Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Value of Publicity

I'm J.A. Konrath.

People consider me to be one of the mouthpieces of the self-publishing movement. As such, I often get interviewed. I've been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, the Washington Post, Forbes, Newsweek, USA Today, etc.

You'd think all of this publicity has led to increased sales of my ebooks.

You'd think wrong.

I'm obsessive about numbers, as anyone who reads this blog can tell you. So when I appear in some major periodical, I watch my Kindle numbers, looking for the big spike.

I never see a big spike. In fact, I hardly ever see a small spike.

Huh? WTF? Does that make sense? We all know that publicity leads to sales, right?


I'm getting a name for myself in the self-publishing world. I get millions of hits a year on this blog. When people discuss self-pubbing, my name often comes up.

But the people who visit this blog, and discuss my self-publishing efforts, are writers.

Writers aren't buying my fiction. They aren't buying my non-fiction either--I have an ebook called "A Newbie's Guide to Publishing" and it is among my lowest-selling titles.

The people who buy me are readers, and the vast majority have never heard of me. Readers find me on Amazon, because Amazon has made it easy for my books to be discovered.

Don't believe me? Try to argue with these points.

1. I don't see any noticeable sales boosts when I'm mentioned in some major periodical. The best media attention I ever received didn't account for more than a few hundred extra sales. I've sold almost 700,000 ebooks. A few hundred doesn't mean diddly.

2. When my sales spike on Amazon, they don't spike on other platforms. If I were famous, I would be famous across the board, not to a specific format.

3. The List has been in the Kindle Top 100 four different times in three years. Each time was because of my personal efforts, usually playing with cost or doing some active promotion. Nothing has ever "taken off" simply because I'm famous.

4. When Amazon made Stirred a Kindle Daily Deal, it hit #1. They've done that with dozens of authors, many of them fresh-faced newbies. It was better than anything I've been able to do on my own, even though I have some name-recognition.

5. I get a lot of fanmail. Most is from people discovered who me on Kindle. Some is from authors asking my advice. But I almost never get email from an author asking my advice who says, "I bought all your ebooks." Seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? If you want me to help you, the least you could do is buy some of my books.

6. Look at my Amazon reviews. I've got thousands. Count how few say, "I began reading Joe's books because of his outspoken views about self-publishing."

7. Dozens of other Kindle authors are having similar success to mine without any of the fame I have. There are also several other writers who prominently support self-publishing and are quoted a lot, but they don't have sales equal to mine. So I'm the one selling because of my name, but no one else is?

8. I have a good friend who is currently hosting a terrific TV show. He's also a terrific fiction writer. But despite being nationally syndicated, his book sales are modest. Fame in one area doesn't always translate to fame in another.

Here's the deal: Readers are my customers, not writers. Readers don't even know who the Big 6 are. They don't care.

I'm mentioned a lot in the publishing community, which is small, closed, and uninteresting to anyone who isn't in it. But because we're in it, and we care about it, we incorrectly assume that because writers know who I am, readers must as well.

The majority of my sales don't come from people hearing about my self-pub exploits. Nor do they come from my midlist legacy titles, which sold modestly.

In other words, my fame and my past have little to do with my current success.

The majority of my sales come from Amazon and my ability to use the tools they provide. So far I've played my cards right. I write fun books with good covers and sell them cheap, I have a lot of virtual shelf space, and readers like my writing.

Sure, I have longtime fans. And sure, some writers buy my ebooks to show support, or as a way to thank me for my advice.

But I didn't make $140k in the last 30 days because of thankful writers, old fans, or a mention in the Guardian. I made it because I positioned my titles properly. There were a whole bunch of new Kindles sold this holiday season, just as there were in 2010 and 2009. I was expecting this to happen, though admittedly not in such a big way.

What does this mean to you, the writer trying to succeed?

1. Don't sweat publicity. It can't hurt, but I don't think it will drive your sales unless the publicity is really huge. And even then, the publicity is only responsible for temporary sales, not long term sales.

2. Focus, as always, on writing good books and presenting them in a professional way. The more, the better.

3. Social media and word of mouth are helpful, but you have to reach a lot of people before these become a factor. Less tweeting, more writing.

4. Reviews don't have the gravitas they used to. Certain ebook review sites can help sales, but even better is giving away free books to fans in exchange for an honest review.

5. Study Amazon and how it sells ebooks. Experiment. Take chances. If one of Amazon's imprints offers to publish you, accept. Right now they are the only publisher who can increase your sales.

6. Avoid all legacy publishers. You can do everything they can, faster, and you don't have to give away the majority of your income.

Now I'm a genre writer. I don't have experience with YA, children's, non-fiction, poetry, or those long-winded books where plot is optional (literary fiction). But if ereaders are going to become the preferred way of reading (hint: they are) then eventually all books will make the transition to ebooks. I wish I could go back in time three years and erase all of those legacy publisher contracts I signed, so I'd have the rights now. You don't want to sign your rights away now, and in three years be kicking yourself like I am.

7. Don't give up. It can take years before you get to where you want to be. Luck plays a part. Stick with it until you get lucky.

And feel free to tweet this. It won't help me sell many ebooks, but it could help your peers.