If You Build It, They Don’t Necessarily Come: The Heaven and Hell of Marketing a Book
Warning: this post is long and all about publishing. Possibly boring, do not feel bad if you skip or bail.
I have this thing I do where I troll online booksellers, the NYT list, the USA Today list, and every goddamn list there is out there to follow. I watch Bookscan (nearly useless for me since it’s print books and the majority of my sales are electronic and they don’t go there). Basically I read every tea leaf I can, doing everything in my power to distill the mist surrounding sales in book publishing. I hold the lists against events I do and try to decide if that step up on Amazon was because of that great ink I got, or I wonder why the hell the day I got great ink I fell. I watch the progress of my peers’ books and the people I wish were my peers. I absorb it all, drinking input like water.
Then I go back and look at my sales, compare it to everything I just learned, and every single time I say the same thing.
I have no idea how/why any of it happens, and though I wish it were otherwise, I don’t think anybody knows.
That is basically the whole point of this post. Everything beyond this will be me illustrating my firm belief there is nothing you can do to guarantee anything, no magic bullet, no marketing plan, no nothing that replaces the crazy-making cocktail of hard work and dumb luck. I totally understand if you’re not ready to go there, if you’re clinging to your Amazon top 100 or your NYT reports or that marketing scheme you just paid $9.99 for in ebook. Whatever security blanket you need to get yourself through the hell, I am totally down with. TOTALLY. Down. So long as it makes you happy not miserable, evens you out, not insane, you go girl.
For the rest of us? The cynics, the ones whose blankets are full of holes and our heads full of stats and numbers? Come on in. The bitter brew is lukewarm, and I’ve got a cauldron full.
First, however, we’re going to have some disclaimers.
- This post is not in response to any particular event, scandal, accusations, fear-mongering or reported ponzi scheme. There was a sockpuppet accusation yesterday, I know. And today. And one last week, and four the week before that. Somebody posted ANOTHER review-buying site on that yahoo group, and everyone is all ragey over it. Somebody else over on Goodreads or somewhere else got caught with eight accounts and a weird raft of cousins getting paid for positive reviews with bales of chocolate. It’s AWFUL, I totally get it. But this isn’t about that. It’s mostly that I’m at the end drafting a hard book and I gossiped with a few people about three different scandals in the past week and I feel like blogging about this because it’s the nexus point of all the outrage. Also apparently I don’t want to write today.
- I gots a lot of smarts, but I don’t know everything. Whenever someone says, “I don’t know why you’d join/subscribe to [insert organization, magazine, publishing service/hub here],” I don’t even know where to start talking about the WTFH. You join and follow and read and absorb so you learn and know. Basically the root of this issue is that nobody fucking knows, and if they do they won’t tell, so why wouldn’t you want to learn more about everything? Never, ever rely on one source for your intel. Never wrap yourself in a genre bubble or think tank bubble or any bubbles at all. Have your safe space, yeah, but put on your armor and go out and scope other things out on occasion. So if I blow your mind here and all this stuff is brand new, go out and get educated.
- I have been at this awhile and I am sometimes tired and jaded. I’ve been writing since I was 12, been aggressively trying to get published since 1997. I have been to the mountain top and under it and around it and I know the sewer system and all the bad wiring and all the good food halls. So not only should you not take my knowledge at face value without weighing it against your own, bear in mind there are moments what I know weighs me down. There’s a reason seasoned authors like to mentor, and it’s because after awhile seasoning gets heavy and you get tough and gamey. A true teacher knows the student gives back more than she dishes out.
- I’ve been at this awhile, but not that long, either. I’m kind of middle-aged as far as experience goes. Yeah, I’ve got a pile of work out, and yes, publishing moves fast these days, but really fifteen years in this current chaos isn’t worth a lot. I feel like I’ve done this long enough to know I really don’t know jack. Which is actually a pretty important spot to sit at.
