Book Marketing Methods That Don’t Work

For any author, whether self-, small press-, or big house-published, getting noticed is one of the primary challenges. Larger publishers provide marketing support for their authors (yes, they really do, despite popular wisdom to the contrary), but with smaller publishers, and if you’ve self-published, you may be mostly or entirely on your own.

It’s no wonder that the Internet is bursting with promotional services, marketing companies, publicity gurus, and book promotion self-help advice from authors who’ve been there, done that. Options range from staggeringly expensive (a good publicist can run you five figures) and rapaciously overpriced (AuthorHouse’s Trifecta Review Service charges $3,000 for a set of reviews that would cost you around $1,200 if you purchased them separately yourself), to free (social media); and from helpful (the growing army of book bloggers), to dubiously effective (press releases, to which no one paid much attention even before the book market became so crowded, and vanity radio, which is likely to reach only a tiny audience), to simply absurd (such as Outskirts Press’s Celebrity Endorsement Option, where you pay $109 to obtain contact information for 5 celebrities of your choosing, who will then ignore you).

Then there’s the old standby, the email campaign. There’s any number of email blast companies online, and many self-publishing companies also sell email services–for instance, Xlibris’s email marketing campaigns, which range from $349 for a multi-author campaign and 200,000 addresses, to a jaw-dropping $9,996 for a “personalized” campaign and 10,000,000 addresses.

Targeted email blasts can be a useful publicity tool–as long as they really are targeted. For example, see author Michelle Dunn’s tips for a successful email blast, which involves a list of addresses she built herself.

But most of the email campaign services you’re likely to encounter are not targeted, despite what they may promise. (Common sense should tell you this in some cases–if the service promises to blast an email to 1,000 book reviewers, it’s highly unlikely that there are anywhere near that many who’ll be appropriate for any given book, since most reviewers specialize in particular genres or areas of interest.) Chances are that the addresses have simply been harvested from the internet–perhaps with some rudimentary filter, like “book reviewers,” perhaps at random. And don’t believe a claim that a service’s mailing list is “opt in” (like this one from notorious “marketing” spammer BookWhirl) and therefore recipients are more likely to pay attention to the service’s promotions. It probably just means that people have been added and haven’t bothered to opt out.

Most email campaign services, in other words, are the equivalent of dropping your book announcement off the top of a building, and hoping it lands in front of someone who might be interested.

Case in point: the promotional email I received this week for a book titled JIHAD’S NEW HEARTLANDS – Why The West Has Failed To Contain Islamic Fundamentalism, published by AuthorHouse (the email was signed by an AuthorHouse “Marketing Advisor”). Even assuming that I paid attention to spammed book announcements (which I don’t), I am a completely inappropriate recipient for this email. There’s nothing whatever in any of my various online profiles or my Internet activity to suggest I have a particular interest in Islamic fundamentalism, or even the Middle East–and if I was being approached as a reviewer, rather than a reader, not only have I not reviewed in several years, but when I did review, I specialized in speculative fiction. Nor have I ever opted in to any commercial email lists–so if AuthorHouse sold this service to the author as an opt-in email campaign, they exaggerated just a tad.

So, writer beware: if you buy an email campaign, it’s very likely that the emails will be going not to a selective list of individuals who are willing to receive commercial messages, but mainly to people like me, who have absolutely no interest in your book, and even less in being spammed (that is, if we even see the email before our spam filters dispatch it to oblivion). In other words, not a very good use of your marketing dollar.


  1. This is an organization of STUPIDS, not a healthy marketing strategy. I believe Victoria has her own Publishing Company that needs attention from stupid authors.

  2. It is hard at first to resist the urge to spam one's friends. I have found goodreads to be a good place to have conversations with others who like books and participating in those conversations slowly builds a little name recognition. And no, I don't end every comment, or any comment with "Buy ROOM FOUR, it's the CATCH 22 of medicine" even though I want to. Instead I drive around with it blazened on my car, well, thinking about trying that.

  3. Very insightful information and some good points were raised by many. Personally, I like to believe that if the content is good ultimately people will read and create a buzz about the book. Targeted e-mails to industry experts asking for them to review in exchange for a copy is always a good bet as well. Social media sites are sometimes interesting to generate a buzz but not terrific to generate revenues. Affiliate marketing might be an interestring option but there are often problems getting paid by processor, as well as many scam companies. Like most of you I am struggling to crack the nut as well!

  4. Has anyone every actually tried it, instead of talking about how bad it is?….I'm wondering about the guy that said it is a numbers game….My name is Vince Stead, and I have a bunch of books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble…..I just finished a seminar on how you make your book a best seller, plan all your advertising for the big day, pick a day when all your ads and campaigns say to buy your book… you sell enough books that day…it could make the best sellers list, even if it is for only a few hours, then back down, you get to keep that title for life!……So it does not matter if you have the best content (of course that helps) but things like that I learn…..just makes me wonder what other tricks publishing companies try to get stuff in their favor?

