Friday, May 12, 2006

Promotion: A Biased Account of Cost vs. Benefit

I had a long chat recently with a friend of mine who shall remain nameless (check out his highly acclaimed John Rain series.)

This friend is extremely savvy when it comes to promotion, and one of his methods is to analyze cost vs. benefit.

Cost can be measured monetarily, or measured by the amount of time something takes, because time=money.

Benefit can be the tangible immediate return on investment (book sales) or an intangible, longer-term benefit, such as building name-recognition, brand awareness, or contacts for use further down the road.

Before marketing, advertising, promoting, or doing any publicity, the writer should figure out if their efforts are truly worth the time and money involved.

This is a sound philosophy. When combined with my personal philosophy of "don't do what doesn't work for you" it turns into a savvy marketing and publicity plan that can be tailored to any writer's budget and availability.

Remember that one of the keys of building name recognition is word-of-mouth. People talking about you is more important than any single thing you or your publisher can do. When promoting, one of your goals should be to encourage world of mouth.

Also remember that momentum is important. After any sort of publicity, promotion, marketing, or advertising, the chance of a sale diminishes as time passes. Out of sight, out of mind. The best promotion has immediate effects; usually a sale.

Here are a few things many writers do, with my comments. Your mileage may vary.

Placing Ads in Newspapers, Magazines, Programs
Monetary Cost: Ranges from free to $50,000 for full page NYT ad.
Time Cost: Variable, depending on if you're creating your own ad.
Benefits: Intangible. No one in the multi-billion advertising world can say for sure that ads work. They do reinforce brand awareness, and announce the arrival of new products. But unless the brand is already established, their effect on consumers is negligible.
Word of Mouth Potential: Small.
Momentum: Small. Going from reading an ad to rushing to a bookstore is unheard of.
Does it work for JA? I have never bought a book after seeing an ad. Because of this, I don't normally buy ads. But if my publisher pays for them, or if I get a good deal from a niche mystery magazine like Crimespree, then the benefits outweigh the cost. I'd personally never pay more than $200 for an ad.
How much to spend: 5% of your promotional budget, 2% of your time.

Going to Writing Conventions and Conferences
Monetary Cost: Ranges from free to $1500 for overseas travel
Time Cost: High. Travel is the second most time-consuming promotion.
Benefits: Intangible and tangible. Networking is important, and meeting fans is essential. If you do well on a panel, you'll sell some books, but you'll never sell enough to cover the expense of the trip. Depending on your marquee value, you may be invited to attend for free, or may even get paid.
Word of Mouth Potential: Medium to high, depending on how hard you push yourself.
Momentum: High. Do well on a panel, you'll have a line of people buying books.
Does it work for JA? I attend a lot of conferences, and whenever I do, a group of authors wind up at the bar openly wondering if it is worthwhile to attend a lot of conferences. The consensus: You should attend some. You can learn a lot, and help build a brand, and meet many key people. But if you're going to 15 cons a year, at $500 each, you might want to spend some of that time and money elsewhere.
How much to spend: 35% of your promotional budget, 25% of your time.

Monetary Cost: Ranges from a penny each up to $20 for T-shirts.
Time Cost: Small to medium, depending on how much of the printing you do yourself.
Benefits: Having something to hand out to audience members during a talk is essential. So is having something on the goody table at cons. These reinforce the brand, but they don't make people rush out in a buying frenzy.
Word of Mouth Potential: Small.
Momentum: Medium. I've seen many people in the dealer room at conferences, holding my coaster or flyer, and buying my book.
Does it work for JA? I give away chapbooks that I make myself (about ten cents each), signed coasters, and occasional flyers. None of these lead directly to sales, but they supplement my appearances by showing customers and fans my book jackets, blurbs, or writing samples. Many fans also keep them.
How much to spend: 5% of your promotional budget, 5% of your time.