- Whatever part of the publishing pond you know me from, I also sit in seven or eight others. I’m an author of gay romance published at several indie/smaller press publishers, but I know a lot of people from across the industry. So when I talk about being midlist, I’m talking about the entirety of the publishing world. In epub, I do pretty damn well. Romance always does better overall than other genres, but I know people across a lot of genres. I know a lot of people. So when I tell stories, in this post and elsewhere, if you try to read my tea leaves and think you know what I’m talking about? You’re very, very probably wrong.
Okay, that was a lot of disclaimer. Enough of that. Let’s get dirty.
Amazon is really important, but its lists are a crazy-making pile of nonsense. If you’ve ever received a royalty statement, you know that whatever you might feel about Amazon personally, it sure pays you a lot of money. Especially if you make your money in indie/small press, Amazon is where you take home your cash. Amazon feels like the most important thing in your life as an author, and it really is in a lot of respects. There’s a lot to talk about regarding the power Amazon has cornered and what might happen if their power extinguishes all its competition, laughable as the competition is.
And yet, grasshopper, those lists mean next to nothing.
Oh, I know. Amazon bestseller, YAY! To start, read this. Read this, and then only talk to me about your amazing bestseller if you’re in the top 100, and yet even then, as evidenced by that post? Don’t go buy that new car just yet. If you’re the bestseller on the paranormal romance chart, if you’re the bestseller in romantic suspense, LGBT fiction/romance/however gayrom is filtered today, congrats. It really is a good deal! You will not be a millionaire. You will not be a hundred-thousand-aire. Not from that one book, not from that one day. Maybe if you’re self-pubbed and you managed to have no overhead. Maybe if you sit there for a week. Maybe. If you hit bestseller in “romance.” (Good luck.) If you hit the top 100–and if this week the top 100 means something really big time.
Because we all forget when our book is sitting pretty that the number behind our book is not a sales number, it is a place indicating where we are next to other sales. Nowhere does Amazon say, “The number one book on Amazon has made 3000 sales this hour.” There is no number to measure anything. Even if we knew the number one book sold 3000 units in one hour, the number two might have sold 2999 or 1500 or 5. And we don’t know exactly that it’s all sales, that number. We don’t know what the formula is. Nobody does.
Do not trust people who say they do. Google “be an amazon bestseller” and you’ll get eight million people who will tell you they can make you one. Then run away fast. This is not a marketing path. This is a bad road that will end in tears.
Also a problem is that while Amazon is the biggest retailer of books, but they are not THE retailer. If your publisher sells directly and does preorders and incentive buys, they will bleed your amazon numbers. If you or your publisher make a push at another retailer, such as ARe, that will bleed your amazon numbers. If you do a preorder, that will bleed your first day sales.
If you are traditionally published, you and your publisher have access to some harder numbers, but again, not ebooks, which are getting close to being half of the trad pub market. If you’re in print and ebook and your print is significant, your amazon numbers will look different and even your Bookscan numbers aren’t a sure thing because one, you don’t know what someone else’s are, and again, no ebooks.
If you don’t have numbers from your publisher, if you don’t have sales figures from somewhere in real time, your amazon rank and any rank mean almost nothing. It still counts that if you hit the USA Today and NYT you’re doing pretty well. Not as well as it used to mean. Not the same as it used to mean. Beyond that? “Bestseller” is a moniker almost anyone can get in ten minutes, and those numbers are rarely, rarely six figures. Not unless it’s sustained. Living on a list for a long time? That’s good. That’s really good.
But at the end of the day, this is what I know. I’ve hit lists at number one and peaked at three, and at the end of the day those books did the same. It feels so awesome to hit number one. But only you and your royalty statement know what that means. If you want to compare across the board, the only place I know that gives anything hard is Show Me The Money, and she says right up front this is not scientific or even close. It sucks, but there it is.
Reviews are great, but they are not some kind of holy grail that will move the needle in a reliable way.
I know, there are the theories of what amount of reader reviews posted on Amazon correlate to sales. These might be true, but I would never bank on them, because unless this comes from a statement from Amazon, it’s not a sure thing, and you should not build your career on it. The truth is, some authors have a very social, active presence, and this garners them a lot of attention–and that might be a lot of sales too. What you can’t do is assume that because your readers are kind of quiet but someone else’s are vocal that they correlate, and therefore the other person is driving in gold-plated vehicles. Some readers are just not vocal, or not with you.