  5. Thanks so much for this post. As a new author I find it is very easy to make mistakes in the rush to get the word out about your books. I'd seen several ads selling email lists and was considering it. But this article has changed my mind about acquiring an email list that is vast in quantity and small in quality (people interested in your genre).

  6. Successful email marketing isn't about targeting. It's about broadcasting, and taking advantage of the reality that some small percentage of recipients will respond positively.

    At least one "opt-in" service offers to send a member's message to 3,100,000 recipients daily for a flat one-time membership fee of $34.95. With a response rate of 0.0001% (one in a million) I'd be selling about 93 books per month. Ninety-three of my most recently published novel would get me about $292 per month.

    I'm not recommending anything, just pointing out that the success of email advertising is a function of response rate, which is likely to be very small, but not zero.

    A smallish campaign with a homemade list would not be likely to yield much of a result. To achieve anything worthwhile, a much more aggressive effort is needed. Then, the age-old value analysis applies: projected earnings = margin on total projected sales – cost of campaign.

  7. What Bob Mayer said! Seriously, in today's world of social media, I think that if you just jump into the pool, make friends and do some smart branding that you will find the people you need.

    Just my $0.02…

    Great blog!

  8. The best marketing is strong content- a good book– and then more strong content– more good books.

    Building a social media presence is key, but it's a presence, not solely a marketing tool. Become known for something.

    I believe most of these 'services' do nothing more than line the pockets of those who provide them.

  9. My co-author happens to have an email list as part of an e-commerce website. It's comprised of people who bought items off the website and opted for a newsletter. It's mainly to promote the website, but he plugs the book in it too (which is closely related to what the website sells). I can track when he's sent out the letters in the Amazon sales ranks.

    A well targeted email campaign can definitely get results. But if those emails were going out at random, I doubt they'd have the same results at all.

  10. You've made a very solid argument against email campaigns (not that I was considering a spam-war), but I would like very much to hear about the rest of what you mentioned. I have a Facebook account and page for my author persona, and recently (yesterday) opened and began using a Twitter account for him, as well. I want to hear about the other methods you mentioned.

  11. I would never send out an email blast without having the recipients' permission. This is just unethical and very unprofessional. We all hate it when we get any type of spam, this is no different.

    Kristy Taylor

  12. I don't think there's anything that comes in through email to which I react, anymore. Well, emails from friends, I suppose. Though even those become awfully bothersome…

  13. Thanks for the information. Self-published four books and I can tell you that there are dozens of book clubs and bloggers who will give you a book review in exchange for a free book. You just have to contact them with a query.

    What makes for effective marketing? targeting e-mails towards people who specifically want your type of book. That's going to mean doing research and networking, not paying for a list of….just about anyone. When a publisher targets readers for reviews and sales, they're more likely to get a positive response. For my books I targeted African-American book clubs and bookstores and most cases I got requests for the book and reviews.

    When I promote, I use sites like and and twitter and Facebook and even my college alumni association to get the word out about my titles. None of this costs me any money.

    Over the past four years I've just paid for postage and the cost of the printed book when I sent a title out for review. And I've gotten quite a few book reviews for three of my titles.

    From my experience I've learned book reviews, book fairs and e-mails aren't what sell books. The best promotional tool is a well-written book. Word-of-mouth is what sells books among readers, and it's what's going to lead to sales long-term.

  14. I feel one of my strengths has been in the area of marketing (both for my husband Michael J. Sullivan, and other authors from Ridan Publishing like Marshall Thomas (who sold 17,000 books (six-titles) in May and is on track for 20,000 in June), and Nathan Lowell whose new book, Full Share has been out for less than one month and sold 6,500 books.

    I do use email, but it is from a list that has built from readers who have asked to be informed when new titles are released. Each writer should stay in touch with their fan base but spamming lists from unknown sources will, in my opinion, produce very little.

    Robin Sullivan | Write2Publish | Ridan Publishing

  15. mmshaunakelley pointed out something important which you should all not miss: a real marketer (as opposed to a scammer or a publicist granting itself additional titles) will give you control over the targeting, actual numbers on the demographics, and a set of analytics. If you don't get that, you're being had, one way or another (either by someone who doesn't know the biz or by someone who is a deliberate scammer). And if you don't know how to read/process/think about demographics and analytics, it's not a difficult subject and there's plenty of good free info on the net and good cheap info in books. Don't go 'round ignorant; that's an expensive thing to do.

  16. Marvelous information!

    I think part of what makes these people prey on the unsuspecting writer is the fact that so many are jumping into the writing pool feet first.

