“Writers Have To Promote Themselves These Days.”


Today, Jim Hines blogs about writers being pressured to market themselves through blogging. He’s smart, as usual, but the point applies to many of the things writers are expected to do to market themselves.

For example, I’m not really comfortable going out to groups of strangers. I can sorta do it, but I’m not glib or amusing on the spur of the moment, not with people I don’t know. So I don’t do that.

Does that cost me readers? I don’t think so. Just because some other writer brings in new readers with panel appearances doesn’t mean that I would. In fact, ham-handed marketing drives customers away.

Still, some authors do well with convention appearances, or they have popular blogs (I don’t: average daily traffic on my blog is in the high double digits/low triple digits), or they draw amusing web comics, or they play filk, or they start funny hashtag games on Twitter.

The point is not that writers must do a specific list of things, or even that their websites must meet a bunch of specific requirements. It’s that writers must do what they’re good at while putting aside the things they’re not good at. That’s it.

Because the truth is that the “marketing” that writers do has a very, very small effect on sales. That doesn’t mean readers never pick up a book because of a convention or hashtag joke; obviously, they do. It does mean that the number of readers who do so are incredibly small. Most people still buy books because a) they’ve liked an author’s previous work and b) someone they trust recommended it.

That’s why I tell people “If you like a book, tell your friends.” I’ve typed that in the comments of my blog so often I ought to make a macro or something.

One last point: Donald Maass used to offer his book The Career Novelist for free on his website (it seems only the publisher is offering it as a free pdf) and in the middle 90’s he did a survey of his own authors who were making six-figures a year. What did they do? How did they manage it?

Here’s a brief summary of what he found out about those authors:

They were genre authors: they didn’t even try for mainstream success.
They wrote for ten years before becoming successful: It takes time to build a readership.
They reached six-figure incomes through backlist and subrights sales, not big advances:
They don’t spend a lot of time self-promoting, campaigning for awards, or networking: Not that this is harmful, but they spend their time writing.
They don’t chase the market: It’s always better to do your own thing.

Now, I have no idea if I’m going to ever be that level of success. Probably not. There’s no point in me campaigning for awards, for instance, because no one is going to give me an award for the kind of work I do. Also, writers who succeed may not chase the market, but not chasing the market is no guarantee of success.

And I’m not sure how much that matters to me. I’m writing the books I want to write, and hopefully readers will love them. If they don’t, and if I fail to bring in an audience (as I failed with the Twenty Palaces books) I will at least be failing with my own books.

Of course, that survey is 15 years old now; I wonder how different it would be if it was redone today.

Which just goes to say: Don’t assume you know what is effective marketing for any particular writer. These aren’t soft drinks we’re selling, and we aren’t corporations. We’re creators, and we have to go about things in our own idiosyncratic ways.

19 thoughts on ““Writers Have To Promote Themselves These Days.”

  1. Here’s my view on the issue. On the one hand, many things that writers are “expected” to do don’t really apply often when held up to the light of doing what you love. Do you know how I built a simple YouTube commentary group up to a surprisingly packed and loyal fanbase? I don’t either! They just arrived. Sometimes we fuss so much over strategies and techniques that we fail to realize that sometimes just “doing it” can be enough.

    That being said, I’ve also felt that if there’s something you should do but are uncomfortable witth, you should just change the rules to make it fun and interesting. Or change your mindset. I used to feel I needed a “business” approach when networking until I literally said “screw this, this obligation is stupid and I’m just going to have fun instead.” Like with my commentary group, I’ve had more success that way. So I would say to learn how to do things, but don’t follow them blindly – twist them to your own ends.

  2. When I was working as a recruiter, something I always told the talent was, “I will be working to place you, but your job search will always be a higher priority to you than it is to me, so don’t sit at home and wait for me to call.”

    To the extent that you will always care more about the success of your own work than anyone else will, advice to be proactive about reaching people with it isn’t entirely unrealistic. But I agree that for most creators, the best thing they can do for their careers is to make more stuff, especially if they aren’t especially prolific to begin with. You can’t sell it if it doesn’t exist, and if nothing else, it helps you create more skillfully over time.

