Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The High Cost of Self Promotion

I've done a lot of self promoting.

I've been to all the major mystery writing conferences, many multiple times. I've visited over 1200 bookstores. I've spoken at hundreds of libraries and book fairs.

I never really wanted to do any of it. The conventions were fun, but also a lot of work. I tended to try my best to burn as brightly as possible, and anyone who knows their astrophysics knows what results from that; burn out.

But I refused to get burned out. I believed the only thing keeping me in print was my never-ending effort to get myself in front of people.

Things have changed.

In the last few months, I've turned away over a dozen speaking engagements. Most of them offered to pay all expenses--flight, hotel, food. Some even offered a decent stipend on top of that.

I would have cut off my own legs to have had opportunities like this, back at the start of 2010.

So why am I being all hermit-like now?

Because I believe I've found a better use of my time.

My goal has always been to sell as many books as possible, with the hope of making a decent living at it. In the recent past, I'd identified certain things that I felt I needed to do, in order to reach that goal.

The most expensive, and time consuming, of these things, was travel.

As far as I'm concerned, nothing beats face time. Meeting a bookseller, a fan, a potential fan, is really the best way to promote yourself. A handshake, a smile, a joke, a thank-you--I've personally done this to over twenty thousand people. I felt it was my duty to. If I didn't, I might go out of print. If I went out of print, I'd lose my income, and my dream of writing full-time.

Consider that last observation. I was worried about no longer being able writing full time, so I'd become a full time traveling salesman. A full time ambassador, visiting thirty-nine states to spread goodwill and brand awareness.

But something has changed recently. A big something.

I don't feel the need to stay in print anymore.

In fact, I wish my books were out of print, so I'd have the rights to them back. (by my estimate, I'm losing around $100k per year because publishers have seven of my backlist titles and are pricing them too high for the ebook market and giving me a fraction of the royalties I could earn on my own.)

Since the rise of ebooks, I've been making more money that I ever have being traditionally published. This is steady money, and seems to be growing.

Face time isn't required for me to be able to sell ebooks. So I promised my wife I'd stop traveling everywhere, and do the thing I always said I'd do: write full time.

A funny thing happened. Once I cut down on traveling, I was able to get more writing done.

So far, this year, I've written four novels. By the end of the year, I'll squeeze in one or two more.

I'll be able to earn a lot more on new work, than I would promoting old work. Better yet, rather than trying to seek out publicity, it seems to be coming to me. I've gotten dozens of emails from people who recently read about me in Newsweek. When I spent a summer visiting 500 bookstores, Newsweek didn't call me. But sitting on my butt, doing my little ebook thing, is getting me a lot more exposure for a lot less effort.

Ebooks have given authors a choice. For decades, there was only one game in town--traditional print publishing. I studied that game, learned how to play, and had some modest success. But it was hard work.

Recently, I've been studying the new game in town, ebooks, and I haven't looked back. I can make more money, do less traveling, and spend more time doing the thing I wanted to do in the first place; write.

Now, some of my peers think that refusing speaking engagements is a mistake. I should be grateful people want to see me.

I am grateful. But the math just doesn't work.

I've turned down thirteen speaking gigs. Figure, with travel, each one took an average of four days.

That means I'd have given up over fifty days.

I can write a book in fifty days.

What's better for my career; face time with thousands of people, or a new book that will be potentially earning money forever?

NY Publishing didn't want more than a book a year from me. And a book a year was about my limit, considering all the promo I did.

Now I'm able to focus on the thing I love--the writing.

Out of all the cool things about the ebook revolution, this may be the coolest.


Rex Kusler said...

My promotion is to sell the first in my series for 99 cents (forever), and the rest for $3.50. The first is bait. Without bait on my hook, how could I catch anything?

Robert Burton Robinson said...

My promotion is to sell the first in my series for 99 cents (forever), and the rest for $3.50.

I think that's a great idea, Rex. I'm selling all of my first six books at 99 cents, and am considering leaving them at that price. And it seems to be working quite well as a promotional tool.

Four of those six books are part of a suspense series, and the nice thing is that many readers are buying all four books at once.

I will be releasing the first book of my new mystery series in October, and plan to price those books at $2.99.