My readers are not terribly chatty with me. I get told I’m intimidating. I get told a lot that people see me at cons and can’t come up to me. I work like hell to seem approachable, but honestly there’s only so much of that I can control. I am pretty loud and pushy. I’m very tall, and I’m aggressive, especially when I’m nervous, which I always am at cons. When I’m at a convention or retreat or even a small gathering that has to do with me as an author, I’m laser-focused on the fact that I am there selling my work and my brand. I bet that looks freaky, so I don’t blame people if they just want to watch from a distance.
Some people are not that. Some people have posses and herds and crowdsources. I myself was a founding member of Jennifer Crusie’s “cherries.” I get it–that stuff is fun. It’s exhausting, though, and I could never maintain it. Some authors thrive on it, and they can work it.
Those people? The posse people? They’re going to have more reviews. They’re going to look louder online and at cons. They do not necessarily make a million sales.
This is not to say crowdsourcing and ground teams and street teams and whatevers are worthless or shouldn’t be done. This is to say you should only go that route if you feel like it, if it works for you and your brand. Which brings us to a point so important it should be its own header.
Never do anything in marketing you aren’t comfortable doing, no matter how much you think you should push through anyway. There are no surefire strategies, and doing most of them badly will harm you more than not doing them at all.
There are things everyone tells us to do, strategies we’re told are the way, and yet if you feel uncomfortable, don’t. This is not to say you shouldn’t work on getting confident in those areas. Don’t do Facebook if it makes you nervous. Don’t tweet if it gives you a headache. Don’t blog if you can’t keep your focus or figure out your schtick.
At the same time, always push yourself to do more, learn more, market more. Just take your time. Example: If you’re working a con booth, don’t sit behind the table and hope people stop. But by all means, sit there if you feel awkward standing out front and hawking. My first public event was with Marie Sexton (the weekend I met her) at a Pride booth in Des Moines. Her friend came along and berated us for sitting behind the table. She was right…except she was wrong. We were both kind of overwhelmed, and really, that first night was hard to read. Were I to go back now, I would know how to work an evening street party crowd, but that day I didn’t. We sat like lumps. We did not sell.
The next day, the crowd was different, and we had our feet. We sold pretty well and made good networking connections. I don’t kick myself for sitting the first night, and I didn’t then–I would have sucked. I would have become the awkward person at the book booth, and word would have spread to avoid us. That’s bad.
I have friends who have navigated social media and decided it’s not for them. I know people still working it out. I know people who use complicated filters to be able to function in public. I know people who do the social dance like it’s a goddamned ballet. None of these ways are wrong. The only wrong things are the people who are doing things they’re not comfortable with because they believe they have to do them.
Great ink and radio and TV do not turn you into a millionaire. Plum spots of any kind are good for noise and nothing else.
Great exposure does nothing but add to your noise. Noise is GREAT. Noise is important, but noise is not sales. Honey, I’ve been interviewed by Canada’s biggest newspaper. I know people who have been on radio and TV. I’ve had some incredibly killer professional reviews. I know people with better. At best each of these things maybe gave a bump. Nothing was discernible.
Everyone famous, everyone big was made slowly and by mountains and mountains of work. E.L. James didn’t just send out her novel and watch it bloom from her veranda. J.K. Rowling didn’t have a crack-marketing team either, not at first. Authors whose first books have lightning strike success nearly always experience a huge crash with subsequent books, unless they continue a series, and even then almost always book one is the biggest. When that flash in the pan happens for a first book it can be devastating. It can and has killed careers. It messes up an author’s head like little else. It is this horrible elephant in the room for the rest of one’s career, this beautiful terrible thing one is always trying to live up to.
Some of the people haunting you on that list might have bought reviews, some might be hacks, some might be better than you, but none of them matter and you should stop looking at them and paying attention, but you will anyway, so get something to drink and do yoga.
