Frugal [and Effective!] Book Promotion: How to avoid the halfway home of books

Book promotion is important. Here’s why: For many years, I enjoyed book shopping at a big warehouse near my home. It was a kind of halfway house, in between the shelves of a bookstore (that we writers always dream of), and the great metal teeth of a book shredder (the stuff of nightmares).

I loved buying books from a warehouse for several reasons. Firstly, many of the titles weren’t there because they were bad, but because they hadn’t been promoted well. When the retail landscape was dominated by the big box stores, all pushing the same ten books, the warehouse offered a veritable treasure-trove of relatively unknown titles for me to discover.

Secondly, the price was right. As anyone who knows me, or who has read my finance-related blog Enrichmentality knows, I’m definitely a frugal person. And in Australia, where the recommended retail price for a new hardcover can be $39.99 or more, being able to buy books at approximately the same cost the rest of the world enjoys ($5 to $10 each) is an enormous boon.

Finally, I imagined that I was ‘rescuing’ some book from those great metal teeth. From becoming literal pulp fiction.

As it turns out, I wasn’t that far off the mark.

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(With thanks to Canva for the cover, and GlorySunz for the effects)

The dark side of having your book on shelves

For anyone aiming to become an author, the statistics on what happens to books once they hit the shelves aren’t all that rosy. You might think the hard part is over once you’ve finally gotten an agent and/or editor interested enough to offer you a contract, or once you’ve finally gotten to the stage of hitting ‘publish’ on your platform of choice. But, The Frugal Book Promoter: How to get nearly free publicity on your own or partnering with your publisher points out that around a third of all traditionally published books that make it to bookstore shelves are returned to the publishers. They are then remaindered, in warehouses of the kind I used to frequent, or, when that fails, shredded.

As the author Carolyn Howard-Johnson plainly puts it: ‘If you don’t promote yourself and your book early, the same thing (or something like it) could happen to your book’.

How can we avoid having our books land in the halfway house – or worse, in the shredder?

Marketing. Promoting. Publicising. Advertising. Branding.

Creating a platform, or developing public relations.

Whatever you call it, marketing is something many authors have an aversion to – if not a downright fear of. And, myriad excuses to avoid.

Howard-Johnson covers many of these excuses, and offers rational antidotes to them, in the introductory Section I of her book, ‘Getting Started and Getting on with It’.

As writers, or creatives generally, Howard-Johnson points out that many of us suffer from the fear of being successful as much as from the fear of being rejected. We worry that, if we promote our work, people may not like it. (If you’re in this boat, I recommend reading The Courage to Be Disliked).

Alternatively, or even at the same time, we may worry that our work will be too successful.

Many of us see marketing our work as antithetical to the creative process. We feel like ‘sell-outs’. ‘Fakes’.

Others among us feel that book promotion isn’t our ‘job’. That marketing is something the publisher should do. The idea that marketing isn’t an author’s job is grounded in the reality that most writers aren’t trained publicists. Yet even when a publisher does assign a publicist to an author or book, as Howard-Johnson points out, their efforts will be much better rewarded if the author is proactive. ‘A publisher’s publicist can only do so much without an author’s cooperation’.

Although most of us know this, we still harbour romantic images of hermit-like authors holed up in cabins in the woods, emerging only once a year to mail off another masterpiece in a brown paper package, which the publisher gratefully receives and dutifully advertises to all and sundry.

But sadly, unlike the all-too-real great metal teeth of the shredders, this notion appears to be pure fantasy – especially in today’s publishing landscape of profit-driven publishing conglomerates.

Writers’ woes

The internet has been abuzz lately, with one particular tale of writerly woe: Heather Demetrios’ viral and oft-republished article on how she lost well over a third of a million dollars she’d received in book advances.

In her article, Demetrios complains about the lack of guidance and support she received from anyone and everyone in the publishing process – her agent, her editor, her publisher, and even, later, her MFA teachers – when it comes to two specific areas: marketing and finances.

Like many a traditionally-published author, Demetrios was disappointed by her publisher’s lack of marketing push for the YA books she wrote for them. So, understandably, she decided to take matters into her own hands – creating book-related swag, and paying for an expensive website (which, she laments, nobody told her she didn’t need).

The writerly lifestyle

Combined with her predilection for $15 cocktails and extensive travel, Demetrios’ book promotion efforts left her with a pile of debt and sales figures which, while many of us might dream of, were still not enough to earn out the above-average advances she’d received. This left her ineligible to earn royalties on her existing work, and made her less likely to be considered for such high advances in the future. This, of course, was a problem, given that she’d come to rely on advances much larger than average in order to support the ‘writerly’ lifestyle she – and, let’s face it, most of us – had dreamed of.

A warning to writers

Demetrios’ article appears intended as a warning to other writers, and I think it achieves that. We could all do with taming our expectations. With learning to manage our own finances. With taking personal responsibility for the money we receive.

But in reading her article, I couldn’t help but think how much authors like Demetrios – and, I’m sure, many others – might benefit from reading The Frugal Book Promoter – a book which, in its first edition, was originally subtitled ‘How To Do What Your Publisher Won’t Do.

I recently tweeted my appreciation for this book:

‘I read an earlier edition of this book (cover-to-cover, twice!) and it remains one of the most comprehensive and best I’ve come across! 🙌 #TheFrugalBookPromoter

@SarahNeofield

When the author, Carolyn Howard-Johnson (@FrugalBookPromo), got in touch and offered me a copy of the updated edition, I was overjoyed to accept her kind offer.

So how might a frugal approach to book promotion help?

Great expectations

Demetrios is far from alone in expecting her publisher to market her books more aggressively. It’s a sentiment many readers of The Frugal Book Promoter likely relate to, and a misconception Howard-Johnson herself once suffered:

‘Back in 2003 when I was still laboring under the misconsception that big presses give big marketing budgets to new writers, Poets & Writers reported writer ZZ Packer’s publisher, Riverhead Press, “Bank[ed] on… name recognition” when they sent her on a ten-city tour, something that her publisher’s publicist maintained was a rare occurrence for a first-time author. That implied that if Packer hadn’t already built a platform of her own, Riverhead wouldn’t have bothered spending that kind of money on her book… the idea that without [a platform] a publisher might not give you every opportunity to make money from them was astonishing and still is!’

– Carolyn Howard-Johnson, The Frugal Book Promoter

Real world publishing and book promotion

Yet, as the authors of Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch, explain, publishing simply doesn’t work the way most of us imagine:

‘After three months of haranguing anyone you can get on the phone at your publisher, you come to two realizations. First, you’re the primary person responsible for the marketing of your book. Second, publishers don’t use marketing to cause books to sell well – they help books that are already selling well to sell even better. To use a pyromanic analogy, publishers are accelerants, not sparks.’

– Guy Kawasaki & Shawn Welch, Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur

It seems nonsensical – or, as Howard-Johnson puts it, astonishing – that publishers wouldn’t do everything in their power to help sell the books they print.

At least, until we consider the fact that, for publishers, it’s all a gamble.

The big gamble

Around a quarter of a million books are published every year in the US alone. Not copies, I’m talking about titles. Yet the average American will only read (not necessarily purchase!) twelve books in a given year.

So what are the chances of your book being amongst those the average reader picks up?

They’re probably even smaller than the figures above suggest. Because even the average of twelve is inflated by the avid readers such as myself (and probably, you!).

Some people don’t read at all

The most frequently reported number of books read in Pew’s research was just four, and more than a quarter of American adults read no books at all.

Even worse, the readers who are reading four books a year are probably all reading the same four books as everyone else.

The long tail

This is why there’s such a long tail in publishing – whereby a tiny handful of books sell millions of copies (Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, The Kite Runner, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), and the rest sell hardly any.

Let’s imagine a world, for a moment, in which everything is equal. Every year, every American fifteen years of age and older reads twelve books. If they purchased every book read (which wouldn’t happen, but then, some books get purchased and never read, so let’s be generous and assume twelve books bought per person), then that’s 3.18 billion books sold.

Now, let’s assume that Americans are very diverse in their tastes, don’t follow trends, and are immune to book promotion and marketing. Every book published in the US could, in this magical, fair world, expect to sell around 12,720 copies. (Yes, they may sell copies overseas too, but equally, English-language writers elsewhere can market their work in the US also, so let’s call it a wash).

The ‘real world’…

How does this compare to reality, specifically in Demetrios’ field of YA?

According to Hannah Holt’s informative survey, the average sales of a debut YA novel published by a large house was 22,000 copies. By small houses which gave an advance, this figure drops to 7,800. And by small houses that do not offer an advance, just 2,000 copies are sold.

In what we might ‘lovingly’ refer to as the real world, the vast bulk of sales go to the blockbuster novels. Take Lord of the Rings (the book, not the series). In the sixty years between 1955 and 2015, it is estimated to have sold 150 million copies. That’s 2.5 million copies a year – or almost two hundred times what we might expect the average book to sell if all books sold equally well.

For every Lord of the Rings, there are at least 199 less popular books earning very little or nothing at all. That is the long tail.

Publishing is a numbers game

While writing may be all about words, publishing is a numbers game.

If you were a publisher, which do you think would be more profitable?

Publisher A has a stable of 200 authors. They take their entire book promotion budget and divide it by 200, giving all 200 authors the same level of promotion and support.

Publisher B also has a stable of 200 authors, which they use to test the waters. Once they see which book or books have started to build momentum, they throw all of their weight behind that book.

We live in a capitalist world…

It doesn’t take a financial whizz to figure out that, while Publisher A’s model sounds more fair (and is more representative of the kind of world I’d like to live in), Publisher B’s strategy is the one which most companies – publishers or not – use to test and refine their product offerings in our capitalist world. Because even if Publisher A’s authors compete nicely amongst each other, and sell comparable numbers of books, there will always be other publishing companies out there – like Publisher B – who are looking for the blockbusters that every single book-buying adult in America (or wherever) will buy. They’re not interested if your book looks like it might just be part of the long tail – those books that only avid readers like us pick up. In other words, they aren’t interested in the 99.9% of books.

It’s not just book promotion…

For many of those books that fall into the ‘long tail’ (and that’s the vast majority of them – even those that sell well above average, just not blockbuster levels), it’s not only book promotion that traditional publishers are dropping the ball on. Big publishers have slashed their budgets for most books to the point that they also skimp on other essentials. Like thorough editing. Proofing. Typesetting. Formatting. Cover design.

I’ve lost count of the number of Big Five-published ebooks I’ve read in the last few months in which characters’ names have been inconsistently capitalised, punctuation has been missing (or doubled), and words have been missing or mistaken. Some of the non-fiction books I’ve attempted to read have been essentially unreadable, with graphs so poorly laid out they refuse to fit on any screen, and incorrectly indexed footnotes.

Increasingly, editing costs, like marketing costs, are being pushed back onto authors. Howard-Johnson even recommends authors seek the help of a professional editor on their own terms, because ‘many publishers have cut their editing budgets’ and ‘you’ll be more assured that the job is done well enough for you to have [your book] qualify for an award.’

Why it’s the quick and the dead

‘You want to boot your book up to the bestseller lists and keep it there. You want to earn back your advance and draw down even more in royalties. You can’t count on your publisher. Publishers focus on their next big profit maker when sales of your book dwindles.’

– Carolyn Howard-Johnson, The Frugal Book Promoter

In their pursuit of blockbusters, publishers have come to ignore all books that fail to immediately ignite, as Kawasaki and Welch put it. From a purely financial point of view, this is understandable: a single blockbuster author doesn’t require as much work and support as 200 less popular ones. Even James Patterson’s team at Hachette Book Group reportedly consists of only sixteen full-time staff. If those sixteen staffers’ efforts were spread out across 200 different authors, they’d have to handle 12.5 authors each – leaving them just shy of two work days per month to focus on each individual author’s work. That simply isn’t enough to produce the kind of unique, innovative book promotion which might catapult a not-already-on-fire author to success.

Nobody cares about your book as much as you

This is where our own book promotion has to come in to play – traditionally published or not. The fact is, whether we are indies or traditionally published, with a Big Five publisher or a small press, the vast majority of us aren’t a Patterson or a Tolkien. Even an author who, like Demetrios, receives the kind of advances the rest of us might dream of can wind up feeling disappointed, abandoned, and unsupported. Ultimately, we are all in this together, and rather than engaging in #bookbigotry and worrying about who got the biggest advance, whose publisher is more prestigious, or who has the best agent, we should focus on promoting our work.

Not just frugal, but strategic, ethical book promotion

In Section II ‘Plunging In: Publicity Basics Now,’ Howard-Johnson walks writers through the basics of PR and marketing, starting with the ‘three Ps’ of Platform, Publicity, and Public relations.

Having worked not only as a retailer and journalist, but also as a publicist, and with a publicist (for the release of her own novel, This is the Place), Carolyn Howard-Johnson is better placed than most to write about book promotion. She recommends we ‘pick and choose’ ideas from her book, stating that ‘Only someone who had no guidance (like me in the days right after my novel was published) would attempt to use them all.’

How is a new author to avoid the temptation to use them all?

Later in the book, Howard-Johnson suggests we focus on the media we know best. These, she says, we will have the best idea of how to pitch to or leverage.

Although Howard-Johnson’s book advocates a frugal approach to book promotion, it does not claim that every effective promotion is free. Instead, the author explains clearly how writers can use their time instead of their money to promote their books, as well as giving examples of when spending is warranted, and when it offers little (website design, for example, can be largely DIY with the free yet professional-quality tools Howard-Johnson recommends, and promotional gifts or ‘swag’, with the exception of quality thank you gifts, she also warns against). ‘How many coffee mugs that celebrate your favourite authors do you own? Rock stars, we’re not.’

Learning from others

By looking for free, inexpensive, and, most importantly, cost-effective methods of book promotion, rather than just shelling out for whatever swag we think will look cool on Instagram, or whatever expensive website we think might look impressive, sticking to a budget can force us to think outside the box and come up with some truly unique ideas.

Ultimately, there is a lot I disagree with in Demetrios’ stance regarding publishing and finance. Traditional publishers are not the gatekeepers of quality we often wish they were. When looking for advice, whether an author is traditionally or independently published, or both, does not matter to me as much as whether I admire their work.

Nor do I believe it is a publisher’s responsibility to help authors manage their finances any more than it was Demetrios’ duty to provide financial counselling to the developer she presumably contracted to design her website.

However, I applaud her bravery for speaking out about some of the mistakes she made. That’s no easy thing to do – and it is immensely useful for the rest of us.

Learning from mistakes

In their book Yes!, Noah Goldstein, Steve Martin, and Robert Cialdini refer to the research of Wendy Jong and colleagues, who examined the effects of two different kinds of firefighter training.

One group of firefighters was given case studies in which poor decisions lead to negative outcomes. Meanwhile, the other was given examples in which firefighters avoided negative consequences through good decision making – what is often referred to in the business world as ‘best practice’.

The group exposed to the examples of mistakes ultimately did better. And I believe the same is likely true of us writers.

In sharing her personal experience of ‘living the dream’ and finding out it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, Demetrios has given aspiring and new writers some very valuable information.

Dreams vs. Reality

While it’s easy to criticise the decisions of others, especially when we wish we were lucky enough to have a publisher pick up our work, let alone throw hundreds of thousands dollars at it, Demetrios’ case is a useful warning to all of us. And I have to imagine that it’s not all that unusual either. At least 20% of the YA books in Hannah Holt’s survey never earned out their advances. In total, half of the authors in her survey reported earning less than $10,000 from their writing in the previous year – and before you think ‘they were probably indies’ or ‘they were probably at small presses’, over 60% of the authors in the study were published by the Big Five.

It’s also easy for us to imagine that receiving a large sum of money will solve all of our financial woes. But, as I’ve blogged about before, evidence from the real world tends to point in the opposite direction. Lottery winners are actually twice as likely to go bankrupt as those who’ve never won.

The publishing lottery

Although Demetrios frequently compares the writing experience to other ‘jobs’ like corporate work, or teaching, traditional publishing is a vastly different beast. In some respects, we might be better off thinking of it as a lottery. Not just from the publisher’s point of view, as I’ve already explained, but from the writer’s perspective, too.

That’s not to say that I don’t believe there’s any skill involved on the author’s part. Of course, your idea, and your writing itself, must be sufficiently accomplished in order to attract a publisher. (Unless, of course, you’re already a celebrity in your own right, and then they’ll offer you a wheelbarrow full of money to slap your name on a book someone else writes).

But there absolutely is a big whack of luck involved.

Your zombie manuscript, for example, can be rejected even if it is better, simply because the publisher just signed one last week and they don’t want them competing. Your cookbook might be the best one in its class, but no publisher will touch it if that particular diet fad is over. And your book might be rejected because some YouTube star has promised they’ll ‘write’ a book about nothing.

And then there’s the biggest lottery of them all. What Warren Buffett rightly calls the ‘ovarian lottery’. That is, where you are born, and in what circumstances, will have an enormous impact on how relatable and relevant (and ultimately, publishable) agents will find your manuscript.

We relate easiest to those similar to ourselves

It’s worth bearing in mind, as Under the Cover points out, the arena of agents is saturated with white female literary agents who, often unintentionally, wind up privileging manuscripts which explore white female experiences, or which translate ‘exotic’ experiences through a lens accessible to white (often upper-middle-class American) females. In contrast to the almost eight hundred literary agents fitting this description, a black male author in 2015, however, had only two black male literary agents to send their manuscript to in the US, in the hopes of one connecting with the manuscript due to their shared experience (or perception of a shared experience) of being a black male in the United States.

Risk

Traditional publishing requires authors take risks. That they gamble on their success.

Most fiction writers don’t get paid a dime until they’ve written the whole book.

But publishers are taking a risk, too. When they pay an author an ‘advance’ on their royalties, they’re betting that the book will earn at least enough to cover that sum. And then, hopefully, some more.

But often, that doesn’t happen.

In 2013, according to Weinberg’s survey of over 3,000 authors (cited in Under the Cover), only 14% of contract-published authors made more than $60,000 from their book. Another lucky 24% of contract-published writers report earning between $20,000 and $59,999.

But the vast majority are fortunate if they make even minimum wage at their writing: 22% of authors reported earning between $5,000 and $19,999. But the most common category of earnings was $1 to $4,999, with 34% of contract-published writers falling into this category.

And then – and this might surprise you – a whole 6% reported making no income from their work at all. That means more than one in twenty authors with a publishing contract get $0.

Is it any wonder then, that so many books fail to earn out?

Much of the success of a book does come down to luck, or at least timing. We need to be lucky enough to find the right agent and publisher (where relevant), and lucky enough to hit the shelves at the right time. The only ways we can improve the odds are through persistence and promotion.

Investing savvy vs. luck

It might seem depressing that so much of our success as authors is attributable to factors other than the quality of our work. But there is a lot we can do to increase the odds in our favour.

These days, most of the Big Five (who, along with their various imprints, make up the vast bulk of the publishing industry) appear to be taking what I’d call a short-term ‘trading’ approach instead of a long-term ‘investment’ mindset. The supply of writers who want to be published authors is virtually inexhaustible, and as access to education and technology improve, this is likely to increase. Meanwhile, books are competing for leisure time alongside various media unknown even just two decades ago, and while people still read, the number of books they read appears to be decreasing.

It’s a buyer’s market

This situation is great for publishers and readers, who have more choice of authors and books than ever before, but the opposite is true for authors, who must clamour to be heard in a crowded market, and who, on the whole, are treated with what I would describe as contempt by publishers too busy to acknowledge their existence – just like job seekers in a depression.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to the model offered by traditional publishing, with ‘gatekeepers’ primarily interested in making a quick buck.

No illusions

Indie publishing, on the other hand, is much less like a lottery. Independent authors might have grand dreams for their work, but they’re under no illusions that their publisher will sweep in with a marvellous, innovative, killer book promotion plan and push their title to the front of the shelves and the top of the charts.

Indie authors know they have to really hustle to be successful.

Successful indies know, as Howard-Johnson points out, that publishing involves marketing. My analysis of indie authors’ social media engagement versus that of traditionally-published authors illustrates this.

The indie author may not receive an advance like a traditionally-published one (although, as Demetrios’ case shows, unless well spent, like lottery winnings, this may not be a real advantage in any case). Instead, a successful author might earn a trickle, which hopefully will become a steady flow of money over time.

The sad reality is, the odds are against indie authors, too.

Almost one fifth (19%) of self-published authors reported making no money at all. The vast bulk (63%) make between $1 and $4,999. And that leaves only single digits of self-published authors making it into the higher echelons of earnings – 9% earn $5,000 to $19,999, 5% earn $20,000 to $59,999 and just 4% earn over $60,000.

Seeing as these are self-reports, it’s likely that the real situation – for both indie and traditionally published authors – is even less rosy. (Few of us like to brag that our books have earned nothing, or very little).

So while the picture isn’t particularly rosy for traditional authors, and is even less so for indies, there is an advantage the indie author has.

Complete transparency, and a greater degree of control.

While I have yet to publish any fiction (I’ll be making an announcement about my forthcoming novel, Number Eight Crispy Chicken very soon!), I have published several non-fiction books in the past.

When I self-published my book about name-changes, You Stole My Heart… Do I Have to Take Your Name earlier this year, as a way of dipping my toe into the waters of self-publishing (having previously only published through academic presses) I was astounded by the level of control and oversight I had. As soon as someone on the other side of the planet purchased a copy of my book, I could see that information flash across my screen.

With traditional publishing, I only ever knew how many copies of my book had sold when I received a royalty cheque.

The data needed to invest

Indie publishing gives us the data in real time to analyse our efforts. To figure out what worked, and what didn’t. Did purchasing 500 bobble headed figurines of my protagonist boost sales enough to cover the exhorbitant costs involved? Has signing up for that expensive book promotion mailing list that spruiks my book about gourmet cooking for cats paid off? Is anybody who clicks on my Facebook ads actually purchasing anything?

Data only becomes information if we analyse it. If we have access to all of these numbers but don’t put in place a way of measuring and assessing our efforts, we’re no better off than the traditionally published author who is kept in the dark, and fobbed off with excuses of the kind Demetrios kept hearing.

So what can authors do?

Over the past year, I’ve read or sampled close to a hundred books on marketing and book promotion in particular. Most are variations on the same theme – use the internet (social media or, the big one, newsletters) to sell your books. Many promise to explain the one ‘secret’ trick to book promotion (often involving the purchase of or subscription to some proprietary service bestselling authors mysteriously seem to do without). Yet, few, if any, have advice for thinking ‘outside the box’ when it comes to finding media opportunities that perfectly suit your book, and often, these can be more powerful. In my genre, I recently saw an indie book published to great success despite its niche-ness (it satirised a very specific career) precisely because, I think, it targeted likely readers through industry newsletters and groups.

Think outside (or maybe, inside!) the box!

Aside from its focus on frugality, another stand-out feature of Howard-Johnson’s book is its inclusion of ‘classic’ media, such as newspapers, television, and radio. While The Frugal Book Promoter also provides extensive information on ‘new’ media (author websites, blogging, social media), the advice in these sections may read as if it is targeting an older audience – one that needs convincing that having a website is worthwhile, for example, as opposed to a younger audience which might need convincing to stop scrolling through social media all day and actually write something.

Read The Frugal Book Promoter!

The Frugal Book Promoter is chock full of book promotion ideas that don’t cost much – and many that don’t cost anything at all. The book comes with extensive appendices: sample query letters (for an agent or acquisitions editor, radio, magazine or newspaper), sample media releases (for an event, the publication of a book), sample blog post, sample invitation for a tradeshow appearance, sample script for a phone pitch, and a sample automated email signature, and a sample tipsheet. There is also an annotated bibliography and extensive reference list. The book is also indexed (something I appreciate – human-indexing remains superior to the ‘find’ function!)

If you’re interested in learning more about marketing with me, or you just love books (especially with a social justice bent!) then join my Street Team!

If you want to know more about finances for creatives, and turning your passion into profit please visit Enrichmentality. You can find my review of The Frugal Book Promoter on Goodreads.

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