Postcards and Letters
Monetary Cost:
Between 35 and 85 cents each to print and send.
Time Cost: Small to medium, depending on how much of the printing and mailing you do yourself.
Benefits: Reinforces brand, alerts customers to new book, sometimes gives author appearance information.
Word of Mouth Potential: None to medium.
Momentum: Medium. A letter can make a librarian or bookseller pick up the phone and order a few copies.
Does it work for JA? I've never bought a book because I received a postcard, so I never send postcards. In fact, I'm frankly staggered at what a bad idea it is sending postcards out. A slick postcard costs 60 cents to print and mail. An author gets 55 cents royalty on a paperback sale. Even if I do buy their book (and I don't) they're still losing money. Why would anyone think this is effective?
But... I do send letters to libraries and bookstores. They're inundated with postcards, but a personally signed note is always welcome, and can lead to sales. Sending to sellers rather than individual customers means your small investment can pay off in large numbers.
How much to spend: 10% of your promotional budget, 10% of your time.

Website and Blog
Monetary Cost: Free to $3000 set-up cost, then about $100 a year.
Time Cost: Small to medium.
Benefits: You must have a website. The bigger, the better. I've gone into this on previous blogs, and on Basically you want a lot of info, a lot of links, and a lot to make it sticky.
Word of Mouth Potential: Medium to High. Being a successful blogger has little direct effect on book sales, but becoming well known is key to branding.
Momentum: Medium. The Internet allows for clicking directly to sales via Amazon and other online retailers. I sell a good number of books this way.
Does it work for JA? Yes. I get lots of hits, lots of feedback, and lots of new fans because of my website and blog. After initial set-up costs, maintenance and updating is minimal in both time and money.
How much to spend: After initial start up costs, 5% of your budget. 10% of your time. If you can be your own webmaster, it will save you a lot of money, but you'll need to invest more time.

Speaking Events (Libraries, Colleges, Book Clubs, Writing Groups)
Monetary Cost: Free or you get paid.
Time Cost: Medium. This is usually an all day time expenditure. Possibly two days if travel is involved.
Benefits: It's important to do these, but it may be a loss leader if you spend three hours on the road to speak to a crowd of four people. Often these events are very good for selling books, and many times you get paid to speak, or compensated for travel expenses.
Word of Mouth Potential: Medium to high, depending on size of audience.
Momentum: Medium to high, depending on how good a speaker you are.
Does it work for JA? Yes. I believe that fans I meet in person are fans for life. I do as many as my schedule allows.
How much to spend: 5% of your budget (for travel.) 15% of your time.

Book Signings and Drive-Bys
Monetary Cost: Medium to high, if you finance your own tour.
Time Cost: Medium to high, depending on how many stories you visit.
Benefits: Meeting the booksellers is one of the most important things you can do in your career. They can handsell your books. They can put you in key display spots without coop. They can keep your books in stock even though they've been told to return them. Meet and schmooze the booksellers.
Word of Mouth potential: Medium to high, depending on how good of an impression you make on the bookseller.
Momentum: Medium to high. Sometimes a bookseller will make a display on the spot, and I often sell books just by stopping in for fifteen minutes.
Does it work for JA? Yes. This is what I spend the most time doing, and it has the most tangible and intangible benefits. While you won't dazzle every bookstore employee you meet, you only need to impress one out of ten, because that one can sell dozens, to hundreds, of books.
How much to spend: 38% of your budget, 30% of your time.

Writing Short Stories and Articles
Monetary cost: Tiny, for postage, and you usually get paid.
Time Cost: I don't count this as marketing time. I count this as writing time.
Benefits: Huge. Getting your stories into magazines, anthologies, and online, is the best form of advertising, bar none. You can reach large audiences, and hook them with your words. This is a key way to establish a name for yourself.
Word of Mouth Potential: Small. While short stories can lead to book sales, they aren't usually gabbed about.
Momentum: Small to medium. Reading a great short story may make a reader seek out an author, but there's a delay between the reading the the book purchase.
Does it work for JA? Yes. I write a lot of stories and articles. Each is like building another road that leads to Rome, or in this case, me. The more roads, the more traffic.
How much to spend: 3% of time and 2% of money, mailing these out. Don't count writing time as promotion time, even though these work as promotion.