Unless you are a nun, you have looked at those lists I said don’t mean anything, and you’ve said some version of how the fuck did they get there? New authors, authors you read the sample chapter of and gagged, people with one star reviews and nothing else…what the actual hell? That can’t be real can it? They had to have bought reviews. They’ve gamed the system, the bastards. They’re total hacks. Who’s reading that shit? Jesus H, you worked so hard, you know you have the sales, you know there’s no way they can…Seriously, where did they come from? God, that bio is so fake, how can anyone not notice? Is everyone drunk? Is this some kind of a joke? You’ve been there. You know you’ve been there. You have ranted to your spouse, your writing partner, your dog. You’ve cried, even though you said you wouldn’t.
This one is so hard, because we hate the answer. First: we know none of this stuff we “know.” As discussed, we have no figures. We have no facts, and we won’t have them. If you’re lucky, a few friends will disclose hard numbers. You might hear some rumors. You can’t bank on any of that unless you have their statements, of course, but maybe you have something. You don’t have everything, though. It sucks, it makes you crazy, but there it is. You don’t know.
This fact is harder: sometimes people like the “bad” books better. I got really ranty about this awhile back, but to sum up: there’s no barometer that equates “good” books to good sales, and if you get in a public snit about how your art sells worse than your tossed-off romps, you’re an idiot.
TRUTH: Sometimes people like potato chips. Sometimes I like potato chips. Call it guilty pleasure, call it trash, whatever–sometimes we don’t want to think. I will tell you this: Love Lessons made me bleed while writing. Let It Snow made me laugh. I would put down hard money they do the same in reading. I do not think less of you if you are too weary to read emo college boys and reach for a snowy, simple romp instead. I’m writing the sequels to both those books right now, and Fever Pitch (Love Lessons #2) is killing me dead every day and making me so stressed I forget to eat, whereas Sleigh Ride (Minnesota Snow #2) is witty rejoinders and sexytimes and stupid jokes and easy setups and it is saving my goddamned life. It ain’t complicated, and that’s why I love it so much.
It’s okay to read books that aren’t complicated. It’s okay to see someone’s review that says, “This book is very boring and simple” and go “Thank god, I’m buying it right now.” Someone read an ARC of Let It Snow and emailed me overflowing with gratitude for keeping her sane during a dark moment. Let’s be clear that I did this with three bears snowed in with a hairstylist. In fact my Publisher’s Weekly review of that book dinged me a bit by saying “it’s almost a little heavy.” It’s not heavy–it’s just not quite as totally fluffy as it could be.
Fluff is okay. Potato chips are tasty. Potato chips and fluff and “bad books” are gonna beat the ever-loving pants off you sometimes, and you’re just going to have to suck that shit down.
Because that’s underneath all this: sometimes, yeah, I call shenanigans on “bestsellers.” In my head or with close friends, never in public because I am not a dummy. Thing is, I could very well be wrong. I might be looking at a really good potato chip maker, not a farce. I might be looking at an incredible marketer. I might be looking at something I can’t even begin to understand. I might be looking at dumb luck.
I can’t know. I’ll never know. Neither will you. Drink, smoke, run, do yoga. Whatever you gotta do. This is your bitch to ride, so figure out how you’re going to do it. Just don’t do it in public because it ain’t ever gonna do you any favors.
Exception: bloggers can do this. Book bloggers who are not authors or who are more book blogger than author can ride this bitch any way they want. They own the tiger they climb on, but they can stir shit whenever they feel like it and call people out and anything they like. GREAT for hits. GREAT for entertainment. There’s a whole ‘nother post to be written about how vital bloggers are to our community and why you should buy ads on their sites, etc. But that’s not this post. When it comes to calling out controversy? Authors, sit on your hands. Go meta or go long if you address it at all, but you do so at your peril. And it is not going to get you sales.
I have spent nothing on marketing. I have spent thousands. I’ve received great reviews and not so great. I’ve been all over the ink map and I am known in places I didn’t know I’d be known. I have a base of readers. I have a schtick. I have fans and followers. After fifteen years of reading these tea leaves and six of being published, I know where my focus should be, what sells my books better than anything else.
My books. And luck.
