OK, But Seriously, Book Promotion

How do you actually promote a book effectively?

Recently, I wrote a piece lamenting the soul-sucking sensation of self-promotion. I feel like that’s not terribly helpful, however, unless I can bring some actual, useful advice for the would-be self-promoter.

First, let’s be clear about expectations: this advice will be for those trying to promote their own books when they don’t already have a large following. I am, for instance, much more successful at marketing myself in terms of my software development skills–I have to turn down recruiters all the time! If only I had a fraction of that success with my books, right?

I’ll be honest and tell you I don’t have all the answers. Probably not even most of them! What helps is to understand the landscape we’re looking at.

There isn’t really a monolithic world of fiction books out there. Every type of book, every genre and subgenre, has its own social networks, circles, and elites. The tastemakers for military science fiction novels are completely different people from those who decide what new post-apocalyptic young adult novel is hot. Finding out who those people are for your particular genre is essential. These will be book bloggers, people who talk about books on Twitter, who are avid Goodreads users, and so on. This is a case where the most helpful thing is to simply listen. Put your ear to the ground and find out what people in your genre are talking about. Also find out who they are talking about, and then who is doing the talking.

If you can get someone with a large following to mention your book (and especially, to post a link to where it can be purchased), you’ve done more than any dollar amount of advertising ever could. It’s exactly why major brands get celebrities to show themselves using products in Instagram photos. These are people who sent trends, and them using a product means lots of others will follow.

It may work a little differently with books, but the basic idea is sound: the more people hear about something, the more inclined they are to check it out. Like it or not, people tend to be followers–they don’t want to take a risk on something that isn’t already popular. Their time is valuable, and who wants to blow it on a bad book, movie, or album?

Something that I have found to be a big help is getting a few really devoted people in your corner–friends and family members. People who have read your writing and are willing to talk it up to their colleagues and friends. It’s important that this not be artificial. They need to do it because they genuinely like what you’ve done and want to share it! Personal testimonials like this are really compelling.

Likewise, giving copies of your book to “influencers” can help a lot, too. Again, the idea is not to get yourself empty, vacuous promotion, but to have someone become passionate about what you’ve written such that they are compelled to tell others about it.

Something my publisher, Moirae Pubs, has excelled at is selling books at conventions. A major component of this is simply having a human being put a book in your hand and talk to you about it. I, myself, have been on the other end of this. I once ran into prolific author CJ Henderson at a tabletop gaming convention, and what he did wasn’t give me a sales pitch–we had a conversation. He asked me what kinds of books I liked to read, and I told him. He pointed out several books he’d either written or edited, all of which were laid out on his nicely-setup table. He told me about each one, with enough care and detail that he clearly believed in them, and he wanted others to enjoy them. You better believe I bought some books! I don’t think he was being cynical, either. Everyone I’ve talked to about him had nothing but warm things to say. He passed away a few years ago, sadly, but everyone who had a run-in with him could talk endlessly about what a kind and personable fellow he was. His actual writing is quite good (and popular), too, but it really says something that what comes to mind for everybody is what a charming and friendly individual he was. Ultimately, that’s what we should all aspire to–not to be impersonal writers, but to just be people who like sharing what we’ve written.

I can also tell you what doesn’t work. There are marketers on gig sites like Fiverr who claim they can promote your book and draw Facebook likes, Amazon clicks, and so on. The truth is that these are of very limited effectiveness. With Facebook likes, you can’t be sure the accounts in question belong to real people–they can just as well be bot/sockpuppet accounts. Likewise, someone clicking your Amazon link doesn’t mean it results in a sale. If a marketer claims to have hundreds of thousands of followers, well, it doesn’t mean much if they are almost all bots, does it?

I dropped a few dollars on one such service, just to try it out. They did put up the social media posts and so forth that they said they would. These posts received essentially zero interaction, and from what I can tell they did not produce a single sale.

You know what has produced sales for me? Just talking directly to people, and my publisher talking up Totality at conventions, where they are selling physical copies.

Bottom line, unless you can get a social media influencer with a following of live human beings to talk about your book, your best bet is to talk about it in person, one human being at a time. You can look up dozens of sites for book discussion and promotion and tell everybody about your book on those, but if you just drop in and promote yourself, at best you will be ignored and at worst you will get banned. The theme here is that relationships matter most. Part of making sales is building trust, and the essence of building trust is just acting like a regular person who only so happens to also be selling a book.

I realize none of this sounds easy. That’s really the point: selling books is hard. If it was easy, everyone would have a bestseller, wouldn’t they? You have to build relationships to build momentum, and that momentum is what gets people buying your books. That momentum is made of true joy and passion about what you have created–and it’s simply not something you can buy. You can only cultivate it by presenting yourself as someone people want to get to know, someone who is worth knowing.

I admit that this is pretty hard for me to do, and I am still working on it, but I definitely get the theory.

Best of luck to all you self-promoters out there!