Replay 2012 | Why Promoting Your Book Online is (a bit) Like Fight Club

It’s that time of year again, and I’m not only dragging out the Stuff I Found While Procrastinating Online Gift Guides, but also replaying some of my most popular “self-printing” posts from the last twelve months for those who might have missed them first time around. Today’s replay is about the difference between what works and what doesn’t when it comes to promoting your book online (which I wrote after the 20k night-time charity walk sprained ankle incident, so the advice that follows is decidedly codeine-infused…)

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?) so, whatever. Or whatevs, as the kids say.

Click here to see a list of all my self-printing posts in chronological order.

14 thoughts on “Replay 2012 | Why Promoting Your Book Online is (a bit) Like Fight Club

  1. marilynslagel says:

    Catherine, I love your blog and look forward to it every day. Thanks for this particular article. As a newly self-published author, I’m scrambling for what works. This one is a keeper!

    • Wendy says:

      I totally agree! And actually, constantly tweeting about ‘my book this’ and ‘my book that’ is soo boring. It’s actually a relief to know this is a waste of time. Great post.

  2. kiddmassey says:

    That is maybe the best book trailer (or trailer, period) I have ever seen. As a writer, there are times when you see something and wish that you had thought of it. This is one of those times. Fantastic!

  3. Catherine says:

    Always a good read here. And the video was fun (costly idea!). Best wishes for a coffee and panettone-filled Christmas season. I don’t comment much but really enjoy your blog! ciao catinitaly

  4. angelajardine says:

    Thanks for this post, Catherine … I’m really struggling with the whole self-promotion/marketing thingy myself at the moment.
    Reading this post will now stop me making a complete dick of myself or at least limit the times I indulge in dick-ish behaviour.

  5. karlgdnr says:

    Thank you for posting this Catherine. It was really useful. Your video was an eye opener too. As a new comer to blogging and an aspiring writer it’s great to have people like you sharing your wisdom with us newbies

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