Promotion for authors: an evaluation of Chuck Wendig’s post

I’m coming out of hibernation for this one. I’m busy writing Shifting Infinity. Yes, I’m getting there. Yes, it’s slower than I wanted, but such is life. Supanova happened. And it’s cold. Is it ever this cold in late April?

Anyway, today Chuck Wendig posted about promotional techniques for authors. I often like Chuck’s posts, even if only that he’s one of these writers who can throw fucks around without impunity. Heh.

But this? There is a good deal wrong with it. Go read it yourself. This link opens a new tab, so I’ll still be here when you come back.

So. Promotion for authors. He collects in his post a random assortment of techniques and attaches his emotional evaluation to them, and I think this is where he goes wrong.

About promotion for authors, I’d like to make a few points:

  1. Not all techniques work the same for everyone
  2. If you’ve never tried a technique, you really shouldn’t be commenting on effectiveness
  3. Almost all techniques can be made to work to some degree if you work hard enough at it, but that said,
  4. There are vast differences in ROI (Return On Investment) for each technique, both in the amount of time necessary to make it work and the amount of money it takes out of your pocket

I’m finding that as soon as you start talking about ROI and money, writers turn off or flee to some sort of morally superior high ground. Marketing or promotion very often moves in the boundary of what’s considered annoying. Each person has different thresholds of what they find annoying. When you want to sell, and I mean, when you ACTUALLY want to SELL stuff, you should probably try everything at least once, even if it involves doing something that wouldn’t entice you as customer.

Guess what? Selling stuff isn’t about you! It’s about other people.

Finding the techniques that work for whatever it is you’re selling to whomever you’re trying to sell it to should involve experiments. Excluding things that are legal and common practice because you have some sort of aversion to them is not just silly. It’s dumb.

So I will be taking Chuck’s points in this post and try to evaluate them for ROI, audience reached, immediate sales and long-term potential.


Point #1: Endless Spambarfing

Wrong, Chuck, wrong. Even the title of this segment implies a judgement. Don’t judge until you’ve tried it. Yes, it’s annoying, but many people do it. Does it work?

Well, I tried it. Once, I paid some “what the hey” money to a company that “spambarfs” on your behalf. Another time they picked me up without my knowledge. The tweets go out in a big batch, and it’s amazing how many accounts are set to auto-RT these accounts. It goes out for months. And months. Yes, I kinda apologise for this.

You can easily do this yourself. Set up a Twitter account, gather thousands of followers, and sign up for one of those tweetbot services. Send a tweet every hour about your books and Bob’s yer uncle. Other accounts will RT it. Don’t have to do a thing anymore.

Does it work? Yes and no. The first two tweets are usually effective. The rest is a big echo chamber. Save yourself the money for these services and simply hand-write something about your books maybe 1-2 times a day. More often is really not effective in my experience. Plus it devalues your account. Everyone who wants to chat on Twitter has fled your account long ago. If you want to do this, set up a separate account for it.

Cost in time: 5 minutes to tweet something about a book of yours every day. Much more to set up a promotional account

Cost in $: free if you do it yourself, otherwise you need to buy a service

Audience: limitless, worldwide

Short-term effect: a few sales for the first tweet of a series of tweets, none for the repeats, so you’re much better off limiting tweets

Long-term effect: zero. You have to keep doing it. But it’s free and you can automate it if you want. But it’s more effective if you do it by hand and keep the engagement with your account up


Point #2: Thunderclap

This is basically an extension of point #1, but it ups the annoyance factor and concentrates the tweets.

Give this one a miss, and not just because it’s annoying. It usually costs money and there is very little evidence that it works. I could see it working if there is a good cause attached to the sale.


Point #3: Guest posting

This can be fun, but it’s highly limited to the following of the blog where you’re posting and the relevance of their audience to your work, and the tendency of their audience to buy books, or just to buy stuff full stop.

Cost in time: an hour or so to write the post

Cost in $: free if you are a friend of the blog owner, but other blogs charge, or they’ll ask you to buy ad space

Audience: limited to the blog’s audience, worldwide, but it may or may not be your audience

Short-term effect: anywhere between nothing and a handful of sales

Long-term effect: little, unless the post is controversial, but in that case people will be reading the post, not buying your books. There is a very clear distinction between the two. People who run popular blogs don’t necessarily sell a lot of books.


Point #4: Book blog tours

This is a series of blog posts hosted by others, usually coinciding with the release of a new book. They can be a great deal of fun.

Cost in time: an hour per post, plus the time to ferret for blogs and communicate with their owners. This is time-intensive stuff. Thinking up new things to write is also really draining

Cost in $: free if you do it yourself, otherwise I’ve seen as much as $500 charged

Audience: limited to the audience of the blogs, worldwide

Short-term effect: nothing to a handful of sales per post. It depends on genre and the nature of the blogs. Are they blogs where people come looking for books to buy?

