Promotion Is Pay, Pay, Pay as You Go

January 15, 2017 | By | 19 Replies More

Densie Webb_2013When 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.

bigWhat 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.

Find out more about her on her website and follow her on twitter




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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips, On Book Marketing, On Publishing

Comments (19)

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  1. Jeanne Felfe says:

    I published my debut novel, The Art of Healing, in June 2016. In the year and a half since, I’ve spent some, but not a huge amount. Why? I was fortunate enough to know several authors who confirmed for me that first books rarely sell well. That it takes two, three, or four, before paid promotions begin to pay off. That said, I haven’t avoided it completed. I’ve stuck my toe into the waters of the never-ending spigot of promotional opportunities – and absolutely none have offered a positive return on my investment.

    I view them more as a learning experience, something that helps me grasp the concept of marketing. I think that understanding might serve me well when I get to the point where I’m ready to seek an agent. Knowing how to promote is a valuable skill set and it’s one that uses a completely different side of the brain that writing the book did.

    Therefore, I am busily writing a 2nd and 3rd book – yes, at the same time! ECK! And they are unrelated. I’ve yet to attempt a series.

    I am still tempted by the idea of promotions – maybe this one will be the one to launch me into continuing sales. But then I remind myself of the “first books don’t sell” guideline (note, I didn’t rule because there are always exceptions) and pause before hitting the buy button.

    • Densie Webb says:

      Jeanne, yes, I’ve heard 3 books is the key; I’ve also heard 5. My second will be published some time this year and my third is a WIP. Three now sounds doable. Five is a bit overwhelming. Best of luck to you with your second and third!!

  2. Joyce says:

    Best description of the madness that I have experienced as an author. However, I have learned that I am not writing for the money or the fame. In reality I am compel to write because my soul always has something to say. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Excellent advice Densie, it is so easy to get caught up in the just one more advert/giveaway etc. In essence writing more stories works better, then people who have bought will hopefully buy again and so a following builds. Overnight success is rare, be patient and keep writing with planned promotion. In truth you have about a month to make an impact, after that cost outstrips reward most of the time.

    • Densie Webb says:

      Yep, my trigger finger gets itchy every once in a while, but so far this year, I’ve managed to restrain from expensive promotions. Working on getting that second novel done and out there so, as you say, may it will boost sales of the first.

  4. Francine Fleming says:

    Very valuable article, Densie. I am one of five novice authors who are on the brink of self-publishing our debut collection of short stories. Before publishing, we’d had no idea of how costly (financially and physically) marketing and promotion can be and just last week, had a sobering discussion around our marketing plan. We have been fortunate to receive free publicity through a popular CBC Radio program here in Canada, thanks to one of our authors who eloquently promoted our novel on that program. We are learning that promotion doesn’t always have to come with a hefty pricetag (as you stated), we just have to take time to research different marketing avenues. Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

  5. Densie, this is so valuable to read at my stage: two months out from publication of my memoir, Home Free: Adventure of a Child of the Sixties. The I-gotta-do-more promo bug you describe is starting to bite; I cannot afford to feed it the way you say you did. Forewarned is, etc. THANK YOU!!! and may your sales be fruitful and multiply.

    • Densie Webb says:

      Rifka, glad I could be of help! It really is such a temptation. I’m still doing some promotion, but extremely scaled back. Have to be realistic. I hope that your sales are fruitful as well!

  6. Timely advice Densie. I am self-publishing this summer and have begun the task of book marketing. To say it’s overwhelming, is like saying Cubs fan are a fairly loyal group. I too have experienced the siren calls of come market with me. And they are so loud, they require a volume button.

    Because I stink at math, I’ve started an excel spreadsheet to keep track of costs. I’m hoping this keeps me in line!

    • Densie Webb says:

      Smart lady! I hope to do something similar for my next release (but I never mastered Excel, so will have to figure out my own accounting system). It’s so easy to get carried away. You want to share your story with as many people as possible (and hopefully make a few dollars). Best of luck! And I hope your ROI is better than mine was for my debut!!

  7. Jens Lyon says:

    It can be hard to know what’s working and what isn’t. Over the weekend, I did a FB ad campaign that yielded a fair number of clicks to my book on Amazon. Over this same weekend, I sold enough books that the ad campaign paid for itself, not much more. But did I get the sales *because* of the ad campaign? Is it worth my while to do another one? I don’t know.

  8. Excellent article, Denise! I too see so many opportunities for paid promotions and always wonder if they are truly cost effective. It’s tempting to try everything once, but not if it means you’re losing money. It’s quite insightful reading about what did and didn’t work for you. Thanks for sharing this!

  9. A very frank summary, Densie!
    You’re quite correct, of course, that the onus is on authors to publicise and market their books, When you start out, you do everything that’s free, then you learn about paid promotion – a siren call indeed!
    Inevitably, some PR/marketing budget is required in these competitive times, but it should be used sparingly and monitored. I just about break even, which is not brilliant but I aim to improve this. Good luck with your book!

  10. Densie Webb says:

    Sandra, Thanks for taking the time to comment. You’re right that some investment take time–sometimes a lot of time–to pay off and then there’s no way to make a connection between long-ago promotion and sales. You just have to be realistic about what you can afford and what (you hope) will give you the most bang for your buck.

  11. This is a great service you are providing for newbie authors, Densie. As with any business, you have to keep track of your investments and your return on investment, and I am also pretty bad at that. I have also found that some investments of time or money take months to pay off, and others are hard to measure — how valuable IS that review you eventually got? How much is it worth to you just to receive your own affirmation, vs. anything the market cares about? It’s truly hard to know, sometimes.

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