    I think a lot of it comes from a particularly obnoxious strain of Internet-triumphalism perpetuated by people who think everyone spends as much time online as they do. They forget that the creators who found promoting their work directly to fans to be viable financially are generally creators who had already established a critical mass of fans through more traditional means.

  3. Well, I’m a writer and working to do this sort of thing for myself. You tweeted this story out and another writer friend that I trust retweeted it. I read it, it seemed lucid, and so I decided to buy a book.

    So, it’s working on some level.

  4. Matt, there’s definite power in the old saw: “Argue for your limitations, and you have them.” In many ways I’ve tried to overcome my limits. But when it comes to socializing, it’s just too hard.

    But just doing it is the most important part of the equation.

  5. It’s also true that some types of work don’t lend themselves to self-promotion, and some types of creators (for whatever reasons) aren’t skilled in that area.

    I mean, obviously I want everyone to read my books, even if I don’t want everyone to love them. I wouldn’t work so hard on them otherwise. I just can’t shill for myself.

  6. True. One some level “Being interesting online is the best online marketing you can do” will work. But it almost certainly will never be as helpful as spending that same amount of time actually creating new work.

    In one sense, it’s about investment. It doesn’t make sense for me to do marginal things to promote my work when I’m not even good at it and don’t like it anyway.

  7. That’s when you play with socializing and find a way to tune it to your advantage, or rely on other smart strategies. Starting small, finding a cool way to do it and then scaling from there. It takes experimentation…helps if you like to tinker like I do. But again, looking at it from that “let’s have fun, screw the rules and limits” perspective, it’s much easier to confront.

  8. “If they don’t, and if I fail to bring in an audience (as I failed with the Twenty Palaces books)…”

    You didn’t fail to bring in an audience. You failed to bring in a big enough audience in the time period your publisher allowed. There’s a difference and that is also why some authors don’t find success until their backlist catches on and sells. Had your publisher merely given you 5k as an advance, they might still be happy going for book 4 and waiting longer for a return on their investment.

    My point is that it may all still work out. As you write and sell other books, it’s likely to help these books. With Kindle they aren’t going out of print. Does that mean we’ll get to read a book four? We can hope.

    As you said, it takes years and years to build an audience and also to become memorable to that audience to the point where they continue to look for more books. Keep writing. We’ll just wait here for you. :>) Remain passionate and set ever higher goals for yourself. You’ve got nothing to lose by reaching for your dream.

  9. Actually, as I mentioned in my other post, my books were in a downward spiral. It’s one thing if they were bringing in more readers with each book, but things went the other way. That was why the books failed and why I’m not going to be turning to Kickstarter or whatever. It’s not about a time-period set by my publishers; it’s about the direction of sales.

  10. But don’t second and third books generally have fewer readers? I thought around a 50 percent continuation was considered “high” (or at least satisfactory?) I think Jim Hines did a post on it a long while back–where the second book helps sales of the first book, but the actual sales of the second book are not equal to book one? And the third may be X percent of the second, but again, there is a boost with book one?

    At any rate, blame the readers. Of if you have cats, blame them!!!

  11. No cats. I’m not really a pet person. See: Cages, Game of

    I’m not familiar with Jim’s post, but the expectation is that book one will sell more and more copies as word of mouth spreads, and if successful will bring many of those readers back for book 2 right after it comes out. The later books won’t catch the total sales of book 1, which has a full year’s head start, but the early weeks just after release will do better.

    Even so, the sales drop off was precipitous, and the promo ebook price for Child of Fire never caught on. So the books failed commercially.

  12. Indeed. And I think that people who aren’t great at/comfortable with self-promotion would be, shall we say, overrepresented in a field based so much in solitary blocks of concentration. Not to paint with too broad a brush, but novel writing seems like an especially inward-focused field.

  13. As much as I enjoy my weekly stroll through favorite authors’ blogs my greatest joy is in reading their work. Stalk characters I enjoy, rummaging the internet for every scrap they star in, sure. Reread favorites until they are in tatters…yes. Meet their creators? No.

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