There are two factors that sell my books, and the first and biggest is my book itself. I know which subgenre flavors work best for my readers, what they like. I’m starting to learn how to write me some potato chips, at least Heidi-flavored ones, and I’m kind of psyched about them because they’re good for everyone, the readers, my publishers, and me. I’ve learned the length of a book does not correlate to sales…unless it’s novella vs. novel, at least for me. I’ve learned that though I love paranormal and fantasy, either my readers don’t or they don’t like the way I do it, not overall. But mostly I’ve learned that I need to write books, regularly, and well.
The other factor is luck, and it cannot be controlled. You can flirt with it. You can game it. You can hedge your odds, but you cannot make luck happen. You can invite lightning but you cannot make it strike. You can say, “When I write this type of book it seems to do well” and yet you cannot know for sure that book will catch fire until it does. You can write something you think will tank and it can outpace everything. You can write a sure thing and it can drag you under. You can manipulate price points and organize review postings and give away ARCs like candy and get preorders and all kinds of marketing things and in the end the only reason a book will do well is because it was a book people wanted to read en masse and you got lucky because they actually did read and buy it en masse.
You cannot drive that. You cannot. You can try to–you will try, and you’ll learn a lot in that struggle. But you are married to that luck factor. It’s another reason you need to drink or find and outlet. Because it’s not going anywhere.
Your brand is your life, and if you break it, it’s Humpty Dumpty time. Putting yourself back together is gonna be a bitch and a half. And yet, you’re going to have to make mistakes to make your brand.
The only thing you have, the only thing is your brand. Every thing you do and say potentially builds it or kills it. Brands happen faster and shine brighter because of the Internet, and they die faster too. There are a lot of smart posts about logos and presence: not what I’m talking about. Your brand is also everything you do. Every questionable blog post, every rant, every negative and even positive review of your peer’s works is a risk. Every tweet, every Facebook post might be what draw people to you or turn them away.
I have made a ton of mistakes. I’ve reviewed books I wish I hadn’t, positive and negative. I made a mistake a few days ago when I posted to my author FB about something that happened in my hometown, something that made me upset but put me in a political position that might have not been something good for my brand. Whenever I’m political on twitter (which is a lot) I take a risk. A good chunk of my blog posts are probably not great ideas. I am basically a bullet-riddled mess, if you want to take the right angle.
And yet. If I don’t take those risks, I never get out from behind that booth table. Mistakes are part of our journey, our learning, our portrait. Not sometimes, every time. You will make marketing mistakes. You will make brand mistakes. You will get shot down. But you will learn things too, and you’ll find strengths you didn’t know you had. You’ll find a voice and you’ll use it–and you’ll attract your readers because of it.
Your best asset in marketing is yourself, which means you need to figure out who the hell you are. And you cannot be ashamed of whatever you find.
The most insane thing about authors in the current marketplace is that we are, nearly universally, the people who huddled under the bleachers or pushed against the wall or in some way felt pushed outside the norm in our formative years. If we aren’t introverts, we tend to be socially awkward. Even if we’re socially adept, we tend to see weird and run to it, not away. Artists are seldom refined and well-balanced. Add social media and an Internet connection, and result is pretty much what you’re thinking it will be.
We cannot change who we are, but we can get real about what “who we are” means and own it. Yes, in seventh grade they told you that you were a bitch or a loser or a whore or a fag or a dyke or something godawful and it cut you. You are not in seventh grade. You bear those scars, but you are bigger than them, and you can own that shit and make it yours. You can make that your brand. But you can’t be afraid of it. You have to get down to your core and not be afraid those idiots were right and that it’s ugly. You have to see it all and get real with it. You need to know that you cannot go on Twitter or that you must. That you have to blog about that shit even though it’s dangerous or that you cannot. You need to see what you are, the guts and the glory, the warts and the wonderful.
You must never think your books or your readers or your fame or anything will save you but you. You must never think they will define you. You define you. If you can see that, if you can own that? You won’t just be great at marketing your work and doing the dance of social media. You will be one hell of a writer.
And that? That’s the stuff that matters—and coincidentally, the stuff your readers come to see. Go get ’em, tiger. But take a buddy. And stay close to the bar.