Thoughts on Self-Promotion

As I close in on the end of my current writing project, the issue of self-promotion is much on my mind. I don’t mind admitting that it’s a prospect I contemplate with dread. I’m one of those I-just-want-to-sit-in-my-room-with-my-laptop writers who really is not constitutionally suited for a world in which the definition of “author” also includes “huckster” (or, if you want to be a bit more diplomatic about it, “entrepreneur”).

Nevertheless, self-promotion is a fact of life for today’s book writer, an issue that’s explored in an interesting article by Neely Tucker of the Washington Post. The article explores the dizzying array of self-promotional options that are made possible, in large part, by the Internet. To relatively old-school methods like readings, signings, and author websites, the Web has added blogs, blog tours, social networking, book trailers, and more.

“Being an author has become much more of an ongoing relationship with your audience through the Web, rather than just writing a book and disappearing while you write the next one,” says Liate Stehlik, publisher of William Morrow and Avon Books. “You have to be out there in the online world, talking and participating.”

Typically, the article starts out with a success story: Kelly Corrigan, whose cancer-survivor memoir was not tagged by her publisher for any extra promotional perks, and who took promotion into her own hands. Corrigan created a book trailer, got friends to host book parties, put together her own book tour, hand-sold her books, and posted a video of one of her readings on YouTube. The end result: 20 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and a second career as a paid speaker.

Does this give me hope for the success of my own self-promotional plan, whatever it may eventually be? Does it make me more motivated to roll up my sleeves and dive into the self-promotion ocean? Well, sure. But there are also some things I’m keeping in mind.

The article ties some of the trend toward self-promotion to publishers’ shrinking publicity budgets. But the truth is that publishers never provided significant promotion for more than a handful of their authors, even in pre-Internet days. What’s really driving the self-promotional frenzy, in my opinion, is the dilution of the market. As the article points out, 560,000 books were published in the USA last year (more than were published in the entire 10-year period between 1980 and 1989, when title output averaged around 51,000 per year). Even if you subtract the nearly 300,000 that were self- or micropress-published, that’s way too many books. How do you make your book stand out from thousands of others in your subject or genre? Go forth, intrepid author, and self-promote!

But if the book market is overcrowded and fragmented, the new self-promotional frontier of the Internet is even more so. Not only is there a tremendous number of different options, every other author with a new book to flog is rushing to take advantage of them. For each new Web-based self-promotional strategy that comes along, there’s a narrow window of opportunity in which it’s actually possible to grab some eyeballs; thereafter, everyone piles on, and you wind up struggling not just for the visibility of your book, but for the visibility of your book trailer or blog or Twitterfeed or whatever. So as I plan my self-promotion strategy, I need to remember that, just as my book will be competing against too many others, so will my efforts to promote it.

Another thing to note: Kelly Corrigan’s book was nonfiction, a memoir about cancer survival. This gave her advantage–not just over fiction authors (the market for nonfiction is much bigger than for fiction, and nonfiction audiences are often easier to identify and target) but over many nonfiction authors, since cancer is a subject of urgent interest to enormous numbers of people.

Often, however, when self-promotion is discussed, it’s discussed as if all books are more or less the same, and any and all self-promotional methods are equally applicable. But books are not the same, nor are readers. Though there’s always some overlap, the audience for nonfiction is different from the audience for fiction. The audience for romance is different from the audience for thrillers. The audience for YA is different from the audience for middle grade. In other words, the method that worked for one author will not necessarily work for you. In planning my self-promotional strategy, I’ll look at everything, but I’ll look most closely at what authors in my own market area are doing.

And that brings me to the final thing I’ll be keeping in mind as I think about self-promotion: no one actually knows what works. Agent Richard Pine, quoted in the Post article, praises Kelly Corrigan’s self-promotional moxie, but points out that “Her videos could have not worked just as easily as it turned out they did.” The article goes on to say:

So all these shiny things that go fast are really fun to produce, and some are even fun to watch. But do they move units any better than the old-fashioned author signings in a local bookstore? Do they help a book sell more copies, or merely keep pace with others in the marketplace?

Nobody really knows, a range of publishers and industry watchers say. There is not a clear-cut means of connecting Web site traffic, say, to results in sales, and some experts warn new authors not to go overboard.

In this, despite the bells and whistles of the Internet, the promotional game has not changed at all. Publishers have never really been able to reliably tie sales data to promotional methods–and even if, in some cases, they can, what’s effective for one book will not necessarily be effective for another.

The key, I think, is to be realistic. Have a plan. Do your research. Know the options. Keep your head–don’t get carried away by the hype that surrounds every new self-promotional strategy. Keep it reasonable–for your budget, your time- and energy-level (don’t let self-promotion cut too deeply into the time you allot to your real job, writing), and your personality (do conventions stress you out? Do you despise Twitter? Then focus your efforts elsewhere). Even if you can’t really know what will work, be aware of what probably won’t–press releases, email blasts, “marketing” services that will charge you an arm and a leg for Web-based strategies that are either not worth doing or doable on your own (here’s one example).

And never forget that the basis of all self-promotion is something very simple, and infinitely complex: a good book. There really is no substitute.


  1. Here's one thing I want to add, even though I know this is an old post… A friend of a friend had a book published recently with a fairly big publisher, got a nice advance, etc. She asked her agent if she should do a book launch and the agent said that it didn't really matter. My friend also said that this is pretty typical for writers. Her publisher set up a blog tour, got some reviews, and that's about it. The rest of the promotion would be up to her but it didn't seem like they were pushing her to do any more. So now I'm wondering how much constant marketing and promoting really matters since mostly everything is done online, and everything online is there forever. That is, if somebody's looking for it the info is there already.

  2. I think that getting yourself known is the hardest thing for any new writer.

    I just wish there was a magic wand we could wave – maybe JK could let us use hers…

  3. Self-promotion takes time and energy and creativity. So does writing books. True, few of us write fiction 18 hours a day (I did for awhile last fall but never again, I hope), but if the product you sell is fiction, then fiction writing is what needs protection, in terms of time/energy/creativity.

    I'm working on doing more self-promotion online (via project-specific websites and blogs) but there's a limit. At the annual Ninc conference, I heard one bright-eyed person insist it took only minutes a day to maintain her mix of promotional production…but others agreed that minutes easily become hours.

    And some readers, like toddlers, always want more and more and more of you. They don't understand that writers cannot produce the fiction that made them interesting if they're constantly on stage performing.

    (Nonetheless, I've got several websites and several blogs and may give in and get a Twitter account shortly.)

  4. Barbara, speaking as one who holds a pseudonym, I can tell you that there is very little difference from promoting oneself under one's real name. You just pretend that the pseudonym IS your real name.

    I go to science fiction conventions and speak on panels with "Nobilis Reed" proudly displayed on my chest. Only the hotel check-in clerk and the con registrar knows any different.

  5. Very interesting–I wonder if doing promotion by oneself must inherently include promoting oneself rather than the book. I don't have any desire to be famous, but I'd sure love to sell a book or two. How does someone writing under a pseudonym, for instance, do this sort of thing? (The way prominent writers are treated by their fans doesn't exactly inspire wishes for success in that endeavor.)

  6. Wonderful post, Victoria. Thank you. After 18 months of promoting my first novel, self-published, I've just signed with a publisher for my 2nd. Family and friends are shocked at how hard I worked getting my book out there. But I knew nobody was going to do it for me. I succeed because of websites like yours that were eager to teach me what I needed to know.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and the tools necessary.

  7. Jim MacKrell said,

    Victoria, is there any stats on how many books are published yearly by the big houses (traditional Publishers) and how many sell over 1000?

    Per the PW article I linked to in my post, 275,232 books were produced by "traditional production methods" (offset) in 2008. That would include not just the big trade houses, but non-trade publishers and the larger independents. I'm not aware of any stats on individual book sales, but my guess would be that sales from the bigger houses average well over 1,000 copies per title.

    You may have seen the figures quoted in this PW article from 2006:

    Here's the reality of the book industry: in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies.

    From this, the author concludes that "The average book in America sells about 500 copies."

    This figure has been widely quoted, especially by self-publishing evangelists, to "prove" that commercial publishing ain't such great shakes. But as they say–lies, damned lies, and statistics. On closer scrutiny, the stats don't support the author's conclusion.

    – Most obviously, we're talking about just one year here. Most books stay in print much longer than a year, and gather sales over the whole of their in-print lives. So maybe the average book in America sells 500 copies a year, but that's only a fraction of its in-print life, and thus, of its total sales.

    – Many of the books are backlist books. Most commercially-published books follow a predictable sales curve, with the bulk of sales occurring in the first six months, and falling off thereafter. Backlist books that sold just 99 copies in 2004 may have sold multiple thousands in 2000, or whenever they were originally published.

    – Many of the books are self- or micropress-published. Not as many as today–but the POD movement was well underway in 2004. Sales for these books are typically tiny because of lack of marketing and distribution. Remove them from the total, and the average would jump, even if you left in all the backlist books and looked only at a single year.

    The author of the PW article, by the way, is Chris Anderson, and the statistics are meant to support his Long Tail theory, which now has been largely discredited.

  8. Lynn, my head is already fat enough. Please don't make it swell more! (Thank you!)

    About self-promotion as "selling"–for commercially-published authors, I don't really think it is, at least not in the sense of selling knives or soap. People may buy a whole set of knives, and they'll buy soap again and again–but they'll only buy your book once. So you're not trying to sell units so much as you're attempting to create a meme, so that the meme can do the selling for you. You're trying to get your image and your idea out there into the world, so that people you have no personal contact with at all will buy your book.

    If you're self- or micropress published, you will have to sell units, and for the most part, you'll be selling them to people you actually meet face-to-face. A commercially-published author can count on a basic level of pre-pub marketing, and on physical bookstore presence (both of which are necessary for volume sales). A self- or micropress-published author can't. That's yet another way in which self-promotion strategies need to differ–not just by genre and market, but by what kind of publishing you've chosen.