@Joe, when I first started writing and became aware of you in 2006, none of us could have guessed that this amazing thing would be happening in 2010. Thanks again for leading the way!

A.R. Williams said...

I'm curious, Joe.

What's the difference between the rate of sales of the e-books you've self-published and the e-books the traditional publishers have published?

20-1? Better? Worse?

How does the books you put out as e-books affect the print books the publishers still have rights to?

David Wisehart said...

I love to travel, but business travel sucks. I tried writing on business trips, and it was always a struggle. That's great that you get to spend more time doing what you love. The publishing world is changing fast.

Anna Murray said...

Have you offered to skype a presentation to those conferences that request your presence? It allows you to connect from the comfort of your home, is interactive, and elminates all the travel time and expense.

The digital age extends our reach. I agree, it's wonderful.

Krista D. Ball said...

Let's not forget, however, that you decently known. You have a large backlist and a popular blog.

Whereas I am nobody :) I know how many books you've written and are upcoming. No one here knows what I have coming. They never will unless I promote myself, just like you did the early days.

It's important that *new* authors especially those that are only e-published to promote the hell out of themselves still. Your success is awesome but does not represent the experiences of the vast majority of ebook only published authors.

I think it's great that you can finally slow down the travel and write more (since that's what you want). How wonderful that you've finally reached where you want to be with your career and that a new technology has allowed it to happen.

I just want to caution new authors not to expect your same level of success without putting a lot of work into it...just like you did in the early days.


scott neumyer said...

Kudos, man. It's pretty amazing what you've done in just a short amount of time and good for you for being able to do it and continue to do it YOUR way. Kudos.

I do, however, dig the idea that Anna brings up. Skype visits might be a great way to still promote yourself while also embracing the technology side that's making you so sucessful, and STILL having tons of time writing and home with family.

kathleen shoop said...

Great work and I'm glad back to your writing. It's the cornerstone of your whole operation! I'm going to self publish a book and hired a publicist, etc...hopefully I'll return to your blog with stories of joy and good news! Thanks for all the information and encouragement you offer to everyone starting out.

Moses Siregar III said...

What an incredible change, man. Good for you. And kudos for the discipline to stay home and write.

I was really inspired by your "The Time is Now" post. So much so that I'm going to be putting a 20K word novella up for Kindle next week for $0.99, even though I'm releasing the full novel that the novella borrows from (quite literally) next year in May. I found a complete story arc from the novel, and I'm going to put it out there and see what happens. Hopefully it will help me generate interest in the novel itself. said...

you make great sense ... thanks for your insight

Anonymous said...

"In fact, I wish my books were out of print, so I'd have the rights to them back."

I'd simply re-write the old books with new words (assuming there's nothing in your contract to prohibit this). Keep the substance of each chapter the same, keep the plot the same, simply re-write the book with fresh language. You could probably do each one in 3 weeks or less. Do one, post it as an ebook, and see how it sells.

(Check with your agent first, of course)

Anonymous said...

I love to travel, but business travel sucks.

I agree. Joe, don't forget that you get to spend more time with family, relaxing, etc. Travel is great when it's a vacation. It's not so great when it's business.

Terry Odell said...

I agree with Krista's comment. I've got 4 novels out with e-publishers, and have started doing putting some of my own work on Smashwords and Kindle. While the downloads of the free short story are gratifying, I see virtually no carryover to my other works, not even my 99 cent story--not even the free sample. If you don't have a name and a decent backlist, the Konrath system isn't likely to create the same windfall. I'd be happy to take one of his speaking engagements. :-)

And, for the record, I met Joe early on at a SleuthFest conference and he'd never seen an e-reader until I showed him my eBookwise. But he was already intrigued by the possibilities.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Author Scott Nicholson said...

And the flip never go out of print. That advantage often gets overlooked (then again in 10 years you'll be competing with 20 million other books).

AR, can't speak for Joe but I am outselling my NY ebook at least 20 to 1 and likely out-earning it 100 to 1. I quit promoting it because (A) I'm likely to never see a penny and if I did, it would be years from now and (B) it's not a fair partnership if the publisher isn't expending at least as much effort.