    I remember a time when short stories broke the writer into the field, then they expanded to books. They had built their audience through their early writings. Perhaps the publishing industry needs to find a way to encourage this format again? Build your audience because when you do, the buzz for your book will be better

  17. VERY helpful post. Thank you so much. I've heard about these and wondered how they work. I'm grateful for your explanation. Wow! There are always going to be people who try to make a buck off of unwitting and anxious persons needing something.

  18. As a writer of niche non-fiction (genealogy and history of Florida's Spanish colonial periods and lineages), I have found that my best tools are:

    1. My publisher, which does a fair bit of promotion for me, and take care of getting my books reviewed. This is a cooperative relationship, as they have their list of reviewers generally, and they also ask me for ideas for specific subject-matter reviewers to whom they can send a review copy.

    2. My speaking engagements, where I can mention my book and my current work-in-progress, and answer any questions. Also this is where I show off my knowledge base in the content of my talks

    3. Other word-of-mouth from professional genealogists, such as one in Florida who told me he urged every library he visited to buy my book on the Florida censuses.

    4. Membership in a subject-matter-related society. People in the genealogical society to which I belong have done a lot of word-of-mouth publicity for me!

    I would never go to one of these e-mail-campaign companies. The last thing in the world I want to do is be involved with spamming anyone.

  19. Once again, you've made a very useful post. I'm a self-pubbed author on Kindle and other ereaders (after years of publishing here in Italy with publishers – the traditional way)and I've been wondering how effective any book marketing method reallyis…

    I know that if I get an email or a tweet blasted at me about a book, I tend to react negatively. And I have yet to download a book that got to me that way.

    Readers buzz and critiques from bona fidae reviewers are (as far as I'm concerned) the best way to go…

    But how do you find bona fidae reviewers? The field seems vast, and I don't know which way to turn. Any advice?

  20. There seems to be almost a panic among writers, particularly self-published writers, about publicity. I admit that visibility might gain some initial sales of the 'everybody talks about it, I'll sample the product' type, but my advice to writers wishing to build a career: *learn to write well*. You don't just need me to pick up the book or buy it: you want people to feel excited about your next book and to reccommend your books to all their friends.

    I've put one book on my 'to buy' list because the author tweeted a profound and funny joke about parenting, and I'm checking out an unknown midlister's YA because the author wrote a very honest blogpost about the joys and fears of a midlist author – she jumped *off* the self-promotion bandwagon and risked losing readers, and I admire that.

  21. OK, that's IT. I am hereby declaring myself a publicist. I had NO IDEA they made that much money.
    Seriously, I'm going to do this.
    Right now.

  22. Now you have to wonder if somewhere out there, some guy isn't drawing up a "Phase Two" email blast with "As featured on Writer Beware" included.

  23. I disagree a bit with some of these comments. Yes, you can have good publicity for cheap, but there is value in advertising, exhibit displays, and all of these services you get with a big publisher. As a writer, trust me, I would LOVE to have some of these options…

    As a marketer, my advice on email campaigns is this– if you're paying for an email deployment, you should get to select your lists (providing specific demographics), AND get analytics back following the test. If you don't have these options, its likely not a good fit for you.

  24. I mean very cheap as in a few dollars, not a few hundred or thousand dollars, or one hundred dollars. It doesn't cost much to print little press releases for your local indie bookstore or something. Or just use social media, which is free. I personally would use social media. Just don't spam people, if you do that, they probably won't even glance at the book.

  25. Having written email ads for money — though not for books — and done email targeting — again, not for books — and having received much bookspam, I can attest that most people trying to sell their books through that channel really, really need to learn some basics. Luckily, all that means is maybe reading a couple decent books on modern copywriting, and there are a dozen good sources on email list management.

    No way on Earth it will be worth it to pay to have it done unless you're in some field a lot more significant than spec fic. At a guess, just based on what I've done, I'd say a fully-pro email op would pay for itself if it increased sales of a legacy publisher hb by 5,000 copies, and email campaigns MIGHT be able to give you a 2000 copy boost if you're a long-established writer with a really good list. Well worth it if you can do it yourself, worth learning, but don't pay for it!

  26. Plus, you can just go to a website like Midwest Book Review, and chances are you can send them a copy to be reviewed for free.

  27. ROFL, that is hilarious! A book email about a fear mongering subject, haha. They obviously don't know what genre you write. 🙂

    As for publicity, the best publicity is free publicity or very cheap publicity. You shouldn't have to pay much at all.

  28. It is surely far better to be aware of the various message boards and lists to do with your subject area (if you are not already on them) and to target your emails to them, plus organisations and journals that specialise in your area to send review copies, but be discriminating!

  29. Thanks so much for this! We get so much conflicting information. I keep hearing about how important it is to have a professional email campaign and how it's the best use of your publicity money.

    But here you've said it: "Most email campaign services…are the equivalent of dropping your book announcement off the top of a building, and hoping it lands in front of someone who might be interested."

    Will RT.

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