  9. This is part of the reason why web analytics are so important. Self-promotion, without figuring out what you want to "do" with that self-promotion, ends up being an exercise in frustration.

    In the end, the strategic author making data-driven decisions will win this race, and have more time to write. After all, just because we're online all the time doesn't mean that our audience is, too.

  10. Vic, I love you. Good, sound, sage advice as always. A woman approached me at a conference a couple weeks ago and talked about how much she loved your interviews in my book. "Yes," I said. "Vic is breathtakingly brilliant, and only those in denial or a coma would avoid her advice."

  11. I rely on word of mouth and snail mail (which still sells more than anything). I write a newsletter for combat vets and with each issue I include a special on some of my books. I've sold 350 copies in a local convenience store that doesn't sell books, except mine. It's a slow process, and unless you are filthy rich and have a ton of money for promotion, you must be realistic…and that's if you have a good book.

  12. An excellent post. Thank you. Like all 'unknown' authors, I'm struggling to promote my book and ANYTHING helps. It really is a problem trying to 'get out' there.

    A couple of days ago, I managed to contact a TV chat-show host who agreed to read a copy of 'Without Reproach' because she took a vacation in the area it's set in. I'm just praying she mentions it on TV

  13. Terrific article, Victoria. As you say, this is an entirely new world for authors, and no one really knows what works. We're all just making it up as we go along, and hoping that hard work and dedication to quality will stand us in good stead in the long run.

    Best of luck with your current work!
    Donna Carrick

  14. It might help to get some ideas to read some of the top "sales" books and to take a course from Zig Ziglar or other experts in the industry.

    It doesn't matter if you are selling knives, soap or your book. If someone has to buy it then it is selling.

    Oh – and always be bold enough to ASK for the sale. 😀

  15. Victoria, is there any stats on how many books are published yearly by the big houses (traditional Publishers) and how many sell over 1000?

  16. "a book aimed at a small segment of the market and one that's of general interest. (Increasingly, sf and fantasy fit the former discription.)"

    You mean they didn't before?

    Well, maybe they went wider and are narrowing back up again, but the SF ghetto is a familiar feature of the genre.

  17. I have a new book out (as of one week ago) but I'm not sure how useful any of my "promotional" efforts have been. Especially since my efforts have been limited to "be interesting" and asking people who say they like the book to tell their friends.

    But I'm writing the next one, too

  18. Since we don't know what works, until I hit the big time and can afford professional advice, I'm just going to do what's fun.

    Since I live getting behind the microphone, I'm podcasting. Since I like social networking, I'm using (though not abusing) Twitter and Facebook. I blog occasionally (probably not enough) and make sure my website has up-to-date information. I go to conventions and network.

    And then what? We'll see.

  19. As a unrepentant self promoter- I can understand your reluctance. Not every body is a naturally pushy broad like me, I've noticed.

    However, as a business owner- I can easily see the flip side- is writing about literature, or about business?

    Many fights have been waged with a particular writer I used to know when this subject would come up.

    He'd come unglued that writing should be about "art", about "literature"…etc.

    I belive in the end; writing is truly about both.

    Produce a quality book and be savvy about its promotion.


  20. Thanks Victoria,
    As my first book goes out on submission soon, this is something I've been thinking about alot. Finding a balance between writing and the writer-life. I love what Dee said, that you're book is your big business card.

  21. I love the idea of being a "localebrity"! I can see the appeal of boosting community ties and gaining support.

    However… I want-wish-hope that I get more readers, readers from here and there – not just my home town or my 'hood.

    So, to that end, I am willing and able to promote as much as I can.

    I just wish I had more time to do it and more confidence that what I choose to do will be effective… ANd my greatest fear is that I will overdue it and irk people (friends & family).

    Cheers, Jill

  22. It seems to me that there's an inherent difference in promoting a book aimed at a small segment of the market and one that's of general interest. (Increasingly, sf and fantasy fit the former discription.) Authors almost always make the mistake of trying for the maximum number of eyeballs. Piers Anthony ran commercials on tv for a while, but this is probably the least economical method of reaching potential readers. The vast majority of tv viewers don't read any fiction, much less science fiction, and I would bet the response rate was incredibly low. My point is simply that sharply targeted promotion is bound to be much more effective — but the majority of promotional schemes I run across seem to be aimed at the widest possible audience.

  23. Great post, Victoria.

    I run an entertainment pr boutique, which specializes in literary promotion. When authors, publishing house publicists and agents ask me what is the best promo tool I tell them it's the author's book. Your book is your big business card. It must be relevant, compelling, page-turning and well-written. Simple. You can use all the online bells and whistles, gain television opps, but if your book sucks rocks then you ruin your writing career fast.

    My advice to most authors is to become a localebrity in your town. Be the author that's participating in the community, hosting read-in at neighborhood cafe bars, host read-in meetups, have Big Fun. Writing should be Big Fun and letting people know you have a great book should be Bigger Fun. Know your budget, your personal limits and remember that your writing life doesn't shut off, so have fun.

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