Long-term effect: limited


Point #5: Bookstore tours

Chuck says “the mainstay of author promotion”. Really? Are bookshops the main places where people buy books? Are they the main places where your audience buys?

Cost in time: travel time, time at the shop, often a preparation visit or call to the shop

Cost in $: free, but the shop will ask 40% of sales if you bring your own stock. If you bring your own stock, you’ll probably have to pay for it, and you may have to pay for travel, and any time you’re travelling, you’re not writing

Audience: extremely limited to the 2-100 people who will turn up

Short-term effect: a few copies. Maybe. Or 50 if you’re really popular. Which you’re not.

Long-term effect: very limited


Point #6: Conventions

Cost in time: travel time, time at the convention, time to prepare for panels

Cost in $: HUGE. Convention registration, (air) travel, accommodation for at least 3-4 nights. Con hotels are rarely cheap, and you get most out of it if you are in the same hotel as the other guests. And any time you’re travelling, you’re not writing

Audience: limited, local, almost exclusively writers

Short-term effect: You could hire a table and sell books. But then you can’t go to the panels that you’re not on. You might sell enough to cover your costs.

Long-term effect: meeting people is the most obvious benefit of going to cons, and the potential long term effects are why you might want to attend a few, other than that cons are a shitload of fun and above all else, a social event.


Point #7: Newsletters

Cost in time: little. You set it up once, after that new subscriptions happen automatically

Cost in $: free if you shop around. Once your mailing list reaches more than 1000 subscribers, you might want to move to a paid service simply because it gives you more options

Audience: people who have already engaged with your fiction. These are the best people to sell stuff to

Short-term effect: every time you send out a notification for a new release, a number of people will buy.

Long-term effect: this audience is yours, independent of retailers or publishers. These people are awesome. This is where you find your reviewers, your ARC readers and you first sales for every new release

Notes: you’d be stupid not to set up a newsletter, even if there are only 20 people on it. It costs nothing, it’s completely non-annoying, it runs in the background and increases if you sell more books or give away books. What more do you want?


Point #8: swag

Bookmarks, little gifts, whatever

Cost in time: preparation time, making of graphic files

Cost in $: you can spend whatever you want. It’s easy to spend hundreds

Audience: limited, because you need to either see the people in person or send it to them both also cost time and money

Short-term effect: no one really knows, so don’t go overboard. It’s probably a good idea to have business cards and/or bookmarks to give out so people can check your website later, but I’d stop at that

Long-term effect: as long as people keep this stuff. How long does the average promo flyer last in your house?


Point #9: free copies

Cost in time: you write A WHOLE BOOK and then you give it away for free? OMG *dies*

Cost in $: nothing, if ebooks.

Audience: limitless, worldwide. I’ve had several free runs where I’ve given away more than 50,000 books. The number of zeroes is not a typo.

Short-term effect: if your free book is part of a series, and especially if there is a cliffhanger, a percentage of people will buy the rest of the series. The more books you give away, the more people will buy.

Long-term effect: you can keep doing this for years and the effects will last for years

Notes: free samples are as old as the first human commercial interactions. If you give away ebooks, the ROI is incredibly high, but you can make it more powerful with adding paid adverting


Point #10 buying ads

Cost in time: making the ad. Maybe an hour, one-time setup.

Cost in $: you can spend any amount, and this is where you have to be 1. well-connected, to know which are the latest places that deliver value, and 2. careful

Audience: the world is your oyster

Short-term effect: the sky is the limit. Or you can sell nothing, so do be careful and see what works, because some things really, really work and other places overcharge

Long-term effect: you have to keep buying ads, but once people are fans, they will buy your other books

Notes: A publisher has a promotion budget. Don’t, however, treat ad money as a box to tick. Investigate the sites and methods that deliver positive results. You can really ace your sales with paid advertising


Point #11: earnest sustained outreach

Cost in time: you have to be present somewhere. Blogging and speaking at cons and stuff.

Cost in $: free

Audience: limited to whoever cares about an author’s blatherings.

Short-term effect: not sure. You’ll sell a few books to people who read your blog and like the type of books you write. Those are probably not the same crowd.

Long-term effect: being nice, or should I say, not an arsehole, definitely helps in being invited to speak and such things. I also think this is highly overrated. Authors like to think that people read their books because they are interested in them as a person, but no. People read the books because they’re interested in the books.


Which brings us to point #12: write the best book you can

Totally agree. This is why people buy your books. So write the next book, and write it well, and don’t waste too much time with stuff that has a high cost in time. Spend money if you have it, but guard your time like hell. Write your next book and then determine how you can best get the word out to as many people as possible with as little as possible time spent for the amount of money that’s within your ad budget.

For me, that is:

  1. Mailing list
  2. Twitter/facebook/website/blog
  3. Paid ads

I go to cons because I enjoy it. I go to bookshops because I want to buy a book.

Promotion for authors: an evaluation of Chuck Wendig’s post was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants