Sunday, April 27, 2008

Why I Self-Promote

I think that many authors get discouraged because they work their butts off self-promoting, and don't see immediate benefits. How could they? The hardest working author in the world could maybe handsell ten thousand copies of a book in a year. That's an impressive number, but ultimately insignificant if he has 500k books in print.

When I say, "You should self promote," some authors immediately go into defensive mode. Their arguements usually come down to:

"It's the publisher's job to sell books, not mine."


"You can be successful without self-promoting."


"I'd rather focus on writing a good book."


"Prove to me that self-promotion makes you successful."


"I tried and it didn't work."

Or a combination of the above. Justification for our actions (or non actions) is essential for our self-esteem.

But that justification should be well thought out. All options should be carefully considered before a path is chosen. And that path should be subject to change, as more evidence comes into play.

I've spent a good deal of time contemplating the publishing business. Along with contemplating, I've experimented. I made some observations, and drew some conclusions, based on my experience (which I tried to make as broad as possible.)

I've found that:

1. Publishing, as a business model, is a poor one.

2. No one in publishing really knows what they're doing, because you can't learn from unreproduceable phenomenon.

3. Taste is subjective. A "good" book means different things to different people.

4. People would rather defend their actions than analyze them.

5. Luck plays an overwhelming part in success. This is scary, because it is beyond our control. So most publishers, and authors, would rather erroneously attribute success to their hard work and efforts, talent, and business savvy.

6. There are no guarantees, except for one: The more you self promote, the more books you'll sell, and the more you'll increase your luck.

So, what can an author do to better their career?

1. I can't change the publishing world, even though it's broken. That's beyond my control.

2. I can't learn from unreproduceable phenomenon any more than my publisher can, and I don't have the resources to run controlled tests, surveys, focus groups, and scientifically analyze the system to learn what works and what doesn't. It's beyond my control.

3. I can write the best book I can, but that's no guarantee of anything. Many good books fail. A lot of crap sells really well. Taste is subjective, and there is no objective scale that can rate books based on their merit.

4. I can learn from my actions and be open to new ideas, but can't expect anyone else to have that same attitude.

5. I can recognize that success comes down to luck, as scary as that is.

6. I can do what I can to improve my luck. That means writing good books (which is subjective) and spreading the word about my books, which is objective.

So basically, what I've learned in the past five years is that the only real control an author has is how many books they can sell by self-promotion. That's the only way we can empower ourselves.

Beware a sense of entitlement. Beware believing that hard work and/or talent is more important than luck. Beware believing that your success or failure is a direct result of anything you've done. These beliefs don't lead to anything healthy.

There's no fairness. No dues that must be paid. No deserving success.

There's only getting lucky, and what you can do to maximize your luck.

That's why I spend so much time self-promoting.


  1. Anonymous11:45 AM

    That makes sense. I'm not published, but one thing I've heard about many self-promotion techniques is that you have to enjoy them in order to make it worth it. Blogging, for example. If someone is just blogging because they're supposed to, their posts are often boring and uninspired. They could even have a negative effect. Same for, say, signings. If the author dislikes people and does not want to do a signing, that attitude can really shine through and turn people off. So it seems that the really effective self-promoters are ones who either don't dread the promotion or are able to hide it well. As for it being the publisher's job to promote, well, in an ideal world perhaps, but the author benefits from having a book that sells well, so it behooves them to promote, no matter whose job it might be.

  2. Anonymous2:13 PM

    Marketing is hard... and marketing your own stuff is even HARDER STILL!

    It's been my experience that authors are surprised, stunned even by how much "self promotion" is involved in the job description of "author".

    As for "promotion is my publisher's job"... well, that's a cop out... pure and simple. Authors first need to remember the first law of publishing: "There are plenty of other author fish in the sea."
    Which leads to the second law, "Publishers prefer authors who promote their work in addition to the efforts put forth by the publisher."