Time is money, but more importantly, time is life. Your life.

Scott Nicholson

Edie Ramer said...

I'm glad you made it to the WisRWA conference in May. Your wife, too.

It's good to know it's not necessary to travel to sell. You're blazing the trail for the rest of us.

Eric Christopherson said...

I couldn't write four novels in seven months with an endless supply of coke, meth, and coffee. Obviously you're facile with language, which is not something someone can learn. Still I'd be interested in your approach.

Do you outline? (Always, never, sometimes?) Do you rush through that first draft to get to the end as fast as possible before revising or revise as you go along?

And what about stamina? In the absence of coke and meth and even with coffee I've got about six good hours of fiction writing in a day and I'm shot.

WDGagliani said...

Hey Joe, you've come a long way from that first con where we met! Was it World Horror in Kansas City? Think so. Anyway, congratulations -- and your math makes sense to me.If you have the time, writing is where you should spend it. although the Skype suggestion is surely intriguing. Still and all, four novels in 7 months? Yikes, I can barely imagine that. So do you come to the page with the whole story in your head, or does it evolve as you write? I ask because I have a hard time writing in linear fashion -- I must be schizophrenic, since I jump around and can't seem to get away from that pattern.

Well, in any case, I hope I get to see you again at some event, some time! You've gotta get out and drink with writer friends once in a while!

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

Interesting blog post, J.A. and great comments. Gives us all something to think about! Congratulations on your success. It is always neat to read of someone who breaks out of the pack and succeeds.


Sylvia Dickey Smith

Dave said...

Another interesting post Joe. Looking forward to that many more books.

Out of curiosity, did you ever follow up on your "Steal My EBook" thread with some stats and observations?

A.R. Williams said...

Thanks, Scott.

I just find it interesting how the results can be so different between the two methods. Especially, since one has more resources than the other.

Lovelyn said...

You spend your life trying to become a professional novelist and then when you finally start to realize that dream you have no time to write because you're so busy promoting. The great thing about the internet is that it's changing that for writers. You don't have to travel to promote yourself to people all over the world. That's what I love about it.

You're right business travel sucks, but when you're traveling for fun it's great.

Ian Pattinson said...

For promotion I've bundled three novellas which are also available print-on-demand with four short stories for $3.99. It's not doing much at the moment, but we'll see. I've also started posting my next story as shortsegments on my blog. It drives me to keep writing and also lets people point out the continuity and other errors.

My dream is to make enough from the writing that I can move to different countries for extended periods- to research and write stories based there. A month or two a year abroad would be the kind of business travelling I could cope with.

T. M. Hunter said...

Another ditto for Krista's earlier comment regarding promotion for a new author versus Joe's existing fan base...building it up takes time and effort.

Jim Kukral said...

Imagine if you wrote content or created products and sold them through places like Clickbank and your own membership sites.

You'd make 100 times what you would make selling eBooks. You took the first step and got rid of the travel time. Now take the next step into Internet Marketing.

Jorge Olson said...

What I usually do is a promotion with ebooks or recordings using them as bonus. For example, if you buy my book "The Unselfish Guide to Self Promotion" you get 4 marketing recordings or my 2 best selling eBooks as a bonus.


Jorge Olson

Shawn Enderlin said...

I'm curious - do you have an agent or an editor? I've seen people talk about self publishing and giving agents and/or editors a cut. If you don't have them why not? Do you feel that you are missing anything?

Would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

Zoe Winters said...

I totally feel you on that "I have to constantly run around thing."

I've backed off considerably from some of the online self-promo and marketing, and my sales are holding steady. I don't know where the hell it's coming from or how people are finding me. Maybe the cumulative effect of a lot of marketing. Maybe Amazon recommendations. Maybe word-of-mouth, from happy readers. I have no clue. But it is helping me to go back to just writing.

I don't think I could ever do a speaking engagement, period. I'm a writer, not a public speaker. The whole idea of speaking in public in front of a group of people makes me want to puke.

I think in the traditional model writers were expected to be performers. But we are writers. No one expects an actor or singer to be a writer. But for some reason writers are supposed to be performers, too.

I like that I can do everything online. Though at some point I'd like to go to some conventions and meet some of the cool people I've met online. But I wouldn't want to be there on a panel or as a presenter. I'd want to just be doing the hanging out, having fun, no pressure stuff.

I'm glad you're able to finally "just write."

I've been trying to convince myself, that... while I need to do some online marketing, more importantly I have to write and edit and get new work out there and old work out there in new formats.

Zoe Winters said...


The only cool think about business travel is sleeping in hotels. I freaking LOVE staying in hotels. I have no idea why. I love the sound of the hotel air conditioner, and free HBO, and room service. Oh, and pools. I love pools.

JA Konrath said...

I freaking LOVE staying in hotels.

That wears off. Trust me.

dr.cpe said...

very wise Joe. Air travel was kinda cool. But cancelled/ overbooked flights... just watching some people missing funerals alone, is hard to take

book tour used to be meeting such cool readers, bookstore people, and that extra... other authors reading right before or after you. Many still friends now.

Conferences arent that keen on their keynoters flying in and out; they often like speakers to stay 'for culture.' But youre right. I never thought of it that way, 4 days. Thanks for putting it in perspective. Dont say never, though. There'll be some offers that are so important to you and your work and others, that 4 days will be an ok cost.


Zoe Winters said...

@Joe That's like saying the thrill of chocolate or sex wears off. :P

Chris Bates said...

@Zoe: ...both thrills that can be had in hotels

...unless you're married like me, in which case, nothing but crap TV takes place over the strain of screaming children.

Linda Acaster said...

With two historical romances out as ebooks now I am at the stage where the e-promotion takes up a big amount of my writing time each day. Sales are slow, but I didn't expect otherwise; it's hardly a burning genre.

I've a thriller left to ebook, and by that time I'm hoping a cumulative effect will kick in, even if it is a different genre. I'm hoping to be able to pull back on it by Christmas.

Linda Acaster said...

One point for everyone: across here, Amazon UK opens its Kindle store 28 August, and will start shipping the Kindle direct from UK (rather than importing from USA)for £109 wifi. The cheapest Sony is £140 from our biggest book retailer (Waterstones) but I just had to go thru X number of screens and really hunt for the thing to get that info. As Joe so tastefully puts it: Fail.

Already the ads for the Kindle pre-order are all over Amazon's print-book homepage here. They'll cream the opposition.

Michael LaRocca said...

This is very reassuring. I live in Asia, so I can't do book tours. Well, I could, but nobody speaks English here, so it'd be pointless. :-)

Jason Letts said...

You describe an interesting transition here, Jack. I'm curious to know though, do emails really work as a substitute for someone's smile and kind words in person? I remember reading you say that stuff does get a little old, but it's certainly a sure sign you've made a connection with someone and even helped to reciprocate their appreciation. Sure, the goal is to sell books, but I'd like to think creating a dialogue is important too.

I'd be interested to read a future column on your evolving relationship with fans.

Chris Rhatigan said...

Jason makes a good point. But--and I think Joe has mentioned this before--it's difficult to quantify how many sales one makes through self promotion and whether that's worth the cost. Especially for established writers successfully venturing into e-books, the continued hustle of business travel may not be profitable.

Gary Ponzo said...

I'm selling my first novel as an ebook and having great success with it, currently #90 on the Amazon Kindle list for Police Procedurals. While writing the second in the series I'm actually not sure whether I'll even go after a print deal. Why? I've gotten to know so many readers and received so many great reviews, I'm having a blast.

Kait Nolan said...

In a publishing climate where agents and editors are telling their traditionally published authors "don't quit your day job", it's stories like yours that really validate my decision to go the indie route.

Without a massive Stephanie Meyer size advance, I would not be able to afford to quit my multiple day jobs in order to do the kind of promo you did. I wouldn't be able to do the amount of promo they probably expect. And I'd put myself in the nuthouse trying to get a book out on top of all those things.

It's a depressing concept--those of us who want to be writers want to freaking WRITE! We don't want to write and do something else to pay the bills. If self publishing will ultimately allow me to do that (though, perhaps, it will take many years to build up that kind of following), I see no reason to even look to New York anymore. And the additional benefits is that I can write things at my own pace and adjust for real life interruptions (like children) without stressing about deadlines or displeasing my editor or agent. And God knows it's attractive not to have to write query letters! :D

I feel too that self publishing allows me to build a following faster. Since it removes the year to two year wait (or longer) between writing and publication, even if I can only put out one or two books a year, I will still have more work out in five years this way than I would have via traditional means.

Anonymous said...

Kindle authors don't need to promote their books? If you self-publish on Kindle you'll have more time for writing books than if you have a publisher? Doesn't make sense.

Lori Armstrong said...

Joe, does this mean you're not coming to Bouchercon in San Fran this year?

Who am I supposed to dance with Saturday night at the disco party? I know, right? We're talking mystery folks getting their groove on...think it'll live up to the revelry we experienced at RT in May?

JA Konrath said...

I'll be at Bouchercon, as an attendee, not as an author. No panels. :)

Tony said...

Though at some point I'd like to go to some conventions and meet some of the cool people I've met online. But I wouldn't want to be there on a panel or as a presenter.

I don't think there are any conventions let self published writers participate on panels. Maybe some of the small ones, but none of the good conventions do.

Anonymous said...

unless you're married like me, in which case, nothing but crap TV takes place over the strain of screaming children.

Joe, this is so true.

Hate to break it to you, Zoe, but toddlers will break any hardened party girl.

The need for chocolate and sex is greatly exaggerated. Give me an uninterrupted night's sleep any day. It gets so bad sometimes that even my husband says no. We're both a whisker away from 40 and sleep is the only luxury I can't pay for.

Anonymous said...

@Zoe I've been to places where the carpets, walls, and matresses were stained with blood. As if the day before it was a murder scene.

But if you are poolside with your thin mints having a fun time, then so be it.

But I'm with Joe on this one.

Zoe Winters said...

@Chris :P

@Christy, I didn't have kids. :P But, my question is... do kids ruin chocolate for you? I would think chocolate would be the last bastion of sanity among screaming toddlers. :)

@Robert, um... yeah... I usually try to avoid the blood stain hotels. ;)

Anna Murray said...

One word about hotels: bedbugs.

I got the bites on my last stay (Best Western). Fortunately I did NOT bring them home, so the problem was limited to temporary redness and itching.

You know what else gets old? Powdered eggs on the breakfast buffet. I like real eggs.

My other peeves are rejuvenated non-smoking rooms (stale smoke covered with lysol) and bad WiFi.

Skype it in Joe.

You've dragged the plow. This is your season to harvest.


Anonymous said...

But, my question is... do kids ruin chocolate for you? I would think chocolate would be the last bastion of sanity among screaming toddlers.

No, kids don't ruin chocolate... my huge ass does that. Although it's good for a few seconds while I'm eating it.

To tell you the truth, I'm more of a salty snacks person.

Anonymous said...

@Zoe LOL do you think I made my reservations at Or it was more of a WTF moment. ;)

@Anna Yeah, bedbugs are becoming a HUGE epidemic.

Chris Bates said...

"I can write a book in fifty days."

You give me the shits, Konrath.

Personally, I can write a book in ... oh, yeah, I forgot, I can't write a single friggin book!

In fact, I'd go write something now but I feel the need to liberate my 4 year old's Ernie doll from the toy cupboard. With the addition of a marker-pen goatee and glasses I expect it'll make a fine voodoo.

Email me when your hands feel like they're being hit with a hammer. I need a laugh!! :)

Zoe Winters said...

@Anna But what about those great Belgium Waffles? OMG. Wingate and Hampton Inn have those. I always have mine with peanut butter. :)

@Christy, I like sweet and salty mixed. Now I'm craving that sweet/salty Chex Mix concoction.

@Robert have the best rates. :P Kidding aside, I hope you got the room comped. That's just unsanitary.

Anonymous said...

So you're going to stop maintaining a blog on how newbies can [self] publish then, too?

Anika DeMarco said...

Wow, is all I can say on this. E-books are the wave of the future. I am starting to wonder if writers should not just self-publish and promote themselves all on their own and forget the whole traditional publishing altogether? Times are a changing!

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