Things I Avoid:
  • Paying a Publicist. If you're a fiction writer, I haven't seen any evidence that justifies hiring a publicist. They can get you on the radio, but unless it is NPR or some huge syndicated show, I don't think this is worth paying for. I've done some radio, and haven't seen any effects. And I give good radio. You can set up events yourself without a publicist.
  • Paying for Internet Ads. Banners, pay-per-click programs, Google ad words, search engine submissions, paid search engine rankings, advertising on websites, etc. I don't think this is effective. In fact, I think it annoys people. If you have a good website, people will link to you and find it automatically.
  • Bulk Mailing to Fans. Besides the aforemetnioned postcards, I occasionally get newsletters, and sometimes books, because I belong to organizations like MWA, SinC, and HWA. Authors will buy mailing lists and send their junk mail to everyone on the list. I think this is a big waste of money. I've never bought a book that I heard about through the mail. But mailing free stuff to fans who request it is a great way to spread goodwill and word of mouth. If you're going to send a newsletter, use the Internet. It's a lot cheaper. And most people are annoyed getting something they didn't sign up for.
  • Paying Amazon. Amazon has several programs that can suck money from a writer's pocket. Buy X get Y is one. If You Like X, Here's Y is another. I know authors who have tried this with miserable results. Amazon has a lot of free programs that can help steer people to your books. Amazon Shorts, Amazon Connect, Amazon Lists, Amazon Reviews. Use those instead. And remember that Amazon is a very small piece (less than 5%) of the bookselling pie.
  • Mucho Freebie Crap. I give away signed coasters. My publisher makes these for me, so it is cost effective, and I sign them, which is unique and collectible. But while people seem to enjoy them, coasters don't sell books. Authors who invest big bucks in bookmarks, pens, food products with advertising wrappers, mugs, and clothing with book covers on them, are wasting their money. Have you ever bought a book because you saw the title on a pen? Neither has anyone else. A flyer is much cheaper, and offers much more information that can lead to a sale.
If your promotional budget for a year is $2000 (which really isn't much) here's how you should break it up:

  • $100 on advertising
  • $700 on attending conferences
  • $100 on booksmarks/flyers/give-aways
  • $200 on letters to bookstores and libraries
  • $100 on your website costs
  • $100 on speaking events (For gas. You'll spend much more than this per year, but you'll be compensated for much of it)
  • $760 on booksignings (travel)
  • $40 on postage for queries

If you spend 1000 hours a year on self promotion (which is close to three hours a day, which really isn't enough) here's how to break it up:

  • 20 hours creating and placing ads
  • 250 hours attending conferences
  • 50 hours on bookmarks/flyers/give-aways
  • 100 hours on letters to bookstores and libraries
  • 100 hours on websites and blogs
  • 150 hours on speaking events
  • 300 hours on signings
  • 30 hours sending out short stories and articles

Things get lopsided when you have more time and money to invest in promotion, because certain categories max out at how much you can do. You can never do too many appearances (unless they are all in the same area.) But you can print too many flyers.

Balance is the key. Try different things, figure out what works and what doesn't, and spend your time and money accordingly. Promotion is an organic process that changes and evolves. Some writers don't even believe it is necessary at all. Some writers spend a lot of time and money doing the wrong things, and become discouraged. Some writers swear their way is the only way, and your way sucks.

Only one thing is certain: Like everything in life, you get out what you put in.

Now go get 'em, tiger.


PJ Parrish said...

Excellent post, Joe. And I agree with your assessments. Especially postcards...they just don't cut it anymore.

And websites! I can't believe the number of published writers who don't have websites. If you have little promotion money, this is where you start. And it shud have a "media" page with your bio and a quality jpeg of your mug and book cover. Even if you're just starting out, try to appear as professional as you can. Like they say, you dress for where you want to be, not where you are. And hey, if a reader is impressed enough with your work to actually hunt you down and then you don't have a doorbell for him to ring -- how rude!

As for bulk mailings or newsletters. Again, I agree that unsoliticited mail is a major turnoff. But on your website, you should have a sign-in box for bulletins or newsletters so you can contact folks when you have something new coming out. A permission-based mailing list is easy as sin to set up and can grow like kudzu. I used to do my by hand, but now I use a professional service with a small monthly fee. It was worth the time I now save.

LA Burton said...

A great post and I hope to need it in the near future.

Bernita said...

Excellent outline, Joe.
Thank you from the bottom of my little ignorant heart.

mapletree7 said...

I've been wondering about your return from the library campaign. Please give us an update.

JA Konrath said...

The jury is still out on the library campaign. I need to learn my numbers for the new book to see how worthwhile it was.

I wouldn't do it again---too much work and money. The immediate benefits didn't seem worth the cost. But I'm glad I did it, and I'm hoping it will continue to reap for me.

Jennette Marie Powell said...

THANK YOU, Joe! Promo is something I can see myself getting stressed about due to having very limited time. The info you've shared here is just what I need once I have something to promote and need to decide how to spend that time. I would be interested in learning more about your letters to librarians and booksellers. What's in them - an intro to you and your books, an offer to do a speaking program...? Maybe a topic for another blog post. Oh, and FWIW, this blog is what made me buy Whiskey Sour. And Whiskey Sour is why I'll buy the next book...

JA Konrath said...

Completely unrelated topic, but after a handful of rejections I finally sold a story to Woman's World magazine.

Each week they have a Mini Mystery. A thousand words pays a thousand bucks.

I'm tickled pink I cracked this market--I've been trying for almost a full year, and got many personal rejections and close calls. It's a different kind of writing than the stuff I normally do, which made for a fun challenge.

Christine said...

Yeah, I think postcards can get too easily lost, or stuck bewteen pages of a magazine. I mail a flyer, in an envelope, to school librarians and the like.

And the publicity department from my publisher says that store chain buyers want to see lots of advertising on the marketing plan when they're decided whether or not to stock your book. Which makes no sense to me - as you've said, I think ads for books are a waste of money, unless you're in a genre mag, like Romance Times. But that seems to be what they want; I can't imagine you get a lot of sales from that.

I've never bought a book based on an ad either.

Anonymous said...

WOW! Thank you, J.A. I, too, am madly printing it up as I write this.

I got a postcard in the mail yesterday from an author I didn't know. I get quite a few, and I'm not in most of the authors's target audience. I look at the postcard and say, "Oh, pretty," or "Yuck," and throw it away. I've never bought a book from a postcard.

P.J. - first thing I did when we revamped my site was put up a media page. I doubt anyone's even glanced at it. But you're right, you have to dress for success!

Thanks, J.A., for this wonderful service you've provided all of us.

Anonymous said...

Here's a little promo story for you:

I purchased a book because of a postcard, which advertised the author's signing at my local indie. (But I heard about the book first on DorothyL.) When I arrived for the signing, the author handed me a tote bag with the cover of her book printed on it. I felt bad because I'm not a tote bag kinda girl and ended up giving it to charity.

Mark Pettus said...

Another one for the archives, Joe.

I'd love to see a sample of the chapbooks you make yourself. I'm not sure I can visualize a ten cent chapbook.

Got a picture?

I talked to an advertising exec this afternoon about this very topic. She admitted she'd never bought a book based on an ad - she always chose her books based on word of mouth, and the $600 purse she was carrying had a name I wasn't familiar with, but she assured me it was all the rage.

I suppose the one good side to the amount of time it takes to bring a book to print is that if you start promoting it as soon as you finish writing it - half the country my know about it before it even gets published.

I know. Wishful thinking, Mark.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for doing that, Joe. That's incredibly useful.

Writer said...

Great post, J.A. I have printed it out and plan to recommend your blog to others. One thing - it sounds like you are trying to create a brand for your work (or your publisher is trying to create a brand). Am I right about this? If so, it's definitely working. I plan to purchase your books and read them while having my weekend cocktails.

JA Konrath said...

If anyone wants a JA Konrath chaptbook, email me with yoru address and I'll mail a bunch out tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Joe. And congrats on your Woman's World sale.

I'm going to Boucheron this year. I'm going to make chap books with three short stories. What I wonder is: After pitching my novel to agents and editors, is it acceptable to hand them a chap book on the spot? Or just send whatever they ask for after the convention?

Thanks and best wishes,

Lee Thompson

Anonymous said...

Here's a quote:

"If I walk up to a woman and tell her I'm the world's greatest lover––that's advertising. But If I pay her friend to go up to her and tell her I'm the world's greatest lover––that's PR".

My day job is in advertising, and I would agree that authors placing ads for books is a total waste of $$$. I have one client who's budget is $2.4 million annually, and it's still not enough compared to the "noise" that's out there.

PR is the way to go. Even if you're doing it yourself. But if you're publicist or PR firm doesn't deliver, find another.

But like with advertising, have realistic expectations relative to your budget.

Jeri said...

Such a helpful post. It's tempting to spend lots of money and time on random promotional activities, just to feel like we're "doing something," just to assuage the fear for a little while. But a c/b analysis is so important, even taking the intangibles into account.

Jim said...

For me, signings at bookstores seem to provide the best bang for the buck. My cost is simply time--time that I actually enjoy. And the benefits are immediate and tangible. I tyically sell 15-20 books at a Barnes & Noble or Borders signing. I also give a free ARC to everyone on the staff who wants one, usually about 4 people. One of them inevitably makes the book a staff recommendation, meaning that the store orders 5-10 more books and gives it a face out display. Signings have been so successful for me that I don't even do anything else promotion wise.

Anonymous said...

Joe, it was great talking marketing with you the other day as always. I seem to remember doing most of the listening (for a change), and I'm glad I did. Great advice -- especially the idea of measuring the effectiveness of advertising by asking yourself what works on you. Not a 100% accurate guide, but pretty damn good, I'd say.

The thing that makes all of us crazy is the indirect benefits, which are so hard to quantify. Was the conference worth it if you only sold a few books? Hard to say... you met a lot of people, certain foundations were laid, little things come together into something big... and so we (or at least I) become borderline neurotic about attending these things. But I think I'm getting better.

My sense, which I can't scientifically prove, is that as long as you keep the financial costs of your markeing efforts within reasonable bounds, you should spend as much time as you possibly can to get out there and go to conferences. At some point you'll hit diminishing returns, but you'll meet bloggers, magazine editors, conference organizers, and your fellow writers, in addition to fans. At some point you reach critical mass and good things start to happen.

In certain cases, I can identify a clear progression of benefits I've derived from attending conferences. Went to the conference and met A, who liked my book and gave it a great review in his magazine, which then nominated me for an award... or paid to go to small conference B, where I met the organizer of big conference C, who invited me to the big conference and paid my way...

And if I can identify these clear progressions, I'll bet there are hundreds that are too obscure to observe but nonetheless powerful.

It is exhausting, no doubt. I'm at Much Ado About Books in Jacksonville, Florida right now and I'm beat. But the conference is awesome -- as many as 5000 attendees (yep, three zeroes). There were 1000 people in at the lunch banquet, and they were all readers. Keynote was James Patterson and they needed video screens so everyone could see him. I sold a ton of books and made a lot of good contacts in Florida, where I don't have local connections. It was a long trip from the Bay Area but absolutely worth it.

And I got invited because someone saw me on a panel at one of those "Is this thing really worth it?" regional conferences...

One thing I think you have to watch out for, and I'm not trying to be funny here, is blogs. The blogosphere is hugely addictive and you have to approach it deliberately and with discipline. Keep in mind what you're trying to get out of it: information? Exposure? Companionship? Make sure you're not using it to avoid your real work. There are about four blogs on the biz that are daily stops for me (this is obviously one of them), and I deliberately refrain from branching out more than that, even though I know there are many other good ones. Remember, everything you do has an opportunity cost: the cost of not doing the thing you could have been doing instead.

Holy shit, I think I had too much coffee this morning.


Anonymous said...

Another tour de force from JAKPHD. Ever considered a Harvard Business School case study? Or in your case, Univ. of Chicago? Or (SPOILER for crazy idee du jour...) doing something, along with Barry and Reed Coleman and PJ and a few other merry marketeers, say, for MWA, like a marketing/publicity pamphlet for new authors? I know you have mixed feelings about volunteering, but this would be just as much brand reinforcement, and many hands would make light work. Wow, do I wish something like this had been around when the "lovely and talented"(TM) Julia Spencer-Fleming's first mass market came out. Man, was that only three years ago? I'm all for the school of hard knocks, but it's nice to slip a punch or two once in awhile, and this type of effective analysis is priceless. If it's OK, Julia plans to send this around to a bunch of newbie author friends, with attribution of course. Hope they become regulars on one of the most useful blogs in the biz! Thanks for the public service, and congrats on the Genny. Didn't Kaavya Vishwanathan just pick up one of those? Onward and upward!

