Why Promoting Your Book Online is (a bit) Like Fight Club

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May is How To Sell Self-Published Books Month here on Catherine, Caffeinated. Only a few short days left and then I’ll go back to… well, posting about very similar topics, actually.  Anyway. You can catch up here

The first rule of Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club.

And the first rule of effectively promoting your book online is that you do not promote your book online.

By which I mean, you do not blatantly promote your book online.

(Yes, it’s a tenuous link but let’s just go with it, okay? It’s Monday, and I have a sprained ankle.)

Some self-published authors take offense at being told that they shouldn’t regularly send out tweets like “My book, YOUR EYES ARE GLAZING OVER, is on Amazon now, just $2.99. PLEASE RT! OKAY? THANKS!”, or that they should avoid working the title of at least one of their books into every comment they leave on someone else’s blog, or that they shouldn’t send e-mails to people they don’t know or don’t know really well trying to flog their book because, even if it’s done manually, it’s still spam. (For a lesson in what not to do with e-mail and your book, read this.) They want to do things their way, and that’s fine. But the reason I’m suggesting not to do it that way is because that way doesn’t work.

Did you hear me? IT DOESN’T WORK. So yes, of course, you’re free to do whatever you want. But personally, I’d rather just do stuff that is at least likely to work.

The reason it doesn’t work is because people aren’t using social media because they love being sold stuff. They’re using it, I think, for one or more of the following three reasons:

  1. Because they want to be entertained
  2. Because they’re looking for specific information
  3. Because they want to connect with other people (connect as in virtually meet, but also as in relate to).

From what I’ve seen over the past two years, both in trying to sell my own books and watching what other self-published and traditionally published authors have done to try to sell theirs, is that your promotional efforts have to have a value of their own, and that value has to satisfy one or more of the demands in the list above. Online promotion works best when the book actually comes second to the content’s main objective.

[You: Say what now?]

To put it another—hopefully clearer—way, your goal should be to improve the internet, above all else. Make it a better place than it was five minutes ago by writing a great blog post, posting a funny tweet, using a tweet to direct your followers to a great blog post you just found, uploading a video that helps people perform a task, uploading a video that makes people laugh while they’re procrastinating to keep from doing that task they’re supposed to do… You get the idea. Adding a mention of your book to this content might also sell a few copies of it for you, yes, but that’s secondary. That’s not the most important bit. We need to create stuff to put on the internet that would still be something useful and worthwhile even if we took the selling books bit out of it.

Book trailers—good ones, anyway—and other book-related videos are a really effective way to demonstrate what I mean. The video above, Love in the Time of Amazon, is one of my favorites, and I showed it at Faber Academy and Inkwell Writers earlier this year to demonstrate this very point. Yes, this is a book trailer that’s advertising the authors’ books. But if you took that away—if you just imagined for a second that this was just for fun, and that those are actors and those books don’t really exist, and you took away the information at the end—it would still be a video you have a little giggle at. It would still be a video you post on your blog, share with your Facebook friends and/or tweet a link to. Especially if your friends are published authors, because we can so relate. (And so—added bonus—connect.) It’s been viewed over 8,000 times, I saw countless links to it on Twitter, I’ve posted about it myself several times and it got picked up by high-traffic sites like Media Bistro.

My own video, How Much Editing Backpacked Needed, has been viewed over 1,000 times and passed around numerous editing and writing blogs. It’s about my book Backpacked, and at the very end of it, there’s some info about the book. But if I didn’t name the book that was being edited and took that info at the end out, the video wouldn’t lose any of its value. It would still have the same number of views and have been passed around and shared just as much. Because this isn’t a video about me wanting you to buy my book. This is a video that, first and foremost, contains useful information and/or is interesting.

This blog post and my other “self-printing” themed posts contain information that some people might need. Fun, chatty tweets that bemoan the pain of having to put words on paper are something any writer can relate to, and over time we might make a connection with the person writing them. Anything that makes us laugh, mutter, “Hmm. Interesting…”, holds our attention for longer than a few seconds or could be considered “just for fun” falls into the entertainment category.

And after they’ve entertained, informed or made a connection, they’ve also informed a new person that our book exists, which is the first step is getting someone to buy it. (Making them interested in the book is the step in between.) Obviously the number of people who know our books exist is far greater than those who actually buy it, but as the first number increases, so does the second.

Am I silly enough to think that everyone who reads this blog post is going to run straight over to Amazon and buy up all my books? No. I don’t think that anyone is going to run over there and buy one of them. I’m not trying to open and close the deal in the same shot. My main priority is to make this a good blog. I genuinely love this blog, and I’m prouder of it than I am of some of my books. (Don’t tell them that, though.) So above all else, I want new people to keep discovering this blog, and I want the people already reading it to keep doing so, and I want everyone to find it useful with a side of occasional giggles, even if they don’t like pink.

Below that on my list of priorities is selling my books. Over time, a very small percentage of blog readers become book readers, but because I have a lot of blog readers, that’s enough for me to feel a little thrill every time I check my KDP units-sold-to-date report (which I do at least four times a day).

How do blog readers become book readers? These are some of my theories:

  1. They like the way I write; they want to read more
  2. They want to get my book to see how it’s turned out (after reading about its production)
  3. After hanging around here for ages, they read the About page or My Books, and one of my books catches their eye
  4. They buy a book of mine as a thank you for me helping them with their book (through my posts)
  5. One of the above, combined with me telling them I have a free promotion on, and perhaps reading one for free leads them to buy another one.
  6. Then they might write a review, recommend me to a friend, etc. etc. leading to other, “outside” sales
  7. After reading this blog from the beginning and following me through the release of four books, they just can’t resist my Jedi mind tricks anymore…
Let’s say that instead of writing blog posts, I just stuck up a picture of a book of mine up here with an Amazon link and a price-tag. And I did that every day, without fail and without deviation. Where do you think I’d be then? I’m pretty sure I’d have zero blog readers. But yet people treat Twitter exactly in this way, and expect not only people to stick around and put up with it, but also to go buy their books. Put down the crazy juice and have a cup of coffee instead. May I recommend this which I’ve been trying out this weekend:

(I could write a whole other post about how after Starbucks VIA, every coffee maker in town ran off to produce their own instant-made-from-actual-ground-beans product, and then rushed it onto the shelves in a silver cylindrical container, offered it at half-price as an introductory offer to get people to buy it and then encouraged refilling of the container with slightly less expensive “eco” refill bags, which no one was encouraged to do because it’s so damn expensive that you’re far better off hopping from brand to brand, picking up the half-price containers as they become available. But I won’t.)

Think about it: what does you tweeting “Another 5* review for MY BOOK on Amazon! Here’s the link so you can go read it and marvel at the praise I have received...” achieve out of those three? And no, it doesn’t fall under information, because the information has to be useful. If you’re going on a blog tour and you have five guest posts lined up to send to your kind hosts, ask yourself: are these posts good by themselves? Are they likely to entertain, provide information, have readers relating to them, or is the only point they make something like buy my book and buy it now?

Let’s return to the word rule. You—I—can’t really say “never do this” or “as a rule, don’t do that.” Sometimes you have to tell the internet something, even if that something doesn’t achieve one of our three aims. There’s little point, for instance, in your book being free for Kindle for a few days if you can’t tell people about it. (Although, in my opinion, the opportunity to get a free book falls into the information category. I’m slow to admit this thought because I JUST KNOW that someone will take it a step in the wrong direction and assume tweets on the hour, every hour about how his book is “just $1.99” falls into the same category. IT DOESN’T.) And what if you get a review from like, someone amazing? What if your writing hero says she likes your book, and says it on the internet? You couldn’t keep news like that in, even if it doesn’t do anything but make the rest of us sick with jealousy. So sometimes, it’s okay to break the rules, or not follow the principles. But only in extreme moderation. Because remember, the hard sell doesn’t work. No one is listening to it, because that’s not why they’re there.

Over time, what’s considered valuable information will also change. For instance, if I pick 1,000 people at random and tell them that I’ve released a new book and go buy it now, please, thanks, I’d probably get into trouble for spamming or at the very least, waste my time. But what if those 1,000 people had already read a book of mine, and signed up to a newsletter so they could find out about my future releases, and they were happy to hear from me because they were fans of my work? Then “my book is out now!” becomes valuable information to them, because finding that out was exactly why they signed up to the mailing list. BUT—before you bring it up—this isn’t the same as me following you on Twitter. I didn’t follow you on Twitter to be constantly told about your new book. I’d like to know if you have a new book, sure, but I want it to come on the side of the real reason I’m on Twitter in the first place: to be entertained, informed or connected.