    You know what "they" say... "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

  3. I don't do enough. Okay, okay, for the last three months I've done NONE.

    I think the hardest bits are:

    When you promote, you often can't tell whether it's working or not.

    When you promote, you don't get to see the increase in numbers (if any) for a long time. Or at all.

    And then I think people are right, up to a certain point, when they say self-promotion doesn't work.

    I don't think it works at all, until you get past some point. I don't know where that point is, but I think you have to do an awful, awful lot to get to that point, and then results start happening.

    At least, that's what I tell myself. But is it true?

  4. More and more I am digging your posts, especially your emphasis on luck and what writers can do to give themselves a better shot. Luck is the dirty little secret in publishing, but the answer isn't to crawl under the covers and whine (though God knows it's tempting!). The answer is to do what we can to keep a level head and a positive attitude and what we can to improve the chances that we'll get struck (in a good way) the next time the lightning comes down.

  5. JA,

    There is one other thing writers can do, and that's work at improving their craft. Maybe that's how a writer can improve their luck--by writing a better book than they're currently capable of.

  6. As you have said, and done, doesn't it also benefit authors to reach out to the folks who are often the last link it getting books to the public?

    Of course, I'm talking about booksellers. As a member of this group, I know it's often easier to recommend the books of authors that make an effort to meet the people who's job it is to sell and recommend books.

    Excellent post sir.

  7. I self-promote because nobody can prove it DOESN'T work. Anyway, I enjoy the challenge, and I know my publisher appreciates my efforts because they often mention it.

    By the way, I just found out my first novel is heading for a third printing. Would that have happened without my efforts? Maybe, maybe not. I'm just not prepared to leave the future of my fiction writing career in someone else's hands.

  8. Another great post from one of my favorite authors.

    My first novel comes out in late May. The publisher really liked the MS, but wouldn't buy the book until I submitted a marketing plan. It was only when they saw that I was serious about promotion - and that I had some ideas on how to do it - that they were willing to sign the contract.

    Now, I'm far from an expert, but I see their point. It seems to me they have a right to expect me to help sell the book on which they're taking a gamble, and I have a responsibility not to drop it off in a basket on their doorstep and expect them to raise it for me. No one's gonna love and care for my baby like I do.

    I'm very grateful to my publisher. It'd be nice if they had some huge promotional department that would labor on my behalf, but winning the lottery would be nice, too. And more likely.

  9. Yet again another post that goes right to the heart of the "self-promotion" matter. Yeah, it's tough to self-promote (I often want to trade with my other fellow writers, much easier to promote their stuff). And there's no proof it works, BUT as my b.f. who's a salesman always says: "You don't know how it is or isn't working, so you've got to get it out there."

  10. There's no fairness. No dues that must be paid. No deserving success.

    I couldn't agree more.

    The only way people can get interested in your work is if they can see a way that they can make a buck off of it. Prove to an agent that you'll make them several thousand bucks, they'll maybe think about signing you.

  11. Anonymous1:17 PM

    You're also very good at it. You've got the ability to step back and look at the bigger picture, and then tweak it in the direction you want.

    Not only that, but you're generous about sharing what you've learned, so, in case you haven't heard it lately -- thanks for that.

  12. Kathy your quote - You know what "they" say... "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

    So so true.

  13. The best type of "self-promotion" is to have the book sitting on the shelf of a bookstore or a library where a customer can physically pick it up as a spur of the moment thing.

    Getting the book there takes a lot of groundwork such as getting book reviews and creating pre-pub buzz. Phrased differently,self-promotion starts well before the book is released.

    Lots of people see it as something that simply happens afterwords.

  14. I've heard the phrase "Why should I bother editing since the publisher does it?" or's just as ludicrous as thinking it's up to the publisher alone to promote.

    I self-promote because no one is going to have as much faith in, take as much care of, or strive for the success of my book as I do.

  15. Anonymous3:26 PM

    I didn't self promote until far too late with my first book. This time out, I started almost a year before the new series launched. Did it do me any good?

    You tell me--the book has been out one month and is in its second print run!

    Did I do it all myself? No. I got a PW review, my publisher sent out beautiful color designed bound galleys, and I've sent out over 3000 pieces of promotional material since December. I picked up a lot of good tips from this blog, too, Joe. Thanks.

    I worked my tail off. And I've got another book coming out in June. I'm working my tail off for that one, too.

    I'm tired--but a lot happier this time out.

  16. Anonymous4:33 PM

    Congrats on being named to the annual Writers' Digest list of "101 Best Websites for Writers." :)

  17. Here's a toast to unrepeatable phenomenon!


  18. Spot on, J.A.

    Per example: I run a blog/e-zine that does a lot of author interviews. I hunt most of these interviewers down myself, most of the time through reading their books and going to their websites. But I've been able to schedule interviews with authors who aren't even published yet-- through places like The more publicity and promotion they do, the easier it is for someone like me to find them and generate even more publicity.

    Once again, J.A., a post worthy of starring and highlighting and printing-out.

  19. Anonymous3:48 PM

    I do not think luck comes into the equation. We do what we can to place ourselves in a position to make the most of opportunity - that usually means not siting on our butts and waiting for someone else to get out there and spread the word. What many see as "luck" is, I believe, the cumulative pay-off of extended focused, considered effort, for which there is no guarantee.

  20. Just found your blog and this particular post struck me. I do a great deal of self-promotion. For me the balance of promoting and being obnoxious is a very delicate one. Not sure I haven't crossed it--but my friends and family have allowed me to live.

    I'm going to point a group I am on this way. It is a group of writers discussing tips on promotion. Thanks for sharing this!

  21. Anonymous7:37 PM

    Yeah! Well said. I can't believe I've heard so many of these fables repeated as truth. I've taken several courses in promotion and have found only a few that work for me, mostly because some of those "here's how she did it to sell x amount of books" doesn't work for me. SOmetimes, I think it is just a hit and miss (Luck anyone) but I'll keep doing some things because they're fun, but for the most part self-promotion is not very comfortable for me.


  22. Thanks for the very timely post! I've got an e-book coming out in July and just when I'm thinking, should I or shouldn't I? You answer the question.

    Yeah...I'd much rather be writing since self-promotion is a huge time suck...but it has to be done.

    Good luck with your books. I enjoy them immensely!

  23. Anonymous9:51 AM

    One of your readers posted about this article and I came over to read it. When I was a newbie, I loved writing and hated the idea of promo. However, I learned pretty quickly that it was promo or die on the vine, so with my usual "can do when I have to" attitude, I jumped in.

    Name recognition was my first goal.

    I built an online critique group strictly for erotica / GLBT writers.
    Created my own yahoo group and invited other authors to post and promo - making them partners.
    I created awards for great websites and gave them out with much fanfare.
    When I kept getting asked for promo help, I created Marketing for Romance Writers open only to authors (published and unpublished), literary agents, author promotion services, and publishers.
    Now I'm working on a brand new web award system called the Ruby Awards (which start in 2009) and have recruited some top authors and review sites to serve on the board.
    There are some new things coming too, and it's proven true so far ... the harder I work, the luckier I get.

    I learned long ago that if you help others succeed, you are swept along with them. One can never have too many friends, especially in publishing.

    Thank you for an absolutely wonderful post!

  24. Thanks for your great post. I've got a question for the booksellers and authors. Booksellers are telling me my book (available through major distributors) only gives them 20% profit and they will not order it because they'd rather sell another book. I feel my publisher is not giving me a fair chance at book store sales.
    Am I wrong?

  25. I think it's good to self-promote because no one is more passionate about the book than the author. It's partly the author's job to tell people about their writing.


Thanks for the comment! Joe will get back to you eventually. :)