Allison Brennan said...

CONGRATULATIONS on Woman's World, Joe!!! Great news!! And a thousand bucks is nothing to sneeze at :)

I agree with your assessment of promotion. I think the website is the most important because it's the least time commitment.

And if anyone is going to 15 cons a year, I'd say . . . less conferences, more writing time.

I'm going to 3 this year and one retreat where they're paying me to speak for 2 hours. I'm getting free travel and room for two nights, food, etc. and I would have received a speaking fee, but I donate those back to the chapter if it's an writing organization event.

I spoke at a writers club today and though there were only 20 people, it was a great event. It took me five hours total (an hour plus to drive each way and about 2.5 hours there--I spoke for a little over an hour.) I only sold 8 books (Borders let me borrow them and are running them through their system) but I totally believe in word of mouth so even those who didn't buy, will talk about my speech and down the road make a difference.

I don't have the time you have Joe, so drive by signings, which I like to do, I have to limit to day trips. With five kids who are still pretty little (2-to-12) I can't take a lot of long trips. The three cons are already taking 14 total days.

The important thing, though, especially for me since I'm writing 3 books a year, is to maximize your time. I'm going to be writing on my laptop every morning while at the conferences so I don't lose my page-per-day momentum. It's fun to socialize, but it's more fun to write and see fruits (more contracts) for my labor.

Allison Brennan said...

Hi PJ . . . I agree. I put a press packet together on-line with key review quotes, downloadable book covers and photos in both color and b&w and my upcoming events. Every reporter I've interviewed with (all 5, LOL) have all gone to my press page before contacting me, and all but one downloaded my author Q&A and used it to jumpstart the interview

Anonymous said...


I really enjoy reading your blog. If i were you i would go to and submit this blog and let thousands of others see it for free. well , i look forward to all the updates. thanks again.


Anonymous said...

Great post Joe. I love the way you looked at this issue.

But I don't agree on all points.

1. Everyone in publishing loves saying that ads don't sell books, word of mouth does.

But word of mouth doesn't start in a vacum.

You have to get x number of people reading the book to get them talking about it to get other readers to hear that and buy it.

And the right ad in the right place gets the ball rolling.

An ad on Bookreporter offering 20 copies to the first 20 readers who write you is a valuable ad. (Ditto for my own

If you can find the right targeted vehicle an ad can be cost effective and powerful.

Since you've never tried ads, it's hard to judge their effectiveness. But every publisher I have ever talked to has admitted off the record that ads are the best way to get a book rolling - at the same time they admit they won't go on the record with that because they can't afford to take out ads for more than 15% of their books.

I also have bought a lot of books becuase of an - either the ad told me that an author I liked had a new book out or the cover caught my eye or the title did.

Again - you need to know your book, your audience etc.

An ad in a genre publication for the right book is worth more than going to fifteen B&N's and Borders.

One of the most important missions of an ad - any ad with any product - it's to create an impression and seed a thought and make the name of the book/product familiar so when the reader goes into the bookstore and sees seventy books on that shelf that are all pretty much new to him/her one jumps out.

2. I don't think any beginner author should spend anywhere near $3000 on a website. I think you can create your own booksite with a blog and make it look the same and offer all the same info. All for less than $10 a month - total - no up front costs.

That $3000 can go so far with other marketing opportunities.It can in fact double or triple your marketing budget.

3.I also don't agree about the publicist issue. It depends on the author and the book. I know many who have taken their whole advance, hired the right publicist and its been worth every penny. You have to do your homework, know your book, find the right person.

There are some perfect publicity books.

JA Konrath said...

I'd like to thank all of the pros who chimed in--there is some really good advice in this thread.

I'm fond of occasionally pointing out that trusting me 100% is a fool's bet. Try other things, take other advice (and consider the source--advice from someone who working in advertising for years like MJ is worth a lot more than advice from your neighbor) and discover what works for you.

Hawley Roddick said...

Sherry Gotlieb sent a link to this advice, which is my good luck. Impressively realistic. Now for adapting it to promoting a memoir..