A few final points:

  1. Before you take a dump on this, don’t bother. It seems like every time I draw attention to something some other author did to promote their book that I thought was fun or funny or clever or some other good word, someone or someones then feel the need to take a dump on it in the comments. This annoys me in the same way people who look down on other people for watching reality TV annoys me, which is A WHOLE HELL OF A LOT, because in saying this, you’re saying that if I don’t like the same things as you, I’m somehow inferior. It doesn’t matter if Love in the Time of Amazon didn’t make you giggle, or if you’d “never buy a book just because you saw a video about it.” This isn’t about you. This is about the book buying public at large, of which you are just one in a sea of millions. Don’t focus on the video I’ve used to demonstrate my point. Focus on the point itself. And you want to take a dump on that in the comments, feel free.
  2. Modeling yourself on exceptions to the rule isn’t helpful. For every bit of advice I dispense on this blog, in Self-Printed or in person at a workshop or something, someone manages to find an example of an author who has done the opposite and been successful. “Hiring a professional cover designer because the cover could make or break your book? What about that guy who’s sold a trillion e-books since Tuesday? His covers are terrible. Looking at them makes me feel like I do when I eat eggs benedict while hungover and on a boat in rocky seas…” etc. etc. You can find an exception to the rule for absolutely everything. But where does it get you? As I said in a post last week, we all know stories about writers who got book deals in strange, serendipitous ways. They sketched an idea for a novel on the inside of an old Cornflakes box, their kid brought it to school for arts & crafts, the teacher happened to read it, mentioned it to her sister who happened to work for William Morris, and by the end of the following week the writer had a book deal, foreign rights sold and a movie option in the works. How nice for her. But don’t you think that querying in the usual way would give you a far greater chance of success than scribbling on cereal boxes and sending them to school with your kid?
  3. After writing this post, I’m no longer sure the title is relevant. But hey, I’ve a sprained ankle and am doped up on codeine and some weird ice-cold gel that apparently seeps into your muscles through your skin (which, I’ve been wondering, is sure to work better on people skinnier than me, right?) and it’s Monday. So, whatever. Or whatevs, as the kids say.

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39 thoughts on “Why Promoting Your Book Online is (a bit) Like Fight Club

  1. dragonmis says:

    As always full of good sense and great info. Your blog is a blast of fresh air and keeps me grounded, if you don’t mind the mixed metaphor.

  2. char says:

    That 1st video was hilarious! I died laughing. Great post once again, Catherine. I agree with you. It is the relationships you build through blogging or ways like that that will lead to sales. Like me…I LOVE your blog, but still haven’t bought or read one of your books because I have a long list of books to read before that. But I know that I will eventually buy and read one because I enjoy your writing style…so when the stars align and I whittle through my other pile of books, yours will be the next I download on my Kindle.

  3. Joyce Nance says:

    When I first read your title (and I hadn’t had my coffee yet) I thought it said, “Why Promoting Your Book Online is Like a Fig, I was very interested as to how you made that connection. Then when I read it again and it said Fight Club, I was confused because I don’t know what a Fight Club is. Next time could you compare it a fig? Thanks for the article though, I still feel like i learned something.

  4. darlenecraviotto says:

    That first video is brilliant! You (and your hubbie) will never win any acting awards, but that only makes it identifiable for the viewer. Hope your sales skyrocket with it!

  5. Angela Orlowski-Peart says:

    Hello Caffeinated Lady 🙂 (raising my own coffee mug). I started following you a week or so ago and just wanted to say “a big thank you” for writing such informative, very useful posts. I love your style – funny and refreshing.

    Keep them coming! Oh, me wants that pink typewriter from your blog photo so badly.

  6. Laura Roberts (@originaloflaura) says:

    Thank you for saying all of this, Catherine. (BTW, I also read your post on that unethical spammer and his ebook, which shall not be named. Disturbing!) I completely agree, and have found that whenever I break this Blatant Selling suggestion, even if it’s just because I’m excited to have received my first 1-star review (by someone who bought one of my short stories with the mistaken belief that it was supposed to be a bonsai care manual), I will instantly lose followers.

    Sure, Twitter followers aren’t the be-all, end-all, but they’re people who were previously interested in what I had to say, and whom I have now alienated. Not the best marketing strategy, that’s for sure. So, while I will happily part ways with followers who don’t like my ideas, my politics, my choice in reading material, or pictures of my cat, I don’t really think it’s worth it to piss off readers by tweeting pointless ads all the time. Because, really, isn’t that what you’re doing? You’re not one of the “promoted” tweets, but you’re being equally annoying. (Not you, but the person tweeting “BUY MY BOOK!”, obviously.)

    No one likes to feel sold to. It’s got to be part of the larger scheme of making things better, or more interesting, or more useful. I’m not always sure how my book about ninjas vs. the governor of Texas falls into “making the world a better place,” but I did mean for it to be both entertaining and informative about the sorry state of affairs here in Texas, where there’s an $8 billion rainy day fund and yet a $5.4 billion deficit in educational funding. I know people don’t like to get into political arguments or even talk about politics, a lot of the time; they view it as boring. Hence ninjas! But I digress.

    Thank you for reminding us all what it’s really supposed to be about: sharing valuable information, not shilling!

  7. Tony Schumacher (@tonyshoey) says:

    This has given me a great idea. Do you know those moments? When you’re walking the the dog and have one of those flashes of genius when you think you’ve solved everything… and then ten minutes later you haven’t? I’ve just had that moment as a result of this post. Hopefully it works!

  8. khaalidah (@khaalidah) says:

    As someone pretty new to book promoting I’ve noticed one important thing that appears to be a barrier to “selling” my book. This is going to sound dumb but I’ll say it anyway. For example, all of the people that support/follow me on say Twitter are also writers…just like me. They may or may not have an interest in my writing, but the fact is they ware doing the same thing I am, promotion. They are also writing and aren’t as likely to be reading my book.
    Don’t get me wrong, I have gained considerably with social networking. I’ve developed professional relationships with a group of indie authors that are inspirational and smart and helpful beyond measure, but they aren’t customers.
    How do I find customers through social networking? That is the question. I’m not sure if you have the answer, but I just thought I’d ask.
    Hope your ankle feels better soon.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      But you should never think of it in terms of looking for customers. We’re selling books, so we’re looking for readers. And writers are readers too. I don’t specifically use my blog, etc. to find people who are, say, interesting in backpacking. (I’m not even sure *how* I’d go about that!) But yet my travel memoir about backpacking sells, and sells consistently. I’m guessing this is because through this blog, I connected with a small group of people who went out and bought it. Yes, many of these people were fellow writers. But each time they bought my book, it became more visible on Amazon. And whenever one of them left a review, it meant the next person who arrived on the listing was more likely to buy it. And so on and so on, until complete strangers-people who’d never even heard of me, let alone read my blog—ended up buying my book. So don’t worry about *who* is reading your blog, etc. All that really matters is that someone is. I think when other writers are the ones regularly reading your blog, etc. it’s even MORE important not to resort to blatant promotion, and we’re going to sniff it out (and ignore it!) quicker than most.

  9. JD Revene says:

    Catherine, yes. Yes, yes, yes! Oh, and I loved the editing video: scary and enlightening at the same time! Hope the ankle’s better soon.

  10. Tahlia Newland says:

    That’s why I’ve given up trying to sell my books on social media. It’s just too hard to get it right. I just let people know what’s going on and do what feels right to me, so if I’m really excited because I got a great review, of course I’m going to tell people about it. I’ll only tell them once though. I’m focusing my marketting efforts on getting reviews, the rest I keep doing because I enjoy it, not because I expect anyone to buy my books.

  11. Alex Morris (@CSAlexMorris) says:

    Thanks for highlighting this. I’m getting bored of people peddling their novels at me when they follow me/I follow them. “Hey, thanks for the follow! You might like my AMAZING debut novel, “The Poetry Of The Majestic Sweeping Ocean of Bliss”. Check it out HERE, OR FACE A BRUTAL, AGONISING, HORRIFYING…” etc. And it doesn’t work, all it does is turn people away. Be more inventive when your trying to promote it – try something different like Pinterest.

  12. dianabletter says:

    Great job, Catherine! I dragged my feet at first about writing a blog because I thought it would keep me doing my “real” writing. But it has helped me find my voice and stay focused. Plus, I get the joy of writing. Thanks so much!

  13. stevenwwatkins says:

    And a very solid blog it is. I find blogging to be a great “test and measure” tool for other ideas. I’m oftentimes fascinated by the posts that score, and the ones that fall flat. Does in fact show we don’t all think the same way. Thanks!

  14. Jocelyne Lebon says:

    Catherine,

    Of all the sites I checked to get ideas about promoting my book, you are by far the most honest, wittiest, smartest and all around terrific. I’ve learned a ton from you and you make me laugh my head off.

    Jocelyne

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