find something you like in my work. So I'll give away THEIR books instead. I built the majority of my email list with indirect giveaways and little else. Not a bad investment, that's probably 2200 email subscribers in about 2 months for around $50.
Sure, I lose subscribers when I start to send them emails, and a few "sweepstakers" jumped in and are probably going to enter every single giveaway drawing without ever reading anything I do, but I know for a fact several folks have engaged with me and my work, and the people on my email list that open the most emails and click the most links are mostly people I don't know, which means this giveaway strategy works.
I need to adjust it and improve it (there's a lot of lessons learned I have yet to implement), but it's still a rock solid strategy for building a list from scratch.
Then there's the "Goodreads Giveaway." Another staple. The thinking goes, you get a lot of people to shelve your book, and the giveaway winners have a stronger chance to leave a review, and reviews help.
While it feels good to have a couple thousand people enter the giveaway, these are mostly professional free-stuff seekers, and you don't even get their email addresses. Probably worth it for a couple reviews, but this isn't a needle-mover in my opinion. (Update: Amazon is now charging to run these giveaways, if the recent headline I've seen is to be believed. Buyer beware).
Nicole spent $125 to ship books around the world for her giveaways. She didn't say anything about the impact, but I think I can guess the impact--she just lost $125 for one or two reviews.
IMPORTANT-ASS CAVEAT: Running giveaways for your own book isn't ideal, but giving your book away as much as possible to influencers WORKS AWESOME.
Counter-intuitive, sure, but look no further than Ryan Holiday's work and the way his impressive BRASS CHECK publicity company works . . . they try to give a ton of copies away to critical influencers, reviewers, and a 'seed' group of potential fans just to get some buzz around the book.
Some publishers seem to hate this--and a lot of authors wince at the idea of devaluating their book like that, but think of it this way, if you were a chef and you created the best spaghetti sauce in the world, would you be better off spending 1 million in marketing, or giving away 1 million worth of free spaghetti sauce?
If you've got a GREAT PRODUCT, the best marketing tool is the product itself.
We have finally arrived at a tried and true marketing strategy. Advertising! Too bad the margin on books is too thin to achieve any kind of reasonable return on investment (ROI). Let's dig in.
Nicole spent $637.80 on advertising; she was sponsored the Seattle Review of Books twice, and was in the BookExpo issue of the New York Review of Books’ Independent Press Listing. She correlated 25 sales and some community building for this expense.
It's hard to color this as anything other than a significantly negative ROI, but without seeing the ads, it's hard to discern the point of failure.
Advertising is incredibly difficult with books because the margins are so thin. If I traditionally publish a novel, and I can only expect a couple of bucks per sale, I can spend almost nothing to acquire a customer.
Authors have turned to targeted social media ads (hello FB) and more recently, Amazon ads, to try and drive sales.
My findings are as follows--it's incredibly hard to target the right audience and come up with an ad that profitably drives sales. If you pay $2 for a conversion on a FB ad (and it's unlikely you're going to convert that cheaply), you're likely walking a tightrope that could cost you money when the ad saturates and turns sour.
The better investment is to create some sort of free opt-in offer that correlates with your paid work to collect email subscribers, and then have a strategy (a lot better than my "write about whatever comes to mind that week" strategy) to engage your subscribers and build a relationship.
Another great strategy is to rent someone else's authority instead of renting ad space. That's where paid email marketing comes in, and IT WORKS.
PAID EMAIL MARKETING
This is advertising, but I'm giving it it's own mini-section. Nicole did, and puts in bold: "this is my single most effective marketing tool" and notes it's the only marketing tool that produced a positive ROI.
BookBub is a well-known book marketing email list. They charge a LOT of money to send to their list, but have charts that show you what kind of sales you can expect in each genre. Obviously they don't want you to lose money, and they have a lot of data, so you have every right to trust their numbers. There is a barrier to entry (even if you want to pay, they don't accept everyone) so there's some quality control. Hence, their subscribers trust them and buy books from that distribution channel.
However, I know from experience that BookBub is not going to accept out of their comfort zone. Anything that straddles genres or is straight literary isn't going to make the cut.
Nicole did a much cheaper email promotion ($35 on BargainBooksy) and netted 28 sales. Positive ROI!
Services like this can pay off for authors, especially if they have some measure of pricing control or thicker margins--these are staple marketing tools for self-pub authors, who have that flexibility.
Marketing like this would be a centerpiece of any strategy I use for another novel. In fact, I'd go beyond the BookBubs of the world and go straight to inflencers.
Most online businesses use joint-venture partnerships and affiliate agreements and solo ads to leverage the power of big email audiences. There's just no reason that can't work for books if you find influencers in the right space.
Again, the tight margins become a problem, but if you could find a book influencer and offer them a tracking link that gives them $1.00 per book sold, and it's a legit book that their audience will love, that might be the kind of win-win value package that creates a lot of social proof (you're being endorsed by someone they trust) on top of some sales.
To track this, you'd need some sort of affiliate program, and those can be expensive--which further cuts into the ROI potential.
THE STONE COLD BOTTOM LINE
People will typically buy books for three core reasons (excluding fans who already enjoy your work on its own merit):
1 - Someone they trust recommends them, i.e., status.
2 - They like you as a person.
3 - Because they stumble upon the books and they look interesting.
The entire book marketing game seems to be geared towards number three, which is the hardest to predict, to achieve, and to sustain. Building a brand, fostering a relationship with a distribution channel that you own (like email), and creating win-win relationships with influencers would be a place to primarily focus if you're an author starting from scratch or with a small following.
No easy task. I'm still figuring out how to execute strategies like this, but I'm having fun experimenting, learning, and sharing all of this along the way.
As such, the best book on marketing as it relates to the author space (both fiction and non-fiction), as well as music and other types of art, is THE PERENNIAL SELLER by Ryan Holiday.I'll end this with a disclaimer--book marketing is basically the wild west, and what works for one author or one genre may or may not work for another, so my final, final thought is, in all caps, THIS IS ONLY MY EDUCATED, RESEARCHED, SOMEWHAT EXPERIENCED OPINION AND YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY.