When you’re a published author, whether self-published, with a small publisher, or with one of the big boys, you find out pretty quickly that promotion, for the most part, falls on your shoulders—and stealthily slips its sticky fingers into your wallet.
Business cards, bookmarks, Facebook ads, magazine ads, Website ads, Kirkus Reviews, BookBub, any number of tchotchkes, gift basket giveaways, Goodreads giveaways (the giveaway is free, but you have to pay for and mail paperbacks) all cost money.
And don’t forget that after getting a few copies free from the publisher, authors have to pay for their own books for giveaways and the like.
My debut novel was released in January 2015 and I was shocked to my very core, to see just how much I had actually spent on promotion. I’m a messy record keeper.
I have an accordion folder and everything that accumulates throughout the year, from medical bills to credit card statements get shoved in there, in no particular order. I like to tell myself there is a method to my madness. But the reality is, it’s a messy business come tax time.
Okay, so I’m a writer, not an accountant. Right about April 2016 (April is tax time in the U.S.) I was in for a not-so-pleasant surprise. The total, which I won’t confess to here, was, shall we say, startling. Some dollars spent were worth it, but most, if I’m being honest, were not. My ratio of dollars spent on promotion to dollars earned? About 18:1. Any investment counselor would tell you that’s a sinkhole, since you’re losing $18 of “capital” to every $1 you earn.
What I realized, only in retrospect, is that promotion is an itch demanding to be scratched. I basically had developed a bit of a gambling problem. Even though my experience had made it crystal clear that there would be no big payoff, I needed to place Just. One. More. Bet. (Make that, one more ad.) “This one will be the one that earns all my money back and then some. You just wait and see.”
Just like the compulsive gambler, who despite evidence to the contrary, is sure that this bet is going to be the one with the big payoff, authors can be easily convinced to lay down the money one more time and promotion becomes a bottomless money pit.
Then there are promotions that you’re sure all the stars have aligned for, but come crashing to earth. I paid for a spot on a promotional site that a fellow writer had told me was effective. It was to promote a 24-hour deal on Amazon to begin at 8 am sharp on the designated day, arranged through my publisher. The morning of, I woke up excited, sure that THIS would be a big push. I immediately checked Amazon, but the price hadn’t been reduced.
I contacted the publisher, who contacted Amazon to ask WTH? But the site had already cancelled my promotion, because it hadn’t started on time. “Rules are rules.” At least the promotional site refunded my money. That one just cost me a day of crushing regret, rather than any cash.
Overall, I found Facebook ads the most alluring. Place a Facebook ad and you can watch, almost by the minute, the number of people who have clicked on it. The analytics for your ad include its effectiveness with your chosen audience, the detailed demographics of people who clicked on it and a graph that shows a nice line heading steadily upward.
It’s thrilling to see so many people engaging. But notice I said “engaging” not “buying.” I’ve had huge surges in visits to my website, but no corresponding surge in sales.
So when 2016 began, I vowed not to heed the siren call of promotion—a real test of willpower, because opportunities abound. My inbox and Facebook feed are full of calls that promise to sell the hell out of my novel. So how’d I do with my anti-promotion vow? Very well, thank you.
In 2016 I spent a fraction of what I spent in 2015, with very little difference in my sales numbers.
Granted, everyone has a different experience when their novels are published, but based on my experience with the first year of my debut novel, I have a bit of advice to offer. Just remember, there is no winning formula, no sure-fire dollar amount, no single promotional gimmick that’s going to guarantee sales.
- Know how much you’re willing and able to spend for the year. Make a plan and stick with it. Decide which outlets best suit your novel’s audience.
- Ask other authors what’s worked for them. Writers, especially women writers, are among the warmest, most open, most sharing people I’ve ever met.
- Set a time frame. Do you want to spend most or all of your promotion dollars during those all-important first 3 months after your novel is released, or would you rather spread it out through the year?
- Remember, most book bloggers do it for free. Search, search, search online for the reviewers who review books in your genre and contact them. Just be sure to read their submission guidelines first.
- Something I haven’t tried yet is a shared promotion—getting together with other authors for a mega-giveaway. I’m told it’s effective and you’re out only the cost of the book and postage.
- And last, but not least, don’t be me. Keep track of what you’re spending. It can easily get away from you. Of course, if you meet with amazing success and your return on your investment surpasses my meager monetary reward, ignore my advice, recalibrate and go for it.
Densie Webb (not Denise) has spent a long career as a freelance nonfiction writer and editor. Her debut novel “You’ll Be Thinking of Me” was released by Soul Mate Publishing in January 2015. She is an avid walker (not of the dead variety), drinks too much coffee and has a small “devil dog” that keeps her on her toes. She is currently working on a second novel.